Guest Post: Eyeing Up ‘Net Privacy

The Simpsons, Thomas Pynchon

The following is a great article on artistic discussions of the deep web, online privacy, social responsibility, and more, courtesy of UK-based reader Patrick Massey. I found this fascinating, worrying, and enlightening in equal parts, and I hope you experience some mix of those three things as well. Take it away, Patrick.

A “Marco Polo” of the contemporary public sphere: “Internet” and “privacy.” The two phenomena are often yoked together in the news: the various problems of data access (who should be denied it? Whose data should be sacrosanct? What justifies access sub rosa?) swap pre-eminence in public consciousness as the Big Three of ‘net privacy–Snowden, Assange, Manning–swap the limelight. (In this essay, “‘net” refers to both the readily accessible surface Web, typically but carelessly referred to as “the Internet,” hence my coining an alternative term— and the Deep Web, the Internet’s large, largely criminal underbelly.)

In this essay, I want to consider how, not the news, but contemporary visual culture (i.e. screen and theatre of 2013/4) visualizes and/or fails to visualize ‘net privacy. I hope to address familiar issues of ‘net privacy via less familiar co-ordinates. Of course, William Gibson and other genre authors have been addressing cyber-issues, crafting cyber-aesthetics for years; but here I’m thinking of a) the real world ‘net in b) mainstream works of c) the last two years.

SCREEN MEDIA, and The ‘Net/Screen Problem

Documentaries aside (though cf. Terms and Conditions May Apply, Citizen Four), Internet privacy is surprisingly scantly treated in ‘13/4 screen culture. The two so bracketed, ‘net-oriented films I remember most readily–Her and Transcendence–privilege online addiction and a deus ex machina Johnny Depp over issues of ‘net privacy. Even Assange bio The Fifth Estate is more reportage, a primer on its subject and Wikileaks, than a meditation on abstractions or themes (and even then, Assange’s relationship to the media is privileged over ‘net privacy).

In mainstream C21 cinema in sum, ‘net privacy is principally a means to emotive ends. In Hard Candy, Chatroom, and Trust, the abuse of ‘net privacy does not itself merit attention–rather, it enables plot-wise the kidnaps et al that define and rather pre-occupy those thrillers. Even in the Catfish franchise [’10 film + current MTV series], any interrogation of ‘net privacy abuse is suborned to affect: to first terror (“who are these people?”), then horror (“look at those people!”). Although Catfish et al can be, indeed have been starting-points for discussing ‘net privacy, that discussion doesn’t happen in the films themselves.

Such scanty treatment of ‘net privacy on screen owes not only, I think, to auteurs’ simply “not having got round to it”, but also to a fundamental, broader disjunction between the ‘net and screen media. The ‘net does not readily lend itself to concrete visualization. One must get figurative, experimental; but screen media tend towards “meatspatial” settings— realities, however fantastical or futuristic. Consider Star Trek’s holodeck: always a real-world milieu, often Earth-historical, never a Tron-scape. Consider too the recent backdoor pilot for CSI Cyber: introducing a series oriented around the Deep Web, yet resorting latterly to “Female (Early 20s)” showing hard copy evidence of her online chat-room ignominy to meatspatial paparazzi in a meatspatial VEGAS: EXT.

Star Trek, Holodeck

I might suggest three reasons for this disjunction. First, the chokehold of corporate network funding and the likelier non-profitability of experimentalism [versus the realism that characterizes the “New Golden Age” of television]; the desire to fully exploit and justify investment in physical sets; and third (and still more tentatively proffered), the Internet’s being TV and film’s unheimlich, uncanny counterpart, perhaps frustrating the interrogation of the former by the latter… Heady stuff. But the bottom line for us is: if the Internet in sum cannot find a screen aesthetic, what hope for its clandestine, its even less readily visualized cyberspaces? And what hope consequently for addressing ‘net privacy?

Happily, ‘net privacy has been better visualized in theatre of ‘13/4— a medium naturally more amenable to the figurative and the experimental.

THEATRE, and Romancing the ‘Net

In The Net Effect, Thomas Streeter posits romanticism as a key co-ordinate in ‘net studies. He primarily argues that neoliberal forces propagate a romantic individualist idea of computing, and that “capital R” Romanticism can help us understand the social meaning of computers.

