Monthly Archives: May 2013

Seven Decades of TV Noir: A Short Introduction

Originally published in the Noircon 2012 Proceedings
Edited and Produced by Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and Jeff Wong
November 2012
Philadelphia, PA 

Introduction

It might be a bit surprising to note that the legacy of TV noir stretches back almost seven decades. That is nearly as long a history as its more celebrated competitor and inspiration, film noir. While the first films noir were shot between 1941-1945, as Ray Starman notes in his book TV Noir, the first noir TV series made their debuts in 1949 with Martin Kane, PI and Man Against Crime. Of course, there is a major and indisputable reason why TV noir came after film noir. While Hollywood was reaching the apex of its studio era in the 1940s, there were really no TV networks until 1947.

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But since 1949, noir has been a constant staple of television programming, generating hundreds of series and thousands of hours of viewing pleasure. Given its plentiful output, cultural impact, and historical legacy, it is likely that more people have encountered noir stories watching TV shows in their living rooms than by sitting in movie theaters. Yet in terms of scholarly and fan-based activities, there have been more books and festivals dedicated to film noir than TV noir. TV noir is often dismissed as “inferior” to film noir, and many fans of noir will tell you they don’t “watch television.”

These are my working notes to accompany the 2012 Noircon panel, “Crime in Primetime: TV’s Most Innovative Noir Series.” Both here and during the panel, I will make a case for reassessing TV’s contributions and innovations to the noir style and storytelling. Towards these ends, I will briefly lay out some of the major ways in which TV noir differs from its cinematic counterpart in terms of its forms, authors, and constraints, and some of the reasons why you should be watching some truly exceptional television series right now if you are a fan of noir.

1. The Forms

Noir and film noir appear on television in a myriad of ways from the replaying of classic movies to throwback skits on variety shows to “special episodes” of non-noir TV series. In this last instance, the noir style is mostly an excuse to shoot an episode in black and white, smoke cigarettes, and wear fedoras. In fact, the grisly crime stories that open many local nightly news broadcasts might be the most noir productions on TV. The pre-eminent form of TV noir is the one-hour prime-time drama. The one-hour drama is not actually a full hour. If you take into account the commercial interruptions and the station identifications, most hour-long shows are approximately 42 minutes long.  Each episode of a noir TV series is considerably shorter than the typical length of a classical film noir, which typically run between 90 and 120 minutes.

Another major difference from the movies is TV noir’s serial format. TV noir is ultimately about the series—depending on the era and the network that means anywhere between 13 to 26 episodes per season. Therefore while Hollywood movies clearly were an influential source for early TV, the bigger influence in the beginning was commercial radio. Television appropriated one of radio’s main programming strategies: the regular and predictable rhythm of a prime time schedule.

TV noir’s profuse output makes it harder to discuss these series in the same depth with which we can analyze films noir. It’s a matter of scope and scale. Consider Law and Order. Over its twenty year run, the original Law and Order series produced 456 episodes. That is an astounding narrative archive that would take almost two months to view in its entirety if you watched eight episodes a day (as seen in the chart that tracks the major characters over 2o seasons, from Wikipedia, below).  Such a large number of episodes also raises the difficulty of being a TV noir completist, i.e. the likelihood that you have seen every episode of a series. And multiply that problem by hundreds of series, and you can see the analytical difficulty of writing about and discussing TV noir.

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In terms of serial structure, each episode of a series can be a self-contained story, which can sometimes feel like a slimmed down (or for some, a watered down) version of a film plot with a rushed and frequently predictable resolution. Or shows can employ the concept of continuing storylines or story arcs to extend narrative events over multiple episodes. Story arcs can tell a more complex story that unfolds over dozens of hours of viewing. Some of TV noir’s most innovative shows have opted for this latter approach. Shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad use intricate story structures to achieve an almost novelistic storytelling depth that is simply impossible to attempt in a ninety-minute film noir. Long-running series have their benefits.

Having to generate a new noir story every week also meant that TV noir returned to its serial roots in pulp fiction and mystery magazines. There can be a thrilling vicariousness in watching a well-made TV noir because you establish a powerful connection with characters that can extend and deepen for years. But the ongoing run of a TV series can lead to challenges for writers who have to make sure the show’s major cast members survive the impending doom of the fateful noir universe, robbing many TV noir series of the narrative uncertainty that has certainly animated some of our best films noir.

