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Archive for August, 2012

The Episode Recap: Changing How We Watch TV

by Simon Apter

One of my favorite offshoots of the twenty-first-century “prestige drama” genre (which, like so many recent TV trends, began with the debut of The Sopranos in 1999) is the Episode Recap. Made possible by the extraordinary TV writing working its way onto premium–and, eventually, basic–cable, and by the boom of instantly-rendered Internet opinionating, the Episode Recap is an entirely new, entirely modern form of short-form digital journalism. If Facebook digitized the old-fashioned “social” or “mixer,” then the Episode Recap is the latter-day version of water-cooler chatter.

While much of online journalism can be ridiculed as mere echo-chamber bloviating–that is, like-minded writers chasing like-minded readers, Birthers uncovering more fraudulent documents with other Birthers, Hacktivists sharing malware tips with Hacktivists–the episode-recap genre succeeds online because this echo-chamber, dog-chasing-its-tail milieu is actually what it’s all about.

For the episode recap is not written simply to describe the episode for those who haven’t seen it; rather, it’s an imaginative attempt to recast and reimagine the show through incisive, 20/20 hindsight. Even if–especially if–you’ve already seen the episode under dissection, the recap will uncover some aspect, some scene your memory elided, that adds another dimension to your enjoyment of the show.

You didn’t read Star-Ledger critic (and master of the genre) Vicki Hyman’s weekly Jersey Shore recaps because you wanted to find out what new kinds of trouble Snooki and the Sitch had gotten themselves into; rather, you wanted affirmation that the rest of the world–personified here by mainstream legitimacy of a major metropolitan paper–thought that the two were as batshit crazy as you did. Molly Lambert’s Monday-morning exegeses of Mad Men on Grantland gave us pithy instant analyses of characters’, well, character:

  • Megan Draper: Megan is an actressy mix of highly arrogant and very insecure.
  • Megan’s friend: Megan’s ginger friend is an attention slut.
  • Pete Campbell: Pete is an opportunist who sees the potential for exploitation in everything.
  • Roger Sterling and Lane Pryce: Roger is a schmuck, through and through. Lane is a depressive realist.

Yes, these are over-reduced distillations, but–importantly–they aren’t simplifications. A skilled episode-recapper assiduously avoids casting his “re-casted” characters as two-dimensional strawmen; rather, he works tacitly with the show’s writers to add depth and to increase complexity to what has already been developed on screen. These are not mere critiques; they’re postmortem examinations.

A good episode recap actually has more in common with fan-fiction than it does with criticism, and a good recapper will suggest backstories that are only hinted at on-screen; predict fallout from an implied future conflict; imagine and report on a character’s internal monologue that the show’s original writers chose to keep hidden from us. We spend 167 hours each week not watching a particular show; why not enrich and enhance them with intelligence and wit?

The reigning heavyweight champ of the recap is New York Magazine’s Chadwick Matlin, who has managed to make his weekly meditations on The Newsroom as anticipated as the Sunday-night program itself. He has also made himself indispensable: Say what you want about “Sorkinese,” the dialogue of The Newsroom is too lush, too booby-trapped with double- and triple-entendre to absorb in just one sitting, and this is where Matlin’s work becomes necessary.

“If art involves the cultivation of a relationship between creator and audience,” Matlin wrote in the introduction to his first Newsroom recap, “then Sorkin is one of our most intimate artists. His success stems from the oblique feeling that while watching his work, we, the audience, get to observe the obsessions of his mind.”

But it’s tricky to delve, unsolicited, into an artist’s mind; it helps to have a guide, and leading us through the obsessions of a writer’s mind–real or perceived–is what a skilled episode recapper does best. The recapper is a special kind of viewer, an evolved sub-species of Homo technologicus who can read between the frames, can burrow behind the dialogue as-written and as-delivered. And with the prestige drama, he or she is absolutely necessary. The recapper, not the broadcast, becomes the link between between creator and audience, much like an English professor serves as the link between literature and student.

And what about recapping the recaps? It’s only a matter of time before Hyman, Lambert, and Matlin find some enterprising scribe insinuating analysis of an analysis of an analysis.

Dr. IMAX: Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love 3-D

by Simon Apter
I used to rail against 3-D movies. Sure, I’d seen and loved Michael Jackson in Captain Eo at Disney World when I was nine, and I’d bought and enjoyed the 3-D version of Rad Racer, the classic 8-bit car-racing game for the original Nintendo. But the twenty-first-century version of three-dimensional entertainment seemed to represent something else, something divisive and undemocratic.

The new 3-D movies are classist, I’d tell anyone who would listen, insisting that 3-D turned the movies (as in, “I’m going the movies”)–that great egalitarian space where executives rub elbows with nine-year-olds, Republicans with Democrats, and rom-com lovers with action junkies–into a segregated, pay-for-play enterprise complete with First and Economy cabins. For a few dollars more, it seemed to me, you could upgrade your movie-watching experience from humdrum 2-D into mind-blowing 3-D. And that didn’t sit right. The movies were supposed to be about festival-seating, general admission, and getting there early so you wouldn’t have to crane your neck back because of a front-row seat. Mayor Bloomberg’s seat was the same as mine, and so was his price of admission.