With this precedent in mind, I turn to ‘net privacy in theatre of ‘13/4. All the plays I’m going to consider deal with perversions, criminal iterations of ‘net privacy. But none less than Keats was ‘half in love with death’; and however perverse their content gets, these plays evince, if not a Romantic aesthetic per se, then something sufficiently akin that I’m going to draw formal Romantic parallels and beg your indulgence.

Jen Haley’s The Nether deals with online pederasty in a private “Hideaway” [Haley’s device]. In fashioning the Hideaway, Haley eschews a complementarily grimy, abject aesthetic for irony: it is an archetypal country estate, with trees, gazebo, and fishing-pond. Notwithstanding its nominally Victorian context, a Romantic aesthetic— Blakeian innocence, a “Lakeland Poetic” idealizing of Nature— surely underpins a milieu that presents like this:

The Nether, The Hideaway

Blakeian also is Iris, the Hideaway’s resident, white-clad sprite–and “willing” victim of virtual child abuse. Innocent prima facie, but horribly au fait with abhorrent experience (“Perhaps you’d like to use the axe first”): Iris embodies the disjunction that hinges Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Note finally how, according to its creator, “it’d upset a balance” in the Hideaway to suggest that Iris could grow older: anyone whose mind went to the Romantic organic conception of nature, give yourself a mark.

Price’s Teh [sic] Internet is Serious Business is a reportage piece about the respective rise and fall of the “hacktivist” groups Anonymous and LulzSec. Its dominant aesthetic is anarchic: a ball pit abuts the stage, from and around which emerge Socially Awkward Penguin and other costumed memes. Bright lights, Harlem Shake: you get the drift. At first sight, privacy is not the word here. But Price also depicts hackers’ private forums— and here, the staging tends towards lyricism. Computer code is recited as poetry (cf. Chandra’s recent equivalence of the two, if intrigued); databyte flow, enacted as dance. Here, literarily and physically, is a lyricism where elsewhere is jouissance: thus is privacy “Romanticized” (cf. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Dvorak’s New World Symphony…).

James Graham’s Privacy tacks otherwise to Haley and Price. Graham’s is a synoptic approach to ‘net privacy, a condemnation of illiberal governmental/corporate/ security state malpractice as regards ostensibly password-protected public data. Such factuality is not the Romantic way, likewise Privacy’s format: a hybrid of verbatim enactments of his [The Writer’s] interviews with real British Establishment figures (Shami Chakrabarti, anyone? Well, Google her sometime); lectures; and fourth-wall—breaking audience participation. For good measure, Privacy rides roughshod over the Romantic exaltation of the subject: an array of thumbprints is the default [screen] backdrop, and the “subject” of the audience participation (having given prior permission) has her real-world online footprint, herself by proxy dissected onstage.

Privacy, James Graham

Despite all this, Privacy retains a double pertinence. First, it acts as a counter-proof: as its core is non-Romantic, so Privacy does not depict privacy itself [cf. Haley’s Hideaway, Price’s hackers’ forums] but exposes, is an exposé of its absence. Second, its aesthetic rather taps into the “other end” of Romanticism, where rapturous apostrophes fade into disquiet, into sublimity: the awesome dimensions of Big Data, the staging [that screen, those magnified thumbprints] vis-à-vis the actors and the script’s analytical impulse.

So: 2 1/2 proofs and a counter-proof, we might say, of a relationship between ‘net privacy and a quasi-Romantic aesthetic. My humble explanation: that the ‘net (especially the Deep Web) remains so broadly un-comprehended, its depth so untapped, as to inspire from us what “the naked countenance of Earth” [Shelley] inspired from the Romantics.

PYNCHON: A Quick Nota Bene

In another world, where space and time were as playthings, I’d fully discuss Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge: the only “literary” fictional novel that readily comes to mind that not only foreground ‘net privacy as a theme, but actually figures it as a distinct, visualized cyberspace–DeepArcher; conceived of as a ‘grand-scale motel for the afflicted’, for Pynchon’s kindred preterite [cf. Gravity’s Rainbow, or Google judiciously]; variously iterated as train concourse, desert, and galactic Void; and ultimately a Purgatory for leads, lovers, and 9/11 victims all encountered (and killed off) in the narrative. (On a complementary note for that latter point: Kabbalistic imagery and lexis is deployed in descriptions of the Void). Would I could share my MA dissertation with you all; but I’ll highlight simply this: doing what even screen media cannot (at least easily), and in keeping with his typical trickster mode, Pynchon visualizes ‘net privacy chimerically; that one cannot identify a definitive DA-scape is the whole point. A nicely postmodern note, I hope, on which to finish considering contemporary cultural visualizations of the ‘net.

Guest Post: Three Faces of Willy Wonka

As you folks know I’m pretty discerning when it comes to guest posts, but the slowness of new content and my undying love of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came together to convince me that this was one worth posting. Please welcome David Gerrard on behalf of, with his look at differing interpretations of a timeless character, as we look forward to the premiere of the stage version in May. Speaking of which, if anyone does go to see it, let me know…I’d love to host a review.

For the past 50 years, Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and The Chocolate Factory has been a regular and beloved fixture on both our bookshelves and cinema screens. With two film adaptations under its belt, every recent generation has experienced the eccentric joys of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and the highs and lows of Charlie’s peculiar moral journey.

Wonka himself has been depicted by the likes of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp with varying levels of intensity and the character has, at times, greatly deviated from Dahl’s original portrayal. As we prepare for the release of a forthcoming musical, it will be interesting to see how the next incarnation of the idiosyncratic chocolatier unfolds and how the production as a whole is viewed in light of the source material.

Released in 1971 and directed by prolific documentary filmmaker Mel Stuart, the original film screenplay was actually penned by Roald Dahl himself but tweaks from The Omen writer David Seltzer left Dahl with a bitter taste in his mouth. Unimpressed by the finished product Dahl felt that it focused too much on Willy Wonka and gave Charlie a backseat, a fact reflected in the modified title which replaced Charlie’s name with Wonka’s.

Furthermore Dahl was not happy with the studio’s choice of Gene Wilder as Wonka, instead stating that he would have preferred comedian Spike Milligan.

Despite Dahl’s reaction, Wilder’s performance is often hailed as brilliant, and his droll eccentricity coupled with a suspicious edge is perfectly pitched. Possibly the definitive Wonka for many of us, he is most famous for the entrance where he hobbles in with the assistance of a cane which he drops and then feigns falling forward before launching himself into a forward roll. Wilder decided on the inclusion of this particular sequence so that he could instil a feeling of uncertainty in the audience. No-one would know whether he was lying or telling the truth, emphasising the slightly off-kilter nature of Wonka’s character.

The critical reception of the film was quite positive — although this praise was not reflected in the box office figures, where it took a mere $4m. During the 1980s however it picked up momentum on television as a Christmas holiday staple and has enjoyed considerable success in home video and DVD sales ever since. The current IMDB rating of the film stands at a respectable 7.8 out of 10, while the critics rate it 89% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes.

After Stuart’s effort, Dahl repeatedly blocked further attempts to make another film. Following his death in 1990 however, Felicity Dahl became the protector of his literary legacy and in 1996 she began plans for a new adaptation. Various directors, screenwriters and actors were linked with the project including Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey but it ultimately emerged that Tim Burton would direct the project and Johnny Depp would be on board as Willy Wonka. Given their joint cinematic history and distinctive style, they seemed like an ideal choice.

Endowed with a $150m budget, 50 times larger than the 1971 version, $17.5m was handed to Depp for the lead role which left Burton with over $130m to create his vision of the chocolate factory. His intention was to make a darker film than the 1971 version, more in line with the original novel. He also took on board Dahl’s complaints about Willy Wonka being the centre of the story in Stuart’s version, making sure that Charlie didn’t blend into the background. He recruited John August, the screenwriter behind Big Fish, imploring him to “go to the roots of the book” and add “a little bit of psychological foundation, so that Willy Wonka’s not just ‘this guy,’” as he later recounted in Burton on Burton.

Received with more consumer enthusiasm than the first adaptation, it took an impressive $475m at the box office placing it just out of the top 100 highest grossing films of all-time. Although the critical response was largely positive some reviewers criticised Depp’s performance, with Matt Doedon in his book Johnny Depp: Hollywood Rebel dubbing it not “kooky, funny, eccentric or even mildly interesting.” Noel Brown in The Hollywood Family Film described it as “uncomfortable, almost distastefully weird.”

