Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Serial Cinema

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2010

I have to start this post off with an admission: I have yet to see the new Harry Potter. I’m saving it for Thanksgiving weekend when I can return to my home state and see it with loved ones, so hopefully next week I’ll have a post on something more appropriately Potter-specific. But what I want to talk about today is not something related to Deathly Hollows specifically, but what it represents, which lies somewhere in the film’s critical reaction. While heaps of praise have been given to the newest installment of one of the biggest movie franchises in history based on one of the biggest book franchises in history (many calling it one of the best entries in the series), the biggest voice of detraction has been the notion that Deathy Hollows pt. 1 is not a “complete movie” per se – that it abruptly stops in medias res, that it has no “third act.” Whether or not this is how I will feel when I see the movie this week is unimportant, but what this movie – and its subsequent reaction – represents is of great importance.

The franchise-happy decade that we recently ended represents something of a tidal shift in big-scale filmmaking, and it can be summed up in the transition from the “complete film” to what I call “serial cinema.” While the modern mainstream form of serial cinema may have began with Indiana Jones and stories from a galaxy far, far away, its current iteration is far more accelerated, for now we not only see franchises whose existence is predicated upon other films or the literary works from which they are based, but also from a vast network of related narratives. The fact that we have what is by critical impression “half of a film” dominating the box office right now is evidence of the pervasiveness of this trend.

Serial ci

nema is inherently intertextual: that is, the existence and value placed upon one work (and especially upon its subsequent works) is predicated upon knowledge of sources outside the work itself. In a sense, the experience of any movie is intertextual: much of the time, we seek out films that feature actors or directors that we find credible, or a genre we enjoy, because of our previous affection for the prior “texts” within a given category (look no further than the ways in which Netflix recommends which movies they think you’d enjoy for an example of this concept in action). But with serial cinema, intertextuality operates more overtly and is at some point essential for the experience to even take place.

One does not necessarily have to have read any of the Harry Potter books in order to enjoy the first film (I myself admit that I enjoy about half of the series’ film entries without even having read a page of any of the books), but the success of the first film was undoubtedly grounded in the book series’ popularity. Furthermore, regardless of the books, the success of each film was predicated upon the existence of the previous one – the cinematic manifestation of Harry Potter is mass entertainment, yes, but it was not designed for those uninitiated by page or by silver screen. Watching any of the series’ sequels without any outside knowledge would leave one with enjoyable spectacle, but a spectacle without context. Robert Fure has repeatedly described Deathly Hollows pt. 1 as an incomplete thought, but I wonder if it’d be more appropriate to look at each entry in the film series as a portion of an incomplete sentence that leads up to cohesion by its final fragment. No Harry Potter entry is “complete” without its preceding or proceeding entries, and they are also not “complete” within the classic conception of what a “whole” film is. That a “split film” of sorts should arise (two texts emerging from one) is something of an inevitability within this paradigmatic shift in how we experience the event movie.

The event movie since its resurgence in the early Spielberg/Lucas era has shifted from an appeal to interiority rather than exteriority. Franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Lord of the Rings have met such incredible success not by fitting their films to as vast a demographic goal as possible, but because they’ve so successfully catered to their respective niche demographics which existed prior to the film’s release (in fact, as Cole Abaius argued, Hollywood has become so reliant upon existing texts to the detriment of original storytelling). Sure, any successful transmedia translation of a text (i.e., book-to-film) picks up new fans along the way, but audiences have shown up to these films in droves time-after-time because of a devotion to the original material from the superfan.

This is what separates the old modern blockbuster franchise from its new iterations: Star Wars and Indiana Jones were both determined by codes of old Hollywood (the western for the former, matinee adventure films and Treasure of the Sierra-Madre/Bogie for the latter), thus made accessible and autonomous in a way conditioned by traditional viewing patterns that new franchises are no longer beholden to (sure, in many ways Star Wars set the standard for the fantasy franchise as we see it today, but eight films released in nearly as many years requires a lot more from its audience than three films stretched out over six years, and each Star Wars film began with a prologue for audience catch-up that isn’t provided in the new brand of franchise).

Just as television in the era of J. J. Abrams requires attention paid to the linear progression of the story episode-by-episode, we as audiences are required to do similar “homework” before engaging in the mega-franchise. This is why so many devoted fans rewatch previous entries as a new entry nears release, and why I feel the need to marathon movies when I decide to enter a franchise late in the game. But just as I learned in 2009 during my introductory HP marathon, even over so many movies the film series itself is hardly autonomous, predicated on an expansive fan interaction with the source material that ranges anywhere from the original texts to encyclopedias to fan forums to fan fiction. The films themselves are thus hardly ever just “the films themselves,” and that is what makes the new serial cinema uniquely intertextual.

Compare recent event movies, for instance, to one of Hollywood’s previous eras of grandiosity, the era of Technicolor and widescreen in 1950s and early 1960s. While intertextuality was certainly at play here (historical epics were based on sacred texts and extravagant musicals adapted from lavish Broadway productions), each film was relatively autonomous and accessible, their narratives stratified by ancient stories implicitly familiar to nearly everyone in a Judeo-Christian culture (think of Charlton Heston’s career at this time), or based on a particular previous text that is certainly not required for understanding of its adaptation (i.e., Audrey Hepburn movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or My Fair Lady). But the parameter of difference here lies in the fact that these films stood uniquely on their own. They were “complete” films.

This era might suggest that the “complete film” was cinema’s operative mode before the enabling possibilities of the Internet and home video (after all, it’d be difficult to image a Hollywood franchise sustaining itself in this bygone era without the accessibility of revisitation via home video technology), and that the current mode is an unprecedented transition in long-form cinematic storytelling. But going back even further into cinema history always complicates things.

Louis Feuillade was one of the France’s most famous serial filmmakers in the 1910s (this being the silent era, his films exported to other countries with equal success quite easily). One of his most successful creations, Fantômas, was a five-part series that ran from 1913 to 1914. Instead of five separate episodes, Fantômas consisted of five separate entries of a much larger story, each entry picking up where the previous one left off. No single film was an autonomous, “complete” entity. And here’s the kicker: the films were based on a series of popular novels. So maybe contemporary serial cinema, and all the intertextuality involved within, isn’t such a new trend after all.

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