Medium, Message, and Effect

by David Ottlinger

There is a moment in Marvel’s recent Doctor Strange that stood out to me in the theater and has stayed with me ever since. The titular doctor has by now suffered an accident which has left his hands seriously debilitated, abruptly ending his career as a hot-shot surgeon. Now he is desperately chasing leads, trying to find any hope. When he hears of a man who made a miraculous recovery from a spinal injury, he tracks the man down to the basketball court. That’s when my moment happens.

The court is bright in the early afternoon sun, but the day is overcast and the light is harsh. The chain-link enclosure is tall and deep. Doctor Strange and the miracle patient have a private conversation, but the camera sometimes sits well back, letting us see the expanse of the court, up to the corners. As the two talk, a game continues in the background. Beyond the enclosure of the court is the surrounding city. Nearby high-rises loom above in the pale light. The city continues out of sight.

And that’s all. The whole scene consists of a simple conversation. The miracle patient gives Doctor Strange a name, sending him to a faraway temple where he will discover a plot. The conversation between the two could have happened in an office or anywhere else, except that we would not see but have to be told of the miracle—the man who shouldn’t be walking, playing ball. Certainly this scene seemed modest enough compared to the special-effects extravaganzas of later parts of the film, in which city streets rotate and fold up and eventually surround the viewer. But this modest scene felt special, and I slowly came to realize why. It was because I had seen so few like it.

In a word, the scene was composed. In some sense, of course, all scenes are composed, even in films that are indifferently shot. But this was different. This was a 3-D scene that was shot for 3-D. By this I do not mean that it was shot in 3-D, as most effect-driven blockbusters are, but that it was shot for 3-D. This is what makes it remarkable. It was composed and arranged with an awareness of the unique sense of space and depth that 3-D can convey. While critics rightly praised the film for the use of 3-D in its action set-pieces, the more banal scenes distinguish it more. Doctor Strange was a film which was alert to the possibilities and pit-falls of 3-D for the entire time it was on the screen. In almost fifteen years of the technology’s use, I have seen three or four films like it.

Among film fans 3-D is now very passé. It’s quite popular to take pot-shots at it. My favorite Youtubers noted that 3-D film spread though America about as quickly as the dreaded Ebola (and with about as much fanfare beforehand). (1) But to my mind 3-D is not so much a failed technology as a criminally underutilized one. It is constantly in use but rarely is it explored. Much of its potential remains untapped.

In the beginning, it all seemed so hopeful. I can remember seeing Coraline in 2009, a relatively early 3-D feature, made when the technology still seemed novel. The film had its narrative problems but the use of 3-D was memorable throughout. Coraline was a young girl slipping more and more into escapism. In her waking existence she was ignored by her parents, who had their own problems, but in her dreams she visited an alternate version of her home which resembled a dollhouse. In it, doll-versions of her mother and father lavished her with attention and catered to her whims. As time passed, Coraline lived more and more in her dream and began to neglect her real life and real relationships, preferring to play in her consequence-free dream-land. Until, of course, it all goes wrong. At the climactic moment, the doll-like avatars of her mother and father demand Coraline sew buttons onto her eyes and become one of them forever.

This was all a bit overwrought and sententious for me. Neil Gaiman is an odd sort of person who apparently worries about children having too much imagination. But along the way, the effects were genuinely mesmerizing. In her dreams, Coraline takes in shows that the dream characters put on for her as part of their slavish devotion. These shows take place in a small circus tent, a Victorian music-hall, complete with foot-lights, and other fairly modest spaces. Given the 3-D photography, we can experience these little shows in an intimate, softly lit performance space, just as Coraline does. We even have the same sense of having a front-row seat. One such performance involves a trapeze act, during which the acrobats recite “What a piece of work is a man…” from Hamlet.  Seeing them actually swoop back and forth overhead, literally over our heads as the audience in the movie theater, lent a real dynamism that would not have been possible with conventional photography.

Even better was the brilliant opening-credit sequence. While dreamlike music plays, a mysterious pair of hands made only of sewing needles receives a doll that floats in through the window from the night outside. The hands set about to work, removing the doll’s stuffing and its features and slowly replacing them until it finally resembles Coraline, the film’s heroine. Our eyes naturally focus closely on this fine, delicate work. At one point the hands remove the doll’s button eyes. As it sews on new ones, there is a moment when the needle protrudes through the button and directly at the eyes of the audience.

The brief moment is perhaps the best thematic use of 3-D in a film I have yet seen. It is a sudden and arresting thing. What was charming and seemingly innocent, the sewing of a doll, has suddenly become dangerous. We were lulled into feeling ourselves as mere spectators but suddenly we realize that what we are watching has the power to harm us. Dreams, Gaiman and the filmmakers want to say, are like that. If we allow them too much power over us, they can betray us. And of course this image gracefully prefigures Coraline’s situation at the critical moment of the film, when she is asked to sew over her own eyes. Coraline has mistaken her dream parents for dolls, things she can control and play God with. But they have taken on lives and powers of their own and threaten to control her real life in ways that would harm her.

Again, this is all a bit much. But what is noteworthy for our present purposes is that a 3-D effect contributes uniquely to both the symbolic significance of the image, and its emotional impact on the audience. Only a 3-D film could threaten its audience with a needle to the eyes, and this film made the most of it. Objections that similar effects could be made in 2-D miss the point entirely. Ben-Hur could have been made without CinemaScope. Ran could have been made in black and white. The Conversation could have been made as a silent film. At least they could all be made, in the sense that the same story could be told. But what makes these films so interesting, in part, is the way they exploited the technical possibilities of the medium. Ben-Hur would not be quite the same Ben-Hur in 4:3. Ran would have a very different resonance, if it lacked the vibrant and violently contrasting colors that distinguish it, and The Conversation would be an entirely different film without its elaborate sound bridges and disconcerting assaults of static. Even realizing that the original Ben-Hur was very successful and memorably epic in 4:3 or that Throne of Blood, in black and white, produced effects similar to those produced by Ran seems not to matter. No analysis or critical defense of Ben-Hur could be without reference to the great canvass provided by CinemaScope, and the same holds for Ran and its use of color.  Coraline is not nearly as distinguished as those films – few films are – but it succeeds in a parallel way, by exploring the unique possibilities of the medium.

