Monday, July 16, 2007

Thoughts on Television and Cinema

In conversation, I often hear the phrases, "It's just entertainment" or "I don't want to have to think, I just want to watch something and enjoy it," and countless others coming from people who claim they are unashamed to watch shows/movies they know aren't "quality drama". This is usually the case with most television and a fair amount of commercial films. Television and cinema are similar in design and function, but the split between them strongly exhibits my adopted notion that not only can nothing be understood or interpreted without context, but that context decides the content; to the point that context is more important than the text. Contextual elements include social, economic, and technological factors (all which are intwined), and they work together to allow consumers/viewers to interpret the difference between television and cinema.

Many have argued that technological and economic factors are drawing together in these media to the extent that the difference between them is growing thinner. Home theater systems and the hypercommercialism of the theater experience, I would argue, blend the boundaries the most. First, home theater systems boast audio and visual perfection so as to replicate one's experience in the theater. Television screens are getting larger, surround sound systems more crisp. Though traditionalists offer that theaters have biggers screens, in reality, one's position in relation to a screen however small or large is more important in terms of the "size" of the image. So what separates these media? It's tough to say. I touched on similar issues recently, which is why I'd rather now look at the texts themselves.

Generally speaking, the medium of television as a visual mode of narrative yields a high level viewer passivity. It seeks to gain a viewer's familiarity with its easily identifiable visual styles and conventions and then loops it, encouraging one to switch off and retreat into a state of numbness. "I don't want to have to think," is one of my favorite phrases because I find it a complete hypocrisy. The process of watching something on a screen, making sense of its narrative and visual cues (however simple they are) requires a lot of thought, actually, and investment. The cognitive and sociocultural elements of watching moving images on a screen and making sense of them are far more complex than most people allow themselves to think about.

Part of the lure of seeing something on a screen as a form of narrative almost entails a bit of shameless voyeurism, as if we know we're not supposed to be watching. This element is intrinsic to all of narrative, but visual narrative especially. And TV is the height of convenient passivity for viewers. That's not to say I'm above it. We all enjoy a little television or simple movies to take our minds off things. It's enjoyable in a very basic sense and for a number of reasons. But the primary source of enjoyment is the desire sameness rather than innovation, which is something that everybody deals with. It is part of our social makeup to fall victim to the lure of convenience and simplicity. Even the most sophisticated of critics cannot deny their indulgences in "guilty pleasures."

But this conflict is much more intricate. Consider the viewer's activity in television. Aside from process of comrehending a moving image, there is a very fundamental essence about TV that enacts its ability to embody passivity yet also breaches this conflict. If we are entertained by something to the extent that we maintain a weekly schedule of watching a show, there is not only thought in that show but investment. Despite readily acknowledging the simplicity of a simple or cliched television show or movie, many of us will invest in spite of this acknowledgment. Where does this come from? Why are we so compelled to watch the screen and engage in thought and feeling (which no one can deny the experience of watching a sitcom or drama is, over long periods of time) yet keep our distance from things we see on that screen that don't adhere to familiar structures and courses? I wish I knew. But it's fascinating to think about. Perhaps even the most sophisticated defenders and/or participants in these media are constantly at battle with some kind of inner desire for the movement-image, which, Deleuze says, is an image one can easily anticipate, and situate within a recognizable field of visual perception. Of course, Deleuze theorized that the time-image frees both the image and the viewer from the limits of the movement-image. But he notes that the movement-image is essentially inevitable, alluding to what seems to be a desire for visual familiarity both social and cognitive in origin.

Though I have only begun reading David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film, its contents have already struck me as revelatory and intriguing. In an early chapter on narration and film form, Bordwell uses constructivist psychology to explore filmic perception and cognition, which proves useful in a discussion of visual perception in light of different visual media. He writes:

"Speaking roughly, the typical act of perception is the identification of a three-dimensional world on the basis of cues. Perception becomes a process of active hypothesis-testing. The organism is tuned to pick up data from the environment. Perception tends to be anticipatory, framing more or less likely expectations about what is out there."

He continues:

"Taken as a purely sensory experience, seeing is a bewildering flutter of impressions. The eye fixates many times per minute, using short and fast movements (called saccades); the eye rotates to compensate for head and body movement; the eyes trembles involuntarily; and most of the visual information we receive is peripheral anyhow. Yet we do not experience a flicker or smear of percepts. We see a stable world, smooth movements, constant patterns of light a nd dark. To the extent that seeing is a bottom-up process, the visual system is organized to make its inferences in an involuntary, virtually instantaneous manner. You 'immediately' see a visual array as consisting of objects distributed in three-dimensional space, and you cannot help seeing this. The automatic construction is also affected by schemat-driven processes that check hypotheses against incoming visual data.... Seeing is thus not a passive absorption of stimuli. It is a constructive activity, involving very fast computations, stored concepts, and various purpose, expectations, and hypotheses."

While Bordwell acknowledges that this concept requires more unpacking if it is to account for the intricasies of visual perception, this theoretical framework for seeing is nonetheless fascinating. The important point about this approach, in my mind, is how it blends the cognitive and the social to the point that they are nearly inseparable. We perceive and interpret according to our own perceptual schemata, hypotheses, and familiarity of visual and auditory conventions.

