Thursday, February 24, 2011

Commodity Fetishism and Television

Television and film aesthetics is a thorny and complicated matter. I suppose if you are viewing film through the standards of the post-Spielberg and Lucas world, through the prism of commodity aestheticism where quality is determined by quantity of viewers, the US sets the “gold standard”. There are, however, problems with this argument.

The major problems with commodity aestheticism revolve around market size, size sometimes does matter, and the tendency of humans to ignore the fact that size sometimes matters just as they ignore variations in geography, raw materials, and climate in discussions of industrialization and capitalism. It is not an equal playing field out there. It is no accident that the bigger the economy the more money one can put into film and television production and the cheaper you can sell your second run goods to other markets. Beyond size history is important. Those media industries in industrial countries that began earlier also have an advantage in the unequal media playing field. And then there is the issue of cultural imperialism where economic power often translates in to cultural dominance (I do realise this a complex process and that readers use American programmes in interesting ways…still I will always remember an Algerian I met at SMU who said that he had decided to come to school at that mediocre university because of the images he had seen of the city on the prime-time soap Dallas).

I am one of those folks born BJ, before Jaws. I don’t think that aesthetics can be reduced to either popularity or ticket sales. Such an approach would mean that Lady Gaga is superior to Beethoven and Rosemary Rodgers to James Joyce. And I don’t think either are. On the other hand, I recognise that values are a historical social and cultural phenomenon, that what I like is a product of the social and cultural influences I have experienced during the course of my life. That said, I prefer Citizen Kane to anything that has come out of Hollywood since the triumph of Spielberg and Lucas. I prefer the European art cinema to Hollywood, which I regard as the industry producing the most disposable films in the known universe at present, and I much prefer British television to US television pretty much across the board. I prefer the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and White Teeth to any adaptation on US TV (thank god they don’t do many any more). I prefer Fawlty Towers to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Spaced to Big Bang Theory, the British Life on Mars to the pathetic US version, and Spooks to The Unit. This is not to say that British TV isn’t dreadful sometimes, it is just less dreadful as a general rule than US TV. All this said I do realise that 99% of literature, films, TV, and theatre are drek.

Beyond the UK, by the way, I think Kielowski’s Dekalog one of the finest TV shows ever made. I also like Bergman’s TV programmes Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. There is nothing like them on US TV unless you count the British stuff PBS runs and count Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage which PBS ran. I guess I prefer film and TV with a brain.

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