Saturday, March 17, 2007

Archives Project: STL #8

Title: The Eighth Art
Description: Semi-coherent ramblings about television
Date: 21 August 2003

A review of the television I was watching in summer 2003. I actually watch way less TV now. The commercials have really gotten to me, so I wait for almost everything on DVD now. Recent DVD series include The Sopranos, The Monarch of the Glen (BBC; J likes it), and the last season of Buffy.

Although I claim that Simplest Things Last is a “review of culture,” it has so far skirted the non-artistic manifestations of culture. Perhaps one day I will write about bistros and politics, but for now I want to concentrate on the arts. I noticed a few weeks ago that my topics have been pretty broad within the arts, and thought it might be clever to devote STL 8 to television. Stuffed in my head with other trivia is the fact that television has been called “the eighth art,” though I didn’t know where that designation came from, or what exactly the other seven arts were. Turns out there was a book called The Eighth Art: Twenty-Three Essays On Television published way back in the early sixties, but forty-some years before that Eisenstein had called cinema the eighth art. I haven’t inspected either of those texts, so I don’t know what seven arts they’re adding to, but if they mean to build on the Seven Liberal Arts they’re sadly misguided. The Seven Liberal Arts refer to the trivium and quadrivium of a medieval education, but I don’t think grammar and math are usually considered “arts” in the contemporary sense.

Regardless, I like the contest between television and film (perhaps I should say “movies” to distinguish from film as medium) for the title. Television and movies use different media (video vs. film), have different cultural significance, and different economic constraints. However, they share syntax and vocabulary, the basic components of language. A letter-boxed movie shown on television can’t be said to be categorically different then when shown in a theater, i.e. no “translation” needs to occur. Those other distinctions start to blur, too. Movies (I keep having to retype “movies” for its synecdoche “film”) are sometimes shot on digital video these days, and while these certainly look more like video than film, you couldn’t sensibly claim that Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a television show. While some circles still dismiss television on principle, great numbers of culturally savvy and intelligent viewers are devoted to television shows, either for the considerable aesthetic achievement of shows the dear departed Buffy or The West Wing, or for the ironic kicks provided by reality shows. Though some of the cultural elite (which with some hilarity I realize I must be said to belong to) still poo-poo TV and claim they only own one to watch videos or TV, there has been enough compelling work to elevate the cultural significance of television.

Television, for better or worse, is the mirror of American culture. Right now, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is on. It’s the summer hit I guess, emerging from cable to network TV. The show’s a lot of fun, but also is a watershed moment in mainstream entertainment in that is shows gay men as some cultural superheroes. Of course it plays into stereotypes (gay and straight) and of course it’s human and affecting. I don’t know if I’ll start watching it, if it will become one of “my shows,” but I doubt it. It just seems like it will run out of gas, and the “culture expert,” who weighs in on romance and what to look for in a picnic basket worries me. I didn’t realize that ‘culture’ was ‘gay,’ or food for that matter, but of course it’s true. Stereotypes of straight manhood are bereft of subtleties. I have a sinking feeling that I’ll keel into the guiltiness embodied by Fox’s The O.C. It looks terrible of course, and I thought I outgrew predictable sleaziness with Melrose Place. However, I caught a minute of it while popping a video in, and the background music was Rufus Wainwright, and when I stopped the tape I was watching, it was Nick Drake. Drake of course was unfortunately commercialized by Volkeswagen, and a tasteful music director can’t really carry a show. But then I heard that Jane Espenson, the wittiest of Buffy writers, was doing scripts, so maybe it’s not as tired as it seems.

There was a time in my early twenties when I didn’t watch any television. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even own one, so I had to catch my movies at the theater. If I can resist the lure of the O.C., I’ll be heading back in that direction. Buffy’s gone of course, but my loyalty extends to Angel, though it has never given me a fraction of the enjoyment. I may also give Eliza Dushku’s show a chance, and I heard that Espenson is writing for the Gilmore Girls as well. Bernie Mac offers intermittent charms but can hardly be considered appointment television. But the West Wing was pompous even with the departed Sorkin, so I imagine it will be pretty bad next year, 24 may have worn out its formula and parts of its cast (specifically Kim), and Alias never really got me. But that’s okay, I can always use my time to write on the other seven arts, whatever they may be.