Ambient television; or, TV at the gym

I recently joined a gym (I’ve come to realise that exercising vastly improves my mood and is one of the very few activities that causes me to relax).  Like most gyms, it has televisions mounted on the walls around the edge.  Unlike some of the fancier gyms I’ve attended though, there is no option of plugging your headphones in on the cardio equipment and listening to the audio on a screen of your choice.  Instead, all screens have the subtitles on.

In some ways, such a mode of viewing is, of course, hardly the recipe for informed criticism.  (‘I saw this programme last night.  I only caught a few minutes of it, I didn’t hear any of it, and I’m not sure what it was called…’)  But in other ways, it’s actually quite an interesting and good way of briefly sampling a selection of prime-time entertainment, and of reminding oneself of some of the more tenacious elements of television textuality.

In his seminal book Visible Fictions (first published 1982), John Ellis offered the ‘segment’ as the characteristic unit of organisation of television.  Television is created in the knowledge that it will often be viewed opportunistically, by people tuning in and out, channel-hopping, and so on.  In ‘Problems with Quality’ (published in Screen in 1990), Charlotte Brunsdon similarly observes that choices about what to watch when one is channel-hopping are informed by very rapid recognition of the kinds of programmes one is encountering as one presses the buttons on the remote control.

This is perfect for gym-goers!  The need to move around the different pieces of equipment leads to a kind of enforced channel-hopping.  As you lift some weights, you catch a bit of a docusoap about car accident victims being treated in hospital.  Then you move onto the rowing machine and watch a bit of The Apprentice.

During my most recent visit, two bits of programming caught my eye.  The first was not in fact a television programme at all, but a film broadcast on television (‘does that make it a television programme?’ is a question I’ll leave to the reader): the 1997 Jim Carrey film Liar, Liar.  I’ve never seen the film, but I know the basic concept: Carrey plays a lawyer who suddenly finds himself unable to lie.  What surprised me was how I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the courtroom scene as it reached its (in actual fact rather lame) climax.  The pull of this narrative, which I hadn’t seen the preceding hour or so of, and couldn’t hear any of, meant that I waited a little longer than usual between sets of reps, and kept my eyes on the screen even when lifting.  I also noticed that I wasn’t the only one doing this!

The second programme was Happy Families.  (I know this because I’ve just looked it up on  Thank goodness for the channel logo in the corner of the screen, otherwise much more detective work would have been required.)  There was a couple, a man and a woman, and the programme alternated between a fly-on-the-wall segment and retrospective talking heads.  The husband (I think they were married), due to unemployment, was staying home and looking after the kids.  The wife was out at work.  Both parties expressed resentment and frustration at this set-up.  The fly-on-the-wall bit showed the couple’s evening meal.  The husband served up a large plate of cottage pie (I think).  The wife pointed out the portion was too large, there should be veg with it and it would have done them for three nights.  The husband, rather diplomatically (I wish I could have heard the tone) suggested that next time he’d cook but she could cut.  Then there was a tense-formal exchange about where the broom was (the husband had left it upstairs, citing infant interruptions during the day as the reason for him not returning it to its proper place).  The wife picked up her plate of food and walked out, and then we hear a crash.  She tripped over the pushchair in the hallway, and now her food is all over the floor, and the pushchair.  She gets some kitchen roll and proceeds to wipe up the mess (the floor is laminate, not carpet, thank goodness, but the pushchair fabric looks pretty smeary).  The husband, in what looks like a peace offering, joins in with dustpan and brush and offer her his plate of food.

As I hope the above indicates, I was compelled by what this documentary captured: a recognisable, everyday exchange between a tired and fractious husband and wife, who probably don’t want to argue, but have niggling sources of discontent.  From what I saw, it felt humane rather the voyeuristic.  I would like to see more (and if I could write dialogue that read like that conversation, I would be a happy man).  (The programme follows more than one family.  I caught a bit of the next segment, and the father in that one reminded me of Vic Wilcox, the male protagonist in David Lodge’s Nice Work…)

Being able to stand back and survey the various televisual offerings pouring out of the gym’s various screens is a useful reminder of the realities of scheduling.  These programmes are being offered simultaneously, and are competing for the attention and the precious leisure time of the large number of people who have an hour or two to spare in between finishing their day’s work and going to bed (not everyone records or timeshifts).  We see many of the usual options on display: star entertainment (Carrey and his broad performance of a high concept in a Hollywood movie); disaster television (the hospital docusoap), liable to provoke empathy, anxiety or the counting of one’s blessings, in various proportions; schadenfreude television (The Apprentice – also a form of safe gossip and a pressure valve for most people who encounter managers or salespeople in their everyday life); and close-to-home television capable of prompting reflection upon the traps of behaviour that routine can lead one into.

