August 2, 2010

Why movies are better than TV

You hear often these days about how continuous plotline television dramas, such as Mad Men, are better than movies. Their endless length allows for novelistic detailing, etc etc.

But one great thing about movies can be that they begin and then they end. Take The Hurt Locker. You meet some soldiers in Iraq who dismantle bombs for a living. That's pretty  interesting. But, after a couple of hours, even dismantling bombs is starting to get a little old. Suddenly, in five memorable minutes, it's over. Sgt. Will James comes home from Iraq, gets lost in the supermarket, talks to his baby son about why he loves his jack-in-the-box, and makes a decision about how he wants to live his life. Cue the Arab heavy metal and it's a wrap. 

Granted, Hollywood hates making movies that end, stand-alone movies that aren't origins stories for trilogies. But they still do make stand-alone movies. And even the Lord of the Rings trilogy is about an order of magnitude shorter than Mad Men will turn out to be.

Stand-alone movies are especially suited for romances: boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy wins girl. They live, presumably, happily ever after. That's awfully appealing.

At the end of North by Northwest, for example, which, like Mad Men, is about a tall, dark, and handsome Madison Avenue advertising man with a confused identity, Cary Grant is about to fall from Abraham Lincoln's nose on Mt. Rushmore. Thirty seconds later, all plotlines are resolved and he's on his honeymoon with Eva Marie Saint. Now, that's an ending!

But, television series like Mad Men just go on and on, turning into soap operas. So, mostly what happens in a series like Mad Men as it gets long in the tooth is that, to keep up interest and please enthusiasts, everybody sleeps with everybody, which is yucky.

Now, I'm sure Mad Men's creator Matthew Weiner would respond by citing detailed research he's done into the growth of STD rates in the 1960s, but, still ... yuck.

By the way, I suspect the obsessiveness about not revealing in reviews any "spoilers," which seems to have became dogma around the time of The Sixth Sense, has hurt the relative status of movies versus longform TV shows in elite discourse. Longform TV dramas such as Mad Men are discussed at vast length online the day after each episode, but movie reviews are stilted by the spoiler taboo.

The Hurt Locker is, once again, a good example: the power of the film depends upon the last five minutes, in which the adage that Character Is Destiny is illustrated with extraordinary economy. But reviewers aren't supposed to "spoil" the end of a film, so practically no reader could puzzle out from all the published verbiage about The Hurt Locker why it was a very good movie, or why he should even see it, which led to mass bafflement when it won the Best Picture at the Academy Awards ceremony.

To explain why The Hurt Locker may well have deserved its Best Picture Oscar, you really have to recount the contrast between the bulk of the movie in Baghdad and the few scenes close to the end back stateside (oops, I just revealed a spoiler). The Baghdad street scenes are shot through telephoto lenses that both illustrate the tunnel vision focus the bomb techs need to do their job, while simultaneously compressing the apparent distance between the near and the far into a disorientating, flat, and cluttered pictorial space that keeps the viewer from being able to discern what’s safely far away from the heroes and what’s close enough to kill them, which is, of course, the same question the heroes are constantly wondering about.

Then, near the end there's [SPOILER ALERT! AHHHHOOOGGGAAA! SPOILER ALERT!] a great fisheye lens shot in an endless breakfast cereal aisle of ex-Sgt. James befuddled by his new civilian duty of having to choose one box of cereal out of hundreds of offerings. (I spent an hour searching online last winter during the Academy Awards season for a still of that scene to illustrate the key to the movie, but none were available -- No Spoilers!)

A few minutes later, Sgt. James is shown back in The Suit in another super-telephoto shot of Baghdad, likely doomed, yet also fulfilled by choosing the fate his personality craves.


Bryan Townsend said...

Well sure, I probably agree about Mad Men. But I starting thinking these thoughts after watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through. It really reminds me of a serialized Dickens novel. The usual problem, as you say, is that an open-ended series often turns into a soap opera, so it takes an unusually gifted story-teller to not fall prey to that. Joss Whedon, even when he has to back and fill a bit because he's not too sure when they are going to pull the plug on him, has that degree of talent. I think he makes it work because his characters always have a moral arc that goes somewhere.

I starting thinking how great the narrative possibility of tv was in the 90s with Homicide: Life on the Street.

So for me, I would far rather watch anything done by Joss Whedon than the junk that seems to be oozing out of Hollywood these days. I'm not too sure about Dollhouse, though...

Whiskey said...

TV is for women and gay men. Mad Men is made for the upscale female, who loves everyone sleeping with everyone else.

Think about the dogs not barking in the night-time: no Magnum PIs, no Equalizers, no A-Teams, no Rockford Files, no McGuyvers, no Miami Vices, no VEGA$'s, no Riptides, no Hawaii Five O's (the latter is being remade and will fail because the audience is now all female).

Instead we get "Glee." Full of singing and dancing and gayness. But not things guys like to watch. I.E. action within moral parameters (the hero is the hero, not an amoral slightly less bad guy).

Burn Notice, and maybe a few others, have that 70s-80's action vibe. But that's it. The rest is profoundly feminine, including Damages, Plain Sight, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy.

John Craig said...

