Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Keeping In Touch

The world of television has been turned on its head I am told, by the Internet, a place where traditional broadcasters are threatened by free and easy access, not to the public airwaves but to people's homes by the wizardry of the Web in which we are all entangled. I am not a traditional television viewer owing I suspect to my upbringing, a constant round of moving between boarding schools and different languages and cultures of my peripatetic family. It is my cultural void in a land devoted to ogling broadcasting in its many forms.

These thoughts were prompted by a documentary I watched last week whose subject was a lawsuit brought by the world's largest shipper of fruit against these two rather unremarkable people, below, Swedes with unpronounceable names who made a movie relying on the full faith and credit of the US constitution and found themselves suddenly faced with fending off a devastating legal attack for telling a story in film about Dole of which Dole I'd not approve. Not one bit.

Fredrik Gertten director and Margarete JangÄrd producer, above contemplating being sued by Dole. They made a film telling a story of the negative effects of chemicals used by Dole on its Nicaraguan workers who apparently had the temerity to complain in the movie titled Bananas!* which was shown amid astonishing controversy at a film festival in Los Angeles. As usual Hollywood caved to the corporation and took the film out of jury competition and tried to distance themselves from a documentary "based on lies" and the whole mess went to court. The story of the fight is told in the documentary Big Boys Gone Bananas!* which is available on Netflix streaming, while the original movie is not. The Netflix model of everything instantly is as threatening to Hollywood as the Swedish documentary was to Dole and thus the Netflix library changes constantly and among the few well known titles one finds a hundred movies and TV shows that would otherwise never be seen by you and me. If you want to see the run of the mill stuff you need the patience to order discs, but that time lag is beyond the ability of most of our neighbors to manage.

So for me television is Netflix, a world of advertising-free explorations of anything I fancy available for one monthly fee of eight bucks I think, and access by disc to anything else. My colleagues mock me for being a year out of date on the plots of water cooler dramas like Dexter and Breaking Bad but because it's all fiction and advertising free I am fine with that. When we take road trips and stay in motels I flip through the cable offerings and marvel how much people pay for stuff that not only doesn't interest me but that annoys the shit out of me with idiotic, transparent appeals to my vanity or my fears in an attempt to sell me crap I don't need. I fear advertising because I know it works and thus I avoid it as much as I can. When I can't avoid it I talk back to it, a technique I learned reading Neil Postman who said arguing with the images keeps you in the real world. As a result watching broadcast television with me in the room can be rather a trial for people not used to questioning the received wisdom.

For someone who doesn't embrace change wholeheartedly Netflix and Kindle have become my staples. I read my phone anytime I am trapped in a line or in a holding pattern of any sort, at the supermarket, at the bank or in any of the daily irritations of being a 95 percenter with no servants to delegate chores to. At home I justify a movie by exercising in front of it and rejoice at the cornucopia of odd and unwieldy films I get to see as a result. On my Kindle I have rediscovered titles of books lost to me for forty years. Like so many people who live long enough I am rediscovering books of my youth and I am reading them again with the wisdom and understanding of age, such as it is. And curiosity has taught me to open the least likely titles as I have idea what treasures I might find.

This particular David versus Goliath melodrama portrayed the film makers in the positive light you might expect, and I have no love for organizations like Dole who has a history it seems like other major corporations of getting tax laws modified to suit their convenience. It takes a British muckraker to figure that out: Bananas to UK via the Channel islands.

However I rather think there was an element of fighting back at US industrial imperialism in this movie, especially when Swedish lawmakers got involved. Certainly it seems more likely that everyone in the Swedish Parliament felt moved to act because Dole is American and was thus an easy target. On the other hand the corporations efforts to silence the movie maker were not pretty. All in all I found it a worthwhile movie to watch as I exercised in my living room.

In a larger sense I find myself amazed at the connectivity of the web. There are those who recall the good old days, especially in an isolated community like Key West as the halcyon days before the outside world intruded via the electron highway. For me the Web has made living at the end of the road enjoyable. I have lived in isolated circumstances and it was not fun for someone like me who enjoys watching the world go by. As a kid I lived thirty minutes by motorcycle from the nearest news stand or movie theater, I lived in a village where television was limited and we preferred village gossip as our douce of entertainment. When I wanted yo read foreign papers or to buy books in English I had to go to Perugia an hour away or more likely to Rome two hours away to visit my cousin and buy a newspaper see a movie and talk about more than who was sleeping with whom. The idea of waking up and getting online was inconceivable. So when someone tells me old Key West was perfect I beg to differ. Indeed I chose to settle elsewhere in 1981 when Key West was as remote as where I had been living! My ability to turn on the world in print or film at will is not something I can take for granted.

That I have to order discs to get many classic movies doesn't bother me as a turn around of a few days gives me literally any movie made in my living room on a whim, thanks to the Postal Service. I am too old to take this sort of contact for granted, and Netflix assures me the ability to stream titles of which I have never heard at no particular cost and no risk. And when I am done with the dumbells I step out into the world of my choosing, into perpetual snow-free summer, just as I like it and still connected by electricity to the world at large. Frequently I am grateful for the Overseas Highway, a tenuous but viable connection to the rest of the continent even though we are far from most of it. Six hundred miles to Savannah, eight hundred to Pensacola, and sixteen hours to New Orleans, but I can have Australian newspapers delivered in millionths of a second to my lap. Amazing!

This sense of being able to connect even from somewhere as putatively "remote" as the Lower Keys is excellent, especially when snowbirds aren't around to suck up bandwidth (!) but the fortitude to turn it all off is a great thing too. Turn your back on the world from time to time...we even have NPR loud and clear these days (at 91.5) in addition to the a Web and satellite radio because we are part of the continental US, so tuning out the world, though possible is not always easy. I remember listening to NPR from Ft Myers years ago, at anchor on my boat near Christmas Tree Island and as my boat swiveled yo the breeze the signal would come and go, fading always at the critical parts of the stories...and I am not sorry that irritation is history. Yet there are times in my life when I set aside these technologies and I take my fig for a winter walk. Afterwards she settles in the shade by the car whirl I pull my folding beach chair out of the trunk and I sit back and read. Not necessarily from my beloved Kindle either. On my trips to Italy I scoop up reissued albums of the newspaper of my youth, carton strips, early versions of illustrated novels we used yo trade all summer long as kids, westerns, detective stories, soldiers and adventurers. And even today Tex Willer Texas Ranger has not gone online, so I have to buy paper copies when I go back to Italy.

In a village without much radio or reliable TV, Tex Willer was a small burst of color, of exotic places, a world outside of simple morality and instant satisfying justice, and the good guys always won.

And there it is, at our fingertips, the past, a simpler place, flip the page listen to the insects buzzing drowsy in the afternoon heat and stillness. The Internet is far away, work is later, and Cheyenne is happy to be still together for a while. And even today the weight of paper, the rustle of the page and the inconvenience of a large album are all reminders of how far technology has taken us yet how close we are to where it all began. A book of any type in your lap and a snoring dog alongside, an image that is timeless and unsullied by modernity.