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Cinema verite and the criminal element: a perspective.

DURING THE LATE 1980s, a new form of television show became popular. This type of programming represents a variant of cinema verite. In this case, real people in everyday situations are the focus of attention. For example, the activities of law enforcement officers are documented when making arrests.

In this television mode, nothing is staged or rehearsed. City police or county sheriffs are taped while they perform their normal duties. The audience follows along on the stakeout or arrest in order to gain an uncensored view of the criminal underworld.

The media's obsession with crime is not new, but it certainly reached new highs during the 1980s. Fueled by the spread of a species of conservative ideology, the usual fear of crime was amplified. A majority of the populace believed criminals were everywhere, and thus blamed them for practically every social ill. Now, scarcely anyone believes they are safe from these predators. Women, old persons, and households are thought especially vulnerable.

Conservative politicians and media figures were able to convince the public that American society is on the verge of collapse due to the proliferation of the criminal element. A tough program designed to reestablish "law and order" is undoubtedly needed, they argued. The cornerstone of this policy should be an increased presence of police on the streets, swifter trials, harsher sentences, and a host of judicial reforms aimed at eliminating unnecessary appeals and other impediments to justice. The message is that criminals should no longer be coddled.

Given this full-scale assault on crime, who could imagine that in some circles criminal behavior has actually increased? Indeed, white-collar crime became more visible than ever before. The Michael Milken/Drexel Burnham Lambert and the S&L scandals became household topics. Towns were ruined, lives destroyed, and billions of dollars added to the national debt because of the antics on Wall Street -- and elsewhere.

But conservatives did not seem very worried about these crimes. In fact, there was little moral outrage directed at these high-class criminals. They were fundamentally good citizens who happened to make poor decisions due to uncontrollable circumstances. As opposed to those who rob convenience stores, these bankers and financiers were actually trying to boost the economy. But because of sagging domestic investments, a series of international events, and wasteful government regulations, even the best-made plans could not be brought to fruition. Well-intentioned persons, in short, could not escape untouched by these circumstances.

Through a variety of means, therefore, the attempt was made to diminish the criminal liability of these persons. Reference was made constantly to their education, family ties, standing in the community, and contributions to business, in the hope of portraying them as solid citizens who were not a threat to society. Although a few prominent offenders were sentenced to jail, such as Charles Keating, most of them will never be incarcerated. Consequently, conservatives have tended to reinforce what some criminologists refer jokingly to as the "asshole" theory of crime. According to this thesis, criminals are presumed to be losers who are lazy, stupid, and immoral.

This image is fairly easy to instill in the general public. After all, white-collar criminals are clean, well dressed, highly educated, and thoroughly integrated into their communities. Why should these persons be feared? For the most part, fear is associated with those who are marginal, strange, and lurk in the shadows. And because the strange is difficult to predict, persons tend to feel especially vulnerable to street crime. The street criminal is usually thought to be waiting for the right opportunity to strike an unsuspecting victim.

This view of crime is certainly evident in T.V. programs such as Top Cops or Cops. Typically, the perpetrator who is sought or apprehended exists at the periphery of society. He or she is often unemployed, uneducated, and resides in an undesirable part of town. The offense often relates to the use or sale of drugs, theft, spouse abuse, or capricious threats or acts of violence. In general, crimes are presented in such a way that they are associated with seamy characters who have little regard for conventional morality, standards of hygiene, or a work ethic. The viewer, therefore, should have no difficulty identifying these persons as reprobates and criminals.

This scenario is certainly congruent with the "asshole" rendition of crime. The message is clear that these persons are criminals because they lack self-control, motivation, or the will power to improve their lives. In some cases, the problem appears to be prolonged bad luck. Regardless, these persons are portrayed as unable to compete fairly in society, and thus must resort to criminal behavior in order to survive. Their criminality is inevitable; their condition is a fait accompli.

This viewpoint reflects a sentiment voiced by cultural conservatives, such as William Bennett, former Secretary of Education. According to Bennett, most social problems can be reduced to the personal troubles of select individuals. The bromide "just say no" is a textbook example of this philosophy. Will power, perseverance, and sacrifice are touted as sufficient to produce success. In the Social Darwinist world of these conservatives, the individual is the primary locus of either success or failure. To look for causes elsewhere is an excuse used by those who are destined to fail, or a naive response by well-meaning, but uninformed, liberals. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, crime has causes that originate within the individual, most likely at the genetic or psychological level.

According to this view of social life, institutions have little to do with crime. Crime is mostly the product of a personal deficiency. Advantage, the exercise of power, racial or sexual discrimination, for instance, have little to do with a personal failing such as criminal behavior. Furthermore, social intervention is not deemed to be a relevant corrective. When advice is offered it usually takes the form of suggestions for strengthening a person's moral fiber.

In the Cops or Top Cops versions of cinema verite, institutions are not mentioned. Sordid individuals are pursued and caught trying to circumvent an economic and social system that is basically good. These persons do not merit any sympathy, for they are unrepentant parasites. Because of their disregard for traditional values, such criminals do not deserve mercy. And if the police should take the opportunity to harass or brutalize these individuals, the implication is that such punishment is completely warranted.

Never once has a banker or Wall Street executive been the centerpiece of a plot. Obviously such an episode would not be as exciting as cornering and apprehending someone who has several outstanding arrest warrants for drug trafficking. On the other hand, however, this omission might be expected, due to the ambivalence expressed by many citizens about white-collar crime. The public may often wonder, how could the "best and brightest" be knowingly involved in illegal activity? But there appears to be an aversion to reaching this conclusion. Time after time, extreme efforts are taken to find alternative explanations when high-ranking officials are charged with crimes.

