Late last month, Andrew O’Hehir measured the decline in movie culture as a lack of buzz, or at least as a lack of buzz compared with TV in the last decade.
Today, Salon featured Scott Timberg’s interview with The New Yorker‘s David Denby. His new book is titled Do the Movies have a Future? The general tag for Timberg’s piece is that movies aren’t for adults anymore and their aesthetic value is lost in a sea of genre excitement based on tits, prosthetic penises, and other fantastical effects.
Both these ideas are generally correct. The culture is moving on to longer, more involved mediums of storytelling. TV serials give us more exposure to interesting performers and premises. As an example, look at the fascination with Homeland, an unlikely genre premise that was done to death on 24 and countless thrillers but has been reanimated with emphasis on the psychology of the characters and the performance of Danes and Lewis. Premises have also been enhanced to novelistic complexity in shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad.
What O’Hehir and Denby miss is that the movies have always been, fundamentally, the most limited version of cinema, destined to end up at the back of the bus of cinematic adulthood. When television came along, the assumption in the film industry was that it would be downmarket, less cerebral and more slappy. And for a few decades the prophecy was self-fulfilled: television became “TV” and was limited to amnesiac episodes of generally immature crap while the auteurs went to the movies to work out their ideas over two and three hours rather than fifteen-minute TV acts.
The variable that has changed for some TV shows—not for the amnesiac shit like Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo that promises a payoff only in the inevitable perp-walks—is that they are now long form. Almost infinitely long. So long that when a series ends the production team is completely unable to do a proper long-form ending. I feel sorry for the showrunners of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. They got stuck in the transition and then were dumped on by their ungrateful fans. Those fans had signed on for Gilligan’s Isle of Horror and Robots with Vaginas and they loved what they got. But after their expectations were exceeded, they matured and decided they wanted more than just Gilligan’s Isle of Horror and Robots with Vaginas. They wanted Gilligan and Robots to make sense. Not knowing that they were going to be doing quality work for a long time, the genre-breaking quality was doomed from the beginning.
The ultimate restraint on adult complexity, all talent being equal, is length. Many long works can be low quality crap (best-seller lists are full of them) and many short works can be obscure masterpieces of quality. But the median of artistic possibility is governed most directly by the length available.
Length in Cinema
Amnesiac television remains the shortest cinematic medium. In the 1950s shows were ten to fifteen minutes between commercial breaks. Then TV shows expanded into daily collections of acts separated by commercial breaks. Now in their shortest form TV shows have been cut back down in the form of music videos and the commercials themselves.
Public broadcasting and original programming on cable were able to dispense with commercial breaks in the 70s but were unwilling to get away from the general limit of one hour. This allowed the development of coherent serials which didn’t rely on the amnesia enforced on each daily dose of a show’s formula.
In the 90s DVDs changed our perception of TV into cinematic novels constructed in tightly-formatted regular chapters. Even after the DVD market died this is how many people still watch their shows. Web-based non-TV-channel distribution will allow the length of “chapters” to vary until we see a full duplication of the possibilities of novels in cinematic form.
The Poetical-Lyrical Divide
Some key differences remain between novels and cinema: cost of production and what I think of as the poetical-lyrical divide. On the surface, written poetry and sung lyrics are similar mediums, but if you turn a poem into a song there isn’t much for the music to do and lyrics without music seem childish.
So, novels with actors (HBO’s Game of Thrones) will do best when they lose the nerdy details of the novels in favor of the celebrity and pathos of the actors and production. If you consider an acclaimed cinematic series (Homeland, True Blood, Dexter) outside the context of the production and performance you’ll be left with an image of nakedly implausible schlockiness. Cinematic series that attempt to defy this divide will increasingly fail to become popular: Mad Men, Treme. Novels that go the other way, substituting schlock for complexity, will do the same as they’ve always done*** except that now they’ll be competing more directly with Here Comes Snooki Choo-Choo!.
Compared with cinema, books will still win on cost. The future of movies is pretty set: a short form for schlock or lyrical vignettes, but the future of books relies on containing the smartest option… without falling too far behind the accessibilty of tits-n-splosion cinema.
***(See volume #84002 of the ongoing series, My Bosoms are on Fire with Passion for my Billionaire, or #65470 of the series Chappy McKeel Builds Leverage in the Paramilitary Explosion Center)