In Defense of Intentional Media: Film as Food

Part two of a three part essay entitled In Defense of Intentional Media: On Consciousness, Entertainment, and the Detriments of Streaming, “Film as Food” shifts the discussion from McLuhan to McDonald’s, constructing an extended metaphor for unhealthy media habits from the increasingly-prevalent fast food model. Part one of the essay can be accessed here.

Last month on Intentional Media:

Much like the term “background music,” which has inexplicably slipped into our lexicon, referring to an artist’s work as a “background film” experienced in the periphery of performing daily chores would be more insulting than any scathing review or full-theater walkout. But as offering our full attention to the moving image for a mere ninety minutes becomes harder to do, the more likely we are to view the “hot” medium of film as also being predominantly “unintentional.”

This is likely a result of the “fast food culture” we live in, based on easy and instant gratification, which is quickly spilling over into the industry of entertainment media. As an unavoidable side-effect of our rapidly shifting culture which values deliberate ease over offsetting diabetes, it’s become custom to put little thought into decision making so long as the end result abates hunger. Similarly, our means of consuming media have welcomed easier satiation through instant streaming services for movies, television, and music which provide a seemingly unlimited database of options easily accessible at the click of a button.

It’s hard to believe that McLuhan’s century was the same one that billeted Edison’s quip about opportunities missed due to a guise of overalls and Yeats’ claim that “to articulate sweet sounds together” is to work harder than white- or blue-collar workers, who demeaned poets as “idlers.” But in this century, what’s the point of working hard to articulate any sounds together when everyone’s mind-watchdog is too preoccupied with celebrity culture and drive-thru menus to enjoy a nice steak dinner?

The simple answer to this question is that media – literature, music, and most recently film and television – have slowly wedged themselves so deeply into our daily routines that having them removed would leave a gaping void. It seems a critical component of human evolution has been an increase in dependency on handed-down stories – not so much how often we absorb them, but how many different ways we do so on a regular basis. As some mediums have been significantly eclipsed by others, media generally inspires a sort of collaboration – reading Vítězslav Nezval’s surrealist novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders may encourage the reader to watch the film adaptation, in turn cultivating an interest in the recent psych-folk soundtrack based on the film. Each medium of storytelling provides a different language for conveying the same ideas, so the more outdated mediums never become completely obsolete.

Fortunately for us, the same gaping void plagues the artists who keep their audiences’ voids sated. The number of artists who limit their output to a single work is minimal, as finding the ideal means of self-expression often proves cathartic for those suffering from bottled-up creativity. Upon being temporarily banned from filmmaking in the 1970s, Jan Švankmajer, Czech surrealist and inheritor of Nezval’s controversial torch, opted to take up alternative modes of self-expression rather than suffer a creative death. One can only assume his concerns lay in the relief of backed-up nightmarish imagery, which he was able to channel through various forms of visual and tactile art, rather than a need to appease an eager audience.

But the gaping void we consumers of screen media consistently strive to fill has become increasingly complex over the years. As the number of physical mediums for consumption have grown, and the line between categorical mediums has blurred, the urge to watch something on a screen has become a multi-step investigation of preference recalling the conclusion to a game of Clue (e.g. Breaking Bad, streaming through Netflix, on the laptop). As is often the end result in the equally complex decision making process of deciding where to go for dinner, proximity often outweighs preference in search of sustenance.

In fact there are many similarities in the ways we answer the questions “what to eat?” and “what to watch?” For example, a trip to the theater (or rental store, if you’re able to locate one) is a lot like the experience of a sit-down restaurant: you’re given a menu of titles – some you’re familiar with, others terrify and disgust you – from which you may choose. What makes the decision difficult is that this is your meal for the night, and once you’ve ordered, you’re committed to finish it whether you like it or not, or you’ll go home hungry. Before you eat you’re given ample time to reflect on your decision and anticipate, even salivate, as the moment draws near for the waiter to enter the room and deem your table most worthy of their edible endowment. Afterwards, you digest the meal comfortably over the course of the night, perhaps contemplating the other enticing options for future visits.