So I left the theater in 2009 feeling hopeful. I would not have guessed that I would not see a film to exploit the possibilities of 3-D in a similar way for another eight years. This is quite a considerable failure. The main culprit, I suspect, is the nature of blockbuster films. The economics are clear. Some people prefer 3-D, some people prefer 2-D, and the major studios want to sell to both of them. So, it became the established practice to release major films in both 3-D and standard, as it began to be called. I can remember asking myself, early on, Which is the real film? The director could not, of course, be simultaneously composing for both 3-D and 2-D. He or she would have to be thinking of one or the other.

But to my horror, I slowly realized the answer was “neither.” When big budget action extravaganzas came out, I usually watched them in 3-D. But what I realized was that only the action sequences were really meant to be seen in 3-D. In those sequences shots were composed with an eye for depth of frame and the effects that 3-D can produce. All the rest of the scenes take place in dull, uninteresting spaces. None of them have the distinctive sense of dimension and proportion that distinguished the basket-ball court in Doctor Strange. They’re just spaces where the action happens to be taking place, and they make much better visual sense when viewed in 2-D. Likewise, on those occasions when I saw these films in 2-D, usually at the behest of friends who insisted, I had pretty much the same experience in reverse. I can remember, for example, watching The Avengers in 2-D, when the camera swoops suddenly to look up a long vertical passageway. In 2-D the effect is so strange as to be puzzling. But then I realized—that was “the 3-D shot.” It was so different that it stood out as kind of island of 3-D composition, against a general sea of 2-D composition. Accordingly, I could see the film in 2-D and view the action sequences in the wrong presentation or view the film in 3-D and view the majority of the film in the wrong presentation.

With Doctor Strange, the 3-D film is the real film. But most 3-D films are stuck in the homogenizing trap of being presented in two different presentations, with distinct aesthetic demands, and it is worth considering for a moment why this trap is so pernicious. The philosopher, Ted Cohen, was very fond of a certain essay about the emergence of film as an art form, and he often assigned it to his students. (For a brief but happy time, I was one of those students.)  Alas, after a lengthy search, I cannot locate the essay so I will have to quote it from memory. With the emergence of film as a technology, the author argued, certain effects and qualities became accessible to the film-maker which were as inaccessible to the theater director as fog was to the sculptor. For Cohen and for the author of the essay, success in film seemed bound up with success in these previously inaccessible effects. Indeed, and for whatever reason, success in any medium seems to be bound up in success in what is unique to that medium.

I have no idea why this should be so but it seems to me to be true. One encounters examples all the time. As is widely recognized, there is no way to properly appreciate Shakespeare, without appreciating what makes his art essentially dramatic. No character in Shakespeare speaks for Shakespeare. If they did, they would stand apart from and outside the drama. Rather each character, each speech, each line is set in opposition to some other character, some other speech, and some other line. Shakespeare is the great poet of antithesis, and that fact is deeply connected to his choice of medium. Likewise, performance-side criticism has gone a long way to establish the importance of the fact that while the plays can be read, their ambiguities and possible meanings are deeply bound up with the fact that they are performance pieces. Elsewhere, it is often noted that Kafka’s Metamorphosis could only be a short story, or at least only a prose piece, because of Kafka’s guarded, elliptical and intriguingly vague descriptions of the transformed Gregor. Any visual representation would have to disambiguate those descriptions. Eliot’s poetry deals profoundly with the inherent unnaturalness of poetic language. Examples abound. Somehow it seems that it is usually the case, perhaps even always the case, that great dramas are greatly dramatic, great poems greatly poetic, and so on for each medium.

Of course we must immediately steel ourselves against falling into dogmatism. While the importance of the uniqueness of media seems to me an insight, it must be admitted that many films have been mindlessly abused as “un-cinematic.” This is what makes most of what is written about Shakespeare adaptations so meaningless. Usually adaptations suffer, because theater directors insist on shibboleths about a medium, film, which they do not love and so cannot fully understand. (These include the mother of all non-statements—“film is a visual medium”—which somehow gets repeated endlessly by people who should know better.) And because film is still slightly insecure in its status as fine art, film makers accept these shibboleths as truth. So it is accepted that characters could not patiently deliver long speeches or soliloquies more or less to the camera because to do so would be “un-cinematic.” Forgotten is the fact that such speeches are essential to The Last Motion Picture Show, Under Capricorn and The Silence of the Lambs, which, as far as I can tell, are as cinematic as any other films. It’s likely that many theater directors have not seen them and filmmakers don’t doubt their theater-director superiors long enough to think of them. Neither group seems to notice that cinema is as much a verbal medium as theater, and theater is as much a visual medium as film.

But mistakes of this kind do not undermine the fundamental insight. Mostly they hinge on mistakes regarding what is and is not unique to a given medium. It means, at most, that the insight has to be applied carefully. To return to the case of film, it seems to me that this insight does a great deal to explain why films being presented in two presentations is a major stumbling block. As it is, 3-D films are not greatly 3-D and 2-D films are not greatly 2-D. Directors are asked the impossible, to compose for media which cannot coexist.

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It also strikes me that other homogenizing forces are being exerted by other technologies and these too pose some challenges for art as it is being created today. In particular, the uniqueness of film and of television have been eroded to a remarkable extent in recent decades, as can be seen clearly by comparing film and television from past generations and film and television now. Consider a television show such as All In The Family in light of contemporary film. Film – or at least the best film – was dominated at the time by dark, tense, atmospheric works, by auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Terrance Malik, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick (in exile), Sydney Lumet and Roman Polansky. These films often featured, dense, shadowy, even claustrophobic mise-en-scenes and frequent use of tight close-up (think of Al Pacino in the Godfather part II or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown). Even the best comedies of the era, made by Woody Allen, featured the same dense visual style, partly because he borrowed Gordon “The Prince of Darkness” Willis from Coppola to do his cinematography. And even Allen’s stories became darker and chillier as the decade wore on.

Now consider All In The Family.  The set that was the heart of the show was Archie and Edith’s living room. The appointments were fairly spare and the set was unapologetically theatrical, with its obvious missing fourth wall. With the kitchen on the left, the staircase in the back and the front door on the right, the scene was set for multiple entrances and exits and all kinds of crisscrossing stage traffic. It was normal for multiple characters to be onstage at once and for the camera to take them all in at once, in wide shots, giving the audience a view of the characters and their environment much like that of a member of a theater audience facing a stage.

