TV vs. Film

I’ve been watching a great deal of television as of late – by which I really mean to say, the past three years. I used to think that I only wanted to work in film, to make grande acrylic opus’ of 115 pages – self contained art. A beginning, an end. The medium first appealed to me as the intersection of everything I loved : music, dance, theater, painting, photography. I had watched the Mothlight of Stan Brackage and the Eclipse of Antonioni, I felt the ache of The Graduate and the guilty fluff of Pirates of the Caribbean. To me, TV felt like second hand cinema. Filler for bored children of the attention deficit generation and people home sick from work. Of course there were shows I watched, The Simpson’s was a Sunday night staple in my house for the first 13 years of my life. The first season of The OC, the occasional Episode of Charmed… Friends, blah blah so on and so forth.

Yes, these were all things I flicked on at 2 am when I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to finish my math homework – but they didn’t inspire feeling in me like the Dustin Hoffman’s post collegiate detachment, like the black and white click clack of tap shoes on 42nd Street, like the spectacle of a film explosion or the reunion of a films formerly star-crossed lovers.

But then, a few years ago, something happened: I discovered better television, and consequently discovered the true power of Television over Film – a deep emotional core that allowed focus on character development and relationships without sacrificing the narrative arc. Suddenly my eyes were opened to the subtly that more time allowed, the evolutionary power of season upon season of: Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, Dexter, Weeds, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost, Veronica Mars, Glee, 30 Rock, The Office, Dead Like Me – it was like having my first serious boyfriend; the movies had been fleeting summer flings, memorialized in coffee table photo albums and fond Facebook messages… but these television shows were the real, committed, living together, buying a cat and breaking up painfully kind of deal.

Every passion we have is a relationship. Every human interaction with the natural and creative world a contract in time and space, a molding of intent and emotion within our minds and hearts. Every like and dislike a conscious forming of ourselves and the world around us. It’s hard to be a dedicated television fan, to fall in love with characters who evolve and change week after week and season after season – there’s more room for disappointment in television. Your favorite actor is killed off in season two and it ruins the rest of the series… or perhaps the writing just stops being good. Losing faith in something you once adored and revered is never easy. I feel the ache in this current season of Dexter… the energy is gone, the routine tired, and I feel myself waxing nostalgic about John Lithgow and bathtubs.

It takes more energy to dedicate oneself to a series. It’s draining. It’s time consuming. It’s commitment. Perhaps thats why stand alone-episodic shows like Family Guy and Two and a Half Men are so popular – once the 23 minutes is over, the fan can disconnect, not worry about where their make-believe friends are headed. Because, despite Charlie Sheen’s rampant cocaine addiction, he’ll be back next week, all smiles and one liners to sedate the masses without any real form of commitment.

Fuller… Chapter 6: The Movie Fan

I challenge you, or anyone for that matter, to find someone in this country who doesn’t like movies – aside perhaps from some 97 year-old evangelical woman with clinical cinephobia who lives in the middle of the desert. Or the Amish.

Obsessive hyperbolizing aside – anyone who prescribes to the practices and ideals of mainstream American society is bound to enjoy watching movies. We are all “fans” of movies, but what makes one a “Movie Fan” seems to be a whole different kind of crazy. There is a reason the word Fanatic starts with F-A-N. Fandom is an obsession, an insatiable daydreaming consumerism and ardor for the unattainable life of celebrity and filmic perfection. The stigma of the term “Movie Fan” is a perfect example of the ageless obsession with words that began with Adam and Epoch and continues today in our growing and evolving language, our minute differentiation, the reason women are afraid to call themselves “feminists;” words carry the baggage of their social and historical implications – a word, is never really just a word.

As with the debate over the term “feminist,” those who enjoy movies, perhaps more than most seek to validate their passion in rational and intelligent thought – from this defensive reconstruction comes the term “cinephile,” “Movie Fans” who consume consciously, actively, and for higher purpose.

When I think of a “Movie Fan,” whether in its original context or today, I think of a juvenile, squealing girl who wastes half her paycheck or allowance on fan magazines. I think of “Teen Beat” and “Bop” magazines, I think of people chasing after Justin Beiber, or The Beatles, I think of people fainting.

I admit my views on the subject come from an elevated psychological plane of superiority, I would like to pretend I’m above the hubub of fandom – and on some levels, I am, but merely because I’ve lived in LA – yes, I met Chris Pine at a birthday party right after I fell into a swimming pool. Was it awkward? Yes. Did I faint? No. Did my heart beat a little faster? Duh. Was I briefly wooed by the shimmery allure of a fantastical filmic existence? Of course.

