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Disinformation presents
Marshall McLuhan: McLuhan's Wake (2006)

"We cannot trust our instincts or our natural physical response to new things. They will destroy us."
- Marshall McLuhan

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 09, 2007

Stars: Marshall McLuhan
Other Stars: Laurie Anderson
Director: Kevin McMahon

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:33m:45s
Release Date: January 23, 2007
UPC: 826262003197
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B A-B-B B+

DVD Review

The astonishingly intelligent people I've encountered come in two basic flavors, I've found—the kind that make the impenetrably difficult seem absurdly obvious, and the kind that work at such an elevated level that they might as well be writing in Sanskrit. In a funny way, Marshall McLuhan falls into both of those camps—his insights into the ways in which media of communication shape us are frequently deeply brilliant, yet there are many times when, watching or listening to archival footage, you've got simply no idea what this man is talking about. (McLuhan died in 1980, so all the clips of him are of rather compromised quality.) This documentary is a laudatory look at both the man and his work—it is worshipful in almost every respect, and takes a whole lot for granted. Lots of it is thought-provoking, but it may not necessarily be the best introduction to McLuhan and his evolving thoughts on how we say or don't say what we mean.

McLuhan grew up in Canada, and was educated in Manitoba and at Cambridge; the more traditional biographical elements of the film present him as a man of unslakable intellectual curiosity, whose fundamental perception was that language is the supreme technology that shapes our thoughts and our sense of self. McLuhan was interdisciplinary decades before it was intellectually fashionable to be so—no doubt some took him as an academic dilettante, and some even as a charlatan, but his work got people thinking outside of the confines of their little intellectual silos, and that alone is a most worthy legacy. Laurie Anderson narrates, and the film leans harder on her track when it comes to explicating the evolution of McLuhan's train of thought—it's full of clips of an animated version of a Poe story that was one of McLuhan's favorites, and is awash in images of popular media through the last half century, be they newspaper advertisements, 30-second television spots, or overtly commercial public spaces like the newly sanitized Times Square, with its blinding electric billboards and monstrous TV screens. Advertising doesn't just create appetite, said McLuhan; it shapes they way we think, and we can only understand the current state of the human condition if we understand how we continue to try and sell things to one another, as we plumb the depths of one another's fear and desire.

The documentary also gets at one of the fundamental ironies of McLuhan's career, in that he became a brand in his own right—he became a glamour professor, and a go-to guy for a provocative quote, and the rigor that had been so characteristic of his groundbreaking work gave way to an undeniable sloppiness. He was also very much a man of his time, as the archival footage shows—in one TV interview, for instance, both McLuhan and his interlocutor are well armed with smokes, and in fact before each is a frosty and sizable mug of beer. (It's worth noting that the interviewer's is full, whereas McLuhan's is nearly empty.) Like a lot of the media he discusses, you're sort of better off just letting the film wash over you, and to seek out either McLuhan's own words or a more concise synthesis of his work if you're looking for a primer of his ideas.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The DVD preserves the original aspect ratio, but the transfer isn't anamorphic, so you're in for some time with our beloved black bars. It seems like a bit of a shame, because so much of the new footage is well shot, almost gaudy and riotous in its palette; it looks pretty fair here, but not as well as it might. And the archival stuff is, as you'd expect, of varying quality.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Laurie Anderson has a wonderful, soothing voice for this sort of thing, and in fact seems to have found a burgeoning second career in the voice-over business. The transfer is reasonably clean, if frequently lacking in subtlety—it's loud, louder and louder still, all the way through.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Isolated Music Score
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. audio interviews (see below)
  2. PDF files (see below)
  3. photo/aphorism gallery
  4. credits for the film and DVD
  5. McLuhan bibliography
Extras Review: Things get very meta with the extras package—it's only right that a DVD about McLuhan pays voluminous attention to the medium itself. The feature is under the heading Movies, and along with it you'll find two others: The Descent Into the Maelstrom (04m:53s) the Poe story to which McLuhan alludes, fully animated; and an interview (31m:29s) with McLuhan's widow, Corinne, recorded in 2001, in which she discusses both the family and work lives of her husband.

A section devoted to Laws is a primer on McLuhan's work—The Laws of Media and Tetrads goes over how these basic tenets work, and then applies each of the four (asking what something Enhances, Reverses Into, Retrieves and Obsolesces) to a roster of contemporary phenomena, ranging from the automobile to the shopping mall. Under the category Voices, there are two 1966 audio interviews with McLuhan, each just over 30 minutes; they're usually fascinating, occasionally baffling. And also under this heading are eight more audio interviews from friends, acolytes and colleagues, collectively dubbed The Chorus—they include McLuhan's son Eric; media critic Neil Postman; and former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. Here's also where you'll find independent access to Kurt Swinghammer's score for the feature.

The final section, Documents, is crammed with PDF files, including a biography and bibliography for McLuhan, and the shooting script and transcript of and director's notes for the feature. A gallery offers candid snapshots of McLuhan over the years, each accompanied by one of his aphorisms (the most famous of which is of course "The medium is the message"), and this is where you'll find credits for the film and this DVD.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A thought-provoking if often opaque look at the life and work of one of the most influential thinkers about the media that envelops us. The extras are in many respects more linear than the feature, and in fact they complement each other nicely.


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