Now, this is all quite understandable when we think of 1970’s televisions. Screens then were much smaller and offered lower resolution. Colors were bleary and somewhat indistinct. It was quite understandable that the visual aspect of television would decidedly take a back seat. Close-ups would seem fairly awkward, and it would be natural to have wide shots encompassing several characters. It might be too much to say that it was more important in any given shot to see who was speaking than to see them speaking, but probably not by much. What was important was what was being said.

This also makes good sense of why such shows tended to be wall-to-wall talk. It was very difficult for such shows to communicate visually, so they had to rely on what they had, and what they had was the spoken word. This made them very different from films of the same era. Not only did films tend to have a much more complicated visual aspect, as we have already seen, but films of the era also tended to indulge more contemplative silences. In many great films of the era, what was not being said was as important as what was. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spaceck, for example, were brilliantly incommunicative in Badlands. Close-ups seethed with restlessness and unease that neither character could put into words. The boldest experiment occurred in 2001: A Space Odyssey which, while technically arriving in the late sixties, belongs stylistically to the seventies. In it, Keir Dullea attempts to underplay a monotone red dot, representing the computer intelligence, Hal 9000. This experimentation was undertaken to huge effect on the big screen but television could simply not afford it. Television had to strike out in a very different, far more theatrical direction.

In our own era, nearly all of this has changed. Televisions have become many times larger and the resolution is incomparably better. Even in my own time – I was born in the late eighties – the difference in quality was striking. I can remember watching a small, black and white vacuum tube television when I was a young child. Now I would be hard pressed to find anything with a screen that small and finding anything with less than four times the resolution would be impossible. That incredible pace of change must necessarily have an impact on what is written for the medium. Today, viewing a television program is far more like viewing a film. The screen is large enough and the aspect ratio is wide enough, that the screen can project much more than the eye can focus on at once. Likewise, the resolution allows for textures and kinds of mise-en-scenes which were once only possible on film.

What remains striking to me, however, is how long the theatrical template remained standard. When I was young, it was still firmly in place. Seinfeld, no less than All In The Family, had a center of gravity in a single room. Seinfeld may have roamed more, but Jerry’s living room was always home-base. In many ways it was remarkably similar to the living room in All In The Family. It had the street window on the left (characters not infrequently shouted through it to the street level), Jerry’s bathroom and bedroom were in the back and both the hall entrance and the kitchen were on the right. The camera migrated but naturally settled behind Jerry’s television, where it could survey the couch, much of the room, the bathroom beyond and the inner part of the kitchen. The street window remained a quick pan to the left, the kitchen a quick pan to the right. Once again, these were used to support all kinds of blocking and stage crossings. Once again, the camera frequently left room for several characters arranged around the stage. And once again, there was the unacknowledged and invisible fourth wall.

Going through this detail may seem excessive. After all this format is not unfamiliar to viewers of, say, The Big Bang Theory. But there is reason to dwell on it. First it is noteworthy just how strong the parallels are. Two of the best and most popular shows of their era, twenty years apart, really do seem to me to share a common visual grammar. Secondly, though it is always possible that memory is selective, up until about Seinfeld’s time, this style is pretty much universal. It can be seen in virtually all of the sit-coms from the period and also typifies the dramas. Lastly, it is worth considering just how far the current paradigm has shifted. While this same Seinfeld-style format is still in use, as with The Big Bang Theory, the results are usually remarkably un-compelling. No one would take these shows, which all feel like hold-overs, as representing “what’s going on” on television. For that we have to go elsewhere.

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The big shift seems to me to have come from HBO. I cannot say the new style originated there, but it does seem that it was there that it made its mark, and a great deal of the current paradigm can be traced back to that channel. An early example was Sex and the City. That series seemed determined not to have a single home like Archie’s or Jerry’s living room. Its setting was to be the titular city itself. Accordingly, while the series frequently brought the four main characters together to eat, it did so in a variety of different restaurants, bars and clubs, such that there was always a feeling of novelty and exploration. There were a few settings which became familiar, notably Carrie’s apartment, but they did not provide a center of gravity in quite the same way. Perhaps even more importantly, the show was constructed in such a way that cinematography was always an integral part. It would never be satisfied with a simple shot and reverse shot. It experimented constantly with a wider, more cinematic vocabulary, including dramatic angles, close-ups and swish pans (O the swish pans!). In one scene, after Carrie reads a certain post-it note and sweeps a vase of flowers off her table, we get a genuine match-on-action shot. These kinds of touches were deliberately ambitious, deliberately different and deliberately cinematic.

This was continued in The Sopranos, which debuted a year later and which had a seismic influence on television. Starting with the second season in particular, The Sopranos began experimenting with a visual style that was strongly reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ in The Godfather series. Characters were often isolated from the background to appear in large, dark frames. Such technique was often used when characters were wrestling with moral ambiguities. The frames gave an appropriate sense of being unmoored, without a frame of reference. Some years later, Mad Men, begun as it was by a Sopranos producer, continued with the same visual style. Again, characters were left to phrase their moral questions in dark, echo-y spaces.

The solidification of this new paradigm can be seen in the television career of comedian Louis CK. A child of the seventies and a deep admirer of the old school television of Norman Lear and Jackie Gleason, CK was encouraged by the British series The Office, which brought grit, realism and the realities of middle-class life back to situational comedy. He attempted to further the revival with a series titled Lucky Louie, which ran, tellingly, on HBO. Lucky Louie very nearly attempted to do the same thing Sex and the City had done, only in reverse. Airing alongside The Sopranos and The Wire, Lucky Louie tried to distinguish itself by its theatricality. Its sets were not merely theatrical but deliberately – one is tempted to say defiantly – abstract, fashioned not to be convincing but so as to appear as sets. It was filmed before a live audience, with multiple cameras. CK reportedly even had long conversations with Norman Lear before designing the show. (2)

This counter-revolution is noteworthy for its failure. Lucky Louie ran for one season and was to my knowledge imitated nowhere. According to CK, the show had a steady audience and while some critics savaged it, it had a generous write up in the New York Times, yet its failure seemed inevitable. (3)  In terms of the sensibility it required, it was miles away from any contemporary series. It attempted to turn back the clock, when audiences were just adjusting to the new way of doing things. It was too much to ask. When CK did break through, it was with Louie, a single camera show that is so cinematic in its style that it has invited comparisons to films of the French New Wave. This trajectory underlines how much had changed in television. By the time Louie aired, a new paradigm had been established. The old, more theatrical television was out and a new, more cinematic way of doing things was here to stay.

