November 2008

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I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to another article in the New York Times from a few days ago – this one is by A.O. Scott, so you know it’s more credible than my last one (maybe) – because I feel like its particularly relevant to our discussion on Tuesday (11/25). Scott discusses the different ways we view media, and how that affects our reception of the material.  That said, there seems to me to be an enormous gap in his article.

Scott’s central question is whether (or how) the new plethora of digital means of viewing material (primarily film) affects what he calls “the art of cinema.” It’s certainly a valid question, and Scott suggests a link between the contemporary situation and the era that introduced television as a mainstream media. That is, film adapted to the introduction of television by adopting various wide-screen formats, and eventually relaxing its censorship standards. Similarly, Scott notes the rise of home video on VHS in the 80s did not engineer the downfall of traditional cinema. These are all true observations.

However, there exists a central question that Scott does not address. That is, how does/will society’s inundation with new viewing platforms (iPods, VODs, YouTube, etc.) affect or change narrative media? I would like to think that it is clear that Hollywood fiction filmmaking will not collapse simply because I can watch a film on my iPod. Nevertheless, “traditional” storytelling has definitely adapted to the changing platforms. Consider television ads: DVRs have forced the shortest-narratives to become even shorter, and many commercials now end with a distinct logo in the last three seconds or so that’ll you’re bound to glimpse as you fast-forward through the ads. Also, as cable has multiplied the number of options a viewer can choose from, many television shows have become more flashy, intense, and sexy to immediately hook an audience.  A few weeks ago Amy Bucher told our documentary film class how the made-for-TV documentary now has to be more exciting and sensationalist, particularly in its opening minutes, to attract and maintain an audience.

So clearly narrative forms have had to adapt to different modes of viewing, it is now merely a question of how they will adapt to these newest platforms. It’s not an easy question, perhaps that’s why Mr. Scott dodged it, but it’s certainly one that at least needs to be highlighted, if not speculated.

In a New York Times article published on Monday entitled “Saving the Story (the Film version),” Michael Cieply chronicles a new media lab at MIT that “will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.”  I highly suggest you read the article (linked above), but to summarize:

“A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.”

This assertion prompts an interesting (even frightening) question: is the proliferation of narration across media at large killing narration of certain media?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. To be honest, I have never really considered the issue before, so I’m not sure if this is even a valid question. According to the article, some executives in the industry blame the audience for this detrimental shift. Are we, the audience, to blame for “killing” Hollywood’s traditional modes for original storytelling?

I’m sorry to leave this post so open-ended, but I just wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the article and I’m genuinely curious – what do you guys think?

In his essay, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Jason Mittell outlines the emergence of a new form, the complex narrative. Mittell defines a television program’s narrative complexity as “a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration – not necessarily a complete merger of episodic or serial forms but a shifting balance.” (32)  At the end of his article, Mittell touches on how this new form encourages new audience participation. (38) In highlighting this point, I would like to further explore why we, the audience, love such narrative complexity – why it can be a successful form of television.

A couple of ideas:

-Narrative complexity makes us (feel) smarter.

Let’s face it, who hasn’t come away from an episode of The West Wing feeling just a tad more enlightened on issues of foreign policy or capital punishment. But that’s probably more a result of the content rather than form. A program’s narrative complexity makes us feel smarter because it allows for us to know the material as well as (if not more than) the characters do. We can laugh at a long-running joke between two characters because we know the history the humor is predicated upon. Such sensation is more difficult to achieve in a “conventional” or purely-episodic program. Moreover, the viewer enjoys the challenge of decoding a more complex narrative, and frankly programs that are spoon-fed to us can often be patronizing. As Professor Mittell said in class last week, the joy of a jigsaw puzzle is in decoding the process, not the end result. Narratively complex television programing provides such a challenge and therefore encourages a more active audience.

– Narrative complexity makes us feel gratified and rewarded for our viewing effort.

