Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
I used to work at Barnes & Noble, surrounded by stacks of books. Stacks that had usually been pulled off the shelf and left for me to find by a customer that apparently had the time to leaf through about two-dozen metal working hardbacks, but was in too much of a hurry to put them back where he found them. Patrons would often say, “You must love working here.” When I asked why, the person would inevitably answer, “because of all the books.” I found this incredibly stupid. I didn’t get paid to read. I got paid to pick up the fifty bridal magazines that our lady in waiting decided she was too important to return to the rack.
Sorry… bad memories.
However, my feelings weren’t always shared by my co-workers, of whom I had met plenty over the years that genuinely loved books, and loved working at Barnes & Noble because of it. They not only enjoyed discussing books with customers, but the vibe they got by being surrounded by their favorite works. It’s rare to find people who genuinely enjoy their job, and it was cool to see. I remember one girl in particular who seemed to have read everything on the shelf. She was a Harry Potter fan (or as I like to refer to them, Pott-heads), she was a Twi-hard, she loved them all. She wouldn’t claim all these titles were great literature, but there was a genuine affection for the written word.
One day, when we were closing together I off-handedly mentioned how I thought video games paralleled novels in significant ways. She shot down the idea before I could even clarify my point. “Don’t even say that,” I recall her saying.
I, personally, saw a reflection in how video games put you into the actions of their protagonists, while novels put you in the thoughts and emotions of their characters. They both have an immersive nature in a way that other mediums don’t reflect, one more visceral, the other more thoughtful, but very similar in that both platforms allow you to inhabit their characters. Equals, but opposites. I was fascinated by this connection that the relatively young video game market shared with its wizened predecessor, as the former eked out its own unique ways to spin narrative. My co-worker didn’t want to hear it. Video games were crude toys compared to literature. She’s not alone in that line of thinking.
At my time at the Barn I saw countless mothers dragged to the front counter by their precocious daughters, a precarious stack of books in their arms. As I rang them up, and the price climbed, they would almost always laugh half-heartedly and say, “Well, at least it’s books.” Again, I always found this to be rather weak reasoning.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. The ability to read (and write) is not only invaluable but fundamental, and books can be an amazing forum for children and adults to explore a world of ideas, both fictional and factual. This isn’t necessarily universal though. Just because something appears on a printed page, does not mean it is inherently more valuable than something that appears in another medium. The idea that a book is somehow inherently better than say, a movie, a TV show, or even a video game, is archaic and juvenile. They are all forms of art, and their value comes from content, not their methods of delivery. There is a wide gulf between something like Twilight and the video game Journey (by Thatgamecompany), and if you don’t know which falls on the side of high-art I’m not sure I can help you (here’s a hint, it’s probably not the one with sparkly vampires).
It’s easy to forget that while novels have age on young whippersnappers like movies and TV, that they are a form of popular culture too, and when the novel (and the idea of fiction writing in general) first became part of the public conscience it was met with derision and took a winding road to the mainstream, just like those video games we were talking about earlier. In fact the parallels between modern storytelling forms and the traditional novel are many. For example, stories we now consider classics were once published in serialized installments in popular magazines, like Oliver Twist in Bentley’s Miscellany (the Twist in the title came from the twists that Dickens ended each serialized chapter with), or the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published in The Strand Magazine, before they were collected in novel form. Does sound familiar. It should, most graphic novels you can pick up from the bookshelf are a collection of several comic book issues that compose a single story arc. Have you binge-watched a popular show once it wraps its season, or entire run, on DVD or Netflix? That’s essentially like watching the collected novel version of the show’s serialized run. As these young mediums get older, their similarities to novels, their storytelling predecessor, become more clear.
I read an intriguing article from the AV Club recently that discusses Netflix’s bid as the “next step” in television evolution with its release of the entire first season of House of Cards all at once. It points to a piece by critic Jaime Weinman that discusses how this change in consumption transforms a season’s worth of television into a different kind of art. Both articles compare the metamorphosis into something akin to a long movie. I think this is wrong way to look at it. Television is just growing up, and like the novel before it, its format is evolving. You don’t have to binge-watch House of Cards (in fact, I don’t personally recommend that for any show), but you can flip through its chapters at your own pace, and I think this will become increasingly common.
Weinman suggests that, unlike a novel, a television program doesn’t need that much space to cover its themes, and plot, and that there is a certain amount of repetition inherent in the serialized format that can be excised. To a degree this is absolutely true. A picture is in fact worth a thousand words, and you will no longer necessarily have the need to catch your viewers up with whom your characters are week in and week out. So some stories will no longer have the need for the extra length a traditional broadcast model allows, but some will fit the new environment quite well. Take a look at HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. Based on a best-selling novel series, its visual presentation expedites proceedings considerably compared to its written forbearer, but few would argue that its content could adequately be explored in an “overlong movie”.
As these mediums we love get older they will evolve and change. You may not have to wait a whole week to watch the next episode of your favorite serialized drama, and graphic novels continue to become more and more lucrative for publishers, but like the novel these mediums are here to stay. Also, like the novel, true innovation does not come from format, whether it’s from a magazine to a hard-bound book, film to 3D, or a full release of an entire season of TV. What makes these mediums grow and thrive is the strength of their stories. The Twilight’s and Two and a Half Men may top sales numbers, but it’s the Citizen Kane’s and Watchmen that push these art forms forward.
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