Stylistic analysis and the limits of TV?


One of my favorite contemporary film directors is Steven Soderbergh, in part because he transformed George Clooney’s career so wonderfully, and in part because he seems to have discovered the secret to be truly creative (and even experimental) despite and through the Hollywood system. His failures are always interesting and ambitious, and his successes (which include Out of Sight, The Limey, Ocean’s Eleven, and Solaris) are simply fabulous. So I was quite excited to read this detailed account of the production strategies behind his new film, The Good German, in the New York Times, where Soderbergh explains his rationale and techniques for recreating Hollywood style on the 1940s. Even more interesting is how David Bordwell (one of my grad school mentors and probably the world’s foremost authority on film style) writes about the article, illustrating the descriptions of 1940s style with great frame grabs and technical details.

But in reading these articles, it becomes clear that Soderbergh, Bordwell, and NYT critic Dave Kehr have an intiuitive mode of engagement with cinematic style – as they watch a movie, they see the camera & its lens, not just the image being captured. I don’t have that visual acuity, or at least I have to work hard at it to notice such details as focal length, perspective, offscreen space, and staging composition. My default mode of viewing focuses on narrative techniques, genre, and sound, and I thus often enjoy films whose visual style is not particularly compelling or even effective. My colleague & good friend Chris Keathley often debate this – I enjoy many films that “look bad”; he can’t even finish a movie whose style goes against his aesthetic sensibilities.

Yet Chris will happily watch a TV series that “looks bad,” accepting its visual limitations as part of the medium. Similarly, David writes that he rarely watches feature films on his video iPod, but doesn’t mind TV on the ultra-small screen (whereas he doesn’t watch TV on his actual TV). And I think I’m a “better” critical viewer of television than film, as the medium seems to play to my strengths of formal engagement. What do these distinctions mean for our understanding of the differences between film & television?

I would argue with anyone willing to listen that contemporary American fictional television is much better than contemporary American cinema, both on average and at its peaks. My lines of attack would be trumpeting the superiority of television’s strategies of complex narrative, thematic sophistication, originality of ideas, depth of performance, and effective use of music. But I wouldn’t even engage a discussion about visual style – like Chris and David, this is not why I watch TV. Even shows that I’d argue “look good” (Lost, Six Feet Under, Alias) or use their particular styles to good effect (The Office, Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs) seem not to be in the business of dealing out particularly visual pleasures. There’s a long list of reasons for why television has historically rarely focused its creativity on visual style – tight production schedules, tight budgets, creative control by writers rather than directors, small screens with poor resolution, norms of multi-camera studios, ephemeral nature of series – but many of these norms have changed or at least loosened.

So does this mean that television is simply unable or uninterested in making visually beautiful and compelling programs? Or might we be at a particular moment in television’s evolution that it has finally cast off the shackles of assumed aesthetic inferiority and casual dismissal that plagued its first 50 years? Over the last 10 years, it has become more and more acceptable to acknowledge television as a creatively innovative and aesthetically sophisticated medium (at least concerning narrative). Perhaps now that our culture is moving to regard television as a legitimate art, creators might try to engage with visual style more seriously, creating an aesthetic that can be appreciated by cinephiles on its own terms. Or perhaps watching TV on our tiny portable screens will become so much of the norm that any attempts to use the camera to create something of aesthetic interest will be short-circuited.

Critics make bad seers into the future, but my hunch is that this medium divide will more likely deepen rather than blur – cinema will remain the home for compositional beauty (as well as fart jokes and big explosions), while television will thrive on its writing and acting (with fart innuendos and smaller explosions). And I think I’m okay with that.

UPDATE: Go read Mike Newman’s illustrated thoughts on this issue… now.

2 Responses to “Stylistic analysis and the limits of TV?”

  1. Thanks for an admirable commentary, Jason. It makes a lot of sense. I do think, though, that narrative and genre are where it’s at for current
    cinema as well as TV. I don’t see many visual breakthroughs in US films of the last 20 years (exceptions: Lynch, Mann, and the other obvious cases). Instead, I think some of the main problems that confront contemporary moviemakers are:

    How to make movies with stars? How to make movies without them?
    How to modify classical forms in accordance with new initiatives (network tales, flashback construction, parallel worlds, etc.)?
    How to handle adolescent genres (comic-book pix, videogame pix, sword and sorcery, fantasy franchises, etc.)?
    How to integrate films into the media mix (eg, the Jenkins convergence issue) through sagas, new platforms, dense worlds, etc.?

    So I’d expand your point to say that aesthetically, contemporary US film is about where TV is, but on a bigger scale and higher budgets.

    For consistent sensitivity to visual style, I go to overseas cinema, I must admit. Hell, I just saw Chang Cheh’s THE ASSASSIN (1967, Shaw Bros.) on the same day I saw BABEL, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Chang’s movie not only looks better but has a better story than Inarritu’s. (And yes, I hope to blog on BABEL, or babble on the blog.)

    Your entries are really subtle and provocative.

  2. Great take on the state of the aesthetic (and cultural) “divide” between film and TV today, pointing towards several avenues of study. It would be interesting, for example, to look at the impact of widescreen on TV aesthetics over the past few years (though I suspect that, as with most Hollywood films, the actual composition is still largely 4:3).

    I think TV can make a strong case at doing much more with much less, even visually. Look at locations. Back in the day, The X-Files effectively had British Columbia stand in for the rest of North America for five seasons; Alias did the same, on an even smaller “stage” (LA County) and an even grander ambition (the entire planet!). Homicide, The Sopranos, and The Wire all made their east-coast settings tangible parts of their worlds (would that someone would do the same for, say, the upper midwest, or the the mountain west). In a similar way (if slightly more Bazinian!), the hospital in Scrubs and the beach and jungle in Lost are much more interesting spaces than the standard Hollywood set.

    As for the developing split in screen dimension, I’m holding off bets. I think this may be a red herring, especially in the long run (i.e., with small-yet-high-resolution screens). I’ve watched plenty of TV (including some of the more “visual” stuff I mentioned above) on my laptop (or within media player windows), and they certainly don’t lack for visual impact.

    That said, I do have an entire set of iPod-formatted James Bond films which I’ll have to screen to test the limits of this hypothesis; something tells me the climax to Goldfinger ain’t gonna be the same at that size…

    Lastly, I’m intrigued by David’s suggestions about current issues for (American) cinema, and would add one more:

    How to not rely on big-budget blockbusters?

    I don’t think the economics of the industry can sustain them in the long run, which means a radical (as in fundamental) reconceptualization of big-screen entertainment cinema is likely on the horizon.

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