Friday, October 22, 2010

Bad Object

Q: I don’t want to digress too much, but have you seen Mad Men?

A: The quick answer is, for the first time this Sunday. I’m not a television fan. Television doesn’t have a strong visual presence. I’ve only seen one episode, so I don’t want to pontificate on it, but I can immediately see the influence of Douglas Sirk, a filmmaker from the 1950s, in the color schemes. Usually television is pretty boring to look at. And this is definitely rather interesting.

(a recent Tom Gunning interview)

* * * 

How do we define a strong visual presence?  Is it a feature of the light projected through celluloid emulsion vs. that emitting from the cathode ray tube, LCD, or plasma screen?  It would seem like this would be a workable basis on which to differentiate between two different media, 'cinema' and 'television' (if we can even call them media, or consider them as categorically comparable types of media).  But that doesn't seem to be what Gunning gets at in his comment above, because he allows that Mad Men "is definitely rather interesting" to look at.  (It is quality television, art directed into submission and shot on a one camera setup.)  So it can't boil down to a question of technology.  Maybe it is practice?  Television, more concerned in its own technological genealogy with voice and sound than cinema necessarily is (due to the history of broadcasting and its ancestral ties to radio), has less impetus than film to produce a good picture on that tiny, low-res little screen it has.

Yet ... most audiences of yesterday and today seem to care little about pictorial composition, mise-en-scene, editing patterns, etc., in films themselves (in other words they are not connoisseurs of form).  Most of Hollywood's history, despite its domination of box offices much the world over, had only limited reason to attend to visual invention, richness, playfulness, structure, and so on in the way that cinephiles attend to such dimensions.  When the film industry, in contradistinction to cinema, tried some new things, some of these were indeed visual (like widescreen aspect ratios), but some were obviously not (e.g., experiments with smell).  And they were all, fundamentally, gimmicks, even if great films were sometimes made that used these gimmicks. 

But I'm not convinced that cinema has appreciably greater cause to produce what I'll shorthand as "visual wealth" than television does.  After all, when Gunning says that television is usually "pretty boring to look at," couldn't he apply the same standards & judgment to most films?  From the perspective of the connoisseur's eye, I would say, most films are definitely also "pretty boring to look at."  (Either that or we are to be consumed with the passion of photogenie, and presume that virtually all films are at least somewhat interesting to look at ... in which case, aren't television programs, too!?)  And let's please return to the question of comparing these two media - we should define what we might mean when we say "television" and "film."  Is television all that is sent out on the channels that reach our sets?  (So, it can include films, albeit in televisual/video form?)  Does "television" refer to fiction programming produced for exhibition on TV?  Does television refer to all programming produced on TV ... or for video formats?  Is it TV when it's mainly extra web content for a television show, downloaded to a smart phone and watched there?  Is "cinema" film, i.e., a film strip?  Is cinema the artful production of (audio)visual appearances of motion?  Is The Blair Witch Project cinema and Mad Men television, and do we know this because this is how they are primarily distributed or exhibited to us? 

I Love Lucy was shot on film, Michael Mann's recent stuff shot on video...


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Mad Men, here is a super sexy video version of the theme song I just can't get enough of.


Jon Hastings said...

I think I get what Gunning is getting at, or, maybe it would be better to say that I've had the same kinds of notions when comparing film to TV. However, I think this is one of those questions where it is better to be Aristotelian and talk in terms of trends and tendencies that arise from the specific ways that feature films and television programming are produced than it is to look for a non-existent, essential difference between film and TV. I think that, historically, the image in TV production (fiction and non-fiction) tends to be functional, while the image in the major traditions of filmmaking has been an opportunity for "added value" (for many cinephiles, this "added value" is at the core of their moviewatching experience, whereas for "the general audience" its not as big a deal if it's noticed at all). The greater opportunity for this compared to TV comes about for nuts and bolts production reasons, I think (i.e. television programming is made at a quicker pace - sometimes, as in sports broadcasts, as the event is happening, or as a simulation of a live event - traditional 3-camera sitcoms). But there's a cultural reason, too: an aesthetic tradition that celebrates complex, multi-layered image-making. (Although there's lots of reasons why a filmmaker might not take up that opportunity). I think there's always been TV shows that have had a "cinematic" attention to the image (Jack Webb's Dragnet, David Lynch's Twin Peaks) and one of the distinguishing features of "the new TV" (The Sopranos, etc.) is that the people making it have cinematic aesthetic ambitions. Having said that, I still think there's something very "TV-like" about many episodes of The Sopranos, most of The Wire, most of Lost, what little I've seen of Mad Men, etc. in that the emphasis is still overwhelmingly on performance and getting plot points over than it is on image-making.

ZC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ZC said...

Thanks for the link, Greg.

Jon, thanks for your comment. I agree it's not a good idea to presume (or work from) "essential differences" between film or TV - the fact that it's a maddening and probably futile endeavor is part of the point of my post! That said, there is a very clear bias in scholarship of film & media where a lot of "film" people (despite feeling defensive when more established fields look down on them) nevertheless replicate the same unsupported generalizations about the relative lack of worth of television's study, or its visual merits. Now, from a connoisseur's point of view I can grant a certain amount of this bias - for all you've pointed out (industrial history, etc.). I understand this approach on a visceral level because it's a lineage from my own formation/history as a cinephile; I came to the study of television (which is part of my scholarly identity now) from being (and never leaving) the study of cinema.