So naturally, in typical inferiority-complex fashion, I took it upon myself to look down on the 3-D viewers–those gilded moviegoers among us, eyes slightly glazed as they blinked out of their 3-D theatre, special glasses in hand. Surely their visual experience had been incredible, but was it better than mine? With just height and width to worry about, wouldn’t my brain necessarily have had more capacity to enjoy plot, characters, dialogue? While the 3-Ders were busy cogitating the depth of the image in front of them, I was pondering the depth of the writing and acting, the talent of the above-the-line and below-the-line folks who’d made the film in the first place. I was closer, I’d think smugly, to the art.

After all, I reasoned in a wonderfully bombastic strawman, Alexander Calder never released two versions of his work: the actual mobiles themselves, for those who could pay to see them; and then 2-dimensional pictures of the mobiles, for the hoi polloi. The Sculpture Garden at MoMA doesn’t demand an extra entrance fee for its 3-D wonders.

But I’ve since gotten down from my high horse. Cultural criticism runs aground whenever it begins to parse the nature, definition and propriety of art, and my 2-D snobbishness was no exception. Because three-dimensional movies, at the end of the day, are neither better nor worse than their 2-D older brothers. Three-dimensional viewing is about the experience of watching the movie, not about the movie itself. Changing the manner in which an object is enjoyed doesn’t actually change the object. You’d probably pay more to hear a recording of Morgan Freeman reading Inferno than you would to hear me, but nevertheless, through all 34 cantos, Dante’s poetry remains unchanged regardless of its medium.

It’s easy to be a stick in the mud about progress, especially when it concerns entertainment. For me, going to the movies always evokes memories of Friday-night trips to the second-run State Theatre in downtown Corvallis, Oregon, where the dollar-fifty double-feature was the place to be if you thought of yourself as remotely cool. In April 1994, I had my first real make-out session during Cabin Boy/Sister Act 2. That night became the platonic ideal of movie-watching in my imagination, and I’m transported to the State for a few milliseconds every time the lights go dark.

A novelty like 3-D feels like a threat to the happy memories and warm associations that we’ve spent our lifetimes cultivating, a cold reminder that our world is no longer ours, that “fun” itself is passing us by and relegating all that we love to nostalgia and to memories of things past. We can feel like our old-fashioned enjoyment of something has been marginalized and is no longer valid, like we’re hanging on to things “the way they were meant to be.”

But I’ve come around. I see neither a fleeting golden age nor a decaying future. I just see the movies now, in however many dimensions to which my ticket has entitled me. Because regardless of the movie, and regardless of the projection, the lights still darken, and I’m still in eighth grade, still making out with Sarah Collins, if only for the blink of an eye.

“Intimacy and Distance”: On Writing in New York

by Ira Sachs

It took me nearly 25 years to finally feel ready to write a film about New York. My first job in the city was the summer of 1984, when I was the assistant to Eric Bogosian at his office down on Mott Street, and I moved to the city full-time in 1988. When I started writing feature films, my mind and imagination were still rooted in Memphis, where I had grown up, and where I’d made my first two features, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue. I lived in NYC, but it was my hometown that I knew from the inside. For me to feel ready to make a film about a place, I need both intimacy and distance. The intimacy with this city came over time, with the creation of memories; the distance came much more slowly.

In many ways, New York grabbed me too hard for me to be able to step outside and look at my life with any clarity. Yes, I was in therapy – many days a week, in fact; it was still the age of psychoanalysis – but my life was narrow and obsessive. The things I cared about, and searched out, were love and sex and making movies. The New York I discovered was a nocturnal one, of late nights in cabs, or on subway platforms; in restaurants with a lover starting a fight, before ordering the next drink; of mornings when I hoped the first coffee at the café on Smith Street would help me through the day. I recognized my own New York in the images I saw in films like Goodfellas or Chantal Akerman’s News from Home. A city driven and in motion. Lonely at times, always on the verge of sadness and ecstasy.

But in my late 30s, I had the good/bad fortune of having life as I knew it explode. I was in a relationship that had been ticking dynamite from the start, but that I tried to control and keep going for nearly a decade. The New York of those years was all contrast: daytime shiny surface, nighttime full of secrets and despair (the kind of double life that has become nearly epidemic in dramatic television these days, so, clearly, my story is not unique). But when the cards came tumbling down – symbolized perhaps most dramatically in a 34-day crack binge that left my partner in the Lenox Hill Hospital mental ward and me a trembling wreck alone in our apartment – I knew on some profound level that it was time for a change.

And so I did. It took a few years (and a few 12-step programs), but by 40, I was doing things differently. As a gay man who had come of age in the minutes after Stonewall, to live a transparent life did not come naturally to me. But like a baby who touches the burning stove one last time before knowing not to, when the New York of my 20s and 30s blew up around me – when the burden of hiding my behavior in this city became impossible to maintain – I finally was ready for real change. To put it most simply, I chose to live an honest life.

And it was only then that I felt truly ready, or able, to write a film about this city. With co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, I wrote my fourth feature, and my first set in New York, Keep the Lights On. What I found, happily, is that the stories were there. The experience and the feelings were all there. I now have them all in my hand, and in my mind, and my New York feels for the first time full of movies I must share.

Want to read more essays by Guild members about writing in New York? Click here to check out WGAE’s new “Written in New York” blog!