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June 3, 2002 12:12 PM   Subscribe

This column (NYT/reg. req) gets my vote for Stupidest Theory of the Day. Basically, he says that movies are more memorable and stay with us longer than TV shows. Huh?! He's kidding, right? (more inside).
posted by sassone (24 comments total)
He thinks that movies stay in our minds and we hold them in our hearts longer than TV shows? I would say that most people, while they can name their favorite movies, actually LOVE their TV shows. That's why shows like "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld" and "Friends" and "The X-Files" and tons of others do so well in reruns. We mark moments in our lives by the timeline of the TV shows we watch (and the music we listen to), not some movie we might see at the multiplex and then forget about the following week, only remembering it two years later, when we channel surf while our TV show is in a commercial and we happen upon it on cable (or pop in the DVD). He says that "all terminated series have one thing in common: they will leave only the vaguest memories behind." Not the good ones (hell, even the bad ones are more memorable than many movies). Besides, if certain details about a particular episode or lines of dialogue or a plot are hazy a few months or a few years later, is that really a breakthrough observation? Isn't that inevitable, when you're talking about 22 episodes a year over 3, 5, 10 years, and not a single two hour movie? What's his point exactly?

Great movies stand the test of time, sure, but TV, because it is "like wallpaper" and is always on in our homes, is more memorable and stays with us longer.
posted by sassone at 12:14 PM on June 3, 2002

Sorry. He is right and you are wrong. But he is either playing a game on us or off base. A film has a beginning, middle, end--a story of some kind. We remember this narrative. A TV series has, what, 10 episodes? They yield up very slight stories, and what we recall is the main charcter, his type, whether the series is funny or serious etc But do you recall vividly the 7-10 episodes that make up a series for one season? I don't.
Put another way: the difference between a novel and a collection of short stories.
posted by Postroad at 12:28 PM on June 3, 2002

This guy is right. I saw the movie, "The Stuff" when it first came out 17 years ago. It was so dreadful that to this day I can't get it out of my mind.

posted by Qubit at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2002

Ah, Neil Gabler . . . He is the author of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (notice that the title was not Life the TV Show). The book, like this article, was not very original. He basically reveals what others have already revealed. I agree with Postroad that Gabler is right regarding the greater mental permanence of film as it relates to narrative (not to mention cinematic experience); however, the theory is not too original. Don't get me wrong, sassone. I agree that TV is more pervasive on a day-to-day basis, but that's also why it is less memorable. What are you more likely to remember: your wallpaper or the van Gogh painting nailed to the wall?
posted by jacknose at 12:52 PM on June 3, 2002

Don't be dissin' Chocolate Chip Charlie, Qubit.
posted by ph00dz at 12:55 PM on June 3, 2002

Time was when I could tell you what episode of Star Trek it was by the first 30 seconds. I can say "Rob Roy Fingerhead" to my brother, and we will both know exactly which episode of the Monkees I am talking about.

We remember what we want to remember, whether it's movies, television series, songs, paintings, etc. If you value something, you remember it better. Gabler, who has an axe to grind with pop culture (and grinds it ad nauseam in the book mentioned by jacknose), has it out for TV.
posted by briank at 1:01 PM on June 3, 2002

Postroad: not sure what you're talking about. A TV series has at least 22 eps in a season, and you spread that over 5 or 8 yrs, that's a lot. And, yes, I do remember stories and dialogue.

Jacknose: it depends on the wallpaper!
posted by sassone at 1:05 PM on June 3, 2002

I seem to recall an essay by Roger Ebert -- can't find the link; sorry -- where he talks about the inferiority of digital projection to film. In the article, he cites a study that was done that found a big difference in how our brains respond to film versus television -- something about sitting in a dark room among strangers, the smell of popcorn everywhere, watching light projected, flickering on a large screen, etc. that heightened the emotional response. Quite different from watching television -- which is just a bulb, really.
posted by drinkcoffee at 1:07 PM on June 3, 2002

Somewhat agree with the editorial, but for a counterpoint one could bring up The Simpsons, which I can remember dialogue and plot points from episodes years ago.

