Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. TV Is Not the New Film. Every now and again, someone will publish an article or compose a tweet or stand atop a rooftop and yell some variation on, “TV IS THE NEW FILM!” Most sane, intelligent people roll their eyes when they hear this because they know that television and film are two different mediums with different goals, and different strengths and weaknesses. But since enough people keep making this silly claim, it’s time for someone to thoroughly rebuke it. Filmmaker Magazine’s Mike S. Ryan explains exactly why TV is not, nor ever will be, the new film.
TV is a dialogue-driven medium. In TV, the writer is king. In series TV, writers work under the guidance of showrunners to create overall series arcs. Individual writers distinguish themselves in the crowded writers room by writing dialogue that soars and leads to a dramatic dynamic between characters that otherwise would not be present. In TV, dialogue is the most important means to communicate plot, theme and character to the viewer. In cinema, however, images are expected to carry as much as, if not more, significance than dialogue. You can have quiet moments in TV, but extended periods of silence (no music or score — only room tone) is absolutely forbidden. Likewise, using dialogue in an overly ironic or unrealistic manner is also frowned upon in TV. In TV, the meaning is in the words, so you can’t have too much dialogue expressing anything other than the literal rhetorical truth. Characters can lie and be sarcastic, but we must come to realize, through the plot, that they are lying, or are deluded, and that there is an actual literal truth. Could you imagine an ongoing TV series in which everyone speaks as if they were in Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” or Béla Tarr’s “Turin Horse”? Likewise, could you ever imagine silence for more than five minutes without a blasting soundtrack on a TV show? Could you imagine actual plot points happening through images and without dialogue to drive home the point? How about a major turning point signaled only by a sound effect, as in the recent film “Under the Skin,” when Scarlett Johansson’s character first starts to feel empathy when she hears a baby cry while sitting in a van during a traffic jam? In the theaters, with great 5.1 surround, the sound of the baby crying had a dramatic spatial component. On television, without this spatial positioning, and without the focus an audience brings to a feature film in the theater, this plot point is simply not conveyed as well. Once dialogue is eliminated as the main means to convey meaning, narrative’s other, purely visual elements become the default transmitter of information. Such elements function in a way that is completely unique to the medium of cinema. When you have little to no dialogue, gestures become the important means of conveying attitude, intent and the inner mood of a character. The eyes of the actor become the literal portals into his or her emotional state. Access to those eyes through the closeup is a powerful cinematic device. TV is primarily a medium-tight format; closeups somehow feel too specific in a TV drama. But in cinema, story space allows for a greater variation in shot size and depth staging. In a story that is being told without a reliance on dialogue, those visual options become extremely significant. In cinema we can spend screen time, sometimes through an extended held shot without a cut, to access the character’s inner state of mind. Getting a sense of a character’s place in the world, without using dialogue, but through the presence of the camera, is what we talk about when we say “cinematic.”
2. The Radical Humanism of David Simon. Now, just because television isn’t film doesn’t mean that television isn’t television, and it doesn’t mean that television can’t be great. If you don’t believe me, please look at Exhibit A: David Simon’s oeuvre. “The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” and “Treme” are three of the best shows that the medium has ever produced, and this Sunday, Simon’s new miniseries “Show Me A Hero” premieres on HBO. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz examines the radical humanism of David Simon, and explains why he owes the man an apology.
“Show Me a Hero” practices exactly this kind of storytelling, and the approach here might be the most radical yet in a Simon series. When you watch it, you often feel as if you’re simultaneously reading a novel about the main story (the council) and a collection of short stories about all the other characters. What you are seeing in that second set of narratives, of course, are the lives of people who are directly affected by the actions of people in the “novel” part of the tale, even though they don’t realize it, because they either aren’t interested in local politics or are simply too exhausted to follow them closely after a long day of work or taking care of their loved ones. All the stories do converge at the end, and it’s another Ziggy or Sonny type of situation, where you realize, if you didn’t already, that you care just as much about these characters as you do about Nick, with his sarcastic one-liners and disco mustache. You care because Simon and Zorzi and Haggis and all of the other people working behind the scenes on “Hero” made a decision to care as well, about characters who are typically shoved so far into the margins of this kind of story that they seem more like paper dolls than actual people: proof of the white hero’s goodness; symbols with names. The kind of storytelling that Simon champions is stubborn, earnest, wise, and informed, but most of all, it’s idealistic, in the most basic way. This attitude embodies one of the foundational presumptions of democracy: that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Call it corny or unrealistic or whatever you like: It’s as necessary for the survival of the United States as clean air and water and decent places in which to live. We aren’t supposed to care about other people because they look or talk like us or share our values, Simon’s work tells us. We’re supposed to care because they’re people, and life is short, and we’re all in it together.
