My reading of film criticism before a film is released in theaters (or living where I do and living the life I live: “is released on DVD/streaming”) is usually elliptical. I read snippets, listen in on conversations, and generally try to get some of the broad outlines of others’ objections, ideas, and passions without filling in too many details. This isn’t the same as avoiding “spoilers,” because (1) that usually has to do with plot points and what I am interested in is often thematic (which relates only loosely to plot) and (2) spoiling assumes both that art can be spoiled and that there is a proper way to experience art such that a particular piece of information could spoil the experience, both of which I find dubious.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that I’ve followed some but not all of the debate around Zero Dark Thirty. I’ve gleaned a few of the criticisms out there, and in lieu of a review proper, I thought I would weigh in on these points. Odds are that most individuals don’t express their view quite so crassly as I state it here. The general statements here are less careful versions of what I’ve half-read.
1. It’s just a procedural.
That the film is (for a large stretch) “just a procedural” is no more an objection than that a film is “just a western” or “just a musical.” There is an undercurrent to some criticism that films which subvert genre expectations should be held in high regard and those which conform to genre expectations should be dismissed as at best pleasant diversions. I do not share this opinion, and I have trouble formulating any good reason for holding it. (The best I can do: “I’ve seen this before” -> boredom -> dismissal. I worry about that second step.)
That the film is a procedural for most of its running time doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that it is not a very good procedural. We are given brief clips of Maya in front of a computer or in a meeting followed by a scene in which another character states some variation on “she’s a tough cookie! don’t mess with her!” The script repeatedly has characters tell us that Maya is working hard, never giving up, etc., without showing us that very well. (The marker on glass bit works well enough, but it can’t itself bear the weight the script asks of it.) We are given very little sense of how hard the work is, the feel of decade-long research, or much of anything that would make this work as a procedural.
2. It supports / doesn’t support torture.
The discussion about whether the film supports torture seems to turn on whether the information gleaned from the torture was actually useful. If it was useful, the film supports torture; if it wasn’t, the film doesn’t. This is not irrelevant, but it is mostly misguided. What is more important is Maya’s arc within the film.
The opening stretch in which torture is pointedly depicted is inflected with Maya’s flinching responses and her desire to be tough enough to do her job. We are encouraged to identify with her and flinch at the gruesomeness of it, not revel in it. In the lengthy procedural section that follows, Maya is (as far as I can remember) completely unconcerned about the manner in which information is obtained. (Does she at one point raise a doubt about the reliability of a particular piece of evidence? I’m not sure.) What’s important here is that she moves from flinching at torture to not caring at all.
This disturbs me. Bigelow’s strength in The Hurt Locker was her restraint in valorizing or villianizing the soldiers she depicted, which provided a nearly blank canvas on which to read in one’s own take on the virtues and vices required to live the life of a bomb disposal team member. Here, though, that same amoral restraint fails to offer the viewer the opportunity to consider the goods and ills of torture. There is no sustained focus on torture and those no sustained reflection. Instead, Maya moves on. Perhaps we are supposed to see this as a parallel to the country moving on, losing interest in the debate about torture until a brief mention of closing Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. There is not enough here to sustain that parallel.
What do we have? A film that starts with a depiction of torture and then abandons engagement with it. Whether the information gained from the torture (and technically, it’s information gained over a nice meal after the suspect is “broken” by torture) is what led to the eventual killing of “UBL” is only a small part of the question. What matters more is Maya’s quick disregard for the physical and moral toll of torture on the victims and the perpetrators. That she stops caring allows us to stop caring. I find that much more disturbing than whether the film links a piece of information gained from the torture to the eventual raid, as if the practical objection to torture were the only one worth making.
3. Technophilia supports militarism.
Bigelow’s films are sometimes criticized for being so enthralled with the technology that the moral component of technology’s use in warfare is missed. We are encouraged to marvel at the tech, which prevents us from coolly judging its effect. I find some pull toward this, especially in the lead up to the final raid, yet I think the raid itself is so smartly staged that this objection is somewhat muted. Despite what I had earlier said about The Hurt Locker, I had expected the final raid to be a pro-assassination, pro-war, pro-militarism flurry in which we identify with the killers. Bigelow smartly stages the final raid so that we do identify with the Navy SEALs, but provides plenty of reaction shots that allow us to see the soldiers’ conflicted responses to what they have just done. It is not joyous when they kill, and they realize this. I would have thought much less of the film had she not so smartly crafted a tense, thrilling conclusion with an inevitable outcome that also (like the opening sequence) managed to convey some uneasiness with what was being portrayed. The intelligence shown in the craft is what separates the great final sequence from so much of what comes before. Bigelow extends and revels in short, brief stretches of time so marvelously, but her and Boal seem unable to condense the long stretch in any particularly interesting way.