2. The Authors

Film has always tended to be identified as a director’s medium. First raised by the concept of auteur theory, directors are assumed to be the main creative driver behind a film. It is just not the same on television. An episodic TV show requires a unified look and similar directing style over multiple episodes, so it is important for directors to “stick to the script.” Even if a director wanted to get more visually adventurous, there is not enough time in pre-production to execute such ideas, and it’s the producers (not the director) who hire the creative personnel on the set. Even with such limitations, some well-known directors have been drawn to the small screen including David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Quentin Tarantino (episodes of CSI:), and Rian Johnson (an episode of Breaking Bad).

But ultimately, television is a producer’s medium. For example, name a director of a recent TV episode you watched. Did you draw a blank? Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t recall who directs a TV episode, because we conventionally attribute authorship of a TV series to a producer or show creator. Now name a TV producer. Who created Hill Streets Blues? The Streets of San Francisco? Law and Order? Breaking Bad? For most who have watched these shows numerous times, the names Steven Bochco, Quinn Martin, Dick Wolf, and Vince Gilligan would likely come to mind.

But Bochco, Martin, Wolf, and Gilligan (even when they also write entire episodes for their own series) tend to more in control of a team of writers who operate under the constraints of the show’s template. This point returns me to my essay about networked authorship for Noircon 2010, where I examined the role of multiple writers on a film noir script. My argument was that there was much cross-pollination among creative personnel in classical Hollywood and the writing behind many films noir might be best understood as the hybridization of shared interests in hard-boiled stories and creative exchanges rather than the work of single auteur. I used Strangers on a Train, and the roles of Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock as my example.

If we turn our attention to TV writing, the idea of networked authorship is its basic creative model—even more so than film. TV series must employ teams of writers and directors to meet the stringent production demands of producing between 13 and 26 episodes in a short time frame. This means that the show’s creator tends to be the creative hand that guides the overall evolution of the series, but separate writers are credited with individual episodes. Increasingly, some of our best noir TV shows have raised networked authorship to a new level. HBO’s The Wire might be one of the best examples. That show’s creator, David Simon, hired some of the best literary noir writers in the business to pen episodes, including George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. As a result, the quality of The Wire’s writing shines in that series. (Image from Time Magazine, by David Johnson, picturing Ed Burns, David Simon, and George Pelecanos in Baltimore, where The Wire is set)

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Moreover, like the Hollywood studio system that preceded it, TV noir can build new series on pre-existing literary properties. TV noir over its seven decades has been dominated by topical series that seem to be tireless retreads of “ripped from the headlines” stories, but TV noir can and has benefited from adapting hard-boiled literature. While one of the more prominent examples might be a show like the 1980s’ Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, consider a couple shows like Justified and Wallander. The first show, a hit on F/X, is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, and the latter show, a series from the BBC, is based on Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s internationally known police inspector, Kurt Wallander. While source material alone is no guarantee of quality when adapting for a new medium, Justified‘s writing has clearly benefited from a rule shared among the writing staff: when in doubt, WWLD? (What would Leonard Do?) (Image from NJ.com, Elmore Leonard with Timothy Olyphant of Justified)

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3. The Constraints

As we begin to consider the most innovative noir series in TV history, I believe we will find that the constraints of TV have fueled those shows in powerful ways. As Shannon Clute and I discuss in our book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth University Press, 2011) there are very good reasons to look at films noir as “constrained texts.” Moreover, some of our most creative noir films have consciously embraced constraints to reveal noir’s potential.

From its earliest days, the TV industry has been subjected to more constraints than the film industry. Part of this is due to the fact that TV was projected directly into our living rooms. Therefore, long after film noir shook off the most restrictive forms of censorship, TV’s versions of noir tales had to meet prime-time viewing standards on broadcast networks and depictions of sex, violence, and use of language were heavily censored well into the 1990s. In 1993 NYPD Blue could still use censorship constraints in its pursuit of quality storytelling. Blue (as the show was frequently referred to) intentionally stirred controversy with partial nudity and adult language that now seems tame compared to pay-cable outlet shows like The Sopranos, as in this clip of NYPD actress Charlotte Ross. But pushing against the constraints of broadcast standards did much to usher in today’s more complex noir series.

