Category Archives: Theoretical

Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕

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[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.

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Quote of the week: Williams on “the new social world”

The critical demystification has indeed to continue, but always in association with practice: regular practice, as part of a normal education, in this transforming labour process itself: practice in the production of alternative ‘images’ of the ‘same event’; practice in processes of basic editing and the making of sequences; practice, following this in direct autonomous composition.

We shall already have entered a new social world when we have brought the means and systems of the most direct communication under our own direct and general control. We shall have transformed them from their normal contemporary functions as commodities or as elements of a power structure. We shall have recovered these central elements of our social production from the many kinds of expropriator. But socialism is not only about the theoretical and practical ‘recovery’ of those means of production, including the means of communicative production, which has been expropriated by capitalism. In the case of communications, especially, it is not only, though it may certainly include, the recovery of a ‘primitive’ directness and community. Even in the direct modes, it should be institution much more than recovery, for it will have to include the transforming elements of access and extension over an unprecedentedly wide social and inter-cultural range. — Raymond Williams, from “Means of Communication as Means of Production”

If I were ever to teach a class on film, this would probably be a required text. Williams goes a long way toward clarifying the social importance to every level of society of understanding media. ☕


Whitewatching: up from “underground”

Impish as usual, Armond White’s latest dual review (a common device with him, in which two recent releases are presented as “dueling” for the soul of American pop culture) contrasts Steven Soderbergh’s alleged swan song, Side Effects, with Walter Hill’s latest, Bullet to the Head (which, given Hill’s age and its box office, might turn out to be his big screen swan song as well). What stood out to me in the review was this sentence:

Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike belong to an era of cynical banality while Hill’s sharp, inventive technique seen in The Warriors, Geronimo and Undisputed went unappreciated (and underground in TV projects like Deadwood and Broken Trail).

Most film critics now pay lip service to the notion that television series have progressed to the point of being on par in quality with the average feature film. White is one of the old school holdouts who frequently peppers his reviews with sleights against TV in the form of pejorative references: if he thinks a film looks like crap, he’ll say it uses “TV aesthetics” or something along those lines. Of anybody working in his field, White is unquestionably the most candid about his prejudices. He thinks cinema is where it’s at, television is not, and that’s that. For this (among many, many other things), he takes a lot of flack. Justifiably so.

Yet I think it’s true that, while most folks would readily acknowledge TV’s ascendancy over the course of the last fifteen years or so, its newfound mantle as a viable medium for sophisticated art is not yet cemented. For one thing, there are very few shows that have attained what you might call canonical status. Even “classic” shows are usually framed in the context of their time, both in terms of the storytelling conventions adopted, but also budgets and available technology. The lexicon of cinema is very well documented by superb critics and widely accepted as a form of high art. The lexicon of TV, while almost as well documented, is not accepted as a form of high art, and there are very few critics who have made their names doing TV criticism. In most respects, TV criticism is from a fan perspective, rather than a critical perspective. There are many shows considered to be “favorites,” but very few considered to be “greats.”

This is evident in the non-presence of TV references in most film criticism up to the present. While shows like The Wire and The Sopranos are oft-cited as examples of shows that created benchmarks of quality — and thus are often represented in reviews of crime stories — it is not apparent precisely why those shows are benchmarks. At least, not in the context of the reviews in which they appear. Ben Affleck’s The Town invited comparisons to The Wire when it came out, but few critics teased those out. The Evening Standard and The Guardian were content simply to name-drop the series. The World Socialist Web Site asserted that the film didn’t have the show’s depth. Not that comparisons to films like The Departed or Heat are less relevant, but apart from both being crime genre and both fuzzing the moral/ethical line between cops and criminals, what are the relevant points of comparison between The Town and The Wire? Are there similar characters? Plotlines? Techniques? Even on a thematic level, do The Town and The Wire even overlap in their perspectives on the whole cop/criminal dichotomy?

This is typical of how film critics grapple with the relationship between TV and cinema. It is as if critics are aware that there is such a thing as TV; they are familiar with some several programs that they watch, or about which they’ve heard from friends, colleagues, or the buzz in the critical ether; they’ve noted the uptick in production values and aesthetic rigor in TV programming. Yet they don’t really know precisely how to merge the two worlds. So you often find TV references dangling just above the surface of film criticism, serving the purpose of telegraphing that the critics are pop culture savvy, without bothering to engage in any meaningful way with that hemisphere of the culture that keeps millions glued to their TV screens every night.