The fact is, narratively complex television shows provide the audience with the opportunity (perhaps even the requirement) of becoming more emotionally invested in the characters. A purely episodic program may appear all nice and conclusive every time, but the payoff is diminished. That is, we have less emotional investment in the characters so we reap a smaller (if any) reward for our time spent with them. I haven’t seen many episodes of Two and a Half Men, but I honestly could not care less about what Charlie Sheen’s character does, thinks, or says (although that may also have nothing to do with the character and everything to do with Charlie Sheen). On the other hand, say something bad about Toby Ziegler and we’re going to have issues. The difference? I was there with Toby at Rosalyn, or when his father came for Christmas, or when his twins were born. A trivial example maybe, but character investment goes a long way to establish intimate bonds between the viewer and the television program, which is instrumental in creating a loyal fanbase.

In short, I believe a television program’s narrative complexity to be successful because it rewards its viewers for their investment in the material, treats them more like equals, and gives them the respect they deserve.

A Bond film, like many franchise installments, can never exist entirely in its own right, but rather is always seen in reference to its predecessors. As Times Online’s Jeff Dawson notes,

“The avowals of “grittiness” that greeted Daniel Craig are interchangeable with the “Bond for a modern era” banners that welcomed Pierce Brosnan — until he went out in a fug of Cossack hairspray, smug one-liners, and an invisible car… ‘Why?’ does not figure with Bond. It’s simply ‘How does the new film compare with the last?’”

The focus of the paper is to use the Bond franchise to chart a narrative of its narratives. That is, how the character is portrayed over the decades, why the filmmakers “restarted” the Bond story with Casino Royale, etc.

The paper’s broader question is how narrative functions within the constraints of a franchise. That is, how does the franchise function to cue the viewer to receive the narrative? The long tenure of the Bond franchise exists as a useful framework for such exploration. With this in mind, the paper will be structured in two parts:

Part I will focus on observations of cycles and patterns in the Bond franchise. Including:

– the various characters that cross over the films.
– the various villains, how they died (the manner of death became more gruesome and sensational as the films progressed, and the villains themselves  became more sensational.)
– the arcs within each Bond cycle (excepting George Lazenby, as he starred in only one film).
– For Pierce Brosnen, films got more sensational, less realistic, and more ridiculous as the cycle progressed (from Goldeneye, that was the most realistic and dealt with post-cold war issues, to Die Another Day that had genetic modification, a giant laser from outer space, and – my personal favorite – an invisible car.)

Part II will contain explanations for Part I and suggestions for where the franchise will head in the future. Including:

– Looking at political trends, how that has affecting the style of Bond.
Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace – come amidst a new cycle/trend in Hollywood of “restarting” franchises.  Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and especially restarting the Batman franchise from ridiculous (George Clooney’s nipple suit) to dark, intense, and (dare I say) relatively realistic with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Filmmakers saw that such films are more successful when they take themselves seriously and give even their protagonists serious internal conflict and faults. Enter Bond Reborn.
-Casino Royale cues you from the very beginning that this is not going to be like the other films. The black-and-white footage is startlingly different, and reflects Bond’s cold-hearted killing attitude. In this sense, it could be argued that the narrative of the Bond franchises serves as a microcosm for the narrative of Hollywood filmmaking at large.

Bibliography:
1. Amis, Kingsley. The James Bond Dossier (London, The Trinity Press, 1965)

2. Bennett, Tony, and Woollacott, Janet. Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987)

3. Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. 2001)

4. Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A cultural History of the James Bond Films (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

5. Comentale, Edward P. et al. Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005)

6. Dawson, Jeff. “Quantum of Solace: 007 Goes Art House” <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article4907724.ece>

7. Lindner, Christoph. The James Bond Phenomenon (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

8. Rubin, Steven Jay. The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia (United States; Contemporary Books, Inc., 1990)
Additional Sources:

9. The 22 Bond Feature Films

10. www.imdb.com

11. www.metacritic.com

(I hope this is readable, wordpress is being fussy with formatting issues at the moment…)

First off, I really enjoyed this project. Like we talked about in class, I thought it was a great opportunity to combine our academic and creative spheres.That said, I

— If anything, I would have liked to have seen the projects multiple times. There’s clearly a lot subtle touches in each one (I know there are in Brett and mine’s), and it would could be informative to watch each one through, discuss it, and then view it again for specific elements. Obviously there is the time constraint, and of course we can view these over and over again on YouTube, but there’s something to be said for examining it in a classroom setting as well.