Many cited an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson in both appearance and manner, cementing the portrayal as less eccentric and enigmatic than Wilder’s characterisation and situating it in an altogether creepier and more suspicious camp. It could however be argued that this is much more in line with the source material which, despite being hailed as children’s classic, is sometimes derided as insensitive and inappropriate. The Oompa Loompas in the novel were, for example, originally black pygmies, a detail modified in later editions.

The latest instalment in the saga is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical due to open for previews at the London Palladium in May next year. Directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes of American Beauty and recent Skyfall fame, and featuring songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the duo behind Hairspray The Musical, Smash and Catch Me If You Can, it’s got a lot of talent behind it.

Following in the footsteps of Depp and Wilder is Tony and Olivier award-winning actor Douglas Hodges. The focus on Hodges as Willy Wonka and the lack of announcements regarding the remainder of the cast, particularly Charlie, is an indication that the musical will have a focal point similar to the first film. Of the forthcoming role Hodges told The Daily Telegraph that his take on Wonka would take the form of “a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Dali,” which conjures images of flawed genius colliding with a streak of the wildly surreal.

Additionally, unlike Depp in the run up to his own performance, Hodges does not seem to consider the influence of previous adaptations, instead seeing the part as fresh and untouched within his own genre. “Part of the thrill for me is that it’s brand new,” he explains. “No one’s ever heard the songs before. Shows like Guys and Dolls are brilliant, but you’re doing stuff that’s already been done. So to have something that’s a clean slate is great.” Stage is obviously an entirely different medium to film and Hodges will surely add his own genius to the role, but how his own interpretation of Wonka fares in comparison to those of Depp and Wilder remains to be seen.

Not the first Dahl novel to make it to the stage, Matilda the Musical has been hugely successful, The Witches was adapted for the stage and Fantastic Mr. Fox was also adapted as an opera. Dahl’s weird and wonderful tales have consistently made for engaging on-stage experiences.

Of course, we can only guess what Dahl would have thought of the musical but considering his sweeping hatred of the first adaptation and the indication that it may take a similar focus, it’s fair to assume he would have not taken to it with a particularly warm demeanour.

He did have a tendency to be quite hostile to most adaptations, once calling Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches “utterly appalling”. Despite this, with stage heavyweights like Mendes, Shaiman, Wittman and Hodges behind it, there’s little doubt that it will be both a visual spectacle and musical triumph. How they decide to construct Willy Wonka’s infamous chocolate river will be worth the ticket price alone.

Review: The Book of Mormon

My girlfriend was kind enough — and lucky enough, but mainly kind enough — to get us to tickets to see The Book of Mormon on opening night here in Denver. I was unquestionably excited when she got the tickets, but if she hadn’t been able to get them, I wouldn’t really have felt disappointed.

After all…it’s The Book of Mormon. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are absolutely talented individuals — as well as genuinely gifted showmen — so I knew it’d be fun to watch, but the subject matter sort of rubbed me the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that I’m insulted that they’d poke fun at a religion of any kind. After all, South Park‘s been doing it for years. That, however, was the root of my concern: South Park‘s been doing it for years. Matt and Trey already have an outlet for this and, what’s more, I’ve seen it. Many times over.

Top that off with the fact that they’ve let Mormonism have it several times already. “All About Mormons” is the most obvious example in South Park, and they’ve spat barbs at the Latter-Day Saints in many other episodes as well. Orgasmo mined pretty much every joke it had from the mismatch of Mormonism and the porn industry. And now this. I’m not one to cry “bully” very often, but I was confused about their motives for returning so many times to the same well. It seemed almost…mean.

Having seen the play, I think I now understand it. Matt and Trey don’t pick on Mormons because they want to upset them, or because they dislike them, or anything along those lines. They pick on them because, in their minds, Mormons are the religious equivalent of a bad horror film. In Mormonism, they feel, the acting is bad, the story is full of holes, and the set pieces are unconvincing. And that’s exactly why they love it.

There’s a level of inescapable affection for the religion, even though they’re quick to point out the problems with it. “All About Mormons” was relentless in its criticism of Latter-Day Saints history, but in the present day Matt and Trey had nothing but good things to say about the actual family of believers. They didn’t turn their Mormon characters into strawmen; they portrayed them as good people who were polite, family-oriented, and community-minded. That’s all good. The undercurrents of their belief system may not hold up under scrutiny, but “All About Mormons” suggested that it didn’t have to. If it made you happy, and if — in whatever way — it made you a good person, then that wasn’t a bad thing. It may not be a factually sound thing, but it wasn’t a bad thing.