It is amazing how many TV shows turn into soap operas. I watched exactly one episode of Desperate Housewives (to my everlasting shame) and it was nothing but a soap opera fom the start. Nip Tuck turned into a soap opera in fairly short order, and even Sons of Anarchy, while better than most, is now essentially a soap opera. The very best TV shows, like The Shield, have writers who can keep the drama going, but they are extremely rare. That was also one of the few shows, not entirely coincidentally, which knew when to leave, on its own terms before it was forced off the air. Another not entirely coincidental aspect of that show was that it recognized ethnic differences in a realistic way, which made near-unique

Back in the old days The Rockford Files was another one which seemed to maintain its level of quality, again, a tribute to its writers.

Bruce Banned said...

I'm surprised there's no mention of "Lost". The series eventually turned into a confused mess, rather than a soap opera.
Lots of Saileresque themes in there too.

Harry Hungsak said...

Steve . . . you're weird.

Kylie said...

Bryan said..."I starting thinking how great the narrative possibility of tv was in the 90s with Homicide: Life on the Street."

Yes. Luther Mahoney. Edina Watson. Names that still resonate with me years later.

Or Wise Guy. The Mel Profitt and Dead Dog Records story arcs.

That was not only TV at its best, it was as good as drama gets on the big or small screen.

But in general, I agree with Steve. If TV series last long enough, eventually they get really silly (and/or sordid).

TH said...

I agree. I pretty much stopped watching tv shows many years ago precisely because they would always go on far longer than they should have. However, I sometimes watch shows which I know have no more than, say, 20 episodes. Some of the most satisfying ones are those that were cancelled before they jumped the shark.

Anonymous said...

I don't watch much TV, but I have watched the first series of Mad Men, and of the HBO series Rome. It seemed to me that one problem with these high-end dramas is that different people write the episodes, leading to a certain choppiness.

Anonymous said...

Before I saw a single episode of Mad Men, I saw a clip of Matthew Weiner's Emmy acceptance speech (the "What a great year! First Obama and now this" one). He seemed to me somewhat, well, less than masculine.

And then sometime later I saw an episode of Mad Men and thought that it was gay writers projecting their fantasies onto heterosexual male characters much the same way that Sex and the City was gay writers projecting through female characters. But then I read that Weiner is married with something like 4 kids. Doesn't disprove my thesis, but...I guess I'll have to think about it more.

Whiskey, have you tried Justified on FX?

Truth said...

"But, television series like Mad Men just go on and on, turning into soap operas. So, mostly what happens in a series like Mad Men as it gets long in the tooth is that, to keep up interest and please enthusiasts, everybody sleeps with everybody..."

Isn't that kind of what married, upper-middle class white folks do?

"I watched exactly one episode of Desperate Housewives (to my everlasting shame) and it was nothing but a soap opera fom the start."

'Sigh'; the brilliant conclusions I would have come up with were I only fortunate enough to be born with 15 more IQ points.

Anonymous said...

It's Eva Marie Saint, by the way--not Eva St. Marie. But you're dead right about everything else in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

"But, television series like Mad Men just go on and on, turning into soap operas. So, mostly what happens in a series like Mad Men as it gets long in the tooth is that, to keep up interest and please enthusiasts, everybody sleeps with everybody..."

Isn't that kind of what married, upper-middle class white folks do?


James Kabala said...

The 1957 Billy Wilder movie Witness for the Prosecution (based on an Agatha Christie play) actually ended with a voiceover plea to the audience not to reveal the secret of the ending. The idea at the time seemed to be only that kind of twist movie needed a warning against spoilers.

Of course, it's inevitable that those are the kinds of movies whose endings everyone knows whether they have seen them or not. People still sort of remember The Crying Game (which I've never seen, but I know the twist) while many comparable films of the same period are forgotten.

"the brilliant conclusions I would have come up with were I only fortunate enough to be born with 15 more IQ points."

Truth may be a troll, but every now and then he hits one the nose.

B322 said...

If TV really is for women and gay men, that's a good thing. It will push the whole hetmale demographic closer to throwing away their TVs, which will push them further from the left.

Once they "forget" that they are ugly, lacking in taste, and stupid, they will notice that everyone treats them that way. Then ... revolution!

Or so I hope.

Svigor said...

Think about the dogs not barking in the night-time

Well, let's face it: car chases, explosions, gunfights, fight scenes, stunts - these things are WAY more expensive to produce than what women like to watch. And, for example, first-person shooters are probably taking a LOT of the male eyeballs for action. Why sit on the couch and watch a gunfight when you can sit on the couch and participate in one?

It's tough to watch an action serial and see the main characters miraculously survive again and again without smelling a rat and losing interest; contrariwise, it's tough to produce an action serial with characters that draw eyeballs again and again if you're killing them off - there's only so much talent out there.

So you make trade-offs. I remember when 24 came out, and how it automatically jumped the shark after the first season; if you're going to have a show about 24 dramatic, "real-time" hours of a crisis, to be true to the concept you need to have an entirely new cast and plotline each season - lightning can't strike twice like that, much less 9 times. Not criticizing the obviously economic decision to do the normal thing and follow the formula, just saying, artistic integrity and money were obviously at odds.

Anonymous said...

'North By Northwest' remains one of the all-time great entertainments in my opinion. Bernard Hermann's score, Cary Grant, Martin Landau, James Mason, the "professor", Eva Marie Saint, the scenery of 1950's America, and the terrific plot equalled on great night at the VCR when I seen it. I bet it was dazzling on the big screen.