Enter fast food and its filmic equivalent: streaming video. Whether you choose from the limited menus of more refined chains (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video) or the all-night diner with a disturbing range of cheap plates from all over the world (illegal streaming), your ability to make decisions is undoubtedly altered by the fact that you’re thrust into a situation where your choice will have immediate consequences, often opting for the item made most appealing by its accompanying image which, in reality, bears little resemblance to the product you’re served. Moreover, the minimal financial commitment involved gives you the freedom to dispose of your meal if it doesn’t immediately satisfy and go back for option number two – or overindulge on snack-sized television programs until you feel nauseous.

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Exhibit A: Netflix’s promotion of Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge (left), an appropriate summary of the film’s content in a single screenshot (right)

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Exhibit B: Photoshop artist’s promotion of McDonald’s Big Mac (left), an appropriate summary of the burger’s content in a single screenshot (right)

Much like how fast food restaurants provide content separated from their source by vast distances, the middle management of streaming platforms further separates its viewers from the pure, fresh content it displays. It’s as if they’ve hired an extra employee to stand between chef and table – a second waiter who intercepts the meal from the first waiter, delivers it to the customer, and picks up the tip. Unlike the relatively farm-to-table meals of theaters and most distributors of contemporary films on DVD and Blu-Ray, Netflix dilutes or omits its content’s information making it more harmful than helpful in pitching the artists’ vision. Not only are the menu’s handful of art house, foreign, and experimental films bogged down by a cover image that makes them seem inaccurately conventional, but the minimal, vague descriptions do little to invite uninformed viewers of their actual content. It’s no wonder why such critically well-received films as Blue Velvet and Goodbye to Language (well, there could be other factors at play there) have such low ratings.

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Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, as summarized by someone who probably hasn’t seen Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (and as rated by a cruelly misled viewing population)

Though Netflix doesn’t deserve all the blame for misrepresenting films like Lovers on the Bridge when such incomprehensibly inaccurate marketing material exists prior to its streaming career (in this case, Netflix’s image for Carax’s film is taken from its least-appealing U.S. DVD cover), the platform does little to specify any alterations to the film. When viewing films that have seen an overwhelming number of incarnations (Blade RunnerDawn of the Dead) the DVD viewer has control over whether they want to see the version where blood spurts out of Dr. Tyrell’s eyes or the tamer director’s cut, while Netflix only appears to note a difference if they offer multiple versions. In many cases, they’ll also upload unspecified censored versions of the material to their site, which range from a momentary obscured penis in Holy Motors (Netflix’s need to stifle Carax’s artistic freedom is truly insatiable) to the removal of important plot points in streaming alum Suspiria, the chosen version being devoid of all stomach-churning gore. In both cases, conversations between Netflix streamers and DVD viewers will likely end with the former’s incredulous “how did I miss that?”

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One of many compelling testaments in the successful campaign to make Denis Lavant’s weiner available for the Ntflix’s instant streamers

In considering the film-as-fast-food metaphor, it would make sense to view these misrepresented films as the increasingly-prevalent “healthy choices” on the Netflix streaming menu (at the time of writing, The Master, Taxi Driver, and, depending on its director’s Dutch origins, Total Recall are all heavily promoted, philosophically stimulating films). Such easy access to these titles will likely reach audiences who may not otherwise be subjected to such films, especially when Netflix’s inconceivably complex genre classification system recommends a heavily existentialist character study based on your apparent interest in “Gritty Crime Dramas Set in New York City From The Mid-70s Featuring a Cameo by the Director,” or when you stumble upon Švankmajer’s unsettling Alice among the light-hearted comedies and macho action flicks of the infinitely broad “80s Movies” category.