Star Trek is also another example of a show that hasn't evaporated from the public's conciousness in years, that people still refer to. Sure you could argue that this is because of reruns, but that's why we remember Casablanca too.
posted by bobo123 at 1:10 PM on June 3, 2002

They essentially give the audience a larger-than-life experience, whether it is Humphrey Bogart romancing Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca" or Tobey Maguire confronting Willem Dafoe in "Spider-Man." Just about the last thing most people want from their movies is real life.

I don't agree at all. The reason certain scenes from movies are memorable is that they express moments of revelation into the characters that are very much like real life. To take his example of Casablanca, in the final scene we can understand and sympathize with Bogart's predicament between his sense of duty and his love for Bergman and this is what effects us, and so this is what we remember. The reason most TV is not memorable is that is only the best of it fully expresses character.
posted by dydecker at 1:10 PM on June 3, 2002

But dydecker, the situation in Casablanca is obviously larger than life, and 99.9% of the viewers of the movie, though they may be able to identify with the situation in some small way, would never have been in anything close to that situation.

The reason most TV is not memorable is that is only the best of it fully expresses character

Yes. That's true.

I would almost say that television, because it's always there, and is 90% chaff, is by nature less valuable than film. But then you have Hollywood cinema, which is even more vacuous, but with more subtle ads.
posted by Kafkaesque at 1:39 PM on June 3, 2002

I don't see how "quality" has (necessarily) anything to do with how "memorable" something is (and don't get into an argument that movies are "better" than the best of TV - that's not really true either). Gabler never proves his main thesis: that movies are more memorable than TV. Pretty big statement, and I have to disagree with it. As briank said, we remember what we want to remember, whether it's movies or music or television, how it affects us and how it pertains to something in our lives (or provides escapism and entertainment). And I'll go one step further to say that because the TV is in our home, and we come to love and know these shows and characters over and over again, it is not only more memorable, it forms us even more than the movies we see form us.

I can remember plots and dialogue and everything else from eps of The Simpsons and The X-Files and The Dick Van Dyke Show just as well as anything from the movies. These shows, in some way, have made me the person I am today (note: I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, but still...).
posted by sassone at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2002

I was coming into this thread to strongly disagree... then I thought about it. The truth is that I watch a lot of television. But if you ask me to quote a character from Six Feet Under or Alias, I couldn't. Why? The answer is simple, volume. Tyler Durden (Fight Club) is on the screen for a single couch sitting. His story is more compact, his lines more memorable. Alias, however, was spread out over so many episodes that it's not each individual line of dialogue that's as important as the larger story arc.

In cinema, you are shooting for the best method of impact in the least amount of time. Television gives more time to explore, to hit and miss.

This theory, of course, blows apart when it comes to shows like the Simpsons, where culture and comedy mesh into a larger, more sinister and viral type of entity. Weeks later I'll be quoting things from that show and not even remembering what show it was from. Stupid sexy Flanders.
posted by eyeballkid at 2:09 PM on June 3, 2002

If Gabler's right, then the folks at the network my wife always tunes to are misguided if they think they have a purpose in life. Even I have to admit a re-addiction to Wally, June, Ward, and the Beav as a relaxing antidote to the day at dinnertime.
posted by fpatrick at 2:22 PM on June 3, 2002

drinkcoffee - yes, that's exactly what I thought of upon reading this. Ebert's anti-digital screed is here. His position is almost McLuhanist - he argues that film (as projected in theatres) and video affect different parts of the brain. I'd agree - not that I'm an expert in perception but if you learn anything about the differences in resolution, contrast ratio, colour, etc. between film and video you'd have to admit that film viewing is a much more intense experience than watching TV. This could explain why one's memories of it would be more vivid - but from this POV watching films at home on tape or disc (or watching them digitally projected in cinemas) is functionally equivalent to watching TV.
posted by D at 2:24 PM on June 3, 2002

the situation in Casablanca is obviously larger than life, and 99.9% of the viewers of the movie, though they may be able to identify with the situation in some small way, would never have been in anything close to that situation.

