The Frankenform

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Recently I’ve been reading, with great interest, what Peter Watkins has to say about the Monoform.

“the Monoform is the one single language form now used to edit and structure cinema films, TV programmes – newsbroadcasts, detective series, soap operas, comedy and ‘reality shows’, etc. – and most documentaries, almost all of which are encoded in the standardised and rigid form which had its nascence in the Hollywood cinema. The result is a language form wherein spatial fragmentation, repetitive time rhythms, constantly moving camera, rapid staccato editing, dense bombardment of sound, and lack of silence or reflective space, play a dominant and aggressive role.”


He’s provided a fascinating introduction here which goes a little more into the combination of unpredictable visual information, strong narrative steering and basic self-contained moralist storylines that create the mesmerising flicker of images that we see today.

I’ve become interested one of the more innocuous-seeming subcategories, one that is abhorrent in its duplicity; the colourful, hypnotic, high-budget forest of David Attenboroughs, hailed by many as a national institution. And with good reason! For years his shiny wildlife documentaries have been the favourites of family nights and hungover students alike, as they slid quietly from dramatised hands-on exploration into glossy sensationalism.

The more recent offerings have tended more and more towards the standardised storylines so favoured by the MAVM, an aim, a struggle, a spectacular resolution, all evidence of ubiquitous humanity carefully expunged. Despite the thick layer of polish over all of this it is easy to accept as an educational piece. Most city-dwellers have close to zero genuine interaction with wild animals any bigger than their thumb, except constant mutterings about cocky foxes and for the odd daytime viewer eyewatering shots of quivering furballs on moralistic veterinary shows. So, we can accept it in whatever form makes it the most digestible.

However, when the camera turns on humans this integral bias starts to become more jarring. The stories are of course journalistically chosen to pack out an episode of sufficiently dramatic and colourful stories, but even with a selection of the world’s most dramatic stories a certain amount of manipulation is required to make the storytelling grade. We see a person’s way of getting food, but we must hear that success at this moment is imperative in the face of towering odds, we have dramatic music, we have a moment of triumph.

The problem is, we KNOW people. We don’t buy it so readily when we’re shown a man crossing a DESPERATELY PERILOUS rope bridge from which ONE SLIP WOULD BE CERTAIN DEATH. With a moment’s reflection, we see that this man probably makes this journey every day, and none of the drama is happening in his face – only in the editing. At this moment, we begin to feel as if the story isn’t being told honestly. We live human lives with human dynamics, and we cannot feel comfortable with the atmosphere of the story as it is portrayed. Every storytelling is a reinterpretation, it is true. But part of the trust in the documentary-maker is in their sensitivity, their commitment to represent a process with the context and significance that it has to the best of their ability, and the very blind repetition of the struggle-story destroys even this illusion.

What happens next is rather unpleasant. We realise that live direct footage of a living breathing human being is being sliced up, spruced, adorned and reassembled to tell a story that is not its own. We have the Frankenform. Roland Barthes described how a cover of Paris Match, with an image of a young black boy dressed in army uniform and saluting, was used to tell the story of Modern France as a multicultural modern nation with all creeds and colours devoted to her flag. This he called the myth: one image used to tell the story of another.

It is interesting to ask how that young black boy might feel about the way that his face is used. Does he believe in that image of France? And what about the man living on a boat near the Philippines, how might he respond to seeing his story told in this way, watched between ad breaks on a comedown in a mouldy but comfortable student sitting room in Brighton? These questions for me are as blisteringly impossible to answer as that of how the story ought instead to be told, but on the other hand it feels to me essential that this dialogue be opened, and that at the very least we make an effort to make conscious and thus take responsibility for the subtle dances upon which we lead one another in the name of entertainment.

This is the image of a man used to tell a struggle against nature and his brave and inventive triumph. But, more than that, it is mesmerism, one in a string of tiny orchestrated dramas used by humans to entertain other humans whilst satisfying their need for conflicts as we dream our way through a strangely complex and unconsidered world.

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