I probably dont watch two hours of TV per week outside of football season, but this show is really interesting to me:

Its called "The first 48 hours", and its on A&E. When a homicide is discovered, its apparently pretty important to gather evidence in the first 48 hours or the percentage of such crimes going unsolved really spikes upward. Its real detectives and real criminals, not "Law&Order" fantasies of yuppies doing things yuppies generally fear doing because of potential consequences thereof.

Hollywood can make a comeback of sorts if its willing to make interesting and intriguing movies that don't insult the movie-going populace. A great night's entertainment can be worth twenty bucks. It helps (my opinion) if the movie teaches you a few things, and you leave the theater having learned something you didn't know before going in. For instance, a movie about Robin Hood might be able to teach someone about authentic medieval life, and narration might be able to explain what the attitude concerning the Crusades really were for the average person at the time.

BTW--For Steve the movie reviewer: I finally saw Avatar at a friend's house. Floating moutains and noble-savages-in-space huh? That film will not age well. It was emotionally manipulative and really concocted (a genocide or unobtainium? you decide) also. It felt insulting, conflating support (obviously) with the middle eastern occupations to the genocide of the just-and-decent (they mate for life Margaret Mead!) blue people. Ive never felt slighted for a neocon was an uneasy experience, like discovering a snake really isn't covered in slime but has a dry skin. Its still repugnant, but is different than you thought.

MQ said...

Ummm, "The Wire", anyone? Greatest TV drama ever and it's not even close.

A couple of years ago The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood were all on, all of them pretty macho shows. Then "Generation Kill", by the same guys who did The Wire, another girly extravaganza. Now "Breaking Bad".

Anonymous said...

"So, mostly what happens in a series like Mad Men as it gets long in the tooth is that, to keep up interest and please enthusiasts, everybody sleeps with everybody, which is yucky."

I suppose in retrospect that this makes, say, Chris Carter's 'The X-Files' a welcome and bizarre outlier, both for its time and the present (is their a difference in era, really?).

Mulder and Scully never got laid, even while being advertised as sex symbols for the nineties. Apropos, considering HIV hype.

Though the contrast became strained and illogical, almost an empty trope or contrast for its own sake: the characters won't sleep with each other, but also won't sleep with anyone else because they're in love with each other?! Um...

Between that and the pile-on effect from the empty conspiracy arcs -- hint and prod, maybe explicate, then contradict -- the show became a sexless sitcom by season six (too many lite episodes, compounded by the California lighting), and then an outright soap opera, complete with male lead disappearance and female lead pregnancy, by the end of season seven.

By season 9, the show retroactively revealed that the Mulder and Scully characters had been sleeping with each other off-screen for, plausibly, years. Thus the paranormal element became the two characters' sex lives, then visualized in a deus ex machina "love child".

That the show would revolve around these elements even while one of the two lead actors was no longer present was...boring to watch but interesting to think about, just because of the sheer chutzpah and ludicrousness of it.

Did I say this was a positive? Certainly the idea of two people being almost preternaturally loyal to each other was an odd and good thing -- and was what left the show with any idea of gravity and seriousness as everything around the standardization of that relationship fell apart -- but the internalized contradiction of why this was a sexless relationship for so long became a strained point by the latter half of the run, only to later be retconned out possibly altogether.

I sometimes wonder if the modern drama didn't actually spring forth from forty years of 'Spider-Man' comics.

Is that an argument for shows that have walking STD factories as characters, while the actors playing them do public service ads for safe sex during commercial breaks?

No. More like it's an argument for art over avarice; knowing when to quit, when the show itself is becoming old because its underlying gimmicks, and therefore very nature, have been trotted out like money shots or effects sequences far too many times.

Simply, then, we're talking about the inescapable nature of self-reference and reverence, perhaps because of post-modernism.

When a show remains on long enough, it almost inevitably becomes about its own quirks and procedures. Thus, it becomes a parody of itself.

This is bad enough for something like 'The Simpons', a show that was commentary through parody of pop culture (now just an ad for whomever the celebrity voice of the week is), but it's crippling for a drama to suffer this fate. Often this paradigm follows that of the soap opera.


agnostic said...

The only way that I've gotten back into reading plot-based fiction for the first time since I was a teenager / college student is by reading plays instead of novels. And not boring journalistic social dramas like Ibsen that your teachers try to force on you, but Elizabethan plays.

They're almost all under 150 pages, double-spaced, including explanatory footnotes. They're action-packed, treat the Big Universal Themes of human life, and always feature enough T&A, blood and guts, and bawdy humor to keep you entertained.

And since revenge tends to play such a central role in them, they don't lend themselves to a drawn-out series of sequels -- villain murders hero's kinsman, intrigue ensues while he plots revenge, hero avenges kinsman, end of story. The only two-part revenge tragedy is Tamburlaine.

As for the spoiler taboo, I checked the NYT archives, and the first reference to it by name was in May 1999, referring to spoilers about the new material in the Star Wars trilogy re-releases.

Sam "The Butcher" Franklin said...

I wonder if the half-life of a TV series is getting shorter.

The TV shows of my childhood in the 70's & 80s went on for years without jumping the shark: Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Mash, etc.

Today it seems TV series are lucky to make it past a year or two without losing momentum and falling apart even if they roll on for a few more years.

It seems the far more competitive environment today has more challenges to keeping a winning formula today. Is just a perception or has anyone made a comparison to prove this out?

