Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movies, TV, Short Stories, Novel (Stephen Frug Comment Pull Quote)

Stephen Frug wrote in a comment last week, on the subject of the Wire (the comment pull quote does not necessarily have to be from this week):

It seems to me that this whole "watching people change" is one of the thing that well-done serial TV has going for it: showing convincing change because there is time and space and context to do it. It's our cultural equivalent of those long 19th-Century novels; and it fundamentally can show character change in a way extremely difficult to do in the more compressed space of a film, a shorter novel or a graphic novel.

(Comics, as a serial medium, ought to be good at this... but I can't think of any examples that have been; partly because the best comics tend to be shorter runs or unified graphic novels, and long runs just don't sustain their quality long enough. But I'd love counter-examples.)

To this I want to add an observation. There used to be this distinction between the "big screen" of cinema and the "small screen" of television, with "small screen" often being a pejorative. But TV went all wide-screen, and on a lot of high end shows the season or even the series rather than the episode became the main narrative arc. Northern Exposure is all about the episode, 24 about the season, and Lost about the full six-season series (though of course all of these have smaller acts inside them -- even a Northern Exposure episode is broken up into four acts).

As you all know I have a habit, sometimes a bad one, of talking about pop culture in terms of high culture and vice versa. Admittedly this whole analogy could be off. But I used to think of movies as the novels -- sometimes trilogies -- and TV as being like short stories. And like the novel and the short story, I though of movies as having more gravity. But now movies -- even the kind that come in trilogies -- feel small compared to Dickensian fare like The Wire. Movies have become the short story while, as Stephen Frug points out, quality TV has become the 19th century novel.

Pricing is similar, though of course there are exceptions (a 12 dollar movie will be between 76 minutes and two hours and forty minutes). But there still seems to be a formal dissonance: you have to GO OUT to a HUGE SCREEN to see a small story, and you stay in and watch a small screen to see a HUGE story. But then again, maybe that makes perfect sense. You used to go out to see plays which often required unity of time and space, and then could go home and read War and Peace by the fire.

I do not really know what my point is here, except I think it would be an interesting experiment to see a movie theater play a TV show on a big screen in, say, two hour units over 12 days. Especially since we all go the other direction and watch movies meant for the big screen at home, on DVD.


scott91777 said...

How about the Sandman as a counter example for comics.
I would also nominate Cerebus the Aardvark.

Of course these are exceptions to the rule seeing as how they are both long-running series overseen by a single creator.

Patrick said...

TV and film have definitely flipped roles in terms of cultural prominence. What I always say is The Sopranos is much deeper, developed and more challenging than The Godfather, plus a whole lot more fun. If The Godfather is one of the top five greatest movies of all time, and The Sopranos is better than it, does that mean The Sopranos is better than every movie ever made?

Obviously, there's a big difference in what you can do with running time, but it's hard to think of a movie that touches what The Wire or The Sopranos do. We're in a golden age of TV right now, partially because the medium is getting more stratified. Reality TV is catering to the low brow audience, while we're getting more and more challenging, even avant garde series on the high end. John From Cincinnati got a lot of shit from critics, but that's because it was essentially an avant garde work, and people don't expect that from TV. If it was a movie, it'd play on two screens in New York for a couple of weeks.

There still aren't that many TV shows that truly evolve and change over the course of their run. 24 has a lot of episode to episode continuity, but not much long term change. But, there's nothing like watching five years of shows and seeing characters grow and change in dynamic ways. Movies just can't match. I went to see American Gangster and was completely underwhelmed, it couldn't come close to matching what The Wire does.

I think watching a lot of longform TV makes you much more aware of the shortcuts that films use, the three act structure elements, and the character shortcuts. When you've got two hours, you have to use shortcuts, when you've got 100 hours, not so much.

As for comics and change, Claremont's X-Men go through a lot of evolution over the course of his run, though the fact that they've stagnated for twenty years or so makes it easy to forget that.

