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The James Bond movie Quantum of Solace (2008) was recently released on DVD in Australia. I freakin’ loved it. The fact that I didn’t love it quite as much as Casino Royale (2006) doesn’t make it a bad movie. But try telling that to the critics.

The media’s negative reviews mystify me, especially this one by Roger Ebert who’s usually more insightful. By all means read it for yourself, but in a nutshell, Roger wants his Bond movies to be like the arch, silly fare of yore; using the same logic, a reviewer might pan No Country For Old Men on the grounds that they were in the mood for a comedy that day. Fine for a pub conversation, but is it good enough for a professional review?

As well as unreasonable subjective whines, another recurring theme in critical reviews of Quantum of Solace seems to be Completely Missing The Details, as demonstrated in this credibility-killer from Australia’s Andrew Urban:

…losing the sense of all the unique Bond elements, including James himself, who no longer tosses off darkly comic lines and doesn’t even know what martini he’s drinking.¹

… looks like you need to watch it again more carefully, Andrew. In any case the elements you referred to are one-dimensional, and quite rightly downplayed or subverted in the new film.

While Andrew wanted less substance, at the other pole the affable David Stratton said

… though it’s all very efficient it lacks heart and soul and substance.²

… which suggests he was another reviewer who watched the film while he was making dinner. There are moments of surprising emotional resonance in the movie, not least of all the relationship between Bond and M (here I discreetly avoid a spoiler); certainly it has more “heart and soul and substance” than anything in the series since the ending of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which you might recall is more-or-less the reason why Roger and Andrew didn’t care for it.

Another recurring review motif is complaints about the film’s title, again surprising from people whose job it is to craft words. A quantum is the smallest possible amount of something; solace is consolation; the story’s about revenge. Not only is it not rocket science, it’s not even physics.

Despite all the evidence that it’s too challenging, Quantum of Solace follows the formula of older Bond movies more closely than the critically lauded Casino Royale did: including the secret global organisation, the string-pulling villain with grotesque henchman, the frequent changes of exotic locale, even a woman’s corpse dipped in coloured goo and left on a hotel bed³. It’s just that Quantum’s leading man isn’t a glib caricature, and it’s all done at a smarter pace than in the past. Perhaps the pace explains why the reviewers are taking so long to catch up.

In any case, reverence for the professional critic is fading as the web makes everyone a reviewer with a global voice. From that we can take some small measure of comfort.

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Footnotes:
1. Urban Cinefile. http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=15077&s=Reviews
2. At The Movies. http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s2412223.htm
3. And her name was Strawberry Fields. What more do you want?

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Hungry Jack’s (the Australian version of Burger King) is advertising Dark Knight themed kids’ meals. The TV ads begin with the call “Look, kids!”, and go on to display the tacky Batman toys consumers get with the “meal”.

They also display an M rating icon, because in Australia the movie The Dark Knight is classified M for “frequent action violence” — meaning kids aren’t supposed to watch it.¹ In accordance with classification guidelines, the big M appears prominently in the Hungry Jack’s ad; but in accordance with human nature, it is ignored like the elephant in the room.
The M classification marking

You have to admire the dumb optimism of Hungry Jack’s as they try to entice children with images of plastic crap tenuously linked to a movie children aren’t allowed to see.

Traditional wisdom² tells advertisers that a new comic book related movie is an excuse to market to children, and so reflex kicks in as if Pavlov had rung his bell. (A similar reflex applies at Christma$.) But these days, comics and their related films are mostly aimed at twentysomethings, and to a lesser extent, to middle aged former child readers.³ So a new Batman movie should have prompted the giving away of black mouse pads with chicken baguettes, not cheap toys with kids’ meals. But this is quite a cognitive leap to expect marketers to make.

At the very least they could have had the Batman toy make an authentic bone-breaking sound when you swing its fist.

Hungry Jack’s also offers a Dark Knight themed product to adult consumers. It’s a burger called the Dark Whopper. Seriously. Is that a sly dirty joke on the part of Hungry Jack’s and/or its ad agency? Are the Dark Whopper, and the tie-in toys for an M rated movie, meant to be ironic? Your guess is as good as mine.

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Footnotes:
1. Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department: Classification categories and markings. “The M category is recommended for mature audiences. A mature perspective is required to view this material. The content is of a moderate impact.” Curiously, the official description of the all-ages G classification includes “Some of these films and computer games contain content that would be of no interest to children.”
2. The word “wisdom” is used here in a non-standard way.
3. Comic book characters like Spider-Man and Batman are published in mainstream titles for today’s adult readership, and also in alternative versions for young readers. (I think that’s arse-about, but don’t get me started.) By convention, the young readers’ editions are often denoted by the use of the word “adventures” in the title: The Batman Adventures, Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, etc. Additionally, in Australia the vast majority of mainstream comic titles are sold exclusively through specialist comic shops, rather than in their former home, newsagencies.

