Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tests of Time

One of my pet peeves when talking about different audiovisual media is when a critic - often, though not always, a skeptic of the medium in question - assumes that a particular, hegemonic mode of production should more or less stand in for the essence of that medium. If you have someone tied primarily to cinephilia or film criticism writing about "the state of television," or if you have a TV or new media critic writing about "the art of cinema," there's a fairly strong chance you'll see these essays and think pieces make these kinds of unrigorous assumptions.

Now if it's yet another one of those heavy-breathing "cultural vegetables" argument, then one can feel safe ignoring it altogether. But sometimes a critic worth listening to does comparable things, and I'm left scratching my head. Isn't it frequently the case that critics contending with the nature of a medium (especially a medium they consider Other) end up arriving at a safe conclusion that you could predict before you've opened the magazine or clicked on the link? When some of my cinephile comrades talk about television - not always dismissively, either - I'm sometimes left wondering, "Are you talking about the structures of broadcasting per se or do you mean the practices of serial narratives, or something else? Well, what is Rossellini's late work for television? Godard? Haneke? What about the fact that Rivette's Out 1 was (almost) a television program? What about guerrilla TV or public television, trying to engage communities or educate mass viewers in ways most great postwar filmmakers could only dream of - i.e., using the potential of TV in the ways that someone like Rossellini felt and hoped it might have?" There's too often this pair of easy wheel ruts wherein 'cinema' means mainly festival films, Oscarbait, and summer blockbusters, and 'television' is almost synonymous with American serial fiction programs. And people who pick one artificial side just square off against the other artificial side. Who even said it was a matter of choosing? Who said we couldn't regard either of these media as open questions, open to constant negotiation?

I hope it is crystal clear that my stance here is not "pro" or "con" towards either television or cinema. This isn't a space where I'm taking a side, or judging anyone else's personal interests and loves and distastes. I'm only aggravated by what I see as a persistent - yet needless! - cultural habit of drawing lines in the sand and building whole straw man arguments about aesthetics and media politics on faulty or incomplete premises. A medium is not a mode of production, and I'm not so sure that we can point to one audiovisual medium as being intrinsically more "visually interesting" than another, either. As if there was no such thing as context.

So let me relay a passage of a recent essay by Brad Stevens, for whom I have a lot of respect, which covers the problem of where the quality American cinema has gone in recent years. Has it migrated to television, as so many have suggested? I do like and agree with some aspects of this piece, in fact, but I'm nevertheless wrankled by how it sums up its argument:

This might explain why, when I think back on those shows I have been impressed by – Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men – I find myself remembering scenes, characters, performances and dialogue, but never shots. Whereas with what for me are the finest American films of recent years, it is precisely the images I recall:

  • Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) alone at the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) compulsively repeating the words “The way of the future”;
  • J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio again) exercising on the floor of his office in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011);
  • Shannyn Sossamon sitting on a bed painting and drying her nails (for several minutes of screen time) in Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010);
  • Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) sleeping on a beach with his arm wrapped around the figure of a woman (roughly twice his size) made of sand in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012);
  • Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh) fighting over a laptop on which Cisco’s ex-wife (Dierdra McDowell) can be seen laughing derisively in Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011);
  • and the shot of a building (apparently a monastery, though there is no way to determine this from the film) isolated on a small island that ends Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012).*
It is surely significant that these are all images of alienation and solitude. Perhaps cinema is now an art form of isolation, whereas, ironically, it is television that celebrates communal values, with authorial identity and individual creativity subordinated to collective authorship.
The resulting texts may make a strong immediate impact, but rarely withstand close scrutiny. Mise en scene practices which do not privilege specific moments are unlikely to produce work capable of passing the ultimate test, the test of time.

I think Stevens is a very perceptive critic, and my tastes often overlap with his own.** But what strikes me is the logical and rhetorical corner he paints himself into here. For Stevens, good recent US television doesn't pass "the ultimate test, the test of time." He implies that "scenes, characters, performances and dialogue" - i.e., what he's just said he finds memorable in his favorite American television - simply don't or can't pass the test of time. Or perhaps it's a fundamentally inferior test to which he's submitting these elements. But this relies upon two thinly veiled assumptions, one being that quality moving image work is fundamentally correlated with mise-en-scène (one might believe this and feel justified, but it'd be a matter of personal taste rather than aesthetics all told), and the other being that television equals serial fiction television.

What if one does think back to particular images from TV programs? I can remember plenty of shots from e.g. Sex and the City - which isn't even a show I like, nor one I've seen a great deal of. Does this mean it's "passed the test of time" for me? I dunno.

I also wonder why it is necessarily "ironic" that television might "celebrate communal values." This prospect should be neither novel nor ironic to someone writing about TV from anything like a position of authority.

What is "ironic," sort of, is that Stevens' passage to highlight the glories of mise-en-scène in cinema contains practically no mention of mise-en-scène even in its widest connotations. There is one nod to duration ("several minutes of screen time"). No real details about production design or performance style. Nothing about camera distance, camera movement, framing, or lighting. In general, they might as well be descriptions of passages from novels. Perhaps an editor shortened Stevens' words (for Stevens is gifted at describing mise-en-scène). That is quite possible. But you have to admit it sweeps out the legs of his own argument.


* My memory may be faulty on this one, but isn't the "building on a small island" at the end of To the Wonder simply the same Mont Saint-Michel where many of the earlier passages take place, and for which the film's title draws its inspiration? If I'm remembering correctly, at least, then of course we actually can know what the building is. This is why I have problems with certain purist approaches to cinema connoisseurship: they often rely upon specious divisions between "what the film says" and what knowledge we're "permitted" to bring to the film. With such a richly allusive filmmaker like Malick, erring on the side of "innocence" is an error, in my opinion. And we never can truly approach a film hermetically; it's not how it's done in actual practice, ever. Imagine if we watch a Spike Lee or Woody Allen movie set in New York, but say it never explicitly tells us via dialogue or title cards that it is set in New York, do we just disregard what we know the landmarks and streets, etc., from our own lived experience or from having seen a thousand other NYC films? "Oh, it is impossible to tell from the film itself that this is set in New York ..." Once again, let's hear the refrain: there's no escape from context, folks.

** Our tastes do not, however, overlap in his list of the "finest American films of recent years," of which I've seen all but the Ferrara, strangely enough - I rate the other five films kind of all over the place but only really love Road to Nowhere.


Monty said...

Well-written critique. Artificial lines in the sand are indeed annoying and detract from substantive discourse.

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