Now on to a closer reading of all the many excellent articles likely out there. Feel free to share your favorite links in the comments.
You can also read Part 1 of the results.
Welcome to the results of the first ever TV Showdown, covering the shows that aired between September, 2011, and September, 2012. The half-hour show results are below.
Before we get to the results, I want to offer sincere thank you to all who voted, and to those who spread the word on this silly little attempt to get a sense of what the consensus is on great television. Nielsen, critical sites, Twitter can be misleading in determining which shows people are passionate about and which they merely watch. With the rise of “hate-watching” and the ubiquity of “guilty pleasures,” I offered this as an opportunity to self-assess what we each think of the shows we watch and compare our notes with each other. In no way should this be understood as a substitute for he legitimate skills of close watching, critical analysis, or journalism. Instead, this is a (hopefully fun) supplement to these, existing to take a snapshot of where we are as a TV-watching community, and perhaps serve as a resource for those looking for new shows to check out.
Enough. On with the shows.
The Top Tier
1. Parks and Recreation, NBC (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Louie, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–18
3. Community, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 32–21, loses to Louie, FX by 21–20
The votes in the first tier were incredibly close. Louie was winning for the first half the week, and Community made a late push into the top after a slow start. But it was Parks and Recreation and its occasionally dramatic political and romantic storylines that emerged as a clear winner this year. Parks and Recreation placed in the top 5 on 82% of the ballots rating it, suggesting that those who watch it really love it. Impressively, 16% of ballots that ranked both Parks and Recreation and Community had them as 1-2 (in some order), suggesting that while NBC might have its problems in the ratings, it has managed to create a really popular pairing. (Network mates 30 Rock and The Office also ranked, at 9 and 32, respectively. Bent, at 26, is ranked higher than relative ratings hit The Office, but Bent couldn’t survive its low ratings to make it to a second season after a six-episode run on NBC, as The Office had once done.)
The Second Tier
4. Archer, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 26–10, loses to Community, NBC by 24–11
5. Happy Endings, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 29–4, loses to Archer, FX by 17–9
A highly quotable animated spy spoof and the best of the new breed of friends-in-the-city sit-coms received a lot of love in their third and second seasons, respectively.
The Third Tier
6. Bob’s Burgers, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–3, loses to Happy Endings, ABC by 15–9
7. The Thick of It, Hulu loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 10–3, loses to Happy Endings, ABC by 8–5
8. Girls, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 28–10, loses to The Thick of It, Hulu by 5–4
9. 30 Rock, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 41–4, loses to Girls, HBO by 17–16
10. Cougar Town, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–2, loses to 30 Rock, NBC by 16–14
None of these received many first or second place votes, but they all are well liked by enough people to make a very strong showing. Both Fox and, perhaps surprisingly, HBO make their first appearance here. Bob’s Burgers in particular has charmed a lot of critics.
The Fourth Tier
At this point, the choice of condorcet completion method becomes more relevant. On another reasonable way of ranking, Gravity Falls would be 10 and The Legend of Korra would be 12. So, again, it is better to view these as a rough grouping.
11. New Girl, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 39–2, loses to Cougar Town, ABC by 19–9
12. Enlightened, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–3, loses to New Girl, Fox by 6–5
13. Children’s Hospital, adult swim loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 21–2, loses to Enlightened, HBO by 3–2
14. Suburgatory, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–0, loses to Children’s Hospital, adult swim by 8–6
15. Gravity Falls, Disney loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 12–0, loses to 30 Rock, NBC by 7–5
16. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 25–1, loses to Gravity Falls, Disney by 4–2
17. Veep, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 31–1, loses to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX by 11–7
18. The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 12–1, loses to Veep, HBO by 5–2
19. The Middle, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 17–4, loses to The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon by 3–1
20. Awkward, MTV loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 18–2, loses to The Middle, ABC by 6–4
21. Don’t Trust the B——, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 32–0, loses to Awkward, MTV by 8–6
22. The League, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 18–3, loses to Don’t Trust the B——, ABC by 9–6
23. Bored to Death, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–2, loses to The League, FX by 3–2
24. How I Met Your Mother, CBS loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 36–0, loses to Bored to Death, HBO by 7–4
25. Wilfred, FX loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 26–1, loses to How I Met Your Mother, CBS by 10–9
26. Bent, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 28–0, loses to Wilfred, FX by 7–4
27. Raising Hope, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 20–1, loses to Wilfred, FX by 6–5
28. Modern Family, ABC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 38–0, loses to Raising Hope, Fox by 10–9
29. The Big Bang Theory, CBS loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 22–0, loses to Bent, NBC by 5–4
30. The Simpsons, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 15–1, loses to The Big Bang Theory, CBS by 6–5
31. Futurama, Comedy Central loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 23–0, loses to The Simpsons, Fox by 8–4
New Girl‘s position is surprisingly high, but this is perhaps explained that those who really hated it (and there were many) didn’t watch enough episodes to vote it lower. I expected a better showing from The Middle, which was third on my own list. How I Met Your Mother, Raising Hope, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory (and The Office, below) weren’t able to bring out much love, despite being cornerstone shows on their networks’ comedy nights.
