Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 2: Beyond the Valley of the Clueless

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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I want to return to this question of networks, and awareness of what is out there, from online Buffy fandom, to the streaming services’ cornucopia, to the grey market trading in unlicensed material. How do you map the television landscape? 

Mainstream content providers are locked into a framework which is colonial. It consists of a set of privileged spaces which generate and export content for the rest of the world – both as a capitalist endeavour but also to establish certain values and norms.

In the age of subscription streaming, you enrol into the system, you accept that you’re its subject; you play by capitalist rules as you subscribe, you accept that they’ll tell you: “This is what comedy looks like, this is what drama looks like, this is what sexy looks like…”?

Part of the intent is to share a set of cultural values and assumptions that make the environment more hospitable to the content provider. One of those assumptions is that there is a homogenous nation of television watchers. Yet in every corner of the world, we’re way beyond that kind of homogeneity; we understand that the nation is an imposition. Its boundaries are permeable, it’s filled with diverse and ill-fitting and resistant elements.  

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Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 1: Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood.

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A few years back, you wrote about “the myth of televisual ubiquity”, this notion that despite the sense that television is abundant and easily available worldwide now, there are still barriers, restrictions, and friction when it comes to global access to television. The “tyranny of distance” still applies thanks to national borders, licensing deals, and the assumptions made by content providers about what kinds of show people want to watch.

What does that look like in 2021?

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Closing the loop

It’s the last of three pieces about films and time. There were some words about visions of an endlessly repeating day; some words about the immeasurable season of grief; and finally, some words on breaking the cycle – or closing the loop.

At the beginning of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (2018), a woman wakes in her car beneath an L.A. underpass. With the shuffling gait of the walking dead, she heads to the concrete banks of a storm drain, where a crime scene has been established. The detectives already present are dismayed at her arrival. “This is handled,” they tell her – but the woman, their colleague, insists on knowing the details.

A man has been shot – his blood has run into the drain and is darkening in the light of a perfect California day. There are stolen bills, stained purple from a dye pack, pinned beneath the body, and a distinctive tattoo of three fat black dots on the back of the victim’s neck.

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A discomfort watch

“What was the question?”

The opening line of Russell Harbaugh’s 2018 film Love After Love lets you know that this movie isn’t going to lead you by the hand. It starts as if you’ve just come back to yourself after drifting away from a conversation. You’ll be left to work out what is going on, who is related to whom and how; even the amount of time that has passed between scenes is left as a matter of conjecture.

Family patriarch Glenn is in the opening scenes, raspy-voiced but hearty at a family gathering; then he is in bed, struggling to breathe, and in the bathroom, with his two adult sons struggling to lower him onto the toilet and his wife tugging his pants down to his ankles; then he is gone and the men from the funeral home are clattering the gurney as they transfer him from the bed in which he has passed away.

His death comes a fifth of the way into this ninety minute film, but it’s the stone, cast in a pond, whose ripples we’ll be watching for the remaining duration. If last week, we talked about Groundhog Day and other fantasies of endless repetition, here Love After Love reminds us that the world doesn’t solely run on hours, days, months, and years. There are other ways to mark life’s pace, and other kinds of endlessness, like the time in which someone close to you is irrevocably gone. You might not be able to say how much of the calendar this movie covers, yet it clearly takes place almost entirely within one season: the season of grief.

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Travel to the other side of life

“We’ve been holed up in the apartment for a few weeks now.” In April last year, we’d just eased into our first lockdown, barely beginning to bite.

Normally, hiking would be the escape. Hills, cliffs, mountains, woods. A few trees in the nearby city park had to be enough. Within it, there’s just one spot where the branches meet enough to interrupt the sun, dappling the dirt where dogs dig, and shit, and scramble, and prevent the grass from ever growing over.

So the first attempt to get away was a landscape by proxy: reading, and writing about, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a strange, nervy Thirties thriller whose hero is pursued across pre-war Europe to a bolthole in the Dorset countryside.

Almost a year on and those well-written hills don’t offer the same respite, yet getting to real ones remains out of the question.

Over months, we have folded ourselves into new configurations, adapting to circumstances; lost ourselves in work, music, cookery, calls with friends, new books, old books, a little TV but perhaps not as much as everyone might expect. Movies, though, certainly; always.

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