Friday, November 30, 2012

Genre Makes the World Go Round...

I find it curious and, to be honest, rather bizarre when an occasional critic condemns the BBC Sherlock television show for not doing something new. Why? Because Sherlock is a genre show. It is a detective show that plays off of the work of detective fiction that set the template for detective fiction, detective films, and detective television shows and from which intellectual and action detective fiction has their origins and gets their formulaic themes in large part, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. It is a show that doesn't attempt, in other words, to be anything other than what it is, a detective show.

Genre literature, film, and television as a general rule doesn't offer anything new. It generally offers sameness. And it is this sameness, this repetitiousness, that audiences, as Hollywood learned long ago, loves, or can be taught to love, and which, along with stars, draws audiences into the cinema or onto the couches in front of TV sets. Hollywood, be it Hollywood film or Hollywood TV is the ultimate genre cinema and television and has been so essentially since its beginning. There is, as far as I know, no art cinema auteurs in Hollywood. Hollywood has no Ingmar Bergman, no Federico Fellini, no Eric Rohmer, no Alain Resnais, no Robert Bresson, no Jean-Luc Goddard, no Dardennes Brothers in Hollywood though I do realise that these giants of art cinema do have their American counterparts in American cinema particularly American independent cinema. Woody Allen was, at leat in his early days, in part an American Bergman and Fellini and the poster child for serious Hollywood "art". But even Woody tried his hand at the Hollywood thriller (Match Point), uses Hollywood stars (Will Ferrell), and today seems relegated to making picture postcard films set about in mythical European cities for Americans with an irrational fear of foreign films and subtitles. Richard Linklatter is an American Rohmer. Todd Solandz is an American Bresson. David Lynch is a very pale and depolitisiced version of Luis Bunuel

It is Hollywood cinema's and Hollywood television's generic repetitiveness that is one reason, the other is its childishness, why I find so much contemporary Hollywood cinema and television to be, aesthetically, one of the least interesting national cinemas in the world. Now don't get me wrong. I like my occasional genre film and television programme. I love the films of Howard Hawks be they Westerns, Screwball comedies, action adventure films, or musicals. I love the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock. Ah the days when Hollywood made films for adults with thinking brains. I like the original Dragnet, I Love Lucy, the Honeymooners, the Dick Van Dyke Show, and the Twilight Zone. I love the genre blending knowingness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Genre blending and reflexivity seem one of the few ways a genre cinema and television can be innovative in today's Hollywood. And I love the BBC Sherlock which, like the wonderful American TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays with genre and plays with genre expectations in fascinating ways and which adds something somewhat new into the cinematic mix in its use of text on screen and in its use of montage to reflect what is happening in the jump cut mind of its protagonist, the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is a show made, in part, by Sherlockians for other Sherlockians and that is one of the reasons why I like it so much.

Oh, by the way, I will take the BBC Sherlock over that tired, cliched dinosaur of an American Sherlock meets Mentalist rip off Elementary any day, I will take the more visually innovative, better acted, and more Sherlockian BBC Sherlock over the Hollywood version starring Robert Downey any day, and I will take the more interesting and innovative, if I can use that term in reference to television situation comedies, Channel 4 nerd sitcom Spaced over the tired and cliched CBS "nerd" sitcom Big Bang Theory any day. Comparing Elementary to the BBC Sherlock reminds me once again why I have long found British television so much more interesting, emotionally compelling, and intellectually stimulating than American TV. British television has always seemed to me more willing to experiment, more willing to take chances, even with genre shows.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Response to My Critics...Analysing Television and Film...

A few thoughts about your email concerning my paper "Time Passages: From Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey".

I think Upstairs Downstairs was more popular in its time than Downton is at the moment. Up Down was, I think, one of the most popular shows in the UK in the 1970s and was the most popular show in the world in the 1970s.

One thing that has changed since the 1970s is that audiences for British television, for a variety of reasons, have become socialised or enculturated into more filmic modes of production, flimic modes of production with lots of editing, between the 1970s and today. In the 1970s, though this would require more extensive study of audiences beyond the ivy walls, some Brits and some Americans were used to seeing theatrical modes of production for "upscale" productions like Up Down and read, because of the meanings attached to theatre in the UK, such modes of production as "quality". Many readers now, of course, and here we have filmmakers, critics (particularly Truffaut and Godard with their emphasis on mise-en-scene and its impact on film criticism), and academics who ideologically privilege film over theatre to thank, in part, for this, denigrate (a normative discourse) theatrical modes of production, long takes, and talk. I am thinking here of what I think are problematic critical takes on the films of John Sayles--claims that his films are too talky and too lacking in "cinematic" gymnastics--and the fact that Sayles, despite a politics that one would think would resonate with academics, is little discussed in Film Studies compared to other directors like that purveyor of rather apolitical surrealism for surrealism's sake David Lynch. There has been an ideologically sea change since the 1970s which I find intriguing because of what this sea change might tell us about intellectual culture, including academic culture which is both similar to and different from intellectual culture, and their economic, political, cultural, geographic, and demographic contexts.

I gave lots of examples of Downton's "borrowing from" or "homage to" Upstairs Downstairs not because I am a trained historians and historians like to give example after example but because no one, as far as I am aware, has pointed out these commonalities and I wanted to be as thorough as possible here in order to make my point and to make my point as strong as possible.

I am interested in audience analysis. I am interested in how individuals, for instance, have read say the Sermon on the Mount over the centuries. These readings vary and we may be able to tie these varied readings, in part, to economic, political, cultural, demographic and geographic changes. I have always liked Robert Darnton's essay on how one Swiss bourgeois read Rousseau during the Enlightenment by exploring the notes he wrote to himself in the margins of his Rousseau book about what Rousseau was saying, or what he thought Rousseau was saying. Rousseau's books, of course, became more widely available thanks to the publishing revolution of the fifteenth century.

I am also interested in how people read television or film or books. I do not, however, confuse individual academic readings of films or television show with random and generalisable audience research grounded in empirical research. I would argue that academic readings of texts NOT grounded in archival research and oral histories of those who produced films or television shows--crystal ball textualism--are simply examples of audience response, should be treated as reader response, and probably tell us more about academics than the "text" produced.

I am also interested in intentions, in the production side, as well. For instance, if I wanted to get a handle on Napoleon I would explore the relevant archival material on Napoleon, including any journals, letters, diaries, etc, contemporary writings on Napoleon, something which acts as an empirical check on Napoleon Studies and limits the number of valid interpretations of Napoleon's motives, beahaviours, and actions. Only then, only after exegesis, would I move on to hermeneutics, interpretation. Only after doing exegesis and hermeneutics will I move on to homiletics, aesthetics, morality, ethics. I try to do this because I believe that before you can critique, before you can say how you would do it, you have to know how the person or persons who did it, did it. I thus don't take people who hate the Coen Brothers or Buffy but who have never seen or barely seen any Coen Brothers films or Buffy--and I have met people who said to me that they don't like the Coen Brothers or Buffy despite never seeing either--seriously on the exegetical or homiletic level. I do take these "readings" seriously as examples of how some humans "read". And given that I love irony and absurdity...

Thanks again for your very helpful and very thoughtful comments.