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Narrative: Deep Moments, Second Lives

Critic, San Antonio denizen and old friend Michael Barrett responds to Steven Berlin Johnson’s NYT article about the “density” of contemporary TV narratives:

There’s another type of complexity that has nothing to do with processing multiple plots but with what I can call the “deep moment.” This is sometimes described as “atmosphere” vs. plot, and “Twin Peaks” excelled at it. It was at its best not as a soap opera of the “what happens next” variety, but as an existential mystery of the “what’s happening now” variety, those lengthy scenes when, to the casual or average viewer, “nothing is happening.” The dreams and silences that caused some people to say “I don’t get it.”

Let’s compare with film. As Hollywood often makes fast-paced, kinetic, video-gamish action films, they increasingly produce films that flicker before the eye, but in which “nothing happens” in terms of drama, character or depth of meaning. Meanwhile, many high-profile filmmakers around the world are eschewing this for the models of Tarkovsky, Bresson, Godard, Bergman, etc. Filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wei, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ceylan, Kiarostami, Sokurov and many others make films that focus on lengthy unchanging scenes and extended dialogue, scenes where “nothing happens,” but which demand intense intellectual concentration to “read” the image for subtle emotional clues in colors, composition, rhythm, etc.

Modern TV tends to avoid this, although I’ve mentioned “Twin Peaks.” Older TV usually avoided it too, but it was often static and some writers worked with that well. (For breathtaking brilliance, I refer you to the “Outer Limits” episode called “The Form of Things Unknown” and the “Tales of Tomorrow” episode called “The Window,” which brilliantly exploits live TV as its own medium.) More to the point, many Hollywood classics (e.g. “Sunset Boulevard”) are incredibly rich both within each frame and in the “arc,” balancing many meanings and emotions simultaneously, but they often seem slow and talky to the modern viewer.

I have nothing really to add here, except that some of these static moments in cinema can bore the bejeezus out of me (especially when I’m not ready for it). Narrative pacing and rhythm is a matter of habit; West Wing dialogue initially seemed very fast; now I no longer notice it. Often these cinematic effects occur in the early stages of a genre’s development(when there are no rules or formulas) and in the later stages (when the artist is doing everything to break free from his predecessors).

Dave Weinburger, in a longish review of Johnson’s book, adds:

Although Half Life 2 is, as Steve points out, far more complex than the previous generation’s Pac-Man, for all its amazing physics and integrated puzzles and pretty good pixelated acting, HL2 gives us a toy world. The world of Emma Bovary, on the other hand, doesn’t resolve to rules and puzzles. It’s messy, ambiguous, and truly complex. Of course Steve knows this, but he underplays it when pointing out the hidden complexity of video games.

I’ll add this: trying to figure out complexity is a completely different process for videogames vs. books. In books (and even film), the reader or viewer wonders about what the Author/Auteur intends to happen. In games, on the other hand, the player is less concerned about the Author’s intent than the quirky nature of the program. What choices does the environment allow? Gaming is about uncovering choices and discerning optimal outcomes within unknown parameters; literature is about that too (a little bit); but also understanding moral situations, fate, and accepting consequences. Videogames are still in their rudimentary stages (leaving aside Second Life and Sims for a moment). But most players would prefer dying (and starting over) to continuing gameplay severely crippled or reduced to a gamelife of tedium and boredom. (See Wagner James Au about emergent decision making in Second Life).

Novels are videogames with the boring parts edited out.

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