Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Notes on the Landscapes Spotted in the Backgrounds of News Reports

Recently I started a daily ritual of watching Euronews after dinner. I’m not sure why I find the channel so absorbing, as when I actually lived in Europe I found it incredibly dull. And not dull in a smug, irritating BBC way but just… soul-crushingly boring, as is characteristic of anything that begins with the chilling prefix “Euro-”. Perhaps it’s only now, after years spent in a land where the news is delivered exclusively by pompous, Botoxed egomaniacs that I can appreciate the channel’s relatively understated style. Or then again, maybe I’m just digging the stuff I can see in the backgrounds.

Consider for instance Euronews’ reporting on Greece. It seems obvious that the country’s economy is doomed and that the latest raft of bailouts amount to just more money tossed on a bonfire. I mean, haven’t they tried that already? And how many times? Well, whatever. As a result, each report on Greece blurs into the last one, like some weird kabuki play in which the cast lifelessly perform their allotted roles over and over again. They show us some ugly people in suits sitting in a room in Greece looking sad; then some irritated Germans in suits laying down a new set of conditions for the miserable Greeks; then some depressed looking Greeks standing in the street talking about their feelings of powerlessness. Occasionally a fight breaks out. It feels like it’s been going on for forever.
Since it’s essentially the same set of ritual gestures repeated ad nauseam, I recently stopped listening to the dialogue and started studying the scenery in the backgrounds. Now that was interesting. I mean, have you noticed how rubbish Athens looks? It’s just a bunch of shabby, concrete buildings, crumbling roads and duff cars- and that’s the birthplace of Western Civilization! Incredible! Even the ruins of the Acropolis look decrepit and sad, completely lacking in the dilapidated grandeur you find in Rome.
Inspired by my Greek revelation, I was soon ignoring the content of the actual reporting whatever the country, and paying much more attention to the environments in the background. As a result I’ve made some interesting discoveries, foremost among which is how sad and tired the world looks, like Athens, only worse.
Last night for instance I saw a report on the latest futile attempt to stop the violence in Syria. Unhappy people were lining up for aid in a landscape of dust and shabby concrete. Of course, Syria, like Athens, should have its fair share of amazing structures and ruins. But wherever they are they clearly don’t impinge much on people’s lives. According to Euronews, the Syrians endure a fear-filled existence filled with rubbish and mediocrity. Senegal is even worse: this week Euronews reported from the country several times, where many people are angry over the geriatric president’s declared intent to run for a third term in office, in defiance of the country’s constitution. The angry Senegalese were rioting in a variant of the concrete-and-dust landscape I saw in Syria, only even more run down, amid a preponderance of hand-painted signs. At least the weather was nice.
I have also learned something very surprising about Iran: there are no mosques in the revolutionary Shiite theocracy. No, seriously, when I watch images from Tehran, all I see are cheap cars on dusty roads and dismal low-rise concrete apartment buildings, plus the occasional fuel rod being inserted into a nuclear reactor. The only major structure in the country appears to be that weird arch thingy they show as an establishing shot in every report, which I assume is a monument to some martyrs or other. Or possibly the occulted 12th Imam, who knows?
Of course not all the world is full of poor people living amid dust and concrete. Rio de Janeiro is a big alley inhabited by exuberant samba dancers wearing bejeweled bikinis and bright feathers. Brussels is a clinical Science Fiction dystopia of glass and steel populated entirely by pallid zombies. Reports from France can’t quite conceal the elegance of the buildings in the background, while all of the former USSR consists of a series of holes in the ice in which naked people are swimming.

Pakistan meanwhile doesn’t appear to have any buildings at all, but is instead an enormous crowd of angry people who are always shouting about something. Last week it was Saint Valentine’s Day: a group of women shrouded in black were burning a love heart and shrieking about the evils of this pernicious infidel holiday while some thuggish chaps with beards looked on approvingly. A week later a much bigger group of women had gathered and they were even angrier, protesting about their lack of rights. My sympathies were with the latter assembly, but I empathized with both groups of women. They were alike the victims of the chaps with beards, even if the aforementioned gentlemen only appeared to be lurking in the background, at the edges of vision.

Originally published 22 February 2012