The Fifth Tier
32. The Office, NBC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 39–0, loses to Futurama, Comedy Central by 12–4
33. Episodes, Showtime loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–2, loses to The Office, NBC by 5–4
34. Eastbound and Down, HBO loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 11–3, loses to Episodes, Showtime by 3–2
35. South Park, Comedy Central loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 14–2, loses to Eastbound and Down, HBO by 6–2
36. Portlandia, IFC loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 17–0, loses to South Park, Comedy Central by 3–2
37. Family Guy, Fox loses to Parks and Recreation, NBC by 13–0, loses to Portlandia, IFC by 3–1
The results of the first ever TV Showdown are in. I’ll be breaking down the results over two posts, one on Half-Hour and one on One-Hour shows.
Before I do, please note that I won’t be discussing the results of the Competition shows or Variety/Reality/News/Sports shows, because there were not enough results to make the responses interesting. What responses there were didn’t share enough consensus to lead to any noticeable results. (When there were a similar number of ballots in Half-Hour and Hour, a consensus had already emerged near the top.) If you would like to view the breakdown of responses, you can do so through the following links: Competition, Alternate Method Competition, Variety, Alternate Method Variety.
3. Mad Men, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 18–7, loses to Homeland, Showtime by 15–11
5. Game of Thrones, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 22–3, loses to The Good Wife, CBS by 12–11
6. Justified, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 19–3, loses to Game of Thrones, HBO by 13–12
8. Fringe, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 19–0, loses to Sherlock, PBS by 19–8
9. The Vampire Diaries, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–1, loses to Sherlock, PBS by 12–11
11. Boardwalk Empire, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–0, loses to Parenthood, NBC by 5–4
12. Doctor Who, BBC America loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–1, loses to Boardwalk Empire, HBO by 6–4
14. Bunheads, ABC Family loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 16–1, loses to Revenge, ABC by 11–10
15. Misfits, Hulu loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–1, loses to Bunheads, ABC Family by 7–3
16. Sons of Anarchy, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 13–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–3
17. The L.A. Complex, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–2
18. The Walking Dead, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 21–0, loses to The L.A. Complex, The CW by 4–1
22. Luther, BBC America loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Castle, ABC by 3–2
23. Alphas, Syfy loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to The L.A. Complex, The CW by 6–1
24. Spartacus, Starz loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to The Newsroom, HBO by 3–1
25. Chuck, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Spartacus, Starz by 1–0
26. Luck, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Misfits, Hulu by 4–3
27. Dexter, Showtime loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Luck, HBO by 5–2
28. American Horror Story, FX loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 17–0, loses to Dexter, Showtime by 5–1
29. Suits, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Dexter, Showtime by 3–1
30. Falling Skies, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Suits, USA by 2–1
31. Grimm, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Falling Skies, TNT by 4–2
32. House, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Grimm, NBC by 4–1
33. Grey’s Anatomy, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Suits, USA by 3–2
34. Scandal, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 12–0, loses to Grey’s Anatomy, ABC by 6–1
35. Covert Affairs, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Grey’s Anatomy, ABC by 2–1
37. Big Love, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–1, loses to House, Fox by 2–1
38. Hart of Dixie, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Big Love, HBO by 3–0
40. Bones, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Boss, Starz by 1–0
41. White Collar, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Bones, Fox by 5–3
42. The Killing, AMC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 15–0, loses to White Collar, USA by 3–2
43. Alcatraz, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 13–0, loses to The Killing, AMC by 4–3
44. The Mentalist, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to The Killing, AMC by 2–1
45. True Blood, HBO loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–1, loses to The Mentalist, CBS by 2–0
46. NCIS, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Mentalist, CBS by 4–2
47. Switched at Birth, ABC Family loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to NCIS, CBS by 2–0
48. Supernatural, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Switched at Birth, ABC Family by 2–0
50. Smash, NBC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 14–0, loses to Criminal Minds, CBS by 4–1