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Somebody finally mentioned the Rockford Files! Jim Rockford! Bachelor, free-lance crime solver, wouldn't be seen dead without his blazer, and called his pop "Rocky."

These days it'd be Jane Rockford, forensic psychotherapist-fortune teller-single mom, battling institutional sexism and racism while single handedly dispatching neo-Nazi biker gangs from South Africa.

TGGP said...

I remember as a kid noticing the same soap operafication with X-Men (and other comics I suppose, I was too cheap to actually buy them rather than watching the show and pulling the odd issue off the grocery store rack). Puzzling since it was targeted at elementary school boys. I guess it's just hard to keep churning out plots otherwise. One of the things I liked about Terry Brooks' hack fantasy novels was that it occurred over different generations, so I wouldn't get sick of the same characters.

Second the Wire. I also used to watch the First 48 regularly when my work/transit schedule permitted it. Now I just don't watch tv. All the better to avoid commie pinko propaganda!

travis said...

The ending of The Hurt Lock is straight out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." It's not hard to imagine Sgt James as a modern Huck Finn (the black soldier refers to James as "redneck trailer trash").

Don Draper is also white trash; he just cleans up real well. Draper reverses Huck's direction and heads east to become "sivilized" (much like Jay Gatsby).

When Draper gets there, he discovers that it's BORING. No small part of Draper's advertising genius is his understanding that everyone else is just as bored, desperate and phoney as he is ("Phoney" is the favorite word of Holden Caufield, who, according to Matthew Weiner, is at the bottom of the entire show.)

Inevitability, the characters start screwing each other in attempt to relieve their boredom, and ours. Hopefully, by the time the mid 60's roll around, Draper will "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" and head to California.

couchscientist said...

Agree with Bruce- I stopped following Lost during the second season because it became apparent that the producers had found something and were going to drag it out for all that it was worth.
Sopranos also suffered from this. TV shows just can't leave the party while they're having fun.

I was reading your review of Idiocracy and stumbled upon your approval of King of the Hill in which you praised Hank as the best TV white dad since the 50's. Indeed it's rare for a TV show to be able to produce episode after episode without making its leading men douche bags at some point. They just run out of ideas and start going with the same hackneyed stuff.
But, which has more impact on society - TV or movies? If TV does, then we are in trouble because of its tendency to move the plot line to "guess who is sleeping with who"?

Anonymous said...

Bryan: Buffy the Vampire Slayer... Joss Whedon...

Svigor: It's tough to watch an action serial and see the main characters miraculously survive again and again without smelling a rat and losing interest...

One of Whedon's innovations, circa the late 90s/early 00s, was having major characters die off unexpectedly.

Perhaps the most shocking scene in the seven year run of Buffy was when Rupert Giles's lover, Jenny Calendar, was brutally murdered by evil-Angel ["Angelus"], in the second season episode, Passion.

Similarly, when Angel was spun off as its own series, costar Glenn Quinn lasted all of about nine episodes before his character was killed off [after which the opening credits had to be changed, so as to remove his name].

Now, having said that, I have to confess that recently I have seen some episodes of Buffy & Angel, on a sodomite television network, called "Logo TV", and neither series really stands up to the test of time.

PS: I was talking to my brother the other day, and we were both worried that The Fifth Element is not holding up well, either.

Peter said...

One of the more ludicrous examples of spoiler aversion occurred a few years ago with Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." The plot twist was that the woman boxer Eastwood's character trained was left paralyzed after a fight, and eventually persuaded him to assist her in suicide.

An advocacy group for the severely disabled, the superbly named Not Dead Yet, mounted a publicity campaign denouncing the movie's suicide theme. Some media outlets reported on the campaign, but in order to avoid violating the (drumroll please) Almighty Spoiler Dictum, did not name the advocacy group or say exactly why they were protesting the movie.

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

But, television series like Mad Men just go on and on, turning into soap operas. So, mostly what happens in a series like Mad Men as it gets long in the tooth is that, to keep up interest and please enthusiasts, everybody sleeps with everybody, which is yucky.

I dunno - I'm still kinda upset that Ross never got to sleep with Monica.

Every story needs a proper beginning, middle, and an end, but with TV it's hard to know where the middle will be, since that's all dictated by audience ratings. Financially, if your show is drawing in the crowds, why not stretch it out 2-5-10 seasons to cash in?

Movies, by contrast, are finished before they get their audience. There is no suddenly changing the story so as to sell more popcorn.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Steve wrote this post shortly after that WSJ piece on 2010 being the worst movie year ever. And others saying this has been the worst decade of movies. All supposedly while we're in a new golden age of television (on the cable channels).

But I agree that keeping a television series running strong beyond maybe two years seems to be next to impossible. Even after accounting for the difficulty of writing around the will it / won't it be renewed for another season story arc problems.

adasdasdfasfd said...

There's also the factor of longer rehearsals, more careful preparation, bigger budgets(though not always, especially in the great indie or foreign films), and greater auteur-ship. Also, films tend to be more selective in their audience whereas TV has to appeal to EVERYONE. (There are exceptions, especially in Europe where artists like Ingmar Bergman were allowed to make TV films in their own fashion.)

