All posts by Ben Jacobs

NY Times: American citizen is charged with terrorism after posting youtube videos from Syria

This is an interesting article about Eric Harroun, an American citizen who went to Syria to fight alongside an opposition coalition that the United States supports. Harroun was discharged from the US Army and soon found work driving wealthy arab travelers around California. He made many friends this way and was soon invited to visit these individuals in their home countries. He grew a fondness for the culture and for the issues that are taking place in the Middle East. After some time, his views escalated and he found himself fighting along side the Free Syrian Army, which is a group supported by the United States. However, he became separated from his platoon and ended up with another oppositional force.  This force was not on the US list of terrorist organizations, but there was some confusion about which exact group he was fighting with.

As far as how this relates to our discussion of social media, Harroun would regularly upload to YouTube footage of him and his fellow soldiers fighting. These videos helped US federal agents form a case against him, as he was seen firing various weapons and overtaking opposing militant groups. YouTube video’s have become powerful propaganda tools for these sorts of militants, as they will regularly upload videos that show them winning firefights and destroying other groups’ weaponry. Even for non-terrorist groups, YouTube provides a platform for groups to brag about their victories and showcase their success. On the other hand, for extremist groups such as ISIS other user-sourced video platforms have allowed them to upload gruesome videos of them murdering and torturing their opponents. These videos have had a strong influence in the media over the past year, as several American citizens have been decapitated on video that has been sent around the world. In an age where technology is becoming increasingly available and less-costly, we are beginning to see how once innocuous platforms (such as YouTube and Facebook) can be used for new purposes. Who would have thought that extremist terror groups would be using twitter, Facebook and YouTube to further their efforts.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

This film helped to tie together our ongoing discussion about the role that media plays in our everyday lives. Although it focused primarily on the profound influence of advertising in media (and less so the innate biases of news reporting), it still arrives at some noteworthy and valuable conclusions. Spurlock is able to elucidate some of the cloaked activities that result from companies’ desires to advertise and manipulate their public personas. As consumers, many of us are aware that advertising has an affect on the products we choose to buy; we may understand that targeted advertising or subversive tactics have a subconscious effect. However, the fact that Spurlock was successful in his effort to fund a film in this atypical manor provides a concrete example of the power of advertising. Companies were quick to shell out hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars, just to have their products showcased in his film. Furthermore, I would have to assume that the amount of money Spurlock received was minute compared to more high-stakes advertising deals. Its fascinating, and somewhat frightening, to think of how much money changes hands before a popular televised event, such as the Super Bowl.  Even small plots of advertising space on the side of the Super Bowl stadium are extremely expensive. The assumption is that some viewers will see a product advertisement while watching the game and be more inclined to buy the product at a later time.

The most important take away from these reflections is that awareness of a given phenomenon does not equate to one’s ability to remove themselves from its influence. That is to say,  even though we can acknowledge that advertising is meant to elicit subconscious effects which will induce us to make certain purchases, this does not mean that one can entirely shield themselves from these influences. In fact, if one feels that they possess the knowledge to remain unaffected by advertising tactics, they may be more-easily manipulated. A false sense of confidence or superiority can lead to complacence and over-confidence. Surely advertising firms are aware of the fact that many consumers wish to avoid being manipulated by advertising. However, advertising firms spend a great deal of time and resources in order to understand consumer psychology. There are so many variables that go into creating an effective ad (color scheme, music, brand image, cinematography, etc.) that its quite difficult to identify which brands we truly favor and which brands we have been coerced into liking. In any case, The Greatest Film Ever Sold helps to uncover some of these processes and is a testament to the power and influence of advertising and marketing.

As a final point, Spurlock’s many interactions with executives, as he pitches his idea for this film are also valuable. Whether you are a film major, an econ. major or an engineer, there is great value in being able to persuade others that your ideas are worthwhile. Spurlock’s persuasive abilities are impressive; he is also very persistent. These are two values that are necessary precursors to success, in any field. Whether you hope to make popular films or you wish to create your own small business, you must be able to frame your idea in an appealing manor to attract investors or customers. Most people would have trouble even getting appointments with the companies presented in this film. Although Spurlock likely has good connections from his previous experience as documentary filmmaker (his film Supersize Me was very popular) he still demonstrates keen persuasive abilities. The value of an idea must be supported by one’s ability to present that idea in a favorable light.

