Monday, June 13, 2011

Random Thoughts on Television, Television Aesthetics, and Online "Criticism":

Think of this blog entry as a series of commercials and two scenes from a once popular MTV show:

Commercial 1. TV, at its best, is, in my opinion, more like a novel than a film. Film almost always, if we want to continue to use literary metaphors here, is more akin to a short story. There are exceptions (examples include Jacques Rivette's 750 minute long film Out 1 and Bela Tarr's 450 minute Satantango). This, of course raises the question of whether television, because it is potentially longer and allows for greater narrative complexity and a greater degree of character development, is necessarily better than film. Some critics say yes, others, of course respond with a no. For an interesting discussion of the TV is more like a novel and hence better than film theme in contemporary criticism see David Lavery's "The 'Television is Better than the Movies' Meme" ( As for me I don't know whether television's potential to be novelistic makes it better than film. It definitely makes television different from cinema.

Commercial 2. In my not so humble opinion it would be nice if US TV became more like British TV (at least in certain instances). Life on Mars ran for 16 episodes on the BBC. Period. It left this viewer yearning for more, something any "good" TV show should do, in my opinion. US TV, if the show becomes popular, on the other hand generally milks it for as much, literally, as it worth in the process turning a show that might have been great if limited to a smaller number of episodes into a dead horse which its creators and writers continue to flog and which the network continues to squeeze for as much advertising revenue as possible, the primary raison d'etre, of course, of US commercial television (commodity aestheticism). This generally leaves this viewer generally wanting less (example, The Simpsons since season six). I guess I should end by noting that cable TV networks like HBO and Showtime and beyond have, in limited episode series like Sex and the City, the Sopranos, and Californication, borrowed the BBC, ITV, and C4 model.

Commercial 3. Genre, genre, what is genre? The nature of the genre of science fiction and what constitutes the science fiction genre, for instance, has been debated ever since its "inception" and typologisation (doesn't debate and controversy make the intellectual and academic worlds go round?). There is no and has never been a unitary notion of what science fiction (or any other generic form for that matter) is. The fact that some online critics can write as though there was or is a single definition for science fiction is, to say the least, depressing.

Commercial 4. Value is cultural and social and, to paraphrase a cliche, in the eye of the beholder. How do I know that value and beauty is intersubjective and subjective? I have looked at how "readers" at sites like or react aesthetically to the literary, film, or television texts they choose to review. The aesthetics of these reviews vary. Some "readers", for instance, like Rush (me), the progressive rock band, others don't. Some "reviewers" like Alexander Payne's film Sideways (me), others don't. So given that we know that how people react to texts is subjective and intersubjective because reactions of value vary empirically the question of why so many "critics" continue to write as if their particular culturally and socially constructed views are transcendental and universal must rear its "ugly" head. My own sense is that ideology is driving much of this notion that specific views are universally valid general points of view. Additionally, I suspect that this discourse about likes and dislikes serves an identity and community function: when one finds those who agree with ones views ones self-esteem is raised and one potentially finds a community of common interest one can become a part of, a community which has the potential to provide one with an almost constant self-esteem boost and an almost constant substantiation of ones (unrecognised) particular perceptions.

Commercial 5. The potential problem here, of course, is that if one concludes that values are purely subjective and intersubjective there is no way of arguing that a classic work of poetry by say Shelley is any better than a poem by a Hollywood celebrity like Suzanne Sommers or that a film like Citizen Kane is superior to juvenalia like Star Wars.

So if it is not possible to make any aesthetic judgements about a work of literary, film, or television "art" what do we make of the fact that those who are supposed to know about quality, academics and critics, have written more about the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard than about any other television show in the known universe and about that uberpopular filmmaker George Lucas? What do these academic practises say (sociologically, aesthetically) about the "quality" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the films of Jean-Luc Godard and lack of quality of Suzanne Sommers and George Lucas if anything?

