Manhattan and Monopoly: the American press, as told by Muntadas and Bananas

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Why are people leaving the Vancouver Art Gallery pondering the same things as those who recently watched Woody Allen’s 1971 film, Bananas? Probably because the stinging satire of the American press in Bananas takes the same critical approach to the mass-media as Antoni Muntadas in his exhibit Entre/Between, recently featured at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Despite the fact that the press and media industries are not typically considered traditional art forms, the commodification of these industries has, arguably, more extensive effects than the commercialization of any other industry.

Muntadas and Allen take drastically different approaches to addressing the issue at hand, but both shed light on the gruesome effects of commodification of media industries.

 

What’s personal is public, and what’s public is personal

Muntadas’ “Personal/Public” installation featured a wall with two television screens and a chair in front of them. The first screen, labelled ‘Personal Public’, screens real-time surveillance footage of the viewer viewing the exhibit; the second screen, labelled ‘Public Personal’, shows a live local news station, complete with infomercials.

This installation reflects the paradoxical development of entertainment television: frivolous details of personal lives become public, and public ideas — fed to us through television — are internalized as an aspect of our personal lives, perpetuating a shallow, entertainment-based lifestyle.

This trend is evident in the closing scene of Bananas, as Howard Cosell, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, commentates the consummation of Fielding Mellish and Nancy’s wedding. The details of their personal lives are public, aired on ABC and viewed by the public — evidently, more intriguing than the civil war that is still taking place in San Marcos.

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The media naturalizes indifference to atrocities committed around the world

“On Translation,” one of Muntadas’ film displays, featured three screens: one screen showed magnified footage of applauding hands, the sound of cheering and clapping filling the room. Another showed an audience in theatre seats, applauding and cheering, with brief interruptions of clips of the Colombian civil war and other clips of violence, corruption and inequality.

Viewers are meant to reflect on the gruesomeness with which the media desensitizes atrocities across the globe, conditioning us to passively accept violence and inequality.

Nothing depicts this phenomenon better than the opening scene in Bananas. Again, commentator Howard Cosell helps us out: “Would you people let me through — this is American television, let me through,” he demands, making his way through a rioting crowd to the dying dictator who has just been shot; he mumbles his last few words into the microphone held by a smiling Howard Cosell.

 

Everything is Framed 

Framing is best demonstrated in a courtroom scene from Bananas, during which a witness testifies for Fielding Mellish against the state.

Witness: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve known Fielding Mellish for years and he’s a warm, wonderful human being.

Fielding Mellish: Uh, would the clerk read that statement back please?

Court Clerk: I’ve known Fielding Mellish for years and he’s a rotten, conniving, dishonest little rat. 

Fielding Mellish: Ok, I just wanted to make sure you were getting it. 

Judge: You’re out of order!

 

The message in this scene is clear: the media frames facts to resonate with its agenda, and those who fight it are simply out of order.

In Muntadas’ “Drastic Carpet,” a visual carpet of news items, headlines, and advertisements is projected on the floor, demonstrating the use of framing as a public manipulation tool.

The headlines in the slideshow are a sequence of advertisements, primarily from the 70s and 80s, promoting a range of products, all using a similar marketing technique: average and ordinary is bad, and the only way to avoid being average and ordinary is to purchase this product.

The advertisements and headlines frame the public as consumers, so the public begins to portray themselves as consumers.

This is the reality of media industries as we know them: issues of cultural and political significance are replaced with violent atrocities and frivolous details. Commodification of cultural industries at its finest.

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