The Hunting Ground

After screening the hunting ground, there were a few things that struck me.

One thing that both surprised and frustrated me was the lack of action taken by the colleges to punish sex offenders. This is an issue that I think many people are already well-aware of. However, the film’s use of personal interviews to propel the narrative really highlighted the extent of this problem. If we take a step back, its important to acknowledge that colleges are revenue-generating institutions; they are just like any other business. Its easy to view prestigious schools through a more naive lens, to assume that they will favor due process and punish those who harm others on their campuses. Unfortunately, because schools are economically-motivated, they have a vested interest in maintaining a favorable public image. This allows them to attract more students, and to appease parents who want the absolute best for their children. Each additional student will happily hand over an additional thirty to sixty thousand dollars a year for the opportunity to get a degree at a respected school. Clearly, many schools value the preservation of their public image more than they care about pursing legal action against sex offenders.

There are certainly inherent flaws within the system of higher-education. Its extremely difficult to combat these kinds of issues as long a colleges acts like any other business, which they will undoubtedly continue to do. Furthermore, like any illegal or deviant behavior, such as drug use and violence, sexual abuse has existed in human society for thousands of years. Just as schools cannot eradicate drinking or drug use, sexual abuse (which is a supremely atrocious activity) is hard to combat. Its nearly impossible to screen against abusive individuals before they decide to act. Just like with drug usage, motivated individuals will find a way to act upon their desires. We also know that the excessive partying and alcohol consumption on college campuses means that sexual crimes are easy to carry out.

I don’t really have any profound insights regarding the problem of sexual abuse on college campuses, other than acknowledging that it is a serious issue, one which will take significant policy changes and systemic alterations to eradicate.

The Importance of Sound in Film, Media, and Society

Steven Johnson’s article on sound helps to demonstrate the importance of sound in film and media. Johnson’s writing explores the history of sound technology and the role that different advancements have played in shaping society. Through this holistic approach, we can more thoroughly understand why sound is such a paramount aspect of film. It was interesting to read that when sound was initially introduced to film, it was seen as a sort of corrupting influence that devalued the experience. This sharply contrasts with the usage of sound in today’s media, where the viewer’s relationship with a film is forcefully guided by the sound tracks that accompany the film’s visual elements. Johnson describes the history of the first radio devices and how they were ill-suited for transmitting opera music, but were able to play jazz music with considerable efficacy. His explanation of the radio’s influence on making jazz music more readily available is quite striking. The idea that the radio allowed for the injection of jazz music into US households, which resulted in an increased appreciation for the black community from white citizens, is quite noteworthy. The article goes on to explain how jazz was instrumental in dissolving racial barriers between whites and blacks by allowing them to bond over their mutual appreciation of jazz music. This example illustrates human’s inherent attraction to sound, as well as their primal inclination to be affected by sounds which they find to be moving.

These examples can be applied back to sound in the context of film. As a class, we watched some of the many ways that sounds can be generated for a film with various household items. It was surprising to see that many of the sounds in the advanced animated film Wall-E were not generated by computers, but were made using common items like springs and other noise making devices. The fact that these sounds are still generated by analogue means speaks to the importance of having a realistic and relatable soundtrack. Wall-E’s directors explained that the importance of sound was central to their film, as there was no spoken dialogue. Each of the character’s squeaks and bodily adjustments had to convey some sort of emotion that would normally be accomplished with dialogue. When studying film and media, its easy to focus on cinematography, themes, and acting techniques. However, sound is such a central aspect of human perception that a well-orchestrated soundtrack almost accomplished more by being not noticed. Realistic sounds are taken for granted in that they align effectively with a film’s visuals to realistically portray what is occurring on screen.

Despite extraordinary advances in film and audio technology, many aspects of film soundtracks are added in during the editing process. Sometimes a microphone’s recording of a car driving off is less favorable than a sound that is added in post-production. This is very interesting, as many of the sounds we experience in films are not accurate. An example of this would be the prevalence of tire screeching whenever a character gets in a car and drives off in a hurry. Its noteworthy that sound engineers play such an interesting role in mediating our perceptions of a film through their tactful application of sound effects.