TV budgets were also historically lower than for films, so TV shows tended to be restricted to a few sets that got reused in almost every episode. Many TV noir sets can have the feel of a locked room mystery. Location shooting was typically too expensive, so TV began to reuse old movie studio sets in ways reminiscent of Poverty Row studio practices. But this constraint also became one of TV’s biggest contributions to noir. TV noir tended to seek a distinctive “locale” for exterior shots that would give the show a geographic identity and to differentiate series from one another. This moved TV noir stories beyond the urban environs of LA, New York, and San Francisco (though plenty of noir shows are still set in these cities). On television we get more noir than expected from sun-drenched locales such as Hawaii (a favorite destination of crime shows, such as Magnum, PI) or Miami (Miami Vice or CSI: Miami). We also get noir in some of the smaller regions of the US, as in Justified (with its great use of Harlan County, Kentucky) or Breaking Bad (and the emergence of New Mexico as a noir border crossing region)

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TV had a much more restricted image size. Compared to the “big screen,” early television sets were extremely small. The quality of the TV image could never compare to a film print (until extremely recently in the digital age, and still a digital print can’t match a well-struck 70mm Technicolor print). It was not even a fair comparison. TV in the 1950s was a blurry, pixelated, and electronically refreshed mess compared to the luxurious richness and dense visual field of projected film. And the technological indignities continued over the decades: TV developed color long after film, new sound technologies were slow to be adopted. Sometimes, with the rise of HDTV, we forget all that.

Visual personnel working on TV series have had much greater limitations in visual design and cinematography. This meant that until fairly recently TV was not focused on visual storytelling as much as narrative design and the growth or goals of recurring characters. A show like The Fugitive in the 1960s is a great example. Dr. Kimble’s four season pursuit of a one-armed man was used as a continuing story arc to find a creative benefit from episodic storytelling. Since TV, like film, constantly recycle narrative strategies, The Mentalist pursues a similar narrative structure with a serial killer named Red John.

Perhaps one of the best TV shows of all time is Breaking Bad (this is the TV series I will discuss on the panel, “Crime in Primetime”). The show’s creator Vince Gilligan is on record as being a fan of constraints, and mentioning that he has embraced constraints in the writing and design of Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s embrace of constraints can be seen in the final product. The show has a fairly small number of cast members for a show going into its fifth and final season. The show has played out over a restrictive time frame, roughly a year of action over the first four seasons. The show elegantly uses the “cold open” (a modern variant of in media res) to introduce visual metaphors and plot elements that engage the viewer into the complex world of Breaking Bad, as in the recurring and ultimately deeply meaningful motif of the pink bear in Season Two.

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And the show uses the character of Walt White—a high school teacher turned meth cook—to examine with an uncanny depth and human perspective the global reach of today’s decaying noir universe. And Gilligan does all this under the censorship constraints of AMC, a basic cable station.

Conclusion

What are the most innovative TV noir shows? I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of crime, mystery and noir drama on the small screen. For seven decades, TV has supplied memorable (and some not-so-memorable) noir programming that has advanced noir storytelling. But with shows like The Shield, Justified, and Breaking Bad, TV noir is in a period of renascence. Noir stories are becoming more complex and intricate. New technologies and higher budgets have allowed TV noir to expand its visual design. And long-form stories are becoming ever more elaborate in shows such as 2007’s Forbrydelsen (a brilliant Danish police procedural recently remade by AMC as The Killing–the image below is of the character of Sarah Lund from Forbrydelsen).

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Noir’s seventh decade is off to a great start.

Let the debates begin.

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Tweeting the Lesson: Social Media Curation and the Cultivation of the Imagination

This is a presentation I gave in a lightning session in Madison, WI at 28th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference in August 2012. Since a lightning session could only be 10 minutes long, I gave myself the constraint of making my points in 10 slides only. Each slide lasted for exactly one minute (yet another constraint, coming out of my interest in the Oulipo and my earlier practices around Pecha Kucha presentations). I also wanted the visuals in each slide to carry the point as much as my spoken text, so I did spend a good deal of time thinking about how to design the visual portion of this talk. In the end, I focused on how many different ways I could use the twitter logo (that little blue bird) to make the underlying points that the goal in using Twitter in higher education was to help students “cultivate their imagination.”

