Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Something from Nothing: Constructing a Political Controversy

By Brett Conklin

When the first season finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” aired on June 19, 2011, the episode contained a scene detailing several severed heads mounted upon pikes along a city wall. One of the heads used for the shot was a replica of George W. Bush. The resemblance of the image to the former president was so uncanny that no one noticed until nearly a full year later.

The release date of “Game of Thrones” Season 1 on Blu-ray and DVD was March 6, 2012. On June 13, 2012, three months after the release and almost a year after the initial airing, the story broke, not because of discerning eyes, but because of loose lips. In commentary on the DVD, writer/producers D.B Weiss and David Benioff had this to say of the scene: “The last head on the left is George Bush. George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice; it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around.”

After the story gained traction, HBO issued an apology, promising to have the image “removed from any future DVD production.” They made good on that; the episode now contains a digitally altered head. Benioff and Weiss also released a statement, further explaining what was alluded to during the commentary: “What happened was this: we use a lot of prosthetic body parts on the show: heads, arms, etc. We can’t afford to have these all made from scratch, especially in scenes where we need a lot of them, so we rent them in bulk. After the scene was already shot, someone pointed out that one of the heads looked like George W. Bush.”

The producers’ explanation seems reasonable enough. Claims that the producers have lied—that they had every intention to send a political message—are not substantiated by the actual scene. The shot containing the Bush head lasts for less than two seconds. During that time, the head is seen from a behind-profile angle. The face and forehead are obscured by a wig of long hair, and what little can be seen of the head is covered in dirt and makeup. Truly, the image resembles more closely a stereotypical caveman than an ex-president. Furthermore, the prior scene directs the viewer’s attention to a different head: that of a woman in head wrappings. The character Joffrey says, “That’s your septa, there,” referencing the woman in the center of the shot (a “septa,” for the “Game of Thones” uninitiated, is essentially a nun). Perhaps the most damning evidence against the political agenda theory is that no one actually recognized Bush until it was revealed by the commentary. None of the other scenes referred to in the commentary have even been discussed. If the use of the Bush replica was meant to send a political message, it was not very effective.

 The scene as it appears in "Game of Thrones."

But that didn’t stop Fox News from publishing no fewer than four articles about the subject on June 14, 2012—that doesn’t account for broadcasting. Of the four articles, three of them used sensationalized headlines whose literal readings suggested the actual murder of George W. Bush. “HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ parades President George W. Bush’s decapitated head on a stick” was published on foxnews.com. Not only does it make no mention of the head being a prosthetic, but the word “parades” inaccurately describes the scene, suggesting both movement and extended celebration. An article for myfoxdc.com—“HBO apologizes for putting George W. Bush’s head on a stake in ‘Game of Thrones’”—uses the same misleading wording regarding the replica head. “Outrageous! Former President’s [sic] George Bush Severed Head Used in ‘Game of Thrones’ Episode,” for nation.foxnews.com, commits the identical sin. Only one article, “Producers of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Apologize for Putting Head Resembling George W. Bush on a Spike,” published on foxnewsinsider.com, makes any mention of the prop not actually being Bush’s head. A fifth article appeared on June 25, 2012 on foxnews.com. Its title, “Actress Camryn Manheim calls Bush beheading on HBO ‘despicable’,” continues the pattern of implying actual harm to the former president—further muddled by the absence of the name of the series. Additionally, the word “beheading” describes a scene that never takes place.

All of the original four articles included visuals to aid—and in this case, distort—the story. Three of the articles used cropped still images of the scene, reframing the focus to that of the Bush head. One of those articles included two images, the first a zoomed in shot of the head, and the second a wider shot. The implication is that the second image is how the scene appears in the series, but it, too, has been cropped to emphasize the prosthetic—nearly half the original shot has been cut away. The last article used video, including the unedited prior scene as a lead in. It is of note that the scene is muted, so Joffrey’s line is unheard. Once the shot of the Bush head appears, the scene is paused. The shot is edited so that it pulls into the Bush head, which has been highlighted by a circle, and the rest of the scene is darkened. While the viewer will no doubt know that the highlighting has been added, without prior knowledge they are likely to mistake the zoom and extended duration as original to the shot.

Outer: The scene as it appears in "Game of Thrones."
Middle: The larger of the two cropped shots to appear on nation.foxnews.com.
Inner: The smaller of the two cropped shots to appear on nation.foxnews.com, captioned, "HBO Screen Grab."

Maybe the least surprising feature of the articles is the presence of biased and misleading rhetoric. One article describes the scene as “a grisly decapitation scene,” despite no act of decapitation occurring on screen. It continues to claim that the episode “features” the Bush head, lending a level of importance and emphasis that simply does not exist. An article states that the producers used Bush’s likeness as “physical inspiration to create a head for [the] scene,” even though it goes on to provide the quote regarding the rental of the prop head. The same article adds an exclamation point to the transcription of, “It’s not a choice; it’s not a political statement,” and describes the quote as having been “insisted,” but the audio of the commentary is delivered in relatively calm monotone. Instead of writing that the producers provided an explanation, an article says they “attempted to explain.” Another article states the head “bears a very strong resemblance to President George W. Bush,” while the evidence suggests otherwise. The author of the article continues by writing, “[…]they just ‘had to use what heads they had around’,” making little attempt to disguise the sarcasm. The article on foxnews.com ends not-so-subtly with this line: “HBO is owned by Time-Warner, the same network which owns CNN.”

In case anyone’s keeping score, the July 8 episode of HBO’s “True Blood” featured a scene in which Obama-mask-wearing bigots performed a drive-by shooting. Fox News published a single, two paragraph article about the scene that they acquired from mediate.com. In the article the Bush-head incident is ironically referenced as “the incredibly serious controversy that was Game of Thrones using an unrecognizable George W. Bush prop in a scene.” Oops!

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