Satire and Media: Promoting Social Awareness Through Humor

In Justin Simien’s presentation regarding his film “Dear White People,” he remarked on the role that satire played in furthering the message of his film. It was interesting to hear his beliefs regarding the use of satire in addressing social issues. In the informal question and answer session, it was discussed how satire is an important tool, one that can make volatile topics such as race more accessible to a wider audience.

This notion is backed up by a few historical parallels that I wanted to point out. An interesting anecdote that relates to the force of satire can be seen in the  decline of dueling in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dueling was a means of settling disputes in England and Continental Europe. It also existed in the early days of the United States. It was based on a code of honor, and revolved around a participant’s desire to “gain satisfaction” and restore one’s honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life. However, this practice began an irreversible decline by around the time of the civil war. This decline occurred, not because of legislation, but because of public opinion. Cartoons and news articles began to mock the unnecessarily violent practice.

Benjamin Franklin denounced the activity as unnecessarily violent and George Washington encouraged his officers to abstain from dueling. As the historian William Oliver Stevens put it: “Solemn gentlemen went to the field of honor only to be laughed at by the younger generation; that was more than any custom, no matter how sanctified by tradition, could endure.”

Satirists of the time furthered these critiques of dueling in their literary works. Political cartoons enjoyed poking fun at the activity by depicting pictures of lavishly dressed men wielding oversized pistols as they carried out an elaborate ritual to fight for their honor. This seemed to contrast the masculine nature of the activity with the excessive, almost feminine, theatrics with which it was associated.

I thought that this anecdote related to Justin Simien’s usage of satire to address to topic of racism in modern society. Its sensible that humor can be an effective vehicle with which to highlight absurdities in the world around us. Similarly, satirical portraits of Hitler in Nazi Germany were also used to undermine the absurdities of his beliefs. This served unify those who disagreed with his inhuman political ideologies.

The idea of a ‘post racial society’ is contested by many. America and other countries straddle an ambiguous and uncomfortable line; a line where legislation asserts equality for all while social beliefs and practices continue contradict what is professed to be a societal colorblindness. By confronting these issues more directly, a satirical critique allows an audience to witness the absurdity of certain view points.

Media and Terrorism

We’ve been discussing the importance of media as a form of accessible communication that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. I wanted to address the topic of media being used as a form of terrorism. In the past few months ISIS has been releasing a slew of videos showing the killing of captured American, British and Japanese citizens. These videos have become increasingly professional in the way that they are edited and produced. In a recent video release from ISIS, where they light a captured pilot on fire inside of a cage, the editing shown is of noteworthy sophistication. There are multiple fades and cuts that correspond to the sound track, along with subtitles and captions and other filming techniques. This illustrates the readily accessible nature of modern media, as well as the ease with which this kind of viral terrorist video can be spread.

We like to think that people willing to commit such disgusting, inhuman acts are primitive and unintelligent. It helps us come to terms with the fact that humans can carry out such atrocities on one another. Surely ISIS and similar organizations are blinded by their misguided efforts to follow their religion, as well as the inherently hateful nature of what they believe is a correct interpretation of Islam. However, these recent video releases suggest the opposite. They appear much more sophisticated than the average youtube video made on iMovie. I’m sure that with practice this kind of filming is accessible to anyone who is sufficiently motivated. At the same time, however, the more recent videos have been reminiscent of popular action movies in their somewhat sophisticated filming and editing techniques. Now that we are in a world that is connected by the internet, acts of terrorism such as these are likely to become more prevalent. Nations attempting to extinguish organizations like ISIS will have to create new strategies to combat a generation of terrorists who are using Facebook and YouTube alongside their violent acts of terrorism and radicalized political agendas.

