In written fiction, if a story, novel, etc., is narrated in the third person, then the story has no narrator—only a narration, composed by an author and read by a reader.

More precisely, unless a character in the diegesis narrates, there is no narrator—only narration.

This also alleviates a trouble of those who try to analogize fictional and cinematic narrators. It turns out that, in the latter, as the former, there is no narrator—only narration—unless a character in the diegesis narrates.

And then, in film, there must still be a narration, since the character’s narrating represents only a part of the storytelling; there remain editing, performance, music, composition of the shot, and all the other extra-linguistic devices.

Election Coverage Special Effects

NBC just showed Ann Curry’s green room, as though we though all those graphics she was throwing around were real, solid objects.

CNN pseudo-hologrammically projected Jessica Yellin into the Situation Room on CNN. Now Yellin is explaining that there are 35 HD cameras shooting her in Chicago, and those cameras are somehow tied to cameras in New York, such that the paired cameras’ movements can match. As a result, Yellin can appear in the Sit Room, spatially integrated, if jerky and haloed.

Does any of this add to the broadcast? The Curry bit I almost understand; tighter visual integration between her and the many graphics zipping by maybe helps comprehension or something. But isn’t there value in seeing the hordes lining up to get into Grant Park where Yellin is(n’t)? Wouldn’t it be more informative to hear the crowd behind her, as in a traditional broadcast?

Reminds me of Oswalt: “We’re Science—we’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”

Alisa Miller on the US Media

In an oldish TED talk I just got around to watching, Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, begins with an argument I agree with: that US media coverage is heavily weighted towards the trivial and towards a limited range of international stories, and that this is some kind of problem.

But as she goes on, our points of view diverge sharply. She asks, rhetorically, why this problem has come to be, and answers: “The reality is, is that [sic] covering Britney is cheaper” than covering international news. This may be so, but it’s probably more relevant that covering Britney makes way more money.

Let’s go with an overwraught analogy, comparing Britney and international coverage to two very different movies that I love: Halloween (1978) and Sideways (2004). According to Box Office Mojo, the first cost $325,000 to make, and has grossed $47,000,000 domestically. But its 8 franchise films have seen a combined domestic gross of another $228,000,000 or so.1 It’s reasonable to think that more cheap sequels and remakes could profit similarly well.

Sideways, on the other hand, cost $16,000,000 to make and grossed $71,000,000 domestically. Not bad, to be sure, and all the talk of a new mid-cap Hollywood model really came out of Sideways‘s success. But it’s reasonable to assume that, after just four years, the well has run more or less dry. Will Sideways keep earning at the pace Halloween and its franchise have? Will there be a sequel? Will there be a genre of thoughtful boys-will-be-bourgeois romps that emerges around the film’s success, in the way that the modern slasher film really emerges out of Halloween‘s?

To paraphrase the 8 ball, all signs point to no. The difference parallels the one Miller points to, between Britney coverage and international stories. It’s not so much about how much cheaper the one is to make—though the difference betwen $325,000 and $16,000,000 is significant, even adjusted for inflation.

Rather, it’s about whether the body of films or news that will emerge from one investment can sustain itself. In Hollywood, the question is answered by moviegoers, represented by box office figures. In the network media, the question is answered, by and large, by the complex relationship between stories, ratings, and advertising dollars. I’m very, very confident that the networks have, with a scientific precision Newton would envy, determined that they can make more money with more Britney than with more international coverage.2

And who’s to blame for this? Ultimately, it’s hard to hold the networks responsible, as Miller wants to. If they buck the viewers, they go into crisis. As I recall, this happened a few years back, amid talk one or all of the network news bureaus might collapse. It seems some combination of viewers with bad priorities and our free-market economy is at fault, and that’s too complex a culprit to support the emotional simplicity of blame.

