In honor of the late Haskell Wexler (1922-2015), I thought I would post this essay I wrote in UCLA film school on Wexler’s iconic film “Medium Cool. Famous for its blending of fiction and reality against the backdrop of the 1968 Chicago riots, "Cool" was at once a forerunner of the “unscripted” reality TV genre and also a prophetic jeremiad in the vein of media critics Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan.
In my younger days, L.A. was Bayside High, California Dreams, Encino Man, "Valley Girls," Beverly Hills 90210, Disneyland, Hollywood, the Oscars. Or it was a place of constant calamity: the Northridge earthquake, mudslides, fires, various car chases chronicled by the vulture news helicopters L.A. helped normalize. The point is: my understanding of L.A. was (and still is, to some extent) formed by media portrayals, mass-communicated narratives of "reality" packaged chiefly as entertainment. This is how we understand the world.
Since some time in the late 90s, online chatting has been a popular form of communication among people below a certain age. Whether AIM, gmail chat, facebook chat, ichat, or whatever other mode of usage, the online ping pong form of communication is something most of us have participated in or do participate in on a daily basis.
I. A lot of people are hating on Prince Caspian, for understandable (if not completely sympathetic) reasons: the movie is vastly different than the book, especially in overall tone and spirit. The film is a swashbuckling war epic that is about 66% battle scenes and/or sword fights, and certainly this is not what Lewis’s classic children’s tale is about. And yet I enjoyed the film, and I’m perplexed at all those who angrily dismiss it as “missing the point.” What do you expect when a children’s book from 50 years ago is transformed into a big-budget summer blockbuster in the year 2008? (That said, I do suggest reading this creative critique of the film.)
I don’t want to defend the film too much, because it is certainly not perfect; but to judge it on the merits of the book is not completely fair. The moving image, after all, is a remarkably different medium than the written word. Cinema removes the element of imagination (or at least downplays it) which is crucial to books and novels (especially children’s fantasy!). In books, we visualize the characters, settings, and action. In film, it is done for us—our attention directed hither and yon from one set piece, sequence, or costume to another. In lieu of the removed element of “interaction” (the ability of the reader to co-create the reality of the story), cinema must compensate in other ways: offering high-intensity spectacle, gloss, and action to hold our interest and transport us into a world.
To fault Caspian for being too action-heavy, then, is to misunderstand the purpose of cinematic adaptation. A film could never equal the experience of a book; the best book-to-film adaptations are those that are the most true to form (i.e. cinematic) and that don’t get bogged down in something that is ontologically contrary (i.e. the literary). Film theorist Andre Bazin harped on this, and for good reason. He wrote that “If the cinema today is capable of effectively taking on the realm of the novel and the theater, it is primarily because it is sure enough of itself and master enough of its means so that it no longer needs assert itself in the process. That is to say it can now aspire to fidelity—not the illusory fidelity of a replica—through an intimate understanding of its own true aesthetic structure which is a prerequisite and necessary condition of respect for the works it is about to make its own.”
The film version of Narnia does Lewis justice to not try to capture his literary genius on film. It does better to focus on its own form (spectacularized summer blockbuster) and wow the audience with cinematic wonder, in the way Lewis wows us with his poetic literary whimsy. One might complain, for example, that the film transforms Susan into a Tarantino-eque killing machine, wielding a bow-and-arrow with Legolas-like tenacity. But this is a film, built around action, so it’s much better to have our heroine Susan smack-dab in the middle of it all rather than cheering from the off-camera sidelines. Sure, the film loses much of the book’s innocence and spiritual “themes”—the “deeper magic” of Narnia, after all, is not something that WETA special effects can really evoke (certainly not as well as the written words of Lewis could). But the film offers us something altogether more visceral that the book could never express. But we’re talking about apples and oranges here: films and books. We should move on.