51. The Finder, Fox loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Criminal Minds, CBS by 2–0
52. Burn Notice, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Finder, Fox by 3–2
53. GCB, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 10–0, loses to Burn Notice, USA by 4–1
54. Person of Interest, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to The Finder, Fox by 2–0
55. House of Lies, Showtime loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 11–0, loses to Person of Interest, CBS by 1–0
57. Southland, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to Prime Suspect, NBC by 3–2
58 (tied). The Closer, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Southland, TNT by 3–1
62. Dallas, TNT loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 7–0, loses to The Closer, TNT by 2–1
63. Nikita, The CW loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Dallas, TNT by 2–0
64. Necessary Roughness, USA loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 6–0, loses to Dallas, TNT by 1–0
65. Desperate Housewives, ABC loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to Necessary Roughness, USA by 1–0
68. CSI, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 9–0, loses to Hell on Wheels, AMC by 1–0
69. Hawaii Five-0, CBS loses to Breaking Bad, AMC by 8–0, loses to CSI, CBS by 2–1
Welcome to the very first TV Showdown, in which you can express your love of television, lists, arguments, and peer pressure through voting. Here are a few things you need to know to participate:
1. May I vote?
Yes. If you are reading this, you are welcome to vote (only once). Ideally you’re the sort of person who watches a good deal of TV, talks to others about it, and perhaps reads or writes reviews. But all are welcome.
2. How do I vote?
Rank the shows you watch from your favorite (1) to least favorite (lowest number). Shows you don’t watch should get “No Opinion.” This last bit is important. PLEASE PUT “NO OPINION” for shows you do not watch. This allows the condorcet system to work best.
3. How often do I need to watch a show for my voting to count?
I’ll count your votes regardless, but I ask you to follow this rule of thumb:
Half-hour shows: At least half the new episodes
Hour-long shows: At least 1/3 the new episodes
Competition shows: At least 1/3 the new episodes
News, Reality, Variety, Sports: At least 6 hours of the show (12+ for sports)
4. Am I ranking all-time favorites or just this year?
Please rank the shows based solely on episodes that first aired in the US from September 15, 2011, to September 15, 2012. This is a snapshot in time.
5. My favorite show isn’t on here! What should I do?
I made my best effort to include many of the most popular, respected, and passionately loved shows, but I can’t (and wouldn’t) include everything. If there’s something you would like to see on one of the lists, please let me know and I will potentially add it next year. I am also limiting the list to shows that were released in the United States on TV/internet during the year.
6. What is condorcet voting? Why this way?
Many year-end lists use a ranking system of a persons’s top 10 or 25 shows. But there are some shows that we haven’t watched, and these lose out. And I might not be passionate about a show but still think it’s better than something else. This allows these preferences to count for a show and blind spots not to count against a show. Everybody wins.
7. When can I vote?
Any time between Friday, September 7, 2012, and Friday, September 14, 2012.
Now go vote. I’ll post the results next weekend.
Half-Hour Scripted: http://is.gd/HeHghs
One-Hour Scripted: http://is.gd/dbO2E0
News, Reality, Sports, Variety: http://is.gd/CDNl6k
One of my favorite half-hour cable shows is House Hunters. (Actually, I prefer House Hunters International, part of the HH franchise that now includes a vacation home show.) In the show, we meet a couple who describe their needs and desires for a home. They then visit three houses (or condos or flats) to purchase. As the couple walks through the homes, they point out features that they like or don’t like. A realtor describes the area and the amenities. At the end, the couple sits down over coffee or walk down a sidewalk to discuss the three homes. Throughout the show, a host narrates by discussing the salient features of each house. A graphic on the screen declares “House #1/2/3″ and a brief description like “Downtown Location” or “Extra Bedroom.”
The joy of watching the show is, at least for me, something akin to watching a game show. The contestants are making a large-money decision, and we viewers at home guess at not only what would be the best decision for the couple but also what the couple will actually choose.
News broke a while back that the couple often wasn’t choosing between three options but had already made their decision (for production purposes, it’s easier if the house is already on deposit or purchased) or the other two options were never really options (they might have been staged friends’ homes, for instance). This fakery didn’t bother me as much as if some other reality-suggesting show turned out to be faked, because the peculiar pleasures of House Hunters have so much to do with its bizarrely reductive attempts to reconstruct reasoning processes.
