Michael Newman has an excellent article on television and cultural legitimacy here (thanks to Girish for pointing it out). As we celebrate the "erasure" of high-low biases, and the acceptance of television, are we really just plowing over another hierarchical social mapping in the process?
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Mark Kermode has a really problematic "conversion" article (hat tip to The House Next Door for linking to it the other day) where he, as a film critic, learns to stop worrying and love the boob tube. Cinema, that is, movies, always seemed more profound, a better and more immersive and hence more artistic experience, than television. (His favorite film ever by the way? The Exorcist. He's no purist of cinema as an aesthetic form.) After years of near-abstinence from TV, he finally caves. How does he do it? Well, he watches drama & comedy series, which line up most congruously with the artform, these movies, he so loves. No news or documentaries (he had no beef with those), no reality television shows ('the new porn'), no makeovers, etc. Most of the original content on television that differentiates itself from cinema is therefore disqualified from consideration before he's even started.
In short, he's not saying anything at all about the forms of cinema or television, as modes of exhibition, as political entities, or even as aesthetic fields (except for a few dumb remarks I'll touch on in a second). Why am I not surpried? This essay is nothing more than a cog in the big ideology machine to erase certain differences between film, television, and (though unspoken) computers--which, with the rise of digitization and its (illusory) smoothing out of "everything" you could ever want in the marketplace, serves the corporations whose products get shifted around from cinema screen to iPod to flat-screen, not always in that order. And as Newman's blog entry indicates, a lot of the hierarchies remain, so let's not be too thoughtlessly optimistic about the future, here.
Mainstream film reviewing and television reviewing both frequently operate as product endorsements; advertisements for a company products en toto, or a way of life (if not always for a particular product--like, say, an Uwe Boll film). This doesn't mean professional reviewers are all mindless; but the game has become so rigged that even the smart, dutiful ones have to cave in. And of course, the game has been rigged so well that some of us whippersnapper bloggers are reviewing movies, and hence advertising for companies in some capacity, for free. One difference between film and television commentary is of course the role of justifying the series format for the latter, and evaluating a TV show as it goes along. Someone gives up maybe two hours on a film they saw; but following a show involves more time, and the impetus these days of hooking viewers through continuity-reliant dramas seems to be at a peak. This goes beyond a critics' view of things, though I think it has a certain middle-class apologetic to it (thou shalt justify why you spend time watching Veronica Mars). More conventionally denigrated low-class forms of television--professional wrestling, soap operas--draw people in just as shamelessly, but regular viewers of these programs have always acknowledged it as precisely the addictive ruse it is, I think. Very popular, middle-class, middle-brow (or boutique) shows like Grey's Anatomy or House or whatever else are "canonized" on the Internet and around the water coolers not because anyone waxes poetic about their quality so much as the fact that they've hooked everyone in, from episode one to the latest (which of course then becomes a major foundation for TV value judgments).
Whereas television viewing, especially for the first 15-20 years of cable, was known for being transitory, fragmented, imperfect, it's now beautifully consolidating that spectatorship. Ideally speaking, no differentiation of media of scheduling stands in the way of the worlds of image-commodities (see post on Culture Monkey below). You can TiVo a series, or Netflix the DVD box sets, and watch it all in order at your leisure. Now that you don't need cable to watch cable TV, and commercials (as they are) are slowly becoming obsolete, what matters is first to ensure viewership when one can't fix it in space in time. Hence all the hooks; hence the "addictions" to TV on DVD (etc.);
Mark Kermode writes:
Well, on one level, TV clearly has improved, with the move toward the rectangular 16x9 widescreen image meaning that modern TV dramas no longer need look 'boxy' or 'cropped', a long-standing aesthetic barrier. Just as cinema's evolution from the old 4x3 'Academy' screen ratio to the more elongated 'widescreen' format was as significant as the advent of colour, so television's new picture dimensions are broadening its creative horizons immeasurably. Put simply, TV is no longer square. This is a major improvement and it's significant that my strict policing of my kids' TV viewing habits allows them to watch programmes on CBeebies and CBBC but only in the correct aspect ratio ('How many times do I have to tell you, Tweenies is anamorphic 16x9!').
You've got to be kidding. He's been utterly brainwashed by consumerist jingles! I'm as happy as anyone else that DVD has won the battle for widescreen video presentation, and I think it's great that TV channels commonly present films in their correct aspect ratio now. But this fetishization of widescreen (like the fetishization of all things "digital") is fundamentally no more than a proof that someone has taken a shovelful of marketing shit. Academy ratio does not look "inherently" boxy or cropped, of course. It probably will if the original print of the televised image was composed in 2.35 or 1.85. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with the good old-fashioned "square" image, and a critic who does not realize this is someone whose aesthetic faculties have been trampled and buried (sans funeral) by advertising-speak. Does Mark Kermode, lover of cinema, really think pre-1953 cinema was so limited by this "aesthetic barrier" before CinemaScope came to the rescue? That no beautiful images were composed for 1.33? I hope not.
(My parents, who have a massive widescreen TV in their basement, have everything set up so that DVDs of Academy-ratio films are cropped top and bottom so as to be "properly" widescreen. When this is happening with regular folks all over, it's not a victory for historical awareness of our moving image heritage--it's a sure sign that technology companies have referenced and used that call for awareness as a ploy to sell their newest product.)
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I've just finished the first season of HBO's The Wire, which came very highly recommended. And there is much to recommend it. The ambitious plotlines kept me from having any good idea of what was even going on until the third or fourth episode. As a treatise on crime and political corruption in America, it's a relatively clear-eyed account--it says what everyone knows (but which our mainstream media of course back out of when the setting is not fiction), that the political system is corrupt and full of bribes and backdoor deals; that bureaucracy frequently and conveniently inhibits itself from doing anything about this; that poor (black) communities are being continually blighted as a means for profit (not only drugs, but lucrative urban redevelopment projects); that police brutality comes from a number of sources (class privilege, race privilege, a brand of "populist" moralism--when the black lesbian and likable cop Kima rushes to join in on a beating, she's screaming at the perp, "Why would you hit a cop!?") but effects the same domination. And The Wire offers spectacles of cops-and-robbers violence, and occasionally a bit of sex. There's lots of dry humor. It knows exactly how to keep interest high from scene to scene, episode to episode.
Aesthetically speaking. There's one scene where a character named Bubbles, a heroin junkie, is thinking about going clean. As he sits on a park bench there are shots of sunlight through tree leaves; birds chirping. This is where The Wire is at its lowest--when its stylistic choices seem, not inappropriate, but borrowed. It's not organic to the style of the show in any way, it's just something the director or DP thought up because he wanted to show the inviting freshness of a drug-free life; it's like a slick commercial, but a little subtler. Where The Wire is at its best is maybe in its presentation of Omar (Michael K. Williams), a humanized spin on the Badass Motherfucker routine, who in small moments and an admirable seamlessness between performance, writing, and camerawork reveals a deep capacity for love, an adherence to codes ("I've done some dirt, but I never shot anybody who wasn't in the game"), and in his love (the pale boy in the photo below is his lover) and his work (he puts on a show for us viewers whenever he's out to use the guns) he exhibits a taste for beauty. Neither perfect nor "clean," his budding strength is one that is alternative to the system that The Wire depicts and (to an extent) critiques. He indicates something of what might step up if the sociopolitical system presented were actually, amazingly, to start to crumble. He's not a street criminal because he's an underbelly capitalist (like most movie & tv gangsters); and neither is he Robin Hood, mind you; he's a survivalist and he is a certain figuration of potential. It will be interesting to see where this all goes. "I'm hooked."