“The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan. Meaning: the form of a message shapes its content. Indeed, the form is itself a kind of content. McLuhan wrote in the 60s, as the television form was revolutionizing the world. His contribution to communication theory was the idea that technological change (with particular respect to media and communication technologies) shapes humanity in deep and significant ways: new media forms “work us over completely,” he wrote. “They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”
McLuhan divided history into eras and epochs of media transformation: the tribal era (oral, tribal culture, face-to-face communication), the literate era (invention of alphabets and written language, emphasis on the visual), the print era (printing press, birth of mass communication, visual emphasis), and the electronic era (computers, telegraph, emphasis on touch and hearing). Whether or not one agrees completely with McLuhan’s somewhat suspicious lineage here, I think it is definitely true that technology effects how humans relate to each other and the world.
And I wonder if we are not moving into some new “era” that is better fit to our digified, attention-challenged generation? A sort of bite-sized, schizophrenic, decontextualized-yet-hyperlinked period of human civilization.
Television was probably the beginning of this “snack” era. Its form, as noted by McLuhan’s heir Neil Postman, was one of decontextualized soundbites: segments of entertainment juxtaposed with advertisements, “news,” sports, and other diverse occurrences. The form of television news, for example, was one of total and utter schizophrenia: “this happened… and then this… now weather, now sports, now BREAKING NEWS, now pop culture fluff…” This very form (emphasizing ands rather than whys), argued Postman, has conditioned the human mind to be less capable of understanding context and perspective. In the stream of broadcast images and commercials, there is very little recourse to depth or understanding.
And how much moreso is this the case with the Internet! Here we are freed from all over-arching narratives, causal linkage or contextualized coherence. We can (and do) hop from CNN.com to TMZ.com, from Bible.com to ESPN, picking up bits and pieces and snippets of whatever our fingers feel led to click on. Since I’m on my computer now I might as well mimic this in my writing, since writing as a form is changing as well…
Here I am on CNN.com, surveying the “news” on Sunday, May 18, 2008. Oh, there is a positive review from Cannes of Indiana Jones! Richard Corliss liked it, saying that it “delivers smart, robust, familiar entertainment.” This eases my mind a bit… though I have heard that other Cannes audience members were not quite as wowed as Corliss was… Speaking of Cannes, I just saw a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie from the Kung Fu Panda premiere. Looking very, very good. I hope Brad Pitt isn’t messing up Terrence Malick’s new film Tree of Life, which is filming in Texas right now. Evidently Angelina is pregnant with twins, which probably means some unfortunate little Burmese orphan won’t get adopted this year. Speaking of Burma, I’m now clicking on the latest CNN headline about the cyclone in Mynamar… Evidently the UN is now saying over 100,000 might be dead. Meanwhile, China just started its three days of mourning for the earthquake victims, which now number 32,477. And if we’re talking numbers, I now see that Prince Caspian raked in $56.6 million to be the top film at the box office this weekend. That’s a lot more that Speed Racer made last week, but a lot less than Iron Man made in its first weekend. And the death toll from the earthquake in China is a lot more than the toll of those killed in tornadoes last weekend in America (24 I seem to recall), but a lot less than the 2004 tsunami disaster (more than 225,000 killed).
Unfortunately, as easy and accessible as the “news” and “numbers” are for all these things, there is scarcely little in the way of making sense of it all… Indeed, the very fact that we juxtapose things like Cannes glamour and human misery (earthquakes, cyclones) as if they were equally crucial bits of information makes it difficult to think of anything in terms of meaning or context. But perhaps we don’t want to. Perhaps the world is just too crazy, too horribly gone-wrong to reckon with on any level deeper than the snack-sized soundbite. To come to terms with the scope of the Asian disasters means to think about deeper things like God, death, evil, and nature, which gets quite broad and philosophical in a jiffy. Taking time to make connections is a dying art, just as reading is… and writing, and newspapers, and printed anything… Basically the “long form” and all that that entails is falling to the wayside in our easy-pieces-based culture. Thus, I should probably end this rather long blog post, and I should probably end somewhere near the start, as if clicking back on my browser about fifty times.
Prince Caspian the book and Prince Caspian the movie are quite different things, representing different times and cultures and mindsets. It’s true that the latter loses some of the magic and meaning of the former, but so it is with life these days. We’ve supplanted meaning with simulacra and snack-sized spectacle. Even though we probably need it more than ever, “the deeper magic” is ever more abstract and inaccessible to a world so desperate for instant and easy gratification.