Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Could TV be radio?

Over the time I've been writing my blog, I've thought of a number of posts that deal with the similarities and differences between movies and TV. I've touched on the issue now and then, but I've left most of my thoughts unexplored ... until now.

The event that spurred me to finally write down some of my thoughts was the realization, over the weekend, that my wife and I have different standards for when we give the TV screen 100% of our attention.

We both have scenarios where we like to be on our laptops at the same time we're watching TV. But the scenarios are different. These are not absolutes, but generally speaking, she doesn't mind being distracted when she's watching a movie, while I don't mind being distracted when I'm watching a TV show.

To some extent, this dovetails with what each of us would prefer to watch. My wife would prefer to watch TV. This is not because she likes TV better than movies, though her affection for the two is a lot closer than it is for me. No, it has to do with her paranoia that our DVR will fill up if we don't keep up with our shows, which is a legitimate concern. Me? I'd almost always rather be watching a movie. I love my TV, but if left to my own devices, I would watch a movie over a TV show any day. (And I am more comfortable than I should be when our DVR hovers around 90% full, which is also telling. Though paradoxically, I'm the one who refuses to give up on certain marginal TV shows, like The Event, when she's perfectly happy to cut the cord.)

Naturally, I think my perspective on which medium to give my full attention is more enlightened. And I'm here today to present my reasoning.

See, I think TV is primarily an audio medium, while movies are primarily a visual medium.

In other words, if you have to do one or the other, it's more important to hear TV, while it's more important to see a movie. In many cases, you'd be pretty lost in either medium if you were missing, respectively, the picture or the sound. But my contention is that you can ignore visual information on TV shows and still get pretty much everything that's going on -- this despite the fact that TV shows are becoming more like movies all the time. According to me, you're likely to lose a lot more by only half-watching a movie.

Of course, a lot of this stuff is genre dependent. An undemanding cinematic comedy is probably a lot closer to my definition of a TV show than some TV shows, whereas a dense TV show -- say, Lost -- would require your undivided attention a lot more than that undemanding comedy. But I think generally speaking, this idea holds true.

Why? It gets at another of my ideas about the differences between TV and movies: With TV shows, it's most important to know what happened. With movies, it's more important to know how it happened.

Case in point: We can watch a movie about Aron Rolston, who had to cut off his own arm to survive, without any problem. It doesn't matter that we already know the ending -- we want to know how the story is told. But if 127 Hours were a TV show, it wouldn't work, would it? You wouldn't sit through episode after episode after episode of 127 Hours: The TV Show -- you know, kind of like 24, only with a lot less nuclear terrorism -- if you knew Ralston was going to free himself in the end.

And there are numerous other examples of stories that work as movies but not TV shows. We repeatedly watch different filmed versions of Hamlet, even though we already know which characters will die at the end. But Hamlet has never been turned into a teen soap opera on the CW. (Fox actually came close once with a show called Skin, which starred Ron Silver as a porn magnate and a then-unknown Olivia Wilde as his daughter.) It's the same reason why movies, generally speaking, have more repeat watching value than TV shows. You can watch the how any number of times, but the what only needs to be watched once.

But circling back to my original point ... because TV shows are so heavy on plot, they rely heavily on the audio, requiring a lot of expository dialogue. Hearing the dialogue is usually more important to your experience of the program than seeing the expressions on the actors' faces as they speak their lines, or seeing other visual information presented at the same time. That's because there usually isn't any other visual information. In order to keep a viewer interested week after week, TV shows need to get straight into the plot and stay focused on it, at the expense of camera tricks, quick edits, or other aspects of the movies we are so accustomed to.

More than anything this might explain why David Lynch had to make Mulholland Drive into a movie. It was originally envisioned as a TV show, but its abstractions -- I imagine it was far more abstract than Lynch's relatively straightforward Twin Peaks -- required the medium of cinema. Only in film can you toy with the audience and stay unstructured. Only a film can "have no plot" and still be potentially worth watching.

Considering this, it's easy for me to understand why I get agitated when my wife is on her computer while we're watching a movie. Or why I get stressed out when she runs to the bathroom at the theater. It's not simply a matter of catching her up on the plot she may have missed. I have to remember if there was some subtle camera trick that told us something imperceptible about the motivations of a certain character. I have to remember if a date flashed across the screen. I have to remember if there was a quick montage of images that told you something about the character's past. A movie is dense with all this information. A TV show, generally speaking, is not.

So is TV basically like radio?

That could be taking it too far. But I'd be interested to "watch" a procedural cop show while wearing a blindfold, to see if my appreciation of it were significantly impacted. I'm guessing it would not be.

It's funny in this discussion how I'm privileging seeing over hearing. If one medium does one sense better, and the other medium does the other sense better, shouldn't that balance out?

Except not really, because we already privilege the visual by saying you are supposed to "show, don't tell." Could that be because if you asked someone which sense they'd rather lose -- sight or hearing -- almost all people would pick hearing? Sight is more essential to how we get around in the world. Hearing is useful too, but it ain't no sight. (Yeah, tell that to a music lover. I guess that's why I'm a bigger film fan than music fan, though I love both.)

In movies, we want as much information as possible to be communicated visually.

Otherwise, you might as well just be watching TV ... or listening to the radio.

No comments: