Thursday, May 01, 2014

Video Entertainment - Pure Diversion Or For Our Edification

During one summer in the late 1980s I spent a month as a visiting scholar at the Nova University in Lisbon.  My hosts were very gracious but one weekend I was left on my own and the weather was not conducive to tourist activities.  I had previously found a bookstore that sold paperbacks in English and that weekend devoured Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.  It is the last I can recall of me reading science fiction, until I read Farenheit 451 not too long ago.  I'd like to point out that Bradbury's dystopian vision surely is intended as social commentary on the society in which he lived.  (The original copyright of the novel is 1951 and Bradury was living in Los Angeles at the time.)  My recollection of Asimov's work, in contrast, is that it was pure fantasy.  This contrast is what I'd like to get at here, both my own preferences as indicated by recent viewing, and some commentary on what seems to engage others I know. 

(My immediate memory is too selective.  I set the above paragraph aside to think about what I would say next.  While I was doing that it occurred to me that I had read Carl Sagan's Contact after having seen the movie.  I would characterize that as something of a 'tweener.  The science in it is correct and the book is partly to make plausible space travel to far away star systems.  But it is also about the impurity in the schism between those scientists who are atheists and others who believe in God.  This example notwithstanding, I think it safe to say I don't read much science fiction as an adult.)

As a kid I associated the genre with two names - Jules Verne and H.G. Wells - and I read multiple books by both authors and saw some of the movies too.  Titles include Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the Word in 80 Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds.  Surely there were other science fiction titles that I read and/or saw in the movies.

But I read a lot as a kid and science fiction was only a sliver of that.  Much of the rest was biography of famous Americans, particularly by Clara Ingram Judson, and also quite a bit of related history.  There were other genres too.  The first adventure stories I remember were the books by Walter Farley.  Somebody had given me the Black Stallion's Sulky Colt as a gift.  I read it, liked it, and went on from there.  That was my pattern.  I did something similar with The Hardy Boys, though I believe the first one of those I read I did so because I was stuck in the Infirmary at Camp Oxford, and that's what they had in their collection. For a while I got on a jag about Norse Mythology.  Later I read a bunch of baseball fiction by Duane Decker

In the NY Times Series, Writers on Writing, E.L. Doctorow has a very interesting essay where he argues that the movies have overtaken the written novel as the dominant form, where now fiction is written in the style of a movie, and possibly with the anticipation of the remake into film form.  Of course there is the flip side of Doctorow's argument.  Most of us get our recreation from movies or TV most of the time.  Reading fiction for entertainment happens, but far less frequently.

This was true for me as a kid with spy stories, in particular.  For kids my age there was was one movie that got us hooked, Goldfinger.  Oddjob's hat and the ejector seat in James Bond's Aston Martin were among the more memorable of the many things in the movie that would titillate the mind of a 9-year old boy.  This was the first case I recall where I read some of Ian Fleming's books after seeing the James Bond movies.  Something similar happened with the TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Following that, there began a journey into the genre that was TV only - Get Smart, The Avengers, and Mission Impossible.  The latter two of these began conveying the sense that covert action required intelligence - not secret information as the word is normally used in this context, but high skill and insight on how to pull it off.  That part was at least as compelling to view as the undercover work itself.

At the same time there was science fiction that emanated from the TV.  We watched some old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers that may have been showing on WOR, a local TV station in New York City.  Then, of course, there was Star Trek, which was on network TV.  My sense of these is that they were not so different from Westerns, meaning they were adventure stories, though obviously with a different setting. 

I'm not sure how to classify the TV show Superman, which was based on the DC Comics, though I believe with original story lines.  Is it science fiction?  Fantasy fiction?  Neither but rather a still separate category - comic book fiction?  I don't know.  If comic books don't count as fantasy fiction then I didn't read any fantasy fiction as a kid.  I never read Tolkein nor C.S. Lewis.  I did read comic books quite a lot, mainly at summer camp.  I don't want to minimize that.  But I definitely associate it with time when we're not at school.  The Superman TV show, of course, was a different matter.

* * * * *

I want to do a quick segue to when my kids were young.  Then I'll discuss my adult viewing in the next section.

