Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Patience, young grasshopper

We are in a golden age of television. Not everything is a home run, but there are so many damn fine programmes on our TV sets these days. Last night I brewed up and settled down for 70-odd minutes of pure brilliance - episode two of the second series of Fargo.

The first series had to live up to the Coen Brothers' dazzling 1996 movie, and did just that. Series two has to live up to series one, and is doing just that. Surpassing, possibly. The acting is top notch throughout. The direction assured, the writing confident. I said to a friend after watching last week's series opener that it was such a bloody pleasure to know you are in the hands of a cast and crew so confident in what they are doing.

The story will be told over ten or so hours, same as series one. And that, as with so much TV these days, is the beauty of it. I've never had much patience. (My mother would replace 'much' with 'any'). But as I get older, I am learning more, and in particular the satisfaction of enjoying a story well told, at a measured pace.

The last film I saw at the cinema was The Martian. Perfectly reasonable entertainment, nicely put together, if not as gripping as I’d hoped it would be, having read the book. The movie ran for two hours and twenty minutes – in that time, Matt Damon had (SPOILER ALERT) been stranded on Mars, recovered, grown a shit-load of potatoes (and an unfortunate beard), worked out how to get in touch with NASA, who sorted out not one, but two rescue plans, while our hero was hauling ass across the surface of the red planet, at the same time as the crew who had believed him dead made an audacious attempt to save him before his potatoes ran out. All in just over two hours.

I'm struggling to think of the last movie that really blew me away. And I know why that is - movies seem so rushed now, compared with the rich storytelling and character development on show in TV, where plots are allowed to breathe, unfurling at just the right pace (maybe not in every instance, but you get my drift).

I’m bored of hearing those movie-goers who don’t have the attention span to sit through a film that dares to run past the two-hour mark. If a movie hits three hours they are ready to rain fire and brimstone down on the cinema world. I just don’t get it. Is our attention span as a species so shot that we need everything in small fixes?

I was looking on Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks back, at what movies were coming up. One was the latest Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, Bridge of Spies. It had the running time down as 95 minutes. There are a few movies of that length which do tick all the boxes for me – The Usual Suspects was around 90, and that’s a lean mean machine. But by and large, if a movie by Spielberg and Hanks comes in at 95 minutes, the alarm bells start ringing. It's so bad, I thought, they've had to hack it to pieces.

When I checked back a few days later, I realised they’d made a mistake and changed the running time to 155 minutes. Now we’re talking. Sure, there are some lengthy movies that would have worked better with a little nip tuck here and there. But to my mind they are the exception, not the rule.

It's one of the reasons why movie adaptations of beloved novels don't tend to fare well when compared; they can work, of course - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, to name a few. But again, exceptions rather than rules.

A book unfolds at its own pace, but all that story has to be crammed into a couple of hours on the big screen. Unless, of course, a book is adapted for TV. Where, in the hands of astute showrunners, directors and writers, it can receive the treatment it deserves. And that's what we're seeing these days. My Sky planner can't cope, that's for sure.