03 March 2017

Cultural critique

I've been off to the side watching a lot of film and TV, during what appears to be a golden era of TV and TV writing, and cultural nerd/geek ascendancy in film. 

There are two major issues I keep seeing repeated. 

1- It's a visual medium, use "show, not tell." This fails the viewer on many levels. Showing us acts of heroism/villainy or romance or cleverness establishes clearly these features as a reason to care about or relate to the character. Telling us someone is clever or a hero is the same function as a person assuring us "I am smart". In that it generally tells us "you are an idiot." Dialogue can be used to establish any of these things instead of action, but there is a less is more style approach to this that is frequently abandoned, as though the expectation is the viewer won't understand what is going on without being spoon-fed lines of exposition constantly. Dialogue of this sort should be more about establishing the character, by making them seem more real or relatable. For example, to tell a joke or a moving back story to another character, having them gossip or engaged in some act of chicanery and mischief, rather than about spoonfeeding us details about them. With a more complicated show with many moving parts and characters (the Wire, or Game of Thrones say) this might be true that the viewer needs a little bit of explanation to follow it. Game of Thrones essentially invented the concept of "sexposition" as a method of having complicated pieces of information conveyed while someone, or several someones, is nude and engaged in various salacious actions on screen. By contrast. The Wire has a sequence, a entire brilliantly written and shot sequence, where the two characters communicate entirely by variations of phrases including "fuck" key within them, with no dialogue exposition whatsoever. It's all shown through reenactment and body language what they are thinking and doing and the viewer is simply expected to apply what exposition they've had before and know what's going on. And it isn't hard to follow in spite of this limitation of words and precision. 

The most dramatic cultural difference I've noticed is between Marvel's films and DC's in the last few years. We are constantly told Superman is a hero, and then rarely see much heroism and instead watch a city getting destroyed through collateral damage in his own fight with the main villain. This doesn't really convey much of a reason to care much about this apparently indifferent and possibly sociopathic superhero because the depiction we are seeing is at odds with the depiction we are told we are seeing. Guardians has a bunch of anti-heroes, or at least very unlikely heroes and their tree creature companion, running around eventually working together to save a planet that probably hates or fears them just as much as we are told Superman is hated or feared by humanity. It's acted out and it fits more or less what we are told needs to be done in those moments of exposition between explosions. 

Romance plot lines in most films follow a similar problem, where the chemistry and interplay and dialogue between the main love interests is usually an unconvincing dud that is neither escapist entertainment nor realistic depiction of human pair bonding and attraction. 

Even with Game of Thrones, which is one of the better shows on TV for avoiding the show not tell problem (although it often dwells too heavily on the showing of barbarism), spends most of the last couple of seasons telling us that Tyrion is clever and wise, and then watching most of his plots and clever schemes blow up in his face. We are buoyed along by the fact that he has done clever and wise things in the past, but no longer seeing the more convincing evidence of this fact. 

2- "it’s more interesting in theory than in practice." This is a frustrating component of a ton of film and TV. Rogue One could have been a very interesting and compelling work of fiction set in the Star Wars universe to tell us a story most people could conclude was not going to work out that well. The way it could have done this was to have interesting characters who will all, eventually, be sacrificed for a good cause. We should care more who these people are, why they are fighting, and that they are dying. Dirty Dozen managed to carry this off in a war-themed film, where most everyone dies (spoiler alert if you haven't been alive since 1967). Instead the characters are fairly disposable means of creating action sequences. Some of them may as well have been named "plot device", for all I know they were. This is frustrating because there's an angle where the context and content that's available should have been really interesting and engaging, but nobody bothered to use it. 

The most common example of this is sci-fi themed. Westworld and the Expanse are both shows that hit some interesting questions of psychology, neuroscience, or philosophy. What would a world with AI be like, what is consciousness, what would the discovery of alien life do to a primitive space-faring human society and its messy politics? But they fall short by being a tangled mess of story that rarely allows people to care about dynamic characters doing something interesting on its own. There is a huge gap between Omar in the Wire, a guy who runs around robbing drug dealers who should not at all be a popular and well-regarded character (and is), and whoever the hell these people are in the Expanse (I have a vague idea of names other than one of them does the voice for a Quarian admiral in Mass Effect). Or William in Westworld. One of these is a well-developed character who doesn't even appear until the 3rd or 4th episode of the series. And the others, I've been following these people around for an entire season of a show and still don't really feel like they are anything other than ciphers and plot devices around which things are supposed to happen to make me feel like there's something interesting happening. I don't relate to them. They don't seem to have complicated motivations, or even get along all that well to where I'd understand why they back each other up. 

Where I think this is falling flat mostly is that stories are about the people in them and how we feel about them. And it feels like writers or show runners have forgotten that. Sometimes in favor of flashy action sequences. Not always. A writer can and should expose people to interesting concepts or ideas, but stories they tell are primarily about people (actually primarily about themselves or the people they know well, which is why so many films or shows are about people trying to act or write or succeed in some creative endeavour). The ideas are smuggled in alongside that. I thought that having everyone important in the story die (spoiler alert from 1977) in Rogue One should have been a really interesting risk to take with a film, especially when it seems to be a war film. This would confront us with the horrific cost of war and violent resistance and that even if there seems to be a valorous sacrifice in the works, a victory will feel hollow and painful for the losses we accrue to get there. But then I didn't care about any of these people and they barely seemed to care about each other. So. It didn't work very well as a story about people. It traffics, as Force Awakens did before it, but in a less reliant way, on a cultural memory that we have seen from characters before (Han Solo or Darth Vader), rather than giving us much new about these characters now. 

There are films and shows that get around these problems. I may be expecting a bit much for a big blockbuster production to have ideas and complex characters in it for example. Still. It isn't that much of an ask to have the main character not be "the explosion in scene 24" either. 
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