The couples on the show are notorious (at least within my household) for the bizarre reasons they choose a house. “I like the paint color.” “This one has a larger master bathroom.” The forced conceit of having a television crew follow you around as you try to come up with things to say about each room is a delightful insight into what people think they should know or care about a house. Note: it’s not that we are getting insight into how people think about houses; we are getting insight into how people think that they should think about houses. It’s as if at each moment of the show, the couple is saying, “This sounds like the sort of reason we might choose one place over another that doesn’t sound like I’m just saying ‘I like it’ over and over.” Add in the acrinomy caused by couples negotiating their first time on television while they try to figure out how to give justifying reasons for their decisions, and the show is a delightful entrance into artificially constructed reasoning.
I was reminded of my interest in House Hunters week by the release of Sight & Sound Magazine’s list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time, according to invited critics, academics, and programmers. Like House Hunters, the Sight & Sound list invites participants and viewers to engage in reconstructed reasoning. A few months ago, critics needed to decide which films they consider the 10 greatest of all time and why. Based on the accounts I have read, few were satisfied with “I like it,” so elaborate reasoning processes were established and obscure rules are employed. It seems that no two critics adopted the same decision procedure for why each had the list he or she did. With introspection failing, all that’s left is an artificial attempt at reasoning where reasoning can at best fall short. (Part of why the Vishnevestsky method was so delightful is how it called our attention to this artifice.)
A second stage of reconstructed reasoning is taking place now that the list has been revealed, and we are left wondering if there is a reason why Vertigo surpassed Citizen Kane at the No. 1 position, or why certain directors have fallen out of favor. These attempts to draw out some reasoning process that would have led to this decision is as potentially fun and as likely unhelpful as guessing which home will be chosen on House Hunters. When the rules for deciding are made up as one goes along, we are left asking what sorts of publicly available reasons could explain miniscule shifts in voting preferences over the ten years since the last poll. Our reasoning fails us now, just as it was of limited use to those voting in the poll.
Now, please don’t conclude from this that there is no such thing as a better or worse reason for voting something one of the ten greatest films of all time, or that all reasoning is just an expression of taste, or any other foolishly general conclusion. We reason. Sometimes we reason well. Sometimes we reason where reason is of limited use, but this is not to say it is of no use. In some cases “larger master bathroom” is reason enough to make a decision, and in some cases “exemplary expression of a personal vision” is reason enough as well.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with film. Not with films, with movies, with the abstract objects that we usually think of by “film,” but the physical object that is a filmstrip which can be projected onto a large screen. Film – as distinct from video tape or a computer file – is, as many have noted, dying. The manufacture of film cameras are being discontinued, as are film negatives and film projectors. I’m not sure this would have bothered me much 15 years ago. Our college film club would project DVDs (which is all it could afford), and digital projection hadn’t taken over theaters so the assumption of theater-going was still filmic projection. It never occured to me to note the contrasts between the two kinds of viewing (filmic and digital) until one night in grad school.
The Cinema at the Whitney is the home for most of the films that are screened at Yale. Various film clubs and classes use the extensive archives of the Film Study Center to show 1-2 films every night of the week while classes are in session. You could have an entire film education just by attending regularly. Various dignitaries present films, there are occasional series (law and film, religion and film, even gardening and film), and frequently there are multiple film festivals each year. Everyone is welcome and every screening is free. I remember sitting in the audience one night for a film (I don’t remember which), and I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged gentleman in another row. He was a film producer, and he was telling me about the new film he had in development and how he just brought on Ridley Scott to direct. That film became Kingdom of Heaven. Other times there were preview screenings (The Royal Tenenbaums, which had different music in that version, if I recall correctly) or Q&As (Baz Luhrmann and Frederick Wiseman were two favorites).
The screening that I will remember most clearly was a nearly empty theater, a large screen, and a stunning, restored print of North by Northwest. From those opening Saul Bass titles through the hilarious closing shot of a train entering a tunnel, I was in love. I was in love with the movie, surely, deep, mad, passionate love with the story, the setting, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, the dialogue – with the everything. But I was, for the first time, in love with a film projected on a screen. The boldness of the color, the depth of the images, the fluidity of the frames, the largesse, the whir, the dust lit up by the beam of light, it was all so much to love. I don’t mind digital projection, and often prefer it for recent CGI-heavy or computer-animated films, but that is compatible with loving a projected film.
