Reading notes: On Sam Mendes and long-form TV

The 9/24/18 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent profile of director Sam Mendes by John Lahr, called “Showman” in the printed edition. It reports this, which I had never noticed:

Much to his union’s chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for “possessory credit”—you won’t find “A film by Sam Mendes” in the credits for any of his movies. A film, he said, “is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It’s not all me. It’s because of me.”

That comes off as a little less modest than Mendes may have thought, but it’s hard to judge how it sounded when he said it. In any case, it’s clear that he doesn’t think a film comes to exist solely because of him.

Something else that struck me was this:

      Outside the window of a seminar room at New College, Oxford, where Mendes faced about a dozen aspiring student filmmakers around a horseshoe-shaped table, the city’s original wall and the college chapel, both built in the fourteenth century, glowed in the sunlight, impervious to the vagaries of time. Mendes, in contrast, was bringing news of change. “The director as a concept, as a cultural phenomenon, is dying,” he said. “Coppola of ‘The Godfather,’ Scorsese of ‘Taxi Driver,’ Tarantino of ‘Pulp Fiction’—these figures are not going to emerge in the way they did in the twentieth century. The figures who are going to emerge will come out of long-form television.” He continued, “Now is an unbelievable time to be alive and a storyteller. The amount of original content being made, watched, talked about is unprecedented. You’re in the strongest position if you write. If you’re a writer, you can also be a showrunner. A showrunner is the new director.” Mendes invoked David Simon (“The Wire”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”). Then, like a cinematic Moses coming down from the mountain, he reeled off the eye-watering amounts that will be spent annually on original material in the next few years by the streaming companies: Netflix, $10 billion; Amazon, $8 billion; Apple, $4.2 billion. “These streaming companies are going to steamroll the traditional studio system,” he said. (Hollywood, during the same period, will spend about $2 billion.)

In show business, form follows money. The boom of the streaming services has also changed the shape of filmed stories, shifting the old theatrical formula of “two hours’ traffic” into a new guideline of ten to sixty hours. “They want one never-ending movie,” Mendes said. “The model they’re chasing is ‘Game of Thrones.’ ” As a producer, Mendes understands the market forces; as a filmmaker, he resists the attenuated narrative. “I was brought up to believe that a movie should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For me, a narrative is something you tell an audience in an evening. You can put your arms around it. It’s singular.” He added, “Even though my company produces a lot of television, I don’t feel comfortable not knowing if an audience is watching, or whether they’re watching all ten hours or ten minutes at a time. That’s where my theatre roots, I suppose, are most clear.”

Although he is realistic about Hollywood’s devotion to action and adventure movies—“They don’t give a shit about Academy movies and critics’ darlings”—Mendes takes heart from such ambitious studio films as “The Revenant” and “The Life of Pi.” “You can only make them if you can marshal the forces and the money from the studios,” he said. “For that, you have to have had a career over the past twenty years. The problem with these young directors is that the only way they can get that cachet is by doing a franchise film.”

One thing that led me to wonder about—I found myself thinking about it when I woke up—is a question that has occurred to me a few times before: how does one teach a course on the kind of TV material that Mendes is talking about? Needless to say, it depends on exactly what you’re trying to teach, but still, a work of art in this realm is longer than anything that’s traditionally been taught in the humanities. You can teach all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in a single semester and have room left over for other work. You can read a representative sampling of Henry James’s stories and novels from across his career, combine that with work by related writers such as Hawthorne and Dickens, add in some critical reading, and fit it all in a one-semester seminar, such as the one I took in the SMU English department in the 70s. (No doubt you could do more of all of that in a university that places higher demands on its students.) But how do you deal with the TV work of, say, Aaron Sorkin, which consists of more than one series? How do you deal with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or The Sopranos, or Lost, or Sex and the City? How do you deal with any of the works that Mendes names? Each of them, to the extent that I know (I haven’t seen The Wire), is a paragon of modern long-form television, eminently worth considering in its entirety as a single, coherent creation, but how do you study it in a class?

An important part of this, which I wonder about in the case of present-day film courses too, is how the students watch the material. It used to be the case in film history that we’d do some reading on our own, but the films were shown to us in class (or sometimes, I think, in an outside-the-class-schedule screening). Can you now assign the students to buy or rent a DVD, or make the films available for viewing in the library? And the same applies to TV. Teaching Mad Men would be workable if you assume the students watch somewhere between 4 and 10 episodes a week outside of class, but how do you arrange for that? The challenge would be lesser if you assigned only parts of the show instead of dealing with all 92 episodes across its seven seasons, but there would still be a lot to watch. (Critical reading, such as the excellent Mad Men study I read, would probably need to be included as well, but that’s the old-fashioned kind of homework.) In any case, teaching about modern long-form TV begins to look less like an arts and humanities project and more like something in mathematics or the sciences, although even that isn’t a great comparison. The basic calculus course at SMU took three semesters (totaling 9 credit hours of coursework), and there was an intense version that met five days a week for two semesters (for 10 credit hours), but you can learn a lot of calculus in that amount of time. I wonder how much long-form TV you can cover in two or three semesters.


Memory and humility: Two notes on Brett Kavanaugh

One: During the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, disagreements arose over what would seem to be basic facts, such as whether Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party or whether Kavanaugh even attended a party where Ford was present. One thing that’s important to keep in mind while wrestling with questions of what really happened and what it means is that memory can be an unreliable witness. It’s possible that Ford and Kavanaugh differ without either of them lying; that is, it’s possible that neither is knowingly and deliberately telling an untruth. A New York Times article that I found a few days ago explored this from the standpoint of current scientific thinking about how memory works; some elements of the remarkable movie Marjorie Prime touched on the same issues (that film deserves its own discussion), and an Italian researcher whose work concerns memory and history once concluded from his studies, as I recall, that memory is not a record of what happened—memory is itself something that happens. To put it simply, we know that memory can’t necessarily be trusted (to borrow from Joe Orton, our memory plays us false even on the subject of its own reliability), except some of us apparently don’t know that at all, or have conveniently forgotten it, which accounts for many of the loud accusations of lying that we’ve heard. The Times article gave very few examples; other, bigger ones are out there, such as the odd fact that some people remember learning that Nelson Mandela died in prison.

Two: It’s conceivable that a person of either gender who had engaged in wrong or questionable behavior in the past, knowingly or not, could still find a place on the Supreme Court. But a person who, instead of admitting the fact or at least the possibility, and attempting to explain it, and accepting the consequences, insists that nothing of the kind did happen or could have happened and that anyone who says otherwise is part of a conspiracy—such a person is at odds with his or her own life as well as, in the two particular cases I have in mind, at odds with developing norms of our culture. This person may have a claim on our pity but can have only a partial claim on our admiration, no matter how far they’ve advanced in their career, and has no claim to a job arbitrating difficult questions of justice and law and society. In 1991, one such person, an accused perpetrator of sexual misconduct, joined the Supreme Court. That we now have two is no kind of progress.