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The trouble is that all this emulation seems to me to have more or less run its course and even perhaps become a bit dangerous.  I began noticing signs of trouble around the time Breaking Bad ruled the roost in terms of fashionable television. I maintain that Breaking Bad was an overrated series, which is hardly the unkindest thing that can be said about a series that was praised like the second coming of Christ, but which nonetheless surprises people, when I say it. Breaking Bad was as visually ambitious as The Sopranos and Mad Men, but to my mind, less successful. Part of the problem was that while The Sopranos and Mad Men had been imitating film dramas, Breaking Bad tried to imitate action movies. The opening sequence of the series is instructive, and no doubt it was deliberately designed to introduce the audience to its approach. The wide open spaces of Arizona with a pair of pants billowing on the breeze, the dramatic car crash and Walter White pointing a gun down the open road were all tailor made for the big screen. The problem is that it wasn’t on the big screen, and while bigger and better televisions made filming things like this possible for television, it didn’t necessarily make it wise. Viewed on a sufficiently large television, Breaking Bad’s Dutch-angle shots and dramatic close-ups had sufficient effect but perhaps only sufficient. There are simply limits to what a television screen can do. The impact of, say, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood’s stare-down in The Good The Bad and The Ugly, cannot be replicated on the small screen. That requires a screen large enough to overwhelm the audience. Likewise, many of Breaking Bad’s iconic moments, including the oft quoted “You’re Goddamn right,” would seem to me much more at home in the theater. Watching it, I often found myself trying to blow it up in my imagination in order to get the full effect.

None of this was fatal, of course. There was much to enjoy in Breaking Bad, and it was not always in the business of supplying big moments and action sequences. Often it was at its best working on a more intimate scale, as in the unforgettable “Fly.” But it was significant that the series strained against the limits of the medium. In this respect, it was a prelude of things to come. Now, with any number of series, I find myself trying to mentally enlarge the image. As much as I loved Stranger Things, for example, it serves as a fine case in point. The series attempted visual quotations from E.T. and other Spielberg films, which are deeply wedded to the big screen and its possibilities. The sequences are atmospheric and compelling enough on their own terms, but they feel “off” in exactly the way that ordinary scenes of dialogue seem “off,” when watching a blockbuster in 3-D.  In a very real way, they are not composed for the medium they are in.

It seems clear to me that this inattentiveness to what the medium is capable and incapable of is now widespread. To see this, we need only compare what is in theaters with what is on television. In theaters, we are treated to an endless parade of comic book movies which are being scoured for ready-made tales of grand-scale action and adventure which are then blown up for the big screen. Leading this is the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe. By telling intertwined stories of adventure with multiple heroes which culminate in the vast, epic Avengers films, it could be said that these films are presenting the largest tableau in the history of the medium. It out DeMilles DeMille. Not to be outdone, Disney is providing a series of loosely related films to explore the recently acquired Star Wars franchise, while Warner Brothers is doing something similar within the universe of DC comics. Some of these films are more drab and solemn, in the vein of Christopher Nolan, while others are bright and imaginative, but they all share the common elements of action, adventure and technically ambitious special effects. Many blockbuster films are adapted from comic books, others from similar source materials, and even original films such as Avatar and Inception have a pulpy, action-adventure aesthetic.

On the small, but not-as-small-as-it-used-to-be, screen, it is immediately noteworthy that perhaps the most popular show, The Walking Dead (4), is likewise an adaptation of a comic book and generally offers the same mix of action and danger as mainstream films, though in what could be considered a concession to the medium, it relies less on computer generated effects than on make-up and stunts. Another contender for the top of the pile is Game of Thrones, with which I am less familiar, but which everyone assures me offers plenty of questing and sword-fighting and sieging, which not so long ago was the stuff of the big screen in the endless adaptations of the works of Tolkien. (In fact, given the use of computer graphics and creature effects, the show could be considered even closer to its big-screen peers.) And moving down the list, we see much of the same. Beyond the familiar dinosaur formats (legal dramas, cop-dramas, contest shows) we are treated to an array of bottom-of-the barrel comic book adaptations such as the inexplicable Batman without Batman (Fox’s Gotham) and such third stringers as Green Arrow and Supergirl.

The boldest statement of the continuity between the two media is of course the extension of both the DC and Marvel universes into television. (This means, essentially, that the stories played out in film and on television exist in the same universe and will occasionally acknowledge each other. Particularly important in the Marvel universe are the events of the first Avengers film, including a massive battle in downtown New York, frequently referred to by characters on the television series as “the inciden.t”) It would be easy to write that this extension has abolished the distinction between the media but this would be recognized as false by those familiar with the shows in question and would be unfair to their producers. Again my exposure is somewhat limited (I am better acquainted with the Marvel side) but I have noted that these series tend to put stunts and practical effects where their large-screen contemporaries put computer effects. This is particularly effective in the make-up and gore effects of The Walking Dead and the elaborately choreographed hand-to-hand combat of Daredevil. These kinds of approaches are better suited to the smaller canvass of television. They draw the eye in, inviting with detail and subtlety while the standard laser-light show of big-screen film seeks to stun and overwhelm. But this is not yet to say that these television series are free from the same kind of strain against the nature of the medium I argued was recognizable in Breaking Bad. It is only evident in other places. To my eye it is actually most evident in the quieter, action-free moments but moments which nonetheless try to create striking visuals. It can be seen in the way Daredevil or Wilson Fisk looms over us in a pose suggesting power and imposing strength. It can be seen in the tight close-ups of the series’ attractive stars that should, by rights, tower over us like Bogart and Bacall. Above all it can be seen in the series’ inexhaustible fascination with New York, with the scale and endless texture of it. Many establishing shots and backgrounds seem to long for a larger canvass than television can provide.