The Role of Film in Promoting Social Change

In an interview about his film Do the Right Thing [Lee, 1989], Spike Lee made some interesting points regarding both the criticism his film received and the film’s relevance in today’s society. He explained how many critics seemed to misinterpret the message of his film, with their remarks often reflecting racist views. This also gives us the chance to take note of the important role that media can play publicizing important social questions in an accessible medium. Lee had a lot to say about the misguided criticisms that followed the release of Do the Right Thing. Critics seemed to ignore much of the film’s important social commentary about racism and mistreatment of minorities, while focusing on the potential backlash from blacks who could have found the film offensive. In reality, these reactions themselves demonstrate some of the same elements of intolerance and prejudice that Lee aimed to address by making the film.

Do the Right Thing  was released twenty six years ago, but it could have been released yesterday and it would still be just as relevant. There are some disconcerting parallels between the death of Radio Rahim in the film and the recent death of Eric Garner. Both Rahim and Eric Garner were choked to death by New York police who used excessive force to subdue unarmed individuals. Though both men were arrested for breaking the law,  race played an undeniable role in their untimely deaths. We can’t necessary understand the mindsets of the police officers who killed Eric Garner. He did have an extensive criminal record and was clearly resisting arrest. However, we can take note of the role that civilian-recorded video of Garner’s death has played in igniting social critique and awareness in situations like these.

With the increase of portable video cameras in recent years, we have seen that it does not take a multi-million dollar film to have an impact on society.  The cellphone videos of Garner’s death allowed for an unfiltered and largely unbiased window into the events that occurred. As we’ve recently discussed, film and media are a means of  transmitting information in a way that transcends most barriers. Regardless of your race, language or social views, concrete video of an event can have an enormous impact on how it is interpreted. As  screens and video-recorders continue to saturate our society, we can expect the dynamics of crime, news, and politics to change. The actions of both criminals and authorities will be under increasing scrutiny in years to come. Its too early to say what impact this technological expansion will have in enforcing accountability for crime and punishment. However, if we remain aware of the inherent power that media has, perhaps progress can be made in moving towards a more tolerant, informed, and responsible society. The unbiased nature of raw video is a potent and invaluable tool.



Love and Hate In Do the Right Thing

The film Do the Right Thing [Lee, 1989] presents a day in the life of the inhabitants of a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York in 1989. The racially charged atmosphere of the town is evident from the start of the plot, with tensions rapidly increasing as disputes between different racial groups emerge. The African American, White, Asian and Hispanic individuals in the town carry out their daily lives while harboring resentment for the other races they live among. This resentment takes the form of racial stereotyping, aggravated criticism and complaints, and violent confrontation. One common theme in Do the Right Thing is the juxtaposition of love and hate that exists among individuals in the neighborhood.

Early on, there is evidence of racial tension between Blacks and Whites when local teenagers spray water onto an angry white man’s antique car. The white man’s anger and aggression appear to be exacerbated by the fact that the teens were black. In another instance, three older African American men are complaining about the emergence of Asian-run stores in “their” town. There is animosity over the fact that the Asians had only been in the neighborhood one year before opening a successful business of their own. The men appear to resent the fact that they are sitting on the street without jobs while another group is succeeding at making a living. We also see Mookie’s friend, Buggin’ Out, become angry that there are no pictures of African Americans hanging on the wall of Sal’s Pizza restaurant. Buggin’ Out attempts to boycott Sal’s Pizzeria, citing racism as his reasoning. Sal also runs into a conflict with Radio Rahim, when Rahim’s boisterous mannerisms and loud rap music disturb the atmosphere of Sal’s restaurant.

There are many more examples of racial tension, but these instances show that there is hostility and racism between all of the different racial groups in the neighborhood. There seems to be a desire to blame one’s own problems on  other races, using stereotypes to justify disapproval and hate. It also appears that these tensions are becoming more volatile – the atypically hot weather acting as a metaphor for the rapidly boiling aggression in the town.

