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.
Words can come afterwards.