And yet ... even though most of cinema, even during the classical 'Age of Mise-en-Scene,' if you will, is still itself not particularly impressive to look at. Not in the way that those elite 10 or 20 or 30 titles from any given year are. Select a random movie from 1954 - chances are it won't be Johnny Guitar but rather a film that is only mildly "interesting to look at," at best. It would be mostly conventional, with (uh) "performance and plot points" galore as you say, and very much a streamlined product of industry well before it's the product of "artists." And yet a lot of cinephiles and/or scholars would say (rightly) that a great deal of middling material is interesting even if its not masterful - because of developments & experiments in widescreen, say, or color processes, etc., as well as for reasons of social/cultural insight. It is this same generosity that I would like to see extended to television - especially from people who don't study television. (Why this tendency to vocally dismiss TV if one doesn't study it!?) For if one is a scholar of the history of audiovisual forms, then it should go without saying that television is indeed worth the time & energy to look at, even if it's not what you have to focus on at all. It seems just baldly self-evident, no apologies or qualifications necessary.

I'm obviously - I hope it's obvious - not trying to paint Tom Gunning as a scapegoat here, by the way. I chose to cite his comments because they were both recent and, I thought, symptomatic ... not sinister. Of course he's done a lot of great and massively influential work at expanding our notions about cinema in one section of the historical spectrum.

Guillermo Krain said...

Great post above on shadows, Zach. There's a whole book there.

While it's true that generally speaking television is an acoustic/sound medium, dealing in a different shadow realm, the kingdom of the invisible (something that film scholarship, with it's emphatic "spectacular" focus has always treated like a step-child) folks conveniently forget that COMMERCIALS tend to be some of the most visually stylized (avant-garde?)films out there, so much so that they have completely infected the cinema "look". And so, maybe we can imagine that the flatness of TV "content" presentation is in fact, strategic.

Another crucial difference in the medium, which is perhaps being lost now, since we're losing the pure cinema experience, is that television is something that you "do" while your attention is at least partially elsewhere. Some informational/engagement decay is built into the aesthetic structure. Something that would oppressively require your undivided attention would not really be "good television".

Lastly, television is engaged in a different project, a HABITUAL Engagement in Depth into zeitgeist, (for example, how the glamour fashions and "insights" into Branding of Mad Men project into culture), while cinema in this moment needs to ephemeralize itself to make room for the next wave of blockbuster product landing on the beach of our attention.

Joel said...

This may be the most obvious, literal point to make, but at least one of the "essential differences" between film and television is size of the image. This is, of course, assuming that we define film as projected in a theater and television as seen on some kind of tv set. One could argue that even the worst films are inherently interesting in that watching a giant human doing anything on a monolithic screen in the dark is captivating. If one chose to pursue this argument, it could get very messy trying to pin down at exactly what size an image suddenly becomes large enough to become "film-like," especially as televisions continue to grow in size and HD projection systems seem to be catching on. That said, I seriously doubt Tom Gunning, or any serious "film" scholar for that matter, only watch movies on film in theaters. This argument would make any "film" watched on a tv set "television," and vice versa, in which case anyone watching a "film" on a tv set would have to use their imaginative capacities to determine how it would work in what would be assumed to be its natural environment.

ZC said...

Thanks for your comments, GK & J!

Guillermo, yes, a lot of television viewing is "divided attention," and people have discussed the glance (TV) versus the gaze (cinema). But what, then, justifies our focus upon the concrete habits of television watchers when we extract only the ideal habits of film watchers? That is to say, a lot of cinema in certain times or places had quite active, unruly, or less-than-conscious viewers. Why then do the attentive spectators in the cinema come to stand in for all cinematic spectatorship, but are then not given the same synecdochal privilege for television? And there are indeed spectators glued to the screen for any number of TV programs, right?

Joel, size is certainly a salient point. I wonder if television would have a visual presence if we projected Maude or 60 Minutes onto a big screen. And does a film lose something visually, aside from size, when scanned on a Steenbeck? Presumably, the loss (quality & extent of) would come down to whichever particular films or bodies of films we're looking at ... in which case, again, it looks like the evidence would lead us to be skeptical about making a strong distinction between what 'TV' does or is and what 'film' does or is.

Guillermo Krain said...

Zach wrote: "Why then do the attentive spectators in the cinema come to stand in for all cinematic spectatorship, but are then not given the same synecdochal privilege for television? And there are indeed spectators glued to the screen for any number of TV programs, right?"

(Yes, but...) I tend to think that people in the past "owned" cultural product in a much more precise and "serious" way than we do today. They couldn't help it, because it was scarcer and more precious, and more tied to certain realities of place and class. I only have to mention The Best Years of Our Lives or La Regle du Jeu to recall what was at stake. Cinephilia (aka the Romance of the Lost Continent) is an attempt to recover a bit of that reverent "aura" engagement with image. But what we have today (the floating world) seems to be the result less of medium, form or content, and more of certain consumerist (qua the false or illusory choice) and spectacular practices -- in a way we have all become like those surrealists who would enter theatres pointedly au hasard, careless junkies of the sublime.

Joel said...

In response to Zach:

I think Eric Rohmer wrote something about preferring to watch Westerns on a TV in that the genre conventions were better perceived that way - somewhere in "The Taste For Beauty."

Here it is:

...If that link works.