E-Press and Oppress

Audio Visual Print Drama, Identity, Text and Motion Picture Rebellion

How to Cite

Watson, R. (2005). E-Press and Oppress: Audio Visual Print Drama, Identity, Text and Motion Picture Rebellion. M/C Journal, 8(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2345
Vol. 8 No. 2 (2005): 'print'
Published 2005-06-01

From elephants to ABBA fans, silicon to hormone, the following discussion uses a new research method to look at printed text, motion pictures and a teenage rebel icon.

If by ‘print’ we mean a mechanically reproduced impression of a cultural symbol in a medium, then printing has been with us since before microdot security prints were painted onto cars, before voice prints, laser prints, network servers, record pressings, motion picture prints, photo prints, colour woodblock prints, before books, textile prints, and footprints.

If we accept that higher mammals such as elephants have a learnt culture, then it is possible to extend a definition of printing beyond Homo sapiens. Poole reports that elephants mechanically trumpet reproductions of human car horns into the air surrounding their society. If nothing else, this cross-species, cross-cultural reproduction, this ‘ability to mimic’ is ‘another sign of their intelligence’.

Observation of child development suggests that the first significant meaningful ‘impression’ made on the human mind is that of the face of the child’s nurturer – usually its mother. The baby’s mind forms an ‘impression’, a mental print, a reproducible memory data set, of the nurturer’s face, voice, smell, touch, etc. That face is itself a cultural construct: hair style, makeup, piercings, tattoos, ornaments, nutrition-influenced skin and smell, perfume, temperature and voice. A mentally reproducible pattern of a unique face is formed in the mind, and we use that pattern to distinguish ‘familiar and strange’ in our expanding social orbit. The social relations of patterned memory – of imprinting – determine the extent to which we explore our world (armed with research aids such as text print) or whether we turn to violence or self-harm (Bretherton). While our cultural artifacts (such as vellum maps or networked voice message servers) bravely extend our significant patterns into the social world and the traversed environment, it is useful to remember that such artifacts, including print, are themselves understood by our original pattern-reproduction and impression system – the human mind, developed in childhood.

The ‘print’ is brought to mind differently in different discourses. For a reader, a ‘print’ is a book, a memo or a broadsheet, whether it is the Indian Buddhist Sanskrit texts ordered to be printed in 593 AD by the Chinese emperor Sui Wen-ti (Silk Road) or the US Defense Department memo authorizing lower ranks to torture the prisoners taken by the Bush administration (Sanchez, cited in ABC). Other fields see prints differently. For a musician, a ‘print’ may be the sheet music which spread classical and popular music around the world; it may be a ‘record’ (as in a ‘recording’ session), where sound is impressed to wax, vinyl, charged silicon particles, or the alloys (Smith, “Elpida”) of an mp3 file.

For the fine artist, a ‘print’ may be any mechanically reproduced two-dimensional (or embossed) impression of a significant image in media from paper to metal, textile to ceramics. ‘Print’ embraces the Japanese Ukiyo-e colour prints of Utamaro, the company logos that wink from credit card holographs, the early photographs of Talbot, and the textured patterns printed into neolithic ceramics. Computer hardware engineers print computational circuits. Homicide detectives investigate both sweaty finger prints and the repeated, mechanical gaits of suspects, which are imprinted into the earthy medium of a crime scene.

For film makers, the ‘print’ may refer to a photochemical polyester reproduction of a motion picture artifact (the reel of ‘celluloid’), or a DVD laser disc impression of the same film. Textualist discourse has borrowed the word ‘print’ to mean ‘text’, so ‘print’ may also refer to the text elements within the vision track of a motion picture: the film’s opening titles, or texts photographed inside the motion picture story such as the sword-cut ‘Z’ in Zorro (Niblo).