To say it once more, none of this need be fatal. Many of the series I have discussed have great strengths and even more unique qualities that I have not discussed. But taken altogether the points I have  contributing to a certain staleness to television at the current moment. There has been too much emulation and too little thought given to its dangers.

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It may seem, given the way I am arguing, that I believe the lights are going out all over film and television and I admit that that is true to a greater extent than I would wish. But there are also more hopeful signs. I’ll end by discussing these, which hopefully will have the effect of lifting the spirits of any who happened to have theirs dampened by the analysis up to this point, but also in order to suggest ways that television may find its way out of its current malaise. Network presidents and powerful executives may ignore it at their peril.

As is often the case, the best way to go forward starts with a good look back. In this case I think it is important to reflect on what television has already learned and it seems to me that in the era of The Sopranos and Mad Men, television discovered certain things about itself which it is now in the process of forgetting. Perhaps the most important of these concerns pacing. These series found they could inhabit the patient shuffle of everyday life, unfurling over hours and hours, as perhaps no film ever could. Viewers of The Sopranos became familiar with the sight of a bath-robed Tony Soprano bellying up to the island in his kitchen, eating cereal and chatting about small, domestic matters with his wife and family. Toward the end, some scenes even played out without dialogue. This was why I was always implacably opposed to the idea of a Sopranos film. Many things about The Sopranos were adaptable. The cinematography could have been adjusted for the big screen without threatening what was essential to the show. But The Sopranos could never be reduced to a theatrical run-time and still be The Sopranos. Without the time for Tony to wander down to the curb to grab his paper or for Carmela to chat-up her latest fantasy object over coffee or Anthony Junior to waste the afternoon away with video-games or Facebook, The Sopranos could not be the same kind of animal it had been on television. The medium would not allow it.

Mad Men went perhaps even farther. The audience took in not only important account and board meetings but all the minutiae of daily business such as hours stolen for naps, placing office decorations, stray words over coffee and what cookies to put out for what client. As Virginia Wolf once said of Tolstoy, everything stuck to its magnet. But now this kind of careful detail and patient tempo is being lost in the mad head-long rush to more action and plot. I don’t know of any series today that has the same feeling of experiencing characters in their everyday lives.

The Mad Men and Sopranos way of doing things seems to be dying out. It remains to be seen if it is recoverable or, more likely, in what form it is recoverable. But a new way of doing things may be taking shape and to understand this new way of doing things, we must appreciate the nature of streaming services like Netflix and how they differ from what we have hitherto known as television. Ted Cohen was fond of saying that the first film reviewers reviewed films as if they had just seen a bad play, and the first television reviewers reviewed television as if they had just seen a bad film. His point was to call attention to the way that television was subtly different from film and film subtly different from theater. In the same way streaming shows seem to me to be subtly different from what we have heretofore known as television.

As a way into the differences between streaming shows and traditional shows, consider the phenomenon of “binge-watching”. The term describes the practice of watching multiple episodes of a series at a single stretch. Fascinatingly, the name itself also reflects a certain value judgment. To binge, obviously, is to consume to excess or immoderately. And many people have disparaged the practice as reflecting a lack of discipline or patience on the part of contemporary audiences. These kids today, they seem to chide, can’t be bothered to wait until next week or even the next night to get resolution on the last episode’s cliff hanger ending. They have to greedily press “next episode” immediately. To old-fashioned eyes this can seem like culture gone wrong, an ability to savor and wait being broken down by the immediacy of modern technology.

As might be expected, I find this to be a mistake and a mistake along the lines of those made by early television and film critics, at least in Cohen’s analysis. They assume standards which are no longer relevant and fail to appreciate how subtle shifts in the medium transform the way audiences relate to the material. When the technology is such that an episode of a series appears once every week, the authors and creators of the series will naturally tend to produce installments with clear beginnings, middles and ends, installments that are instinctively self-standing and which naturally expect week long breathers between them. But when the creators know that all the videos will be available at once, a different set of instincts takes over. In shows created for streaming services, episodes do not so clearly stand alone, with well-marked beginnings, middles and ends. Rather they naturally blend into each other with each cliff-hanger ending naturally leading into the beginning of the next episode. This is to say that they positively invite “binge-watching,” except that the name is unfortunate. A viewer consuming several episodes of Daredevil at a stretch may be said to be “binging” on a show but may not be viewing it inappropriately or inattentively. They are merely conforming their viewing to the way the story is written.

Likewise, the visual aspect of the best of these series seems tailor designed for long viewing sessions. Series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Iron Fist, The Crown and Stranger Things are thick with rich textures—smoky, neon bathed streets; snow covered mountains; pea-soup London fog; windy forests rattling with dead leaves. These stories present worlds which practically demand we crawl up inside them for hours at a time, and across the country, curled up in blankets with ear-buds in, people do.

This is a new kind of experience. It was made possible by televisions and computer screens of sufficiently high resolution and size to convey all this beguiling detail. And audiences seem to be responding with enthusiasm to this something-new-under-the-sun. The best streaming shows have penetrated high onto the lists of the most popular programming. In this way audiences may be ahead of critics, who have for the most part, in my observation, treated new streaming shows as merely more of the same. Going forward we should emphasize and treasure the uniqueness of this burgeoning medium. It may represent television’s best chance at regaining its old distinctiveness.

Notes

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YFyu9aAZow&t=382s
  2. CK discusses the making of his film on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5487981

Pamela Adlon reminisces about the series (warning, very NSFW):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlRo8LpZMwg

  1. http://www.metacritic.com/tv/lucky-louie
  2. http://www.indiewire.com/2016/05/most-watched-tv-show-2015-2016-season-game-of-thrones-the-walking-dead-football-1201682396/

http://www.businessinsider.com/most-popular-tv-shows-2016-12/#20-usas-mr-robot-with-17-million-demand-expressions-per-day-20

Editor’s note: This article originally stated “Not to be outdone, Disney is providing a series of loosely related films to explore the recently acquired Star Wars franchise, while Sony is doing something similar within the universe of DC comics. 

“Sony” was changed to “Warner Brothers.”

