Thursday, August 14, 2014

How Vice Magazine's ( became successful and its presence that can be replicated

'No Violence'

'You don't know violence'

'You deserve it'

The man smartly dressed in a dark suit approaches his seated subject with deference. "Excuse me'. he says. Moment's later he is straddled across the man knocking seven bells out of him.

The scene is not staged, and at first glance it appears that a TV reporter has lost his sense of decorum.

Few scenes in a documentary elicit as sharp an intake of breath and gasps of incredulity as this. 'What the F***' !!!! chime several of the younger viewers in the room I'm in.

The suited man is Okuzaki Kenzo, a war veteran who single-handedly is trying to track down army officers in his regiment who committed unpunished war atrocities 32 years ago whilst holed up in Japanese camps in New Guinea.

These crimes included eating captured soldiers. Locals were dubbed 'black pigs' and captured Americans, 'white pigs'. Black pigs were eaten.

This multiple award-winning documentary by Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara is an exemplar in the field of documentary making. The Emperors Naked Army Marches On made in 1987, by today's standards might be called 'Immersive'.

Indeed, immersive journalism is observed amongst a new generation of filmmakers as a new category in factual filmmaking. Witness the rise of Vice Magazine, whose juggernaut of uber cool filmmaking owns, if not is wholly responsible for custody of this new term.

The rise of Vice Magazine is often retold in mythical terms,  some believe it to be a johnny-come-lately overnight, but as this Independent newspaper articles shows it's an eagle rising from urban regions of Canada; its birth place via a government grant. That was 20 years ago.

Today it's a global empire and a hard won reputation exemplifying the mantra:' you've got to be in it to win it'. No wonder Mr Media Murdoch came calling. Vice's popularity is well earned in an industry that tends to reward media executives with mimicry and the ability to tinker at the edges.

What made The Emperors Naked Army Marches On particularly absorbing derives from qualities and cultural milieu that Vice sails close to. Though it's yet to feature any of its reporters beating up their interviewees.

But Vice too is not a phenomenon in the ambit of cultural wonderment, but an example of some basic tenants more fundamental of human behaviour, and the sneaking middle finger to corporate media befuddlement.

A minor point first, which might seem like angels dancing on the head of a pin, but stay with me.

Has Vice found a new journalism called immersive? No! Does its constituents care? No? Is mainstream media worried? Yes! And for that traditional media needs some way to define Vice's output  at board meetings with an accompanying consultant so they can replicate the franchise. That mimicry thing again.

The narrative is Vice is doing cinematic journalism. It's an ambiguous phrase. What does cinematic mean? To the generalist, it is the mimicry of a film perception whose fidelity is 4K, use of music integral to the form, and subject matter which is populist and youthfully-skewed.

Generally speaking all memorable factual films are immersive, and the argument of separating 'immersion' from 'Gonzo' as a special genre is a problematic one. Critics claim immersive differs from the Hunter Thompson approach that wraps the story around the author, as opposed to the experience of the author as the defining theme.

Channel 4 in the UK in the late 80s, early 90s took the radical approach of eschewing professional reporters for its documentary strands like Unreported World by looking for authors who were professionals in their field.

The comparisons fashioned between 'immersion' from 'Gonzo' in their respective fields of film amd print, fundamentally different media, is and ill-suited one.

The daddy of Gonzo, Thompson, was an essayist/columnist and a bad-ass writer, whose recourse to sell-destruction and daring-dos became the story in print.

It was the equivalent of Jim Morrison of the Doors penning The End after a mind-bending white-dust session.

In film, it would be like giving Marlon Brando, or Steve McQueen a camera in the 1970s to document their wild times.

In the 70s any television, whether journalism or documentary couldn't dare come within a comets distance to anything resembling drug-fuelled reportage.

Reporting and the documentary business framed by Western standards was generally respectful and professionalised.  Robert Drew's Primary (1960), Jean Rouch's Chronicle of  Summer (1960),  Ed Murrow's Harvest of Shame (1960)  are themselves captivating and immersive examples of of journalism for reasons that the audience are lost in the wash of the films.

And all of them, a significant point for this articles, were different to the prevailing status quo.

But for a closer definition of this so-called immersive journalism without the gonzo-fest, Paul Garrin's Fuck Vertov (1989) stands head and shoulder above anything in its time.

Garrin, an artist and activist, publicly and in a monumental way shows the power of a new handheld video cameras,  which was ridiculed at the time as the home movie camera.

Garrin talking about the revolution

He films himself getting caught up in New York Lower East side's clashes between residents and NYPD police. The story went national and Garrin's life was threatened. But not before proclaiming a new form of de facto immersive journalism.  He was not a reporter, and so did not have to play by the rules and somewhat immodestly frames his discovery as witnessing.

Garrin's 1989 film trope however did not become a mainstream style, but the 1990s were looming and a fundamental mutant relationship between technology and societies' behaviour was about to become a defining moment.

The key to Vice's Success
If, as a culture writer or social historian, you examine the different styles of film/news styles and the audience's reception to it, something both illuminating and fascinating occurs. By marking a genre, that is broad key film styles, you can define the time and the public mood at the time.

Each period of the 20th century possesses a dominant and generic style of film/documentary that is strongly motivated by what's going on in society - that is how we're living.

A key moment I have chosen to start from is the 1960s. Turning points can be detected from the war years apriori as society, worn down by the conflict, looks to restore respect and deference that mirrors the style of film and reporting that emerges. Grierson's documentary mode of the 1940s reigns.

In the 1950s, and cusp of 1960s, society begins to shift. Young people are being placed at the centre of consumerism, Beatlemania emerges, Rebels are without a cause, the Paris Riots spark a global renaissance. Equality in the Civil Rights underlines humanities push for equality.

