Who’s Medium Is It Anyway?


It is a given that people who post things on a subject are almost always defending their priors. I’m lucky in that I post when I want to, about what I want to and the only thing at stake for me is the time it takes to do so. I don’t have to write a minimum number of posts each day or reach a certain word count. What this means is that I don’t have to strain to attribute meaning to post by others and then write about how they are wrong.

This is on my mind because of a recent post by Alyssa Rosenberg. Alyssa is currently at the Television Critics Association summer press tour and one of the panels which she attended and wrote about was with members of the Directors Guild of America. During the panel, DGA President Paris Barclay gave a shout out to a Matt Zoller Seitz post about direction on television. Alyssa’s post was basically straight reporting on what different panel members said. I understand that even with straight reporting, a writer decides what to leave in and leave out and can shape the article to fit their own priors. My conclusion after reading Alyssa’s article was that there appears to be more collaboration on television than in movies. I tweeted as much to Alyssa and she agreed that this was her takeaway from the panel. To me, that is a sign of a well-written post, that the writer’s intention was accurately and effectively conveyed.

Matt’s post was about how television is not disposable and that there are plenty of examples of great direction in television history. I took Matt’s point to be that television may be a writers medium, but that doesn’t mean that other disciplines don’t contribute, in this case direction. Now I get that maybe you think it’s strange for someone to take a stand to support directors. After all, even in movies directors get the hammer position in the credits. (Also, it was not that long ago that writers fought successfully to take the ante-hammer position from producers.) Maybe you think directors get enough love already and that location scouts and set designers and cinematographers should get their own articles defending their work. That’s fine, but Matt doesn’t champion directors at the expense of all the others who contribute to television. Matt simply points out that more goes into television than the contributions of the showrunners. (I guess that his championing of directors does come at the expense of showrunners but, to be fair, showrunners do get too much credit these days.)

Again, I can write about what I want and I don’t need to take a side for or against Alyssa or Matt on this stuff. However, Alyssa got some responses to her post implying that she had a pro-DGA agenda. Again, that is not in her post. If you read it again you’ll see there is little to no advocating on her part, excepting again what she chose to include and not include. But that will never stop people with their own priors (“television is a writers medium”) from torturing the point of her article into something that can be argued against.

Still, this didn’t rise to the level that I felt I had anything to say about it. I don’t have to post today if I don’t want to. (Although I did my last episode review for Orange is the New Black.) Alyssa certainly doesn’t need me to defend her. Then I read a post today by Robert J Elisberg in the Huffington Post in which he is critical of both Alyssa’s post and Matt’s post. It was another example of someone with obvious priors (Robert is a screenwriter) attempting to create an issue out of nothing and it gave me something to write about.

To be clear, I don’t have an issue with Robert’s main point that there are practical reasons why TV is and has been a writers medium. Robert knows a lot more about how television is made than I do and his points are logical enough that I have no reason to doubt them. If you are interested in the topic then you should read Robert’s post. My issue is that I think Robert is assigning meaning to the two articles that doesn’t exist. Robert states that Alyssa’s article “tries to make the case that (what a surprise!) TV is a directors medium.” He then accuses Alyssa of falling for the “flimflammery”.

Here is a quote from Paris Barclay that Alyssa had in her article. This sums up my biggest takeaway.

“I think a lot of directors, it takes some getting used to if they’re coming from the feature world, to know that you really have to love and respect writers,” Barclay said. “It’s not going to be all about you here. You’re going to have to deal with someone else who is going to have a strong point of view and is going to give you something that they’re going to expect to more or less see. And a lot of directors in the feature world just aren’t really used to that kind of a relationship with their writers.”

Do you see the flimflammery? Do see how Alyssa has been duped? Do you see how the directors are playing up their importance and downplaying the importance of the writers? Neither do I.

Interestingly, what I do see in Alyssa’s post are some examples of how making television now is different than in the past, differences that directly address some of Robert’s practical reasons for why television is different than movies. Robert talks about how making movies more flexible; they can be released whenever and if they are a minute longer or shorter than planned it’s not a big deal. Television is different.

TV schedules are voracious monsters, and their demanding needs must, must, must be met. There’s no wiggle room for a director wanting to get the perfect shot, or keep doing retakes until he or she gets it just right, or trying to experiment with an interesting angle or…well, fill in the blank. Almost all of that has been worked out long before by the writers, in the writers’ room.

As I said, this is logical enough for me to believe. And you know who also agrees with it? The directors on the DGA panel. Here’s a passage from Alyssa’s article that is directly on point.

The directors all agreed that improvements in technology have given them substantially more creative freedom to capture shots from unusual angles, and to stay in the moment with actors during critical takes. Wilfred director Randall Einhorn said that the comedy was shot on “a stills [camera] you can buy at Costco and it looks like what you saw last year…They’re beautiful. Also, the flexibility of being able to put them in strange places and being able to move them in new ways is really interesting.”

And here is Paris Barclay again talking about the move from film to digital.

“One of the great advantages of that is we don’t have to cut as often. And, you know, I’ve gone 14 minutes doing several takes in a row, with actors really staying, you know, very much in character and in the moment, and that last performance is so much richer and better, often, because of it,” he explained.

Yes, TV schedules are voracious monsters but you know what helps? Technology. It gives the directors more choices and that allows them to do more than just transcribe what is on the page. (Let’s put aside Matt’s point that television has a rich history of directors who did more than just transcribe what was on the page even before these technological improvements.)

Note that the directors are, again, not saying that they are more important than the writers. Neither is Alyssa. (Neither was Matt.) The directors are simply saying that they make a valuable contribution to what we see on the screen. What else would you expect them to say?

Near the end of his post, Robert talks about the Auteur Theory that drives writers crazy and about the history of writers being denigrated in movies. This, at last, is Robert’s main issue, the one for which he had to shoehorn Alyssa’s and Matt’s posts in in order to discuss. I’m sure Robert is right but I’m not sure how Alyssa and Matt got dragged into the fight. Robert thinks Matt went overboard to change a perception (although he apparently didn’t succumb to flimflammery) but that is exactly what Robert does.

To be clear, I have no personal issue with Robert. I’m sure he has requirements at his job and it probably helps his post that he linked to Alyssa’s and Robert’s posts. The Twitter activity about his post has probably helped. It even probably helps in an infinitesimal way that I’m writing about it. That’s how these things work. I just think he could have been fairer to Alyssa and Matt. (Full disclosure: Among my priors is “Stick up for people I follow on Twitter”.)

UPDATE: While I was writing this I went on Robert’s Twitter feed to make sure that his post wasn’t some elaborate joke that went over my head. It wasn’t and I see he’s been in a long Twitter conversation with Alyssa and he apologized for something. As I said, she doesn’t need me to defend her.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.