Diabolic Diversions


In his 1974 survey of cinema Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel documented hundreds of examples of marginal and extreme audiovisions. Surrealist projections, satirical animations, Marxist polemics, pornographic thrills and records of birth and death – Vogel was articulate about the taboos, the formal innovations and the subject matter possible outside the Hollywood filmmaking system.

There is space within Vogel’s compendium given over to an area of film culture that most film writers even today would resist exploring – out of personal revulsion, political sensitivity or taste. It is the most dispiriting chapter of Film as a Subversive Art, which focuses on ‘Nazi cinema’. Unafraid to include these historical productions, Vogel considers their mass appeal and psychological power as state propaganda; noting the symbolic shorthand of the Nazi films and the way in which they stimulated atavistic impulses. Vogel even admits, as other critics and filmmakers have done with some reluctance, the grandeur of compositional scale and the geometric impact of Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Nuremberg rally.

The films commissioned by Hitler’s regime are wicked, racist and base in content, and they presaged a genocide unforgotten in living memory. No murder was recorded by the Nazis, though, in their efforts to muster mass public support. Maintaining the semblance of political legitimacy in their media, public appearances and foreign relations – no matter how destructive their political message was – the audiovisual arm of the German National Socialists fell short in cruelty and criminality when compared to the videos produced today by Islamic State (or IS). Even Hitler’s “diabolic diversions”, as Vogel describes them, had their limits.

The disturbing material made by IS, circulated across social networks and reported upon by the mainstream media, challenges the already expansive conception of film that Vogel allowed for in unexpected ways. One does not have to have watched any of the videos; they are inescapable in necessarily censored form, owing to news updates, online, on television and in print. And they are evidently influencing the actions of many people the world over.

They are foremost records of horrendous crimes. To choose to study the films in their entirety is, notwithstanding the legal implications, to replay the deaths of imprisoned individuals, with grieving families; maybe driven by some questionable moral and intellectual impetus to confront brutal realities, but then all too easily abstracting from such grim and exploitative material, in order to make a polemical move in a cultural and political debate. Useful research is no doubt ongoing within the intelligence services and has been carried out by think tanks whose intention is to gain a better understanding of IS’s recruiting techniques and the identities of those filmed.

Nevertheless, the role of these videos as religious and political propaganda of the most odious kind, and their clear adherence to a particular bombastic style and contemporary mode of distribution aimed at provoking a global audience makes this the most unsettling phenomenon for media culture, and civilisation itself, to countenance. In edited form, they might more reasonably be considered. Evading any of Vogel’s categorisations, IS continue to make execution films according to the model of a film series – complete with teasers, recurring characters and an unavoidably memorable visual design. They have the logic of an unending horror franchise. These characteristics are recognisable even from reprinted pixellated stills. Beyond this, the videos are a grisly component of a total image saturation that is radically distorting notions of veracity in all media now.

The thought of giving critical consideration to any such aesthetic dimensions of these documents of merciless murder, no matter how cautiously those dimensions may be defined, places those with a serious interest in the breadth of audiovisual culture in an unenviable position: struggling to discuss the social impact of the videos, or their warped political machinations, without being seen to be insensitive to the real lives devastated by their existence. In a talk given in July in Australia by the writer Philip Brophy, the value of drawing critical attention to IS videos in contemporary media was, judging only by the extract available to read on the author’s website, confirmed, with Brophy’s characteristic intelligence. [1]

To not acknowledge the continuing emergence of these films risks downplaying significant shifts in the types of filmmaking that are enabled with the prevalence of consumer film and editing tools, as well as online platforms for the rapid dispersal of files, either on publicly accessible streaming sites such as YouTube, or less visibly in the murkier recesses of the web. When readily available digital technologies are utilised for the purpose of terrorist provocations, the result – as IS has shown – can be medievalism of a kind previously left to the historical imagination now perpetrated and recorded in uploadable high-definition with the intention of reaching the large possible audience.