Different TV series certainly have their unique styles and looks but they lack structure as they run on and on. Generally, a great movie is interesting to watch even when nothing is happening because so much work went into the visual/physical details. But when the story isn't moving forward in a tv series, there isn't much to look at. Every frame of Blade Runner or 2001 is like a work of art. But Star Trek is awful to look at and one can only go with the story(which never did it for me either). TV series is like a shark. It must swim or it sinks.

Of course, I don't mean mini-series, which can work like a long movie or visual novel.
I mean the series that seem to go on forever. Sooner or later, they run out of ideas and the whole thing becomes pointless.

Another problem is there's generally little continuity from show to show--unlike in the mini-series which have a beginning, middle, and end. Sopranos, for example, was essentially the same formula drearily repeated over and over and over episode after episode. Sure, there was some development throughout the series about Tony and his mother and wife and shrink, etc, but the bulk of the show was Tony and friends finding another guy to bump off. After awhile, it just got sick. It was so heavily lauded that I managed to see three episodes, and it was enough. More than enough in fact.
Imagine watching the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas in a TV series where he routinely whacks another guy and then another guy over 4 or 5 seasons.
The violence in Goodfellas and the Godfather, because they part of a story of rise of power and fall of the mafia had elements of tragedy, sociology, drama, politics, etc. Sopranos was really SOAPranos where everything just became banal and humdrum soon enough. Worse, some people get addicted to this kind of killing as their weekly fix, so they have to watch it again and again, to see Tony kill another guy and then another guy.

A series about cops who do good or non-murderers dealing with some personal problem are tolerable and may even be engaging, but I wonder about the moral validity of long running series about truly horrible people. Who wants to see a series about Norman Bates where he kills another person every week? Or who wants to see Schindler's List as 5 season series where we see Nazis kill more Jews every week? After awhile, it all becomes numbing, morally and emotionally. And for this reason, I think Sopranos had a rotten impact on our culture. When much of the nation is tuning in every week to see Tony as their buddy killing another guy and can't get enough of it, it's kinda sick.

asdfafasdf said...

Though reviews upon the movie's release are not supposed to reveal the 'spoilers', there is soon a fury of debate and discussion on all facets of the film among those who've seen it. Especially with the advent of the internet, there is probably more movie geeks discussing films than ever. Problem is too much of anything spoils the fun, and we forget to think and feel as individuals.
Before the internet, people would see something, digest it, think about it, feel it through, and then discuss the film with friends and others piecemeal by piecemeal.
Today, right upon seeing a film, without even giving it much thought, the movie geeks are all over movie forums yammering about everything.

adfasdfsdfdf said...

It seems movies are both better and worse than TV. Because far more people stay home and watch TV than go to movies, many TV shows have to appeal to a wide audience--men and women, old and young, white and black, etc. They have to play safer and pander to middle-brow mainstream expectations and tastes.

Of course, there are many exceptions, the tv shows that target specific demographic groups. Even so, it has to target as many people in that demographic group as possible. If, for example, the audience is urban middle class whites, it has to appeal to nearly the entire group.
Especially since TV shows run on advertising which want the largest audience possible, TV shows must make an attempt to be more pleasing and less challenging.

Movies, because they can be far more selective in their targeted audience, can be far better or far worse than TV. If a movie targets slasher horror fans--Friday the 13th series, for example--it can really be the bottom of the barrel, far worse than anything on TV. Or imagine something like PORKY'S, a movie I haven't seen but heard plenty about in my younger days.

On the other hand, a film can be made for the really special audience. This is true especially of art films made by auteurs. These films may not make much money but they continue to be made because films still get more respect in the entertainment industry than TV. Any producer would rather win an oscar than an emmy. So, if a producer or studio made tons of money and can afford to lose some, he might fund a personal film by a GREAT DIRECTOR even if it doesn't make too much or even loses money. It will be remembered and if the producer wins an oscar, HE will be remembered.

Also, the best talents in the visual narrative industry want to make great films, not work in TV, which they find stifling aesthetically, financially, and thematically.

Steve Sailer said...

I saw a grand total of four episodes of The Sopranos, and I was very impressed, especially with an episode starring Steve Buscemi in 2004.

But, I don't like mobsters and I didn't really miss the fact that I didn't see the other 60 or whatever episodes.

adfadasdf said...

Concerning what Steve wrote about Hurt Locker, movies can do that because the silver screen is much larger than the TV Screen. I saw the film on TV and didn't quite noticed what he noticed.

The movie screen can really be used as a canvas to tell not just a narrative but to PAINT feelings, thoughts, and emotions through manipulations of details. Because the TV screen is much smaller--even with LCD screens--, it's essentially good for narrative storytelling than what Alexander Astruc called 'camera stylo', or writing with the camera.

Anyone who's seen 2001 on 70 mm and 2001 on TV, or Blade Runner at the theater and Blade Runner on TV, etc, etc, knows this. In fact, there are some movies which have to be seen big, just like certain symphonies has to be listened to by top notch speakers.

OTOH, if the film is underproduced, you tend to notice all the problems when you see it big. I first saw Welles's The Trial on TV and found it visually interesting and hoped to see it on the big screen, but when I finally got the chance I noticed myriad irritating problems stemming from Welles's lack of funds, preparation, and haphazard shooting schedule. And a crudely made film like BIG RED ONE works better on TV than on the big screen where you notice all the inadequacies of modest production values. It's like blowing up an 8 mm film into 70 mm.