Ideally this will promote healthy viewing choices, but what appears on the menu – regardless of how much art cred your Recently Viewed list boasts – is just the tip of the iceberg. In the infinite scroll of Netflix’s web layout, most accounts won’t feature the Carax canon or even the surprising collection of immensely influential movies that are required viewing for anyone interested in film (at the time of writing, Battleship Potemkin, The General, Man With a Movie Camera, and Birth of a Nation are all on tap). Since ordering off the menu (using the search bar) is such a shot in the dark, these titles can otherwise only be found buried in their respective genres under the “Browse” feature. Yet no matter how many classics you watch, exclusive Netflix television programs like Bloodline will forever be recommended for your next meal.

Even when you’re surprised with an oddly spot-on recommendation (my personal favorite: Louie, based on my previous interests in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Andrei Tarkovsky), it’s important to remember how incredibly limiting it is to restrict oneself to the Netflix diet. It seems as if Netflix is becoming its own medium as an appendage of film – often times personal film and television recommendations are only taken into consideration when there’s an “it’s on Netflix” tacked on at the end of the pitch, as if it’s otherwise unobtainable. Further, “watching a movie” and “watching Netflix” have seemingly become two separate activities, the latter commonly suggesting a more drive-thru-succumbing occasion as the under-eager teenager’s speaker-distorted voice asks us if we’d like to try their new fourth season of Louie with that. Well sure, but when we finish, where will we find more “Comedy Based On A Uniquely Poetic View Of Humanity’s Collective Shortcomings?” After all, Roy Andersson’s films aren’t a part of their limited streaming arsenal.

The major difference in the environment of Netflix, as opposed to a more art-friendly streaming service like Fandor, very closely resembles the difference in fast food and sit-down restaurants, proving that streaming doesn’t need to be this careless. Each title on Fandor has been carefully promoted with much more than just an ambiguous sentence and a tacky cover recalling a fast food employee slapping an inexplicably moist bun on yet another Big Mac with everything on it, despite the consumer’s request for no pickles or mustard. It appears to be a movie website created by actual humans who are actually interested in movies, advising you to watch “Dogtooth, the Greek Black Comedy by Yorgos Lanthimos” rather than “I dunno, some movie called Dogtooth I guess (because of that one time you watched a movie from any other country that isn’t the U.S.).” Where Netflix recommends Louie based on your interest in Tarkovsky, Fandor would be more apt to recommend Tarkovsky based on your interest in Louie, encouraging the viewer to explore outside of their comfort zone rather than promoting the already-popular options.

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Compare with the Netflix mission of selling the most burgers to the most gluttonous customers

Perhaps the greatest danger of Netflix and other popular streaming services is their contribution to the steady convergence of film and television as a single medium – while music and literature are steadily becoming more like television, television is quickly becoming more like film. Along with the recent success of episodic, film-like hybrids which bridge the gap between serial cliffhanger and Hollywood-scale budget, (specifically the director-christened “eight-hour film broken into chapters” True Detective) the presence of full television series (like the ninety-hour film broken into chapters Mad Men) on popular streaming sites intermingled with films has encouraged the idea that the two are one in the same.

In his 2013 MacTaggart lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television festival, Kevin Spacey called for the unification of all media, imploring us to remove the implicit boundaries separating TV from film and other visual mediums and focus solely on the storytelling. But as mentioned earlier, each storytelling medium conveys their ideas through a different language. The television adaptation of the movie Fargo sets itself apart from its source material in its ability to unfold episodically, prolonging the film’s quickly-escalating suspense per the tradition of television’s unique tongue. While both mediums rely heavily on their peculiar characters and dark humor, they require dissimilar forms (or varying degrees, per pun-loving McLuhan’s “hot” and “cold” theory) of engagement from their audiences.