When the Midlands Television Research Group conducted their ‘8-9 project’, they suggested that to organise an enquiry around a scheduling slot was an approach that honoured the specific textuality of television.  The individual programme is very important, but also always beckoning is television’s overall ‘flow’ (Raymond Williams), and the unmasterable television ‘supertext’ (Nick Browne).  Some of us may have thrown off the shackles of scheduling, but for a great many people with a little time on and a remote control in their hands, it remains common to ask: ‘What’s on tonight?’

There is a kind of scholarly mind that is interested only in expert opinion and the sophisticated search for new discoveries.  Such a mind is bound to be contemptuous of student opinion and bored, or even pained, by having to listen to youthful efforts to think clearly and argue cogently.  But there are also, thank God, those who are fascinated by the gradual unfolding of a youthful mind and who revel in the everlasting opportunities and challenges of teaching.

Theodore M. Greene. ‘The Art of Responsible Conversation.’ The Journal of General Education 8.1 (1954). (Quotation transcribed as a reminder/warning to myself.)

Experience which, if assimilated, would involve a change in the organisation of self tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolisation. The structure and organisation of self appears to become more rigid under threat; to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat.  Experience which is perceived as inconsistent with the self can only be assimilated if the current organisation of self is relaxed and expanded to include it.

Carl Rogers. ‘Student-Centred Teaching.’ In Teaching Thinking by Discussion. ed. Donald Bligh. SHRE & NFER-NELSON, 1986.

A lovely description of the ideal kind that Roy Heath of Princeton University saw his students as progressing towards during their time in higher education (from his 1964 book The Reasonable Adventurer, and quoted at length in Noel Entwistle’s 1998 book Styles of Learning and Teaching, which I have been reading today):

The principal characteristic of the Reasonable Adventurer is his ability to create his own opportunities for satisfaction.  He seems to have his psychological house in sufficient order to release him to attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality.  And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness.

The A is characterised by six attributes: intellectuality, close friendships, independence in value judgements, tolerance of ambiguity, breadth of interests, and sense of humor. […]

In the pursuit of a problem A appears to experience an alternation of involvement and detachment.  The phase of involvement is an intensive and exciting period characterized by curiosity, a narrowing of attention towards some point of interest. […] This period of involvement is then followed by a period of detachment, an extensive phase, accompanied by a reduction of tension and a broadening range of perception. […] Here A settles back to reflect on the meaning of what was discovered during the involved stage.  Meaning presumes the existence of a web of thought, a pattern of ideas to which the “new” element can be related.  One imagines that this is the sort of mental operation that takes place in a stance often referred to as the critical attitude.

Much Ado About Nothing

My review of Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is now available on  The editors trimmed it down a bit in line with their word count policies.  What follows is the slightly lengthier version I submitted, with more of the clauses that I have a(n over-?)fondness for.

Watching and trying to get to grips with Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, one is presented with an interesting dilemma.  Either this film is set in the present day – as its clothes, haircuts, cars, guns and occasional pieces of communication technology would suggest – yet peopled with characters who speak and think as though they were living about 400 years ago, or it is set about 400 years ago, yet with the visual trappings just mentioned.

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I love that moment in The Sopranos where…

That’s the great thing about the movies. … After you learn – and if you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little… tiny pieces of time … that they never forget. James Stewart, quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Hell’s In It? Portraits and Conversations. Faber and Faber, 2004.

Towards the end of the tour de force first season Sopranos episode ‘College’, there’s a scene between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) that has always stuck in my mind.  Tony has been away overnight, taking daughter Meadow around a series of colleges in New England that she may attend the following year.  Anthony Junior has also been away overnight, staying with a friend.  After greeting his wife and during his search for food in the fridge, Tony is told by Carmela that their priest, Father Phil Intintola (Paul Schulze) stayed the night.  (There isn’t time to go into detail here, but what we have seen unfold between Phil and Carmela is just as poised and sharp as what is about to unfold between husband and wife.)

At first, Tony dismisses the information with a ‘Yeah, right’, not even bothering to turn to face Carmela.  But the tone of her ‘O-kay’ makes him take notice.  At first, we see Tony struggle to compute the situation:

TONY: The priest spent the night here?  What happened?
CARMELA: Nothing.
TONY: Where was Anthony?
CARMELA: He was, uh, sleeping over at Jason’s.
TONY: The priest spent the night here, nothing happened, and you’re telling me this because…?
CARMELA: You might hear something, take it the wrong way.  His car was out front all night.

A huge part of The Sopranos, and of the huge pleasures it offers, is anticipating how Tony will react to a series of (exquisitely crafted) dramatic scenarios, and then watching how he actually reacts.  A high-ranking member of the New Jersey mafia must spend a large portion of his life engaged in often labyrinthine social mind-reading, if he is interested in holding on to that life.  Even the perception or the possibility of betrayal or weakness can lead to fatalities (hence the significance of the detail of the car parked out front all night).  Such a man who also keeps mistresses, visits a shrink and is trying to be a husband and father must extend such mind-reading to his private sphere too.