The comics-ification of the movies began with Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope and Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Fifteen years later my kids first went through an animated film viewing stage - Mulan, The Lion King, etc.  When they were ready to leave that for movies that had people in them, science fiction in comic book form was one of the acceptable genres.  The other was fantasy fiction, notably Harry Potter.

Before getting to why, let me say at the outset that adventures stories had a fighting chance to be an acceptable genre as well.  The boys and I watched the made for TV version of Kidnapped multiple times and likewise for The Last of the Mohicans.  And I believe I read aloud to them a condensed version of Treasure Island.  But my wife wasn't so into this sort of fiction and she couldn't sit through these movies.  Parallel to this were two work related issues.  When my younger son was about to start first grade, my wife decided she wanted to spend more time with the kids and took a hiatus from her job to become a stay at home mom.  Then, too, my career in learning technology was heating up and I was putting in yeoman's hours at the office as well as not infrequently going on the road.  Since the kids reading and viewing was still substantially parent mediated at the time, this put the kibosh on the adventure stories as an acceptable form for the kids.

While that particular explanation is idiosyncratic to my family, the Harry Potter craze was not.  It "solved" the problem of getting kids interested in reading.  My wife read aloud the first book or two to the boys and then the older one may have been far enough along to start reading the third one on his own.  I'm not sure of the details here.

What I do know is that at the time I thought this entirely benign and the big deal was the reading itself.  Seeing the subsequent path, however, I'm less sure.  It includes many of the Artemis Fowl books, The Lord of The Rings and all things Tolkein, both in book and movie form, many of the works of Michael Crichton, and more recently the Game of Thrones books and TV show.   I don't know whether a straight line can be drawn through all of this, but surely there is far less diversity in genre than I experienced doing pleasure reading as a kid.  In this respect, I wonder how much my son typifies his generation.  I suspect this pattern is not unusual at all.

Hollywood seems to reinforce this big time.  Most of the blockbusters are movie versions of the comics, science fiction in comic book form, or fantasy fiction.  Then there are the various imitations, also made in this manner, though less spectacular at the box office.

Whether video games also reinforce this, I don't know.  Video games represent a significant time investment for kids nowadays where there was no parallel to that when I was growing up. Conceivably it could be a source of diversity in genre.  What is clear is that it is social - to a degree - in a way reading or watching a movie is not.  On the plus side that is apt to make the kids more cooperative with one another.  On the minus side it may contribute to a herd mentality. 

The last time the family as a whole went to the movies to see a film was Lincoln and it was incredibly unusual to do that.  We did it in part because I was getting over my rotator cuff repair and I wanted to see it, so the rest accommodated that wish.  Otherwise, we rarely watch a movie or TV show together these days, even when the kids are home on vacation.  We used to watch The West Wing together, when it was being reprised on the AMC channel.  More recently, my wife and I would watch The Newsroom together when that aired or sometimes from the DVR for a repeat viewing of an episode or because we missed it the first time.  Ditto for Homeland, from a DVD.  We may have watched the mini-series John Adams together, I can't recall.

But the Big Bang Theory might be more typical.  I tired of it after the first few episodes.  If the kids were around, they'd watch it with my wife.  Their tastes are more in common.  I can do perfectly well without situation comedy, particularly when the subject is dating and mating. I also never became a regular of Colbert or The Daily Show. While the occasional interview is good, I found the jokes too low level for the most part.  The last comedy I remember liking was Men in BlackBruce Almighty was okay.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is enjoyable lighthearted fare, but I wouldn't call it a comedy.  These are films we watched together at home when the kids were younger.

I watched the first Lord of the Rings movie in its entirety with the family, when the DVD came out.  Ca suffit!  I now react to those sort of movies in much the same way that my wife reacted to the adventure films the boys and I saw when they were young. 

* * * * *

When I first thought to write this piece I had in mind a review of The State Within.  I might comment on it a bit below, but my topic morphed as I was thinking about this.  When I was a kid if I was into something I'd stick with that same subject until I neared satiation.  Then there might be a fallow period after which something new would get presented to me, either by pure happenstance or because somebody (an adult) pointed me in that direction.  If I glommed onto that then the process would repeat.  Now I select the content for myself, most recently from Amazon Prime Instant Video.  I want to think through the process I use for making a selection.  Does it make sense?  Is there some better way to go about this?