Some films have to be seen big because they have to swallow you like the mouth of a dark cave. As much I enjoyed NIXON on video, it was something else when I caught a revival at the theater. It was like entering the 'house of horrors' at a theme park.

Jonathan said...

Mad Men is mostly popular among the liberals and the hipsters. They love the show because it asserts their perceived moral superiority on the traditional society.

It's a way to tell themselves "Man have we come a long way" and "we've evolved so much for the better". Plus, they can't wait to see how Don Draper is going to get crushed by feminism and the "radical sixties".

adfasdfasdfsaf said...

Another difference between TV and Movies, especially before the advent of the video, is that the movie is more special simply because you have to make an effort to go to the theater whereas a TV show is available at the click of the remote. Movies truly had mythic resonance before the VCR since they mysteriously vanished from the theaters after their run, and therefore you could hope to seem them again only at revival houses--where you had no control over scheduling--or when it showed on late night tv, often in bad print and interrupted by endless commercials.
So, when people really fell in love with a movie, they savored it and preserved it in a special part of their memory.

With the VCR, you could watch anything anytime, and movies became like TV shows--always there. They were available at the click of a button. Even so, most people didn't own too many titles and had to rent. So, there was still something special about going to the video store, checking the titles, and bringing home something to watch. It still had something of a ritual to it, like going out to eat.

And then the damn internet came along, and my BIGGEST MOVIE PET PEEVE right now is all the great sacred scenes of cinema are diced up and uploaded on youtube. All these movies were meant to be seen whole, from beginning to end, with rapt attention, but now anyone can watch just the 'good parts' of Good, Bad, Ugly, The Wild Bunch, Scarface, Seven Samurai, Breathless, Jules and Jim, Seventh Seal, Excalibur, 13th Warrior, and I SAY IT'S SACRILEGE!!!
It's like a kid being allowed to pick off only the pepperoni or sausage then eating the pizza whole.

Did the great masters go through yrs and yrs of preparation and work just so computer geeks can catch snippets of their movies while multi-tasking and surfing through youtube, hopping about from Britney Spears to Orson Welles to cat videos to Peckinpah to drunken videos to Bergman to vlog rants, etc, etc?

John Craig said...

Somebody mentioned Justified; a review:

The best TV show I've seen recently is Justified, on FX at 10 PM Tuesdays. (You can usually get all but the latest episode on as well.) The protagonist, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, is based on a character who appeared in two Elmore Leonard novels. The fact that Leonard is listed as executive producer probably has something to do with the show not having been turned into the kind of turkey that some of his books have been made into. (Be Cool, which followed Get Shorty, was probably the lamest sequel ever.)

FX was also home to The Shield, the great, gritty cop drama which ended a year and a half ago. Both shows have been extremely well written. The protagonist of The Shield, Vic Mackey, was more antihero than hero, which was in large part what made that show great. But Raylan Givens is pure hero.

At the beginning of last night's episode we see Givens, who has just been put on an involuntary leave of absence from the Marshalls Service, getting drunk in a bar. He turns to a couple of loudmouths who are boasting about their sex lives and says, "Excuse me, but could you fellows turn it down just a bit?" When Loudmouth Number One objects and asks why, Givens replies, half under his breath, "Because I didn't order assholes with my martini."

When Loudmouth asks him in disbelief to repeat what he said, Givens says, "Any woman who is merciful enough to go to bed with you deserves a little more respect.

When Loudmouth asks if he has a hostile attitude, Givens replies wearily, "So I've been told."

The confrontation leads to a fight outside between Givens and the two men. Givens acquits himself well at first, but is outnumbered and eventually beaten up. Loudmouth Number One then steals his trademark white hat.

Givens' ex-wife, who left him years ago and whom he was supposed to meet at the bar, then shows up. She takes him to his home and patches him up a bit. She wants him to rescue her husband from the Dixie Mafia, from whom he has borrowed money; Givens agrees. She then tells him, "You're a good man."

Givens replies wrily, as she exits, "Not good enough." (For her.)

When one of the villains later disparages Givens' ex-wife to him, and Givens warns him not to do that, the man replies, "If someone insulted my ex, I'd thank him." Givens replies, "That's awfully compassionate of you, Billy Mack."

When Givens tells Billy his apartment smells like a dead cat, Billy, an ex-boxer, replies, "You're not going to be able to smell it when I knock your teeth out."

Givens, who is holding a gun on him, replies mildly, "You're going to bob and weave your way past a bullet? That I'd like to see."

(In an earlier episode, at one point Givens finds that his car has broken down, so he uses his cellphone to call headquarters for a ride. As he is doing this, he sees a car containing the bad guys pull up about forty yards away. At that point he adds, in the same casual tone of voice, "Oh, and send a couple of ambulances, too.")


John Craig said...


Givens never raises his voice. But somehow, thanks to the Elmore Leonard-style dialogue, he comes across as even stronger and more masculine by virtue of his originality and intelligence.

The villains are menacing mostly by virtue of their oiliness. (Their lines are often just as witty as Givens'.) The directors were smart enough to know that they didn't have to cast acromegalics in order to project villainy.

Givens himself is played by Timothy Olyphant, who was once a finalist in the 200 individual medley at the NCAAs. He gave up his USC scholarship after a couple years so he could pursue acting, figuring he'd never make any money from swimming. (It turned out to be a wise decision, although trying to be a successful actor can often be as Quixotic an undertaking as trying to be a champion swimmer.)