One of the things to love about projected film is its simultaneous ubiquity and exclusivity. Few people who love film can afford to own film prints and projectors, so ownership is rare. Yet, screened films are ubiquitous around the world and for over a hundred years. Nearly anyone can go, yet few can hold on. It is fundamentally communal, shared by strangers, who join with you in a shared experience. That experience continues to evolve into new arenas. Sometimes this creates greater exclusivity (the 52″ HDTV with surround sound) and sometimes greater community (the standing in line before a midnight screening). But that depth of image, that softeness of the lines, that sharpness of the colors (even when monochromatic) that belong to film and which I so love now began with Hitchock and Mason and a dust cropper.
Warning: This is about television, but includes material unsuitable for those disinclined from hearing about another person’s adorable kid.
I’ve been thinking a bit about television, and what the cool kids in media studies call “convergence.” Convergence is a catch-all term that brings under one heading the various ways in which changing technology leads to the migration of media across different platforms, the industrial processes behind these changes, and the new cultural experiences that follow. In other words, how should we think about playing a movie on a telephone?
My interest recently has been more specific. As the father of a kid a little more than a year old, my partner and I have to make a lot of decisions about what media we will let him consume, in what quantities, and at what times. Our general approach has been to err on the side of less watching for now. He basically gets to watch TV when he is getting his fingernails clipped (the kid squirms like a worm on a hook), when he is sick (he’s caught bits of Sweetgrass and The Muppets this way), and when we are visiting his television-watching cousins. He occasionally gets to watch YouTube videos of song-and-dance numbers from old movies or can pound on the iPad for some interactive app. All told, he’s spent very little time watching TV shows or movies on a TV set. But he still loves the TV.
I got a Roku player for Christmas from my in-laws, and this has become our primary means of playing music when we are at home. We all like music a lot, so it’s not uncommon for music to be playing for an hour or two each day. And when it does, it is often piped through the Roku, attached to the TV and the stereo system. The Pandora or Shoutcast information displays on the screen while we play. So when he hears music, he turns to watch the CD cover art float across the screen or see what else the TV displays while his music plays. This expectation is so engrained that he loses interest very quickly in anything on the TV that is not accompanied by music. At his age, he is too young to follow a story told audio-visually, but he can dance along to a song.
I don’t know quite what conceptual tools a fifteen-month-old has, but it’s pretty clear from his behavior that he is interested in the TV primarily for the music. He loves music and will start dancing at any suggestion of music. (Yesterday, church bells rang at 4pm and he started to dance.)
My kid won’t grow up having clearly delineated television shows, web content, and movies. “Films” will always have been an anachronistic term. Tablet computers were the nighlights keeping his parents entertained during his sleepless first few weeks. The music industry will always have had a deal with Apple, and most music the world has ever recorded will be available for a price (or the cost of an intrusive ad). He’ll be fine with that, as long as he can dance.
Rewatching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was amazed to find myself refeeling the deep, primal awe and terror that I felt watching the film as a kid. It was like a muscle memory, with long dormant emotions welling up as Roy Neary watches the small ships zoom by and Barry walks toward the door as the multicolored lights flood his room. I wonder if these are feelings any movie could make me feel again: this deep fascination, awe, and terror that are inseparable – what Rudolf Otto called the numinous. Movies can scare me now, and fascinate me, and overhwelm me with their beauty. But I doubt I am capable anymore of seeing the encounter in Close Encounters as so very possible (and even happening somewhere right this moment) the way I did when I watched the film as a kid. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household, where angels and demons were not metaphors or vague spiritual entities but real individuals. A particular influence was Frank Peretti, whose books I read and reread in late elementary and junior high school. The UFOs in Close Encounters, especially as introduced through the storm clouds, seemed as really possible even probable as the stories from Sunday school and the clashes between angels and demons in Peretti novels.
I doubt I could return to seeing the world that way anymore, where every gathering storm cloud could be a demon army marshalling power or the first wave of an alien encounter, but watching Close Encounters allowed me to feel that wonder and dread again. Having not watched the film since high school (prompted by the mashed potato spoof in UHF), the movie seems both very fresh to me now, but also very familiar. Now I see the story of a father and his obsession, and I note the references to North by Northwest and John Williams’ frequent allusions to Bernard Herrmann and other formal and cultural aspects that eluded me as a kid. To be able to switch back and forth between appreciation and the more primal awe that could only come through memory is an unusual but welcome mode of viewing.
