Fantasy, even when it’s rooted in practical details and doesn’t involve any metaphysical impossibilities, is the hardest genre to pull off, for the simple reason that life is interesting. A drama or a comedy that sticks close to experience has the intrinsic virtue of documentary—and, as with documentary itself, less is usually more.
As TV drama becomes more traditionally novelistic, announcing exactly how long a story is going to take and assuring us that the end of a season will be the End, we can breathe a sigh of relief, because we know that at least one thing we’ve invested our emotions in will set an endpoint and stick to it and let us move on to something else.
This speaks to me. I don’t remember the last show I watched past the third season. I’m sure I’m missing out on many wonderful experiences, but… to each their own. Cf. streaming TV as a new genre.
All of Bourne’s enemies, as well as his potential allies, are colleagues of one kind or another, and his very existence is a horrifying reductio ad absurdum of life on the corporate treadmill.
The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see, from faces to car crashes, with a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—we desire not the real film but the film we want to see.
In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.
When a series about a handsome and charming male stripper serves up two dud love stories in a row, you have to assume it’s intentional – that the films are genuflecting to the idea of including a “love interest,” but not trying too hard to make a convincing one, because it might interfere in with the films’ true, great, ongoing romance, between the audience’s eyeballs and Channing Tatum’s body.
There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art.
The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique — Who gave Harry that Firebolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info?
The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes “Pride and Prejudice” so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions.
To be told that a scene of mass death is the result of an accident or terrorism is to be given not only an explanation of the cause but also an idea of how to reckon with the consequence.
We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman’s value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they “deserve” to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them. And having books and movies aimed at young women where every female protagonist turns out to be beautiful (whereas many of the antagonists are described in much less flattering terms) reinforces the message that beauty has some kind of morality attached to it, and that all heroines are somehow pretty.
Can we please change the script here?
“In time-travel stories, we tend to imagine that the people in the past are hicks and rubes. And when we imagine people in the future in time-travel stories, they’re always weak and decadent.”
So far this year, I’ve watched “The Knick,” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Outlander,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Downton Abbey.” Oh, I complain about the various anachronisms – the clothes are too clean, the lives of the servants are far too easy and don’t even get me started on, um, almost everything in “The Knick.” But these are forgivable errors, occasionally almost lovable.
The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows’ inability to commit to that drama – to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can’t resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern – and so they sap the conflicts they’re portraying of their meaning.
In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight). I really, really liked this dissection, by Jim Emerson, of a chase scene in The Dark Knight. I think the scene still communicates on a sequence-of-events level – chase goes underground, trucks smashes car, weapons are fired, Batmobile rams a dump truck – but there are definitely ways the editing makes it less spatially coherent or viscerally “real”. You can set aside whether that makes the scene good or bad, or whether it undermines or supports whatever Nolan’s intentions were. It’s still a nice primer and breakdown of how they communicate narrative through the frame, and how ignoring or adhering to visual conventions affects how you understand what you see.
“The less money you take, the more freedom you have. I’ve never made a film where I don’t have final cut. And I can’t imagine doing that. That just seems like it would be turmoil. I edit because that’s where you learn how to direct, really. All the answers of what you should have done are in the editing. I miss out on being able to be in a conversation with someone, and I can see where that can be a really valuable thing—to have someone with more of a distance to be having a dialogue with. You write alone, and scouting is really lonely. Then you do this really intense thing with a lot of people. Afterwards, I usually feel like I want to hide away with my film again and go through the process of making sure that every possible thing has been tried. I’m a big believer in letting your film be bad for a while, and not trying to get to a good cut too quickly. I just want to be involved and I want that process, because it makes me think of what lens I should have used or what I should have done. It’s such a learning experience that I hate to miss out on it.”
Still from Wendy and Lucy (2008, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Emphasis my own. I love that.
When scientific experts criticize “Gravity” for failing to display an academic-level understanding of the laws of nature, they are missing the point. Nobody goes to “Gravity” for a physics lesson; they go to be entertained. But there are times when a fact-check of a film can provide necessary context and, especially if the film is based on true events, illuminate not just how a narrative deviates from the truth but why it does. At their best, expert reviews can even illuminate deeper truths, like how reality is an often unintended casualty of pop culture. Since mainstream movies only show us what we want to be true—almost by definition, a film that sells tens of millions of tickets does not challenge any widely-held perspectives—movie fact-checkers can show why a certain film felt the need to diverge from reality to tell a satisfying story.
Let’s pause for a moment, in fact, to notice that this kind of story almost always imagines a future world that’s far simpler than the one we currently live in, one in which all the stuff and clutter of our lives – the screens, the gizmos, the cars, the noise – has evaporated. As David Mamet once put it, every fear hides a wish.
The postapocalyptic scenario—the future in which everyone’s a corpse (except you)—must be, at this point, one of the most thoroughly imagined fictions of the age.