Friday, August 23, 2013

Summer 2013 Film Consumption

To the consternation of several of my cinephile friends, I don’t watch a lot of movies or shows. However, this summer I did in fact consume a lot of audiovisual content.

First, some theory: why watch movies and shows? I don’t, often, because I’m the typical twitchy teenager and I don’t like sitting still without something to do with my hands and with my mind focused on someone else’s world.

But I do like movies. I am sure that greater thinkers than me have written about the differences between stories told on paper and stories told on stage/screen (…and the differences between stage performances and filmed, but that’s a whole other animal): here are my thoughts anyway, offered in no particular order.

A summary, first, of what I feel are the main points:
  • films are modular
  • films engage more senses
  • films ask less of the viewer than books do of the reader
  • films have a lower standard deviation

Longer explanations:

In a film (for the rest of the post, film = movies + TV shows), the creator of the work has more control over the consumer’s experience than in a book, since the creator controls the pacing.

Films are more modular than books: perhaps because the real or perceived LCD of the audience is lower. Movies require less context, are more uniform in length, and generally are more self-contained. TV series can be less so, because the length of a series can allow for longer and more complex story arcs, but episodes generally make sense on their own. (Generally.)

Films have a greater aesthetic sense - I’m not saying that they’re prettier or better, but rather that the aesthetic/atmosphere of a story is easier to convey in a film because you’re adding not only the visual but also the auditory dimensions. The world of a film is more inherently consuming than that of a book, in that the consumer of the film can do less work in conjuring up the setting and characters and mood than when his/her only assistance is words.

For all these reasons, films somehow seem more collectible to me - or maybe just because I’ve seen fewer films than I’ve read books? Or perhaps it’s a product of my long years writing - when I read, I can get lost in a book, but some part of my mind holds aloof, stealing things for use in my own stories. Whereas when I watch a film I relax and let the story happen around me.

Potentially controversial not-completely-believed statement: books are more experimental than films. Films use more conventions. Possible explanation for hypothesis: books are cheaper to produce. Less red tape through which to wade.

When I read a book I have to be on the lookout because at any moment it might start to suck. When I watch a film, there’s still that possibility, but at the very least the story will probably hang together.

I left firm ground behind a while ago. This is what happens when I theorize about things with which I have little experience.


Okay, enough theory. Here’s the practical part of this post: I am going to catalogue the films I consumed over the summer and note what resonated with me. I see this reflection/inventory-taking as stacking wood by the fire, to use in later, unknown projects. Who knows?

I watched a few scifi movies at the beginning of the summer:

The first two have a scifi cyberpunk aesthetic that, surprisingly, really resonated with me. Urban, slick, with gunfights and jumping across buildings and philosophy. Blade Runner’s overall atmosphere of an Asian-invasion constantly raining metropolis was damn cool. Re: the Matrix - my friend’s younger brother asked, upon meeting me, if I was Trinity. I’ll take that as a compliment.

On Jurassic Park: I was glad to note that it was just as good as I remembered it. A satisfying adventure with some glaring moments of scientific inaccuracy that I nevertheless enjoyed a lot.

For my friend’s birthday, I watched the Lone Ranger.

I know it got bad reviews, but I really liked it (though the pacing was pretty bad - it dragged on). Maybe because I’ve never seen a “good” Western? The portrayal of Tonto could easily offend people; however, I usually go easy in my criticism of pieces that are clearly satirical.

My favorite character was, conventionally, the main character. Clean-cut unfavorite younger brother who prefers Locke to the Bible - I’ve noticed that my favorites in a lot of the stories I consume are the moral, decent Everypeople. Like John Watson (on whom more, later). Also the actor for the Lone Ranger looks like an older version of Andreas Kale, which is useful if I ever remember that I like to draw my characters.

A few weeks later I watched a movie at a friend’s house with an entirely different kind of honorable main character:

Yes, a Jet Li martial arts movie. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to, even though the story was cliché in supreme and oozed Chinese nationalism (I’m not against that on principle, but the political overtones were glaring). The scenery was gorgeous, majestic, wonderful.

The things from the movie that stuck with me the most: the fight scene in the restaurant, the flight to the wilderness and being taken in by strangers, the use of martial arts as a way to increase national pride, and the arena with hundreds of spectators in stately dress - a drop of savagery in the midst of civilization.

Also: the pacing was awesome. Fearless was just a really well-constructed story. The framing - showing the martial artist defeating the three white dudes, with the Japanese combatant still left to go; then going through the Chinese dude’s journey and personal epiphanies, finally picking up where the frame left off. It sounds conventional when put like that but the “picking up” part was great, since that was the fight that meant the most.

As I wrote about last Tuesday, on the weekend after my birthday I had an excursion with my friend Lieutenant Sarcasm, and we spent a whole lot of time in front of a screen. I already wrote a little about what we saw, but once more for clarity:

Adaptation of a children’s fantasy series for a YA audience - didn’t go so well. Great action scenes, but the character decay of Annabeth and Percy irked me, a lot. The movies are missing practically all of the humor of the books, which I felt balanced serious business with light-heartedness well. Of course, they had to age up the protagonists in the movie, which automatically removes some levels of humor - the kids-goofing-off, Percy-as-dorky-class-clown-type shenanigans would be ridiculous with an actor clearly out of middle school.

All the same - what did you do to my Annabeth??

More satisfying was season one of BBC Sherlock:

I knew I would like the series. I did not know how much. Quite awesome - the series was true to the tone of the original, and the throwing together and mixing in of elements of the original Doyle canon’s stories worked splendidly. The second episode, about the Chinese tong, was not as good as the first and third, but I liked it anyhow.

I said I’d talk about John Watson so I will. He’s hands down my favorite character from that series, trumping Sherlock Holmes himself. Why? I’m actually not sure, except that Watson’s a decent fellow, an Army doctor, the responsible practical one, and smarter than many adaptors give him credit for being.

Hark! A Vagrant artist Kate Beaton agrees with me:
from Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Something interesting about Sherlock was the length of the episodes - at 90 minutes, three times longer than the usual show episode. I liked it. The longer format gave each story arc time to develop, for complexity to occur, for leads planted early in the episode to come up later on. One long episode can go into greater depth than three shorter episodes that add up to the same length, because the writers don’t have to worry about the viewer losing track of the threads between weeks.

Though I know even less about TV shows than I know about movies, I’d hazard a guess that 90 minute episodes are unusual. That they exist and can be done splendidly well heartens me, because the stories I wrote fall of last year were almost all of an inconvenient length - too long to be a short story read in one sitting, and too short to be substantial as a book. Somewhere between the “long story” and the “novella”. I wonder if that length is natural for me? Certainly I like “Mind Butcher” and “Ingrid’s Quest” better than most of my short stories.

The inspirational message I took from the format of Sherlock was that the length that works best for the story at hand may not necessarily be the most common commercially viable. The inspirational message I took from the content of Sherlock was that stories do have DNA, and that can be extracted successfully and used to create adaptations that get at the heart of the work, and not just the Victoriana-London-fog-and-hansom-cabs trappings.

So I’m going to watch the second season sometime later this year, since my squire has it on DVD and is highly enthusiastic about British shows. That’s something to look forward to. More stories to consume.

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