Thursday, December 29, 2011

Smudged ink

T S Eliot once wrote, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” Looking at the way newspapers across the world are either going belly up or downsizing to the barest bone, Eliot is a vindicated man. My idea of an apocalyptic world is one where newspapers aren’t sold on the streets but can be read only on digital contraptions of various sizes. Thankfully, closure of News of the World brought dailies into an ephemeral limelight. That limelight is sputtering but will be alive for a while because of a few movies that released this year, which make for a pretty compelling case for the future of smudgy old newsprint in the face of new media.

One movie that makes maximum noise is the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. Film maker Andrew Rossi is a fly on the wall of the media desk of the Gray Lady and tries to portray how the world is a much more uncomfortable place to live in without newspapers (especially NYT). Page One is a documentary for news junkies that charts the apogee and perigee of arguably the best newspaper in the world: Pentagon Papers expose and the utterly discredited reporting of Judith Miller in Iraq respectively.

David Carr, the crusty media columnist of NYT and a former crack addict, is at the heart of the documentary whose spit-and-vinegar nature is an absolute delight. Right at the documentary’s fag end the viewer gets to see how Carr is ripping a Tribune Company’s executive to shreds for having the gall to accuse Carr of doing a “top to bottom hatchet job”. The ‘job’ here refers to the story that Carr eventually wrote about the company's bankruptcy and the rampant sexual transgressions that reduced the esteemed publication to a “fraternity house”. Carr takes a jibe at the ever-expanding Internet news machine and rightly so.

The earliest beacon of investigative journalism was Hunter S Thompson whose truculence produced some of the best pieces the world has ever seen. However, Thompson’s brand of journalism is something else, a kind of new journalism. While he was commissioned to cover a certain happening, his shoe-gazing self would unearth something else that would be oblivious to every other pair of journalistic eyes.

The Johnny Depp-starrer The Rum Diary is an adaptation of his book with the same title that he wrote in Puerto Rico while he was working with a newspaper called San Juan Star during the sixties. A young Paul Kemp (Depp) is assigned to write astrology columns and rambling pieces about American tourists that land up on the island to go bowling.

The movie’s shining moments are to be seen when Depp and his two amigos, the leathery photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and a batty religious affairs correspondent Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), get their banter going.

When Sanderson, a local mercenary played with an understated menace by Aaron Eckhart, asks Kemp to write a few flattering pieces about a real estate ripoff that he has in mind, the old school journalistic ethics start kicking in. Realising that he is turning into a bedfellow of the deep-pocketed evil men, Kemp tries to expose them but his troubles are such that he utters this line when at the printing press, “Do you smell it? It’s the smell of b**tards. It’s also the smell of truth. I smell ink!”

If Rum Diary is about journalistic ethics, Errol Morris’ purely entertaining documentary Tabloid lays bare how the Tabloids slug it out for that all-elusive ‘exclusive’. In the 1970s, Joyce McKinney, a Miss Wyoming and absolutely gorgeous woman, was accused of kidnapping and raping her erstwhile boyfriend who turned into a Mormon. While a fair bit of Tabloid is dedicated to how Joyce went about with her ‘act’, what Morris shows is the dog-eats-dog ethos of the Tabloid culture. Here were two premium UK Tabloids — Mirror and Daily Express— that were desperate for any scrap pieces of the story as long as it’s ‘exclusive’.

Closer to home, Tamil flick Ko is about an audacious newspaper photographer (played by Jeeva) who gets involved in journalistic capers that would make even Clark Kent blush. But then, at a time when Indian movies are all about wall-to-wall television coverage (cue Peepli Live), Ko redeems the declining habit of appreciating what’s on the front page.


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