There is a part of me that is still 13-years old, whether I want to admit it or not – we are all impressed by the life of the movies, we are all “Fans,” and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit it.

Fuller…Chapter 5: The Picture Palace

It never ceases to amaze me how thin the veil of class divisions are, how alike we all really are, that, at the very heart of things, everyone wants to experience the same fundamental feelings and exercise the same natural senses.

The other day I was in Burlington with a few friends and we stumbled upon a multimedia art exhibit that broached this very subject – among other things, it consisted of a large, interactive touch screen called "I Want You to Want Me"– a study of human wants and desires, specifically in regards to love and dating.

Now what amazed me about this piece, and what is consequently relevant to my comment on basic human similarity, is the  overwhelming homogeny of our emotional lives: people want/experience the same feelings – across age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, we all experience daily interactions between our senses, our emotions, and our expectations that defy stereotypes and statistics.

Now apply this to art, and we see a transparent trend. We all enjoy the same feelings, these experiences merely shift and adapt to suit our cultural and societal context. The Picture Palace was a way of channeling the upscale legitimacy of the Opera, of the Theatre. The soft seats and suited ushers pampered and preened the higher classes until they felt sufficiently sedated and at home enough to loosen their shirt collars and enjoy the show – they were served what they wanted, the affirmation of their superior social standing, and the relief of audience homogeny.

Picture Palace : Nickelodeon as Burlesque : Strip Club – Different ways of staging and fulfilling basic human desires.

Fuller… Chapter 4: Alternative Viewing.

I remember being in elementary school and praying for the teacher to be out sick or too tired to deal with us – anything that might result in a sacred hour and a half of staring at that small fuzzy TV they’d roll in from class room to class room on such occasions.

It was the very same TV that illustrated a journey through your digestive system on the “Magic School Bus”  back in fourth grade, and then two years later solicited giggles and “Ews” from the the long awaited “You’re becoming a Woman!” video. “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” with Kevin Kline and Christian Bale, Civil War documentaries, Awkward Spanish videos from the 80’s that followed along with your outdated textbook.

The same thing happened in CCD, videos of bible stories or illustrated tales of modern day morality where all of a sudden at the point of decision making we get a freeze framed: “What should Johnny do now? …What would Jesus do?!”

The CPR class I took last weekend was predominantly taught by a television.

When Fuller discussed alternative viewing styles and filmic modification of the early part of the 20th century, I found the concept strange, for alternative uses for film are both abundant and widely accepted in today’s society. What is different however, is that alternative film no longer seeks to usurp mainstream cinema in either value or prominence, and has settled nicely into it’s various niches, both educational and moral.

When I was younger, the in class movie was a chance to turn off my head, a chance to draw hearts on my Lisa Frank notebook and daydream about more important things, like what being a teenager felt like. Now, with weekly screenings filling up my Tuesday and Thursday nights for the past four years, I take a far different and more active approach. These are not the teachers of fifth grade looking to quiet a rowdy group of East Coast hoodlums, nor is it the rigid CCD teacher I disagreed with on nearly every modern day social political issue  – with choice came better alternative viewing, an active participation with film that I’d never had before.

Lulu in Hollywood: the Quest for Veracity.

Something that has always amazed me is how differently stardom is approached today than in was in the first half of the century.

What makes “Old Hollywood” so damn glamorous? It certainly isn’t just the clothes and the hair and the black and white celluloid frames – for all of those visually pleasing elements can be recaptured, and ofter are come awards show season. What really makes “Old Hollywood” so appealing is the perpetuation of on screen ideals off screen – consistency between the stars personal and filmic lives. “Old” Hollywood thrived on media that with soft lighting and no HD.

Hastie’s discussion of Brooks spends a great deal of time discussing the nature of truth within an actors life. But what does it really mean to be truthful or authentic? And how does one retain authenticity in the face of over-exposure or uncomfortable media voyeurism? Brooks recognition of her inabiliy to paint a full autobiographical portrait, in conjunction with her naturalistic approach to acting is as close as I believe one can get to filmic authenticity. In many ways, the admission that information is being withheld is a purer form of honesty than telling subjective anecdotes a third party will never fully be able to comprehend. Likewise, Brooks lets veracity shine through her body and face on the screen, which is part of what many of her “cult-like” followers find so seductive – a kind of unapologetic truth, a sordid sense of chaos and wonder that is both active and passive, male and female, innocent and deviant. In short, Lulu’s truth comes out of her contradiction.

Since Brooks’ time on the silver screen we have made a clear  shift from a symbiotic actor-fan relationship to social media cannibalism – our search for truth has bypassed the free will of the star and become an invasive treasure hunt for weakness and scandal… the stars aren’t the ones who have changed, our own insecurities and voyeuristic pleasures have merely evolved, or perhaps, devolved us into the freak show audience in awe with the bearded lady. So the next time we look back on the Audrey Hepburn’s and the Rita Hayworth’s with wide and innocent eyes, let’s not pretend we haven’t dug our own grave Perez Hilton.