Before the invention of writing, the main mechanically reproduced impression of a cultural symbol in a medium was the humble footprint in the sand. The footprints of tribes – and neighbouring animals – cut tracks in the vegetation and the soil. Printed tracks led towards food, water, shelter, enemies and friends. Having learnt to pattern certain faces into their mental world, children grew older and were educated in the footprints of family and clan, enemies and food. The continuous impression of significant foot traffic in the medium of the earth produced the lines between significant nodes of prewriting and pre-wheeled cultures. These tracks were married to audio tracks, such as the song lines of the Australian Aborigines, or the ballads of tramping culture everywhere. A typical tramping song has the line, ‘There’s a track winding back to an old-fashion shack along the road to Gundagai,’ (O’Hagan), although this colonial-style song was actually written for radio and became an international hit on the airwaves, rather than the tramping trails.

The printed tracks impressed by these cultural flows are highly contested and diverse, and their foot prints are woven into our very language. The names for printed tracks have entered our shared memory from the intersection of many cultures: ‘Track’ is a Germanic word entering English usage comparatively late (1470) and now used mainly in audio visual cultural reproduction, as in ‘soundtrack’. ‘Trek’ is a Dutch word for ‘track’ now used mainly by ecotourists and science fiction fans. ‘Learn’ is a Proto-Indo-European word: the verb ‘learn’ originally meant ‘to find a track’ back in the days when ‘learn’ had a noun form which meant ‘the sole of the foot’. ‘Tract’ and ‘trace’ are Latin words entering English print usage before 1374 and now used mainly in religious, and electronic surveillance, cultural reproduction. ‘Trench’ in 1386 was a French path cut through a forest. ‘Sagacity’ in English print in 1548 was originally the ability to track or hunt, in Proto-Indo-European cultures. ‘Career’ (in English before 1534) was the print made by chariots in ancient Rome. ‘Sleuth’ (1200) was a Norse noun for a track. ‘Investigation’ (1436) was Latin for studying a footprint (Harper).

The arrival of symbolic writing scratched on caves, hearth stones, and trees (the original meaning of ‘book’ is tree), brought extremely limited text education close to home. Then, with baked clay tablets, incised boards, slate, bamboo, tortoise shell, cast metal, bark cloth, textiles, vellum, and – later – paper, a portability came to text that allowed any culture to venture away from known ‘foot’ paths with a reduction in the risk of becoming lost and perishing. So began the world of maps, memos, bills of sale, philosophic treatises and epic mythologies. Some of this was printed, such as the mechanical reproduction of coins, but the fine handwriting required of long, extended, portable texts could not be printed until the invention of paper in China about 2000 years ago. Compared to lithic architecture and genes, portable text is a fragile medium, and little survives from the millennia of its innovators.

The printing of large non-text designs onto bark-paper and textiles began in neolithic times, but Sui Wen-ti’s imperial memo of 593 AD gives us the earliest written date for printed books, although we can assume they had been published for many years previously. The printed book was a combination of Indian philosophic thought, wood carving, ink chemistry and Chinese paper. The earliest surviving fragment of paper-print technology is ‘Mantras of the Dharani Sutra’, a Buddhist scripture written in the Sanskrit language of the Indian subcontinent, unearthed at an early Tang Dynasty site in Xian, China – making the fragment a veteran piece of printing, in the sense that Sanskrit books had been in print for at least a century by the early Tang Dynasty (Chinese Graphic Arts Net).

At first, paper books were printed with page-size carved wooden boards. Five hundred years later, Pi Sheng (c.1041) baked individual reusable ceramic characters in a fire and invented the durable moveable type of modern printing (Silk Road 2000). Abandoning carved wooden tablets, the ‘digitizing’ of Chinese moveable type sped up the production of printed texts. In turn, Pi Sheng’s flexible, rapid, sustainable printing process expanded the political-cultural impact of the literati in Asian society. Digitized block text on paper produced a bureaucratic, literate elite so powerful in Asia that Louis XVI of France copied China’s print-based Confucian system of political authority for his own empire, and so began the rise of the examined public university systems, and the civil service systems, of most European states (Watson, Visions).