However, in this case, Tony’s reaction to the mild cognitive dissonance he is feeling in trying to envisage a scenario in which ‘the guy spends the night here with you, and all he does is slip you a wafer?’ is not anger, but humour.  ‘You know what?’ he declares, ‘This is too fucked up for me… even to think about.’  (Tony is not entirely wrong, as it happens, in this assessment; when Carmela declares that ‘nothing’ happened, she is of course talking about sexual intercourse, and that the scenario sketched did not involve sex is what a man of Tony’s appetites and mindset struggles to comprehend.  However, both Carmela and her priest are shown to gain complex gratification from standing at and stepping back from that particular precipice.)  Galdofini plays the scene with a contained mirth which, especially given this scene’s position at the end of an often-tense episode, offers a great humour pressure valve for the viewer as well.  Edie Falco, too, has a smile in her eyes when she reproaches Tony’s wafer comment with a ‘That’s verging on sacrilege.’

It has been said perhaps too many times already, but if Tony were merely a monster (the kind of monster that Michael Corleone becomes by the end of The Godfather Part II), The Sopranos’ eighty-six episodes would probably be unbearable.  But we often see the childlike, the playful and the tender come through (as we do in the moment I have just pointed to), in ways that (without absolving the character) complicate Tony’s actions and our reactions to them.  It is James Gandolfini who gave us an amazing number of amazingly rich little tiny pieces of time, and it is hugely sad that we will not receive any more.

Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes?

Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes? Or, What does a knowledge of the Whedonverse add to Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)?

Despite a half-hearted Twitter campaign attempt by me, which never really got off the ground, to persuade someone to screen Much Ado About Nothing in Hull, I had to travel to Sheffield to get my Whedon fix.  I went to the marvellous Showroom and watched back-to-back screenings of the film.  So that, plus the travelling, was Monday night.  Tuesday night has been spent writing three pieces on the film, one of which is this, the other two being a short review and a longer piece for the excellent, which will appear on that site soon.  Those other two pieces are critical writings in which the first person and the references to other Whedon stuff are held in check.  In this more personal forum, I thought it would be fun to see if and how it’s useful to read Much Ado through the other things its key performers have done with Joss Whedon.  What follows is pretty off the cuff and firmly in the celebratory mode, but I’d love it if any like-minded readers wanted to pitch in with supplementary or corrective comments.  (NB. I toyed with titling this post Much Ado About Buffy.)

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From an interview with Joss Whedon on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio 5 Live, Friday 14 June 2013.

SIMON MAYO: We were talking about work ethic just before the news and sport, because everyone in comparison with your output Joss, and your work ethic, would appear to be slack and lazy, because, y’know, people work very hard in life and they get their pay but you seem to be working like a hundred times harder than anybody else.

JOSS WHEDON: Well, um, part of that is smoke and mirrors I think, but part of it is that I, I… do love the work and also I have a problem, serious mental problems, workaholism and it’s not fun.  I don’t do anything else.  Other people have lives and they’re nice to their friends and do all sorts of things that I forget to do in the morning.  Also basic hygiene but let’s not talk about that.

MARK KERMODE: Do you genuinely not switch off?  You’re not – you can’t stop?

JW: Um, every now and then I’ll take a few hours and go, ‘I’m not gonna have a purpose for what I’m gonna do next, maybe I’ll go for a walk; that was fun, and I had an idea for a new movie during it.’  Um, no I can’t, I really can’t turn it off.  I can’t sleep very well, not out of anxiety so much as just sort of anticipation of the next thing I want to do.

Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

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Jean Renoir

Dear Ingrid, we had many amusing arguments together and I was the first one to defend, stupidly, the importance of “great subjects”.  I wasted a large part of my life by becoming uselessly busy with “the significance” of my pictures.  In Hollywood we also use the word “message”.  Today, I regret not having busied myself with the endless, ant-like work of small, cheap pictures of a definite style, like “westerns” or “murder” stories.
In a structure that is always the same, you are free to improve what alone is worthwhile, the detail in human expression.

Renoir in a letter to Ingrid Bergman, 29 August 1949, reprinted in Jean Renoir: Letters. ed. David Thompson and Lorraine LoBianco. Faber and Faber, 1994.

Thomas Vinterberg

No major US director has yet attempted a Dogme movie, though David Fincher, director of Seven and Fight Club, tells me that he has been having light-hearted discussions with Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne (Election) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) about the potential for a ‘purification process’. ‘You’re not supposed to use anything that you used in your last movie – none of the equipment, none of the elements. Steven said, “Look, David, you can’t have any rain, you can’t have any CGI…”‘ Vinterberg is visibly thrilled when I tell him this news: ‘It would be very interesting to see Fincher undressed, because he is always so well dressed.’

Ryan Gilbey. ‘Dogme is dead.  Long live Dogme.’ The Guardian, Friday 19 April 2002.