Categories: Essay, Essays

Tagged as: , , , ,

24 Comments »

  1. There seem to me two principal features that distinguish television from both film and theater. Narrative length (and the greater attention to detail and character development that affords), as you noted, is one of them. The other is domesticity. Seeing a play and seeing a film (at the cinema) are public activities. The much more private spaces in which television is consumed offer some novel ways of expanding the medium. 360 degree cameras, for example, are now a thing, and VR has been around in one form or another for decades. I suspect it won’t be too long until we start seeing commercially available wraparound screens or holographic projectors that can plunk us right in the middle of the action and make us de facto cinematographers of the shows we watch. Actually, perhaps these won’t be shows; that might be too exhausting. Maybe we’ll see a split here between more traditional long-narrative television and a new kind of movie designed specifically for immersive home consumption.

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  2. This is an excellent essay. Having said that, I want to add some comments if i may. One omission from your lineup of so-called “quality television” was the psychology and character based content of a show like GIRLS. One thing I can say about it is that its style comes from the movie theatre, namely the American independent cinema of the 60s and 70s, (John Cassavetes), the French New Wave, and the the independent so-called mumble core style of the early to mid 00s. None of those are television influences and it is quite possible that many fans of the show are unaware of these precedents. One thing you can say about these influences is that they subordinate visual style to character in several ways, yet the filming on them has a technical excellence in that style. They are also opposed in certain respects to the created worlds quality of a STRANGER THINGS or a Marvel picture. Moreover, the political and sociological issues and controversies raised by the show seem utterly separable from these matters, since the influences for the most part do not share the Feminist political specificity of the creators of GIRLS. I have read Cohen’s essay but I feel that to talk about what a medium demands a la Andrei Tarkovsky (when he said cinema was meant and destined to be in the form of talky rather than silent) is an Hegelian proposition. I think, in general both MadMen and Sopranos are true to the spirit of their mediums, if that is what you mean, but I really have no idea the connection between that and their ultimate aesthetic worth. I’m generally with Daniel Kaufman in thinking 1970s television as ultimately more important than today’s television but I know that is a contentious claim. I would also claim that the visual style you explicate so well is not as good as one. I feel the new technologies as a whole exhibit a picture that is far too dark, and this is almost always the case when the filming is done with entirely created sets, which is a great deal of (this is a lighting problem) but people seem to like it, and feel it immersive for them. As for binge-watching I am all for it and would go so far as to say it is really no different really than the serialized from of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. But to feel okay with that comparison one might have to dispense of certain arbitrary hierarchies of medium evaluation in another sense. I think these things go through cycles and we are actually still working out of a hyper naturalistic/realistic phase that has been going on since the early sixties, certain ideas about what reality is, what is believable of not in representation and so on, and these supposedly more fantastic production from Marvel are entirely in keeping with that bias, their surfaces notwithstanding but that is another matter. But if I am right then things that we may take to be utterly new might not be so new after all.

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  3. Ain,

    Welcome friend. Glad to see you here.
    “The other is domesticity. ”
    I have been considering this more since I finished this piece. IT should be said that while film is nominally public, it seems much more private than the theatre. In the latter you dress up for each other, mill about in the lobby before hand and during the intermission and a person directly addresses you and your peers as the “audience”: “please refrain from…” In film you file in and out hugger-mugger, anonymous and barely acknowledging each other. But your right, I think, that streaming is still more private. For television in say, 1973, you might say it was more intimate. Families gathered around to watch things that mattered to all of them. It was a deeper connection than some assembled audience. Streaming seems to me almost solitary but maybe its because I don’t have a girlfriend. What do you think?

    btw Dan and I plan to do a dialogue on this, it may touch on some of this stuff.

    1970,
    Thanks for the comment. You gave me…a lot.
    “One omission from your lineup of so-called “quality television” was the psychology and character based content of a show like GIRLS.”
    Can’t get to everything man. This baby is already 7,000 words.

    “One thing you can say about these influences is that they subordinate visual style to character in several ways, yet the filming on them has a technical excellence in that style.”
    For the record, I agree.

    “As for binge-watching I am all for it and would go so far as to say it is really no different really than the serialized from of Charles Dickens in the 19th century.”
    That is a damn interesting comment. A classicist I studied with as an undergrad once said that an essential part of the epic was that however much appetite you have for poetry there is always more poem. Length is essential to certain forms. No doubt it is essential to what we mean by an “epic” film that it takes a certain amount of discipline to sit through.

    ” a la Andrei Tarkovsky (when he said cinema was meant and destined to be in the form of talky rather than silent)”
    If Tarkovsky said that, who the hell directed Solaris?

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  4. My goodness, so much to consider! My only immediate thought was no, Gaiman does not worry about children having too much imagination, any more than Tim Burton does. About the movie-fication of TV, I agree technology has changed what is possible, so that TV can successfully aspire to the grand narrative, but there have always been “small” movies that would be at home in any medium.

    There isn’t much to differentiate Fargo the movie from the TV series except from the latter’s stretching out of story lines in time – both are equally cinematic. Perhaps the series is more likely to make you think you are morally bankrupt for wanting to see the next episode. But no-one is going to make a movie version of Murdoch Mysteries – it could perhaps have been a 1930’s serial, but would not have been as playfully referential.

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  5. Hi David, that was a pretty extensive analysis, which really gets the mind working.

    I agree with you on the relative misuse of 3D, and that Dr Strange was one that actually seemed to understand it… though I saw it in 2D first and it was still a really fun movie. And while I loathed Prometheus that was also good at using 3D, but then Scott has always been good with turning 2D into 3D environments within 2D frameworks.

    Not sure if I want to call the following disagreements, but there were aspects of your TV discussion I wasn’t quite on board with…

    It was interesting to note the change in staging for shows over time. It was my understanding that the reason for the theatrical staging for many sitcoms is that they were initially televised theater… that is “filmed before a live audience!” (that used to be hyped). Shows which weren’t shot that way still wanted to seem as if they were, by keeping the same staging and using laugh tracks to simulate the audience. I wonder how much of the changes that have occurred is a disinterest in using laugh tracks and trying to fake the “liveness”.

    Also, I wasn’t sure that comparisons between sitcoms and modern dramas like Sopranos is accurate. Back in the day we also had dramas that were excellent and cinema-like. For any Barney Miller, there was also Kojak, Rockford Files, and Hill Street Blues (just to stick with the crime angle).

    And finally, I guess I had a big enough screen that Breaking Bad didn’t seem off to me.

