- Dhiraj Singh
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
My exposure to Bernardo Bertolucci is restricted to two of his most notorious films - Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers. I have not seen any other Bertolucci film. Not even Conformist (supposedly an authentic distillation of essential Bertolucci), Spider’s Stratagem (considered his best by many), Before the Revolution (his first major film) or The Last Emperor (his most astounding Hollywood success). Now I will not go out and seek these movies. His recent death led to considerable coverage and tributes (mostly guarded and largely framed by the dominant ‘me too’ sensibility of our time), all this coverage gave some inkling that both The Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are part of a very strong filmography, which is varied, uneven and has the potential of upturning one’s impression of the auteur. I don’t want that. Not now, when he is not there to reclaim any throne from which he may potentially be deposed.
A Chronicler of Sex
On the basis of these two movies, Bertolucci emerges as a prolific chronicler of sex in all its forms, sensuous, therapeutic, communion, a mode of feeling, way of making sense and just simply as lust. In his films, sex is presented as life affirming force, soul corrosive wound and mostly as sometime gentle – sometime brutal background. It is not fair or accurate to bracket a force of nature like Bernardo Bertolucci. However, like Marlon Brando’s character in The Last Tango in Paris and three young characters of The Dreamers, sex can be a vehicle to traverse Bertolucci’s art and life.
Both Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are sexually explicit movies. Amount of nudity and sex is extremely high and both movies were rated accordingly. Last Tango brought judicial proceedings and conviction for indecency. Many countries can’t allow the films under their current rating system even today. However, that is the failure of the certification/rating system, not of Bertolucci. He has demonstrated now sex can be used as a theme or core of a story and not merely as a prop. It is this use of sex as a key to an emotionally (in case of Tango) and culturally (in case of The Dreamers) rich terrain that separates Bertolucci's depiction of sex from the traditional practices.
Sex has been used as an escape in movies - titillating filler, a shocker, an embellishment, a token of audacity or just as a signal of a life style. Many times, it has been used as an indicator of happy or perverse relationship. In most such instances, it is short-lived on screen and is used to establish a scene or a character. With Bertolucci, sex is the core theme, the main subject. He is not shy to make sex the chief mode of communication, feeling and even evaluation. In the two movies, it gets integral to core themes. If Tango is a movie about grief, it is equally about sex. The same goes for the Dreamers where sex is as pervasive as politics, youth and movies. It is almost always there on the screen. Eroticism or violence have been chief sexual byproducts on screen. With Bertolucci, as with Freud (Bertolucci was a keen student of Freud), sex is capable of expressing life itself.
A Worthy Pioneer of the Carnal filmmaking
Bertolucci is very well placed to be a pioneer for emotionally and culturally complex sex movies. He has a painterly aesthetics and his scenes are never less than beautiful. He is capable of creating beauty on screen with the least of fuss. Give him a theme and he will bring out the psychological essence and core of its inner beauty – a mark of a gifted film maker. China showed great astuteness, when Bertolucci was given unprecedented access to shoot in the Forbidden City for the Last Emperor. He simply was the best candidate to bring out historical grandeur, present symbolism along with an unbiased portrayal of the brutal transition from monarchy to communism for the last Emperor.
Both Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers are primarily apartment movies. Bertolucci and his famed cinematographers have weaved music of visuals in a closed space. Topography of rooms, bodies of the protagonist, lights and beauty are used skilfully in the service of the themes. Making the sun drenched apartment in the Last Tango in Paris such a joyless place and the cramped bathroom in the Dreamers a place of youthful energy are cases in point.
An Accomplished scene maker, who is clued in the psychological essence of the plot, Bertolucci is so very well suited to delve into the sensuality, lyricism and abyss of sexual desire. He goes for pure and distilled essence of his chosen emotion. When he goes for depiction of sex it is there without any adornment of phoniness.
Another qualification for such a precarious undertaking is fine tuned realism. Filming sex often (not always) would require avoiding voyeurism, unnecessary heightening of emotions and will need an unblinking gaze. Having said that, overall frame work of the art should not be abandoned at any time. Degradation into documentary realism is the death of sex film, kind for which Bertolucci was striving. Even a whiff of biology class documentary, or pornographic heightening of glee will kill the genre before it even starts to breath. Bertolucci’s primary achievements is to find a fine blend of art and realism. Art cannot be willed into existence without completing the steps of achieving it. Artifice, with its artificiality and guile is needed. Andy Warhol made seven hour movies just by putting people in front of a camera without any script or preparation. Whereas, his painting or silk screens etc. are art forms as they shifted key parameter of artistry from representation to presentation. However, films are different ball game and his antics in the area remain dubious.
