Gilbey on Film: A hymn to celluloid

Tacita Dean's Tate Modern installation is all about texture.

I've felt an intimate connection to celluloid since the days as a child when my father would run our single-reel excerpt of Jason and the Argonauts on a tiny home projector every Sunday evening; in that pre-video era, or at least pre-video to families of moderate income, the only way to own a movie was to buy it on Super-8 in 20-minute chunks. The sweet, slightly sulphurous smell of the warm projector was oddly soothing; the rapid ticking that the film made as it passed through the projector was like the amplified purring of a colossal cat. Those details were as much a part of the viewing experience as Ray Harryhausen's herky-jerky skeletons dancing across our living-room wall. Indeed, there seemed to be a correlation between the noise of the projector and the undead warriors' bones clacking together as they wielded swords that looked too heavy for their puny arms to lift.

So far, so Long Day Closes. But I say all this only because celluloid has been on many people's minds this past week with the unveiling of Tacita Dean's Film in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The work has been praised, extravagantly by Adrian Searle in the Guardian and more level-headedly by Richard Dorment in the Telegraph , but my reaction to it was much closer to that of my NS colleague Rachel Cooke in her underwhelmed review in the Observer.

The scale of Dean's hymn to celluloid (the religious connotations are not accidental) is something to behold. It's important that the frame is vertical like a strip of film -- we see the sprocket holes running down each side of the image -- rather than horizontal in the manner of a cinema screen; in this way, it prioritises the shape of the celluloid over that of the space on which it is usually projected, implicitly arguing for the sanctity of the material itself rather than the image. Our usual film-watching eyes are realigned by the unconventional vertical screen so that we are thinking as we watch about the very nature of the film stock.

That's just as well, since the images seem to me both banal and forgettable. The work dominates with ease the vast hall's far wall, and commands the space impressively, but my first impression is that the content recedes even as you're watching. I didn't take notes. I wandered in with my eldest daughter early on a crisp weekday morning, and we sat on the concrete floor and watched Film a few times through. It's fitting to see a work engaged so strongly with memory in that space, when so many ghosts of past installations are only a breath away, particularly the filled-in crack in the floor from Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, still visible snaking its way toward the screen.

Once Dean's 11-minute film had completed its first revolution, my attention wandered toward that cemented-over crack, and I found myself drifting into memories of walking along, over and around Shibboleth with my children on various occasions ... so in that way Film became, for me, an interesting catalyst for time-travel. But please don't ask me about the images which Dean had assembled: the argument for the importance of celluloid was made by the texture of the work, not by the symbolism-to-go of the eggs, snails, escalators and eyes photographed within it. A film playing in the Turbine Hall need not make any sort of immediate impression; it should merit and maximise the space in which it is staged. The rest is up to time.

After leaving Tate Modern, we trotted off to a screening of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, coincidentally another work rooted in the magic of another age. Goodness knows the world has become accustomed to the spectre of a poor Woody Allen film, but the acclaim which has been heaped on this, and the news that it has become Allen's most financially successful film (a statistic which can arguably be attributed to the presence of its star, Owen Wilson), are doubly depressing.

The itinerant screenplay, which has Wilson's character visiting 1920s Paris by means of a time-hopping taxi, amounts to a blank, witless parade of ... well, I was going to say whimsical middlebrow jokes, but "jokes" is a bit strong. If carefully nursed by a more inventive and less calcified writer, they could conceivably blossom into jokes one day. Wilson meets Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein. He gives Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel (that's quite a slight: doesn't Allen think Buñuel had the imagination to come up with it himself?) The sum total of the movie's wisdom is that we all think that the past was better, but that the present has its own worth and magic if we could but notice it. Allen is close to defunct as a filmmaker but he may have a future in the fortune cookie business.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496