Of a Mortician Singing In the Bath; and of Sri Lankan School Children Debating Under Studio Lights

In Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” (2012), in a memorable passage of play, Jerry (played by Woody Allen) overhears Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing tenor in his shower. By profession, Giancarlo is a mortician and he insists that he sings for himself — for pleasure, in the bath. Jerry, who has behind him a career of showbiz, is moved by the vibrations of Giancarlo’s voice and sees in it a business potential: a prospect which he, later, tables at the family’s dinner table. Giancarlo is the father of Jerry’s prospective son-in-law (newly introduced), Michelangelo. Giancarlo refuses to acquiesce, as much as Jerry (in that annoying Woody Allen  nagging style) presses on the issue. Michelangelo, introduced as a young man with strong Communist sympathies, backs up his father’s claims. Jerry is forced to shut the topic, which he does with great reluctance.

Giancarlo, later on, becomes a singer / public performer. We see him singing on the open stage, his tenor vocals holding packed houses in enrapture; but, the condition under which Giancarlo sings is that there, on stage, should be a showering cubicle and a running shower under which he stands and sings. Giancarlo is naked and the showering booth is out of place on a stage facing a crowd of people who have paid to watch the show. But, nor will there be any singing minus the bathing contraption, as that is what gives Giancarlo his inspiration.

Jerry meets Giancarlo for the first time, near the latter's funeral parlour

Jerry meets Giancarlo for the first time, near the latter’s funeral parlour

The Giancarlo-Jerry subplot is complemented by the thread of Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who is transformed from a boring, ordinary public office worker to a kind of a star by popular media. For no obvious reason — as it so happens in the media — Leopoldo is fished out of the humdrum of a personality-less, mechanical routine and “propped up” as a star of sorts. His dinner habits, his view of the weather and his getting in and out of vehicles and events cause headlines and news. Leopoldo himself does not know the cause for his stardom, but gradually comes to accept it. At one point, his “fifteen minutes of fame” is over and the media moves out of him, in search of a new and fresh “news-making” source. Leopoldo is found in an abyss of isolation and state of non-recognition: being at a loss in trying to reconcile with his own diminutive state and ordinariness.

“To Rome with Love” is not Woody Allen’s greatest movie; and is, by itself, a venture in cinema that is too self-conscious for us not to notice it. His plot situations are now cliches within his own dramatic tradition, while the exotic European cultural sites across which he moves like a cinematic gypsy is fraught and contrived. Woody Allen has “done” Rome, Spain, Rome and in “Midnight In Paris” (2013), he arrives in Paris. This is not to write off Woody Allen’s craft which has its own merits and mainstays; which, as a corpus, has established its own trajectory with a neat infusion of diverse dramatic motifs and devices from a range of traditions from the Classical Greek Old Comedy to contemporary trends in Absurdism. But, nonetheless, Woody Allen is now pretty much a “vintage author” whose work can safely reflect the dialectics of capitalist consumerism: where, his own plotline is a critique of the overwhelming consumerist mesh that cuts across and swallows our private and public spaces, while the movie (the vehicle of his criticism) is already a project of the very market that he critiques.

Leopoldo fleeing from the swarm of media flies who follows him wherever he may go

Leopoldo fleeing from the swarm of media flies who follows him wherever he may go

Leopoldo and Giancarlo is important to us because the ugly marriage between popular media and capitalism is more than ever on a honeymoon rampage, bending the ignorance and the insecurities of the masses into creating visual facades of types and species; but for their own business reasons. These visual hallucinations may come in the guise of “superstars”, “real stars” or in the form of “a hyper-meritorious society” drilled with bana-beats. Whatever form it may come in, it is imperative that we gauge where we, as individuals, should stand against this all-encompassing tide. How many Leopoldos do we meet among us? How many Giancarlos sing on stages with a make-shift shower-cubicle around them? The fundamental of capitalist consumerism is the ability to absorb anything and everything and moulding around them a profit-yielding mechanism. Within the consumerist machine “war” and “peace” are the most prized consumer items. It absorbs and returns to the market Che Guevara, the KGB, Osama Bin Laden, genital mutilation, exotic princesses of the Sahara and the JVP as marketable commodities.

In our recent experience, Sirasa Media was the first to copy paste (and the resolution, I believe, was dropped from the original “Britain’s Got Talent”, “American Idol” etc, in the pasting process) “reality show” culture into the mass brain-dead cavities of Lanka’s TV-viewing mass populace. This cue was picked up by other competing channels, and — as it happens in consumerism — a mass “duplication” (mass production) of “reality shows” in search of “stars” and (one night) “giants” spread like a virus. What began as a mania for the “crowning” of singing and dancing “stars” takes a dangerous shift when, in the aftermath of the military crushing of the LTTE, a state-owned TV station initiates a “Ranaviru Real Star”: a supposed talent contest for state-paid militants. This is a tangible example of how even warfare and militancy can be sanitized: as to how the profit-oriented machine of capitalism can, in the guise of “seeking the hidden singer behind the loaded gun”, can turn a profit on almost any “fashionable” seasonal item.

Ranaviru Real Star: the "reality show" of the hidden singers behind the service rifle

Ranaviru Real Star: the “reality show” of the hidden singers behind the service rifle

The bended knee and the hands raised towards teh stars

The bended knee and the hands raised towards teh stars

Today, we are in a situation where school debating and even school boxing have been “star-crossed” by crass media moguls such as Sirasa. The importance school students (with a lack of critical awareness and with an absence of critically-equipped teachers) are made to give these televised quasi-debates and quasi-boxing bouts is alarming; as much as they are symptomatic of an erosion of our values in education, in the face of capitalism. “To be on TV”, itself, is an achievement the student is now being pushed for; and in their ignorance theirs is an “achievement”: which, in reality, is a little concession in make belief which the capitalist can afford, in a bid for a higher profit for his business. The irony is, that school boys and girls tear their asses off and memorize arguments and speeches written on flimsy pieces of paper and role play debates under artificial lights in studio atmospheres. University students from under-provided universities are seen as showcasing talent in programmes such as “Kavitha”, run on huge chunks of money, which can more meaningfully be used for higher education purposes. What happens to these “Kavitha” winners? How beneficial to their overall development as individuals are these reactionary roadshow “talent” contests? The very artifice of this activity reminds me of Giancarlo’s singing on stage, shrouded by a bathing booth, with a shower running.

As Woody Allen suggests, consumerism is often inescapable. That is reflected in Allen’s work itself, which skins the underbelly of consumerism, while the project itself is a consciously profit-yielding enterprise. Yet, our education and school culture should be a programme that suitably equips the student with the necessary ideological tools and critical incepts with which s/he can reflectively deal with the consumerist tide at hand: the tools that will make us understand who we are and enable us, in degrees, to cope with situations, and not be beheaded like a rat drawn by the false lure of a thin cube of roast coconut kernel placed in a trap.

 

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