By reason of its durability, its rapid mechanical reproduction, its culturally agreed signs, literate readership, revered authorship, shared ideology, and distributed portability, a ‘print’ can be a powerful cultural network which builds and expands empires. But print also attacks and destroys empires. A case in point is the Spanish conquest of Aztec America: The Aztecs had immense libraries of American literature on bark-cloth scrolls, a technology which predated paper. These libraries were wiped out by the invading Spanish, who carried a different book before them (Ewins).

In the industrial age, the printing press and the gun were seen as the weapons of rebellions everywhere. In 1776, American rebels staffed their ‘Homeland Security’ units with paper makers, knowing that defeating the English would be based on printed and written documents (Hahn). Mao Zedong was a book librarian; Mao said political power came out of the barrel of a gun, but Mao himself came out of a library. With the spread of wireless networked servers, political ferment comes out of the barrel of the cell phone and the internet chat room these days. Witness the cell phone displays of a plane hitting a tower that appear immediately after 9/11 in the Middle East, or witness the show trials of a few US and UK lower ranks who published prints of their torturing activities onto the internet: only lower ranks who published prints were arrested or tried. The control of secure servers and satellites is the new press.

These days, we live in a global library of burning books – ‘burning’ in the sense that ‘print’ is now a charged silicon medium (Smith, “Intel”) which is usually made readable by connecting the chip to nuclear reactors and petrochemically-fired power stations. World resources burn as we read our screens. Men, women, children burn too, as we watch our infotainment news in comfort while ‘their’ flickering dead faces are printed in our broadcast hearths. The print we watch is not the living; it is the voodoo of the living in the blackout behind the camera, engaging the blood sacrifice of the tormented and the unfortunate.

Internet texts are also ‘on fire’ in the third sense of their fragility and instability as a medium: data bases regularly ‘print’ fail-safe copies in an attempt to postpone the inevitable mechanical, chemical and electrical failure that awaits all electronic media in time.

Print defines a moral position for everyone. In reporting conflict, in deciding to go to press or censor, any ‘print’ cannot avoid an ethical context, starting with the fact that there is a difference in power between print maker, armed perpetrators, the weak, the peaceful, the publisher, and the viewer. So many human factors attend a text, video or voice ‘print’: its very existence as an aesthetic object, even before publication and reception, speaks of unbalanced, and therefore dynamic, power relationships. For example, Graham Greene departed unscathed from all the highly dangerous battlefields he entered as a novelist: Riot-torn Germany, London Blitz, Belgian Congo, Voodoo Haiti, Vietnam, Panama, Reagan’s Washington, and mafia Europe. His texts are peopled with the injustices of the less fortunate of the twentieth century, while he himself was a member of the fortunate (if not happy) elite, as is anyone today who has the luxury of time to read Greene’s works for pleasure. Ethically a member of London and Paris’ colonizers, Greene’s best writing still electrifies, perhaps partly because he was in the same line of fire as the victims he shared bread with. In fact, Greene hoped daily that he would escape from the dreadful conflicts he fictionalized via a body bag or an urn of ashes (see Sherry). In reading an author’s biography we have one window on the ethical dimensions of authority and print.

If a print’s aesthetics are sometimes enduring, its ethical relationships are always mutable. Take the stylized logo of a running athlete: four limbs bent in a rotation of action. This dynamic icon has symbolized ‘good health’ in Hindu and Buddhist culture, from Madras to Tokyo, for thousands of years. The cross of bent limbs was borrowed for the militarized health programs of 1930s Germany, and, because of what was only a brief, recent, isolated yet monstrously horrific segment of its history in print, the bent-limbed swastika is now a vilified symbol in the West. The sign remains ‘impressed’ differently on traditional Eastern culture, and without the taint of Nazism.