The extremity of the IS videos supersedes any political propaganda to date since the availablility of video technology, with even children recently making appearances, according to reports. Though they are no doubt intended to be widely viewed, they cannot be seen by the majority of the public, not only owing to the understandable revulsion they cause. Journalists, representatives of the law and politicians alike warn that to watch the videos is to knowingly widen their reach and possible influence, and may prompt legal action to be taken against the viewer. For most people they are encountered only as selected images, screencaps from each new video, published in daily newspapers, by which the general public does have an idea of the content and iconography. These images operate in the interstices between the viral video, the snuff film, and the action film series – designed to attract misguided, credulous individuals to join the group. Seen and unseen, arresting and repellent, the films remain talked about and taken down.

What can responsible, morally robust people who defend democratic principles, including film writers, possibly do to address this cultural phenomenon? The options seem limited beyond outright condemnation of the films and of anybody who chooses to watch them. Meanwhile the circulation continues outside of mainstream channels. Cannot film writers elucidate on the type of crass image strategies these terrorists are employing in an attempt to recruit sympathisers, even without subjecting themselves to the entire contents of the videos themselves? Can a counter-critical project be initiated by filmmakers who wish to outweigh the force of IS’s videos? Should one risk inflaming the situation by talking and creating back, or else hope that by ignoring it the problem will disappear? There are, unhelpfully, no clear and unproblematic answers.

No right-thinking person would consider these sickening films to be ‘art’, but they are most certainly audiovisions of the most subversive kind imaginable in the public sphere. To be as clear-eyed as Amos Vogel was in confronting the limit cases of film means that the new hyperviolent, speedily transmitted, publicly broadcast ‘terrorist film’ may well have to be included in any survey made today, no matter how taboo and unsavoury that might prove to be.



[1] Brophy, P ‘Voiding Effects and Terrorized Language: Video and the Unreality of ISIS’, published in part on the author’s website http://www.philipbrophy.com/projects/rstff/UnrealityISIS_Part2_C.html




The word ‘Spectacle’ is still commonly used in solemn pronouncements about our omni-mediated present, continuing on from the moment in 1967 when Guy Debord described what he saw as the culmination of capitalist society. The Spectacle described in his The Society of the Spectacle is the all-encompassing organisation of relations by images, stupefying us into an uncritical passivity; a massive organising force intent on the accumulation of capital and the effacement of reality. But, for me, the word evokes something contrastingly small, almost unseen but nonetheless thrilling.

In the 1970s, US performance artist Stuart Sherman began staging what he called ‘Spectacles’ for small audiences, and in public spaces. The routines invariably involved a small foldout table and a dozen or so random objects – empty pocket miscellany and cheap trinkets, the flotsam and jetsam of Debord’s society of mass consumerism. Sherman, showing little emotion, and not interacting with the viewer, would arrange and rearrange these objects in a speedy series of gestures lasting several minutes. Leaving onlookers in a grey area between an interpretative impulse and the pure enjoyment of seeing a pattern forming, if only fleetingly, the Spectacles were effectively strange magic shows, where no one could be certain just what had been made to appear or disappear. Not unlike a Jacques Tati gag, Sherman placed himself in relation to his objects, and each object in relation to all the others, in ways that surprised and tricked the eye, upending common perception and rewiring their rules of use.

The intensely idiosyncratic form that Sherman’s spectacles took were an epiphany to me when I first saw them, allowing me to better understand the pleasures I take in works of music, film and literature that I cannot explain by their plot interest, or any ‘meaning’, or even by reference to common expressive elements such as lighting, acting or writing. I became assured of the fact that something can work through repetitions, variations, permutations, surprise and speed on a larger spatiotemporal-audiovisual level. And that this does not simply betray a cold formalism but a way of emancipating everyday sights and sounds into an array of inventive arrangements suggested by their own shape and weight; not bent into some extraneous framework, such as those devised by the serialists in twentieth century musical composition.

Which leads me to think that the sort of small spectacles that Sherman enacted might be the best form of defence against the homogenising and stultifying force of the Spectacle as Debord envisioned it. Sherman’s approach, which extends to his writing and drawings too, is to crack open the appearances of the everyday and unpack just what is loaded in there in order to activate them in fresh ways. As Sherman himself explained about his work: “It’s what I do, but it’s the result of developing strategies for personal salvation, for escape from the intolerable, from certain existential cul-de-sacs.” With a view to reinvigorating contemporary experience, the arts and society, it might be the small moves that matter most.