ENGL 311 Blog: Jay Dhillon. Thoughts on Film,T.V, and Live Theatre

How does the medium effect Artistic Expression?

Out of the three mediums, the one that is least conducive to artistic freedom and genuine innovation probably is television. Television faces a variety of constraints that the other mediums do not. Firstly, T.V is a lot like advertising in that it needs to “hook” the audience. Television programs compete for airtime with numerous other programming, which is offered to the customer without recieving payment. The T.V watcher is free to browse and switch channels if what he is watching disturbs his sensibilities, or worse, if he is bored. Furthermore, Television programming is designed for longevity, a Darwinian fight for survival in an uncompromising market. Television writers want to be in a job for renewed seasons, and must keep the audience happy in the future, so everything they write and direct must be anticipitatory towards creating loyal watchers. They also have to content with the fact that they are produced and broadcasted by large cable companies, who have an interest in maximizing their profit through maximizing viewership and often have little or no investment in the quality of the production. This is why we often see television programming as  less authentic and less subtle in its dialogue or imagery than film or theatre. It must cater to the lowest common denominator, sensationalism, sex and violence is interesting to a very large number of people and is more secure economically than expressing ideas and visual interpretations that risk being misunderstood or not appreciated by many. Worryingly, the limitations of telivised productions applies to the news Media suprisingly accurately aswell.

The Film Industry has become incredibly vast and diversified, and is is probably difficult to characterize what seperates film, as an art form, from other art forms. Different clusters of film production have different objectives. The Hollywood industry is a lot like the telivision industry in that economic considerations are paramount. The budget of large “blockbusters” is now often in hundred million dollar ranges. Hollywood Movies are now massive commercial enterprises that aim to distribute entertainment to the mass market. They are probably even more artistically constrained than television because many of these films are released internationally, and cannot even rely on the audience having a particular set of intuitions or understanding, things that localally produced television programs can. An example of the artistic comprises made by Hollywood would be the recent flick “The Martian”. In Brief, Matt Damon gets stuck on Mars and the Chinese and the American space agency plan a joined rescue mission for Matt Damon. While the 2011 novel it was based on illustrated the complex relations between the two governments, nothing negative was said about the Chinese government in the movie, and China was portrayed as a blissful utopia and the US and China were shown as the best of friends. The purpose for this was that “The Martian” was competing for a film release in China, and they wanted to charm the Chinese censor boards so the Martian would be given a wide release in the Chinese Market. In addition, a lot of the dialogue and cultural subtleties, the parts of productions that contain artistic merit, were ommitted in this movie, to cater to an audience limited in English proficiency. In contrast, British sitcoms like “Yes Minister” or the American “House of Cards” are limited by economic constraints but they at least can rely on their audience appreciating the context and the characters involved, which large Hollywood movies no longer can.

In contrast, however, Art House Cinema can and still does, often display significant artistic innovation and the directors are able to channel the power of the medium to create powerful messages. Art House cinema can leverage powerful imagery and camera shots in order to truly create a setting for a story. The director can also use various close length scenes to illustrate personal expression and subtle social conditions which theatre cannot and television and mass produced film usually omit. In addition, Art House film is unusually priveldged in its ability to express dangerous or scandalous projects, which would not be endorsed on Film or Television and may not be possible on theatre. A good example of an Art House Film that contains all of these traits is the Spanish silent film Jauja. The film is about a Danish cowboy who rides in solitude across Patagonia. The Film contains vast, beautiful shots of the Argentine wilderness while capturing close ups that show the sadness in the protagonists face. The film often goes for 10 to 15 minutes without anything being said, but the vast expanses, deep breaths and sighs of the protagonist, does the talking. In addition the film covers contraversial content such as the Cowboys 13 year old daughter having an illicit relationship with a old man who was a shipmate of her father. When her father finds out that her daugther eloped, the camera captures his reaction kinetically, by showing how he walks, how he grunts and how he greives. The ability of a director to demonstrate such complexity is empowered by the unconventional use of film. A story like this one can only be expressed through the courageus use of cinema, a lot of the context would be lost in theatre, while it would never be produced through profit maximizing venues like Hollywood or T.V

Theatre today has an entirely different nature than it had at Shakespeares time. This is actually positive for artistic expression because theatre has become a medium almost exclusively used to express work of artistic or cultural importance rather than entertain people. Shakespeare suffered artistic constraints which would probably make him more like a film producer rather than a contemporary theatre artist. Shakespeare had to compete with audiences which decided between him and “bear baiting” (Cowel, Introduction: “Shakespeare on Film and Television”) and thus had to adjust his content to appeal to them. Similarly, a T.V producer will have to compete for his audience with “Ice-Road Truckers”, which helps us appreciate Shakespeare’s genius in creating profound content while simultaneously spinning crude jokes for his rougher audience. Todays Live Theatre directors do not face the same constraints. Their audience is almost exclusively literary and artistic. A 1600 adaptation of Macbeth would have to compete with circus freaks and the Ale Tavern, today’s will compete for audience with a Ballet, Orchestras and lectures by academic luminaries. This allows the Directors and the actors to innovate deeply and toy with literary tools and express their personal interpretations of Shakespeare text without fears of losing their audience. However, theatre today often has to confom to high standards. Theatre audiences want to be challenged and impressed in a way that conventional entertainment cannot provide.This difficult demand is the price the theatre industry is probably compelled to pay in an entertainment industry inundated by cheap and easily accesible mass-produced content.

2 thoughts on “ENGL 311 Blog: Jay Dhillon. Thoughts on Film,T.V, and Live Theatre

  1. ullyot says:

    Great post, Jay! I particularly appreciate your thoughtful comparison between bear-baiting and “Ice-Road Truckers.”

  2. Kari Major says:

    I really appreciate your understanding of how constraints have changed over time and how live theatre, music, and lectures actually have far more artistic freedom than television, cinema and indeed the mainstream media of today.

    Your example of ‘The Martian’ is apt. I loved the book and although I enjoyed the movie, the Hollywood sterilization was disappointing. Thank you Jay for bringing this to light.

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