I am glad I waited to post this talk, because my experience using social media in my MOOC, Investigating Film Noir, which I taught from March-April 2013 has helped me confirm my basic thesis here. Using Twitter, Storify, and Pinterest in my MOOC, I do believe I started to reach some of the goals that I articulate in this talk. My MOOC cultivates outside subject matter experts, and involved the synthesis and application of learning outcomes. In my MOOC, students would twit-pic some of the images from the films we were studying and other students would re-tweet or comment on those images. We would ask questions on Twitter, opening up answers to our questions to experts beyond those enrolled in the course. And many of the tweets exchanged among students engaged in a metacognitive awareness of what it means to analyze film.

Here are the ten slides. Each slide is followed by my spoken commentary: Image Since I only have 10 minutes in a lightning session, so I will focus on a single, main learning outcome for those of you interested in building social media in your course designs. Throughout this talk, I will return again and again to “cultivating the imagination” of our students. That phrase intentionally recalls the work of John Seely Brown and Doug Thomas in their wonderful book, A New Culture of Learning. 

To achieve this “cultivation of the imagination” we will need innovation at 3 levels:

  • we will need trained and innovative instructors
  • we will need new and innovative assignments
  • we will need to encourage students to want to be innovative

I see “cultivation of the imagination” as the major learning outcome for higher education. Regardless of your favorite learning theory, whether you are a constructivist, a clicktivist, a connectivist, or subscriber to any other learning theories, creating imaginative and self-efficacious thinkers rates highly all of them. If we cultivate our student’s imaginations, we will have the lifelong learners we desire.

Social media is one area to explore along that path. Image Social media tools intrigue me, because they have the capacity to be tools to encourage and support lifelong learning, and they foreground their very informality. Twitter was not designed with a college accreditation standards or assessment techniques in mind. It is a commercial tool that can be used for learning from others through the open and global Web, but it takes some design and purposefulness to make that happen. Currently, when we bring social media into the classroom, we tend to kill what makes it such a great learning tool to begin with. We tend (in my experience as an instructional designer) to enclose it within the confines of the formal course objectives and that frequently short-circuits its engagement with larger online networks. In these instances, students start to wonder why they are using Twitter in the first place. Seldom if ever will a course hashtag trend worldwide.

An Integrated learning approach tries to have it both ways--to balance and transfer the formal and the informal learning. The course “walls” of a socially mediated learning experience need to be more porous than solid. I see Twitter (to just pick one social media tool out of the many) as a way to support student-centered learning. But I want students on Twitter in all its informal messiness. That way, Twitter can bring in expert voices in your classroom. Twitter can be medium for your students share their passions and curiosity with a large number of followers and thereby build new connections and new relationships through the classroom and beyond the classroom. Image And that brings me to curation.

Twitter is frequently seen as a curatorial site. But I would make a critical distinction between three modes of curation. 

Twitter is built with informal curation tools. It is a way for any user of Twitter to receive and assess the constant flow of tweets. We can favorite a tweet and keep it for future reference. We can retweet to show our interest in another person’s tweet. But informal curation is mostly about receiving new messages, and giving them an initial assessment.

A step up on the curatorial ladder is a more formal personal curation. Using tools such as Storify, paper.li, or scoop.it, social media stories can be assembled and recalled later when one wants to review or better still, apply that information.

But finally, curation can be crowd-sourced and shared. It can be the basis of a networked curation. Students can produce new knowledge from an archive of aggregated tweets. They can add new information to others tweets by providing new contexts, new explanations, new insights using a host of social media aggregators. This is the key goal for my talk today. How do we design our projects and use our learning outcomes to encourage these practices? When students engage in networked curation, they will get closer to the goal of cultivating the imagination.

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But as long as social media is locked within the confines of an online course, we will likely experience something closer to #TwitterFail. Students will feel that the exercise of social media is basically hollow. It becomes just another task to complete versus a new kind of digital and informational literacy. To reach that higher learning outcome, we need more learning experiments involving social media curation and cultivation. We are at an early phase of social media integration into the online curriculum. What we don’t know is much greater than what we do know at this point.

