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News of Doux: April 6, 2014

This Week: A Call to Critics – A Manson for Mulder – A Couple of Casts – A Recap of Revenge – A Trilogy of Turmoil – The Humor of Hamsters

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].


  1. I don't care for productions values, all that matters is a good story. Buffy had that and The Sopranos too. Fancy scenery is fine, but not the most interesting thing. Like Stephen King, you need to spin a good yarn. And have good characters of course.

    So Socha joining Once was true..it was annonced on april 1st so I had my doubts. Good. Now bring the Jabberwocky over too. Scenery-chewing that fine needs to be in the mother series.

  2. The title, contents line and your author blurb made me LOL. :)

    A Call to Critics -- interesting stuff, Josie. I'm not sure that challenge is for me, since I hit on my reviewing style a long time ago (because of an experience I had as an undergrad) and am totally set in my ways. Should I also mention that I like yours as it is? Although I'm certain I'll enjoy anything you decide to write.

  3. That's an interesting take on criticism. When I teach Film as an academic subject, I definitely encourage students to focus on cinematography, lighting, production design and values, etc. etc. etc., as essential parts of the product.

    I think, though, when I'm reviewing something as a critic, I'm doing something different. I'm helping people decide whether they want to watch something or not. And rubbish production values are not, for me, a reason for not watching something with great story and characters (I present before the court the entire run of Classic Doctor Who). As you say, I mention those things if they stand out in some way - the production design is the best part of Atlantis, and I say so frequently - but I feel like plot and character are what will make people enjoy or not enjoy something, so that's what I talk about. I guess I'm a bit of an old-fashioned purist - if the story and characters are good, it doesn't matter if the rest suffers a bit, use your imagination and suspend disbelief!

  4. Seitz’s piece was very interesting and I think he has a point. I take issue, however, with his underlying assumption that everyone who watches a television show or a movie will feel the same way about it (“And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.”). Any particular episode of television (or movie, or book, or song) will evoke different emotions in different people.

    Let’s take the Buffy episode “The Body” as an example. While I am sure that it affects almost everyone who watches it, my guess is that different parts of it affect us in different ways. The initial long shot of Buffy discovering her mother is harrowing, and a great example of camera movement, but it is not the part that reduces me to tears even on the umpteenth time through the episode. That moment is when Anya starts talking about Joyce never drinking juice again. The emotion springs from the words being said and the actor emoting those words, not the camera shot, not the lighting, not the music or lack thereof.

    Similarly, the scene between Buffy and Tara affects me enormously, especially when Tara says “it’s always sudden.” Again, it is not the close-ups of the actors faces that affect me, it is the words being said and the actor saying them. It affects me because I watched one of the people I loved most in the world die slowly and, although his death was finally a blessing for him, it was sudden for me. That one line gets me every time. It feels arrogant (even as a critic) to believe that it will have the same effect on everyone who hears it.

    Of course, there are times when the filmmaker is tugging at our heartstrings, ensuring that we understand that we are now meant to feel sad, to laugh, to be afraid, whatever else s/he is going for. I think, in those moments, we should comment on the filmmaking and we should discuss how our emotions are being manipulated.

    Overall, however, I think it fair to write about how I felt and why I felt it in a review that I write. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that everyone who reads the review will feel exactly the same way.

  5. I watched that Honest Trailer earlier in the week, and as soon as I saw your title for this edition of the news, I had a feeling you might have included the video. So funny! Poor Jorah Mormont will forever more be "Lord Friend Zone" to my husband and I. :)

    Re: criticism, I lean more towards the consensus view in the comments that story and character are ultimately more important to me than technique and production values. Although when those things are done in a way that really enhances or weakens the storytelling, it is certainly worth commenting upon. Hannibal, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men are just some examples of shows with production design and technique that greatly enhance the overall storytelling.

    Ultimately, I think most people watch these long-form stories because they want to get lost in the story or the world, and highlighting technique can sometimes reduces one's ability to get transported. A lot of times, I avoid commentary tracks or "making of" pieces because it draws too much attention to the artifice of the story and subsequently reduces my ability to engage with it at the same level. I tend to prefer pieces and articles that highlight choices about story or character.

    But that's not always the case. I read a fascinating piece this week by Tim Goodman about The Walking Dead finale that highlighted the way the final sequence was structured and shot to mimic a particular real world process, which could serve as a subtle visual clue to the story direction. In that case, that type of commentary enhanced my appreciation for the final product. As with all things, I guess it just depends on the particular case at hand. :)

  6. I find myself disagreeing with the overall idea that Seitz proposed in his article. Yes, deconstruction of popular media does encompass technical aspects of the productions. However, for me, what draws me to a TV show or movie is the story and not who is the cinematographer involved. What I look for in reviews is a discussion of themes, plot, and an analysis on the media (how it was present, how effective it was in prompting emotions on the viewer, etc.)

    IMHO, I believe that most TV shows work hard to make all the technical details as seamless as possible to the audience. Exceptions exist, of course. For example, the mise en scene in Hannibal and that awesome uncut shot at the end of episode 4 of True Detective.

    My point is that reviewers who prefer not to discuss media from a technical angle aren't failing the consumers. There are different styles of reviewing, not a one-size-fits-all. YMMV.

  7. Everyone has really good points here, including Seitz's original post, all of which I agree with, on some level.
    Personally, I actually avoid what amounts to primarily technically-proficient reviews because I'm generally left feeling, ironically, superficial and unsatisfied after reading them.
    I long for reviewers to tell me how something made them FEEL. Tell me how something changed your world view! Now that's a review I would love reading. You elevate the material (and criticism in general) by showing how how it elevated you and your expression.
    Also, and I think this can be deduced from the comments here (including Josie's post), the power to develop one's own style and manner of reviewing OVER a focus on what boils down to the noting and perhaps deconstruction of film vocabulary is incalculable. It's why we are inevitably drawn to some reviewers and not others, based purely on personal preference.

    And I'm not going to get into pretentiousness, over-ambition and assumption, a trio of intellectual offenses that absolutely, IMO, belongs in this argument somewhere! Because, well, it's too pretentious! HA!

    Finally, I'll be the one to say...
    David Duchovny! A new show! So cool! :)

  8. I was similarly offended by by Seitz's dismissal of literary criticism, Josie.

    As for his discussion of TV criticism, yes, he has a point, but I would honestly rather read reviews like we do here than dry analyses of cinematography. I feel like we address stuff when it's different or important (the True Detective tracking shot, Billie's commentary on color in Breaking Bad). There are some shows that just aren't overly concerned with filmic artistry and that's okay.

    I also think a large part of the problem is the rush that TV reviewers are always in to post stuff as soon as possible after the episode airs, particularly at big sites. Half the time TVLine already has their recap of whatever show up before it's even aired on the West Coast.

    Great discussion you guys!!

  9. I never thought the production values on Buffy looked particularly cheap.


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