Soap stats

I’m working on a small Coronation Street project at the moment, and thought I’d share a few statistics (based on a small sample – see below for more details), which I think are worth a minute of any television viewer’s time!

How many scenes are there in an episode of Coronation Street?

The number of scenes hovers around the 19 mark, with only a fairly small amount of variation (no fewer than 17 scenes per episode and no more than 21 in my sample).

Although there are an average of 19 scenes, these tend to take place over only nine or ten different locations.

How long does a scene last?

If we divide the length of an episode after you strip out adverts and credits and so on, which is between 20 and 22 minutes, by the number of scenes in it, then you get an average scene length (an arithmetic mean) of about 66 seconds.

But though perhaps informative in its own right, this doesn’t tell you much about the distribution of different scene lengths. As the table below shows, a majority of scenes are longer than 20 seconds and shorter than 80 seconds, but there’s quite a lot of variety even beyond this quite wide bracket.

soap-stats

How many speaking characters are there in an episode of Coronation Street?

Somewhere around the 27 mark (no fewer than 20 and no more than 32 in my sample).

(One thing you start to notice when you do this work is the extensive use Coronation Street makes of background extras.)

How many characters are there per scene?

The arithmetic mean in my sample is just over 4, but again the distribution tells a fuller story:

soap-stats-2

The most common type of scene involves a pair of characters. Trios and groups of four are also very common. But there are also scenes that bring large chunks of the soap ensemble together. Often, sub-groups of characters will form mini-clusters in the same location (as when, for example, we move from one table and/or part of the bar to another in a Rovers scene), but sometimes, all the characters in the scene are genuinely brought together (for an occasion or by an event).

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These statistics are based on a sample of just six episodes from earlier in 2016, but in many ways the results re-confirm findings from an earlier small sample of episodes I undertook in 2013, summarised in an article I wrote for the British Television Drama website.

I gathered these stats as a preliminary step in a small piece of research I’m doing about soap performance, and its place within the overall structure of soap production.

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Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)

This post contains spoilers.

Communication is at once one of the great themes of fiction, and the very stuff of most fiction most of the time. Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is a ‘first contact’ film that holds in check spectacular views of alien spacecraft and scenes of high-tech battle, and instead focuses most of its energies on dramatising the attempts of a group, organised and commanded by the US military but led by two professors (one of linguistics, one of physics), to communicate with a pair of newly-arrived extra-terrestrials. It is very much a film about communication, and one that has been warmly received in many reviews. But its view of communication – and especially of how we might overcome our limited human skills in this regard – seems to me to mainly waver between the peculiar, the limited, and the naive.

Arrival makes sure that its extraterrestrial visitors are not those suspiciously human-like beings we often encounter in science fiction. Its aliens do not, like us, have melon-like heads (presumably housing cortices just as oversized as our own) balancing on broomstick bodies, a pair of eyes (furnishing, we can often presume, stereoscopic vision), a mouth for talking (and perhaps for breathing), two legs to walk with, and two arms to manipulate objects with. We may scoff, with good reason, at these concessions to our species-chauvinism in much science fiction, but such a set-up, once granted, does at least have the virtue of warding off deeper problems, further down the line.

The first major breakthrough in communication with the pair of octopus-like creatures, floating in the fluid beyond a screen in their spacecraft, comes when Louise (Amy Adams) courageously sheds her protective suit, and engages in a ‘proper greeting’ – she touches her hand to the surface, and is responded to with a reciprocal tentacle-pressing gesture. But though nice, this is an isolated and unassimilated gesture in a film for which successful communication is principally a matter of attaching labels to objects, actions or concepts, and combining those labels in a comprehensible grammar.

Louise begins where we often begin with human infants, with naming and pointing. (I’m nitpicking, but should we take it for granted that a different, digitless species would understand pointing?) She first, with a miniature whiteboard and some pointing, identifies herself as ‘human’, then introduces herself as Louise. She gives the sceptical colonel in charge in the operation, who just wants to find out why these damn creatures are here, a mini-lecture on why this elementary stuff is important. Breaking down the question that the military want to get to (‘Why are you here?’), she explains that it relies upon an understanding of, and a linguistic communication of, at minimum, intentionality, a request for information, and reference. These are indeed huge difficulties, but after this lecture, they are made short filmic work of. There follows a montage which is intended to cover the gaps, but has the effect of confessing them. We see Ian (the physics professor, played by Jeremy Renner) walking backwards and forwards in front of the screen, while Louise holds up a sign that says ‘walking’. We can only assume that it is through similar mimes which we are not shown that the the humans and the aliens manage to arrive at the impressive shared vocabulary, which the montage shows us blooming, for much more abstract concepts, such as cooperation, gifts, tools, and weapons.

