October 6th, 2005

Habermassee!

Here's a link for the text of an address Al Gore recently gave. While there's nothing groundbreaking in it, I'm encouraged to see an American political figure of his prominence eager to make the same points that many of the people I read have been making for years. Since I'm always looking for one of those rare moments when the theory I read enters mainstream discourse for some other purpose than mocking it, I was particularly heartened by this portion of the speech:
Soon after television established its dominance over print, young people who realized they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation: the "demonstration." This new form of expression, which began in the 1960s, was essentially a poor quality theatrical production designed to capture the attention of the television cameras long enough to hold up a sign with a few printed words to convey, however plaintively, a message to the American people. Even this outlet is now rarely an avenue for expression on national television.

So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television's domain. My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that - at least where Current TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently owned news and information network in all of American television.

It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."
Now I'm sure many of you are saying, "The demonstration was invented in the 1960s? I suppose the next thing you'll be telling me is that Al Gore invented the internet." And there are other wild generalizations of the sort the Unabomber was fond of making sprinkled throughout the text. But, goddamn it, I'm still smiling at the thought of our former Vice President trying to explain that Habermas isn't spouting "gobbledygook." The next thing you know, Al will be cutting a record with Exene Cervenka.

More on the Zodiac

The San Francisco Chronicle ran another story on that movie about the Zodiac Killer today, motivated no doubt by self-interest, since its offices are central to the plot. The piece is worthwhile, not only for those already intrigued by the case, but for anyone interested in what it's like to make a film today, particularly on location. Consider this description of the drive for historical accuracy:
"Zodiac" is an $80 million movie about the series of killings that has never been solved. To re-create that time, Fincher, the director of the highly stylized "Se7en," Fight Club" and "Panic Room," is taking a more realistic approach -- filming as much as possible in the actual locations where the events took place.

That meant filming outside The Chronicle, where Paul Avery (Downey) first received letters from the killer in the late 1960s, and Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) was a staff member who became obsessed with the case. The film's screenplay is written by James Vanderbilt from Graysmith's 1976 book.

Included in those scenes were a vintage 1960s U.S. mail truck ("Always use Zip Code!" the cartoon figure reminds us) delivering letters to The Chronicle mailroom and a street scene in which Mission between Fifth and Sixth streets was transformed into a street once again filled with those old, rounded, gas-guzzling Muni buses, Yellow Cabs and Plymouth Valiants, et al.

For the mail scenes, the film's property master, Hope Parrish, manufactured 2,500 pieces of 1970s mail (among Parrish's other tasks: replicating the former Chronicle reporters' pens, rings, watches, glue pots, business cards, typewriters and 6-cent Dwight Eisenhower stamps).
I'm always fascinated by the decisions made about what is and isn't necessary for cinematic time-traveling. Sometimes filmmakers go to extravagant lengths to achieve a versimilitude that very few members of the picture's audience will be able to recognize. But since I'm married to someone who falls into that select category where this particular film is concerned, it pleases me that so much money was spent on historical recreation:
Fischer, Fincher and screenwriter Vanderbilt were adamant that as much of the filming as possible not only take place in the Bay Area, but in the exact locations where the Zodiac events took place.

For example, the crew shot at Lake Berryessa, but since the Zodiac killer's attack there, almost all the site's trees have died. Production designer Don Burt planted 24 new ones, flying the pin-oak trees in by helicopter, watching them dangle 200 feet below, some of them 45 feet tall and weighing 13,000 pounds.

Burt even used gravel and piping to syphon water from the lake to nourish the trees' roots from an underground irrigation system he built. He also replanted 1,600 clumps of grass to match the original scenery.
I wonder whether that bosque is near any of the spots Kim took me. Remind me to tell you the story about the couple who went swimming with their pet duck sometime. It makes a nice counterpoint to all the death and dismemberment.