Olyphant is not quite the Givens described in the books: he doesn't project quite as much grit, and maybe his voice is a tad higher. Olyphant looks more or less like what he was, a pretty boy ex-swimmer. But he's a good enough actor, and this is Hollywood.

In the final scene, Givens returns to the bar where he got beaten up, looking for his hat. He approaches the two men who beat him up from behind, tosses a couple bills on the table, and says, "This one's on me." Loudmouth Number One says, "Hey, I thought I told you never to come back to this place."

Given calmly -- and tiredly -- explains, "I'm just back for the hat." The other fellow says, "Well, I've taken liking to this hat."

Givens says, "Mister, that's a ten gallon hat on a twenty gallon head. It doesn't look right on you."

The Loudmouth says, "Hey, you were the one who was out of line last time."

"Be that as it may, I ain't leaving without the hat." Givens then gives him a hard look, and adds, "And I'm sober this time." The man hands it over.

As is so often the case, the actor playing the bad guy would obviously beat the one playing the hero in a real fight, but it's still a good scene: Givens proves his nobility by not needing petty revenge. All he wants is his hat. (Givens' white hat is a recurring motif throughout the series, and while its symbolism may seem heavy-handed at first, it is treated humorously often enough that they get away with it.)

Right before that final bar scene, Givens rescues his ex-wife's feckless wimp of a second husband. She is, of course, impossibly elegant and sexy. At the end we see Givens deliver the husband back to his ex-wife, who hugs the feckless one, gives Raylan a brief look, and then goes into the house with her husband. Raylan looks at her, nods, and drives off (into the sunset).

We, of course, are left wondering what she sees in that sap when she could be with Raylan Givens? How did that unappealing idiot ever get such a beauty? (How many times have we entertained similar thoughts in our lives?)

In this scene, as elsehere, Elmore Leonard'sense of reality and sly humor prevail.

Ray Sawhill said...

1. I really like the fact that movies do their business in 100 or so minutes. They're here, they make their points, you dig it or you don't, and they're gone. A good movie can deliver (via photography, design, writing, directing, performing, music) an amazingly intense experience.

2) I don't seem to share the taste many people have for a fiction-thing that they return to for 30 minutes or an hour, week after week, year after year. Why do people like this? Totally mystifies me.

3) I'm not a TV watcher (and haven't been since the early '70s) but every now and then I sample on DVD some TV thing that people are claiming is great. Sometimes I'm impressed ("The Sopranos"), sometimes I'm not, but I never last beyond the first season. It always seems to me that the good ideas and promising dramatic possibilities have been burned up by the end of season one. After that, where can they go but into soap-opera-style vamping?

Svigor said...

One of Whedon's innovations, circa the late 90s/early 00s, was having major characters die off unexpectedly.

Whedon's good at unexpected writing. He doesn't seem infected with normal television morality.

E.g., Firefly, when the crew gets the jump on some mobsters and are about to fly away. Before boarding the ship, the captain tells the tied-up mobster to tell his boss to just leave them alone. The villain sneers and tells the cap'n he'll never stop following him, that he'll inevitably catch him and kill him.

We've all seen this before. The cap'n says something cool, then the ship closes up and they fly away.

Well, no. The cap'n gives a look that says "I wish you hadn't said that," then kicks the mobster into the giant vacuum of the engine intake, disintegrating him. Then he approaches the next mobster in line and tells him to tell his boss to leave them alone, and the mobster's pissing his pants to agree. It's pretty damned funny. Filmmakers deviate from the moral formula so seldom that Whedon gets to score points just by not following along.

He did something similar with the black assassin in the purple outfit, just put a menacing, evil, memorable black villain (best role I've ever seen from that Gumby guy from Law & Order) right smack dab into the script like he didn't really know that was kind of a no-no. Then he did it again in the movie.

travis said...

Its called "The first 48 hours", and its on A&E. When a homicide is discovered, its apparently pretty important to gather evidence in the first 48 hours or the percentage of such crimes going unsolved really spikes upward.

Currently, my favorite show on television. Only on a reality show could NAMs commit every crime.

Now, having said that, I have to confess that recently I have seen some episodes of Buffy & Angel, on a sodomite television network, called "Logo TV", and neither series really stands up to the test of time.

Whedon made a series, Firefly, that only last 12 episodes in the early 2000's. I watched it recently on Blu-ray, and not only does it hold up, I think it's one of the best television series ever. The show is a thinly veiled allusion to the push west in the aftermath of the Civil War, set in space. The writing, in particular, is superb. It's kinda like Cormac McCarthy meets Spaceballs.

art.the.nerd said...

Great comments. I have essentially given up on TV, replacing it with movies from Netflix, for this reason. There are lots of characters or stories that are worth two hours of my time. 24 hours? 240 hours (ten years of Law and Order)? Damn few.

I have started watching a few TV shows on Netflix instant watch. Call me naive, but I find it surprising that half-hour TV shows are really 21 minutes long.

greenrivervalleyman said...