Fuller Chapter 3… the Power of a Nickel

When I was a little girl, I would make my grandfather tell me about his parents. The idealized and dewy eyed six year old me imagined them to be much like the immigrant animated mice in Feviel goes west, except italian, Catholic and… not mice.

I loved hearing the stories of how they met in the tiny hilltop village of San Marco, Italy. How they fell in love and were married a week later.

The story continues a few years later, in Allentown PA, where my great grandfather ran a handful of movie houses. Now this part never really made sense to me. How do you run a movie theater? Aren’t they all owned by big companies? Six year old me was confused.  Those words glowing above the multiplex marquees: AMC, Lowes, Landmark, Arclight… they were all faceless businesses with massive rental contracts and expensive upkeep, how could someone run a movie theater?

Yet in my short little life I had experienced a place that sounded like these “Nickelodeon” things my grandfather was always talking about, it was a one room movie house from the early twenties that stood, up until two years ago, in the center of the town of Nantucket. The seats were hard, the air-conditioning erratic and the tickets surprisingly cheap. As a child, this was my favorite place in the world – This was “The Dreamland.” It was a name that evoked a sense of whimsy, clearly carefully chose to cater to the escapist appeal of the movies. The room was plain, for, as fuller points out, all our attention is to be directed at the screen.

Yet for me, “The Dreamland” represents the strange intersection between the ideals of the old Nickelodeon, the values of a conservative East Coast town, and the desensitization of the American consumer to technological spectacle. The late theater may have matched the stark interiors of old movie houses but failed to prescribe to the bare white bulbs and grand marquees that the times called for. Instead, “The Dreamland” had to retain gray shingles with white trim, and merely a wooden sign for indication of purpose. Why? The island has very strict building codes to maintain a traditional and culturally conservative atmosphere. It’s the same reason that chain stores are banned on the island; the town is founded on the traditions of purists – nothing can change, nothing can stand out. It is this mentality that makes me surprised they ever got  a movie theater in the first place, and even more surprised that they had the nerve to tear it down.

Fuller Chapter 2… the Geography of Viewership

Too often I forget how incredibly massive the United States actually is; how diverse it’s people and opinions and tastes. No, I’m not a total idiot, I just live in the pleasantly opaque bubble of an East Coast Liberal arts college education.

Though I’m sure it’s the same way in those small towns within the beating heart of Bible Belt, where people are equally as submerged in their own opinions and surrounded by their own kind that every once and a while, they completely forget that they aren’t the only, or even the loudest, of voices.

Point being, I’ve always looked at the American film audience as a whole, divided by age, race, and gender but NEVER by state lines and religious backgrounds. I suppose this is a more general commentary on the fact that prior to this class, I had never actually considered the varying nature of the film audience. Up until a few weeks ago, “the viewer” was just a faceless, nameless, passive participant in the consumptive filmic process. Now I find myself reassessing all of my learned generalizations about the American viewing public; all the statistics and box office returns, all the fan magazine sales and historical accounts of the early Nickelodeons. Every one of these numbers and pictures has been whitewashed by the power of the stereotype of a consistent or “normal” American consumer.

Though I have very long understood the power of government and corporate censorship on the film industry, local regulation was something I never knew existed (outside that one company that makes Mormon acceptable versions of popular Hollywood films… but that somehow seems different.) I suppose in many ways this adds to my surprise in the impact of small scale cultural subdivisions and opinions on the relative success of a national market, and how that market bent under the weight of societal pressures and regulations in order to meet those values.

Prague’s Secret Son… Laterna Magika

No need for a paternity test, Laterna Magika is indeed the illegitimate child of socialism! Yes, Laterna is a healthy, thriving, baby boy… with split personality disorder and a mild case of OCD. Highly functioning, but not your textbook definition of normal. He is brilliant, but destructive, he is easily frustrated and distracted… he probably has ADHD too.

In this way, Laterna Magika is a perfect mirror of the social conditions under which it was born, for socialism is tornado of contradictions and chaos, thoughts of brilliance muffled by shouts of propaganda – it is a renegotiation of reality and society that succeeds only when certain aspects of that society are oppressed and manipulated into submission.

As Suzanne Langer bluntly puts it, “there are no happy marriages in art, only successful rape.” And while I cannot say that I wholly agree with this statement, I do see its insight into the treacherous process of redefining well established or normative notions of culture – be it within art, or any other medium. The challenging of the regular is always questioned initially, it is the nature of progress to be stunted by fear. Consequently, it makes a great deal of sense why Laterna Magika retains such niche standing within the art world today – it’s fragmentation, its imbalance, is as frightening as the system it belongs to.

