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The Pictures Got Small

Osita Nwanevu
10 min read
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


About a month ago, New York Magazine’s Vulture ran a defense of “speed-watching” ⁠— speeding up films and shows to get through them faster ⁠— that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. In it, contributing writer Nicholas Quah explains his habit of doing this as a response to the sheer volume of material the media and entertainment industry now produce:

People often say there are too many podcasts; that’s supposedly a defining problem for the medium. This is a boring person’s interpretation of an interesting opinion. The same protest can be made about any other well of culture: There are too many TV shows, too many films, too many books, too many video games, too many musicians, too many sports, too many blog posts, and so on. Such abundance can be overwhelming, but it’s a wonderful thing. It means lots of people are making stuff, and there’s lots of stuff for all sorts of people, which, in the aggregate, is generally a better situation than not.
When that abundance does become debilitating is when you have the specific compulsion I have, which is a sweaty, hobbling desire to take in as many TV shows, films, books, podcasts, news stories, sub-Reddits, subcultures, live sporting events, and other things as I possibly can — while trying not to neglect the basics, like loved ones, job responsibilities, and hunger. Consider it a kind of bizarro FOMO but for cultural life. I wouldn’t say it’s the healthiest thing to have, nor would I argue it necessarily translates to a particularly strong grasp of those cultural objects. But that’s how my brain is wired, unfortunately.
So I try to get through things as quickly as I can.

He’s going to have his work cut out for him this fall. Thanks partially to COVID induced production delays and punted releases, Hollywood ⁠— which launched 1,000 new television series in 2019 ⁠— will be putting out an unprecedented number of films and shows in the coming weeks, as Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw wrote last month:

Beginning on Sept. 19, the four major U.S. broadcast networks will premiere episodes of more than two dozen shows over the course of seven days. They’ll include new seasons of The Voice, NCIS, and Dancing With the Stars, as well as a reboot of The Wonder Years and a spinoff of Dick Wolf’s FBI franchise.
Not to be outdone, Apple will release the season premiere of its lavish sci-fi series Foundation and new episodes of The Morning Show. FX will drop new episodes of Impeachment: American Crime Story, a retelling of the trial of Bill Clinton starring Clive Owen and Edie Falco as the president and his wife, while Hulu will offer the season finale of its Nicole Kidman drama, Nine Perfect Strangers. Showtime will air new seasons of Billions and American Rust at the same time HBO offers fresh episodes of a docuseries about Nicki Minaj.
[...] In just a matter of weeks, viewers will be able to see a Spider-Man spinoff, another new Marvel movie, a prequel to The Sopranos, and the latest James Bond film. There will be movie musicals, including Dear Evan Hansen and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and family flicks like Clifford the Big Red Dog and Disney’s Encanto, which features original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

One can’t see everything. Quah may well try anyway. “I understand that this isn’t how these artistic and media creations were meant to be experienced and that, in a perfect world, each work would be taken exactly on its own terms and everybody would be adequately supported by their societies so they would have more free time to do things like, I don’t know, watch more television shows and read more books,” he writes. “But this isn’t a perfect world. In fact, it’s a world that largely sucks. I have a deep hole in my being that I feel compelled to fill with all this stuff, and I don’t have an infinite amount of time. So I’m trying to make the best of what I’ve got.”

As repelled as I am by speed-watching as a concept and as ambivalent as I am about staying atop of new things, it’s hard for me not to sympathize. The world does suck. Our time is finite. And it would be helpful if there were more people gifted at assessing what’s worth our attention and what isn’t. We used to call such people “critics,” and there are still some good ones around. But it should trouble us that the critical landscape has changed enough that viewers like Quah ⁠— and there are many ⁠— don’t feel they have the resources to be more discerning or, worse, don’t recognize discernment as an option to begin with.

In a 2019 piece that holds up depressingly well today, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote at length about the challenges volume poses for critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike:

Despite the prominence of a few scattered prestigious titles, what dominates the streaming environment and overwhelms the popularity of any individual movie or show is the popularity of streaming itself—of a given service, whether it’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, or another. What’s more, the popularity of streaming is similarly circular: the sheer quantity of what’s streaming also overwhelms the cinematic punditocracy with the sheer quantity of previewing, sifting, recapping, summarizing, comparing, and listing. The need to pay constant attention to the services rather than the works turns critics into connoisseurs of shit, comparing one mediocrity against another in order to be able to assemble a list of what’s barely recommendable with a straight face by contrast with what’s even worse. In the process, critical taste is inevitably shifted toward a new aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) that leaves the best filmmakers of the time looking like backsliding conservatives clinging to ivory-tower traditions rather than what they are: audacious and forward-looking resisters to corporate production, not defenders but advancers of individual creation and conscience who overcome the redefinition of art as content—regardless of how their films may be marketed.

There’s always been more garbage than gems in entertainment, of course. But the gears of critical work are being gummed up by the thickening mediocrity critics are being asked to evaluate. They’re up to their necks in the merely passable ⁠— films and shows that aren’t bad per se, but also aren’t good enough to reward their being thought about for very long. Films and shows, in other words, that can be ingested as content “by the yard,” as Brody later writes, ⁠and digested in repetitive conversations on social media. If participating in those conversations is the point of viewing something, then speed-watching almost seems prudent ⁠— there’s not much more to get out of this stuff than the gist and Quay is probably missing less than he suspects from it.