Dramatic prints are emotionally charged because, in depicting Homo sapiens in danger, or passionately in love, they elicit a hormonal reaction from the reader, the viewer, or the audience. The type of emotions triggered by a print vary across the whole gamut of human chemistry. A recent study of three genres of motion picture prints shows a marked differences in the hormonal responses of men compared to women when viewing a romance, an actioner, and a documentary (see Schultheiss, Wirth, and Stanton). Society is biochemically diverse in its engagement with printed culture, which raises questions about equality in the arts.

Motion picture prints probably comprise around one third of internet traffic, in the form of stolen digitized movie files pirated across the globe via peer-to-peer file transfer networks (p2p), and burnt as DVD laser prints (BBC). There is also a US 40 billion dollar per annum legitimate commerce in DVD laser pressings (Grassl), which would suggest an US 80 billion per annum world total in legitimate laser disc print culture. The actively screen literate, or the ‘sliterati’ as I prefer to call them, research this world of motion picture prints via their peers, their internet information channels, their television programming, and their web forums. Most of this activity occurs outside the ambit of universities and schools.

One large site of sliterate (screen literate) practice outside most schooling and official research is the net of online forums at imdb.com (International Movie Data Base). Imdb.com ‘prints’ about 25,000,000 top pages per month to client browsers. Hundreds of sliterati forums are located at imdb, including a forum for the Australian movie, Muriel’s Wedding (Hogan). Ten years after the release of Muriel’s Wedding, young people who are concerned with victimization and bullying still log on to http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0110598/board/> and put their thoughts into print:

I still feel so bad for Muriel in the beginning of the movie, when the girls ‘dump’ her, and how much the poor girl cried and cried! Those girls were such biartches…I love how they got their comeuppance!

bunniesormaybemidgets’s comment is typical of the current discussion. Muriel’s Wedding was a very popular film in its first cinema edition in Australia and elsewhere. About 30% of the entire over-14 Australian population went to see this photochemical polyester print in the cinemas on its first release. A decade on, the distributors printed a DVD laser disc edition.

The story concerns Muriel (played by Toni Collette), the unemployed daughter of a corrupt, ‘police state’ politician. Muriel is bullied by her peers and she withdraws into a fantasy world, deluding herself that a white wedding will rescue her from the torments of her blighted life. Through theft and deceit (the modus operandi of her father) Muriel escapes to the entertainment industry and finds a ‘wicked’ girlfriend mentor. From a rebellious position of stubborn independence, Muriel plays out her fantasy. She gets her white wedding, before seeing both her father and her new married life as hollow shams which have goaded her abandoned mother to suicide. Redefining her life as a ‘game’ and assuming responsibility for her independence, Muriel turns her back on the mainstream, image-conscious, female gang of her oppressed youth. Muriel leaves the story, having rekindled her friendship with her rebel mentor.

My methodological approach to viewing the laser disc print was to first make a more accessible, coded record of the entire movie. I was able to code and record the print in real time, using a new metalanguage (Watson, “Eyes”). The advantage of Coding is that ‘thinks’ the same way as film making, it does not sidetrack the analyst into prose.

The Code splits the movie print into

  • Vision Action
  • [vision graphic elements, including text]
  • (sound)

The Coding splits the vision track into normal action and graphic elements, such as text, so this Coding is an ideal method for extracting all the text elements of a film in real time. After playing the film once, I had four and a half tightly packed pages of the coded story, including all its text elements in square brackets. Being a unique, indexed hard copy, the Coded copy allowed me immediate access to any point of the Muriel’s Wedding saga without having to search the DVD laser print.