Close Encounters benefits from not having so thoroughly dominated popular culture as Star Wars. The original Star Wars films, with its mystical Jedis and fantastic creatures and spirtual overtones, was at least if not more important to my childhood, but there was just no way of escaping it through my teens and twenties. The films (not just through the release of the prequels, but in their repeated invocation in pop culture) have lost the ability to draw on any of those emotions I felt as a kid. As a kid, the race through the forest in Return of the Jedi was my favorite because I grew up near woods and the placing of science fiction stories in the greens and browns of woods like I grew up near in exurban Wisconsin delighted me. (My favorite science fiction continues to employ this juxtaposition.)
I don’t feel that way often now, although I get glimpses of it occasionally. With Close Encounters, which sat dormant in my subconscious waiting to be revived with a jolt of visual and aural electricity, I was back to being that kid who was terrified but also fascinated by the bright lights outside the window and the walkway lowering from the mothership. A film may not be able to tap into that nouminal awe any more (although I would be delighted to find a film that did), but those synapses in my brain related to Close Encounters are so firmly fixed that I can experience that lovely terror again.
I was lying in the dentist’s recliner today, while he shot me full of novocaine and replaced two fillings. This is my second visit to this dentist, who I like more than the last few I’ve tried. At this office, the have TV monitors attached to each seat which they can use to show you the x-rays of your teeth or use (as I was using it) to distract you from the drilling, cleaning, or otherwise hand-in-mouthing. I’ve had so much dental work done in my life, that trips to the dentist don’t bother me much. (I often decline novocaine, which I find more bothersome than helpful.) So I don’t need TV to distract me from the drilling, but as a fan of all things screened, I like the opportunity to watch something.
I stumbled across TCM, which was showing the 1954 Godzilla, which I had not seen in completion or at least not seen since I was a kid. While a pleasure to watch, I was often blocked by a hand awkwardly holding a dental instrument or the dentist leaning over to check his work. All told, about 1/4 of the time the screen was partially or completely blocked. Maybe 1/10 of the time, the noise was too loud to hear the sounds of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo.
And I loved it.
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the right way to watch movies. The right way to watch includes paying careful attention from the beginning, watching through in one sitting to the end (unless there is a planned intermission), listening attentively, and so on. The right way also includes watching in a format as close to the original recording as possible (film projection for film, digital projection for digital or heavy CGI), in a large theater (or other intended venue), with a respectful, attentive, engaged audience. That’s the right way. I applaud the right way. I seek out the right way.
But I also like the wrong way.
The wrong way is watching a movie while a dentist leans in to check his work. The wrong way is catching a few minutes of a movie on TV, not knowing who directed it, what it is “about,” or why it is interesting or important. The wrong way is interrupting the film every 10 minutes to pacify a screaming one-year-old who should be asleep already. The wrong way is watching 10 minutes, enjoying it or not, then switching to something else. The wrong way is flipping through YouTube clips according to the obscure logic of linked videos. The wrong way is folding laundry while watching. The wrong ways are also great ways to watch movies, ways that I have come to value more highly even as I become more refined and nitpicky about the particular values of the right way to watch.
I don’t think the wrong way is as good as the right way or that we should seek it out or anything like that. But sometimes, it is what I have, and I have learned to love it. Occasionally folks will defend watching serialized television out of order or reading only parts of books, but I’ve less often heard film watching defended this way. And while not a defense, I thought I’d lay out a couple thoughts related to watching wrongly.
- Extrinsic factors: For me, having a young son means fewer trips to the movie theater and fewer chances to dedicate a solid 90-180 minutes to undistracted viewing at home. Watching wrongly (even if one values watching rightly) often comes about because of extrinsic factors like this. For me, the choice is rarely between watching rightly and watching wrongly; the choice is between watching wrongly and not watching at all. That’s why I don’t draw any large conclusions from these thoughts. Wrong ways can be good and interesting, but they are usually second choices.
- Different foci: Watching wrongly often leads me to focus on aspects of the film that I might otherwise miss. While I’ve become a more careful, more studious, and more knowledgable film lover over the last decade, there is still far more to know about any given film than I could possibly take in on a single (or even repeat) viewing. Watching a random snippet often focuses my attention on the way information is presented in the frame, the way sound conveys mood or information, or something about a performance I might otherwise miss. Watching a movie in full often means setting one’s expectations according to the opening scenes and then being carried along by the story or the plotting or performances. By jumping in partway through, I’m less likely to care about anything but what I can learn about lighting, composition, or other technical aspects in that brief moment than I would if I were also watching for the more often discussed elements of the film.