The characters in Morrison's The Invisibles also change a lot, to the point that the Jack from the end of the book is essentially unrecognizable next to the guy in issue one. Sandman's a good example too, as is Promethea.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

I have a confession to make:

I rented the first season of the Wire on DVD. Folks were telling me it was the greatest show ever and I wanted to believe them.

I watched the first few episodes.

I was bored stiffless.

I don't remember much of anything of distinction about the characters or narrative. All I remember was the speech from the noble drug dealer on the poor sap who evented Chicken McNuggets.

Critics have described the Wire as a great "social-realist" novel, and I think that's the problem for me. Social realist novels (Sinclair, Dreiser) are about social-political ISSUES, not characters, not narrative scope. I don't think the comparision to Dickens is far; while ol'Chuck took on social-realist theme, his primary interest was in creating his wonderfully gruesome CHARACTERS.

The Wire is primarly about IDEAS (the total failure of the War on Drugs, something I was well aware of before watching) and falls short of a show like the Sopranos (my personal vote for BEST SHOW EVER).

Doc Klock, Ping, all others: convince me I'm wrong about this. Give me solid examples of the Wire's strenghs in PURE story telling.

Jumaan said...

Well, perhaps your expectations of the series are formed by having the show described to you as "Dickensian", which I don't think it is, at all. It's funny that you mention this because the episode last night makes a potentially major plot point out of a newspaper editor trading on a real story for a "Dickensian" narrative (a narrative that would dramatize the events of Season 4 in a way that plays heavily on easily played emotional touchstones). I think the thing that I like about the Wire is even though David Simon is an openly populist firebrand, he refuses to take the easy way out with the show.

The way he chooses to depict institutions, the primary antagonist in every season, is thoroughly original for a TV program is always complex and never takes sides except to say that nearly everyone is complicit in the making and breaking of promises. The cynicism of that never bothered me because it has always seemed the most like life. I think what people who don't care for the show also don't like is how the dialog is so nakedly figurative almost all the time but I think it works for the Wire as well as it worked for Deadwood. I think it's really rewarding to watch a show where every little thing has some meaning, especially because its not obvious given the constant shifts in tone in every episode. There is so much to love about the Wire.

Geoff Klock said...

VoE -- there is stuff all over the web about how the wire is the best show ever, and if that did not make the case, I don't think I will be able to in a comment. Let me just say this -- since the season is the unit rather than the episode, it is going to be a tough thing to judge from just the first few. I don't know if, for example, Moby Dick would have grabbed me in the first 4 chapters for example. The Wire builds and builds as you watch the characters change -- you have not seen enough of the show to see that, so it makes sense that it didn't grab you. The first disk actually did not grab me either, but I stuck with it and found that was the right thing to do. I am not saying that watching more will make you like it, but I am saying that with this show in particular, you kind of need to see most of the season before you are going to be able to make an informed judgement.

After that, it still might not be for you. To which I am sympathetic -- I recognize that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is stunning, and deserving of the praise it gets, but it is still not for me.

Geoff Klock said...

Oh, and the Wire is not about ideas. It is about characters, united by a theme (drugs, whatever). The theme is just the excuse to show the characters.

scott91777 said...

Voice of the Eagle,

The Simpsons is the best show ever, everyone knows that : )

(ok, seasons 3-10 anyway)

Stephen said...

Whoo-hoo, I made the pull quote!

[dances in self-appreciative glee]

As for Voice of the Eagle's comment... I more or less agree with Geoff -- that A) if you're not convinced by the other stuff, you won't be by me; and B) you have to give it a longer time & judge a season as a unit, and C) not everything's for everyone.

That said... there are a lot of pure storytelling reasons it's great. A lot of them have to do with taking the time to let things really build; a lot of them have to do with subtlety (i.e. making moments dramatic, but in a more subtle, sophisticated way than, say, 24). But if you give it time, the way the various character arcs mirror each other, intersect, drive each other, etc, is just stunning.