Coming back to Bertolucci, he never compromises with the artifice of his lush movie making. He is out to touch your heart with an elaborate stratagem of beauty and a despair, which is achieved through abundance rather than minimalism.
Bertolucci deploys his supreme mastery over his art not to control his actors. Kindly note this is important to achieve the realism mentioned above. Total spontaneity of a Warhol or Norman Mailer movies will come out as stranded misfires devoid of the propulsion of beauty and inspiration. Too controlled, Hitchcokian approach will end up producing pornography in Bertolucci set up. Bertolucci is conducive for improvisation. His elaborate artifice does not block discovery. His script, story board, camera moves, dialogues, actors cue all are planned in great details but always change. He creates a structure then embarks on a voyage of discovery along with his actors, cinematographers and other crew. He is guiding the movie and at the same time his actors and crew making him discover the movie. Something that makes movies the art form that they are. This mixture of artifice and improvisation is what that saves Bertolucci when he chooses the fraught world of sex films as his métier.
Last Tango in Paris-A Movie Breakthrough
Last Tango in Paris is a controversial and divisive piece of art. Perhaps, in the most famous review ever written, Pauline Kael said “The movie breakthrough has finally come..,it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made…Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that.” The Last Tango in Paris may not have resulted in the revolution that Kael was hoping but she was, as usual, very perceptive about the merits of the masterpiece.
She has beautifully elaborated on the Bertolucci’s ability to create elaborate structure for improvisation. “It is not just Brando improvising it is Brando improvising as Paul (his character)… When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized” Pauline Kael continues “The excitement of Brando’s performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be……At a more complex level he helps Bertolucci discover the movie in the process of shooting it, and that’s what makes movie making an art.”
Last Tango in Paris is a story of middle aged American Paul in Paris, who is grieving for his wife, who committed suicide on the day we meet him. He meets a young Parisian girl during an apartment hunting and he forces himself on her and she goes along his overtures on an unadorned, sometimes brutal sexual journey. Jeanne, the young girl, nonchalantly surrenders to the torrent of raw sexuality that Paul unleashes. He rents the flat and they meet there for three days. We get to see their lives separate from each other. Paul at the hotel that his wife owned, Jeanne with her mother and her insipid film maker fiancé, who is inanely making a film of the days that will eventually lead to their marriage. In the flat “he pushes his morose, romantic insanity to its limits; he burns through the sickness that his wife’s suicide has brought on.” Great Roger Ebert hits the nail when he writes “He (Paul) is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help -- and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.”
I will continue with the resonating prose of Ebert for some length. “There is no attempt to heighten the emotions. The sex is joyless and efficient, and beside the point: Whatever the reasons these two people have for what they do with one another, sensual pleasure is not one of them. Brando, who can be the most mannered of actors, is here often affectless. He talks, he observes, he states things. He allows himself bursts of anger and that remarkable outpouring of grief, and then at the end he is wonderful in the way he lets all of the air out of Paul's character by turning commonplace with the speech where he says he likes her. The moment is wonderful because it releases the tension, it shows what was happening in that apartment, and we can feel the difference when it stops." Commenting on the sex in the movie Ebert wrote “Paul has somehow been so brutalized by life that there are only a few ways he can still feel. Sex is one of them, but only if it is debased and depraved -- because he is so filled with guilt and self-hate that he chooses these most intimate of activities to hurt himself beyond all possibilities of mere thoughts and words.”
The film gets its texture from Bertolucci’s unbiased intelligence, eccentric construction and details of Marlon Brando acting that work as ‘counter balance to Bertolucci’s taste for pure psychological essence’. Ebert was almost dripping with reverence when he wrote “It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?”
Brando and Bertolucci achieved a distillation of characterisation. Resonance of the characters with the emotions sought to be depicted was so pure that a sublime unity of cinematic soul was achieved. In that moment of pure filmmaking, need for frills and flourishes vanished. What was happening on the screen was hyper real and yet full of pure art.
Youth, Sex, Movies and Dreams
While Last Tango in Paris dwells on despair and sickening brutality of sex, The Dreamers inhabits the opposing pole. Here sex is disturbing due to strong incestuous overtones but it is festive and almost celebratory in its impact. It acts both as a background and a theme. This is story of American exchange student in Paris in 1968 during the civil unrest that erupted in the wake of government firing of Henri Langlois the founder and director of Cinematheque Francaise.
The student Matthew (Michael Pitt who is devoted to movies and a life of letters and ideas) is invited by the twins, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabella (Eva Green in a stunningly bold debut). His stay with the twin becomes a journey of sexual discovery and how a youthful exploration can shape life. Mind you, this is not just any youthful exploration. It was unique to be young in 1968 Paris- A heady cocktail of youthful optimism, when a pioneering cinema official could become centre of a genuine public upheaval.
The three 20 year olds created an idyllic world in their apartment when streets were burning. Bertolucci’s painterly camera created a beautiful environ supplemented by strikingly beautiful bodies of the young characters. The youngsters indulged in their passions of ideas, sex and movies with ‘unguarded sincerity’, which in today’s philistine and prosaic time will be easy to ‘patronize or to mock’.
Best review to The Dreamer came from A.O. Scott of New York Times, who lauded Bertolucci for his refusal to ‘scold and satirize the idealism of an earlier generation’. Scott wrote ‘Bertolucci revels in their unselfconscious intensity, gazing affectionately at these children, who speak solemnly of ‘Cinema’, who quote Andre Bazin with reverence and for who the movies, far from being an escape from the world, are means to entry into it’. Wow!
Matthew while maintaining his outsider/observer status goes along with the ideas fuelled kinky psychosexual sadism. A romantic belief that free sex and great movies will free the mankind is displayed and is accepted by Bertoucci with everyday nonchalant indulgence. Matthew is intrigued and aroused by Theo and Isabelle’s gothic but posh sensibilities but he is convinced that all that is not for him. Finally, he did balk at the extremity of their vision and walks in the opposite directions whereas twins rush to embrace the raging revolution.
Getting back to Scott and main theme of this article. Scott declares, rightly, that sex in ‘The Dreamers’ is more explicit than Last Tango in Paris. As opposed to the oppressive and punishing sex of the Last Tango in Paris, The Dreamers is youthful, hence infused with the joy of discovery. Scott writes, “There is an almost Edenic quality to the nakedness, which is not to say that the film's treatment of sexuality is altogether innocent…But it is hard to imagine a voyeur more benevolent than Mr. Bertolucci, whose eager scrutiny of the eros of the young is.. less a matter of prurience than of an honest, nostalgic appreciation of natural human vitality. And the director, unfailingly generous in his refusal to embarrass his characters, is equally generous in sharing his sensual enthusiasm with the audience.”
In both The Dreamers and last Tango in Paris, we are so enthralled by the atmosphere of the secluded apartments that we stop noticing the oddity, joy and sickness of it all, Bertolucci realizes that and ends his movie with a clear rupture from the idyll to reality. In Tango, mysterious stranger with raw and honest emotions becomes commonplace with his attempt to interact normally with Jeanne, object of his ravaging sexual therapy of grief. We are jolted but Bertolucci keeps the pay off intact by killing off Paul in a stunning mesmerizing finale. Brando, an absorbing study in self degeneration, sealed his place as one of the greatest actors of all times. Similarly, in The Dreamers, the idyll is broken by arrival of parents of the twin and, more jarringly, by a brick through the glass pane. Bertolucci manages to jolt us out again from the reverie of sexual discovery and marathon idea sessions. Pay off doesn’t get sacrificed as ending takes the flow forward and final choices are clearly underlined by the caution and madness that ran all through the movie.
There is no better way of ending this than a quote of Bertolucci used by Peter Travers in his tribute to the auteur in Rolling Stone, “I think – how do I put it? – that the word is texture. You know, how a movie feels when you hold it in your head and run it through all your life experience. So there is depth to it. And politics. And sex. And if you are lucky, may be magic.” With Bernardo Bertolucci we have been mostly lucky.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
The article seeks to analyze two articles on actor Johnny Depp that appeared in Rolling Stone and GQ magazines. His recent travails are getting lot of media tractions. Here we try to examine how ‘framing’ and ‘priming’ concepts can explain the differing slants to the current situation of the contrarian superstar.
It is easy to be keyed up by a shining line of story telling. Once a journalist sees her story forming in a certain way, often the process becomes a frantic pursuit to keep the initial inspiration on a straight path of narrative salvation. In the face of information overload, deadline pressures and sheer exhilaration of sensing a viable storyline, producing a viable story can be an overpowering compulsion. This may lead to surreptitious infusion of neglect for alternate views- dominance of a ‘frame’ over others. This is omnipresent, natural and can’t be avoided. However, a Journalist, specially a long form one, needs to pause and ask- can I do better or, more importantly, can I do more honestly.
In most of the cases, there is nothing wrong or right (we aren’t talking of blatant malpractice of partisan affiliation and paid corruption of news). Bias is not a crime, nor is a desire to have a cohesive story. What surely constitutes a failure is not to stop and think an alternative narrative or at least acknowledge (to one self, if nothing else) the creeping biases.
Two Articles-Two Different Framing
Johnny Depp is an iconic actor and lately he has been in news for all the wrong reasons. He has successfully survived, so far, his excesses that in some instances belong to the wild sixties of rock star bohemianism. He manages to keep his rebellious streak alive and has created an outsider niche for himself amidst the crass commercial world of Hollywood. His cult following and a formidable body of work is there for all to see. Of late, there is a sense that viability of his choices is under threat. He is facing unprecedented financial ruin and his reputation suffered a massive blow due to allegation of domestic violence and rumours about ill health. Recently, two major publications did cover stories with great degree of access to the star. Journalist from Rolling Stone and GQ magazines were invited and Johnny Depp opened the doors of his home and soul to them. Gave them rare glimpse of his private sanctum and bared his soul in prolonged intimacy of his lair. Undoubtedly, a privileged and rare opportunity for any journalist. The result is two very different pieces. One a devastating piece by Rolling Stone (The article can be accessed here - https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/the-trouble-with-johnny-depp-666010/) The article is anchored as “Multimillion-dollar lawsuits, a haze of booze and hash, a marriage gone very wrong and a lifestyle he can’t afford – inside the trials of Johnny Depp”. One gets the drift where is the focus. Variety magazine commented on the article and called Depp a “PR liability” . Variety hit a bulls eye in its last sentence “Hollywood can accept almost anything, except for failure.”
GQ article (https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/johnny-depp-interview-2018 ), on the other hand, is a sympathetic piece and is anchored as “We don’t know the truth. But following an invitation to spend time with the face of one multibillion-dollar franchise and a whole rogue’s gallery of tender, oddball tales at the French village he once bought to share with another former partner, we now know his version of it. Aggrieved, aggressive and vulnerable, by turns it’s all these things. He spoke, we listened and here is the truth Johnny Depp wants you to hear”. One gets the impression that the article is invested in giving Depp a platform. The article was criticized for glamourizing domestic violence by Cosmopoliton and Independent .
In both the cases, the invite was from the Depp establishment. In one case it was more of a personal hunch based on Depp's history with Rolling Stone. He is the most featured film actor on the magazine’s cover and has a long standing relationship with the magazine cofounder going back to wild days of Hunter S Thompson. GQ was approached with the help of an elite PR Company. Interview with Rolling Stone lasted three days, whereas, GQ was a day and daylight affair. By the look of it GQ interview struck the mark for the beleaguered actor whereas Rolling Stone interview was a massive disaster that gave respectability and shape to an inchoate but continuous barrage of negative news onslaught against the actor. One more huge difference in the two interviews was paraphernalia of starry excesses. Free flow of hash, alcohol and other props of such life style marked RS interview. Dedicated chef, weird hours, paid flunkies- the environment was simply not viable to turn nauseating to sexy.
Most importantly, where the elite PR agency succeeded and Depp's personal assessment faltered was the ensuring a frame suitable for the star's image. Rolling Stone article titled ' The Trouble with Johny Depp' chose to stay with the stereotype of wild talent gone to dogs. The article decided not to focus on charisma, and off beat nature of Depp's talent and persona. The frame was set to portray the waste, downfall and excesses. The wealth management Company TMG got all the opportunity to plug in their viewpoint which was given to the reporter more professionally than hash addled Depp. Article’s disapproval for Depp's life style is barely hidden. (“But the things that were charming when he was 28 – doing drugs and running around the scaffolding on a high floor of Atlantic Records’ L.A. building – seem disturbing at 55.”). Depp's ugly divorce with Amber Heard received a treatment that was in consonance with over all texture subject matter of the article – a declining celebrity unable to control his impulses and his cluelessness.