The film makes great play out of the semantic distinctions between terms such as ‘tool’ and ‘weapon’ – the kinds of distinctions that matter in attempts at cross-cultural – but still all-human – understanding, diplomacy, and so on. But it buys on the cheap the assumptions that a) a species with such a different set of biological imperatives, evolved in a different environment, from our own, would find such concepts meaningful, and b) even if they did, that species would be able to intuit enough about our priorities and concerns to see (from a mime?!) what constitutes a tool for us (or a threat, or a gift, or something pleasurable, or fearsome…) and so light on the right term from their vocabulary to match to ours.

Perhaps none of this matters. The film’s lack of interest in the aliens for themselves is demonstrated by the fact that we learn virtually nothing about their culture, or species-being (do they have humour? rivalries? orgasms?). Perhaps what matters is the film’s ability to deliver us to new insights about our own in-species communicative situation.

In another talky mini-lecture scene that comes around two-thirds of the way through, the film lays some groundwork for a premise that will become important later. Ian tells Louise he’s been doing a bit of boning up on linguistics, and he’s come upon an idea that she helpfully labels for him: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is the idea that the language we use affects how we perceive the world. Or determines, if we want to go with the stronger version of that hypothesis. If we lack a word for a particular concept, that concept simply does not exist for us. The scene stops at summarising the concept; we are not, understandably, given a discussion of its merits.

The thing that ultimately ties the film together, conceptually and structurally, is its taking of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a fantastical direction. This step comes when Louise achieves fluency in the alien language, and finds that this allows her to ‘perceive time the way they do. It isn’t linear.’ This cognitive upgrade allows Louise to time-travel in her mind, and we gradually come to realise (or have it further confirmed, depending on your degree of suspiciousness or genre literacy) that the fragments, first seen at the very beginning of the film, of Louise’s daughter growing to her teens and then dying of cancer aren’t things that Louise is remembering from her past before the arrival; they’re things she’s seeing in the future after it.

I take it that the film isn’t trying to convince us that given the right grammar, we’ll be able to see the future. What ideas does it want to deliver us to by its end?

Louise and Ian are in fact only the most successful would-be communicators to one alien spacecraft and its inhabitants, out of twelve such craft that have descended simultaneously across the globe. This allows the film to pursue political commentary that maintains a patina of high-tech edginess but is ultimately underpinned by a worthy but useless platitude: we need to set aside our differences and suspicions and co-operate. Worse still is the structural device use to stave off disaster and save the day.

China’s General Shang, whom we have viewed from a distance during the film’s middle-third as a belligerent military type, makes the decision to stand down when Louise manages to reach him on his telephone and tell him his wife’s dying words.(What they were? What they will be? Presumably the latter, though unless I missed it, the film doesn’t quite make it clear.) I will leave aside the question of whether this creates a temporal paradox (it is when he approaches her at a ‘unification’ ball to thank her that General Shang gives Louise his number – and possibly his wife’s dying words – with the clear implication that she will need them for earlier). The broader problem is the film’s solving of a world-threatening crisis and its simultaneous redemption of a trigger-happy general through his love for his wife. We all know that brutal soldiers and dangerous narcissists can, under the right circumstances, be as sentimental as the best of us, and once again the film proposes a simple and sentimental solution to a near-intractable problem.

This plot device also points to the limits of Arrival‘s imaginative horizons. You have just found out that we are not alone in the universe. You have participated in successful cross-species communication, furthering world peace, and fostering inter-species, inter-planetary concord. You have learned a new language that allows your mind to travel in time. What are you shown, at the end of the film, to be doing with all this? The answer: mainly, devoting time to playing endless reruns in your head of exquisitely-lit fragments of your life with your daughter.

