A glimpse of conflict

How will cinema remember the riots?

It may seem slightly redundant to wonder how the riots that have broken out across London and in provincial cities over the last few days will come to be represented. That is, of course, if they come to be part of filmic or literary memory at all: it's an appropriate coincidence that they have broken out thirty years after the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, which have yet to spawn any films. But the cultural reaction to outbreaks of social disorder over the last 30 years or so can give some idea of the representational and imaginative blind-spots in the everyday social assumptions that riots rupture.

The film that seems closest to the current situation is Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995). Set against the backdrop of the Parisian banlieue riots of the early 1990s, sparked by poverty, entrenched unemployment and police mistreatment of Afro-Caribbean and Maghrebin youth, most of the film takes place during a lull in the disorder. The lead trio - Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Afro-French Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Algerian Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) - travel into Paris for the day, and an eerie quiet and clarity hangs on the soundtrack; the trio are surrounded by empty, space in each shot. The riots appear as outbursts of action and noise that punctuate this: the clatter of police boots chasing the protagonists through a subway tunnel, raised voices between them and as they scuffle with skinheads. The raw black-and-white cinematography echoes the racial differences that are constantly called up by the characters - differences identified and emphasised by hostility, violent action and the air of tension that pervades the film. To the trio themselves, these are not very significant: the three of them maintain a friendship mediated by the usual crass banter; their families on their estate all know and support each other. It is the social context - their run-ins with white, well-off Parisians in the city itself - that sparks them into deadly significance.

 

By contrast, the riot in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant that closes Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989) is all noise and colour: a blast of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" initiates the fight that starts the tumult; the frame is crammed with bodies, with struggling and roiling limbs, with faces black and white, mouths open in shouts. The roll-call of black power leaders that Pino (John Torturro) cites to Mookie (Spike Lee), and whose faces Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) wants on the pizzeria's "wall of fame", sits uncomfortably with the tumult we see shortly afterwards: the pizzeria smashed, invaded, set alight. Race limits their actions to a perverse outburst of self-destruction: as the shop burns behind them, Mookie answers police demands to go home with "This is our home!" The violence and skill of Lee's cuts, though portraying well the speed and frenzy of events, ultimately contain and stylise the drama. The problem goes to the heart of how to portray disorder, confusion, crowds: narrative cinema demands focus through the lens of a small number of characters; it aligns with a need to simplify, to make riots comprehensible by rooting them in individual and concrete motivations. The opening credits of La Haine, made up of news footage from the riots, are in some ways more effective than the rest of the film: shell-suited, masked and anonymous youths pouring out of shopfronts; police, made anonymous by riot gear, kitting up, charging; smoke roiling from burning cars.

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Kassovitz's incorporation of documentary footage isn't a much-used tactic, because it isn't sensational. As the Clash - or, indeed, Public Enemy - proved, riots are glamorous. A point driven home in Julien Temple's adaptation of Colin Macinnes's Absolute Beginners (1986). The film's motor is the excitement of London's racially mixed jazz scene; the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, that close the book and film, and engulf the teenage protagonists, come out of this friction. The riot-scenes are choreographed as dance sequences a la West Side Story. The film's contradictory investments in race are masked, resolved, by aestheticisation and by the force of identification with Colin (Eddie O'Connell); the larger conditions that lie at the root of the riots do not even leak through; events, with causes and consequences, are turned into blank spectacle. O'Connell is a little too slick for the role of working-class hipster Colin, and emphasises his distance from the black rioters with whom he all too recently mixed.

The fact is that the riots are already representing themselves: within hours of the outbreak in Tottenham a rash of footage was on Youtube and news broadcasts. The strangeness, perhaps even ugliness, of the film is striking. We see people doing things that no-one expects under normal conditions, and they keep doing them, in a torrent; they are pixellated, badly framed, shaky. But they are, nonetheless, something we would expect to see only in a film - though not, perhaps, any particular film we've seen. In a sense the traumatic impact of these images tells us all we need to know - about the grinding social reality that surrounds the moment of riot, that makes the thrill of action, no matter how reckless and self-destructive, seem preferable; about the reality, beneath social apperances, of a society divided against itself. Whether art will catch up with this insight is another question.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times