GQ article on the other hand, was titled 'Johnny Depp will not be Buried’ is clearly a different article about the same subject. Frame here is that of troubled, aggrieved but supremely interesting talent on the path of seeking truth. There have been mistakes but nothing that can't be forgiven in the light of the non conforming genius of Johnny Depp. Focus is on Depp's appeal rather than on his decline. The article has been criticized, mostly in the competing magazines, for glamorizing a wife beater (another controversial frame).
Framing and Priming of Johnny Depp
How such frames are decided or how do they creep in? What are the lessons for media relation experts? These two recent articles have a plenty of insights to offer.
Framing "involves selecting a few aspects of a perceived reality and connecting than together in a narrative that promotes a particular interpretation. Framing can perform upto four functions: define problems, specify causes, convey moral assessments and endorse remedies" wrote communications expert Robert M Entman of George Washington University, USA. In order to succeed, framing appeals to congruence and resonating augmentation by existing notions, knowledge or cognitive structure. Experts use the term 'schema' for this.
Another concept is priming. Priming is raising a concept to the level of an evaluative standard. This priming is guided by the dominant wisdom of the time. For example #metoo changed environment, crimes against women will have more evaluative salience than perhaps they would have had otherwise. Apart from dominant wisdom aspect, priming can be made effective by expert use of faming. In present articles we see privileging of financial mismanagement domestic violence, excessive life style over talent, creative achievements and possibility of being innocent by Rolling Stone. In the GQ article all the ailment's were subjugated to the aura of an intensely creative personality. The article kept the focus on Johnny Depp's star appeal with all eccentricities.
I will quote from GQ article where allegiances of the articles are being drawn.
"Or is Johnny Depp simply a man who has been wronged and harbours a genuine desire to set out to protect his name and his past work so that he can begin to bring himself back from what has been a period of his life he’d sooner forget?
Does he seek vengeance against an industry – and certain individuals – that he says took advantage of his naivety?
Is this a man who still believes in trying to be the outsider, an artist who desperately wants to be free of responsibility, something that might be mistaken for isolation and eccentricity but is actually something closer to a belief in romantic rebellion? (emphasis mine)"
Right before his first glimpse of Johnny Depp the author wonders "where does the myth of Johnny Depp end and the truth of who Johnny Depp is begin". In next paragraph he notes the smile "one that hovers between charm and mischief, heroic and villainous". Immediately we know that this will be a sympathetic piece if not outrightly a fan boy one. The author has declared that he is willing to be charmed and explore the appeal of Johnny Depp phenomenon.
Rolling Stone article, on the other hand, draws different lines. It says,
“One day, Depp shows me his artwork, and it strikes me that Depp is now a worn Dorian Gray. “I imagine Johnny doing a version of Jack Sparrow at 70, at 80,” his friend Penélope Cruz tells me. “It will be as charming and as great.” But the things that were charming when he was 28 – doing drugs and running around the scaffolding on a high floor of Atlantic Records’ L.A. building – seem disturbing at 55. (Cruz ends our conversation by telling me about Depp trying to pull his own tooth at a London restaurant while having dinner with her and Stella McCartney.)
Maybe being a permanent Peter Pan is the key to Depp’s onscreen charm. But time has passed. Boyish insouciance has slowly morphed into an aging man-child, still charismatic but only in glimpses. If his current life isn’t a perfect copy of Elvis Presley’s last days, it is a decent facsimile.”
You immediately know that the author has no hope for the star and has more or less decided that Johnny Depp is no longer viable. He is in no mood to be charmed or let nostalgia be given a play.
Rolling Stone article sets the tone and its sympathies early on in a long setting up of mise-en-scene. Depp's grievances get projected as rant of an incoherent and stoned star. His friends are discredited a sleek and sly specimen. Few Examples:
"It had taken a month and almost 200 e-mails for the message to become clear: Come to London; Johnny Depp wants to bare his soul about his empty bank accounts.
It’s estimated that Depp has made $650 million on films that netted $3.6 billion. Almost all of it is gone. He’s suing The Management Group, run by his longtime business manager, Joel Mandel, and his brother Robert for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. …The suit seeks more than $25 million from TMG, accounting for “tens of millions” it claims TMG illegally took for its commission, plus any additional damages the court sees fit."