I do not want to sound heartless, and in fact the place the film takes leave of us may constitute a moment of honesty, albeit perhaps inadvertent. Near the end of the film, Ian turns to Louise and tells her that he’d always had his head pointed to the stars, and it took this experience to bring him down to earth. The real transformation he has undergone, he tells her, wasn’t meeting ‘them. It was meeting you.’ (Renner and Adams play the scene in a way that avoided at least the surface texture of saccharine, but at the cost of feeling, like most of the film, I thought, somewhat flat.) Perhaps this, ultimately, is a truth of human communication worth taking away. Open up the wonders of the cosmos to us with science, exploration, and discovery, and we’ll still, most of us, find principal fascination in other humans, especially kith and kin, and our emotions towards them.

At the risk of kicking the boot in one more time though, the film would have been much improved had it offered us this piece of truth about ourselves either more critically or more joyously than it does. What we get feels like emotional wallowing. It also uses a by-now cliched and artistically-compromised vocabulary to deliver it. The moments Louise keeps returning to are also utterly safe in their aesthetic perfection. We are not quite given pure happiness, but the closest that these images get to acknowledging the ambiguous, messy mix of feelings and priorities that characterise most of our moments on earth is to lace their picturequeness with poignancy.

Arrival is a film about communication that is less illuminating and less honest on that topic than many films which do not treat it as a central topic of concern (the first filmmaker who comes to mind as I write this is Frank Capra). Its scenes of alien-human interaction render invisible so many of the things upon which successful human-human communication is built, making the film a frustrating one to try to think about communication with. Its scenes of human-human interaction rarely sparkle, and do not put up much of a fight with set design and colour timing in terms of the overall visual impression the film leaves one with. My sense is that the film was aiming for subtlety and a form of realism in the muted reactions and downcast demeanours of its principals for most of the film. The film’s seriousness becomes one of its major liabilities, tipping into a po-facedness of tone and an earnestness of sentiment. Because of these choices, along with its blind spots and failures, the film leaves us no better able than when we started to appreciate the true miracles of human communication.

The ongoing quest to spend my time wisely

Why is it that so many of my days end with the disappointing feeling that I didn’t spend as much time as I ought to have doing the things I wanted to, and instead wasted too much of it on fruitless busyness?

Every once in a while, hope once again triumphs over experience, and I put together a timetable that plans meticulously how I will spend each hour of my working week, and some hours of my leisure time. But inevitably, reality eats my timetable for breakfast, and by noon on the first day (the second if I’m lucky), I realise the bad habits have reasserted themselves, and the inbox I said I wouldn’t touch until noon has drawn me into its spiral of reactiveness and anxiety.

But I must keep on trying! I haven’t yet found the perfect system. There seem to be essential, inevitable work tasks that I always seem to forget in the planning. And I always try, never quite succeeding, to be sensitive to the times of day at which it would be best to tackle which activities, and to factor in ‘downtime’ after particularly demanding tasks.

I’m come to think that just as important as scheduling is the idea of ringfencing. With some tasks, like writing, that’s a matter of protecting the time and attention that’s allotted to them. With others, the imperative is to keep those tasks out of the other times of the day. Needless to say, I’m thinking primarily about email here.

Here are the things that I need to try to do every working day in the interests of fulfilment and wellbeing. (There are other things that are just as important to my work duties and to my emotional wellbeing, but they have a habit of taking care of themselves. Inboxes and loved ones demand attention, so they don’t need to be scheduled in.)

1 Writing
My most recent strategy is to write for two hours a day, most likely in the morning, as soon as I arrive at work. I’m on study leave at the moment, so this is easier than it will be when I return to teaching, but even when that happens, this is the one habit I’m going to fight hardest to keep.

It’s crucial to write before opening the inbox, because the inbox mindset is not the writing mindset, and once you’ve entered the inbox mindset, it’s very hard to get out of it.

Two hours a day of writing works better for me than pegging all my hopes on a single day of research/writing during the working week. The single day model raises the stakes. Two hours concentrates the mind. It’s do-able to just keep going for that whole two hours without stopping.  Easier too to hold potential distractions at bay for that long.

Ideally, it will be two hours of pure writing. Not two hours where you get your head in your research, read an article, and make some notes. Ideally, that kind of work will happen later in the day, and lay the groundwork for the next day of writing. In the pure writing zone, you shouldn’t even stop to look up a quote if you can remember it tolerably well from memory. Just put in a placeholder and go back to it later.

