The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Arrival, Black Mirror, Columbo, and the Blizzard of Information

I just watched Arrival and — without going into spoilers — I felt pleasantly surprised at how little Hollywood changed  Ted Chiang’s original (and brilliant) short story. I was suckered by the trailer, which makes the movie look more action-y. I’m pleased, but we’ll see (next weekend) how audiences react to being Snow Dog-ged, even with the best intentions.

After watching the movie I was mentally comparing it to two shows I’ve been streaming: Black Mirror and Columbo.

I enjoyed the first two seasons of Black Mirror — although the show can be quite difficult (intentionally, I think) to watch. I’ve barely started with the 3rd season, because the first episode (‘Nosedive’) is so off-putting, despite being so superficially charming, that after a few minutes I turn it off in disgust.

I’ve watched probably one-third to one-half of the episode, in a half dozen chunks.

You can see what’s going to happen — it’s relentless. (Although I’ve been told I will not see what’s going to happen correctly).  I haven’t given up, but it’s a chore. I should probably punt and try the second episode.

Meanwhile I watched the first three Columbo‘s over the weekend. It’s the opposite of a chore which is not quite the same as a pleasure.

It’s TV where you know what’s going to happen. You know where you are going and it’s just a question of how you get there. In some ways, that’s how I was witnessed Arrival — I’d already read the story it was based on.

I was more struck by another similarity — a car ride.

During my childhood (and before), TV was a small medium. No extraneous characters. Plenty of wasted time. Not that movies were better but, for example, Television didn’t used to have the A and B story. There’d just be one story per hour (or half -hour). If that didn’t work, well. Tough. You’d also have plenty of time just watching people go from place to place. (Older movies also only had A-stories, but sometimes they’d have vignettes, even with the same characters).

Even before Sorkin popularized the “Walk and Talk” you could see MTV’s (and Philip Glass’s) influence on modern editing and story-telling. I remember watching Koyaanisqatsi in High School (although it came out a few years earlier) and being awestruck by how it was busy and also solemn at the same time. I speed up the playback, but it kept it’s gaze focused much longer than we’d be comfortable with.

Not many people saw it at the time, but it might be the starter’s pistol that announced that advertising (and eventually all of television) now raced towards the temporal singularity of ever-increasing speeds.

Even a puff-piece cotton candy show (like iZombie) throws dozens of characters into the mix, cuts from scene to scene with a relentless eternal rush forward. There’s rarely more than a few seconds without dialogue (or music that may as well be exposition).

If you watch older television — like Columbo — you’ll see people getting into a car and driving away. Not because there’s a chase scene, but because driving occurs in the story. Yes, they are probably showing that to avoid a page of script, but still.

People pause between talking. Sometimes it’s nice to see a story pause.

Despite having a dozen hours each season, it seems like many modern shows are afraid of pausing to take a breath, and only cinematographers feel like its worth while. I still mostly prefer shows that have no padding, but there’s a difference between putting a scene because you have nothing else to say, and putting in a scene because saying nothing is better, or more beautiful. TV has learned that the audience might miss it if you tell them something once, so they tell you twice or three times. Instead of telling you then giving you a moment to reflect.


Breath deeply.

Words can come afterwards.


Written by taogaming

November 13, 2016 at 6:31 pm

Posted in TV & Media

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3 Responses

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  1. I noticed this a bit when watching the BBC show The Fall, and to a lesser extent Bleak House (yes, I’m a huge Gillian Anderson fan :). Both shows can be intense, but they also enjoy scenes with much more leisurely, considered pacing where people just do normal things in a way that the BBC can still do and American TV and movies don’t seem to be able to. Another BBC show that showed exquisite mastery of slow pacing was Spooks/MI-5, although in a somewhat different way.

    Another interesting comparison is between the leisurely pacing of a lot of Star Wars with the constant breakneck speed of The Force Awakens. George Lucas was always big on orienting you, both spatially and plot-wise, with transition scenes and bits of footage or dialog to make things flow smoothly. In The Force Awakens, characters just show up where they need to be without explanation even when it flaunts credulity or the space-time continuum. In his commentary track on Star Wars, Lucas even comments he could never make a film like Star Wars again – the pacing for the first third of the movie is just too slow. I think one reason people found the prequels a bit jarring (certainly not the only reason, but still) was because Lucas was still insisting on doing these things when the dominant aesthetic of blockbuster filmmaking had moved on.

    I watched one season of Orphan Black, then bailed on it – can’t even remember why. Since you’re watching it I assume it’s on Netflix? I’ll have to check it out.

    Chris Farrell

    November 13, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    • I was speaking of Black Mirror, I’ve only watched the first 10 minutes or so of Orphan Black, which I did not care for. But it was on Amazon, IIRC. I do think the BBC is generally better about this, partially because they can have shorter series if the story calls for it.

      Ironically, I suspect part of the reason that movies/TV are so packed is that now people’s entertainment options are so numerous that people bail on a show quickly. I know I quit in minutes if it doesn’t intrigue me. But … intrigue can mean many things. I guess for most people slow=bad, so that’ the dominant aesthetic. And it can be a selling point. One thing I liked about Arrow (the first season) is that plot developments that other shows would stretch out for a season would be quickly introduced, acknowledged and resolved. They do have a treadmill going, but it was a somewhat novel treadmill, and the things that would normally be dangled in front of the viewers were sometimes just tossed out.

      Interesting point, re: Star Wars. It is definitely a product of its time (the 70s) back when even Blockbusters were slow and built up. I haven’t seen The Force Awakens, since I’m not a fan of J.J.Abrams (his input is often good, as long as he doesn’t get to behind the camera…)


      November 13, 2016 at 9:15 pm

  2. I liked the first episode of Black Mirror, but there are few surprises for a Black Mirror episode and it is heavy handed. I think Community did it better in their Meow Meow Beans episode.

    I thought episode 2 was the weakest of season 3, so I’d personally jump to episode 3. Then again many other people really like ep. 2 so dunno. The standard truism with Black Mirror has been that each 3 episode season had one good, one bad and one excellent episode, with people disagreeing which is which. I think S3 comes in at 2 excellent, 3 good and 1 bad.

    Mark Delano

    November 14, 2016 at 8:20 am

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