Note the infusion of wildness in his claims whereas TMG reply gets sober and lengthy treatment. May be they provided better material to the another. Framing theorists, make capabilities of PR manages a factor in bias.
“Over the past 18 months, there has been little but bad news for Depp. In addition to the financial woes, there were reports he couldn’t remember his lines and had to have them fed to him through an earpiece. He had split from his longtime lawyer and agent. And he was alone. His tabloid-scarred divorce from actress Heard is complete, but not before there were persuasive allegations of physical abuse that Depp vehemently denies.”
Where GQ described his enigmatic smile, Rolling Stone went like this.
"During my London visit, Depp is alternately hilarious, sly and incoherent. The days begin after dark and run until first light. There is a scared, hunted look about him. Despite grand talks about hitting the town, we never leave the house. As Depp’s mind leads us down various rabbit holes, I often think of a line that he recited as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: “Have I gone mad?”
With this setting, the article is doomed to stay negative as no one survives this introduction.
Mirage of Objectivity
Mainstream media resort to objectivity norms that are supposed to underline their editorial decisions. This, to some extent, gives a pause to the tide of various conscious-unconscious biases. However, this commitment is not apparent in all the organizations or all the stories that are done by the organization. For some media outfits, situation is very different. These organizations are open about their affiliations and are clear about their stand for a political party, a brand of nationalism or a stand on gender sensitivity. There are some publications, which are not so upfront and claim to be mainstream and objective. Their framing is slanted and their writings, if analyzed carefully, will reveal a consistent bias. They apply slanted frames consciously and consistently without ever surrendering their claim as an objective news arbiter of events. These organizations claim all the benefits that accrue to media due to its image as the independent and neutral entity. Even with consciously neutral mainstream media, it is not always possible to give due weightage to all relevant competing frames. PR skills of the principals differ, facts change rapidly along with the dominant moral parameters. By and large this can be said that despite the claims to the contrary, it is simply not possible to have a piece of content that is fully free of bias of some sort. However, quality journalism needs to be aware of the biases and honest attempt should be made to acknowledge competing claims.
Media biases get reflected, most frequently, in two ways. Content bias is more akin to a slanted framing. Here slanted frames are deployed over a period of time. Secondly, there is ‘decision making’ bias. This examines the influence of a journalist’s beliefs/ideology on the text that she produces. Charitable scholars have labeled it as ‘heuristics’ instead of bias. This is simply omnipresent and can’t be avoided. Belief system is a prism with which anyone, let alone a journalist, sees the world. A journalist will view and write about differently on topics like naxal violence, #metoo, domestic violence or Kashmir depending on personal beliefs and experience. All news/views/content organizations deploy short cut decision rules (heuristics) to make editorial choices. This is also a means of dealing with information overload that a news organization faces. These short cuts may take the shape of ideology tinted thumb rules.
To illustrate, a reporter may feel very strongly about domestic violence and if this element is present in the mix of a situation that will colour the entire story. Johnny Depp’s story has a massive overhang of domestic violence. The allegations, which are vigorously disputed by the star, have framed the story in a major way and in both the stories Depp is seen fighting the taint with varying degree of success. GQ article has been criticized for not challenging Depp sufficiently on the charges. The article was charged of glamourizing a wife beater. This made any depiction that uses a slightly less hostile frame a challenging task. Anna Leszkiewicz Deputy culture editor at New Statesman was very clear in her disapproval of GQ handling of the Johnny Depp. She tweeted a thread against the article. That needs to be reproduced in toto to show the level of feeling that the topic raises among the informed and powerful people.
“can’t believe i have to say this @britishgq but being accused of domestic violence does not make you cool. it does not make you an “outlaw”. it does not make you a sexy, conflicted hero. it does not mean you know “torment”. it does not lead you to the “sordid beautiful truth”.
it certainly does not mean you have “looked into the Gorgon Medusa’s eyes to see for [your]self life’s savage reality”!! (a genuine quote from this piece.) it does not men you are making it your “life’s mission” to “seek truth” ?!? what is this pathetic ego massaging nonsense?
this paragraph (a disclaimer in the GQ article) is an embarrassing, feeble, attempt to distance the article from the reality of what it is: a puff piece about a man accused of hitting his wife. “i just wanted to chat with a man - a man who, by the way, brought JOY to MILLIONS, before you start your whining”
i did not expect to get genuinely upset about this today! and yet! embarrassing as it is i am!
i spent my formative teenage years basing a big chunk of my identity around this man. he was everything to me. i met him & he was kind to me: a teenager who loved him. my faith in that man was eradicated. and ppl go around gawking at his mansion like nothing happened? fuck that!
all that paragraph says (“this is not reporting! i am not trying to find out what happened! just having a chit chat w a big star!”) is that we chose moral cowardice to gain hollywood access. what a terrible look for gq.”