The daily habit of writing is the thing. Sometimes, your writing pump will spew out useless gunk at first. But keep pumping, and the good stuff will start to flow. Commit to the formulations, pursue the tangents. They can always be re-shaped later. Better that than the tyranny of the blank page.

2 Yoga/Meditation
I have an office yoga mat now, but I still need some loose-fitting clothes that I can change into. My plan is to take just ten or fifteen minutes each day to stretch off my hunched back, release my clenched jaw, and pull myself out of the mind-racing state that work often provokes. A good time of day to do this would probably be early afternoon, perhaps as a transition out of inbox mindset and back into more concentrated work.

3 Foreign language learning
Like writing, mastering a foreign language surely involves daily efforts. I no longer worry about mastering another language, and my motives in pursuing this kind of learning are as much about brain-training and an amateurish delight in comparing and contrasting French, German and English vocabularies, grammars, felicities and blind spots as they are about communication. As John Durham Peters said, learning a foreign language is infantilising, and it’s especially good for someone who spends a lot of his time trying to guide others along intellectual paths he’s already walked to be reminded that such journeys are often disorientating, painful, and slow. Besides, I don’t want to spend my whole life as an entirely monoglot Anglophone.

The strategy: do Duolingo or Memrise each day, preferably both. Make the news I read or video clips I watch over lunch at my desk foreign language. I’ve gone back and forth between French and German, but I think it’s a good idea to commit to one or the other. Because I’m further along with it, it’s more relevant to my current academic interests, and my wife speaks it, I choose French!

4 Expanding my artistic horizons
For me, this means learning more about fine art and music (predominantly orchestral music, but also jazz). I don’t watch as many films and television shows or read as many novels as I like, but they get watched and they get read without my having to schedule in learning about them. (Theatre is a bit of a blind spot for me, partly because of the resources of time, travel and disposable income it demands of its viewers.)

The strategy: dip into my beginner’s guides to art (eg. Gombrich’s The Story of Art) and music (eg. Joseph Kerman’s Listen) – either one, for just fifteen minutes each day. And use the amazing Spotify and its resources.

I also have a guitar in my office, and here my expectations of myself are even lower than in the case of language learning. I love music, but have minimal natural talent for it, and when it comes to fluency and creative production, I cast my lot with language long ago, and have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue even musical proficiency. Still, falteringly picking out a tune and strumming chords gives me pleasure, and, back in brain-training mode again, I can’t but think that it does me some good to spend time in that experiential space.

In a way this takes us back to yoga, meditation, and mindspaces. Art demands to be approached in the right frame of mind if it is to be experienced fully. Fifteen minutes isn’t much, and it isn’t fully enough, but at least it lets you keep your eye in.

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That commits me to three hours, at most, out of the 24 in the day, and the 8-10 in the optimal working day (don’t set yourself up for disappointment by setting unrealistic goals is another key piece of time management advice). I need to put on my Aristotelian, virtue-is-habit hat, and do these things every day, without guilt, until it feels unusual not to do them.

A few fun facts about Joss Whedon

While on holiday I read Amy Pascale’s really very good biography, Joss Whedon: Geek King on the Universe, published in 2014. It’s a bit rose-tinted, of course, but well-researched and well-written. An easy and informative read. Here are a few of the things I learned that I did not know before:

  • Whedon gave copies of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to his writers on Buffy.
  • When preparing Serenity (the motion picture), Whedon was advised by his mentor (Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger) to re-watch The Furies (Mann, 1950) and Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954).
  • The name of Whedon’s production company, ‘Mutant Enemy’, comes from the lyrics of the Yes song ‘And You and I’, which appears on their 1972 album Close to the Edge.
  • On the set of the Avengers, Whedon drank copious amounts of a mixture of distilled water, lemon juice, agave and cayenne pepper.*

*Intrigued, I decided to try this myself. However, until writing this blog just now, agave had become guava in my head, and therefore in my drink too. I am pleased to report that this is a successful variation.

A comprehensively adequate interpretive account of a given work of art would take in, synoptically, its phenomenal effects (tone, style, theme, formal organization), locate it in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), register the responses of readers, describe the sociocultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.

Joseph Carroll. Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice. SUNY Press, 2011.

Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 4 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I’m going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage’s 4’33” as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that ‘always renewed itself’. I don’t know if he’s right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

I can’t remember now if I found out after this or before it about a campaign to get 4’33” to Christmas number one in the UK. In a nod to ‘Killing in the Name’ having achieved the same feat last Christmas, in our era of musical downloading, the campaign is entitled ‘Cage Against the Machine’.

It is interesting to think about what it means for a piece originally experienced by a crowd gathered in the same room as the musicians to become a downloadable audio file, and what it would mean for that audio file to be number one at Christmas.

A huge amount of the music that we listen to is created and recorded in the knowledge and with the intention that it will be heard by individuals, or small groups thereof, on their radios, or stereos, or personal stereos (to use that slightly antiquated term), at home, at work, or on the move. The amount of attention given to and respect afforded the music will vary, but the fact will remain that it is a recording to be switched on and off at times convenient to the listener, and that it is received in spaces which do not have the sole purpose of housing musical performances. In this sense, even though recorded music is a record of a performance, it is more like a book – a personal object to be picked up and put down at will – than a theatrical performance – which one must attend and which has a set performance time and duration, and which cannot be stopped at will by any individual audience member.

It is a less unproblematic transition if the recording is of a piece of music originally written to be performed to a gathered and present audience. 4’33” highlights this troubled transition to an unusual degree. All music written before the age of mechanical reproduction was not written to be reproduced outside of the occasion of the original creation of the sounds we hear, so all the music composed by, let’s say, Vivaldi, undergoes a change when it is made available to us via the medium of the compact disc recording. However, when I listen to Vivaldi, I am not particularly troubled by this fact. What’s more, the recordings I have were performed to be recorded, much like contemporary popular music. That was the purpose of the performance, even if the piece was not originally composed with such a possibility in mind. We are not ‘overhearing’ a performance to a gathered audience (although of course there are recordings which fall into that category).

It is strange to put it in these terms (conceptual art will often lead us to strange formulations of our experience of less experimental material), but when I hear Vivaldi, or Springsteen, then the sound of strings on the one hand or an electric guitar on the other provides the evidence, if you like, that such instruments were present at the recording, and created the sounds that I hear. I was not present at the event, but its traces are preserved to some extent (even if I cannot be sure in some cases whether what I am hearing is a synthesised equivalent, or whether all the elements I am hearing were created simultaneously – sometimes, as when Marvin Gaye double tracks his own voice, to wonderful effect, on What’s Going On – I can be sure they were not).

But with 4’33″… the silence means that the instruments are not proving their presence in the same way. (Again, a strange formulation, though it does point towards the pleasure of anticipation when we know that there is a saxophone in the E Street line-up but haven’t heard it yet on this or that track, or that of surprise when an instrument we did not know would be contributing to this particular piece makes itself heard.) Indeed, one could create four minutes thirty three seconds of silence with no instruments whatsoever. In a performance space, the presence of a latent piano, or full orchestra, is an important part of the experience. What about during the production or reception of four minutes thirty three seconds of silence on a CD, or a digital audio file? (It is worth noting parenthetically that 4’33” consists of three movements, and some cd and digital versions honour these divisions, but the Christmas number one candidate is a single track.) (I hope it is unnecessary for me to explicitly state that I am not attempting to dismiss Cage’s work with one of the most common arguments levelled against ‘modern art’ – ‘I could do that myself’ – even if in this case it is partly true.)

The Christmas campaign is valuable in that it can help to remind us that not every artistic experience can be bought and taken home without destroying the original meaning of that experience. It is a challenge to the ‘platform neutrality’ of the contemporary consumer.

It is also something more. When I pay good money to play on a jukebox songs that I have on cd at home, I am partly paying for the pleasure of making other people listen to what I want them to listen to. ‘Cage Against the Machine’ and last year’s campaign represent this logic writ large. Those who download this piece will not just (and perhaps not chiefly) be buying the track itself and the experience it offers. They are, of course, casting a vote for what they want everyone who is going to listen to the Christmas number one on radio or television to hear (and also for what they don’t want everyone to hear: The X-Factor is the object being protested against by some who support the campaign).

This does not quite take us full circle, but it does reinscribe the situated social occasion of listening so crucial to the original meaning of 4’33”. We may not have the latent instruments in the same room as us, but on Christmas Day, the track will exist not just as an audio file for us to treat as we will, but as a broadcasting event, part of the meaning of which is the fact that we are all listening together.