3. “True Detective” Season Two: Assessing the Damage to the Once-Promising Franchise. On the other hand, “True Detective” is an example of not-so-great television. Its second season ended with a critical thud after stringing viewers along for eight episodes. Vulture’s Josef Adalian assesses the damage to the franchise after “True Detective’s” disastrous second season.
The silver lining for “True Detective,” of course, is that it is a series that can reset itself every cycle. The show isn’t locked into characters, story lines, or even themes that might limit the possibility of a course correction. As with FX’s “American Horror Story” and, potentially, “Fargo,” HBO has still established a powerful series brand that can cut through the clutter and, potentially, get viewers invested once more. Assuming HBO opts to keep that brand alive, the biggest mystery surrounding a potential “True Detective” season three is not who will be cast in the project, but what changes might take place behind the scenes. There’s been absolutely no indication that anybody at HBO is even considering the idea, but a version of “True Detective” without series creator Nic Pizzolatto is most definitely within the realm of possibility. After all, the network green-lit season two without the involvement of original director Cary Fukunaga, and Fukunaga was as essential to season one as Pizzolatto. Bringing in a new writer to helm the show would underline the fact that “True Detective” is at heart an anthology series or a mini-series, no matter what category it competes in for the Emmys. In the same way “The Best American…” book anthology annually selects different editors to identify the best magazine or science-fiction writing, perhaps HBO could turn “True Detective” into a playground for writers and directors as well as actors. Agnieszka Holland or Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “True Detective” could be pretty amazing. Or, if HBO wanted to keep some sort of constant associated with the show, why not get Fukunaga to return, and allow him to choose a new writing partner? To assuage any egos, the network might even announce a two-season commitment to “True Detective,” giving Fukunaga the reins for season three and Pizzolatto plenty of time to begin work on season four.
4. Why “Sesame Street’s” Move to HBO Is a Mixed Bag. Yesterday morning, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the beloved “Sesame Street,” has struck a deal with HBO to air the next five seasons of the show, with first-run episodes airing exclusively on HBO and its streaming outlets. Though the show will still be available for free on PBS nine months after appearing only on HBO, it still signals the terrible state of arts funding in this country. If “Sesame Street,” a show that targeted low-income kids to teach them values and ideas, will be subsidized by a premium cable network, what’s the future of educational television? Slate’s Jessica Winter argues why the move to HBO is practically good but symbolically terrible.
[Public television producer] Ganz Cooney’s big bet was that the television set, present in 97 percent of American households by the mid 1960s, could become a delivery device of early education even to some of the poorest and most culturally deprived households. It could help close the gap between affluent children and their lower-income peers. As I wrote in the “Bulletins of the Serving Library” in 2012: “Though it receives little in the way of taxpayer money, one could almost think of ‘Sesame Street’ and Sesame Workshop as a modern-day Works Progress Administration (WPA), enlisting filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians, songwriters, and other artists to build a creative public utility. And it really was a utility, nearly as ubiquitous as electricity or public schools. In 1978, 95 percent of households in East Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy with children between the ages of two and five watched ‘Sesame Street.’ That figure was slightly higher across Washington, D.C.; nationwide it held at 80 percent even. By 1979, after a decade on the air, nine million American children under the age of six were watching it daily.” Ganz Cooney was right about “Sesame Street‘s” potential reach — and right about its potential impact. As a watershed study by the University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine found, the show’s pedagogical benefits are on par with those seen in Head Start, and it “left children more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age, an effect that is particularly pronounced among boys, African Americans and children who grow up in disadvantaged areas,” as the Washington Post recounted. In short, “Sesame Street” was founded to help low-income kids keep up with their more affluent peers. That is literally why it exists. It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. And now it is becoming the property of a premium cable network, so that a program launched to help poor kids keep up with rich kids is now being paywalled so that rich kids can watch it before poor kids can.
