His name is virtually unknown outside certain scholarly circles. Others may recognize him from a momentary cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He's the crotchety old man who tells the self-important academician that he knows "nothing" of his work, and how he ever got a job teaching is "totally amazing". But unless you were in college during the mid-'60s to early '70s, or somehow found yourself tuned into the seismic shifts going on in media studies during that same era, you probably have no idea who Marshall McLuhan is. Frankly, few outside his close family and friends understood him either. He was a brilliant man exploring a brain dead arena. He spoke of a fear of technology, but was not necessarily a Luddite. Even more confounding, his writings were a mish mash of borrowed theorems, original brilliance, and baffling intellectualism. Now, thanks to the Disinformation Company, and this intriguing Canadian documentary, McLuhan's mystery is being deciphered for perhaps the first time.
He was born in Canada in 1911. In school, he excelled in his studies, eventually earning a BA and an MA from the University of Manitoba. With his acceptance to Cambridge in England, he began his lifelong study of grammar, as well as his first fleeting glimpses into the arena of technology and perception. When he could not find a suitable job in his native land, he took a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the same time, he began an eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism. Over the course of the next 25 years, he taught on various campuses across North America, his writings receiving a great deal of attention for their parallels to the changes taking place in modern society. His 1951 book The Mechanical Bride began his steady deconstruction of the culture, and it was soon followed by The Guttenberg Galaxy (about the impact of the invention of print) and Understanding Media (resulting in an oft-quoted summarization "the medium is the message"). By the mid'60s he was a chat show regular and a fleeting fame whore. By the mid-70s, he was an easily dismissed dinosaur. In 1979 he suffered a debilitating stroke, and he died soon after. Yet now, 27 years after his death, Marshall McLuhan remains a relevant, even prescient thinker. Indeed, what he said four decades ago has more import now than it did before the invention of the PDA and the wireless world.
It's hard to say if Marshall McLuhan was a genius or a joke. There is definitely a correlation between his jargon rich writings, his frequently confounding public appearances, and his basic suppositions on media and technology. To read his various books and essays, one gets the distinct impression of a man speaking in his own language about a world he's created solely for himself. To hear him speak, one feels they are listening to a last act philosopher more or less 'making it up' as he goes along. In essence, McLuhan is the thinker's ultimate anagram, a human puzzle who holds the key to the solution in his own narrow make up. An exceptionally brilliant man, a grammarian by education and approach, he unexpectedly found himself at the crux of the '60s social and cultural rebirth. Unlike other commentators who argued over and attempted to explain the import of the changes happening around them, McLuhan drew more universal corollaries between man and his media. He also argued that the brash scientific discoveries promising to radically alter the way we live were destined to irrevocably redefine us. Instead of improving our everyday existence, if unchecked, they were plotting to make us their unwitting slaves.
Built around his last scholarly work, The Laws of Media, McLuhan's Wake (a nifty play on words that references James Joyce – a favored author – with an equally applicable nautical term) is a combination biography, explanation and narrative experiment. It uses a less known story by Edgar Allen Poe – "The Descent into the Maelstrom" - as the perfect way to illustrate visually McLuhan's frequently obtuse ideas (the tale was one of the man's favorite allegorical touchstones). Briefly, Poe showed how a swirling vortex of possible destruction – the whirlpool surrounding technological advances in McLuhan's eyes – can only be survived if one simply looks beyond the chaos toward the guiding constants within. In the case of scientific breakthroughs like satellite communication and computing (and today, cell phones and the Internet) one had to consider four major questions before measuring the potential positive or negative impact of new ideas. These queries – "What does the new idea extend?" (a car extends the efficiency of our travel); "What does it replace/make obsolete?" (in this case, the bicycle or horse); "What is retrieved?" (with the car, a sense of adventure and travel); and "What is reversed if the idea is over-applied?" (safety, health, community). The answers supply the necessary talking points for a greater, more comprehensive discussion>
It is clear from the comments in this documentary (our talking head guides are offered in voice-over only until the last scenes of the film) that McLuhan was ahead of his time - at the very least, by about 30 years. When you hear him speak via lectures, talk show appearances and early videotape of his classroom debates, you hear someone warning us about the self-fulfilling prophecy of easily accessible communication, unlimited information retrieval, and the mechanization of our most basic needs. Indeed, McLuhan seemed to be prophesizing the current obsession with multi-function cell phones, Internet porn, and the over-complication of basic appliances and accessories. His global village arguments – that technology would eventually link all the worlds together as one – have obviously come true, and his well quoted "the medium is the message" more or less describes the 24 hour a day information culture perfectly. The documentary itself is visually arresting, loaded with archival material meant to put McLuhan and his life into perspective. Perhaps the most amazing element here is his transformation from ivory tower academic to '60s symbol to dismissed crackpot, all in the span of a decade and a half. Equally troubling was the way he was treated after a debilitating stroke left him unable to "perform" for his keepers. While his methodology will remain elusive after watching this engaging effort, it's almost impossible to deny the man's cultural clairvoyance. McLuhan saw the world like few before or since. His kind of guidance is definitely needed now.
