Soonest Mended

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One Damn Thing After Another

Christopher A. Gellert

This is the beginning. You know this because I have just begun the essay. A little later it will be the middle, say halfway through or so. You will know this essay has ended because there will be no more essay. And that’s it. There will not be another essay to follow up, to expand on ideas herein discussed; and you will not be left in suspense of anything left dangling uncomfortably. All this here will stand by itself, unified and contained, and finished.

This might seem a fairly complicated way to articulate something as simple as the idea that the cut matters. But what is elided matters just as much as what included, and how it is framed. This principle is admirably illustrated in cinematography. Think of the celebrated scene in Rosemary’s Baby with the camera peeking around the door, spying on Ruth Gordon as she speaks on the phone just out of sight. The audience naturally cranes their neck to see the woman they can only hear; their only reward a crick in their neck, a mental note to make an appointment with the masseuse, and the feeling that they’ve been denied something: what was behind that closed door, what happened in the other room—

This is how suspense is created.

Today we often hear from the organs of the press a tired debate between the promoters of “The Golden Age of Television,” and those who abhor it.[1] But we seem to have forgotten that what distinguishes TV is its serialization. Here, it is not only the story that is chopped into individual frames, and scenes, but the entire narrative arc that is dismantled and rearranged to occupy the sixty or thirty minute cell that is the episode. Assembled, the collective episodes of a series form a narrative “arc,” with each block telling a separate but interrelated story that usually relies on a familiar cast of characters. Our critics seem to believe that what distinguishes the medium[2] merits little scrutiny. But when TV and film increasingly resemble and even imitate one another, when they are viewed on the same laptop, or phone, the ways in which they differ, and not who produces them, is worth exploring.[3]

Unlike a work that is conceived as a unity, we cannot properly think of a beginning, a middle, and an end in a television series, precisely because its transmission may be abruptly cut at any time due to lack of interest from the audience, or, conversely, indefinitely extended to meet audience demand. A serial, unlike a unified narrative, relies primarily on suspense: to sustain a viewer’s interest and titillate their expectations the movement of the story is perpetually focused on what happens next. These efforts aim to prolong the narrative as long as possible to reap the greater profit. This is the potato chip model of entertainment: to create a product that the consumer can ingest in its entirety without ever feeling satiated.

But neither can we claim that a narrative conceived as a unity can be considered a whole. The public is too fickle. For a book like War and Peace, an uninterrupted reading is hardly practical, or even desirable. Save performances of plays, readings of an author’s work, the short story, the short poem[4], the audience may be expected to leave behind the story, to fulfill any of the obligations that importune our time. Francis Ford Coppola’s opus The Godfather was executed in three parts. Before Proust published À la Recherche du temps perdu, the monumental and singular work in modern French literature, he considered publishing it in installments in the newspaper Le Figaro, and as it stands, it is cut into seven volumes.[5] Interruption of the work is a natural response to the demands on our time and the limits of our attention.

But what distinguishes a serial from the unity is not its interruption, or the reliance on suspense to carry the plot, but rather its dependence on suspense to justify its own existence. The audience is hooked along for the ride, and then almost inevitably disappointed. Do you remember Lost ? – ABC’s grand experiment, with its lush expertly framed shots, perfectly set to music by the Academy award winner Michael Giacchoni, the great talent of its actors: a deliciously tempting rabbit-hole that after several seasons revealed itself nothing but sinkhole.

There is great work on television, and trash at movies, but in some ways film has the advantage of the unity of its execution; half-finished films are not released in theatres. Of course, anyone would be hard pressed to deny that movie studios now often treat their films as just episodes in a franchise, and hence serials. They use the same tricks television formerly employed to keep the viewer hungry for the next installment of the most recent comic-book adaptation.