How are ‘print’ elements used in Muriel’s Wedding? Firstly, a rose-coloured monoprint of Muriel Heslop’s smiling face stares enigmatically from the plastic surface of the DVD picture disc. The print is a still photo captured from her smile as she walked down the aisle of her white wedding. In this print, Toni Collette is the Mona Lisa of Australian culture, except that fans of Muriel’s Wedding know the meaning of that smile is a magical combination of the actor’s art: the smile is both the flush of dreams come true and the frightening self deception that will kill her mother.

Inserting and playing the disc, the text-dominant menu appears, and the film commences with the text-dominant opening titles. Text and titles confer a legitimacy on a work, whether it is a trade mark of the laser print owners, or the household names of stars. Text titles confer status relationships on both the presenters of the cultural artifact and the viewer who has entered into a legal license agreement with the owners of the movie. A title makes us comfortable, because the mind always seeks to name the unfamiliar, and a set of text titles does that job for us so that we can navigate the ‘tracks’ and settle into our engagement with the unfamiliar. The apparent ‘truth’ and ‘stability’ of printed text calms our fears and beguiles our uncertainties.

Muriel attends the white wedding of a school bully bride, wearing a leopard print dress she has stolen. Muriel’s spotted wild animal print contrasts with the pure white handmade dress of the bride. In Muriel’s leopard textile print, we have the wild, rebellious, impoverished, inappropriate intrusion into the social ritual and fantasy of her high-status tormentor. An off-duty store detective recognizes the printed dress and calls the police. The police are themselves distinguished by their blue-and-white checked prints and other mechanically reproduced impressions of cultural symbols: in steel, brass, embroidery, leather and plastics. Muriel is driven in the police car past the stenciled town sign (‘Welcome To Porpoise Spit’ heads a paragraph of small print). She is delivered to her father, a politician who presides over the policing of his town. In a state where the judiciary, police and executive are hijacked by the same tyrant, Muriel’s father, Bill, pays off the police constables with a carton of legal drugs (beer) and Muriel must face her father’s wrath, which he proceeds to transfer to his detested wife. Like his daughter, the father also wears a spotted brown print costume, but his is a batik print from neighbouring Indonesia (incidentally, in a nation that takes the political status of its batik prints very seriously).

Bill demands that Muriel find the receipt for the leopard print dress she claims she has purchased. The legitimate ownership of the object is enmeshed with a printed receipt, the printed evidence of trade. The law (and the paramilitary power behind the law) are legitimized, or contested, by the presence or absence of printed text. Muriel hides in her bedroom, surround by poster prints of the pop group ABBA. Torn-out prints of other people’s weddings adorn her mirror. Her face is embossed with the clown-like primary colours of the marionette as she lifts a bouquet to her chin and stares into the real time ‘print’ of her mirror image.

Bill takes the opportunity of a business meeting with Japanese investors to feed his entire family at ‘Charlie Chan’’s restaurant. Muriel’s middle sister sloppily wears her father’s state election tee shirt, printed with the text: ‘Vote 1, Bill Heslop. You can’t stop progress.’ The text sets up two ironic gags that are paid off on the dialogue track: “He lost,’ we are told. ‘Progress’ turns out to be funding the concreting of a beach.

Bill berates his daughter Muriel: she has no chance of becoming a printer’s apprentice and she has failed a typing course. Her dysfunction in printed text has been covered up by Bill: he has bribed the typing teacher to issue a printed diploma to his daughter. In the gambling saloon of the club, under the arrays of mechanically repeated cultural symbols lit above the poker machines (‘A’ for ace, ‘Q’ for queen, etc.), Bill’s secret girlfriend Diedre risks giving Muriel a cosmetics job.

Another text icon in lights announces the surf nightclub ‘Breakers’. Tania, the newly married queen bitch who has made Muriel’s teenage years a living hell, breaks up with her husband, deciding to cash in his negotiable text documents – his Bali honeymoon tickets – and go on an island holiday with her girlfriends instead. Text documents are the enduring site of agreements between people and also the site of mutations to those agreements. Tania dumps Muriel, who sobs and sobs. Sobs are a mechanical, percussive reproduction impressed on the sound track.