    Wait, no… “Series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Iron Fist,…” what happened to “Luke Cage”? I thought that was much better, deeper, complex than Jessica Jones (maybe even DD) and certainly carried the same style as the others. Not knocking JJ, I really liked it, just that the list seemed to skip over an important part of the growing Marvel series.

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  6. Is film the medium, or is the medium the human psyche? To treat film as the medium is to encourage commercialism – preparing artists to produce what people want to buy. I don’t know whether we have the data to document how psychological responses to film have evolved with technology, but that would be a fascinating read – and I think valuable to those seeking to strengthen emotional resolve in those facing stress, rather than simply providing a momentary escape.

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  7. David,

    A reply in two parts: 1:
    An interesting discussion, one I would like to engage more deeply. But I admit that I have little familiarity with some of the films and shows you discuss. I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

    However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

    First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

    The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

    With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.

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  8. 2:
    The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

    Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

    So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

    Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

    But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

    One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

    Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.

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  9. Thank you for comments all

    Davidlduffy,

    “there have always been “small” movies that would be at home in any medium.”
    I don’t think this is true and I say that as someone who has watched many “small” films in both the theatre and on television. For instance seeing the four hundred blows on the screen was a revelation to me. Or take a small film like Hard Eight. There is a seen with an eighteen wheeler turns in front of the camera until it is perpendicular to it that seems to belong essentially to the big screen. The Fits was a very intimate recent movie but would make much less sense on the small screen. The medium has very subtle effects.

    db,
    “It was interesting to note the change in staging for shows over time. It was my understanding that the reason for the theatrical staging for many sitcoms is that they were initially televised theater… ”
    That is a good point.

    “Back in the day we also had dramas that were excellent and cinema-like.”
    Dan has been pushing back on that as well. He especially mentioned Battlestar Galactica and Miami Vice.

    “what happened to “Luke Cage”?”
    It wasn’t a conscious omission, but I did find it to be a bit weaker than the others. I definitely thought much more of Jessica Jones.

    Brian,

    ” To treat film as the medium is to encourage commercialism – ”
    That strikes me as odd. Would it be “commercialist” to call painting a medium? Opera? Theatre?

    ej,

    A response in two parts.

    part 1
    “First, never lose sight of the economic background here.”
    I don’t and I think that’s implicit in my argument. Of course the technology did not evolve in order to find new artistic effects, the technology evolved to capture profit and the artists working in the medium had to respond to the evolution. Indeed the profit background is important to art in any era. I hate when people wax nostalgic the patron system or think that before capitalism there weren’t costs and benefits. Patron systems caused all kinds of incentives and mis-incentives that shaped what was written. And I thought Shakespeare in Love nicely captured who nakedly commercial Shakespeare was.

    Not sure I get the time stuff.

    part 2
    “The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day.”
    That is really interesting. It always seemed to me to be the case that it was important to the experience of film that it started whether you were there or not and that that is lost when you are viewing at home. You’re right about how people to watch television as well.

    “But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. ”
    If this means you don’t see any artistic merit in television or nothing distinctive about the artistic merit of television I am afraid I think that idea is just massively dis-confirmed.

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  10. David,
    My general point is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

    One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

    And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

    You write about Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.

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  11. On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

    But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

    While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

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  12. David,
    this is a lovely essay.

    What remains striking to me, however, is how long the theatrical template remained standard. When I was young, it was still firmly in place. Seinfeld, no less than All In The Family, had a center of gravity in a single room. Seinfeld may have roamed more, but Jerry’s living room was always home-base.

    Containing costs and effort would have a lot to do with this. In a series this is especially important because producing a weekly show this is a relentless grind. The theatre template dramatically eased this burden.

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  13. The poet Michael McClure once paid me the compliment, that I reminded him of Stan Brakhage, at a time when I was making experimental films very much in keeping with what Brakhage was trying to achieve. That was many years ago. But to understand cinema – the cinema to which I was committed – one either begins with Brakhage, or ends with him. The notion that cinema is primarily about ‘stories’ is a commercial illusion.

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  14. EJ,
    But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all.

    I think that depends on your standards for aesthetics and how you experience aesthetics. Your standards and experience are more rigorously demanding than mine 🙂

    Television series are especially striking for one feature and that is the way characters and their interaction are progressively unveiled and developed during the series. This is a feature that TV series share with novels, except I think that possibly a series can do this better. I consider this to be a special aesthetic which is a unique strength of TV shows. You might reply that I am unduly extending the concept of ‘aesthetic’ and yet I find great beauty in the way characters are delineated and developed through a series. You might think of it as a kind of temporal aesthetic.

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  15. EJ,
    The notion that cinema is primarily about ‘stories’ is a commercial illusion.

    We are meaning making machines and we make meaning through narrative and thus stories are an indelible part of temporal media. All that varies is the simplicity/complexity of the narrative.

    Indeed any aesthetic needs narrative even if we only create an internal narrative that reflects our meaning making process.

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  16. The thing about aesthetic experiences is that we never remember the aesthetic ‘experience’ as such. We remember ‘that’ we had the aesthetic experience and its particulars are encoded in a narrative. We recall the experience by recalling the narrative. This is not the same thing as recognition, that intuitive moment that we realise we have experienced the same or similar thing in the past.

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  17. labnut,
    “stories are an indelible part of temporal media” Yes; exactly because of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

    To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize* – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.
    -_-_-
    * I suppose that’s why I find David’s discussion about 3-D interesting, even if I have no interest in seeing such a film.

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  18. Once you start noticing something on the screen as artificial, it is hard to “unnotice”. For me it is the studio lighting that is very prevalent in american TV, as cinematic as it is trying to be these days. Even outdoor scenes in Game of Thrones often have stationary camera, to keep all the diffusers and light equipment out of shot. Top it all with poor color workflow, and the composited final with the computer effects is often just “meh” visually.

    There are of course exceptions, like The Leftovers, or Breaking Bad, which are going for a more “authentic” look and feel, with very few computer effects. In europe we have series like Arn and BBC’s Wofl Hall that are shot with available light only, and to me they look pretty magical, with scenes lit with just candles or the fireplace. We have the technology to do this, with powerful optics and full HDR workflow right from the camera. I think the actors also appreciate not being surrounded by reflectors or having catchlights pointed at their eyes all the time.

