Friday, March 14, 2008

If you see only one movie this year...

...then you will probably miss some of the complexities, since watching movies takes practice. You should probably stick with something easy to follow. If you watch a lot of movies, on the other hand, you will probably find it easy to enjoy some movies that others find strange or disturbing.

Note: this is not quite an endorsement of the Everything Bad is Good For You idea. Johnson argues that lots of "trashy" TV shows and video games are good learning tools because their complex narratives make high conceptual demands on their audiences. He has some good things to say about film too, arguing that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is narratively more demanding than the Star Wars trilogy--using the number of characters as a rough measure of narrative complexity. I'll grant him that, as a generalization. But he goes on to say that movies are not quite as good as TV or video games because the shorter time limit for movies limits narrative complexity. Here's where I think he's wrong.

First, complexity of narrative is not the same as amount of narrative. Which is harder to follow: a tightly plotted show like 24 which provides a clear McGuffin and where each character has only one motive at any time, or something like Pulp Fiction where 90% of the talking is entirely irrelevant to the plot but which contains a few narrative ellipses and disorderings? My point is that time constraint has nothing to do with how demanding a narrative is.

The second issue I have with his dismissal of film is that he focuses solely on narrative, explicitly dismissing "quicksilver editing" as something that might challenge an audience. While it's true that faster editing is not necessarily harder to follow--this is the whole point of the term "intensified continuity" as I understand it--it's not true that "narrative" is the only thing spectators must engage with cognitively. Or to be more precise, film narrative is built from things like framing and editing, and spectators have access to the plot only through these cinematic techniques. In movies that differ from usual Hollywood practice, the viewer will be cognitively engaged with "form" as much as or even more than "content." This is why slow movies can be harder to follow than fast movies.

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