The Rise of a New Narrative Order

Too small a role for Ray?
It's pretty much a given that every musician wants to be an actor and vice versa, decades of bad crooning and wooden acting makes this argument a mute point however in recent years there's been a sub-migration from the silver screen that's threatening to undermine if not ruin cinema.  In 1999 David Chase had his first choice for his new HBO show turn down the role because he was a "film actor" and wasn't looking to work in television, that actor was Ray Liotta and the role was quickly filled by James Gandolfini.  86 episodes over 6 years and 8 years later what we, as an audience had, was a portrayal of a hugely complex and realistic gangster but most importantly human being.  The Sopranos was so rich with detail that on many occasions Chase would be approached by wise guys wanting to know who told him about this or that.  Two years later Kiefer Sutherland lived through the first of his 8 really long days as CTU agent Jack Bauer and in doing so created a character with such depth in emotion, loss and achievement that fans of 24 could share a look with special agent and know the inner workings of his head.

Living with loss the Bauer way.
12 years on from the television revolution and the amount of film actors that have made the leap to the small screen has grown at a rate that's faster than those making the "big move" to the film industry ala George Clooney post E.R.  James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, Steve Buscemi, Don Cheadle, Carl Weathers, Al Pacino and of course Sarah Jessica Parker.  These are actors who at their best with a good script are often unrivalled and have all ventured into the work of serial dramas or mini series' creating some of the complicated and emotive characters of their careers.  The reasons for this quality of characterisation is obvious when you think about it.  Character development in cinema can only go so far, you typically have 2-3 hours to tell your story and develop the relationship between audience and characters is something that needs to be immediate in a lot of narrative cinema.  Oz is the perfect example of TV's luxury when it comes to the gradual development of rich, even contradictory, characters.  Each episode of the hit prison drama would focus on fleshing out elements of it's ensemble  cast, whether it be the rest for their incarceration, their family, their dreams, fears etc. by the time the show aired it's series finale most of the audience knew Beecher, Schillenger and O'Reilly better than they know some of their relatives and any character on cinema.  If you consider the character of Jack Bauer and compare the information you know about him and the levels of complexity to his character you have witnessed and compare that to James Bond, who has been around longer but has had less screen time and less narrative reflecting the sides of his personality and it's blatantly obvious that as a medium for rich characters and even to attract character actors film simply can't compete.

The family Soprano versus Corleone, both are Italian American in origin, both are heavily invested in organisation crime but if you were tasked to go to make dinner conversation with which one would you be able to pass the night away with?  "and how's Meadow?...Oh yes it was a real shock to hear about Christopher"...point taken?

Private Ryan or Pacific Lite?
Film has always had the spending power that television can't match but even that is changing.  24 never had issue with spending the money to make the show rival anything on film, by the end of the shows run it was one of the reasons Fox looked at when cancelling the show.  The Pacific is another perfect example of how television has stopped thinking small and isn't afraid to bring the huge production value narratives directly into your living room.  With the second World War painstakingly brought back to the screen The Pacific stands strong alongside titles like Saving Private Ryan, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers and matches film in every field with the exception of character development (which it surpasses).  On top of that you have to add the gaming medium, something which Hollywood has adapted from over the years with almost zero success is threatening to surpass it's older cousin.

The problem with plumbers
Gaming has always been something of a niche, something that when you talked of great stories and interesting character most people would roll their eyes and say something vaguely insulting and to be fair you probably deserved it, Super Mario Bros was an entertaining game but had nothing in it in the way of narrative or character and the film didn't even have the bonus of being enjoyable.  All that has changed, in fact the weakest games on the market these days are those that are based on movies.  A sure sign that the balance of quality and power is on the shift.

GTA's bests Michael Mann's Vice
Rockstar Games has been at forefront of this charge.  Having revamped the Grand Theft Auto franchise with the 3rd instalment they managed to do with the 4th what David Chase had failed to do (lure Ray Liotta away from film) and in the 5th featured Dennis Hopper, who had tasted life outside of film as Victor Drazen in 24.  Since then there has been a steady stream of games that threaten to lap cinema as a form of narrative storytelling and audience interaction.  Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy in the U.S) delivered a template for the future of gaming, pitched as the first interactive film to delivered a complicated narrative, a noir-esque  mystery and rich characterisation let alone the games "cinematography" which was excellent.  Since then we've had Condemned about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer, Heavy Rain from the makers of Fahrenheit, Red Dead Redemption and Dead Rising which is essentially an interactive version of Dawn of the Dead and better than the 2004 remake of the George A. Romero film.  It even has a more compelling and interesting story than the source material.

You work the case your way
The best of gaming is still to come and in a matter of months we could be in the position where we can state that gaming is being to make better "movies" than the film industry.  L.A Noire, set for release in late May 2011, a 1940's film noir set against a similar background to Brian DePalma's Black Dahlia with multiple possible narratives throughout the course of the investigation, a full cast of screen actors including their likenesses and a storyline so rich that it could comfortably sit alongside L.A Confidential in your DVD shelves and would make you ponder which one you like most.  

Aaron Staton might be the perfect quantifiable measurement for the quality of all three mediums.  In film he has been case in such poor contributions as The Nanny Diaries and August Rush yet on television he is one of the ensemble cast members of the award winning and critically acclaimed AMC period drama Mad Men and in the world of gaming is the lead actor and detective in charge of the manhunt in the above mentioned L.A Noire.  Cinema will never be killed off, it's too great at it's best to ever be completely obliterated but you can no longer roll your eyes and claim that TV's the idiot box and gaming is for nerds.  Perhaps this will be the competition that film needs to up it's game and maybe even put Tony Soprano and Jack Bauer on the big screen.


Gabriel said...

This is a great post. You accurately addressed the major changes these mediums have been subjected to for the last few years.
I believe games will lead the show in another few years. the story-lines, characters, and atmospheres will be so developed they will give people what they already want: to be the protagonist of their favorite films and tv shows.

John Baxter said...

Thanks man, it's an exciting direction for narration.

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