Sunday, July 7, 2013

Experimental Television: Test Tube Meets Boob Tube

I expressed some disfavor towards experimental television in yesterday's article on Louie.  I failed to clarify my position on the subject as I could not find a space in the article where I could squeeze in my burgeoning thoughts.  So, I had no choice but to unpack my thoughts on experimental television elsewhere.  Well, this looks to be as good a place as any to put them.

I support innovation in the arts, but I do not support change for the sake of change or support an artist overturning convention just to puff out his chest and brag that he is a groundbreaker.  When Harold Lloyd came up with the idea for The Freshman (1925), he was told that he was misguided to think that anyone would pay money to see a feature film built around a football game.  The logic was that a person interested in a football game would go to a football stadium.  But the film was a huge success and this unique idea by Lloyd gave rise to the sports film as we know it today.  Lloyd came to innovation through reliable instincts and trial-and-error methods.  He was never pretentious, or self-indulgent, or contrived.  He wanted nothing more than to exhibit his latest film in front of an audience and be assured in the end that the people enjoyed the experience.  He only tried something new if he believed that the public would respond favorably to it.  He was not interested in playing head games with ticket buyers.

Comedians were not afraid to experiment in the silent film era.  This was, after all, a flourishing new art form.  Here is one of the bolder experiments by Marcel Perez.  It is a 1914 film called Amour Pedestre, which was released in the United States under the title Love Afoot.

To be frank, telling a love story by keeping the camera trained on the actors' feet is too experimental for my tastes.  Still, I admire Perez (who I write about in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film).

I am skeptical of people who are fierce advocates of experimental television.  I have a theory that might explain their motives.  A glut of anything is bound to incite rebellion.  Watching an excessive amount of television has to render traditional conventions, no matter how reasonable or valuable, boring and unpleasant.  Television storytelling, as far as the chronic television viewer is concerned, is replete with clichés.  But putting together a story with a conflict, a climax and a resolution is no more a cliché than building a house out of wood or brick.  A writer can be true and original without rejecting essential story elements.  These "anti-" ideas, from anti-hero to anti-climax, can be vastly overused and overrated.  It becomes, in the end, anti-storytelling and anti-entertainment.  It is not praiseworthy for a man desperately bored by houses made of wood and brick to suddenly decide to live in a house made of walrus blubber.  It's just stupid.

Some artists resort to wild and crazy experiments when they have run out of real ideas.  I think that Mad Men's recent "drug trip" episode shows that the series' showrunner, Matthew Weiner, is at a loss where to go with these characters.  Of course, other people loved this loopy, pointless hour of television.  Different tokes for different folks.

The most experimental film of the year is the deliberately incomprehensible Upstream Color (2013), which Tom Long of Detroit News described as "splendid, transcendent weirdness."  The lesson of this weird indie film is that depriving an audience of key plot information will make a film seem more profound and complex than it really is.  So, I will describe to you my new film about Little Red Riding Hood.  The little girl is walking nervously through the woods.  She hears noises.  Someone, or something, is stalking her.  But who is this stalker?  I'm not telling.  Also, I will not tell you the little girl's destination.  Where is she going?  Why is so urgent for her to get there?  The idea is that it will make viewers lazy if I give them information about grandma's house or the Big Bad Wolf.  Fans of Upstream Color refer to providing key information to the audience as "feeding," which is to bring up the image of a helpless baby having pablum spooned into his mouth.  In their estimation, the audience should be told little to nothing. 

Upstream Color devotees have cautioned others that they are unlikely to enjoy the film on the first viewing.  A person needs to see the film at least three times before they can understand what is going on.  Even then, it is doubtful that everything will make sense.  But that is what appeals to fans of the film.  Film critic Alonso Duralde wrote about Upstream Color, "I have no idea what it was about, and I can't wait to see it again."  David Gritten of the Daily Telegraph wrote, "My immediate desire when it ended was to stay in my seat and watch it all the way through again."  Dave White, who writes for, noted, "If it takes a few viewings to unlock (most of) its secrets then lucky you; you spent high-quality time you might have wasted on Pain & Gain."  If you ask me, these people have too much free time.  Chris Sawin, critic for, wrote, "There's some sort of genius buried within Upstream Color, but it's so enigmatic and obscure that by the time you reach it after digging through its countless layers you'll likely never find your way back again."  I have an actual life that prevents me from going on such a mad, far-flung journey just to understand a 96-minute low-budget sci fi film.

You should be able to understand the basic plot, main characters and important action after the first viewing of a film.  A second and third viewing should not be a desperate hunt for crucial facts that you failed to notice the first time around.  A film should be worth revisiting for entirely different reasons.  Someone might watch The Wizard of Oz (1939) on a frequent basis because they find the film endlessly entertaining.  Cinephiles of all ranks might watch Citizen Kane (1941) multiple times to fully appreciate the film's rich artistic vision.  Citizen Kane's nonlinear narrative is a patchwork of stories told by multiple narrators, none of whom is reliable.  It is difficult to absorb everything about this film on the first viewing.  But that doesn't make watching Citzen Kane a confounding experience.  It is the most enjoyable film about a newspaper titan's downfall that was ever made.  I find that repeated viewings of Psycho (1960) are worthwhile because they allow me to get deeper into the complex psychology of the characters.  I enjoy watching the "We all go a little mad sometimes" parlor scene for the nuances that Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins bring to their delivery of dialogue, their body language, and their facial expressions.  These are two characters who are keeping deep, dark secrets from one another.  Also, it is a pleasure to explore the deliberate choices that Hitchcock makes in this scene in regards to framing, compositions and lighting.  There's so much more going on in this film than a woman getting stabbed to death in a shower.