It is not identification "in some small way"; it is the emotional climax of the movie. Bogart is torn between choosing between love and duty, something that
a lot of people seem to struggle with every day.
posted by dydecker at 3:04 PM on June 3, 2002

Movies...TV...BLAH! The theater (UK:theatre) (OZ: live barf party, OYE!) is the ultimate art! None of this hack,commercial crap refuse can ever equal ...Uhhh...excuse me....apparently I have to go. My agent just called with a hot commercial voice-over job.
posted by HTuttle at 3:13 PM on June 3, 2002

I thought his point was rather obvious. TV shows are more like real-life - mostly repetitive but punctuated with small dramatic moments. Try reading the TV-guide like description of sitcom episodes: "Monica loses her hairbrush and thinks she has amnesia","The Beaver makes a new friend","Fred takes up astrology","Chrissy's father comes to visit" etc. These are the events of our lives, which make up our day and about which we chatter and gossip about with others like a virtual extension of our social network.

Movies, on the other hand, have only two hours or so to make a point. It is a compressed narrative about the dramatic, definitive moments in our lives - the moments when, to use a cliche, nothing is ever the same again. Falling in love in wartime. Becoming a larger-than-life superhero.

The former are like campfire gossip, entertaining, sometimes useful, memorable insofar as it helps to build your cultural framework. The latter are closer to mythic tales, tales of the gods, parables that we never forget.
posted by vacapinta at 3:46 PM on June 3, 2002

I'm with the majority here -- Gabler is basically correct. My sense of it is that a movie can generally be self-contained; the characters in movies have things happen to them. TV shows, on the other hand, are a serial narrative form that eschews permanent changes -- some more than others, of course. Star Trek: Voyager fans especially railed against the "reset button" that made sure by the end of each episode nothing substantive had happened to anyone. Sitcoms are also much more vulnerable to this kind of stricture.

The very best TV, of course, overcomes this. Bochco was one of the first producers to really accomplish something of lasting value with the medium -- I still say that certain NYPD Blue eps were the first TV shows that, for me, ever had the depth and texture of a film -- though I have fond memories of certain St. Elsewhere and HSB entries as well. Today, we have cinematically-inspired tours-de-forces such as the Sopranos and Six Feet Under, where character development and dramatic plot take precedence over the reset button.
posted by dhartung at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2002

Many believe David Lynch, director of feature films, was at his best during his stint on television with "Twin Peaks." The constraints of the medium, and the networks, forced him to stay within a narrative structure, which he's wont not to do. But because of this, he rebelled and morphed his "weirdness" into somthing palpable--something everyone was watching--and seeped into America's consciousness.

"Twin Peaks" is the favorite work of most Lynchphiles.
posted by brittney at 7:38 PM on June 3, 2002

Two important things Gabler failed to dwell on: commercials and intelligence. Commercials have an astute way of completely destroying one's attention span. And 99 times out of 100, the characters and stories presented on television are about as intelligent as a bowl of tapioca pudding's ability to testify as an expert witness in court. I have endless Monty Python sketches forever in my head that I can recall and meticulously perform from memory and even a few moments from the 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows, if you were to throw hapennies into my hat. One of the reasons for this is simply because I hate commercials and most of the television I have watched has either been prerecorded (zip zip with the fast forward button!) or missing commercials altogether. If the quality of the art is meaningful enough, then people will remember it, provided that one isn't distracted by the MTV cutting and strange pretexts that ghastly commercials impinge upon us on a daily basis.

In fact, as Brittney suggests, my roommate and I frequently reenact a strange mix of Leland Palmer's eldritch whines to Laura Palmer and Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant whenever we apologize to each other: "Auuuuuuuuuuuugggh! I'm sooooooooooo sorry!" Why? Compelling characters, compelling performances and downright strange associations. All minus commercials thanks to the format of videotape and DVD.
posted by ed at 6:49 AM on June 4, 2002

Also, what self-respecting Prisoner fan could ever forget the absolutely outre sport of kosho? Nutty music, two trampolines separated by a pool of water and two guys jumping up and down with sticks trying to attack each other.
posted by ed at 6:51 AM on June 4, 2002

Best, if freakiest, TV moment ever: The dancing midget and Laura Palmer talking funny in that dream sequence in the second episode of Twin Peaks. Gawd, I thought I was having a flashback. My mind just sort of jumped out of my skull and started ya-ya-ing.

"Where I come from, the birds sing a pretty song." "There is always music." Whew...
posted by alumshubby at 10:17 AM on June 4, 2002

You can always tell the season of Star Trek: The Next Generation you are watching by the shape of Worf's head ...
posted by feelinglistless at 11:12 AM on June 5, 2002

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