In recent years this idea of unification is catching on with a side-effect that shouldn’t be ignored: the hybrid media promotes a certain “what’s going to happen next?” mentality which interferes with the primitive cinematic necessity of a sense of wonder as opposed to wondering. Rather than encouraging an introspective dialogue between audience and media it promotes the kind of shallow speculations for upcoming installments often exchanged around the now-proverbial water cooler more closely resembling a discussion of last night’s game than anything else. As pop culture continues to develop its own unique language, popular television programs have become specific dialects comprehensible only to those who dedicate the required ninety hours to them.

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“The device and length are irrelevant. It’s all content. It’s all story.” – this man

Rather than merely viewing the filmification of television as a positive step in the trajectory of the decreasingly-mindless medium, we need to consider the loss of certain vital characteristics of cinema that are waning with the prevalence of the episodic format. Because television is now seemingly capable of filling both TV- and film-inflicted voids, film is beginning to receive the neglect previously exclusive to the archaic novel, further repressing a distinctive voice that can’t – or won’t – be translated to television.

Of all the literary ideas carried over to the moving image, Hemingway’s theory of omission – the idea that the importance lies in what isn’t told rather than what is – has yielded some of the most fascinating cinematic results. The consequent cinema of nada has taken many forms – from the mainstream exposure of anticlimax in New Hollywood and its foreign New Wave cousins to the overwhelming nothingness of No Wave and slow cinema, there are countless filmmakers who insist that their audience meet the film more than halfway. Contemporary directors like Jim Jarmusch take conventional genres such as westerns, prison films, and vampire movies and gives the viewer everything except for what they came for – macho gunslinging heroes, ingenious escape schemes, and sappy romance/supernatural horror – while directors like Chantal Akerman expect even more from their viewers, offering audiences two hours of un-narrated footage of inert Easterners.

Yet contrary to this literary and cinematic nothingness lies television’s hopeless dependence on an unabashed somethingness – consisting of development, linearity, and, most importantly, closure – a device obviously employed in all storytelling media but necessitated as a crutch in television’s serial programming. It makes sense for directors like Steven Soderbergh (the man behind episodes 11, 12, and 13 of the Ocean’s franchise) and David Fincher (the man who refuses to limit his stories to two hours) to venture into television, but directors influenced by the setting-as-dialogue of Akerman and the unfulfilled expectations of New Hollywood certainly have no future in the industry.

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Climax of Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, debatably

The approval of binge-watching, the “McGangbang” of the streaming platform’s not-so-secret menu, is also covered in Spacey’s speech, as he correlates the activity with the concern of our dwindling attention spans: “But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span?” (which loosely translates to “if someone can eat an entire super-sized value meal in one sitting, doesn’t that show an incredible appreciation for food?”) The answer being no, it mostly just shows a lack of self-control. While Spacey’s comments were made in favor of giving in to consumer demands rather than promoting unhealthy habits, the debate more closely resembles that of another epidemic afflicting American youths, the presence of junk food in high school cafeterias. Sure it’s what the consumer wants, but are they fully aware of what they’re doing?

If Spacey’s assertion that binge-watching is evidence of a heightened attention span, that would imply that we could just as easily sit through all seven-and-a-half gruelling hours of Béla Tarr’s extensive nothingness he calls Sátántangó as we could the Netflix-exclusive first season of Bloodline. Both are similar in length, divided into multiple chapters, and engage the audience with multiple story lines, but only one will draw the attention of the Spacey-dubbed “no spoilers generation” due to the dependence on future “somethings” alluded to in subsequent episodes (David Mamet more intelligibly refers to television’s hollow flourishes as a “celebration of nothing to say”). Even in a series as Hemingway-approved in its implicit content as True Detective, each episode must end with some sort of cliffhanger to assure the audience’s continued interest.

