Dr Fatmir Terziu
It’s been suggested that television is a significant factor in the shifting boundary between the public and the private and between personal and public life; explore the suggestion through the critical examination of Paul Watson’s documentary Rain in my Heart (2006).
Television as a tool of communication plays a determinant role through the images and language to create a reality effect by displaying messages and encoding them to the viewers in a believable way. Discursive ‘knowledge’ on screen television thus becomes exclusively a problem of and around “articulation of language” (Hall, 1980:131). Furthermore television has a power to offer importance on the imaginary perception of decoded messages. So, television, as a technically mediated communication interacts as an important medium in delivering messages from producers to the viewers. However, television’s tendency to intervene an exploration of personal life has become a new impact on creating a variable boundary between the public and the private and between personal and public life. Silverstone talked of television “as a great leveller … of everyday life” (Silverstone, 1994:87). In similar way Chanan reveals, “the documentary, especially on television, has the power to promote its subjects to the centre of public attention” (Chanan, 2000:226). This essay aims to explore through the critical examination the suggestion that television is a significant factor in the shifting boundary between the public and the private and between personal and public life using Paul Watson’s documentary Rain in my Heart(2006).
2. The documentary
2.1 Material collected from everyday life
Rain in my Heartis a documentary that can be seen as an example of television’s key vogue with private and personal.The documentary opens with a frustrated Watson trying to get the hospitals cooperation to make the film. He is shown on the telephone with a hospital administrator who refuses to help. From the very beginning of the documentary, the fact that it opened with this sequence, the message is clear that nothing will be kept private, even whatever happens to Watson himself. Finally, Watson is allowed to continue his project and follow four patients, who have been admitted to a general hospital in Medway Maritime, in Kent.Investigating daily lives of the alcoholic people from Medway towns made it possible to display information about them and their lives. Ellis called it “material garnered from everyday life” (Ellis, 2002:114). As fly-on-the-wall documentary, Rain in my Heart, created an interest for the viewers to follow the fate and the most intimate and private moments of these subjects: Mark, Vanda, Toni and Nigel. For Kilborn and Izod “this form of documentary responds to the insatiable preference of television” (Kilborn & Izod, 1995:74).
2.2 Paul Watson’s camera
Paul Watson’s camera, present at every moment of their day, made it easier for their private lives to be turned public. Through the use of images, the documentary created a real impact by showing the subjects’ every movement. This made the viewers believe in what is shown to them. Hall rightly points out that “TV handles and manages the contradiction of everyday life” (Hall, 1980:121). For instance when Toni goes into the details of her life-story, the camera produces the beauty of her past in photography, taking it to the point where the spectator is focused on the image. In fact the beauty of her in the past presented on the screen space is not a simple comparison to her present. Toni is no longer the bearer of responsibility but a perfect product, whose face, fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the documentary and the direct beneficiary of the spectator’s interest. What can be understood from this is that it “underscores the emphasis on the private, personal and domestic” (Biressi & Nunn, 2005:65). This is on the one hand a factual subject of Rain in my Heart, but it is also a clear definition of “the ways in which common-sense knowledge of social structures and situations are transformed through the intervention of television” (Hall, 1980:21).
3. Television and its power
3.1 Television’s power over character’s behaviour
As the boundary between their private and public lives crumbles, the documentary brings aspects that before were only private into the public eye. Even though Watson realises his aim to interview Vanda Easdown, at the end of the film she does not shake his hand. The discussion, which follows, refers to Vanda’s anger about the questions made to her. When Watson asked Vanda whether she was telling the truth about her account of being abused as a child by her father, the message gives a clear understanding that television has shifted the boundary between private and public, and made it easier for Vanda to be engaged in the public sphere. According to Ellis “documentaries do not create an inner life for characters: what you see and hear is what you get, and what you have to judge” (Ellis, 2002:115). It seemed disturbingly likely Vanda was telling the truth, and Watson’s hesitation and disbelief must have caused her unnecessary pain regarding her story. Furthermore Vanda’s complaints that she is being manipulated by being asked questions only when she is drunk, bring the documentary to question. Both complaint and answer assume that television “has a certain power over people’s behaviour” (Gauntlett & Hill, 1999:49). Although the documentary at this argument serves to reinforce dominant cultural ideology, Watson in a very professional way explores Vanda’s important personal life from her past. Silverman reveals “in unconscious discourse … the past has priority over the present” (Silverman, 1983:64). The two long scenes of Vanda, where she talks about her lover, her family and the death of her brother are good examples of this point. In fact, with no voice-of-God, no scene with establishers and with no conventional linear narrative, the documentary holds its entire context together. However, Vanda’s private life has become as the reflexive observance of a private life, because the viewers can feel a part of her life and they can comment on both situations related on her complaints.