This is how I found the State Within.  If you go to that Amazon Instant Video link, do a search for David Hare.  (I'll explain why in a bit.)  Alternatively, do a Google search for David Hare.  In the right sidebar there are excerpts from the Wikipedia entry.  One category is Movies.  I watched the three most recent: Page Eight, The Reader, and The Hours.  Each of these films I'd describe as thoughtful and thought provoking.  Hare's role in them varies.  He directed Page Eight.  On the other two films he wrote the screenplay.

Page Eight is in the spy thriller genre and the story is similar to those by John le Carré. Indeed the protagonist of Page Eight, the character's name is Johnny Worricker, bears some resemblance in demeanor to George Smiley.  They both show sparks of intuition from time to time, but are mainly engaged doing quiet empirical work to confirm the intuition or fill in gaps in their knowledge where there are puzzles as to what happened.  They take their time to assemble all the pieces before they make their case.  They avoid going off half cocked at all costs.  But when the puzzle is solved they show us how to stand up and use what they have learned to very good effect.  There is moral uplift in watching the entire process.  This is how a superb professional should operate.

These characters stand in contrast to recent characters in American made dramas in the spy thriller genre, in particular Jack Bauer in 24 and Carrie Mathison in Homeland.  These characters have fantastic intuition which they use all the time, while they do respond to data the response is quick and often loud rather than slow and deliberate, and while they screw up their personal lives in a variety of ways they make almost no mistakes on the work issues, which are life and death.  This makes them kind of super beings - beyond superb professionals - so while they are compelling to view there is no moral uplift.  The rest of us are not super beings.  There is also much more overt violence in the American made series than there is in their British counterparts. That contributes to the unreality of the stories as they relate to us viewers.

Having enjoyed Page Eight, I then watched The Reader, a different sort of story altogether, and followed that with The Hours, still a different sort of story.  As I said, each challenged the viewer and I liked that.  So I was looking for more.  But then a different challenge presented itself.  There is quite a gap, time-wise, between The Hours and David Hare's next most recent movie.  Further, it seemed those others weren't freely available on Amazon Prime Instant Video and I have an aversion to paying for content when there is other content I might very well like as much that is freely available.  So what to do?

In this case I did something that I otherwise don't do much at all.  I trusted crowd sourcing the question.  For each Amazon Instant Video, below the video itself (and if it is a TV series, the links to other videos in the series) there are a set of links under the category - Customers who watched this video also watched...  I did that for Page Eight.  One of the entries there was to The State Within.  The title grabbed me, so I had a look see.   (Note that the link to The State Within from the Page Eight site is no longer there, but there is a backlink to Page Eight from The State Within site.)

There is a bit more to it than that, something I'd like to see happen in my searches, if is is possible.  There is a different show, The Hour (not to be confused with The Hours) that I watched and liked.  I learned about that show from my friend Deanna, who said it was the closest thing she had seen to The West Wing.  The Hour is a BBC production as is The State Within.  So I was more favorably disposed to The State Within as a result and conceivably might have found it by searching the BBC site.  It can be found by looking within the Drama category. 

The State Within is set in Washington DC.  While the hero is the British Ambassador to the U.S., the show is Americanized, both in its loudness and its pacing.  For the first 2 + episodes or so, it is hard to figure out what is going on.  The various threads of the story don't seem to fit.  Then there is a rather remarkable coalescence and things make much more sense, with still some surprises in the last two episodes.  (There are 7 episodes in the Americanized version.)  I thought it was a good but not great show, for these reasons.

Now I'm looking for what's next. I learned about David Hare by watching an interview with him on Charlie Rose many years ago, where he said things that I liked, particularly about being able to articulate a point of view and that being attractive to viewers.  I filed that away mentally, to be used when I needed it.  I have used other writers as a means to find content to view.  When I was having withdrawal pains from The West Wing (which also provided moral uplift, in my opinion, though not all the time), I found Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, by searching on Aaron Sorkin.  It is not a great show, but watching it helped me to move onto other things than Sorkin authored content.  Earlier I found The Unit, by searching on David Mamet, though that was before streaming video was so readily available so I bought the DVD of the first season and got into the show thereafter.  The stories in The Unit are tightly constructed, though there is more independence in story from one episode to the next than in the other series I've cited here.

If I'm to find still other content by doing an author search, I need some other authors to use.  Does anyone have a suggestion? 

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