Contrastingly, in light of all these acts of conflict, there is an undeniable presence of compassion, tolerance, and humanity in the neighborhood. One character, Da Mayor, is a friendly and generally well-meaning old man, who struggles with alcoholism. He makes multiple attempts to gain the approval of Mother Sister by complimenting her, acting courteous and polite, and even buying her roses. However, Mother Sister dislikes Da Mayor, as he reminds her of her ex-husband. She is unable to compartmentalize her prejudices to view Da Mayor impartially as an individual. Perhaps this is symbolic of the racial tensions that exist between the other residents of the neighborhood and the peoples’ tendency to judge and blame. Despite Mother Sister’s consistently mean attitude toward Da Mayor, he remains polite and continues to seek her approval, declaring that she will love him one day, even if they are both dead. Da Mayor also rescues a young boy from being hit by a car when he bravely dives to knock the boy out of the way, risking his own life in the process. Though the mother of the boy is appreciative that her son is safe, Da Mayor’s heroic act seems to go mostly unnoticed. This may frame the idea that even though there are many instances of compassion in the neighborhood, acts of love are eclipsed by the overwhelming presence of hate and judgment. Another instance of this battle between love and hate can be seen in Mookie’s relationship with Tina. Mookie’s love for Tina is undeniable; there are several deeply passionate scenes between the two that prove this. However, Tina is consistently critical of Mookie, claiming that he doesn’t love her or their son and that he often doesn’t show up to see her for over a week. Once again, there is a clear disparity and duality between acts of love and acts of hate, with the lines often becoming blurred.

This theme of the battle between love and hate reoccurs throughout Do the Right Thing and through the film’s climax and resolution. One paramount scene between Radio Rahim and Mookie encapsulates these ideas. Radio Rahim shows Mookie his two new rings which read “love” and “hate”. Rahim explains how there is a conflict between love and hate and “good and evil…one hand is always fighting the other.” He concludes by telling Mookie that he loves him, a touching gesture for a man with such a rough persona.

At the end of the film, Radio Rahim is tragically choked to death by police officers who are attempting to end a riot outside Sal’s Pizza. Radio Rahim’s death is an instance where hate triumphs over love. One could interpret Rahim’s death as hate winning this everlasting conflict with love. However, as the film concludes, we see life in the neighborhood returning to normal as teens play basketball in the street near the scene of the riot. Earlier in the film, Rahim acted out a fight between the two forces of love and hate, explaining how even when it seems like hate is winning the battle, love can come around and knock out hate. Perhaps Rahim’s death is just a temporary setback in this everlasting conflict.

Realism in Children of Men

The film “Children of Men” [Caurón 2006] explores themes relating to post 9/11 warfare, terrorism, and governmental inhumanity. The plot develops to show an overwhelming and oppressive government which terrorizes its citizens. The main characters in the film have an intense fear and dislike of their government, and are quickly labeled as terrorists after they clash with police officers. This alludes to the efforts of the West to combat terrorism after the events of 9/11. In many countries, such as the United States, these efforts were directed both domestically and internationally. Frequently, citizens felt as if their rights were being infringed upon, as the government used anti-terrorism efforts to justify its increased presence in citizens’ lives and to breach certain laws in the name of national security.

Furthermore, the fighting scenes at the end of the film could easily be set in modern day Iraq or Afghanistan to portray the guerrilla warfare being used to eliminate insurgents, often times at the expense of innocent civilian lives. The weapons and battle tactics shown also seem to mirror those that one would see in a film about the Gulf Wars, despite the fact that this film takes place in 2027. This is one of many examples of the presence of realism in Children of Men. The world created by its writers is one that is not unbelievably far from what it is like to live in certain parts of the world. The style of warfare, along with the prevalence of civilian casualties shown in the film, is common in many parts of the Middle East right now.

Another example of an allusion to the political and militaristic setting of the post 9/11 world is evidenced by the refugee camps depicted in Children of Men. The images shown are reminiscent of Abu Ghraib Prison and Guantanamo Bay, two facilities where alleged terrorists were sent to be detained. They were often unlawfully tortured in order to gain intelligence, despite the fact that most of them did not have a fair trial. There was an extreme and inhumane abuse of power as American officers abused prisoners at these facilities, this abuse was in many ways similar to the officers’ violence towards the detainees in Children of Men.

Overall, the film seems to allude to themes of corrupt, violent and untrustworthy government in the post 9/11 world. This fictional world also draws parallels to modern society in its depiction of the painful and complex dynamic of a terror-ridden nation, where the loss of innocent human lives is frequent.