Ash Crossan from Entertainment Tonight tweeted “Why are we letting Johnny Depp still be a thing”.
It is plain to see, once a resonating allegation comes in play, it affects different persons differently. For Deputy Culture Editor of New Statesman, Chapter of Johnny Depp is closed. An actor who was ‘everything to her’ doesn’t have the chance to be heard, admired or to be analyzed in any other frame than that of reprehensible wife beater, a charge, to be fair, is still to be proven. Entertainment Tonight’s Crossan is not shy of appropriating the power of ruining a stellar creative career of three decades standing on the basis of these charges. Without getting into the merit of the sides involved, it is sufficient to cite this as an example where personal beliefs lead to a decision bias.
Despite its pervasive nature, it may be noted that ideology/beliefs should not be seen as the basis of all the slants in news items. Ideology or beliefs can not explain everything. To do so would be ignoring the role of external forces, specially the events and dominant trend of the time, pressure from the spin managers and internal influences from the profession. Journalistic choices are definitely influenced by the internal information processing heuristics of their organization. In fact, much of media relations is about skillfully exploiting these media decision heuristics or short cuts. In GQ article the media managers succeeded in promoting a frame favourable to the star. However, Depp’s assessment regarding Rolling Stone's decision heuristics was based on his reading of the co-founder of the magazine and his past association with the publication. What he did not calibrate was the belief system of the journalist, moral climate accentuated by #metoo, PR prowess of TMG. Furthermore, Depp’s declining box office success and rise of #metoo must have affected the decision heuristics at Rolling Stone which has made a career out of quality reporting on music scene in particular and culture in general. The publication, dealing with the wild rock scene is normally not associated with taking this conservative a stand on life style choices. But unfortunately for Depp, he misread the prevailing dynamics. And to quote Variety magazine once again “Hollywood can accept almost anything, except for failure.”
Audience-Consumer or Citizen
On the top of it all, news output is affected by two dominant ways in which the audience is perceived by the news outlets. Audience as consumers and audience as citizens. When audience is seen as consumers, need to maintain a mass base of audience takes over. Though any quality publication would avoid to cater to the lowest common denominator, quest for simplified and dramatized exposition of events will increasingly come into play. This “encourages reporters and editors to play up stories that offer stereotyped novelty- new instances of culturally resonant symbols. These properties afford the audience the pleasure of recognition and sense of understanding”. Remember framing appeals to existing and resonant cognitive patterns –Schema. In Depp’s case this was schema of ruined grandeur, or clueless fading celebrity or a wife beater (Rolling Stone ) on the one hand and stereotype of misunderstood hero or a person who is seeking to place the records straight (GQ) on the other. Rolling stone reminded us of the last days of Elvis whereas GQ focused on the lovable rogue.
Another view of the audience is as citizens. This induces a ‘watchdog bias’ in the news outlet and the journalists. This may propel a journalist to favour a person who she thinks, still has the trust of the citizens. When that trust is seen slipping, negative frames make their appearance. GQ reporter may have seen Johnny Depp as still viable figure among his fans and chose this audience segment which will get more delight in seeing hope for their icon than the segment that is looking for affirmation of their doomsday beliefs about the star as target of his piece. This watchdog bias can be seen as the basis of vehemence against domestic violence charges against Johnny Depp. This self perception of watchdog role may create a feeling of ideological neutrality but it inevitably affects the output.
Finally, While there may not be any right or wrong frame, there is a need to recognize as GQ piece has written “Perspective can be a treacherous thing. It can be hoodwinked. It can be manipulated. Perspective, after all, is inherently subjective.” There is a need to understand that any editorial output is a product of various biases and competing frames which interact with perceived facts, skills of spin managers, decisions heuristics and overall moral climate of the moment. Media managers will do well to understand the way media takes editorial decisions- their production heuristics. Similarly audience will be better off if they understand the biases that go in the journalistic output. There is no substitute of media literacy among the audience to keep the media output closer to reality- whatever that means.