    I saw Dr Strange in 2D, I am pretty fed up with the current ways of delivering stereographics. The movie is visually quite impressive even in 2D, the workflow is solid and the effects compositing is seamless. Never have been a big fan of Marvel though.

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  19. Hi David,

    “Dan has been pushing back on that as well. He especially mentioned Battlestar Galactica and Miami Vice.”

    Is that going to be in the video? Yes there were others like the ones he mentioned and more, I was just hitting the crime themes. There were plenty of series I didn’t like as well, but have to admit they were crafted in a cinematic way, including straight dramas. It’s possible that at the time TV was in competition with cinema and cinema was really going through a growth phase (the rise of some great directors) which forced people’s (audience or tv executives) expectations upward.

    “It wasn’t a conscious omission, but I did find it to be a bit weaker than the others.”

    That’s interesting. I have to admit I haven’t seen Iron Fist yet, but I heard that was pretty much a clunker and certainly the worst out of those series. The action scenes I’ve seen looked terrible (comparatively), and the guy has zero presence compared to everyone else.

    I also admit that DD and JJ were more interesting characters than LC. He had tons of presence but he was not developed in the story as well as those first two. What I found superior in LC to JJ and possibly DD, were the side characters and especially the development of the villains. No wait, to think about it it is just JJ. In DD, Fisk/Kingpin was very well developed.

    “I definitely thought much more of Jessica Jones.”

    Ok, but to be fair… that’s because Luke Cage was in it, right? 🙂

    ………………..

    Hi EJ, I don’t know why, but I felt a little sad that you aren’t interested in modern film & TV. I think there has been some fantastic movies and series that rival (or beat, if one can say such a thing) earlier classics. Even within the Marvel franchise which is just superhero stories I think some stand up as just plain good movies (or series), regardless of the superhero angle and special effects.

    When you compared Avengers and Seven Samurai, I was thinking a better comparison might be either Guardians of the Galaxy (which shows great care for visual and sound, along with character/team development) or the collection of TV series which David and I mentioned (Daredevil, Jessica jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist). The reason I thought of the TV series is that like Seven Samurai each of these series are pieces being shown one at a time to slowly build up a team (the Defenders) which will come up later. They are showing quite a bit of patience with constructing this tale. And since it is on Netflix there is no commercial aspect (getting you to the next ad).

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  20. E J:
    I like some of your ideas very much, especially of course about temporality. Yet i think there is a confusion about style and value. I think there is a strong independence of the art object from both the motivation and intent at a psychological level as well as the conditions of financial possibility. If that is true then there are great works of art can be said to be “about” narrative as much as works that purport to be about myth (DOG STAR MAN) or something that is strictly nonrepresentational or abstract, like Brakhage. In that sense there are no rules independent of style. It all depends on what you are looking for or what you value.The notion that the pull or focus of narrative is merely a part of commercialism is a confusion about what art is.There are things that only narration can do just as there are things that only a lack of narration can do. Both are also in an important sense independent from both the economics and technologies of production even as they are intertwined and dependent upon these. This is why I can and do compare current television to the serialization of Dickens. I’ve always thought of television as a kind of electronic warehouse or platform rather than a tool of ideology the way some radicals conceive of it, as always already guilty.

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  21. 1970scholar,
    I know that, given our faith in our own agency, this is difficult to understand. But I’ll point it out once more:
    we viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

    That changes everything.

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  22. EJ,
    But I’ll point it out once more:
    we viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

    It is a little more nuanced than that. Tim Wu, in his book, The Attention Merchants, points out that it is our attention which is being harvested and sold on to commercial interests. We are engaged in a quid pro quo. We consume a service or product, reduced cost entertainment packages, such as television shows, for example. In that sense 1970Scholar is right. But in return we grant them our attention. This attention is harvested and sold onward. Thus the advertisers are not the consumers but are instead the harvesters.

    We experience a reward which, on the face of it, makes the quid pro quo worthwhile. In return we grant them influence over our attention. This would still be OK if the balance of power was not tilted against us. Unfortunately it is heavily tilted against us because the sites carrying advertisements are able to claim out attention regardless of our will and are denying us the opportunity to withhold or redirect our attention.

    For example, I have an ad blocker and a tracking blocker installed in my browser. I have the right to choose a browsing experience free from commercial interruptions and without my movements through the Internet being tracked. For a while this was a delightful experience but now more and more web sites are denying me access because I refuse tracking and advertisements.

    In pre-Internet days I would watch television, read magazines or newspapers and deliberately ignore the advertisements. Neither the publisher or the advertiser knew this, nor could they change this behaviour. But today’s technology has given them the unprecedented power to claim my attention against my will and to track where I take my attention.

    I know that, given our faith in our own agency, this is difficult to understand.

    Undoubtedly I possess agency but it is this agency which is being exploited by offering tempting targets for my agency. My attention is dispersed willy-nilly across a landscape of temptation and it is my agency which enables this. Our attention is not just dispersed but a larger portion of our attention is being claimed. It is this saturated dispersion of attention which is so harmful since it changes the nature of who I am.

    Technology goes through phases of exploration, maturation, beneficial exploitation, predatory exploitation and then correction leading to stable, mutually beneficial use. Right now we have passed, almost unknowingly, from beneficial exploitation to predatory exploitation. But for the first time ever technology is changing the nature of who we are and that may prevent us from being able to reach the corrective phase. Tim Wu’s conclusion is not as dark as mine.

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  23. EJ
    The operative word is everything and is the one with which I have the greatest quarrel. (I even have problems with Wu’s book that takes us too far afield for my taste).
    The central question is when humans make things like books or t.v. shows or anything else, what, if any, part of the objects I’m question is completely created by or compromised by the conditions of their possibility i.e. the society and economic system that makes them. I maintain that there is a strong independence. One kind of exhibit for there being some kind of strong independence is the way certain art objects can travel and bring or have value outside of the time or conditions of their creation, as is the case where we even talk of Shakespeare’s plays. To argue otherwise you would have to argue that the university system and sensibility creates the aesthetic style of experimental cinema since many filmmakers in that style are dependent upon universities for a living. Is Kelly Reichart’s cinema a function of the fact that she happens to teach at Bard College? Is her cinema an expression of the spirit of Bard? Ditto for commercial television.

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