Returning home, we discover that Muriel’s older brother has failed a printed test and been rejected for police recruitment. There is a high incidence of print illiteracy in the Heslop family. Mrs Heslop (Jeannie Drynan), for instance, regularly has trouble at the post office. Muriel sees a chance to escape the oppression of her family by tricking her mother into giving her a blank cheque. Here is the confluence of the legitimacy of a bank’s printed negotiable document with the risk and freedom of a blank space for rebel Muriel’s handwriting. Unable to type, her handwriting has the power to steal every cent of her father’s savings. She leaves home and spends the family’s savings at an island resort.

On the island, the text print-challenged Muriel dances to a recording (sound print) of ABBA, her hand gestures emphasizing her bewigged face, which is made up in an impression of her pop idol. Her imitation of her goddesses – the ABBA women, her only hope in a real world of people who hate or avoid her – is accompanied by her goddesses’ voices singing: ‘the mystery book on the shelf is always repeating itself.’

Before jpeg and gif image downloads, we had postcard prints and snail mail. Muriel sends a postcard to her family, lying about her ‘success’ in the cosmetics business. The printed missal is clutched by her father Bill (Bill Hunter), who proclaims about his daughter, ‘you can’t type but you really impress me’. Meanwhile, on Hibiscus Island, Muriel lies under a moonlit palm tree with her newly found mentor, ‘bad girl’ Ronda (Rachel Griffiths). In this critical scene, where foolish Muriel opens her heart’s yearnings to a confidante she can finally trust, the director and DP have chosen to shoot a flat, high contrast blue filtered image. The visual result is very much like the semiabstract Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Utamaro. This Japanese printing style informed the rise of European modern painting (Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc., were all important collectors and students of Ukiyo-e prints).

The above print and text elements in Muriel’s Wedding take us 27 minutes into her story, as recorded on a single page of real-time handwritten Coding. Although not discussed here, the Coding recorded the complete film – a total of 106 minutes of text elements and main graphic elements – as four pages of Code. Referring to this Coding some weeks after it was made, I looked up the final code on page four:

taxi [food of the sea]
bq. Translation: a shop sign whizzes past in the film’s background, as Muriel and Ronda leave Porpoise Spit in a taxi. Over their heads the text ‘Food Of The Sea’ flashes.

We are reminded that Muriel and Ronda are mermaids, fantastic creatures sprung from the brow of author PJ Hogan, and illuminated even today in the pantheon of women’s coming-of-age art works. That the movie is relevant ten years on is evidenced by the current usage of the Muriel’s Wedding online forum, an intersection of wider discussions by sliterate women on imdb.com who, like Muriel, are observers (and in some cases victims) of horrific pressure from ambitious female gangs and bullies.

Text is always a minor element in a motion picture (unless it is a subtitled foreign film) and text usually whizzes by subliminally while viewing a film. By Coding the work for [text], all the text nuances made by the film makers come to light. While I have viewed Muriel’s Wedding on many occasions, it has only been in Coding it specifically for text that I have noticed that Muriel is a representative of that vast class of talented youth who are discriminated against by print (as in text) educators who cannot offer her a life-affirming identity in the English classroom. Severely depressed at school, and failing to type or get a printer’s apprenticeship, Muriel finds paid work (and hence, freedom, life, identity, independence) working in her audio visual printed medium of choice: a video store in a new city.

Muriel found a sliterate admirer at the video store but she later dumped him for her fantasy man, before leaving him too. One of the points of conjecture on the imdb Muriel’s Wedding site is, did Muriel (in the unwritten future) get back together with admirer Brice Nobes? That we will never know. While a print forms a track that tells us where culture has been, a print cannot be the future, a print is never animate reality.

At the end of any trail of prints, one must lift one’s head from the last impression, and negotiate satisfaction in the happening world.

Author Biography

Robert Watson