Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ellis - Visible Fictions

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. New York: Routledge, 1992.

An extensive comparison between cinema and TV (despite the title, the VCR is barely mentioned), Ellis perceives fundamental differences between the two media based on their respective images and sounds, their narrative styles, their spectators, and their stars. Part I and Part II deal with cinema and television respectively in each of the above categories. Part II compares the institutions of cinema and TV.

Originally written in the early 80s, Ellis spent the next decade working as a television producer. His 1992 "Postface" (ch. 17) nevertheless is not moved in his conclusions by the changes in the television industry.

Note also: Ellis is predominantly writing from a British perspective, and the vast majority of his examples are British.

The Nitty Gritty of the Comparison
Scheduling: it's hard to catch a TV program "tomorrow." Schedule is geared toward assumed daily routine of families.

Setting: public versus domestic.

"Flow" (a la Raymond Williams): Television is continuous. Films are shown separately. [Ellis agrees with the concept of flow to a point, but notes that the stream of items on TV are read by viewers as separate items much more than Williams seems to suggest.]

Segments: Much smaller in TV... about 5 minutes long generally. Editing is much tighter

Sound: much more important for TV to draw viewers' attention.

Images: TV is much smaller, lower definition

Assumed Audience: TV assumes a nuclear family, heterosexual, 2-child, etc.

Format: Single view film v. series and serial format of television

Viewer: Voyeuristic gaze (film) v. distracted glance. Assumption of semi privacy in the public setting of a darkened theatre v. the direct address of TV.

Stars: Film stars are distant and somewhat incomplete in their construction in the media, with the film being a chance to see their image completed in fiction. Television stars are familiar, repeating their situations in fiction or directly addressing the audience in news programs.

Industry: Film emerged out of the studio system. It is still dominated globally by Hollywood because of the initial advantage the U.S. had after WWI, and a natural market size that dwarfed individual national markets in Europe. Major studios fill the American market with a calculated number of films, making it difficult for foreign films to break in. Television production is divided between the networks and independent studios under a complex management structure that emphasizes the replaceability of all the individuals involved in the production - directors may change but their style will not be differentiable in television.

Key terms
photo effect - the paradoxical nature of an photographic (and video) image in which the figures portrayed are present in their image but not actually existing there at that moment. Ellis notes that the photo effect is not as fixed in television, which often maintains a sense of live and instantaneous.

The density of this book makes it feel almost like an abridged version of Ellis's career of theory, though in fact he is merely applying his career of thinking about film criticism to television. It says quite a bit for its size, even if it doesn't feel like it's breaking new ground theory-wise. I think Ellis is too stubborn in his "Postface" in not acknowledging the significant changes in the television medium in 1992 - for example, he dismisses the suggestion that Twin Peaks is groundbreaking. Of course, it is easy in 2010 to perceive how much television series have become more cinematic since the early 80s. In some ways, then, this book is something of a prequel to BT's Television's Second Golden Age.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact it is dated, this book provides an excellent overview of the crucial differences between film and television. Thus, it would be perfect for any graduate student entering the field or interested undergraduate. In fact, I could see myself assigning the first two sections to an undergraduate media history class, though the third section is probably the most fatally dated.

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