But it is the guarantee of continued financing, and the finite production schedule that tremendously increases the quality of the work released; even a series guaranteed seven seasons of financing would have trouble sustaining a coherent narrative over so many years, and of retaining its audience. Of course, some of the best, most interesting films have recently appeared on television, Tony Kushner’s HBO adaptation of Angels in America, Claire Danes in Temple Grandin etc. Certain episodic narratives like the sci-fi opera Battlestar Galactica have proved the possibility of achieving narrative unity across several seasons, but programs like this share a clearly defined narrative and a generally briefer time on the air. And while there are programs that successfully deal with the continued threat of cancellation (30 Rock, Arrested Development), these tend to be comedies whose success depends more on the quality of their satire in individual episodes than the coherency of its narrative arc.[6]

‘Television’ and ‘film’ mean little when the things that traditionally defined them (how they are watched, who produces them) have evaporated. Thus we are forced to more carefully consider the role of the medium, the coherency of the specific narrative, and those mechanisms which make it possible for a work to have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion.

After all, you want to transfix your viewer until the credits close, until they collect their things and toss what’s left of their popcorn. Until the end arrives you want to keep them guessing. But this principle of suspense only achieves resolution, if there is an end, if the tale concludes.

[1] See this fatuous article by the late David Carr http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/business/media/fenced-in-by-televisions-excess-of-excellence.html?_r=0) who jabs his little finger at the directorial and writing talent who have fled the silver screen for the plasma one or critics like Alexander Zaitchick who insist on TV’s further pacification of the population (http://www.salon.com/2014/05/05/stephen_colbert_wont_save_us_game_of_thrones_is_not_that_good_this_golden_age_of_tv_is_a_big_sham/

[2] Remember Marshall McLuhan who minted the axiom us in his hugely influential work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “The medium is the message.” So too with narrative—the form matters.

[3] Does it really matter if the “content” is made by the big three networks, the cable companies, or the old studio giants, particularly most of these companies are owned by giant parent conglomerates.

[4] Poe elegizes this precise quality that brevity allows in “The Philosophy of Composition”, where he determines that the ideal length for a poem is 108 lines. He consider that this is the maximum length for a poem to be read and understood in a single sitting. He proclaims towards the beginning of the essay, “The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read in one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like to totality is destroyed.” I differ, but it is difficult not to acknowledge that our own particular interruptions during the course of our digestion of any particular work impact that experience.

[5] Christine Cano, in her study Proust Deadline’s treats this precise question, how the novelist confronted with the mœurs of his day, and the reading habits of his public struggled to present his œuvre intact. “Summing up this confrontation for a November 1913 interview Élie-Joseph Bois of Le Temps, Proust cast his novel as a tapestry too large for the walls of modern apartments…« J’aurais voulu publier tout l’ensemble ; mais on n’édite plus des ouvrages on plusieurs volumes. Je suis comme quelqu’un qui a une tapisserie trop grande pour les appartements actuels et qui a été obligé de la couper. » (I would have liked to publish the whole of it at once; but they don’t publish works in several volumes anymore. I’m like someone who has a tapestry too large for modern apartments and is forced to cut it.” (pg. 31)

[6] But we reserve the proof for this remark for another essay.

References:

Cano, Christine M. Proust’s Deadline. Chicago. The University of Illinois Press, 2006. Kindle edition.

Carr, David. “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s Golden Age”. The New York Times. March 9, 2014. Online.        http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/business/media/fenced-in-by-televisions-excess-of-excellence.html?_r=1.

Marshall, McLuhan. Understanding Media: the extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill. 1964. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Philosophy of Composition”. Originally published in Graham’s Magazine vol. XXVIII, no. 4, April 1846,    28:163-167. The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. April 3, 2015. http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm.

Zaitchick, Alexander. “Stephen Colbert won’t save us, “Game of Thrones” is not that good: This “golden age” of TV is a big    sham”. Salon. May 5, 2014. Online.  http://www.salon.com/2014/05/05/stephen_colbert_wont_save_us_game_of_thrones_is_not_that_good_this_golden_age_of_tv_is_a_big_sham/.

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This entry was posted on April 13, 2015 by in Art.
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