Bleak House - Beautiful Things

Curator's Note

I'm not sure what's most appropriate for In Media Res. Something notable from recent broadcast television, like BBC's Bleak House? Or something that represents innovation in television, from YouTube? How about a clip about Bleak House from YouTube? I've chosen a redaction called Bleak House – Beautiful Things. Bleak House (BBC UK 2005, PBS Jan/Feb 2006; ABC Australia July 2006, DVD 2006, trailer) stands out from current TV by reason of its unblinking commitment to the grim (scenario) and the plain (heroine), showing in detail how property law grinds against human sentiment. We don't get much class analysis on TV these days, but if ever you were interested in why Marx and Engels based their critique of capitalism on Victorian England look no further. Bleak House is a grim tale about human decency in an era of private property, created by the dramaturgical masters, in a setting worthy of the 'monstrous city.' So what's in it for the YouTube generation? Gillian Anderson for one; many of the videos or comments about Bleak House seem to be from Scully fans. The clip I've chosen is a generic YouTube redaction of scenes from Bleak House under a soundtrack of Andain's 'Beautiful Things,' (lyrics), a song apparently about teenage suicide. It is classic DIY self-made creative content, using television (without regard to IP law) to produce a personal 'trance' or reverie about watching television with thoughts in your head ('Beautiful Things' turns up 24 times on YouTube – to howls of protest when commentators think the video used with it is inappropriate: see here). The heroism of the ordinary was a prime message of television. Now, instead of leaving the evocation of grim reality and how to survive it to the professionals, we can think it through by making our own creative version and sharing it with others. So what do you think?


While I agree that youtubers offer up an opportunity for reimagining professional labor and challenge who has the right to assert the "meanings" for TV texts, it seems that the Bleak House clip provides a classic example of the need to be wary of blindly celebrating non-sanctioned audience activity as progressive. As you state, John, we don't get much class critique on TV, but it seems that even when we do, those messages are interpreted through the refracted lens of celebrity worship. If we are all textual poachers, what meanings are we taking away from Bleak House and to what end? More to the point, should we celebrate these new opportunities for creative intervention when they are clearly not accompanied by any critical literacy skills? Or am I just being a snob about this?

Maybe not a snob, Avi, but perhaps a bit ... unimaginative in your response to this text? It's true that it isn't a progressive, Marxist-based class analysis. But then, it isn't claiming to be, so isn't judging it on that criterion a bit ... odd? The point stands that meanings are not determined by producers.

Alan, I totally agree with your assessment that meaning does not (and in most instances, should not and cannot) rest with producers and I'll comp to my snobbery here (though, oddly, I'm used to being the populist in the bunch, but JH just brings out the dormant Marxist in me, I suppose), but my concern is really the ways in which we celebrate these interventions without critically assessing the ways in which they either challenge or reinscribe dominant discourses. The Bleak House mash-up demonstrates to me how "playing" with the text does not guarantee a critical perspective of the structural limitations of the playground on the part of the players. Yes, you are right, this was not their intention and it is snobbish of me to impose my taste sensibilities onto theirs, but at what point in time do we stop equating liberatory play with liberation?

I am a vidder - not an academic and I honestly couldn't sit through more than 10 minutes of Bleak House but, I really think this vid works well. My sense of the book/show is that it is primarily about complex legal wranglings over money after the death of a family member. I find this sort of topic about as tedious in fiction as I do in real life. The vidder has taken this story and pulled out of it a theme I find more interesting. She is exploring what it means to be beautiful in the context of this society. The woman who is the main character of the vid has a beautiful soul but, has been disfigured by smallpox. There is a moment that is quite moving when her hand brushes over a picture of an angel. It is quite clear that the picture was drawn for her and it is equally clear that the person who drew it has not seen her since the disfigurement and that when he does, he will think less of her. We also see Gillian Anderson's character who is clearly very beautiful but seems to be harboring secrets. I am hampered here by not being familiar with the source but she seems to have dark side. The social status of women in this world is based primarily on their appearance and the content of their character is completely irrelevant. That theme goes right to the heart of the psychological, social, and philosophical issues of self worth, jealousy and identity that I have to deal with every day. It seems far more relavent than class struggle or arguments about inheritance. The fact that the vidder chose to focus on that theme rather than the more directly economic one that is central to the story is, in a way, quite political. The fact that she was able to do this tells me that she does have pretty good critical skills. It is unlikely that she has academic litcrit credentials, though not impossible. I do know two English professors who vid and one art philosophy instructor who is an incredibly influential beta (Someone who offers constructive criticism to works in progress.) On the internet, people are judged by the effectiveness of their work - not their credentials or their faces. It makes a nice change. I think you may have a point about "equating liberatory play with liberation." Fan fiction and fan vids have a very long history. Historically, they have been made by women for other women about stuff women tend to like and men often scoff at. They have usually been exchanged furtively. I know a few writers/vidders whose boyfriends/husbands still don't know they do this. I can see how someone might view the historical norm as "liberatory play" but, putting the vid out on YouTube for the whole world to see and comment on looks more like liberation. (At least to me. This vidder may not have come out the older tradition and may not be aware that showing them to the world is a radically new and frightening concept for the rest of us. Is it still liberation if you never realized there was something to be liberated from?

My own politics aren't Marxist. I don't want a socialist state - can you imagine anything worse than a world where experts and academics got to decide what was good for 'the people'? (there'd certainly be no playful queer sex - see Simon Edge, "With Friends Like These, Marxism and Gay Politics"). I'm more interested in democracy (which is the opposite of socialism, although it's surprising how often people conflate them).

By Anonymous

I finished today too! I've read it all day todaty and yesterday. I really enjoyed it . I thought Esther was a bit strange in some ways, for example burning and burying things(her doll, the flowers) when she moves on to a next stage of life, like she doesn't want memories almost. I wasn't to keen on the sudden fiance swap either.

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