Saturday, March 05, 2005

Context. (Meandering.) 

Here's what I like about movies: they're as close to an objective entertainment experience as you're likely to find. When you're locked into the confines of a movie theatre, you're going to see the same 90-120 minute spread that everyone else who paid to see that movie is. I can be confident that the Born into Brothels I'm seeing is the same Born into Brothels that some shmoe is seeing in Newark. The movie, inside its theatre, controls the pace at which you take the story in. It controls what you see and what you don't see, what you hear and what you don't hear, and the screen is so large, the sound so big, that a good movie totally dominates your mind and senses for the duration.

There are mitigating factors, of course: quality of sound, quality of print, quality of fellow movie-goers, quality of personal mood, and so on. I never said the objectivity was perfect, mind, just that it was the best we're likely to see. A book or a comic book may represent only a few steps between author and reader, but the reader's flexibility on intake is much larger: Read it in one sitting, or spaced out over time? In one day or spread out over 6 months? Read it indoors or outdoors? Before you go to bed or in the afternoon? Movies, more than any other form (or perhaps on par with traditional art) define how you will take them in. Cynics take this idea to the extreme and call movies "passive" entertainment, along with its semi-retarded younger sibling television. Methinks they've never seen a really good movie or show.

And, running directly contrary to that belief...

Just recently I read a book called A Year at the Movies by Kevin Murphy. (Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fans will know Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo.) Basic premise: Herr Murphy watches at least one movie every day for one calendar year. He's not just slacking off at the local multiplex, either; we're talking festivals large and small, ranging from generic old multiplexes to exotic locales (including the world's smallest functioning public theatre and a theatre whose seats, screen, walls, floor, and ceiling are made entirely of ice and snow.)

There's a lot of interesting thoughts to pop out of his experience, and this isn't a guy just seeking out the usual lame blockbuster films. Murphy's knowledge of film, film history, and even film technology is complete. He makes a pretty compelling case for Quentin Tarantino being a fabulous technical director with no artistic soul. He laments the beauty of IMAX technology used primarily to show us dolphins fucking on Mount Everest. Some of the conclusions drawn are pretty mundane: What, Murph, you mean to tell me 24-screen googolplexes are uninteresting and soulless? Halt the fucking presses, man.

But, ultimately, the book's major argument is that the context in which one views a movie is as important as the movie itself. Watching Charlie Chaplin films accompanied by an organist who played for those movies during their original release is miles away from viewing the same films in your living room with the phone ringing intermittently. I can buy that.

But there'll always be a screen and sound. No matter which side of the debate you take, it always comes back to the screen and the sound: two constants to the movie-going experience.

Brings me back to comics, oddly enough. (Not because I'm one of those annoying bastards who can't stop comparing the two artforms, but because they're the two artforms I get into the most.) When I'd started Murphy's book I'd just got done with (not finished, but got done with) Scott McCloud's earnest but misguided Reinventing Comics. I like McCloud. I agree that Understanding Comics fixated quite a bit on the technical side of things while not paying nearly as much attention to the artistic side... and I also understand that was the point of the book. Motherfucker was off his gourd on this one, though. I can never and will never buy the concept that digital is the One True Way of the future.

Comics need to be comics. There needs to be paper. There needs to be that particular fade on coloring that can only come from paper exposed to light. There needs to be something you hold in your hands. Why have DVDs absolutely exploded in the market since their introduction? Because people like to hold, to quantify, what they love.

This isn't nostalgia talking, either. Comics will continue much as they have now into success or doom, and nothing the "print is dead" or "floppies will be our doom" people say or do will change that fact.

Here's what's wrong with the "print is dead" argument: McCloud, like many others, chooses to view the artform as a consumer product, right alongside cars and microwaves and other non-artistic flotsam that clutters up our lives. You'd obviously want a modern car over one 30 years old for amenities and safety, because in many quantifiable ways it's a better/safer/more efficient product.

Artforms don't work in "better" or "more efficient," though. Digital is not "better" than print, television is not "superior" to the stage, comic books are not "more efficient" than novels. Aesthetically, these terms are meaningless. No one gives a shit about the state of the art except the technophiles. If books sell and continue to sell, there will always be books. If there is a demand, there will be a supply. Books will not be "phased out" because they're not fucking vacuum cleaners. They're an entertainment delivery medium that people love.

Same with floppies.

Me, I like TPBs and OGNs. If I can get a story in one TPB, or spread it out over 6 months in 6 issues, I'm going to take the TPB every time... though I suspect that has less to do with wanting a "complete" story in one sitting and more with "writers right now have no fucking idea how to satisfy audiences issue by issue." Don't tell me floppies are dead. They're not. Most writers just don't know how to use them anymore.

Serialized storytelling is not an "inferior" way to tell a story. It is not dead, nor is it dying. (Feel free to ask any TV producer in the world for verification of this.) Serialized storytelling is as valid now as it was 50 years ago, because it is not, repeat with me.. a fucking vacuum cleaner. It's a method of artistic expression. And there will always be a demand.

Not that the system couldn't use improvement. Once a month? Are you shitting me? The comics businesses expect the non-initiated to be satisfied with a story that can be read in an hour spread out over SIX FUCKING MONTHS? I can barely remember what times my handful of TV shows come on, and they're on every goddamn week.

Here's an idea. Is there any reason in the world all the monthly Batman titles can't be combined into one big TPB that goes for $20? $25? And just sell that once a month? Think of all the new talent you could expose. There's gotta be a dozen quality writers who want to do a Batman story. The audience doesn't get a complete story in one sitting, but they get a fuckload of story segments in one go. Think of it like a night of themed television.

Or... how about getting entire story arcs in the can before you release? So if you have some six-part Loeb/Sale Batman opus, it can come out over the span of six weeks. Get it the fuck OUT THERE. I understand there's retailer concerns involved, but fucking Batman? That shit'll always sell.

Just some thoughts. Persons attempting to find a point will be shot, yadda yadda.

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