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A game: Choose a word at random, the more innocuous the better, things like ‘salad’ and ‘robots’ work well. Then take the sentence ‘Can … kill you’, and insert your word. Head over to the website of popular right wing newspaper that shall not be named and put your Frankenstein sentence into their search engine. The results are good fun, the two sentences above yield results that inform me that “it is ALREADY too late to ban killer robots’” and that “the SALAD DRAWER is putting your family at risk”. Those are their capitals not mine by the way.
I sometimes work with a-level media students, and we play this game at the end of our sessions. After the first couple of weeks they start coming along with words they want to try – I am suspicious that they have often taken a look before the session to find something particularly amusing, but we all pretend we are discovering them for the first time. The incredulity of these 16 and 17 year olds quickly turns to cynicism, it only takes a few weeks before they can successfully predict the types of stories they are going to see. Being a responsible educator I do try to steer clear of profanity, but we have a caveat when we are playing the game, we call it what it is, bullshit.
Something interesting happens though, and it has happened every time I have played this game with a student for more than a few weeks, eventually, after they have worked out the pattern, they ask one of the most important questions of their media education “if these stories are bullshit, does that mean they are all bullshit?”. It is a long-winded way of teaching that not everything you read is true, relevant or worthwhile. From there we start the long process of deconstructing media texts, asking questions like ‘why was this written’, ‘who benefits from this’ and ‘how do they convey their ideas’. It is a lot less fun than the game, but by the end of the year, as well as learning everything else they need for their A-level (they can usually write a killer case study, and have a pretty good understanding of the word ‘postmodernism) their bullshit detectors are finely tuned instruments, at least when it comes to the media. They are so finely tuned in fact that they don’t just identify the obvious (“British supermarket jihadi reveals Jaffa Cakes and fish fingers are the only things he misses since leaving the UK…” is the headline you’ll get if you try “can fish fingers kill you?”) but they can also identify media bias, discrimination, sexism, racism and any of the other isms which our popular media is shot through with.
Whatever your stance on the outcomes, the outsized role of the media in the recent brexit vote, or the election of Donald Trump is undeniable. Within this the role of new media, that ethereal catch term all we use to talk about social media and everything else that isn’t a TV network, film or newspaper, is especially noticeable. What is immediately obvious to the students I work with is that this new media serves as a sort of bullshit echo chamber, amplifying the most ridiculous tales to levels previously only dreamed of by even the most persistent media oligarchs.
The game becomes especially interesting when it goes from identifying bullshit to asking why it is happening. Usually the answer is money, it’s as simple as bullshit sells, however when we move into the new media realm the reasons are less obvious. Unless you are very fortunate there is no financial ramification to your social media ramblings, and even some of the more ardent YouTube conspiracy theorists are likely not taking home enough at the end of each month to keep them stocked up on survival rations. But actually, why the media, and the rest of us humans engage with the bullshit echo chamber is because we like stories.
Narratives help us to make sense of the world, give us goals and common ground. The narratives which appeal most widely are the ones that seem to matter the most to the most people. Though it also helps if they are interesting (killer robots), out there (murderous salad drawers), or just plain scary (all people who are not British are evil). The exciting thing about the new media is that we have the ability now to at least feel like we are part of that narrative – it doesn’t necessarily follow though that we are shaping it, we’re often just along for the ride, motorcyclists riding the walls of the infinite bullshit echo chamber.
Stepping off is simple though, it doesn’t even take an a-level media degree to do it, although it will definitely help. There could be a sinister narrative here about the current government’s increasing persistence in removing just the types of subjects which switch on students bullshit detectors from the curriculum, but we try to keep away from such conspiracy theories. Playing the game is the first step towards stepping outside of the chamber and looking in. Laugh at what you see there then tell your friends about it, because the more people who are outside of the chamber looking in, the more ridiculous the clowns on the motorcycles look when they make claims that work only because there is an appealing narrative bubbling beneath them.
I have not seen LA LA Land, but I want to tell a story about it, and the point of this story is to raise a couple of interesting points about the power of film reviews. The film was first screened in august of 2016, making its way around a heap of high profile film festivals for the rest of the year, before general release over the holidays. It was well received, seriously well received. Of the 80 or so reviews posted to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes during this period a grand total of four give the film a negative score. Here we are using, and acknowledge the issues with, the blunt force metric of Rotten Tomatoes own ‘fresh/rotten’ measure.
The positive reactions to the film continued when it hit the cinemas for general release. The number of reviews increases significantly at this point (to over 300). Alongside this increase, perhaps inevitably, we also see an increase in less than positive reviews.
I have put all the reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes into a graph. It simply marks a positive review as a +1, and a negative review as a -1. You can see that the graph is clearly top heavy, those negative reviews on the bottom are barely making a dent. What is interesting though is the box I have marked in red. Aside from that one outlier later in February, the negative reviews seem to dry up.
So what is going on? It’s clear that people are still reviewing the film, the general level of reviews is certainly reduced in comparison to the amount published right after the film is released, but it has not dried up to nothing. To illustrate what I think might be going on I have replicated the same graph, but on this copy I have stood a little Oscar right on the date when the Oscars nominations were announced.
Look at him there, guarding that square of nothing but positive reviews. So did the Oscars make the film untouchable? As bastions of taste, even at their most candid I cannot imagine a reviewer admitting to being influenced by something as ephemeral as an Oscar nomination. But 14? Maybe that is different. There perhaps something about the Oscars, as awards that a nominated within the industry, that marks them as especially noteworthy.
So what about that brave soul who managed to swim against the tidal wave of positivity and publish a negative review all the way out in late February? Well Cole Smitheys review is actually not alone. His review is part of a wider discourse about the film that begins to develop in February that did not make it on to Rotten Tomatoes because none of it was ostensibly reviewing the film. Smithley just does not think the film is that good, but he is joined by other dissenting voices that question the film in some potentially far more important ways, asking if it demonstrates questionable attitudes to race and gender, and wondering about the disingenuous lack of gay characters.
Alongside a long discussion about whether the film does Jazz any favours, a guardian article titled ‘The La La Land Backlash’ sums up these other issues, then notes:
“… it’s hard to imagine any of these complaints getting much traction if La La Land were not such an enormous hit. Had it been met with indifference by critics and audiences, my hunch is that nobody would care so much about its racial or gender politics.” – Noah Gittell
Akin to asking, does anyone care, if no one notices, which, given the amount of films with questionable attitudes to almost anything you can think of that are released every year (The Bechdel test isn’t going away anytime soon, for example) seems like it might well be a truism here. However, we need to look at what we mean by ‘enormous hit’ – because with La La land we are probably not talking about outright box office success. The film had an epic opening weekend, probably a result of all that film festival hype and those endless positive reviews. But depending which absolute measure you look at, there are still 18 or so films sitting above La La Land in terms of box office takings over the past year. Beyond this, even with all of those amazing reviews, with an undoubtedly high 93% (critics) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not some sort of mega success outlier in the top twenty. This means that La La Lands ‘enormous hit’ status is discursive, people talk about it being an enormous hit, whilst it is in real terms, or as real terms as something like this can ever be measured, probably just a high performing big budget movie.
So what does this mean for film goers, or, perhaps more importantly, reviewers. There is evidence to suggest a discursive echo chamber has formed around the film here. A film perceived as a successful, enormous hit will be discussed as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves to push the film deep into the public eye. In the case of La La Land, perhaps a little too deep – because up that close its far easier to see the inconsistencies between what is being said about the film and what one’s own reality of experiencing it is. So did positive reviews kill La La land? I guess we’ll find out on Oscars day.