Carl Theodor Dreyer once used the metaphor of a room stripped of its ornamental objects to describe minimalist filmmaking, as it leaves nothing for a character’s personality to hide behind. There’s a certain nakedness felt by a character in this situation which only certain filmmakers feel no shame in exposing. With an intimate film like The Passion of Joan of Arc we witness two hours of raw emotion – Dreyer essentially tells Joan’s whole story through his actress’s facial expressions rather than elaborate sets, carefully constructed scripts, and convincing special effects. In other words it’s, abhorantly improper material for a televised adaptation.

Regardless of whether or not the content is all the same, television, like Netflix, inflicts a certain mindset upon the viewer which is often at odds with the sense of wonder thematic to film’s relatively extensive history. At its core, binge-watching is the ultimate obverse of wonder – it’s demanding an answer before we’ve taken time to consider the question, or opening a door to Dreyer’s sparsely decorated room, peeking in, slamming the door, and moving on to the next room. Even in mainstream cinema, franchises like Marvel depend on sequels, spin-offs, and completely unrelated stories existing in the same universe to expand their single room to combat the monotony supposedly apparent in enjoying a standalone film. Perhaps this decade’s ultimate Jarmusch-esque tease, the riotous audience reaction I experienced after the final shot in Inception speaks volumes to how the television mindset reacts to there being no further doors to peek into.

As the Bang Bang approach to media, bingeing offers the senses no time to realize how much they’ve taken in, much as the body doesn’t recognize that it’s full until forty minutes after you eat. More importantly, the television-inflicted sixth sense blocks out all others, as sight and sound take the back seat to ESP (that is, End-of-Season Perception). The common misconception is that since television and film are visual mediums there are fewer blanks to fill in than in literature, but an understanding of visual literacy opens just as many doors as literary comprehension, since the subtle language of the camera heightens senses (sometimes beyond sight and sound) without offering up easy answers. In this way, marathon film screenings like Sátántangó remarkably leave their audiences hungrier than when they came.

While television has always existed as a plot-driven, dialogue-heavy medium, film has traditionally been more subtle and self-aware as a storytelling medium. Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive use of symmetry, Wes Anderson’s polarizing infatuation with dolls, and the timeless debate over who owns the longshot are perfect examples of celebrated filmmakers making the best of their craft. As a visual communicative art comparable to television, film is consistently more stylistically complex, encouraging viewers to acknowledge these details as ideas exclusively related through screen media.

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Heaven’s Gate, Turin Horse” “Shoah, Godfather

Though the recent popularity of streaming services and made-for-cinema TV shows have certainly brought with them a shift in our relationship with film, it’s important to remember that these are merely the next steps in bringing the glossy menu image of the impossibly appetizing Big Mac and volcanically fizzy Coke into reality. As the quality of home viewing mediums has steadily improved since the advent of the VHS tape, the clarity and ease of the viewing experience has consistently remained a priority to its audience who, as it turns out, prefers sliders to a Royale With Cheese.

The inherent truth in the history of advancement in cinematic distribution is that we’re getting further from the content of film with every improvement. I can imagine it would be difficult to focus on a movie like Raging Bull when watched on Blu-Ray, as it was released decades before the idealized burger could be manipulated into reality, and was consciously filmed in black-and-white (remember this was the 1980s: the decade of neons) for the sake of anachronism. Yet our insistence on what we’re watching being as visually lifelike as possible stands in the way of understanding the film at its deepest level and, paradoxically in the case of Raging Bull, conforms it to the other films of its time.

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Visual-literary genius and perpetual anachronism Martin Scorsese

Whether it’s the clarity of Blu-Ray or the convenience of Netflix, it’s the interference of the interface that prohibits the intimacy required to fully connect with a film, as each medium is attached to a certain ethos which, perpetuated by its marketing efforts, distorts the viewing experience. With the novelty of a relatively new medium comes the inevitable distraction of its performance in relation to what we’re used to, and though it may be beneficial to watch films released during the age of 4,000 pixels on the clearest format available (and films that are in any way unappetizing on a platform that allows free exchanges) it’s easy to forget why we’re watching these films in the first place.


 

Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant at Facets.

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