3.2 Television; its privilege of ‘the real’ and narrative
Rain in my Heartis an intimate portrait of its four subjects. Through this it becomes clear that their addiction is closely linked with other problems, including personal tragedies, mental illness and eventually the depressingly derelict nature of the Medway towns where they live. The facts that surround the documentary are clear messages that these people drink because they have got a malfunction in them of one type or another. From the documentary itself the viewers learn that one patient of Gillingham’s hospital was abused as a child, another has a child dead from MRSA and another patient’s brother died in a car accident. Furthermore, Vanda’s explanation about not having a child, mainly due to the fact that she was scared that the social services would take the child if she had one, are set in contrast to the fact that Toni has a child, and the social services have not taken the child from her. The narrative, which comes from a doctor’s storytelling source, gives a sense that these images denote these facts from their past but, in combination with other situations and images, will come to connote other aspects. Dr. Gray Smith-Laing declares clearly, “everything we do here is too late: we’ve missed the boat by miles.” For Brundson television is allowed to be ‘good’; it poses a “privileged relation to the real” (Brundson, 1990:59).This makes clear the fact that television derives this situational mode of communication into readable messages for its audience. Fiske reveals, “the television text has to be read and enjoyed by a diversity of social groups” (Fiske, 1987:66). So viewers can interpret and connect the documentary messages. Weedon’s argument “meanings do not exist prior to their articulation in language and language is not an abstract system” can be seen as a dominant point to the fact that narrative in Rain in my Heartpersistently provides surprises, but these surprises reveal themselves as another aspect of a whole, as both connecting the consequences of Vanda’s story, and as thematically linked to the major outlines of meaning that emerge gradually (Weedon, 1997:40). For Chanan the documentary has “the power to bring forward all sorts of unheard voices” (Chanan, 2000:226). In this account it means that participants of Rain in my Heartare encouraged to tell their stories truthfully to anyone, without any thought that their words and their images are shown on television and the viewers can express different opinions on the following days, months or years.
3.3 Verité–styleand Close up shots
Visual representation of death is another clear fact of this argument. It is the most disconcerting moment, both emotionally and intellectually, when Nigel and Toni die. Toni 26, a binge drinker died during the documentary. Nigel, in his 50’s, died on camera from liver disease, although he had given up drinking 10 years earlier. After the death of these two participants the documentary structure gets complicated, because the story event does not follow the traditional theory of having a beginning, middle and an end. At this point, when Nigel and Toni die, even though the continuity of the documentary is questionable, television, one of the best mediums for examining the depth of human relationships, reveals permanence on reality TV style. For Corner it “becomes the central principle of verité–styleprogrammes” (Corner, 1995:88). Watson’s camera panning from left to right focuses on their death-beds by the use of many close-up and medium shots, and his voiceover challenges viewers’ complicity as they see them slip away. It makes sense for viewers to concern themselves with aspects of this sequence that function as a sign, as illustrious from carrying signs. Bignell says, “television is a “close-up” medium, better suited to revealing character than to capturing action” (Bignell, 1997:30). According to Bignell, close up (signifier), by the use of face only (definition), explores the meaning of intimacy (signified) (1997:30). The viewers learn this observable fact as they watch television, and it helped them to understand what is going on in Rain in my Heart. So Watson’s camera when Nigel dies differentiates the information about his possibility of death with the real situation that surrounds his last moments of life.
3.4 Television; New reality and its representation
Television, according to Francis has two parallel problems: “one is to do with the power of the picture… and secondly the accompanying words” (Francis, 1981:9). Like all four characters of the documentary, Nigel’s body is not just on display; it is literally out of control, bearing the visible signs of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Toni’s blood loss, Mark’s yellow eyes and the tears in his face and Vanda’s leg problems are the slightly repeated images on camera. For McLuhan “the yen of the TV medium for themes of process and complex reactions has enabled the documentary type of film to come to the fore” (McLuhan, 2002:349). Furthermore, Vanda making fun of the caretakers by repeating their names; and the repetition of some important facts in the documentary, such as the doctor’s final advice to the alcoholics, that if they drink again they will die; send an ironic message to the viewers. Kompare is concerned with the contemporary term of the documentary that uses actualities of today. He reveals “the current explosion of reality TV depicts, rather than explains” (Kompare, 2004:104). The documentary charts the traumas faced by the alcoholics, as they try to cope with daily life and tries to highlight the emotional impact their struggle has had on those around them. In his essay Television as Working – Through, John Ellis has developed a consistent view of the specificity of documentary. For Ellis “Watson’s characters have been surprised by the level of public debate that has taken place about their values and behaviours” (Ellis, 1999:63). Furthermore, Silverstone’s argument on the individual and the social, explores the fact that “the power of the media was to be understood in the ways in which it was presumed to affect the isolated individual” (Silverstone, 1994:144). In his theory, he provides an account of what he called the “experience of television in all factuality” which leads to Murray’s argument “TV establishes new relationships between reality and its representation (Silverstone & Murray, 1994:144 & 2004:5).
