Posts Tagged ‘Television vs Cinema’

Longevity or Brevity

November 10, 2009

Some people say that the difference between film and television are commercials. The argument generally goes that because television shows are made to get people to watch advertisements, they are less “artistic” than movies.  Movies intent on the other hand is… well for argument’s sake let’s just say it is to be artistic.  We are putting aside Tyler Perry’s entire portfolio, the intent of which seems to be to get me to watch innumerable advertisements for Tyler Perry’s portfolio.  We are also putting aside product placement, like in Twister when Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton (and even Philip Seymour Hoffman!) collect all the aluminum cans they can find from a the decimated exurb subdivision so their sensors can fly, and all the cans happen to be Pepsi cans.  The cans were in perfect shape too, I mean a tornado just hit her crappy little street!  I guess all the Pepsi cans make sense of why Aunt May is so fat when she seems to eat natural foods.  Maybe the whole town worked at a bottling plant.  But where is the neighbor that drinks a 12 pack of Budweiser a day?  So with all that off to the side, we have the real difference between television and film: longevity.

Movies are usually one-off events that an audience goes to for a few hours, and then digests.  Television shows are on weekly for months at a time.  Television shows have an opportunity to allow people to connect with characters, ponder problems, and speculate about next week.  Of course there are crossovers to each type.  Miniseries are uniformly bad, but are supposed to be similar to movie experiences I guess, while the Harry Potter movies are another beast entirely.  But I still refuse to count the last 23 Land Before Time as actual movies.  Anyway, while television shows are at their base level meant to create an audience for ads, the side effect of this is that it has allowed writers to create rich storylines and characters precisely to get us to come back each week (to watch more ads).  Movies (at least the best ones) are stand alone affairs.  We see them once (on average) and the best sequels can even be watched on their own.

That’s the main difference as I see it.  Television is meant to be a part of our daily routines, while film is meant to stand out.  That is not to say one is better than the other, merely to say that they are quite different.

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Pros and Cons of Series Format

November 10, 2009

Probably the main difference between film and television (although so far this class is making me think about why television is always discussed in comparison to film in the first place) is the series format. From this arises several advantages and at least one disadvantage.

The series format allows for more complex character development over time, if the writer knows how to use time wisely. This makes the characters more real and relatable. Paired with television’s intimate proximity to the viewer, television audiences are often bound to connect more with the television characters of programs they watch religiously, than with characters they encounter once in a film viewing. Which brings me to another point: the sheer amount of time people spend watching the characters also enhances their level of identification.

But the series format is, of course, not without drawbacks. Combined with the pressure of the market, the prolonged existence of a show–and the need to produce episode after episode–can be deadly to the spirit of a program. Take for instance The (American) Office. Originally, like its British counterpart, the setting of the show was an isolated one: office workers in a third-rate town disconnected from the current larger culture; they are (and I use this term in its most literal sense) culturally retarded. There is no reference to anything outside this small town that’s come about in the last 5 years. And not only is this cultural backwardness a substantial element of the show, it’s one of the main themes.

Six seasons later, the pressure of writing episode after episode (after episode) of material has forced the show to be topical. The jokes, which used to be almost entirely character-driven, now often center around the current cultural phenomena. This topicality has even taken precedence over character, at times, as when (in a true shark-jumping moment, in my opinion) the characters (some of them completely out of character) mimic the YouTube video trend of wedding processions set to pop music.

TV is Better than Film? nah, just different

November 10, 2009

What’s the difference between a two-hour long coming of age film and a narratively complex multi-season coming of age television series? No matter what the subject matter, there will always be some clichéd sentimentality involved with a coming of age film; there will always be some glossed-over layer of detail or plot. For in order to present a narrative with a two-hour time limit one must discard the minutia, always so important to growing up, in favor of broader details. However, a coming of age series does not have to discard the minutia. Trying to understand the minutia, trying to sort out its causes and effects on individual characters or larger narrative arcs, can even be, as Mittell contends, one of the main attractions of narratively complex television (Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, pg 11).

Thus, my delight in the tragic completeness of Sayra’s story in Sin Nombre (2009, dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga) cannot compare to my interest in Cassie’s story, as introduced in Skins Season 1, Episode 2. Having just seen the episode – any of Skins – for the first time, I am left with myriad questions about Cassie and her relationship with food, the clinic, her parents and sibling, the group of kids she woke up with the morning after the party. The end of the episode didn’t even bring much closure to these questions. Just as Cassie is surrounded by food she doesn’t eat – but that everyone wants her to – the answers to these questions are held tantalizingly concealed within the next episode… and the next and the next. Whereas the beauty of Sayra’s story comes from its closed form, from the fact that any question left open-ended must now be imagined outside the boundaries of very film that birthed it – the beauty of Cassie’s story comes from its open form, its intent to continue.

I was completely absorbed in Sayra’s story and the almost physical narrative pull of Sin Nombre. But after two hours, the film was done. The story was over. I think that it is a basic human reaction – what kid doesn’t say this? – to ask what’s next, to want to know what happens after the story is over. What does “happily ever after” really mean, after all? Narratively complex television is gaining such success as a mass art form because it creates a what next, the story can keep going. And in that continuation we rediscover the minutia we thought we’d lost in the film, maybe even lost  in the novel.