by Josie Kafka
A Call to Critics
Riffing on a recent article by music critic Ted Gioia about the dearth of actual critiques in modern music journalism, film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz issued a challenge to his fellow reviewers this week: write more about technique, and remember that “form” isn’t just an accompaniment to a “main course of content,” since
Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.
Otherwise it's all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It's literary criticism about visual media. It's only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.
While I take issue with the dismissal of “literary criticism” (as though literary critics don’t pay attention to literary techniques!), Seitz has an excellent point. Most reviewers in both mainstream publications and sites like ours focus on plot and character, but not plotting and characterization, much less cinematography, lighting, score, direction, and so on. When we mention those elements, it is usually to highlight something extraordinary, which means we miss out on the week-to-week techniques that go into any episode.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum weighed in on the debate, bringing up 1999 as a banner year for TV: Buffy became popular, and The Sopranos started airing. Nussbaum plays for Team Buffy, but admits that Buffy’s production values were rather cheap. Especially in its early years, the show succeeded despite mediocre technical proficiency. The Sopranos, on the other hand, had greater technique.
For Nussbaum, that dichotomy indicates a fundamental difference between TV and movie reviews. According to her, although TV gets more “cinematic” each year, with more shows moving closer to the Sopranos end of the spectrum, it is a fundamentally different medium from film. TV is long-form and collaborative. Films are comparatively short; they’re created and analyzed according to the logic of auteur theory.
But Nussbaum is the critic who started the complaint about the women on True Detective not being three-dimensional enough. Her defense of her own “political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV” (per Seitz) ignores the way that TV allows us a different, non-auteur model for creation. Various television directors may bring different aesthetics to particular episodes: how do those directorial styles illuminate different elements of the season as a whole? How do different writers subtly alter characterizations in individual episode scripts? And how does a TV show, collaborative as it is, create a unified aesthetic? Think of something like Lost: no matter where a given scene was set, you knew you were watching that show, even if a particular episode wasn’t directed by Jack Bender. Maybe we have to discard auteur theory in analyzing TV, but that doesn't mean TV can't be analyzed.
I found Seitz’s argument provocative, and I’m interested in attempting to rise to his challenge. Will that always be easy? Not really. Especially with a show like The Vampire Diaries, I’m tempted to describe the direction, cinematography, etc. as workmanlike: the same word I'd use to describe, for instance, Stephen King’s prose. But it’s a fun challenge nonetheless, and one that might affect the way we think about this medium we all love so much.
A Manson for Mulder
David Duchovny will star in, and produce, a new NBC thriller based loosely on elements of the Charles Manson saga. According to TVLine, “Duchovny will play a Los Angeles police sergeant with a complicated home life who takes note of small-time criminal Manson when he begins recruiting needy women to what becomes his cult.” Obviously, Duchovny’s character sucks at his job, since Manson and his ersatz family went on to slaughter many people in an attempt to start a race war.
A Couple of Casts
• Sebastian Roché (The Originals, TVD, SPN, Fringe) will guest star on Scandal.
• Michael Socha (The Knave of Hearts on Once…in Wonderland) will reprise his role on the original Once as a series regular.
A Recap of Revenge
Spoilers for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, which resumes tonight:
A Trilogy of Turmoil
A New York Times interview with Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara revealed that the planned Potterverse movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be not one, but three films. I contacted our resident Potterista, Sunbunny, for a reaction. Here’s what she said:
Cynicism can be fun on occasion, but not when its target is something I love, in this case, the latest expansion to the Harry Potter universe. The information that the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them project will not one but three movies filled me with glee but has inspired others to bemoan the trend of stretching source material too thin in a transparent grasp for more money. Complain about Breaking Dawn and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows all you want; implying that Fantastic Beasts could be little more than a marketing tool for Potter merchandise is phenomenally premature. As the article notes, the Fantastic Beasts book has no plot. The movies will center around the author of the fictitious textbook and there’s no telling where Rowling could take the character of Newt Scamander. I’d hesitate to underestimate the woman who’s sold more than 400 million books, but that’s just me.
The Humor of Hamsters...
...is not as good as the comedy of cats:
Josie of Kafka reviews The Diaries of Vampires, Detectives of Truth, Game of Thrones, and various other Things of Fun. She is a full-time Servant of Cats and part-time Hunter of Rogue Demons. Inspired by the epic success of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the Season Four premiere of Game of Thrones, she will now refer to all things as the [noun] of [nouns].