Tuesday 07 April 2020

What we view says a lot about us

Sometimes a movie comes along which perfectly captures the zeitgeist. For me, to date, this movie has been Nightcrawler.

It’s a film about a rather creepy, disturbing, out-of-work guy (Jake Gyllenhaal) who stumbles upon a crew of freelance videographers, known as stringers, who shoot footage of crime scenes and horrific accidents which they then sell to the highest news network bidder.  You can literally see the bulb go off in his brain and he gets to work, clumsily and amateurishly at first, listening to a police scanner and racing across the LA streets, until he gets his first big break because he dares to go further than other videographers in the close up, graphic images he captures.

The film sheds an uncomfortable light on this night-time world of car crashes and murders, stabbings and violence which is “sold” to local newsrooms who are insatiable in their search for exclusive video no one else has.  It’s the cutthroat world of ratings laid bare in all its calculating ugliness, where the eyes of the news director (excellently played by Rene Russo) light up with an almost evil gleam as she watches footage of murder victims, because she knows this means her 6am newscast the following morning is going to have the biggest scoop.  There is no compassion for the victims, and the only emotion she shows is a sort of ghoulish triumph.

It is an uncomfortable film to watch at times, not only because of Gyllenhaal’s chilling portrayal but also because it deftly brings home a very painful truth: by lapping up these graphic images which accompany news stories we are condoning them, and indeed, encouraging them. 

Media sensationalism appeals to the baser aspect of human nature; it is the equivalent of slowing down in morbid curiosity when people pass a car crash with the perverse hope of seeing something really macabre which they can then recount to their friends and families: “I SAW it! It was awful!!”  They then go on to give you all the gruesome details, in tones of barely concealed grim satisfaction as they shiver with frissons of excitement.

I have noticed this again and again with all those people determined to watch every single video of someone being beheaded by ISIS. When I say I refuse to watch them,  (let alone share them on my profile to give them more publicity) they positively wriggle with pride: “I watched the whole thing, IT WAS HORRIFIC!! Maaaa x’biza!!!  I honestly don’t get this. What is to be gained by watching such atrocities?  Will it in any remote way stop ISIS in its tracks? Hardly. Reading the headline is enough, I don’t need to see the actual act being committed to know what is going on.

This compulsive viewing of things which appall does not just happen with violence and crime. There is also a kind of paradox at play with other TV programmes which people “love to hate”, and at the top of this list is undoubtedly Xarabank.   I’ve lost count of the times people say they hate it, it’s rubbish, it’s the pits, it’s trash TV blah blah blah. And yet my Friday evening newsfeed (which often spills over into Saturday morning) is replete with those who go on and on and on about how much they loathe it, what a shambles it was, what a ridiculous topic, the abysmal guests etc.   They wonder out loud how on earth it is still on the air after all these years and how come PBS does not come up with a better quality discussion programme. The thing is by watching it you are in effect, endorsing it. So either watch it and enjoy it, or don’t complain. 

There is no question that the show panders to what people enjoy getting all excited/thrilled/disgusted about. It appeals to that universal, rather unpleasant aspect of human nature: the love of gossip. When you throw in juicy topics such as sex and perhaps a bizarre, colourful, outrageous character or two, or alternatively, someone who has had a tragedy that people can “enjoy” crying about it, there you’ve got your foolproof formula to hike up audience ratings.

For all her questionable lifestyle, I think it was Rita “Desert Princess” Spiteri who best summed it up on Friday night: if people don’t like her racy photos they should block her because she was not forcing anyone to view them. But with close to 100,000 likes on her FB page, it is clear that (whether out of curiosity, the urge to ridicule her or yes, perhaps even genuine attraction), anyone who has shared them has had a hand in boosting her popularity, and is perpetuating the very thing they profess to feel so scandalized about.   I saw it as rather pointless, if not downright hypocritical, to read so many pious “OMG! How vulgar, how disgusting, how tacky, how cheap, she should be ashamed, she should hide herself in a corner, her husband must be a laughing stock” comments by people who absolutely relish being “shocked” in order to have something to talk about.   

Whether she should have been given such exposure on the national station is, of course, a point for debate (although I bet every single viewer logged on to her page to see the photos). But Rita Spiteri is who she is, and is not pretending to be anything else. Which is more than one can say for some people I could mention.

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