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)
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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...