Yet the opposite is true when a minority or poor person is believed to have robbed a Seven Eleven. Guilt is regularly presumed, rather than innocence. The caveat is made in the introduction to these programs that those who are arrested are innocent, until their guilt is determined by a fair trial. Nonetheless, the manner in which these culprits are pursued, described, treated, and processed leaves no doubt about their guilt. The impression is conveyed that a trial would be a waste of time, money, and effort. Anything these persons could possibly say in their defense would be merely an excuse or a rationalization of their behavior.

This conclusion is certainly in line with a conservative worldview. But what is presented is a simplistic and distorted version of crime. This vision is distorted because street crime is identified as the primary threat to social security. Overlooked is the devastating impact of white-collar crime. Surely hidden pollution, corporate rip-offs, insider deals, and safety violations, for example, are at least equally detrimental to citizens!

A simplistic picture of crime is necessarily offered because the range of factors that contribute to the onset of criminal behavior is ignored. Simply put, these "cop programs" are reductionistic in the classic sense. Social considerations -- poverty, discrimination, and the abuse of political power -- are ignored while attention is focused on personal traits.

The theory that sustains this manifestation of cinema verite is "crackpot realism," again to borrow from the work of Mills. Importance, in other words, is accorded to factors that are sensational or most easily revealed. The search for truth is thus quite superficial and involves little more than pretense. Critical issues beyond the boundaries imposed by personal psychology or physiology are rarely raised.

Although this is a matter of artistic style, a particular political agenda is also served. In Top Cops and similar programs, attention is directed away from so-called macro-issues pertaining to social problems. Institutional discrimination, which is very difficult to detect, is never mentioned. Economic exploitation, the red lining of neighborhoods by banks, and the absence of real employment and educational opportunities are never discussed. Those who control the access to key institutions are not confronted, while those who are often the victims of unscrupulous practices are publicly ridiculed. In the end, power and advantage are legitimized. This outcome was considered to be entirely acceptable by many participants in the Reagan-Bush administrations.

Central to the cinema verite esthetic is that truth is revealed by making a foray into a formerly inaccessible arena. Thus, achieving close proximity to criminals might result in more valid assessments of law enforcement. In these T.V. shows viewers are cajoled into believing that they are provided with insights never before revealed about the criminal subculture. The shows imply that because input is supposedly unedited, the resulting information is unbiased. A complete picture of the crime scene, or mise en scene, is therefore exposed.

But this tableau is false. These exposes, instead, are underpinned by a host of assumptions. Operative are very restrictive theories of criminology and a conservative political philosophy. As a result, these programs are not objective, contrary to the stated purpose of the medium. In fact, ideology pervades these shows.

But this claim raises a bigger question: Can truth ever be reached through cinema verite? If by truth is meant providing a pristine or innocent depiction of reality, the answer must be no. For such a definition requires that a state of value neutrality be achieved. Accordingly, a complete absence of orientation would be required, which would be tantamount to self-annihilation. Clearly such a demand is absurd. All that is possible, due to the inability to extinguish the human element, is to gather various snippets of reality from a variety of perspectives.

A host of assumptions guide the camera and give form to the reality that is encountered. Still, viewers can be convinced easily they are watching an unmediated portrayal of events, because the film maker is immersed in a setting. The spontaneity that is sensed lends an aura of credibility to the vignettes.

I suggest throughout this discussion that objectivity is not necessarily a goal of these programs. Of course, they are embellished to enhance their entertainment value. Less obvious, however, is the political ideology that is supported. Although they seem realistic, the programs mask a very conservative orientation. Cinema verite, in this sense, does not simply mirror, but creates a "reality."

The problem with this recent attempt at cinema verite can be traced to the acceptance of dualism, particularly the principle of value-freedom. Value-freedom is predicated on the assumption that interpretation can be sequestered from reality, or, in the terms adopted by Descartes, the cogito can be separated from the extended or material world. Clearly this dualism is dubious, for it requires that the knower be purged from the process of acquiring knowledge. A dualistic perspective holds that objectivity should not be tainted by subjectivity. But required by this schism is that all knowledge be understood as disconnected from actual persons or situations. Dualistically conceived knowledge would not have a human anchor and thus would be truly abstract.

When dualism is given credence in this way, cinema verite makes sense. Specifically, introducing a camera into unrehearsed interaction will likely reveal truth, for whatever occurs will be recorded without any distortion. Yet if the human presence is a vital ingredient in truth, value-freedom must be rejected. The beliefs, values, and interests expressed by persons must not be excluded from the identification and pursuit of valid knowledge, unless the goal is to discover abstractions.

In cinema verite, ostensibly value-free presentations should be viewed as suspect. Every depiction embodies a perspective. Likewise, the T.V. programming under discussion is not devoid of values, although attention is diverted away from them. A conservative ideology is conveyed in the guise of honest and responsible reporting. A particular configuration of facts is deployed, rather than a reality sui generis. T.V. audiences must begin to recognize this difference, if they are to become mature viewers able to resist the medium's covert manipulation.

John W. Murphy is Professor of Sociology at the University of Miami. His works include Post Modern Social Analysis and Criticism.
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Author:Murphy, John W.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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