All these both reinforce attitudes and individual attitudes erect behaviour which affect governance.

The film style of Robert Drew, and before that Free Cinema emerges from Drew and Lindsay Anderson's antipathy to corporate TV and film, and the pair are as irreverent as any young person to scheduled news today.

Filmmaker Robert Drew discusses his ideas that created American cinema verite (1962) from Jill Drew on Vimeo.

Cinema intimacy and mockumentaries, such as David Holzman's Diary, appear as answers to prevailing deficiencies in life. In the UK, society can begin to look inwards and 'take the piss out of its self'.

In the 1970s, there is an attempt towards the recalibration of traditional values. 'We are all in this together', as Lyndon Johnson tries to fix the narrative for 'our' boys and the Vietnam war. The mood transitions from liberalism to the hard knocks of Nixon.

The clues aren't to be found necessarily and exclusively on Television News. TV's journalism structure is on a high to make money and has no wish to change then as now.

But in documentary and cinema, there is a shift to capture the woes, anxieties and ambiguity of society. It is a reflexive state notes documentary scholar Bill Nichols.

Core films e.g. Coppola's Apocalypse Now and ET mirror new national bogies and uncertainties. Cinema Verite is waylaid in the 1970s, subsumed, of sorts, Robert Drew would tell me in an interview into mainstream TV.

In the US 60 Minutes, conceived in 1968, imbricates this new style of TV journalism reportage as 'participatory' journalism, meshed with the new found verite.

It comes into its own in the 1970s. In this scene from Ed Bradley's report on Vietnam boat people fleeing their country bound for Malaysia, Bradley the reporter becomes rescuer. So much for the objective reporter.
Ed Bradley helps Vietnamese boat people in his film

There is a tacit wink to personalistation, 'immersive' filmmaking then for the time and place. In the UK World in Action invents a style that is aggressive documentary making without a reporter. Paul Greengrass is one of its more famous graduates.

By the 1980s, the gloves are coming off. Whatever lessons society learnt from the 1960s are about to be put into practice. Baby Boomers of the 1960s, now adults, can start to fathom an individualism glimpsed way back. In the UK Thatcher, both innovatory figure to some and divisive to others reflects the whims of society.

We're allowed to get emotional. The Brits welcome Phil Donahue onto daytime and for the first time shockingly start airing on national TV their dirty linen.

In film mode the reflexive style, as detailed by documentary scholar Bill Nichols gives way to the performance strand. Nick Bloomfield, a soundman, peculiarly fronts the screen as reporter. It's weird-looking at the time and is redolent of the professional expert as spokesperson.

In 1991 it culminates in Bloomfield's signature film, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife.  It is a brilliant film that sends up South Africa's Right Winger Eugene Terre'blanche,  and Terre'blanche never gets the subtlety.

The 80s and 90s is about meism.  Me, me, me, me, me.  Films in this period largely rejected the status quo writes Nichols that is : 'Voice-of-God commentary not because it lacked humility, but because it belonged to an an entire epistemology. or way of seeing and knowing the world, no longer deemed acceptable'.

Even corporate television that had played with the style, but rejected young people for the 'conservative' reporter, gave in.  In the UK, BBC Reportage, made by young people, presented by young people, and  the Word landed on TV like a French Exocet.

Reportage broke rules and the niceness of TV's conservatism. It  tracked down paedophiles, mercinaries who laundered their money in the city, how criminals could steal money from your bank account with nothing more than a plastic plain card, and asked if young people do the crime, f***ing don't cry.

BBC Reportage from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.

The rules were blown to smitherins. It's in this climate that Vice is born, alongside youth movements such as The Face, ID magazine ( which Vice would later buy) and a new rage in people activism.

Younger generation were demanding more from the media and could finally settle on outlets that could sate their appetite.

Vice had an invisble helping hand to later stardom in Canada. Whilst the TV Networks were still predominately older fogeys,  City TV in Canada invented the concept of the videojournalist, with young cafe-societiees wanting to run the show.

City TV in Canada, just like Channel One TV in London, which also embraced the ethos of young people TV had a good run, before they changed tack, or in Channel One's case, closed down. Reportage also saw out its time. The brash approach was giving way to a softer edge again, or so we're made to think.

Society was entering an 'US' phase - individualism upended by social networking. It was no longer de rigeur to show off. But here's the big difference.

Vice kept going. Vice TV could never have worked on TV because of the manner in which TV's business advertising interests is skewed to baby boomer high earners, as Current TV found out, but by staying in the game, Vice is reaping its rewards.

For Vice, and other big youth hitters at the time, like and F1 (a music site now defunct)
online presented fresh opportunities towards a different growth proposition. The embrace towards Vice, via a long tail of fandom is a reaction to the times were in. The audience, younger, tired of hearing what they should do or want, now has its own voice and outlet. It's MTV slanted to popular current affairs.

The style is performative, reflexive, observational and to older folks 'brazen'. In fact it's a post modernist stew largely prescriptive towards performance.

In interviews, including ones with me about new styles,  Vice is often cited to me as an example of cinema. It is, but of a particular type of cinema for largely its western audience. That's not a criticism, but that societies export styles they're used to within a given time and region.

For that reason one thing's clear, the audience will change again, a different style that soothes the audience will become dominant, the web will enable the recycling of tropes that are historical, but have been distanced from our viewing, and so long as Vice is alert to those dynamics, its relevance will hold.

All companies, a bit like followers on twitter, are prone to losing fans. The key is to be able to lose enough, but not so much it leaves you lean.

What's next  then as a style guide with society's witnessing sharing, greed, barbarity, extreme lengths towards compassion, is anyone's guess. Transcedental perhaps and going behind words and images towards deeper emotions.

That would be some Vice!