Saturday, November 10, 2007
Why Cavemen Matters
When Paromita Vohra came to present her film on Monday, some of the film faculty and cinema studies majors took her to dinner, and she asked what we thought about the WGA strike that started that day. I joked that it didn't bother me, as I already had stacks of movie and television DVDs to catch up on, and this actually gave me a breather.
That's a joke based in truth, but the larger truth is that I am fascinated by the WGA strike. I think part of it is my reflexive support for unions, especially in these very corporate times. I think the issues they're striking for in terms of payment for existing and emerging new media set an important precedent. It might also be because, as someone who teaches in film and media, the work of these folks is connected to my own, or because I recognize and admire the work of a lot of the names (Joss Whedon, Larry David, Brian K. Vaughn, Harlan Ellison, etc.) I see quoted in articles and blogs, so I feel more of a connection to it than with other labor actions.
But reading through and watching (via the dreaded Headline News, which was on in the background as I cleaned my apartment) (yes, that channel has gotten so bad that I do feel the need to justify and explain why it was on) some of the commentary on the strike, I began to think it might also be the canary in the coal mine for next year's elections. United Hollywood and Whedonesque, where Whedon has been doing more-or-less daily postings, cover some of the more egregious comments from the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Variety, and I heard similar remarks on HN-- how the writers' strike would throw crewpeople out of work, extend to other media, etc.
Well, maybe it will (although I'm not sure how shutting down "Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas-- The Musical" can be anything but an aesthetic benefit). And admittedly, Whedon and the strike captains running the "United" site write with a vested interest. But I was still struck by the language they noted in some of the coverage, particularly from the Times: “All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” Or this, from EW: “Labor disputes in Hollywood may not inspire the sort of tingly feelings of fraternal solidarity with the common man associated with, say, an uprising of mill workers. Some of the writer’s demands – keeping their names on movie posters, for instance – wouldn’t lure Norma Rae to a picket line."
As Bob Somerby notes on a daily, sometimes exhausting basis, this is precisely the kind of language these same media outlets use to describe any progressive group or cause: as "effete," "elitist," "hypocritical," or somehow "less American" than those big companies and manly-manly conservatives who want only to protect you and your interests. Oh, those silly writers...union organizers...Democrats...etc.! As Somerby documents, just zoom in on some trivial bit of appearance or misspoken moment, and that becomes the thing Matthews, Russert, et. al., will pound you with for the next six months.
In many ways, what the coverage suggests is precisely what the writers are striking about-- the power of large conglomerates to control the message (and the money) for their own benefit. I'm pretty far from a Marxist, particularly for people in my profession; I don't think, as some of my colleagues in graduate school sometimes suggested, that what we do is the same as what migrant farm workers do, and neither is what screen and television writers do. But it is labor, and should be treated as such, and when that labor involves words and images-- the basis of democratic exchange--how that gets spun feels important to me. It's not only about when The Office will be back on the air, or whether 24 might be postponed for a year (in an election year, no less! Where will the GOP candidates get their talking points now??), but about that rhetorical frame, or set of frames, that some of this coverage is attempting to build, one not unique to the writers' strike, and one I suspect we'll see again next year, when the stakes are much higher for everyone.