Though the film itself uses a widescreen format to sell its storyline, Disinformation offers this image in a 1.33:1 full screen letterboxed presentation sure to piss off 16x9 and anamorphic enthusiasts. Part of the reason for their anger will be the overall excellence of the picture. McLuhan's Wake looks stunning, its combination of animation, high definition video and archival footage melding together to form a visually arresting offering.
With a remarkable soundtrack composed by Kurt Swinghammer and easily discernible discussions, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix sets the perfect mood for this discussion of McLuhan. His own words are clear, even if his ideas frequently are not, and even the ancient videotape delivers an easily understandable speaker.
What individuals enamored with McLuhan or those who hope to learn more about the man will definitely delight in is the amazing amount of added content created for this DVD. Divided into four sections ("Movies", "Laws", "Voices", "Documents"), each area offers its own unique surprises. "Movies" contains the main film itself, as well as the entire animated retelling of Poe's "Maelstrom" story. Finally, there is a 12 minute conversation with McLuhan's widow Corrine. She provides an excellent supplement to the facts and fallacies presented in the documentary. In "Voices", there are recordings of McLuhan during a speaking engagement at an author's luncheon in New York and an interview at Princeton University, both circa 1966. Then there are over five HOURS of audio discussions with people who knew the man very well. All are well worth a listen. Finally, Swinghammer's sensational score is accessible either in segments, or as one entire piece.
In the "Documents" section of the disc, there are many accessible and downloaded writings to peruse. You can see the shooting script for the film, the director's notes and an actual transcript. There is also a biography, a bibliography and a list of important websites. There's even educator notes and study guides. Perhaps the best material arrives in the "Laws" section, since it provides interactive proofs of McLuhan's Four Questions approach to subjects. Referred to as Tetrads, there is a brief introduction on the importance of these postulates, followed by 14 illustrations (automobile, cell phone, skyscraper, Capitalism, etc.) of the laws' applicability. Perhaps the most interesting are "Video Games" (enhancing entertainment, replacing television, recalling parlor games as the overuse threatens the user with becoming a mindless automaton) and "Fame" (enhances recognition, removes privacy and results in infamy as it attempts to replace the totem symbolism of the past). It is endlessly fascinating material and really begins to sharpen and focus McLuhan's work. For this aspect alone, this digital presentation is quite remarkable.
Even on his best days, Marshall McLuhan remained an obscure idealist. In fact, when you listen to him closely and cut out all the arcane borderline bullshit and get to the meat of his meaning, you see a very simplified stance. In truth, it's reminiscent of one of chaos theories primary stances – just because you can create something doesn't mean you should. McLuhan's beliefs, wrapped up as they were in exactitude and observation are really just warnings, admonitions over letting technology and ease of communication rule our lives. Thanks to the in depth documentary provided here, and the wealth of added context provided, this excellent DVD easily earns its Highly Recommended rating. Newcomers may feel a little overwhelmed by the scope of some of the ideas, and as stated before, McLuhan can sound like an alien arguing architecture with an anteater. But if you've always wondered about that funny little man dressing down a clueless lout at Woody Allen's request, or how "the vast wasteland" of television got such a mean spirited moniker, this will be an excellent introduction. A great deal of turmoil has been left in McLuhan's far reaching wake. The ride will be very bumpy, but in the end, more than worth it.