If I may inch out a little further on this limb before a chipmunk’s sneeze knocks me off, allow me to suggest that this is evidence of a prejudice that critics still harbor about television. Not just critics: us, too. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of us, if we’re honest, would acknowledge that the standards we have for TV shows are a bit lower than the standards we hold for cinema. And not just because of the vast differences still intrinsic to the two media. It’s because that’s simply how the culture views them. For all our protestations and bluster, it is my distinct impression that TV is regarded as the lesser medium. To be crude: cinema is for art; TV is for entertainment.

We all know that it isn’t that simple, though; we know it isn’t entirely true. Even a staunch TV-phobe like White is occasionally confronted by the limits of his prejudice. His Zero Dark Thirty review compares the film to “the bland procedural manner TV viewers favor,” suggesting that it’s not so much a case that there are bland procedurals on TV, but that it is the people who like to watch TV that favor bland procedurals. In his review of Silver Linings, he says, “TV shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The New Normal turn everyday eccentricity banal.” Skim White’s reviews for yourself. Chances are, every time you find a reference to television, it is in the context of implying its erosion of good taste and standards. Yet when it comes to Walter Hill’s forays into TV Land, all of a sudden TV is “underground.” Banal, bland television gains a potentially subversive edge when the right person uses it. A medium utilized nearly four hours a day by almost all Americans is, by this formulation, veritably avant-garde.

As easy as it is to nitpick the consistency of White’s peccadilloes, in this instance, I think he’s fairly representative of his profession. There are dozens and dozens of TV critics out there who have been doing amazing stuff with their criticism (Alyssa Rosenberg does exceptional TV criticism, for instance), but film still gets the lion’s share of the physical ink, and it still occupies the place of pride in the hierarchy of artistic pop cultural pursuits. Just because this is the way things are does not mean that TV is “underground.” On the contrary. What would be useful, however, would be for film critics to start integrating TV into their discussion a little more proactively. Nobody knows for certain how technology will evolve, but it looks likely that TV and film are going to overlap a lot more in the future, so getting ahead of that curve would be a smart idea for film critics who don’t want to specialize themselves into irrelevance. The first step would be to recognize television’s potential and to start sifting through how much of that potential has been historically realized. Many critics have already begun doing this. I hope White and his kind come in from the cold sooner rather than later. ☕


P. T. Anderson: a narrative of tracking shots

At the BFI’s Sight and Sound, Kevin B. Lee has put together a video essay analyzing five representative tracking shots from Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, explaining how they function as storytelling techniques, and situating them in the context of his development as an auteur. It’s a great video, and I urge you to watch it (and don’t worry — there aren’t any spoilers, if you haven’t seen all the films discussed). One aspect upon which I’d like to comment a bit further is that Lee never uses the word auteur, either in the video or in the accompanying written introduction. Instead, by emphasizing the narrative of Anderson’s development as a filmmaker, he constructs a teleological narrative, one which tells the story of a young, brash, ambitious artist evolving into an older, just as ambitious, but more contemplative and subtle filmmaker. This raises a number of problematic issues which require some elaboration. Continue reading


Neo talks digital cinema

What’s going to happen to all the digital material that we create? How can it be stored? Because that question really hasn’t been answered. We talk about the democratization of film, the fact that these tools are becoming cheaper, faster and lighter. Anyone can do it now. And I think the filmmakers we talk to have mixed feelings about that: Who’s going to be the tastemaker? Does that mean there will be less good and more bad?

But, yeah, to answer your question — I mean, it’s not as groundbreaking as when film went from silents to talkies. Let’s say that. Or from black-and-white to color. This doesn’t have that feeling of sea change to it. But there are many implications that come out of it. Especially in the early days, there was the question of the quality of the product you’re looking at, the quality of the image. For certain artists whose vision is to make the best possible image, they felt digital wasn’t there.

The above quote is from an interview conducted by Andrew O’Hehir with Keanu Reeves, who has produced a new documentary that I’m quite pumped to see, called Side by Side. In it, Reeves chats with filmmakers about the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical considerations involved in the industry-wide transition from film to digital. The interview has only made me more excited to see the film, because rather than pontificate, Reeves poses question after question, even though the film has been finished. To me, that’s one of the strengths of documentary features: real life doesn’t necessarily conform to tidy narratives or clear answers to hypotheticals. It’s the one form of cinema in which you can get away with telling an ambiguous story with an ambiguous viewpoint, and not have the majority of the audience revolt. Even so, Reeves refers to the stories inherent in the films he likes to make, suggesting that if he does perceive a definite arc to this quest, it’s an arc whose trajectory he is still in the process of charting. Continue reading


Nolan apologetics

David Bordwell has mounted a strong defense of Christopher Nolan’s status as a preeminent director against naysayers like Jim Emerson. (Check out the rest of Observation on Film Art’s Nolan entries.) The long and short of it is that, while Nolan might not be particularly daring or sophisticated in his raw technique, he does flex the boundaries of mainstream cinema in order to create enjoyable films that reward critical appreciation.

Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P. G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.

Similarly, Nolan’s work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers’ critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.

Note that Bordwell doesn’t argue that Nolan’s filmmaking is flawless or terribly polished in the way of many of the more critically lauded auteurs. He spends a great deal of time showing that most of Nolan’s technique has deep, conventional roots while ruminating on how well (or poorly) Nolan utilizes these forms. The gist of his argument is that Nolan’s detail work isn’t quite as meticulous or graceful because he is so focused on the big picture — but the big picture is usually captivating and meticulously constructed in its own way. (In my discussion of Emerson’s critique of The Dark Knight’s chase sequence in relation to film editing, I referred to Nolan’s technique as “gestalt,” which isn’t the same thing as Bordwell is arguing, but the intersection between Bordwell’s appreciation of structure and the way Nolan accumulates moments within that structure is worth further investigation.) At the risk of putting words in Bordwell’s digital pen, Nolan may not be one of “the greats,” but his shortcomings are not necessarily fatal flaws. And those shortcomings are compensated for by the ambition of his narratives and the serendipitous places where Nolan’s craftsmanship operates at the level of his vision. Please read the entire article, especially if you’re invested in the critical discussion of mainstream cinema and Nolan’s place within it.☕


Limitless impatience: the Prometheus cut rate

Over at The Review Diary, Satish Naidu opens his critique of Prometheus with a discussion of its editing: specifically, the way that its shot lengths convey a feeling of impatience and aggression.

Here, it is blunt harsh cutting coupled with classical composition, reducing emotion to information, and destroying any hope for cosmic rumination. What the aesthetic rather inspires is the familiarity of the daily grind of life. As in, the industrial-reality/ structural-philosophy of everyday existence as against the mythology of our cosmic significance. […] Consider the opening moments, which do not present a patient temporality of the earth ala 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Darwinian nature, in all its forms, is primarily temporal over and above spatial, and where it waits with limitless patience. As opposed to Mr. Kubrick, whose composition is from the nature’s perspective, Mr. Scott aligns himself with the aggressive instincts of the human, both in their quest for knowledge and survival. He flies over mountains and valleys and rivers, and reaches just-in-time to bear witness to the point in our genesis where a humanoid drinks some black liquid from a vial and disintegrates and falls into river.

This is about the best articulation I’ve yet read of one of the little things that niggled at me during and after the film. I’ve only seen Prometheus once, and I will likely see it a few more times, but it would be very illuminating to compare the shot lengths and editing choices made by Scott in Prometheus against the decisions he made in Alien, and then to further contrast them with 2001. Jim Emerson did an excellent comparative post about these three films, in which he highlighted similarities in production design and composition, and what how those technical choices impact the thematic reception of the films. However, he does not really discuss shot length, which is a shame, given what he says about a single frame from Alien in a follow-up post:

This shot is a beautiful example of the antithesis to what I have labeled “one-thing-at-a-time filmmaking.” The basic composition (roughly symmetrical with an opening in the center) is repeated throughout the movie, as befits a movie about violation, penetration and passages of birth and death. It also gives your eye places to wander, details to soak in. It allows you room to breathe. Throughout, “Alien” gives you ample opportunity to look around and admire the industrial/organic design of the Nostromo, and it entices you to notice nooks and crannies where threats might be lurking.

My question is this: does Scott really give the viewer ample opportunity (in Alien) to look around and admire the design and contemplate the nooks and crannies where threats might be looking? My recollection is that he does, more often than not. But what about Prometheus? Are the shots lengths in that film a bit longer than those of the average summer blockbuster? Probably. But how much time are we actually given? Much of Prometheus felt rushed to me, which seemed at odds with the metaphysically contemplative ideas that were being bounced around. And the way Satish describes the impact makes a lot of sense to me. What is especially surprising is that, based on my potentially inaccurate impressions, the approach Scott takes to many of the scenes in Alien bespeaks more patience than the approach he takes to many of the scenes in Prometheus. The much more lean, nihilistic first film is accorded more awe in its technique than the more expansive, self-consciously spiritual latter film. I wonder if this is a deliberate choice, or if Scott’s impatience to unbind Prometheus after decades of development led him to cut faster and deeper than he should have. For a film about the human exploration of the most profound questions of existence, it seems that Scott doesn’t give his viewers very much time for that exploration.☕


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