- Technology: Technology often makes these wrong ways possible, as in the YouTube clips I mentioned earlier, or catching whatever is on TCM at the moment. (Netflix works against this, assuming you always awant to watch from the beginning.) One of my least favorite things about switching from our Tivo to our ATT Uverse DVR was that I no longer can keep one DVR tuner always on TCM to catch those random moments. Something as simple as the kind of DVR can make wrong viewing possible or not. I also remember my college roommate getting a DVD player (one of the first to which I had access). We were playing around with its then-awesome features, including the shuffle mode (intended for CDs), which we discovered also worked while watching DVDs. We started watching The Fugitive out of order, according to the chapter breakdowns of the DVD, and ended up watching the whole film in a particularly odd wrong way, made possible by a change in technology.
Watching movies the wrong way is made possible by shifts in technology and often required by extrinsic factors, but it can lead to focusing on elements of a movie that might otherwise be missed. (Film instructors are, ironically, those most accustomed to watching films the wrong way since they are always cutting down clips to show their students for a particular pedogogical purpose.) So I like the wrong ways, or at least some of them. And liking the wrong ways is compatible with, and can even serve, appreciating the right way to watch films.
Vague spoilers for The Tree of Life and more specific spoilers for Meek’s Cutoff
I just finished Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful, challenging Meek’s Cutoff, a film with more ideas informing each sequence of shots than any other I can recall seeing recently. It manages to find pure cinema in the act of negating so many of the things that we typically expect from films (e.g., dialogue, clear narrative arcs established early and conclude late, scenes with a beginning, middle, and end). It also serves as an anti-western, unsettling any clearly defined good guys in white hats or bad guys in black hats or headresses, forcing the viewer to watch events unfold from the edges, with the women and children and cattle.
What I find myself focusing on the day after is the film’s profound take on the Tree of Life, which received a different treatment by Terrence Malick this year within the film of that name. Malick’s The Tree of Life really is about life, about its beauty, its origin, its eventual eschaton. The Tree of Life is soteriological, that is, it is concerend with the nature of the soul or spirit, and Malick seems particularly interested in noting how it develops in a human life, especially in the crucial early adolescence when he apparently thinks choices become morally significant and (if this is when the soul develops) a human being becomes a person. Malick wants to show us the beauty of life, from birth to the afterlife. A tragedy begins the film, and prompts the question “Why?” Malick suggests that the only way to answer this question satisfactorally would be to understand the entire history of the universe, which would give us insight into God, the only one who could answer this question. Unfortunately, God turns out to be as inscrutable as any other person, so Malick’s theodicy (explanation for why there is evil) is ultimately a combination of aesthetic considerations and an appeal to mystery. But the tragedy, which the film takes as a launching point for larger questions, is ulimately a tragedy because it is the (perhaps temporary) end of a life, and life for Malick really is beautiful, worthwhile, and perhaps even sacred.
Reichardt gives us the other aspect to the Tree of Life. The first spoken words in the film, I believe, were of a prepubescent boy (comparable in age to Malick’s central character for much of his film) who reads from Genesis 3 about Adam and Eve being forced from the Garden of Eden. I haven’t matched up the dialogue, but here is the passage I think he reads,
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
For Reichardt, the imagery of the Tree of Life is the imagery of banishment, of work without reward, of the impossibility of Eden. Like the first couple banished from Eden, the characters in Meek’s Cutoff are intimately connected to the ground, but the ground is cursed, it is without the life-sustaining water that could keep them going. (And when they encounter water early on, even that poses a danger, since they must ford the river.) We could talk further about the ways in which Meek’s Cutoff plays on the various curses of Genesis 3, most notably the more significant impact on women. But returning to the Edenic imagery, Meek at one point refers to their destination as a “Second Eden,” which suggests that the struggle is ultimately a struggle to return to that original state. But of course, the film never gives us Eden, it gives us only the slow struggle to stay alive, a life not filled with beauty but with pain and suffering without any clear reward. (For all the beauty of the film, not a single character seems to notice the beauty of where they are, only the dangers.)
The closing scene of Meek’s Cutoff shows the travellers finding a tree that they hope signifies water and thus life. To this point, though, the film has undermined the travellers’ confidence in each of their guides (Meek and the nameless Indian), and they are left yet again wondering if they should follow their new guide. The question is only partially whether this tree is the Tree of Life, which marks the entrance to Eden (more specifically, the Second Eden that Meek promised), since in Reichardt’s vision, we have no guide we can trust and no reason to think the next stage will be any less painful or fruitless than the last. Even if this is the Tree of Life, it is not a trustworthy sign of hope because it is not ultimately a sign of life, but a reminder of the toll that the mythical banishment from Eden had on humans, especially women.