The Book of Mormon, perhaps to avoid overlap with that episode, is willing to explore the other side. While “All About Mormons” painted a portrait of good people living a selfless life, The Book of Mormon shows us the passive self-righteousness and willful delusion that may be inherent in such a lifestyle. This could be taken as insulting by actual Mormons, I guess, but in order to be insulted they’d have to block out a substantial portion of the play — say, all of it — as Matt and Trey are careful to put all of the worst things into the mouths of two main characters who emphatically are not meant to represent the religion as a whole.

These two characters are Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Elder Price comes across as a young man who doesn’t feel he has anything to learn. He not only knows it all, he’s mastered it all, and is also capable of teaching it all. In fact, he deserves to have it all. He is, he’s convinced, the rightful center of everything, as exemplified by the early musical highlight “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

Elder Price’s issues are his own, and not endemic to the rest of the Elders and Sisters we meet throughout the course of the play. In a word, Matt and Trey are satirizing Elder Price’s psychology far, far moreso than they are his religion.

Elder Cunningham is Elder Price’s opposite in every way. Squat and dumpy, boisterous and lacking confidence, it’s Cunningham’s journey that really resonates. Elder Price, as you might expect, must learn humility. Elder Cunningham on the other hand has a more complicated role: he’s prone to fabrications, and is unfamiliar with the contents of The Book of Mormon. It’s not a spoiler to say that these things will come into play together during the course of the evening…it’s downright essential that that happens. But when it does, it happens in a way that’s both hilarious and oddly moving.

Price and Cunningham are paired up in the Missionary Training Center, and sent to Uganda…the first (and second) of many disappointments for Elder Price. There they find themselves immersed in a culture they neither understand nor wish to understand. After all, they are there to spread their gospel, not to take anything home in return. The play really does write itself from here, and in a narrative sense there’s very little in the way of surprise. In a comedic sense, however, it’s positively bursting, so I won’t ruin any (or many) of the jokes by repeating them here.

The comedy, as you might expect, is where The Book of Mormon shines. The music, of course, is as brilliant as well. The aforementioned “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” is a rightful earworm, but the crowning achievement has got to be “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” based on an expression the Ugandans repeat to help their through their troubled times. (“Does it mean no worries for the rest of your days?” asks Elder Cunningham. His guide’s response: “Erm…kind of.”)

There’s also the insightfully pornographic thump of “Baptize Me,” which is a one-joke song that spirals gorgeously out of control, and the instantly unforgettable “Turn it Off,” sung by a chorus of missionaries. It’s this song that introduces the play’s truly greatest accomplishment, Elder McKinley. McKinley’s repressed homosexuality never becomes so overt that it loses its edge, and it also gives the character a genuine sense of sad humanity. Elders Price and Cunningham may both have issues bubbling below the surface, but Elder McKinley seems like he’s dead inside, that his soul has been smothered by a lifetime of fighting the truth of who he really is. The actor who played McKinley, Grey Henson, received the loudest applause of the curtain call, and that was well deserved. He found the heart beneath the comedy, but never let the comedy drop. He’s absolutely this play’s buried treasure, and wears a hollow smile like very few actors can.

As Elder Price, Gavin Creel had absolutely the right amount of smarm and superiority, but his role, unfortunately, never gets much more complicated than that. Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham has a lot more to work with, especially as he unknowingly delivers what may be considered the moral of The Book of Mormon: there is real benefit to having a comforting fiction.

And that seems to be what Matt and Trey are saying here. South Park has always had a moral center, as outlandish and sometimes brutal as its comedy can get. And in The Book of Mormon, though we’re always being asked to laugh, they can’t help but develop a solid, redeeming theme for the characters and the audience alike: it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as it makes you a good person.

What you believe may make you look foolish. What you believe may be an obviously lie constructed on the fly by somebody who knew what you wanted to hear. What you believe may be a silly assortment of unrelated fables that never quite connect and will eventually form the basis of a mocking, irreverent musical.

But if it makes you a good person, keep on believing it. Because we need more good people, and we need to do less worrying about how they got that way.

Check it out if you get the chance to see it. And if you do see it, I’d love to know what you think.