Connected TV dramas as the new novel

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, a dramatic production seldom lasts much more than two hours, about the limit of human endurance sitting in one place.  Thus, plays, movies, and TV shows tend to be relatively short.  Novels, though, can take weeks to read.  That means that novels can take up stories of greater length, complexity, and depth than the typical play or film.  (Not that those forms don’t have their own complexity and depth–I mean, think of Shakespeare–but there can’t be as much story as in a novel.)  When a novel is made into a film, we generally say, “The book is better than the movie,” but that’s to be expected.   How can you compress the incidents in a 350 page book into the two hours of a movie?

But now it’s possible to develop a filmed story that can go on for hours, days, weeks, even years.  Dramatic series on television are no longer self-contained one-hour tales.  Rather, the episodes are connected with each other to tell a bigger and bigger and longer and longer story.  Now filmed versions of novels can be quite faithful to the original.  And now TV series can constitute creative long-form fiction in the same way that a novel does.

Film scholar Thomas Doherty comments, proposing to call the new series “Arc TV”:

Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film—the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum—is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let’s call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones—the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming—are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn’t quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

This being from the medium that inspired the wisecrack “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” Arc TV has antecedents aplenty. The format owes obvious debts to a swath of small-screen influences—the mid-70s explosion in quality TV, the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater imports on PBS, Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) and L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94), and especially Stephen J. Cannell’s Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90), the show usually credited with bringing the multi-episode arc to serial American television.

Yet its real kinship is literary, not televisual. Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.Traditionally, even late into the age of cable, television thrived on two durable genres, the weekly 30-minute sitcom and the hourlong drama. Play the theme song, rack up the signature montage, and a virgin viewer has no trouble following along. Each episode was discrete and self-contained, wrapped up on schedule, with no overarching Ur-plot, designed to be digested full at one sitting, and meant to spiral autonomously ever after in syndication: Gilligan stranded forever on his island, Columbo freeze-framed in his trench coat.

The dramatis personae existed in a realm that was picaresque, a pre-novel mode in which a one-dimensional protagonist is hit by one damn thing after another. A viewer could spend years, maybe decades, with the likes of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O and not know a whit about the hero’s psychic interior or personal history. Many of the surviving remnants of network television follow that time-worn template. The repetition compulsion of Homer Simpson—always the same, never learning from experience—is an ironic homage to the picaresque legacy: “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”

By contrast, Arc TV is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad, or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in Homeland.

At its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.

via Cable Is the New Novel – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would argue that the novel still has advantages over what can be portrayed visually on television.  A novel can present a character’s thoughts and feelings and experiences directly and completely, right into the reader’s imagination. Some of that can be hinted by good acting and clever filmmaking, but it isn’t the same, just watching everything on a screen.  Reading has huge advantages over watching.  (I agree with Charles Lamb that it’s better to read Shakespeare than to watch a production of Shakespeare, that his plays work best performed in the “theatre of the mind.”)

Still, we don’t always want to give our imaginations a workout, so it can be pleasant and relaxing to let  someone else imagine the stories for us.  So I pay tribute to the fictional possibilities of this new artform.

Nothing left but sex and ennui

Great quotation and embedded quotations from novelist Andrew Klavan, as part of his review of the founder-of-Scientology movie The Master:

There’s a reason modernism collapsed into the ruinous and stupid-making morass of post-modernism. Ultimately, modernist reality was smaller and seedier than human life as it is lived. As the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici points out in critiquing one modernist novel, “describing the smell of sweat and semen during the act of sex no more anchors the novel to ‘reality’ than writing about stars in the eyes of the beloved.”

Myself, I attribute the unrealistic smallness of modernism to its secular nature. Without God, as Tolstoy explained, there’s nothing left to write about but sex and ennui.

via PJ Lifestyle » Why The Master Is No Master-Piece.

What a stunning insight from Tolstoy!   That was back in the 19th century, but he predicted the major subject matter of 20th and 21st century literary art.  I would just add that one can also write about–or make movies about or make music about–attempts to mask the ennui, the boredom, with sensationalistic distractions.  Thus, the explosions, car chases, murders, gore, escapism, and psychological fantasies that make up much of our pop culture.  (Not that there isn’t much of value and even greatness in 20th and 21st century literature–I am by no means dismissing or even criticizing it–but there sure is a lot of sex and ennui.)

Degrees of separation

Forget Google Earth, Google Street View, and those proposed Google goggles.  Here is Google’s coolest feature:  Google will now calculate how many degrees of separation a person is from Kevin Bacon.

It is the party game beloved of cinephiles everywhere, one which rewards detailed knowledge of the career of one of the finest actors never to receive an Oscar nomination. And now it is even easier to play: Google has built Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon into its search system.

Devised in January 1994 by a trio of students at Pennsylvania’s Albright college, the original game was based on the idea that it is always possible to connect every movie actor in the world back to the Footloose star in no more than six associations. A website, board game and book later emerged and an initially reluctant Bacon eventually embraced the phenomenon by launching his own site, SixDegrees.org, to foster charitable donations.

