While watching episodes of Mad Men leading up to (and including the finale) — on which I will reserve judgement because we live in a DVR culture — I felt jarred.
Before the Mad Men blitz, the wife and I had watched Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York“, and regardless of how one feels about Ferrara’s penchant for material that skirts the line between gonzo sleaze and tortured Christian Idealist angst — the man is a true student of film grammar and has a master’s grasp on how to tell a VISUAL STORY.
Now I’m willing to concede that most of us (of and under a certain age) have been overexposed and exhausted by the tyranny of three-act structure and the codified character arc that makes up most FILMIC NARRATIVE, and the looseness and depth of TELEVISION NARRATIVE (whether in short bursts or BINGE FORM) has been a welcome TONIC; however, after a preparatory binge of MAD MEN, I feel comfortable saying —
TELEVISION is largely a VISUAL WASTELAND, a DESERT OF INSPIRED SHOTS.
Some of this is budgetary, some of it is delivery device related, and some of it is because TV is a purported WRITER’S MEDIUM which prizes NARRATIVE and CHARACTER over the VISUAL IMAGE (but in all honesty, what kind of WRITER’S MEDIUM holes six or seven of them up in a room to map out a whole season in advance? What WRITER would choose that?) That’s not a WRITER’S MEDIUM; that’s a NETWORK’S MEDIUM. But I digress…
TV has been making strides towards accepting singularity of vision — Nic Pizzolatto exerted near-total control over “True Detective” — and I’d argue the show benefitted from it. But it was also an ALL-STAR ANTHOLOGY ONE-OFF and could afford to take the risk.
TV may be where it’s at for the WRITTEN WORD right now; but it’s at the expense of the VISUAL. Even the most SINGULAR SHOW of all time (not the BEST), but the most singular, TRUE DETECTIVE (one writer, one director), is STILL A PALE SHADOW in terms of the VISUAL ENVELOPE OF FILM. And for comparison:
Check out the rapturously celebrated SIX-MINUTE TRACKING SHOT FROM EPISODE 4 OF TRUE DETECTIVE, and then compare it to:
The opening tracking shot of BRIAN DE PALMA’S SNAKE EYES:
And try and tell me that TELEVISION can ever, ever REPLACE FILMIC STORYTELLING on A VISUAL LEVEL at the RATE IT IS GOING. It may (and it certainly looks like) it’s going to overtake it as people’s preference to INTAKE NARRATIVE, but it will be at the expense of an entire history of VISUAL GRAMMAR.
Why is it that when great FILM DIRECTORS: Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), David Fincher (House of Cards), David Lynch (Twin Peaks) do TELEVISION —
It still looks like TELEVISION. Good television, but still TELEVISION.
If film lovers (and there are still some of us) are going to make the full commitment to TV as our only intake as ADULT-CENTERED NARRATIVE, someone needs to figure out how to increase the level of VISUAL FLUENCY ON TELEVISION.
There’s only one film director who made TELEVISION not feel like TELEVISION.
MICHAEL MANN. Check this out from his short-lived series “ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION”. After all these years, you know what show still looked the least like TELEVISION that I’ve ever seen — MIAMI VICE.
Savor that clip as my closing statement and final summation on where TV has been and where it needs TO RETURN if it’s going to offer a true alternative to FILM for ADULTS who appreciate VISUAL EXPRESSION…