Commercial 6. One of the things that has fascinated me recently is the fact that so many commentators on Joss Whedon's Dollhouse (Fox, 2009-2010) in its early broadcast days were commenting rather forcefully and rather conclusively about an open ended text, commenting on a text that is not yet closed. The fact that Dollhouse was an open text makes many, if not most, of these critical comments problematic at the very least since it is an open text. I would think that it might be wise for such "critics" to wait to see what is going to happen in Dollhouse (or any other open ended show) before they make certain comments about it or at the very least exhibit a healthy degree of tentativeness in their "readings". Yes I know this jumping the gun tendency is one characteristic of many humans. This doesn't excuse it, however.

Now Back to The Hills for a three minute scene. Scene 1. Speaking of early reader reactions to Dollhouse, here are a few of my Casablanca moments, my I'm shocked, shocked reactions to some of this online "criticism":

Casablanca Moment 1: I am shocked shocked that some online critics appear to have the attention span of an MTV commercial or the Hills (thirty seconds and three minutes). I guess some would give up on War and Peace after the first chapter. Why do I suspect that this tells me a lot about the contemporary human reading and television and film watching condition?

Casablanca Moment 2: I am shocked shocked that some online critics think they can make a TV show better than Joss Whedon and stock company can and have. I can't help but wonder why they aren't aren't making TV shows by the dozens? Forgive me for this cliched moment.

Casablanca Moment 3: I am shocked shocked that some online critics think every show should express their own politically correct ideological prejudices. Perhaps we should just turn TV and films and literature over to a bunch of politically correct academic activists whose bodies and minds have been programmed to endlessly produce politically correct programmes complete with politically correct stereotypes and politically correct caricatures. And while we are at it, let's blackball all politically incorrect writers like Margaret Atwood (shame on her for having a nasty femme fatale in one of her novels).

Casablanca Moment 4: I am shocked shocked that many online critics, when it comes to Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, seem to prefer a rehash of Buffy, Angel, or Firefly (forgetting, of course, that these are actually quite different shows than Dollhouse in a number of ways). Perhaps those cybercritics who want endless repeats of something Joss that came before could simply watch repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Dollhouse. Or perhaps we could create a cadre of Stepford Writers who would simply endlessly repeat themselves (oh we already have). Gee wouldn't that be wonderful? See Hollywood's strategy of broadcasting endlessly formulaic shows is a smart one. Call Me Mr. Anti-genre but I thank the gods that European art cinema breaks out of this endless rehash formula.

Commercial 7. So what type of criticism do I like. As a former Biblical Studies student I have long been enamoured of the exegesis, hermeneutics, homiletics model of criticism. In other words, I firmly believe that one should analyse the text one is given before one jumps to interpretation of that text and homiletics. Unfortunately, it appears that so many online critics start with a type of I'd of done it in this way form of homiletics and often never work their way backwards.

Commercial 8. I have long been wanting a spokescritic for the ADD generation to do for boring, cheesy, eeew black and white, and eeew subtitles what Susan Sontag did for camp. Perhaps our online critics can produce and post here essays entitled "Notes on Boring", "Notes on Cheesy", Notes on Eeew Black and White" and "Notes on Eeew Subtitles" so to bring critical and intellectual rigour to these apparent central components of ADD Criticism. Any takers?

Now back to The Hills for another three-minute scene. Scene 2. The issue of authorship, of course, continues to haunt film and its, to a large extent, bastard cousin, television studies. Auterism, so the story goes, originated among the young turks of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s as the politique des auteurs, the auteur policy, the auteur polemic. It then made its way across the Channel in the pages of Movie, and across the Atlantic in the critical polemics of film critic Andrew Sarris who canonised the theory in reviews in the Village Voice, in his famous and infamous article in the journal Film Culture in 1962, and eventually in his influential and popular book The American Cinema. Through much of the 1960s and 1970s auteurism dominated much of film criticism and writings on film through journals like Cahiers, Movie, and Film Comment and dominated much of the film book publishing industry via publishers like Zwemmer, Barnes, Tantivy, Studio Vista (the British publisher of Movie's Movie Paperbacks), Praeger, Doubleday, and Indiana University Press.