4. The levels between public and private behaviour
Straightforwardly this documentary is shocking to the core and if anything it clearly highlights the difference between alleged drinkers and real alcoholics who drink without even thinking about it. For instance in Rain in my Heartthe audience has a clear understanding that the documentary is not about drinking, but displays messages about drinking. In particular Biressi and Nunn’s postulate, help us to understand that “to have subjected your life to the camera, becomes the near-guarantee of the production of a new form of knowledge for the viewer” (Biressi & Nunn, 2005:36). Through this communication the documentary brought visual images apparently ready to take final decision, but when the camera focuses on what is personal; the message comes from an immediate interpretation, as when Vanda drinks herself unconscious, or when Watson brings Nigel a bucket to vomit in. So these facts can be interpreted clearly in the way Silverman argues; “the signifying strategies adopted by the unconscious differ markedly from those which predominate in waking life” (Silverman, 1983:64). Both these facts are related to the fact that documentary brought on the television screen a private behaviour of these participants accessible to the public to fulfil the aim of the documentary itself. As McLuhan reveals “the visual power enables us to isolate the single incident in time and space. By contrast in Rain in my Heartcharacters private presence on camera has not only changed the levels between public and private behaviour, but also changed the significance of space. Silverstone argues that “the creation of the individual as a social subject, involves the emergence of a space” (Silverstone, 1994:9).
5. The documentary’s public message
Finally, drinking problems in Rain in my Heartprefigure social as well as semiotic attributes of television as an important element in the shifting the boundary between the public and private of these four participants. The documentary’s public message agenda is still central to the specified Watson’s work: investigating problems of four participants; interfering on the importance of the private and the personal and exploring the facts and expected or unexpected happenings until the tragic end of their life. From this point of view the documentary is driven not simply by the fate of these people, but by Watson’s derivate of representation. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn call it “trademark features of Watson’s filmmaking” (Biressi & Nunn, 2005:64). Meanwhile, of course, Vanda and Toni die, and the two others, who play no part in the final moment of their life, are wheeled back in at the end to comment. So it is in Rain in my Heart. The gratitude of Nigel in his deathbed in hospital is palpable and touching, as is the image of Toni, who collapsed conscious and dead on camera. But the truth of their emotion and condition is no guarantee of the thing it most powerfully underpins, namely the addiction, which semiotically preys upon the condition of this category of people. This is the power of Rain in my Heartand of television after it, a power to deliver clear messages as well as to decode them, by naturalising as public opinion the problems of everyday life of these characters. From the documentary the message is clear. The lack of close attention to these problems might make the problem worse. However the tendency of representation in nonlinear editing and opening the space for debatable argument when the messages and images are not distinctly remembered does not enhance the importance of television as a significant factor in the shifting of boundaries between the public and the private and between personal and public life. Ang argues that different conceptions of the social meaning “are related to the structuring of televisual discourse” (Ang, 1996: 21). So the fact that Watson uses his camera to represent four personal lives into the public eye, it might mean that messages, which are highlighted, are likely to be engaged by the audience. As for McLuhan “the viewer is involved and becomes a participant” (McLuhan, 2002:347).
In summary, in the outline of the problems and messages of Rain in my Heart, with which this essay has been concerned, the main object has been to supply a straightforward account of the field of the suggestion that television is a significant factor in the shifting of boundaries between the public and the private and between personal and public life. My intent has been to present the facts that surround this television documentary and to explore these happenings through the critical examination. Among the main features of this standpoint is the feeling that, this television documentary has tended to concentrate too much on isolated private problems, such as one of the character’s personal lives in the past, and not enough on the main problems that drinking causes to the participants of the documentary. I have dwelt primarily on the theories of Hall and Silverstone, though something has been said about this importance of the television, and also about the theorists who have carried on the work started by Hall and Silverstone. In particular I have mentioned Fiske as an advocate of Hall’s theory, and Brundson as one who has carried on a viewpoint similar in many ways to that of Silverstone. There are of course, other particular and general contributions, and in this regard I would remind that Ang, Biressi, Gauntlett, Nunn, and many others, have also made their contribution to the subject. Attempts to construct a critical analysis of the television effect on this boundary are attempts to grapple with problems of messages and other problems of private and public conventions in Rain in my Heart. Where I think more empirical evidence is needed, is in the development of this boundary beyond its real bounds, to include individual differences of participants in the documentary and social behaviour as a public matter.
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Rain in my Heart(Paul Watson, 2006, BBC2, UK)