To use Google’s system, the user simply types in the words “Bacon number” followed by the name of the actor. By way of example, typing “Bacon number Simon Pegg” reveals that Bacon and the British actor are linked by Tom Cruise, because the latter appeared in 1992’s A Few Good Men with Bacon and in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III with Pegg. Pegg therefore has a Bacon number of two, indicating two degrees of separation.

Lead engineer Yossi Matias said the project was about showcasing the power of Google’s search engine by flagging up the deep-rooted connections between people in the film industry. “If you think about search in the traditional sense, for years it has been to try and match, find pages and sources where you would find the text,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s interesting that this small-world phenomena when applied to the world of actors actually shows that in most cases, most actors aren’t that far apart from each other. And most of them have a relatively small Bacon number.”

By way of example, type French Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard’s name into the system and it is revealed that she has a Bacon number of two, while Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957, nevertheless has a Bacon number of just three.

via Google builds Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon into its search system | Film | guardian.co.uk.

The Google algorithm (someone please explain how it works)  just works for Hollywood figures, which is the original game, though one variation tries to connect anyone on earth to Mr. Bacon.  I, for example, have a Bacon number of four:  (1) The wife of a former colleague is the daughter of the man who did the make-up on Citizen Kane.  (2)  He worked for Orson Welles, who produced, directed, and acted in Citizen Kane.  (3)  Google tells me that Orson Welles appeared with Jack Nicholson in A Safe Place.  (4)  And that Jack Nicholson and Kevin Bacon appeared in A Few Good Men.

Another variation proposes that there are no more than six degrees of separation (or maybe a few more) between any two people in the world.  For example, what chain of people who have met or have had a direct personal contact with each other might connect me to, say, a hypothetical Chinese peasant named Chen who lives in the Jiangxi province?  (1) When I was in high school, I shook the hand of Senator Eugene McCarthy.  (2)  He shook the hand of Richard Nixon.  (3)  Nixon shook the hand of Mao Zedong.  (4)  Chairman Mao knew the members of his Communist Politburo.  (5)  The representative of the Jiangxi province worked with the Secret Police.  (6) One of whose members doubtless spied on Chen and his parents.

I don’t know if that always works, of course.  I suppose it’s based on the exponential calculations that perhaps someone could explain for us.  (Is it that if each person has met a thousand people, six degrees would mean 1000 to the 6th power, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, a number that would require a great deal of overlap since the world’s population is only about 7,000,000,000.)

I think it shouldn’t count if your only contact with a person is reading a book or article that was written by that person.  But if you comment on the person’s blog, that does count, like talking to someone over the phone.  So you can add onto my degrees of separation with Kevin Bacon.

Do any of you have any other interesting degrees of separation that the rest of us could then appropriate?

Google reposts anti-Islam video

The White House asked Google, which owns YouTube, to take down the 14-minute “trailer”–some people are doubting whether there even is a full movie–of The Innocence of Muslims, which has sparked anti-American riots throughout the Muslim world.  Google did take down the video temporarily, but then decided that it does not violate YouTube’s terms of use and put it up again.  See Google Won’t Rethink Anti-Islam Video’s Status – NYTimes.com.

The role of the video in the murder of the Americans in Libya has been challenged by evidence that the attacks were pre-meditated before the protests.  But see this for the eruptions in “Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Britain, East Jerusalem, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the West Bank and Yemen.”

Google is still blocking the video in Muslim areas–so the rioters have likely not seen the thing–but it is available elsewhere.

As this article points out, websites and internet companies–as opposed to nations, courts, and governments–have now become the arbiters, the gatekeepers, the potential censors, and the enablers of free speech.

Who really made that anti-Muslim movie

It turns out that the man who made that reportedly salacious movie about Mohammed, The Innocence of Muslims,  that has set the Middle East on fire is NOT Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American with 200 Jewish investors, as he claimed.  That was a fake identity for a convicted scam artist named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian.  The Copts are already cruelly persecuted in Egypt, so this won’t help them.

via US Identifies Anti-Muslim Filmmaker Blamed for Attacks « CBS DC.

So do we blame this guy or defend his freedom of speech?

Hobbit update

Titles and release dates have been released for the upcoming movie trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit.

As announced last month, The Hobbit, Peter Jackson’s long awaited adaptation of the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, will be made into a trilogy rather than the two-parter originally announced. Yesterday, the new title of the second instalment was announced, with the intended title going to the final instalment, and the expected release date of the final instalment also being announced.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be released on December 13th, 2013; whilst the third and final instalment in the series, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, following on July 18th, 2014. The first of the trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will be released at the end of this year, on December 14th.

Jackson, who directed the LOTR trilogy, announced the news that the series will be extended into a trilogy through his Facebook page early last month. On The Hobbit Jackson will be rejoined by LOTR cast members such as Sir Ian Mckellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood, who will be reclaiming their former roles. Meanwhile, stars such as Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch will join the cast, taking on the roles of Bilbo Baggins and the voice of The Necromancer respectively.

via Second The Hobbit Instalment Title Changed, Thrid Movie Release Date Announced | Contactmusic.