As Miller asks, “Is this distorted view what we really want for Americans in our increasingly interconnected world?” Of course not. So what do we do? We give to NPR and PRI, we watch and read UK publications, which have (depending on which one you look at), government support or a more internationally-minded audience or both. We identify the problem, as is Miller, in public forums. (I shy away from commending her because she is, after all, CEO of an interested party.) We write on our blogs, talk to our friends, join our FaceBook groups. Is all that enough? It’s hard to know, but what good does blaming the networks do? What ends can come from that line of argument?

1: The production budgets of these other Halloween films are mostly irrelevant. First, they are similarly low with one or two exceptions—for example, Halloween H20, which cost $17,000,000 in 1998 and has already outgrossed the original at $55,000,000+. More to the point, though, as each film can be seen as paying for the next out of its profits. [Back to text]

2: I should note Miller does cite a Pew study in which the percentage of “Americans who say they closely follow global news most of the time grew to over 50%.” But surveys are notoriously unreliable indicators of respondent’s actual preferences and behaviors. If there’s one thing the free market does well, it’s tell us where the real money is to be made. [Back to text]

On “Breaking Through”

It’s not so much that I think Lynn Hirschberg’s Oscar portfolio piece, “Breaking Through,” doesn’t get the job done. In her triangulation of the cinematic breakthrough performance, she does showcase a dozen-plus nominees.

My problem with the piece, instead, is its lack of reach. In looking for the origins of classic actors’ “templates”—which, she says, can be formed by breakthrough performances—she doesn’t look far enough. Though she convincingly locates some decades-old breakthroughs (e.g., Diane Keaton’s; see below), her aim is off with many more recent career- or character-making moments.

For example, Hirschberg names the performance in which Vince Vaughan created his primary comedic personae—”the brilliant motormouth”—as Wedding Crashers. In an age where IMDB is a click away, how can she (or her editors) not look further back than 2005? In 2004, they’d find Vaughan revising the role—already become a cliché, if an enjoyable one—in Starsky & Hutch. A year earlier still, one can find his rapid-fire banter in Old School. (“All you gotta do is say ‘earmuffs’ to him…”) Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that it all goes back to 1996’s Swingers.

Hirschberg traces Owen Wilson’s “slacker deadbeat extraordinaire” back to Starsky & Hutch. I’ll allow a dismissal of Bottle Rocket [1996] on the grounds that nobody saw it; Hirschberg makes a similar argument about Diane Keaton’s breakthrough being Annie Hall, despite her appearance in three prior Woody Allen films. (She writes that “as with almost everything else in life, context is everything.”) But what about 2001’s Zoolander and The Royal Tenenbaums?

The list goes on: Harrison Ford “has never strayed far from men like Indiana Jones” (which is to say, men like Han Solo); George Clooney went “debonair” as Danny Ocean (after he did so as Bruce Wayne and Doug Ross, among others).

If this all seems of little consequence, consider each example in terms of the creative and financial circumstances of its production. When you slight Swingers for Wedding Crashers, you slight every pair of Hollywood outsiders who ever broke in with sheer creativity: not just Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughan, but Damon and Affleck, Smith and Mewes, and so on.

The same goes for the Owen Wilson question: Wes Anderson may be the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last two decades, and his writing with Wilson, alongside his landmark cinematic point-of-view, made his career. That legacy is nowhere to be found in a discussion of Starsky & Hutch.

In George Clooney’s case, it’s not the buddy system but television that’s getting overlooked. I understand Batman & Robin (1997) wasn’t Clooney’s best work, but he simply couldn’t have been the Bruce Wayne he was without the charming precedent of E.R.‘s Doug Ross character. These days, one can hardly accept the argument that a cinematic breakthrough can’t happen on television, not after James Gandolfini, Dennis Franz, and, well, Clooney.

What we have here, in other words, is a failure to acknowledge changing circumstances of star production: Stars can make themselves, with the right combination of luck and talent, and television is as important in making movie stars as are the movies. Neither change is reflected in Hirschberg’s piece; it is telling, indeed, that she spends so much time looking into the past—at Keaton, De Niro, and Nicholson; but also Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and Clark Gable —in an article so pointedly “about” the up-and-coming.