Strongly disagree with you here, Steve. For about 10 years now TV serials (almost all of them cable-based) have been the place where it's at in terms of scripted viewing entertainment. Maybe I've gotten cranky in my old age, but I haven't seen a movie that's really wowed me since Fight Club. Since 1999 though, there's been more great TV series than you can shake a stick at. A very partial list:

* Sopranos
* Buffy the Vampire Slayer
* Six Feet Under
* Deadwood
* Dexter
* Weeds
* Mad Men
* Friday Night Lights (why haven't you reviewed this yet!)

Anonymous said...

Whedon made a series, Firefly, that only last 12 episodes in the early 2000's.

If nothing else, Firefly introduced the world to Christina Hendricks.

[Who is aging a lot better than Sarah Michelle Gellar.]

Anonymous said...

The Hurt Locker versus Mad Men isn't the appropriate comparison. The Hurt Locker is an award winning movie which only proves that it's NOT a typical Hollywood offering. As is well known, Hollywood lives by franchise sequels not by these one off "art" films. At the Oscar ceremonies they pretend that film industry isn't about Shrek 4 but is actually about The English Patient.

Both films and TV suffer from the disparity between audience demand for good stories and the capability of the writers to create new and fresh narratives. The other problem TV and feature films share is the need to market a new but unknown story. Getting anyone to watch a new film or TV show is very, very expensive.

The solution to both of these problems in both of these venues is to just make a new episode with continuing characters. The audience will fill the seats or tune in as the case may be without a new ad campaign and with about half of the story already written. There is no need to include new scenes establishing Mel Gibson's character after the first Lethal Weapon. We already know his motives and proclivities. Cut straight to the action.

One of the most successful franchise sequel series has been the James Bond series. The best 007film early on was probably Goldfinger. It had everything a pop entertainment could hope for. It was followed shortly thereafter by Thunderball - a much weaker movie. Yet Thunderball was the box office champ in James Bond land for decades. The millions who had seen and enjoyed Goldfinger came out to see more of the same. A savvy businessman might draw a lesson from that.

As has been remarked, by you I believe, the problem with sequels is regression to the mean. That's very true. But there is also the problem that most stories do not lend themselves to sequels at all. The most famous example being the utterly disastrous later sequels in The Planet of the Apes series. The original film had a knock out surprise ending (OK, I saw it coming) but that didn't deter the studios from recycling the monkey makeup over and over again.

So it is more apt to compare the current Mad Men episodes not with a rare one off movie like The Hurt Locker but with the penny dreadful Battle for the Planet of the Apes.


agnostic said...

And what about reality TV? I don't follow TV, but isn't there just as much explosive popularity here as with shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men?

Reality TV tries to condense a movie into a mini-series. There is a clear beginning where the premise of the show is let loose, then there's a middle where we see the characters reacting to each other based on how they were initially prodded by the premise, and pretty soon there's an end --

The bachelor chooses a certain girl, a certain singer wins American Idol, a certain adventurer is the last standing on Survivor, or whatever, and that's all she wrote folks.

While the basic formula may remain the same from one season to the next, that's not important -- like saying that one "hero slays monster" story is the same as all others. It's a different unfolding of this basic theme each time, and there's no possibility for continuity between seasons. So you don't have to keep up with the show when you don't want to.

greenrivervalleyman said...

I would also argue that, all things being equal, serials are the more conservative medium. Movies, because they are not open-ended, must choose to represent some climactic moment in an otherwise ordinary life. This in turn leads to endorsement of utopian, anti-social, anti-middleclass lifechoices: Bonnie, Clyde, and Cool Hand Luke all go down in a hail of police bullets; Serpico leaves the NYPD to turn on, tune in, and drop out in ultra-luxe Switzerland.

Weeds is certainly a lifestyle lefty type of show and in its first season is basically an extended remake of American Beauty (complacent, rich, inauthentic white person takes up marijuana in bid to kick malaise and in the end literally burns their environmentally-unsustainable, soul-killing "whiteopia" to cinders). Because the show must go on, though, Weeds gets more serious and less liberal in later seasons. Out are the cute, mascoty minority drug traffickers of the first two seasons and in are the brutal heavies of the Mexican drug cartels.

In addition, showing how life goes on, with its good as well as its bad, is inherently conservative and undermines the anti-social, cathartic, big liberal gesture that you find in too many movies. The ending to Hurt Locker is no different. Just because the movie is pro-soldier and not explicitly anti-war does not make it a conservative flick. Sgt. James's giving up his ho-hum civilian existence in order to feed his inner thrill-junkie in Iraq is no more an endorsement of traditional, conservative values than if he had become a suburban pot dealer.

Anonymous said...

e.g., Firefly, when the crew gets the jump on some mobsters and are about to fly away.

Alwas important to remember that bombshell Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" had a great role as a con artist/seductress in that show, though I was really a fan of the mechanic, Jewel Staite.

Steve Sailer said...

"I would also argue that, all things being equal, serials are the more conservative medium. Movies, because they are not open-ended, must choose to represent some climactic moment in an otherwise ordinary life. This in turn leads to endorsement of utopian, anti-social, anti-middleclass lifechoices"

Yeah, good point, that's pretty much why I like novels more than short stories. Short stories always end with some dreary epiphany where the character realizes he'll never achieve his dreams. But in novels, life goes on and on and you see, hey, even if you don't achieve your dreams, life is still pretty interesting.

Will S. said...

As James Kabala mentioned, the plot twist in the Crying Game has made it famous; I believe that was the beginning, in earnest, of the critics refusing to reveal 'spoilers', long before Sixth Sense.