And also, in the spirit of "I made the pull quote", Geoff only quoted the end of my quote; the rest of it (scroll down) listed other reasons the Wire was great.


Stephen said...

Re: scott91777:

I think both Sandman and Cerebus are pretty good counter-examples actually. I'm not sure that Sandman shows quite as much change as the best serial TV dramas I've seen (and it's more localized, in Morpheus himself), but yeah, it's a good example.

Cerebus is complicated because, of course, Dave Sim went mad in the couse of producing it. (My thoughts on Cerebus are spelled out at great length here.) But yeah, it's another good example.

I'd still say that the long-form comics serial narrative has some catching up to do, though. (And given the trend towards shorter series, especially by creators doing their own worlds -- and not corporate properties they probably wouldn't be *allowed* to change much -- I'm not sure we'll get there.)


PS: I don't read enough to know, but I bet Manga series show this sort of change.

Stephen said...

I think it would be an interesting experiment to see a movie theater play a TV show on a big screen in, say, two hour units over 12 days.

Yeah... but it'd have to be a TV show that made it worth it. Not sure that The Wire would gain anything by it.

Particularly given how unpleasant they've made movie-going these days...


scott91777 said...


Just glanced at your cerebus blog, I will peruse in detail later.
I, myself, am just 2/3 through the series.

I'm in agreement with you about the essential volumes being 2-5. Although I did find Minds to be rather good (especially after suffering through reads) ... and the "Sandroach" parody in Women was hysterical.

Stephen said...


Well, as you'll see if you read the series, I myself got through precisely 2/3 of Cerebus. So you can read the whole essay without spoilers if you like.

I certainly agree that there is some good stuff in every volume I read -- probably in the ones I didn't, too. It's just that the good/bad ratio was particularly favorable in vols. 2-5.


Todd C. Murry said...

I think both of the big Ditko guided Marvel Super-Hero series (mostly his run on Dr. Strange, but also Amazing Spider-Man) did a really good job of bringing the character over time to another place (in the case of Strange, really completing his character arc and making him useless to all the other saps trying to pull off the impossible - a Dr. Strange series). I think there are loads of compromised examples of such character development in comics: Tara Chase really seems to me to be evolving as a character in Queen and Country (similarly - maybe too similarly - to DCI Tennison Prime Suspect), but it comes out too slowly now to tell. There are elements in Wagner's Grendel and Baron and Rude's Nexus that follow characters that fundementally change, but some of the stuff's a little undercooked. The Shooter Valiant Comics were definately predicated on changing characters. I would have said Sandman and Cerebus had it not been mentioned. And are you counting Manga? Because these types of (admittedly, often pat) character evolutions are bread and butter.

Also, if I can say one thing about the Wire, it's that it is a unique show in the way that the viewer's immersion in the show occurs. Normally, a TV show presents sequences of events that follow one to another, but seem either linear or multilinear with interweving. The Wire is made up of scenes that build into a critical mass as a network, so the first few episodes you watch are just scene, scene, scene, and live of die on the quality of the scene itself. Then connections start happening, and the overlays start to build the show's meaning. It's different than any other show, and requires patience to get it.

Geoff Klock said...

My favorite example of the way the show builds is just a little moment. Freeman is telling McNulty how he ended up in the pawn division. He screwed his boss up, and the boss says, really friendly like he wants to help "where don't you want to end up" -- and then sends him exactly where he said he did not want to be. The scene is repeated with McNulty, and you get what is going on there immediately, and he knows what not to say. But in another scene toward the end of season one the captain wants to take men off of Daniel's detail and says "well who do you want to keep." Daniels knows not to answer and you know why without a big explanation -- and then he gets to keep Freeman and Prez, two screwups no one but Daniels knows are super-valuable, the two guys he would keep.