Style Wars (1983)

Style Wars

Dir. Tony Silver, 1983

At the dawn of the 1980s, a new artform had taken form on the streets of New York– and the subways. The groundbreaking PBS documentary Style Wars captured a watershed moment in hip-hop, when it was about to make its first steps beyond The City. Indeed, quite a bit of that is due to the popularity of the film itself.

Rather than deal with the musical element of the culture, this film focused on the secret society responsible for the spectacular graffiti iconically adorning the sides of New York’s subway cars. Even as people like Mayor Ed Koch and city manager Richard Raditch can be heard denouncing the act of “writing,” their voices betray an acknowledgement of its power as an artform.

In addition to portraying a time before hip-hop culture became racially politicized– the writers interviewed are a very diverse bunch, and most of them are white– it also captured a moment when Writing was already moving out of the subway and into the art gallery. Director Tony Silver does this by faithfully recording the act of writing, as well as dozens of examples of the finished product. B+

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Videopunk, or, The Zen of KLCS

Not long ago, I wrote an article singing the praises of the Public Broadcasting Service. Today is the day to shed some light on PBS’s darker side. I speak, of course, of KLCS.

My first acting job was for KLCS. When I was three months old, my mom tried to get me acting work, but it wasn’t happening. Luckily, my dad was transport commissioner, so I got to be in a documentary about the rebuilding of the Southland’s public transit infrastructure. My mom and I were the token white people on the blue line.

KLCS is the official television station of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as such most of its programming was exactly like Look Around You, except that instead of 1978 it was 1993. Its creepy dullness and retrograde production values hypnotized many young children who grew up to become videopunk artists– aficionados of the VHS aesthetic. It’s something understood by everyone who spent their childhood savouring the first tear into the gold wrapping paper of a fresh Matsushita JVC cassette.

A typical day’s programming would start off with some ancient educational films, seemingly all of them about the history of mathematics. But that was before dawn; what most people first saw was a blue screen with a list of programs and the current time. There would always be music in the background: usually Sting or Maxi Priest, which they could get away with because the programming was “for educational purposes only.” The music was always loud enough recognize, but not loud enough to enjoy.

Suddenly, you’d be treated to live video footage from the Los Angeles School Board. In effect this meant three hours of parents complaining about the quality of their kids’ education and being shouted down by a very bored-looking old black lady. Noon is where things got freaky, starting with animated tags so terrifying they put the old Talkback Thames logo to shame:

Don’t get me wrong, all TV production company logos in the ’80s were creepy. The difference here is that the shows themselves were like that too. First was a quietly radical talk show called Tony Brown’s Journal. Look it up on YouTube lest my comment section get too ridiculous.

After that was a surreal yet technical kids’ mystery show called Ghostwriter that had a surprising number of prestigious guest stars. Like many shows of that time, everybody I knew thought they were the only person who watched it, but it’s found a new life on the internet.

Finally the day concluded with some even more surreal documentaries on the LAUSD itself. It’s possible that they were all the same film because they always included the following things:

  • A scene of kids in Watts dancing to New Jack Swing in a school auditorium.
  • A shot of the train passing through LA’s South Side.
  • The narrator raving pessimistically in monotone.
  • “Candid” on-the-street interviews of people staring blankly at the camera and speaking in a similar monotone.

Clearly, the LAUSD had made these videos, but it was impossible to tell why. They were extremely critical, and there was no intended audience or even a detectable reason to make them.

Personally, I think it was genius. I think it somebody woke up one day in the late ’80s and said. “Kids these days have long, boring lives ahead of them. I’m going to make them crazy. Someday they’ll thank me.”

This has been a rare moment of uncritical ’90s nostalgia.

Being Colonial: Why I Love PBS

Originally, I was going to post about why, in the words of Sean Lock, “You should never read the bottom half of the internet.” (Here’s a post from Sally O’Rouke about why maybe sometimes you should).

But that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon and in any case everybody knows that. Instead, I’m going to talk about British television in America.

British TV has always been popular in the United States, but because of cultural cringe we tend to be undiscriminating. Ask an otherwise cultured American his or her opinion of EastEnders and try not to vomit from the praise.

Because six-episode series are too short for major networks to broadcast, most UK content ends up on PBS, the national broadcaster. PBS isn’t like the BBC, it’s way less powerful and critically underfunded. It’s also locally run, so programming can vary wildly from town to town. Most programming consists of travelogues, local interest shows, bizarre ethereal documentaries (the subject of a future post) and material purchased from the UK. The affiliates tend to broadcast the cheapest shows they can get the rights to, and so it was that Keeping Up Appearances was a staple of my childhood.

Our local PBS affiliate was the inept-but-somehow-still-prestigious KCET, which went under a couple of years ago. Now we get Orange County’s KOCE. The station is owned by the Orange County Register, a paper that makes the Wall Street Journal look like Pravda, but it’s a shining example of what public television should be. The production values and imported content are on par with BBC2 at the very least. They even broadcast the original version of The Office (PBS doesn’t have to worry about censorship past 10PM because there are no advertisers to scare away).

Like the BBC, PBS is stereotyped as a niche network for highbrow audiences, though in reality everybody watches it. Television ratings are the province of commercial networks, so not many people know that PBS actually regularly outperforms NBC, the CW, and in certain markets even CBS. When the second series of Sherlock premiered last month, it was watched by 5.5 million people. On Sundays, a night already crowded with prestige shows, it was third in its timeslot!

PBS, you see, can always be relied upon for event programming. It gave the world Ken Burns, who isn’t so much a man as a genre. It’s the network of Sesame Street. And while a lot of their original content is dreadful, the journey is always interesting and I’ve never regretted watching it (with the sole exception of Barney). Even though so much of it is imported from the UK, there are few better ways at understanding American culture.