Thursday, October 09, 2008

From Megamovie to the Digital Novel

Jason Kottke follows Vincent Canby in lauding "the megamovie," works like Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz or the first season of David Chase's The Sopranos, the extended movie as mini-series.

Here's Canby:

''Berlin Alexanderplatz,'' ''The Singing Detective'' and ''The Sopranos'' are something more than mini-series. Packed with characters and events of Dickensian dimension and color, their time and place observed with satiric exactitude, each has the kind of cohesive dramatic arc that defines a work complete unto itself. No matter what they are labeled or what they become, they are not open-ended series, or even mini-series.
Here's Kottke:
Megamovies take television seriously as a medium. They have dramatic arcs that last longer than single episodes or seasons. Megamovies often explore themes and ideas relevant to contemporary society -- there's more going on than just the plot -- without resorting to very special episodes. Repeat viewing and close scrutiny is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the material and its themes. They're shot cinematically and utilize good actors. Plot details sprawl out over multiple episodes, with viewers sometimes having to wait weeks to fit what might have seemed a throwaway line into the larger narrative puzzle.
But "repeat viewing" and marathon sessions don't take television seriously as a medium -- at least broadcast television. And a single thirteen-hour season of The Sopranos is very different from 6 or 7 (depending on how you count them). As I've argued before, The Sopranos participates in something new:
It doesn't just whack the novel; it whacks television, by gathering up all its tropes and genres, demolishing them in the process. And it does it in a genuinely new form. That tagline, "It's not TV, it's HBO" isn't just good marketing. The Sopranos has very little to do with broadcast television or even the movies. It's long-form, subscription-supported (i.e. no commercials), no censorship, no laugh track, no traditional "seasons" dictated by the calendar (each nominative season is in fact a distinct series). It's shot with a movie camera, shown in 16:9 on digital cable, digital video discs, or digital downloads on digital television and computer screens. There are generic predecessors, from the network miniseries to the BBC, but this is really new.

Shows like The Wire almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

The serial form gives you the space you need to explore character and milieu, and the uninterrupted length and cinema-style production give you the forms you need to explore them with seriousness. But this already implies that there are at least two digital cultures at work, and maybe working at cross purposes; the culture of the large screen and the culture of the small screen. In your living room, on your HDTV, you watch the digital cable novel; on your computer at work, or on your iPod in transit, you gobble up your viral YouTube videos, catch up on The Daily Show, or wring your hands over the newest Obama commercial. My favorite five-year-old likes to call YouTube videos "commercials," and indeed, that's what they're like -- that's how they're constructed, as the logical culmination of broadcast television. One is intensive: we obsess over our serials, their characters, the turns and twists of plot. The other is extensive: we can watch a hundred different YouTube videos a day, all from different sources, forward them to our friends or upload them to our blogs, and never return to them again.
Canby's already on to this in 1999:
I saw ''The Sopranos'' not as it was initially broadcast at the rate of one segment per week, but at my own pace on cassettes supplied by HBO. Once I watched four together, another time three, but always at least two. This gives the critic an edge over the general public. Momentum builds. Small but important details that might otherwise be forgotten from one week to the next, or simply overlooked while one is attending to the plot, remain vivid...

How we respond to television fare depends on the manner in which we see it. Commercial-free premium cable channels, as good as they are, still lock one into someone else's scheduling. Cassettes are ideal, but there aren't that many mini-series or megamovies at the corner video shop.

In the first episode of The Sopranos, Carmela and Father Phil debate the merits of The Godfather on laserdisc. (Tony likes the second film, especially the part where Vito goes back to Italy.) In the second episode, Chris and his sloppy, meth-addicted friend Brandon hijack a trailer truck of DVD players, and Tony, Brandon, and Paulie Walnuts go back and forth about the availability of titles, picture and sound quality, and so forth. Anthony Jr. finds out his Dad in this mafia when his sister shows him a web site she pulls up on AOL.

A year later, Vincent Canby is still watching VHS tapes and talking about commercial television. But the Sopranos -- the show and the family -- have already moved on.

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