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Part of my course in Communication and Media asks me to consider the Australian version of the “reality TV” show, Big Brother: something I’ve so far assiduously avoided doing.

The course specifically asks, Do you think that watching the [Big Brother] house on television can portray reality? Whose reality is this? When you think about the Australian ‘mass’ viewing population, do you think a majority of them would relate to the program? How do you feel about the use of SMS or telephoning to vote out contestants?

Ignoring the fact that either the word “watching” or the word “portray” has been used inappropriately, it seems pretty clear that the question expects the answer “yes”.

So yes, Big Brother can portray reality; but only a specific reality, the reality of a limited set of circumstances.

distorts the reality

The footage that makes up the show is selected from a larger pool of available footage, and edited on the basis of its predicted appeal to a mass viewing audience. It therefore cannot portray the reality of life in the Big Brother house, because it is incomplete. What is included is emphasised; what is omitted is suppressed. This unavoidably distorts the reality of life in the house.

Indeed, participants in the house occasionally claim that the footage presented has cast them in a misleading light. Last season, a gathering of friends of housemates reportedly claimed that “Big Brother … consistently misrepresented their loved ones, showing only their most antagonising aspects.”¹ Also during the 2006 season, evicted housemate Michael argued on-air that he’d been misrepresented: “Michael knew he hadn’t kissed David so he was trying to explain to [host Gretel Killeen] that as all the media were asking him about the ‘kiss,’ it must mean that BB had depicted the moment in such a way.”²

core audience

The footage does however portray reality for a core sector of the audience. This is the sector that most closely corresponds with, or at least identifies with, the traits and values on display in the footage. Examples of such traits and values include a certain age group, a certain mode of dress and grooming, certain patterns of speech and behaviour, and allegedly a certain level of intellectual sophistication. It’s important to note that it is not necessary for the target audience to possess the traits and values displayed; they need only aspire to those traits and values for the show to resonate with them.

It’s a matter for conjecture whether the Big Brother footage reflects the values of this core audience, or whether it shapes those values. Presumably elements of both are at work.

majority

I don’t believe a majority of the Australian mass viewing population would relate to the program. It is a niche program, albeit a popular and/or well publicised niche program. It focuses strongly on a certain type, or demographic; which holds the advantage that it appeals powerfully to this demographic, but also holds the disadvantage that viewers who do not identify with its well-defined demographic are unlikely to relate to it: for example, viewers outside the age group it represents, or outside the culture it represents.

Certainly Big Brother is frequently referenced in mainstream media, but a rough ad hoc survey suggests that those references — whether from viewers or industry commentators — are divided equally between approval and disapproval, and even those who support the program for its voyeuristic or salacious appeal do not necessarily relate to it. This suggests that the program’s shared meaning extends, ironically, to those who disagree with it.

On the other hand, a significant number of those who dislike the program might still be able to relate to some aspect of it. It is pitched to the lowest common denominator, to which, by definition, the majority is able to relate. Who’s to say where the subsets intersect?

SMS voting

Big Brother’s use of SMS or telephone voting has positive aspects beyond that of revenue generation for the program. The voting process increases viewer involvement, and because this involvement (purportedly) changes the content of the program, it engenders a greater shared meaning than that enjoyed by most television programs, on which feedback has less effect.

The use of SMS or telephone voting invites negative criticism on the grounds that a small number of voters can, by voting many times, have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the vote. Personally I feel this in fact accurately reflects aggregate support for the candidates: a viewer who cares enough to vote a hundred times, and pays to do so each time, is passionate, and arguably deserves a hundred times the influence of someone who only cared enough to vote once. However, it should be noted that I can afford to take a cavalier approach to the issue, because I don’t care enough to vote at all.

A more noteworthy criticism of the voting system is that those with higher disposable incomes can afford to lodge more votes than those with lower funding at their disposal. But as the question explicitly asks how I feel, I once again admit to indifference. Also, I would challenge the assumption that the subset of wealthier viewers cannot be an otherwise representative cross-section of viewers. Nor is it necessarily true that any candidate will appeal more strongly to wealthy viewers than to not-so-wealthy viewers.

It is perhaps worth noting that those viewers who waste their time and money by voting excessively for their preferred candidate are probably of lower intelligence than those who vote less zealously; and that the winner will consequently be the candidate least deserving of winning. This however presupposes that all fools will vote for the same candidate. Moreover, it presupposes that one or more of the candidates actually deserves to win.

Ultimately the voting system, like the show itself, is best described in the same terms as Government-run lotteries: a tax on stupidity.

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References:
1. Unattributed. Fifteen minutes of fame for Krystal’s best buddy, Bay Post, Moruya, 24 May 2006. Read online version

2. Deb Grunfeld. Tushy, tushy, Gretel, Who magazine’s TV Blog, May 30, 2006.
Read original

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