Saturday, 31 January 2009

The City Uncovered

I've been watching Evan Davis’s series The City Uncovered (BBC2, about finance) on the laptop with iPlayer. Something about watching television on a computer screen, small or large, seems to make it a different and more powerful experience. Perhaps it’s something to do with sitting much closer to a computer screen than to a TV set; perhaps it’s the sense I have that the things I see on my computer screen are chosen by me in a way that television programmes aren’t.

The City Uncovered was excellent, as is all Davis’s work, in illuminating a complex issue. But what particularly struck me watching these three programmes was how good television documentaries are as film. This is a series about banks and investors but it was visually stunning.

Years ago I think I would have despised this aesthetic treatment of a serious issue that demanded rationality in its handling. Now I don’t. The visuals for the most part add nothing to the logic of the argument, but I don’t find they impede it either. If they’re simply sugaring an unappetising pill, that’s ok. I love the shots of stampeding herds of wildebeest, the Lloyds building seen from the air, Evan Davis arriving outside a big bank on a motorbike or cruising a California highway in an open car, Brooklyn Bridge seen from unusual angles under strange lighting conditions, the customers tucking into their hash browns in a diner in Silicon Valley. The photography/filming is intensely pleasurable in its own right and I think we don’t usually appreciate that it’s as fine as anything we see in celebrated feature films.

Strictly speaking, in order to evaluate Evan’s programme in the critical spirit it calls for one should no doubt listen to the soundtrack only or, better, get hold of the script. That would allow one to address the logos of the programme without distraction. But classical rhetoric tells the public speaker that logos isn’t enough; one has to help the pure argument along so that it gets through to the audience. See documentaries as a rhetorical genre and one can appreciate that changes of scene mark shifts in the argument, that images of boarded-up houses make one feel how mortgage foreclosure has material and personal consequences and that the frenzy of a trading floor drives home Davis’s case that markets habitually go mad. In remembering the programme I'll associate points in the argument with the sights shown on the screen, and this will aid memory.

But mainly I just like it. Certainly, what Evan Davis looks like has got nothing to do with the validity of his case; but I enjoy seeing what he’s like in different situations, face-to-face with a super-rich banker or top Harvard economist and then strolling on a track through a wheat field with a farmer who’s explaining how he decides what he’ll grow next year. This is television, and we simply have to accept if we’re to appreciate it that it’s no good bringing a puritan asceticism to the experience. For television we have to be, in Richard Lanham’s terms, homo rhetoricus, not homo seriosus.

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