5. My World of Flops: “Jupiter Ascending”. Nathan Rabin’s “My World of Flops” column at the A.V. Club examines the numerous critical and commercial flops in the history of pop culture. Previous columns have explored “Cop Rock,” “Mortdecai” and even the Martin Short 1994 vehicle “Clifford.” This week, Rabin takes on the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending,” its perverse un-sexiness, and Eddie Redmayne’s terrible performance.
The Wachowskis did not lose their connection to a mass audience because they ran out of ideas, ambition, or audacity, nor because they sold out and started making movies for mercenary reasons. If anything, the Wachowskis have screwed themselves over professionally by making films that are aggressively non-commercial rather than cynical and calculating. What audiences responded to in the Wachowskis’ films may not necessarily equal what the filmmakers were passionate about. Audiences dug the monochromatic style of “The Matrix,” the exhilarating martial arts, the edgy clothes, and the trippy meditations on the nature of reality. But it felt like the Wachowskis were luring audiences in with those sexy, commercial elements so that they could deliver earnest entreaties on the importance of love, connection, and embracing destiny. It’s like having a conversation with a seemingly cool, relatable stranger only to realize that said stranger is trying to get you to go to the “hip” Unitarian church. The earnest “Jupiter Ascending” is infinitely more compelling for the insight it offers into the Wachowskis’ worldview than it is for its entertainment value. Protagonist Jupiter (Mila Kunis) opens with the following narration: “Technically speaking, I’m an alien, and from the perspective of immigration, an illegal one.” This is an early indication that the Wachowskis like jokes, and desperately wish to include some in their movie, but fatally do not understand how they work. At all. Even if the line weren’t the most groan-inducing possible way to open a giant science-fiction epic, Kunis’ airless, monotone delivery would kill it. The sexy, magnetic Kunis the public fell in love with is nowhere to be seen in “Jupiter Ascending.” She has been replaced by a pod person who looks just like her but has none of her charm, humor, or sensuality.
6. 25 Movies With Completely Baffling CinemaScores. Since 1978, the company CinemaScore has been measuring the opinions of the moviegoing audience and providing a grade for each film based on those opinions. Though many take issue with the methodology of CinemaScore, the scores themselves are still widely read by film audiences and the film industry. However, some of these scores are obviously baffling and absurd, and make you want to weep with despair. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer compiles the 25 movies with the strangest CinemaScores.
“Pearl Harbor”: A-. CinemaScore’s generally been very good to Michael Bay. Three of the four “Transformers” received As or A-s (including the unbearable “Age of Extinction”) and Bay’s bland, interminable “Pearl Harbor” film got an A- as well. The only movie to really buck this trend is “Pain and Gain,” which received a lowly C+ in 2013.
“The Royal Tenenbaums”: C-. Wes Anderson’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but even with his niche cultural appeal, it’s hard to figure out how “The Royal Tenenbaums” wound up with a C- CinemaScore. You give “Terminator Salvation” a B+ and “The Royal Tenenbaums” a C-? That’s like the grading system on the Bizarro World.
“Eddie”: A-. Remember “Eddie”? The movie where Whoopi Goldberg becomes the coach of the New York Knicks? Of course you don’t. No one does.
“Ghost Dad”: A-. Forget all of the recent allegations against Bill Cosby. Even when people still liked the guy, NO ONE like “Ghost Dad.” (Sample review, by Roger Ebert: “A desperately unfunny film – a strained, contrived construction that left me shaking my head in amazement.”) Nonetheless, CinemaScore: A-.
“Boogie Nights”: C. Look, I think we can all agree that “Ghost Dad” is a way better movie than “Boogie Nights.”
Tweet of the Day:
all the sloppy writing about “bros” and “basics” and “nerds” and “hipsters” stems from marketing language taking over all discourse.
— maura johnston (@maura) August 13, 2015