Press Pause Playby Kavish Chetty / 28.02.2012
The Labia Majora (Orange Street) is thronged with well-upholstered hipsters in the thick warmth of the night. Tonight’s documentary is Press Pause Play – its subject matter is the “radical democratisation of culture”. It is a film which effortlessly balances its conflicting currents: anxiety and elitism, liberation and mediocrity. These complementary emotions are born in the vortex of the “digital era” and its rise. Alongside incredible progress in technology – affordable equipment, hurtling advances in ease of use and quality – fraught possibilities have come to characterise our age. The first is the dethroning of the “artist”, as a glut of ordinary people discovers they can become architects and influencers of culture in their own right. Every middle-class youth can access a camera, pirate synthetic programmes to produce their music; everyone claims to have a novel in them: the grand dramas of their lives at last have expression. The upshot to restate this in darker terms, is that in a culture defined by its valorisation of the Kardashians, anyone can insert themselves in the creative space between humans and social culture. This includes banal narcissists and graceless illiterates and the murderously clichéd – and this prompts one of the film’s most threatening themes: are we, as Andrew Keen says, “on the verge of a cultural dark age”, where mass mediocrity, the reign of the lowest common denominator, erodes at the things we hold in esteem?
Press Pause slips from Reykjavik to Manchester, Tokyo to New York, trying to understand what this epochal cultural shift means for our world. This is not a work of elitism, full of nostalgists for the gilt-edged empire of white men controlling the public imagination. Its interviewees are a diverse gang: music journalists, authors, musicians, industry veterans. Nor is it melancholic ode for the old business model of a select few having access to the advantages, and charging an escalating fortune for their albums and movies. What this film does, brilliantly and seductively, is to explore the contradiction where more democracy might mean surrender to mediocrity.
Perhaps this all seems slightly too haughty. The first part of the film admires the positive changes democracy of media has accomplished. It’s grabbed the power out of the hands of orthodoxy, and handed it to the regular dudes and dudettes of the street. It has encouraged voices that would never have been heard – new stories, innovations, points of view long denied. It has, then, in the fullest and most hug-worthy sense of “democracy”, made art properly plural, and this achievement needs a hearty ovation. Earlier on the film, we get an audience with artists who have commanded new technologies to express themselves. The Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, who describes himself in modest English as a “neoclassical” composer, is the centre of a narrative thread which journeys with him to Manchester where he will play in his first live orchestral arrangement. Elsewhere tech-professionals explain equipment and some superb digital art is showcased. (In some scenes among the most arresting visuals I’ve ever seen are given ample display).
But there is another mournful dimension to all this ease of access. We live in an age of distraction, with cultural artefacts endlessly pulsing in our peripheral vision. We have lost the talismanic connection with our things. Here a certain nostalgia lurks around when interviewees talk of buying vinyl, watching the needle hypnotically circling in the grooves of the record, listening to the album in its sequential immersive fullness, poring over lyric inserts: in those moments, music had become a sensory experience, responding to the body in ways that three mp3s pulled off an album, skipped to the best parts, listened to only as background ambience cannot. Is the same perhaps true of downloading movies? How much do we relinquish in giving up that cherished ritual of marching to the cinema with friends, pouring carcinogenic butter-salt on our popcorn, sitting in darkened theatres compelled to watch to the end? Whether any of these developments are cause for despair is obviously debatable, but they all point to a startling set of facts. Firstly, that our engagement with culture has undergone a rearrangement of seismic proportions. And secondly, that we are tending to live in a world becoming increasingly insular and consumerist, materialistic and marked by sharp-edged avarice. The interviewees suggest that perhaps one of the last outposts of true organic music experience is to be found in the live concert: caught there in the sweaty mesh of bodies, the perspiring intimacy and the non-uniform texture and flow of the music. Consider as a counterpoint the fact that musicians no longer need precision (vocal, instrumental) or talent – as one sound engineer remarks, he can auto-tune or re-engineer any blemish into sterile perfection.
Of course we’re careering right now towards the dark side and this is really problematic territory. If it were true that this democratisation was an indisputable boon for society, then a linear progress could presumably be tracked between old models and new – cultural production should be becoming better for society (whatever the fuck that means), whereas all it really has become is more variegated and pluralistic. Thus Youtube channels are awash with vacuous shit, self-promoted Myspace artists launch into stratospheric stardom and command huge gravities of cultural capital. I was reminded of this at a recent book launch, which I happened to take place around me while I was pilfering free drinks at a popular book store. An author – who could at my most charitable be described as charisma-less – had recently written a pulp-genre book under the gimmick of being semi-autobiographical. Flicking through the pages of this uninspiring dreck, I listened to him marvel on how he’s “always had this story in him” and other anaesthetic banalities too numerous to mention. Is it too damning to at least arrest yourself in that moment and ask: “why should we adore a world in which charmless idiots with nothing to say suddenly have the courage to irrupt into the public and drag down the aggregate of valuable cultural artefact with their kak?” This sounds terribly elitist, and the problem is precisely the problematic of the film – to accept the democracy which increases the good, we must accept that democracy increases the bad. And in a world filled with capitalist drones and unthinking maroons socially indoctrinated by cheap dogmas and pernicious ideology, the bad is going to outweigh the good. Brilliance is by definition rare.
Assembled above is perhaps only a small sampling of inchoate provocations, to be picked up and disagreed with and debated. This is the most cherished pleasure of this documentary. It is alchemically stylish and much as it has a strong connection with its theme, poses and counterposes brilliantly, seeks out the appropriate subjects and architects a many-sided conversation between them that flows and reconciles beautifully. Lastly, on aesthetic terms – its visuals, music, juxtaposition, crisp high-quality images – the documentary is utterly beautiful as a sensory experience. It has my strongest recommendations for its ability to both weary elitism and trouble populism. Directed by David Dworsky and Victor Köhler.
*The Design Indaba Filmfest runs until the 5th of March at the Labia on Orange Street. A Schedule is available here.