These concepts intriguingly tie together with the discussion of visual perception in different visual media. The reason I have been thinking about these ideas in more detail of late is that I have observed an a slightly more prominent mention of television's influence over cinema in many reviews of current films. For example, many have written that Live Free or Die Hard is less an organic extension of the previous films featuring Bruce Willis' John McLane but instead a direct inspiration of high intensity action programs such as 24, an assertion I would agree with. While Live Free demonstrates a slick use of action convetions and objects in motion, it rings up hollow as a pure cinematic experience. Perhaps this loose connection to television may have a hand in that. The similarities exist on narrative and stylistic levels, especially since often times the two converge. Other summer movies fall to similar patterns. For example, Evan Almighty contains an unusual amount of infantile "potty" humor for a story that wishes to be so prophetic. This, one could argue, is a direct extension of the sitcom sensibility of sequencing action-reaction shots (e.g. Shot A: squirrel bites Steve Carrell's crotch, shot B: close-up of Carrell's face, eyes widening as he prepares to yell in pain). This trend is seen not just in sitcom-inspired comedies, but also in the action epics like Pirates of the Caribbean. The film's talking-based scenes largely adhere to the same practice of cutting between two actors -- one's face screen left, the other screen right. This aesthetic borrows heavily from sit-coms as well as day time soap operas, both of which came to fruition in the 80's and 90's. For more on this, check out Henry Jenkins' excellent article.

In contemporary mainstream cinema, the "talking heads" method of editing and framing greatly determines the nature of the acting, performance, visual perception, and narrative interpretation. But the influence of contemporary television is much more vast on cinema. The Live Free or Die Hard example works well in this argument, since its visual style, both in its action sequences and expository scenes of establishing its villains heavily borrows from 24, among other shows. Observe the framing of the the villain as he watches a computer screen. Even the lighting gives us the slick, but intense 24-like feeling. The plot of the film could very easily had felt less like a television show than it does. Yes, the screenplay definitely demonstrates its influences, but the real feeling of similarity comes mostly from the editing techniques and compositions, which feel more like a contemporary television show than a movie. Another fascinating example of television affecting "big" cinema is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which offers a lot of close-ups and talking heads editing contrasted with stereotypically epic compositions (wide open vistas, sustained helicopter shots. While the movies work better in their smaller moments of detail and precision, they definitely represent a strange tension of aesthetic design that echoes the convergence of the visual styles of television and cinema .

While such editing/framing techniques have always been used, they are emphasized much more since the explosion of television as drama/comedy in American culture. This, in fact, is a strange irony. In matters of technology and visual convention, TV was influenced primarily by cinema. But now cinema seems to be more influenced by TV than by its own growth as a medium. Perhaps its growth today is television, which is why so many films abide by conventions employed by TV shows, which themselves are filtered copies of film conventions.

This apparent shift in framing sensibilities no doubt emerges, at least partly, from the tried and true success of sitcom-style, passive-inducing framing styles. In a discussion of mainstream visual perception, one could say that while television was always the influence of the innotivation of cinema, movies are now one step behind television. I am referring to the visual style of its hour-long dramas, not reality television or sitcoms. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and various others seem to be pushing into new visual territory (again, by popular standards). They are often more daring and visually unique than genre offerings as served up by Hollywood today.

Yet these shows are not the real trend-setters. Since Hollywood by-and-large seems content to rest safely on conventions of editing, staging, and framing, non-commercial films seem to be the ones now that are exploiting the technological advances of visual media such as digital technology. (Of note, its massive productions employing technology in daring ways often fail, as last year's masterpiece Miami Vice did from a commercial standpoint.) Many of smaller these films engage these technologies and inquire into their role in visual storytelling. I would argue that Television has looked to non-commercial cinema for its influences, and it has done so with great success. Perhaps audiences have embraced these "new" framing and editing techniques because they are loosely and liberally applied to familiar structures that television offer and movies do not. One of the many potential reasons for this is that audiences may have more room for intrigue when they know that something still needs to pan out, whereas the anticipations and expectations of a movie are different. But this is just one of many potential reasons for such varying shifts in visual style in various visual media.

This is really just the beginning of a bigger dialogue about nature of inter-medium influence, connectedness, and disconnectedness and the varying shifts in visual style in various visual media. Situated within David Bordwell's theory of hyperclassical visual style in modern movies as layed out in The Way Hollywood Tells It, an analysis of film and television (on both popular and non-commercial levels) may yield a greater understanding of inter-media influence of visual style and spectator consumption. An even more lucrative entry point into these inquiries is the use of emerging technologies such as HD and digital film.


Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

This is a fascinating article--one of many I have come across since discovering your blog recently. I would object, however, to the idea that using the classic shot/reverse-shot formula for dialogue scenes is somehow derivative of sitcoms. The typical sitcom is still shot using the 3-camera-studio-Desi-Arnez method, in which most of the time both of the characters are onscreen at once. The shot/reverse-shot is pure cinematic language dating back to at least Griffith.

Ted Pigeon said...

Good point, Ed. I have noticed that this is one of many problems with this piece. Each time I've encountered it again I've been more dissatisfied with it. I've thus far resisted going back and changing it, because I think it's important to keep it in a somewhat pure form, flawed and all.

Anyway, to address that particular concern, I would probably refine that idea (in the future) to state that sitcoms, while clearly not inventing or popularizing that compositional technique, clearly affected movies in a way that these trends (already present in cinema) greatly intensified.

I think it speaks to the notion of convergence, which I think is what I was really after in this piece, which is especially relevant now after the writers strike. There is a multiplicity of media out there, all of which affect each other in a variety of ways, not the least of which is aesthetic trends. I think that's what I am after with this ideas. A failure in this piece, it's an idea I want to pursue further now.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

There was a piece in FILM COMMENT a few years ago when AMERICAN SPLENDOR was released that made some great points about the convergence of t.v. and film. The writer mentioned a fascinating habit that HBO had (has?) of presenting their own original programming--SOPRANOS and the like-- in widescreen, while showing movies in the old pan-and-scan "formatted to fit your screen" versions.