It may not be a rape, but it’s a rocky marriage. the highs are high, the lows are low, and the only thing you can count on is that anything is possible. When you combine your influences the combination of creative copulation grow exponentially.

Buster Keaton: from Vaudeville to the Dirty Sheet

So I forget who said it, obviously, because the brain is an imperfect sieve of imperfect thoughts….

But some important film theorist, be in Bazin or whomever, called the medium of Film the “intersection of the plastic and the rhythmic arts.” This thought has since stuck with me as I try and dissect how exactly it is I came to pursue a career within the filmic discipline.

Well let’s see. I love to paint, draw, write, read, act, sing… etc etc blah blah blah…. and as recite this laundry list of passions I find that, indeed they all comprise different facets of the medium. I have allowed my different passions to combine and expand, and shift, in order to form a new kind of artistic amalgamation within film.

This is to me, the way that Keaton reconciled his entrance onto the silver screen. Film didn’t diminish his talent, it magnified it, allowing him an attention to detail impossible in live performance, and a wider range of routines as a result of expanding narrative and locational possibilities. For Keaton, film was the artistic high dive – higher risk, but a hell of a lot more innovative and impressive if he could pull it off.

During Keaton’s vaudevillian prime, the newly developing medium of film was combating pigeonholing left and right. Critics and viewers alike were quick to define its purpose and parameters, its values and its flaws; its every capability and downfall. The adversity facing the new medium was overwhelming, there seemed to be a cheapness to it for many. If live performances were the local coffee shop, Film was Starbucks, the comodification and mass distribution of sentiment, talent and real experiences. The selling out of an artistic soul for a “nickel a pop.”

And while this purist approach to entertainment is understandable, it’s not loyalty but FEAR that drives the decision to shy away from new forms of artistic expression – be they filmic or otherwise.

Fuller’s “Boundaries of Perception”

“Audience participation,” something most frequently thought reserved for Raffi concerts and midnight screenings of “Rocky Horror,” is a much broader concept than generally imagined.

Archaic thoughts of “active” and “passive” viewing are too heavily contingent on the physicality of of the act of viewership, when there are MANY more facets to audience engagement than mere visceral reactions to the stimulus.

Likewise, the “active” vs “passive” debate relies far too deeply on the notion that participation is simultaneous with viewing, which in today’s internet based society, and even in the film reviews and critiques of yesteryear, is just not so. Participation is ongoing and personal. It can be screamed at the top of your lungs, it can be twittered all over the web, or maybe just marinating subtly in the deep dark depths of your mind… in any case, just because we aren’t running away with the film’s lead doesn’t mean we aren’t participants or active viewers.

I break down participation into three categories.

1) The Intellectual/Emotional

2) The Physical

3) The Communal/Cultural

So the intellectual/emotional is pretty self explanatory, these are the wheels that are turning in your head as you watch a film: your understanding of the plot, your recognition of famous actors, your criticisms with dialog… your disdain for dumb jokes or weird plot twists. Whether you LIKE the movie or not, and how it makes you feel. This experience continues even after the film is over, it effects the rest of your day, maybe even your week. Last of all these filmic interactions become a part of your intellectual encyclopedia, forever ingrained and ready for re-assessment.

The physical is related to your emotional response but specific to visceral reactions emanating from surprise, fear, and sadness/joy. This is your scream or seat jump when the serial killer pops up in the mirror behind the pretty girl taking out her contacts. These are your tears at the end of “Toy Story 3” even though you know your childhood toys can’t feel, and that a team of hardworking  writers and producers are essentially waving cinematic onions in front of you for those damn tears. Physical participation in the film is primarily involuntary and frequently a little embarrassing (as any boy who cried at the end of “The Notebook” will testify); it is a moment where we, or at least our body, forgets that the film is an illusion.

And then last, but certainly not least, comes the communal/cultural participation. While this type of participation often combines elements of the two previously mentioned viewer-active categories, the essential difference is that communal/cultural participation requires the manipulation and evolution of current and previous film experiences by the addition of discourse or shared activity. It may be a Grease sing-a-long at the Hollywood Arclight, or tweeting for a month about what the hell Inception was trying to say. It can be a film class discussion, or a movie date who whispers criticisms of ScarJo’s acting across the darkened theater. Maybe it’s walking out of a horrible film, maybe it’s going to a film you’ve heard is horrible. In any case communal/cultural participation is the imprint of others on your viewing experience, however big or small that imprint may be.