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cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

It’s always already been the end of epic film.

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/04/09 at 08:54 AM

Whether he knows it or not—and “he” being Adam Kotsko, I’ll bet he knows it—this Weblog post is less about the formal fit between epic and the television serial than the relation of film to the episodic form.  I know that sounds backwards—what with MOVIES! being PRESENTED! on SCREENS! the SIZE! of WYOMING!—but the compounded facts of run time and the modern American attention span necessitate we consider film the proper realm of the self-contained episode.  Even films which promise sequels announce their completion in terms of whatever -ology they embrace. 

Films should be about something in the original, locative sense of the word.  They should surround some subject matter, be “on every side” “wholly or partially,” as per the OED.  They should be self-contained.  Not that they shouldn’t be sweeping—you can frame Guernica or a sublimely panoramic view of the Hudson River and slap it on a gallery wall without robbing them of sweep—but they should recognize their formal limitations.  Films can only intimate narrative epicness.  They can’t achieve it. 


“But But But!" 

Try me.  Start listing epic films and I’ll start listing films with grandiose tableaux.  The Lord of the Rings?  Shot in that sewer of New Zealand.  Blade Runner?  The Lord himself envies Ridley Scott’s matte painters.  With film we confuse the formal qualities of narrative epic for the GIANT! SCALE! presented by the movie screen.  Cases in point: Iron Man and The Dark Knight

Both were hailed as epic upon release, and yet both are far superior films on the small screen.  Before you ask: I do remember what I wrote about The Dark Knight on IMAX, and inasmuch as it relates the experience of watching an obscenely high-quality image projected on the side of an eight-story building, I stand by it.  Watching the film on a small screen—one on which a bug of a Batman glides between five-inch tall skyscrapers while Heath Ledger’s Joker licks human-sized lips and establishes human-sized eye-contact—it’s impossible to deny that this supposedly epic performance is better suited to the televisual medium.  (This goes doubly for Iron Man, which barely passes for “good" on the big screen but shines when we connect with Robert Downey Jr. as a human actor in corporate world.)

Not that I think we should deny that the serial drama is also better served on the small screen.  A solidly written, solidly acted television show can be a better film than most films.  To wit: having finished the first four episodes of the blogosphere’s own Leverage, I can’t help but wonder what went so terribly wrong with Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen

(x-posted about.)


Meta-question: is it really helpful to post the same essay at three different blogs?  You’ve got basically the same discussion going on about it at Acephalous and EOAW, and to that add the Valve.  Wouldn’t redundancy be reduced if you picked one and stuck with it?

By tomemos on 01/04/09 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quite possibly, yes, but the audiences are completely different—overlap exists, certainly, but I don’t consider myself so compelling that people who want read Adam or Marc here or Ari or Eric at Edge of the West follow me around.  So when I write something that could appeal to multiple audiences, I cross-post it.  (Acephalous, however, is a giant scratch-pad, a record of what I’ve written that I control—it can’t be taken down or deleted without my say, whereas The Valve and Edge of the West aren’t wholly under my control.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/04/09 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the term “epic” here is misleading, but the question Scott raises is intriguing: do all works of cinema really function better on the big screen?

I can only think personally about it.  I remember preparing to teach Fritz Lang’s *M.*.  At the time, my wife and I had a 13” tv.  I really missed out on a ton of detail that I didn’t notice until I screened it for my students on a blank classroom wall.

I also think of music production.  My old rule of thumb was that a great album should sound great on the worst sound system imaginable—say, a cassette deck with a single speaker.  But I’m always struck how music I write off, having mostly listened to it on mp3 headphones, wows me when I hear it on the brilliant sound-system at a great record shop. 

Subtlety seems to require size (of screen or sound).  So a film of “epic proportions” might work well on a small screen?

By on 01/04/09 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Epic is one of those words that needs to be defined each time we use it. (And I really can’t see how _Iron Man_ is epic by any definition.) But setting aside that issue, I’ve also found that I’ve enjoyed many “big scale” films better on the small screen, so much so that at the moment I find it difficult to think of any movie I liked better in the theater. Assuming that this holds for most people, one wonders why people go to theaters: to see movies before they are released on DVD? to have a communal experience? to eat movie theater popcorn with fake butter?


Actually, I have thought of a film I liked better in the theater—_Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon_. Oh, and _Pulp Fiction_ and _Rashomon_. Both gave me the willies in the theater—but now I wonder if that’s more because I first saw them in the theater than because of the big screen. Maybe I had the experiences I did despite the venue. Dunno.

By on 01/13/09 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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