It’s easy to say that audiences deserve better and they do. It’s less obvious that they actually want better. It is true that many have stood up to make important demands of the industry over the last decade. As a consequence, progressive social concerns pervade much and perhaps most of what reaches mainstream viewers. Studios and showrunners have taken pains to make their creations more representative of and relatable to minorities. But political awareness isn’t itself a cure for political impotence, and I suspect we’ve pushed as hard as we have for change on-screen because we’ve come to doubt the possibility of change off-screen. There’s nothing wrong with social concern. It’s a valid and important reason to make art and to engage with it. But it’s one among many, and we could use more critical writing rooted in the idea that art is about seeing as much as it is about feeling seen ⁠— the idea that there is still value in work that doesn’t tell us what we already know and want other people to hear. Because experiencing such work—defamiliarizing ourselves from the world as we’ve come to understand it⁠— often carries with it the chance that we’ll return to reality with new eyes and ready for new possibilities, both explicitly political and only latently so. Everything is political, after all.

Entertainment’s didacticists today are driven by a sense that art’s sociopolitical possibilities can’t really be left to chance at all. Whether their preferred mode is snark or smarm, there’s a desperation about getting things across ⁠— our world is too bad and our time is too short, they seem to be saying, to be pussyfooting around about moral instruction.  In her recent review of the new Candyman, New York Magazine’s Angelica Jade Bastién described this urgency in relation to the “so-called ‘prestige’ horror boom, in which its creators can’t find a political message they won’t hit you over the head with until you’re as bloody and begging for release as the characters onscreen.” Are we all better for it? I’m not sure.

Obviously, not everything being made is this purposive; the big, dumb and dominant franchises come in for deserved criticism all the time now. But just as this isn’t a critique of art having a message, slagging superhero cinema isn’t, in most cases, an indictment of people having big, dumb fun. I think most good critics are pining for entertainment and entertainment discourse that moves between and beyond Scorsese, Marvel, and Message as categories while recognizing that there’s room for them all. They want variety for themselves and for everyone — to get us to what Susan Sontag once called “a pluralistic, polymorphous culture” that reflects all the moods and desires that make up human experience. They’re animated not by a faith that there’s a committed consumer of arthouse films buried inside everyone who’s going to see the next Ghostbusters, but by the hunch that mainstream viewers would shift more freely between different modes and genres if the industry offered more choices and if they had the time and the resources to more deliberately make them. Absent all that, can viewers living busy and fraught lives really be blamed for simply taking the entertainment most available?

This is all a way of saying that the state of our entertainment culture is fundamentally an economic problem and one tethered to the rest of our economic problems. And anyone who doubts they’re connected should have a look at a Washington Post piece this past week detailing a new lobbying campaign against the Biden administration’s reconciliation package crafted by “a torrent of political groups representing some of the country’s most influential corporations — including ExxonMobil, Pfizer and the Walt Disney Company.” The House of Mouse is no more eager than an oil company to see its revenues tapped into for social programs that might afford their consumers more agency. And behind all the gloss and glitter, the film and television industries are as rife with the abuse and exploitation of workers as any other — enough so that those who’ve been given a novel stretch of free time during the pandemic, as Jacobin’s Alex Press recently reported, are beginning to demand much more.

What role should critics play here beyond advocating for the transformation of our economy and new cultural policymaking? Perhaps counterintuitively, I think there’s something to be said for closer engagement with the works they analyze ⁠—showing readers that there are ways of understanding art beyond the assessments that seem most obvious, and deepening their appetite for new things. This is where B.D. McClay’s recent essay for Gawker on 'letting people enjoy things' ends up:

Like many cranks and snobs, I believe that art should not be afraid to be difficult, or offensive; I might even be willing to accept the word “messy” on some days. But routine calls for difficult art are one thing, and providing a real home for that difficult art is another. You don’t have to keep a close eye on social media to know that a piece “about” art, like this one, is going to be more widely shared than a piece that’s really about art, in the specific. I might not like what TV Tropes has done to how people talk about art, but I’d give the people who work on it this: They’re actually interested in specific objects.
If I had to, I’d rather deal with somebody barking “let me enjoy things” at me than somebody who is supposedly on my team but who might as well buy books by the foot. If art is not served at all by a consumerist, denuded approach, it’s not served either by some kind of commitment to difficulty in the abstract: to the art thinkpiece rather than the review, the manifesto over observation, proclamation over study. There’s something more than enjoying or not enjoying things out there. But more importantly, there’s something more than talking about it.

I’ve written a bit previously about how I wish music critics spent more time talking about form. And I recently came across a 2014 piece from Matt Zoller Seitz making the very same argument about film criticism. I imagine it reads as well now, if not better, as it did back then:

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.
Otherwise it's all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It's literary criticism about visual media. It's only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.
Form is not just an academic side dish to the main course of content.  We critics of film and TV have a duty to help viewers understand how form and content interact, and how content is expressed through form. The film or TV critic who refuses to write about form in any serious way abdicates that duty, and abets visual illiteracy.

Anyway, I’ll leave off here saying I’m actually encouraged by the critical writing I’ve been reading recently across all mediums. We’re all bored of being bored. Nowhere to go but up.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.