Archive for October, 2013

Inside Prime Time

October 28, 2013

Todd Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time (1982) closely examines the culture industry’s often-sticky relationship between the production, business, and management triad of network television. Gitlin’s text attempts to answer – or at least adds clarity – to one of our course’s main discussion points: how does the bottom line affect aesthetics, in this case, of television production.

The first unit, “Nothing Succeeds Like Success”, details how programmers fill in their prime-time grids. Through his numerous interviews with industry professionals, Gitlin discovers how taking a creative risk means taking an economic risk. Networks rely on past formulas to develop seemingly-new premises because they’re safe. One notable observation is how inductive reasoning was often favored over research and audience studies. These gut instincts ultimately limited the scope of new ideas brought to the silver screen.

The struggle between a program’s content and marketability emerged as one of the central themes of the second unit, “The Television-Industrial Complex”. In a medium where the audience is the commodity and reaching its targeted demo group is the goal, advertising appeal is vital. In chapter nine, ‘Movies of the Week’, Gitlin digs into the questions and issues behind commercial appeal. Why do some social issues translate to television gold, while others don’t? Why are shows featuring ethnic characters never a sure sell? When advertisers are spooked by a controversial actor or topic, how does a network respond? This brief education of television as a “living-room advertising medium” (pg. 192) leaves no doubt where programs and commercials rank in the hierarchy.

The case study of Hill Street Blues offers a thorough account of the typical push-pull, pick-it-apart tussle between production and management. According to Gitlin, creators Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll had  developed a show which broke the mold by employing never-before-seen production techniques and complex storylines. At first, the team was promised artistic freedom and the show flourished. Then, despite its critical acclaim and growing ratings, the show’s groundbreaking ways soon reverted back to the same predictable formulas, due in part to network pressures. Viewers have certain expectations, network executives argued, so why mess with a good thing? The text speaks to anyone who has suffered from the obstacles of stifled creativity in a very relatable way. In the fight between capitalism and creativity, money usually wins.

The viewer experience has evolved greatly over the past thirty years. Cable television and subscription services (Netflix) have given us more options, while high-definition television has offered us a whole new look. How have these changes impacted program content? Recycled programs like Hawaii Five-O, and a bundle of American Idol rip-offs make one point clear: the more things change, the more they (very predictably) stay the same.

Bordwell and Neoformalism

October 16, 2013

Neoformalism:  a method of film criticism that moves away from the interpretive theory and towards a more empirical analysis of film.  

Bordwell Notes the genesis of the interpretive school which was borne of literary studies.  Marxist, psychoanalytic, reader response, structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism are all types of the “method” Bordwell notes; the aim of which is to bring to light explicit and implicit meanings in literature and film. Conversely, Bordwell argues that cinema has not gone through the rigorous semantic structures that literature has.  Instead, Bordwell asserts that Aristotle’s poetics provide a useful interrogative with which to derive answers of production, the effects of film’s principles (it’s underlying concepts and the conditions that govern the use of material in film).  Next Bordwell outlines the the shift from a formal/theoretical examination of film (e.g. a humanist approach to interpretation) by noting that the heuristic of Aristotle’s poetics allows for the possibility of an empirical approach to film study.

In order for Bordwell to transition from an interpretive school of film criticism he cites Andre Bazin’s, “Evolution of the Language of the Cinema” which focuses on the “options” a director has. Bordwell notes that Bazin’s work on film allows he and Kristen Thompson to craft the concept of Neoformalism.  Specifically, Bazin’s work, which concentrates on the material uses that the director has at his/her disposal, provide a platform for Bordwell and Thompson to examine film using a set of assumptions about the material conditions that exist when a film is in production.

Neoformalism–Bordwell notes that he and Thompson have been processing the concept of Neoformalism.  In contrast to specific types of humanistic Grand Theory interpretive approaches within the humanities, Neoformalism operates as an empirical approach to examining film and seeks wholly to identify “facts” about the film.

Bordwell takes pains to note that Neoformalism is an attempt to move away from the concept of a “fixed point” which is present in traditional theoretical methodologies.  As such, the positivist approach of “disproving” a supposition according to the data set is no longer a function of the empirical approach.  Instead, Bordwell offers the concept that Neoformalism’s dialectic provides an “active” heuristic as its theoretical foundation.  This is likely because the nature of the object of study is one which is in constant “motion.”  The production of the film is one which constantly moves from pre-production, production, and then to post-production.  It’s phenomenological experience is one which is constantly in motion, or at least, appears constantly in motion (i.e. persistence of motion).