For the most part auteur criticism wasn't controversial with respect to the European art cinema. Auteurists and critics of auteurism like Penelope Houston and Pauline Kael alike agreed that filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard were auteurs, were artists. What was controversial for critics of auteurism was its claim that directors in the highly entertainment and collaborative studio system, directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and John Ford were the authors of their films. Sight and Sound, the influential British film magazine run by Penelope Houston, in fact, rejected a paper on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho by a critic who would publish extensively in Movie, Robin Wood, on the basis that Psycho and Hitchcock were not and could not to be taken seriously next to the auteurs of the European art cinema.

In the late 1960s thanks to cultural ferment, the academicisation of Film Studies, and the revival and rise in popularity of a number of social theories (Marxism, the linguistics of de Saussure, Freud, Structuralism, Semiology, Lacanianism,Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction among them) auteurism came under attack for reasons other than that the products of the Hollywood entertainment industry were not to be taken seriously. Both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, prominent figures in the new social theoretical ferment, and both from France, accused Literary and Film Auteurism of romanticism, of raising the author (in film, the director) to Olympian status and detaching him or her, in the process, from the social and cultural contexts that surround human lives and proclaimed the "death of the [romanticised] author". It was the new and supposedly improved Cahiers du Cinema and the British journal Screen which were the conduits for much of this anti-auteurist film criticism in Europe and North America.

The notion that one must place authors into their social and cultural contexts, of course, was not new in the 1960s and 1970s. Marxist cultural critics had been making similar arguments at least since the 1920s. It was as fair a point than as it was in the 1970s and is today. The problem with some of this anti-auteurist criticism was that in their haste to condemn auteurism for its ahistorism the new "radical" critics set up one thread of auteurism as its straw man, the most "romantic" of auteurisms.

It must be remembered, however, that not all auteurists were the same. Auteurist polemicists who wrote for Cahiers like Godard and Francois Truffaut tended to think that the films of every Hollywood studio auteur (Howard Hawks, Nick Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Budd Boetticher) were worthy of careful study and attention and, on the aesthetic level, worthy or praise, often effusive praise. For another auteurist, Andre Bazin, the godfather of Cahiers and modern film criticism and analysis, however, not every film by every auteur, and he didn't think there were many auteurs particularly in Hollywood, was worthy of aesthetic praise. Some were simply bad movies. Even for that great boogeyman of critics of auteurism, Andrew Sarris, not all Hollywood directors were auteurists (members of his pantheon of film directors). Most, in fact, were metteurs en scene's, company men, cogs in the impersonal Hollywood machine with no observable style or point of view. It was only in a few specific instances then, for critics like Sarris, that a Hollywood director was an auteur, someone who managed to put his or her personal stamp on a mass produced product (Sarris pantheon of auteurs included Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Lubitsch, Welles, Chaplin, Murnau, Keaton, Griffith, Ophuls, Lang, von Sternberg, Flaherty).

So how does all of this relate to television? Well the same old question about whether to auteur or not to auteur has impacted the ever expanding "discipline" of Television Studies. Stacey Abbot's book on Angel (Wayne State University Press), for instance, makes an argument that we have seen before in Film Studies, namely that television and in her case the television show Angel, is made by a group of people and so cannot be the product of one individual author. The problem with this television is collaborative perspective, however, is not whether television, any more than film or literature, is collaborative. It is and they are to varying degrees. The question is whether Joss Whedon, the co-creator or Angel along with David Greenwalt, is Angel’s auteur, Angel’s conductor-creator. And while all things Angel (and Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, and Dollhouse) may not end with Joss they certainly, as Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse writer Jane Espenson says, begin with him and return to him throughout the course of the creative process. Joss, as Buffy’s costume designer says, even had a hand in what Buffy’s characters wore. Anyway, one has only to look at the themes that suffuse Whedon’s work in general (feminism, masculinity, family, existentialism, and moral choice to name only a few) to recognise Whedon’s guiding hand in the series.

So come on, let's stop arguing about authorship in film and television. Some television shows like some films and some literary works are authored. Let's start working to understand the forces that impact film, television, and literary authorship (genre, production contexts, personal background, historical social and political contexts...).

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