How curation will continue to develop in the future is an open question in my mind, but now is the time for experimentation. And if the experiments are focused on generating more powerful learning outcomes through social media, we will find ourselves on the right track, even if some of those experiments fizzle.

Slide05 That brings me back to Twitter in its specific form. I see Twitter as having multiple layers and where those layers reside is telling to me.

The top portion of an expanded tweet is the message and the person who sent the message – what we will call the “content.” There are some basic curatorial tools that require little effort on the part of the person who reads the message – one can retweet the message or favorite it. I will return to “reply” function in a moment.

The next layer down is the crowd sourcing information. You can find out if others have found this tweet interesting. How many times has it been retweeted? Favorited? Who did this? And should I follow some of these people since they might share some of my interests?

Twitter also gives you a “timestamp” that will be useful when you start to aggregate multiple tweets.

But the bottom layer of a tweet is its cultivation layer. Retweeting and favoriting are good, but replying builds new connections and adds to the original knowledge object. It is in replying that the message is extended, and the learner can express new information. But this is the bottom layer of a tweet. Slide06

Compare this to a tool like Storify. Storify is one aggregator among many on the open Web, but it will stand in for other ways of cultivating social media knowledge.

In Storify, the connection and cultivation layer is the top layer. To engage in Spotify is to be both a curator and a cultivator.

As I will argue throughout this talk, you need both. You need to sort through the massive information network and make choices (curation) and have a means for adding new information and new syntheses in a structured way (cultivation). Or as I prefer to state it: we achieve cultivation through curation. We see critical thinking at both the level of the assemblage and its new context, and like cultivation in agriculture, bring forth an entirely new ecology of knowledge.  I particularly like Spotify because it foregrounds its role as a knowledge cultivator through its trope of “stories.” To tell a story is an act that brings together many different learning outcomes. Image Which brings us back to cultivating the imagination. How does this approach to social media apply to online course design?

I would argue that “cultivation through curation” touches on almost all the key learning outcomes we might seek in our course designs. Spotify can support the evaluation of information, as student learners evaluate their aggregated tweets. Spotify can support the synthesis of knowledge, and we can assess how well students bring together tweets to show their engagement with disciplinary knowledge. Spotify can aid in comprehension as students have to sort through and make sense of information that can be crowd-sourced and supplemented by subject matter experts from beyond the course. Image  And this brings us back to the concept of “networked curation.” If one tweets to connect, then one of the major connections we are making through social media is a connection to participatory learning.

Social media rewards active participation in ways that make it valuable for online learners and online learning communities. One thing that I do like is how Twitter, or even tools like Storify and Pinterest, are only “parts of the story.” These social mediated communication streams and tools only come to life when learners engage with them, and complete the story. Storify allows students to not only aggregrate their tweets, but comment on the “new story” that emerges from the act of aggregration. As tweets are built into stories, and as students share and reflect on those new stories, new possiblities for curation and the cultivation of the imagination emerge. Slide09

And these are four of the major takeaways when we focus on social media curation. As is always important in instructional design, you need to consider what social media adds to your discipline. This is going to be different for an Art History course, or a Sociology course, or a Business course. But in each case, the art of communication and the science of connection and curation can come together to transform student learning and engagement. Part of what is fun about social media curation is how visible the learning is. You can follow alongside your students as they create these new knowledge connections and these new archives. Slide10

Which brings me to my final point. If we take the cultivation metaphor to its logical end, we start to recognize that far too frequently in our efforts to connect our students to disciplinary knowledge, we inadvertently bracket off the wealth of networks, the flow of information, collaborative energies, and networked data. We tend, even when we intend the opposite, to encourage our students to construct their information as personal, as if they are building old-fashioned knowledge cabinets. They might be able to collect our “disciplinary specimens” and arrange them in their own self-contained cabinets of curiosity that harken back to the early days of the Enlightenment and the desire for encyclopedic knowledge. But I want to leave this talk by offering another vision, one not of information contained and walled-off, but of information set free and shared. In this final maneuver then, social media curation of disciplinary knowledge might lead towards opening up new fields of knowledge, new areas of engagement and collaboration. Information can be powerful when it is shared. Let’s see what kinds of information fields might open up in the social media age.