One critic said that he had to watch Akira (1988) ten times before he fully understood it.  This film, which was based on a 2,182-page manga epic, is bursting at the seams with characters and events.  Under the circumstances, the critic might be able to justify spending so much time trying to understand the film.  But I cannot say that I am comfortable with film appreciation as immersion therapy, which strikes me as a wholly unhealthy way to past the time.  Noel Murray of the AV Club wrote, "After seeing Star Wars four times in its first run (when I was but a lad of 7), I became convinced that true devotion to a movie involved practically memorizing it. . ."  He memorized a number of films, including Raising Arizona, Pulp Fiction and Dazed and Confused, before he decided that this wasn't a good idea.  He wrote, "Honestly, I can't recommend that method, because I can barely stand to watch any of those movies now."  Still, in the defense of a movie like Citizen Kane or Akira, the facts are laid out in the open.  They are neither hidden under countless layers or outright missing from the narrative.  No one is trying to fool or exclude the viewer.  Complexity is different than perplexity.

Upstream Color is enigmatic.  It is unapproachable.  It defies explanation.  It's a head trip.  Oh, my, tickle my frontal lobe with a feather!  One critic, an obvious masochistic, said that the frustration that he felt watching the film is what made it an unforgettable experience.  The plain fact is that, if this story had been told in a straightforward manner, the audience would have died of boredom.  I cannot support an allegorical jigsaw puzzle that must be deciphered rather than experienced.  I, myself, save high praise for films that can make me laugh one moment and cry the next.  I am bored by attention-seeking audaciousness.  While I do not celebrate artless, meaningless diversion, that doesn't mean that I have the slightest interest in idiosyncratic, inscrutable, self-important rubbish.  My favorite review of Upstream Color came from Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, who described the film as a "cerebral, mournful mystery that resonates like a tuning fork struck on a far-off star."  Could you imagine anyone saying that about Casablanca or The Godfather?

Boredom is an inevitable consequence when we have movies and television series streaming on demand onto our televisions, computers and iPhones.  The only cure for this boredom, as profound and desperate as it is, is to find radically new content.  New content of any kind is good just because it is new.  Emma Dibdin of Digital Spy said that Upstream Color is "a cinematic experience that feels new."  There it is.  New.  New is good.  Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid observed that the film operates in "such a unique, singular way that it's unlike almost any other movie I've ever seen."  Unique, yes.  White wrote, "To compare it to other movies in current release. . . is impossible."  The film is incomparable.  Great.

The conventions of television storytelling aren't as much the problem as the immoderate viewing habits of television addicts.  People should find something more constructive to do with their free time than burn furiously through entertainment content.  There's nothing reasonable about the bored slacker king who beheads his skillful jugglers and jesters because he's seen their act too many times before. 

Just one more thing. . .

It might seem odd to look at a sweet and innocent film like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman and think of it as groundbreaking cinema.  But it was, in its own quiet way, revolutionary. 

No, The Freshman was not the first film that dealt with sports.  Boxing films had been common fare for 10 years prior to the film's release.  But The Freshman was different.  It put forth an inspirational underdog story (enthusiastic college freshman rises from waterboy to gridiron star) and it managed along the way to build up suspense for a rousing "big game" finish.  It provided the viewer with an entirely different experience than boxing melodramas like The Victor (1923), Dynamite Dan (1924), The Shock Punch (1925) and The New Champion (1925), all of which depicted a sports world that was sordid and immoral.  The Freshman was without shame in celebrating good sportsmanship.

The success of boxing films did not assure Lloyd that his football film would attract an audience.  The average man or woman did not feel comfortable to bring their family to a rowdy, smoke-filled boxing arena.  It was certainly more appealing for a person to see a boxing match at a local movie theater, where the puddle of fluid on the floor was more likely to be a soda spill than a blood splatter.  It was different with football.  The public had easy access to a live football game if that's what interested them.  Why, then, should they go to a movie theater to see a football game?  But The Freshman was about more than an athletic competition.  It presented a heartwarming story of a young man who is able to endure frustration and humiliation and triumph over great odds.  Of course, football films are consistently popular today.  Hollywood has profited in the last thirty years from a steady stream of football films - Hoosiers (1986), Rudy (1993), Jerry Maquire (1996), Varsity Blues (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), The Replacements (2000), Remember the Titans (2000), Radio (2003), Friday Night Lights (2004) and The Blind Side (2009).  The Freshman stands as the granddaddy of them all.

Here's a clip of Hughie Mack in an early boxing comedy called How Fatty Made Good (1915).

Lloyd, himself, made a one-reel boxing comedy called Hit Him Again in 1918.


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