Quotes of Quotes (X): The Operational Aesthetic

Accounts of cinematic special effects highlight how these moments of awe and amazement pull us out of the diegesis, inviting us to marvel at the technique required to achieve visions of interplanetary travel, realistic dinosaurs, or elaborate fights upon treetops. These spectacles are often held in opposition to narration, harkening back to the cinema of attractions that predated narrative film and deemphasizing classical narrative form in the contemporary blockbuster cinema. While such special effects do appear on television […] complex television offers another mode of attractions: the narrative special effect. […] These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forego strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.
– Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Complexity in Context”

I do love it, when a plan comes together. And I love it even more, when someone finds a technical term for that love. After reading my defense of Star Trek Into Darkness‘s plotting, a friend alerted me to Jason Mittels excellent work-in-progress book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling which is now fully online for free! I have only devoured two chapters so far, but it is an excellent read with not too many academic strings attached. Highly recommended!

As for the “Operational Aesthetic”, that is: the joy of watching a machine work, I feel like Mittell has found me out. Since I have always been a fan of visual special effects, it comes as no surprise that I’m also a fan of narrative special effects – and I think it’s one of the few joys left to us in the realm of market-oriented contemporary franchise filmmaking. Mittell mentions puzzle movies like Inception as examples from the big screen, but I think the same terms fit perfectly with the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and evolving franchises like The Fast and the Furious.

Finally, I also like the fact that Mittell mentions the “baroque quality” of these narrative shenanigans. I have been trying to link the baroque to contemporary cinema before, and it’s always good to see people agree with me. (Although Mittell’s quotation referred me back to Angela Ndalianis’s book which I remember quoting six years ago in my MA thesis, so maybe the thought wasn’t really my own in the first place.)

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