Among the problems that arise with an active heuristic with no fixed theoretical points is the problem of continually shifting objects of analysis.  Bordwell and Thompson say that they provide “stylistic/narrative devices” and “systems” which help the analyst identify conditions of production.  These categories provide teleological normative functions that poetic Neoformalism positions its object against.  In short, a film must be scrutinized both as a subject and within the range of genre it is positioned against.  This antagonism allows the analyst to provide indices of variance among the film in question as it is positioned against its normative counterparts.

Bordwell and Thompson have constructed three expository models for the Neoformalist heuristic.  These include:

1.  Rational-Agent Model–The purpose of which is to reconstruct the historical conditions present at the time of the filmmakers employment of his/her agency.

2.  Institutional Model–the social and economic system of filmmaking examines the filmmaker’s “constraints” in filmmaking.  These would include, labor, economics, and technology available to the filmmaker.

3.  Perceptual-Cognitive Model–This model attempts to explain the effects of film as it is constructed and against the inferences of the viewer.  These include elements of style, narrative norms and technique, as well as continuity editing.

These models allow Neoformalist poetics to move away from thematic interpretation and toward dynamic systemic constructional effects of film criticism.

Understanding Media: Understanding McLuhan

October 8, 2013

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media is a study in media effects and their implications for communication scholars. This particular reading opens us up to some of the most elementary elements of media ecology theory including, but not limited to, medium as message, hot and cold media, media as extensions of humans, and aesthetics of media. McLuhan’s main argument is that media are extensions of the human senses/functions and that each new introduction has a particular effect on the human experience and on the media that preceded it. For instance, McLuhan details the way that the Gutenberg press changed the way we consumed information and with the introduction of the typewriter, people were once again changed because of an ability to not only consume but also produce.
Of particular interests ought to be McLuhan’s discussion of media numbness and its impact on our discussion of aesthetics. McLuhan’s claim that hot media, those that intensely extend one sense, and cold media, those that require more involvement on the part of the subject, have different effects on our ability to engage certain media has a dramatic impact on his argument of numbness. Are those media deemed cold really providing a sense of numbness? McLuhan’s numbness suggests that we tend to ignore the implication of media, read light bulb, in favor of incorporating the media as an extension of our senses, something that is natural.
Furthermore, McLuhan’s examples in the remaining chapters provide us a way for thinking about how we might apply his Media Ecology theory. Providing a plethora of examples, it should be evident that humans live in an environment that is somewhat dictated by technology/our extensions. One should be able to think about McLuhan’s claims of hybrid energy to see how things like the internet and the smart phone continue to be extensions of technologies past and how they may have heated up or cooled down the media from which they claim their hybridity.

Radio: An Art of Sound & Arnheim on Film and Media Studies

October 2, 2013

Radio: An Art of Sound by R. Arnheim

Arnheim’s (1936) Radio: An Art of Sound discusses radio as a new form of media. In Ch. 2 “The World of Sound”, the author looks at the properties and meaning of sound.  By the very nature of radio it is only aural, unlike film that is also visual, therefore more hurdles must be overcome. Arnheim uses the example of ‘radio drama’ and music that is broadcasted to work through sound as an important part of our overall senses. How media shapes out experience of the world is a central idea found in Arnheim’s work.

The media, in this case radio, is seen as an artistic expression, which is part of the concept of medium-specificity that is seen throughout the readings. Radio’s defining “virtue and source of expressive potential” come from being an aural medium and is the main theme of Ch. 7 “In Praise of Blindness” (Vancour, 2010, p. 181).

Arnheim on Film and Media Studies by S. Vancour

Vancour starts with a summary of Arnheim’s past works, but with a concentration on the book Radio.  The main purpose of the essay is to shed light onto the lesser-known work Radio. The aesthetics of sound are again discussed. There is a discussion of how Arnheim thought that recorded radio (i.e. ‘radio dramas’ and pre-recorded music) is better than live radio (i.e. live music) because of its ability to be manipulated or edited.  Vancour (2010) points out “Radio raised critical questions concerning the role of external determinants in enabling or limiting particular forms of aesthetic expression” (p. 182).

Radio took programs (i.e. music, plays, etc.) from being a public way to enjoy entertainment and made it possible for it be private. When used properly, radio can be a tool for community building. “Aesthetic form…arose at the dynamic intersection of medium, artist, and social context, as a ‘gestalt’ formed in and through their interaction that was irreducible to any one part” (Vancour, 2010, p. 189).