— One of the project’s obvious drawbacks is that it is impossible for us to de-contextualize the footage used. This is a particular issue when asking the question, “could this project exist as a narrative entirely in its own right?” Many of us answered yes, but the fact is, it’s impossible for us to judge for we cannot disassociate ourselves from our prior knowledge (acquired having previously seen the film). I actually showed a friend (who had never seen The Prestige and knew nothing about the film) our project, and she said that she understood Sarah’s rise and fall as a narrative in and of itself, but did not pick up on the Borden/Fallon distinction. Clearly that is something that becomes much more clear having seen the film.

— One possible solution to circumvent some of the technical difficulties people experienced would be to pre-load the material for the class on a server for everyone to access. When I took Bee Ottinger’s Visual Language of Editing class, Bee had Dan Houghten pre-load material for the class to edit. That way everyone could immediately start editing and not spend hours wrestling with computers to capture footage, anyways just a thought.

Those are my initial reactions. Do people feel similar?

Also, on an unrelated note, how are people “refreshing” the narration08 page to be up to date (and not stuck at 10/23)? I know we talked about this in class briefly but I can’t seem to read any of the newest posts unless I go to each blog individually.

What constitutes a successful deviation from narrative norms? Where is that fine line between that “really cool” deviation and the “weird” one?

Bordwell writes, “The spectator comes to a film with schemata, and these are derived in part from experience with extrinsic norms. The viewer applies these schemata to the film, matching the expectations appropriate to the norms with their fulfillment within the film.” (NiFF, p. 153)

The same can be said for television programs. The spectator not only brings the paratextual knowledge of genre norms (Cop shows, medical dramas, sit-coms, etc.) but also the norms established within a given series. Such standards not only pertain to the program’s storyworld, but also its presentational format, tone, etc. My interest here in this case is not so much the norms themselves but what happens when a program hosts an episode that deviates from its own established standards. Why are some deviations successful, and others simply terrible?

Consider the following examples:

Pushing Daisies – Unfortunately, my first experience with Pushing Daisies happened to be with an episode that deviated somewhat from its established norms. Let me tell you, not a good way to get into a series.  The episode, entitled “Bitter Sweets,” focuses on a competition between the Pie Hole and a new candy store intent on putting Ned & Co. out of business. It was not the murder-mystery-detective plot I had understood (and the pilot had cued to me understand) to be the show’s standard operating procedure.  I was not happy. It felt like a weak episode. It was an experiment that crashed and burned in my book.

There are however, numerous examples of how a particular episode that deviates from its series’ norms can be refreshing and very entertaining. Two particular installments I have in mind are Scrubs’ “My Musical” (2007) and The West Wing’s “The Debate” (2005).  “My Musical,” plays out through a number of musical numbers, with the regular cast routinely breaking into spontaneous song and dance.  Even more extreme, “The Debate” was a live episode of The West Wing, performed on live television, once for EST and once again for PST.  Both of these episodes drastically deviated from the established norms of each respective series, yet each was wildly popular.

So I’ve been wrestling with the question, what does it take for a television series to successfully deviate from its own pre-existing norms? I’m nowhere close to coming up with an answer; obviously there’s no formula, or else there would never be a “bad” deviation. One thing worth noting though, at least with these examples, is that it probably helps to have a thoroughly grounded and established set of norms before you deviate from them. That is, it’s not simply deviating; its how you do it, to what extent, and in what ways. In Pushing Daisies’ case, the episode deviated from the norms of the only seven episodes before it. Perhaps the norms had not been established to extent that it is even possible to successfully deviate from them yet.

So those are my musings, any thoughts?

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