Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:


Oh, Moses, Moses – you damned fool!


When I was teaching basic composition for those who had not made the grade in high-school, I was assigned a class in a small town in upstate New York, the main-street of which was littered with churches. So, since it is well to teach students according to their interests, one of the first writing assignments I gave my students was an essay on their belief in god and their religious preferences.

The results were surprising – even shocking. My middle-aged, small-town middle-American, supposedly Christian students agreed unanimously that god did not exist, but that religion was necessary for the teaching of morality. Really, they made no bones about that.

My suspicion is that most Americans do not believe in god; but they are so convinced that religion teaches morality that they are willing to spend literally billions on it. That makes them suckers – or as con-men put it, easy marks – for any fraud that perpetuates the myth that morality depends on some silly sacred book, no matter how incoherent.

One of the problems with mainstream American Christianity is that it is a mess of moral reductionism, superstition, mysticism, Old Testament fear-mongering, materialist hopes for increased wealth disguised as faith in grace, and just plain charlatanism.

Consider the 1956 Hollywood extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, by then-aging hack director Cecille B. DeMille.

If Charlton Heston wasn’t sure he could over-act before he made this film, he certainly proved it to himself – and everybody else – here. It’s hard to believe in a ‘prophet’ who can’t seem to lower his voice below a shout.

What’s really sad about films like this is that it plays well for people who deeply believe themselves to be devout Christians, even though the Sermon on the Mount makes so little sense to them, they tell their children to ignore it, “nobody could live that way”.

Of course, this is the “Old Testament” story, so references to mercy and justice and charity are somewhat out of place, anyway. DeMille, quite accidentally, has played up and reminded us that ancient Judaism was an essentially tribal religion. How it became an all-embracing world religion and how it spawned Christianity in that process, is a long and complex story – and why bother if you can load the screen with beefcake heroes, rivers flowing backwards, chariots, and dancing girls? And it’s just as well Heston over-acts like he’s just taken Angel Dust, because everyone else underacts embarrassingly. Most notable are Edward G. Robinson – looking like a toga-wearing ’30s B-movie gangster – and Yul Brynner. Brynner especially sleepwalks the film, looking dazed and confused; clearly awaiting instructions from the director that never arrive.

Why is DeMille considered a great director? Because Americans love a truly clever con-artist. We know that DeMille, selling beefcake and cheesecake and special effects, is garnishing all this with the words many call ‘sacred’ in our culture, even though we don’t really believe in them. He is not only playing to our baser instincts, but also to our hypocrisy.

Anyway, his film has no right to condemn any ‘Golden Calf’, because it is itself a golden calf, an idol of the herd.

Empty spectacle, fake religiosity, snooze-inducing narrative, cheesy cheesecake and beefy beefcake, crappy back-lot cinematography, bombastic dialog and music to match, endlessly mind-numbing moralizing, and acting that wood would be embarrassed to own –

Speaking about wood, this film is Ed Wood * on steroids with a big budget. DeMille knew just how to play the game (and Wood clearly did not), so DeMille was able to splash garbage on the screen and get Hollywood to pat him on the back for doing so. He pandered to the basest instincts of his low-brow middle-American audience and dressed it up with biblical quotations and pretentious promises of moral rectitude. He was basically a con-artist with a camera, a P.T. Barnum let loose in cinema and given the green light by financiers and media mavens – and he got the job done for them. 10 Boremandments made a ton of bucks, and film critics who should know better continue to sing its praise – Now that’s the mark of a truly great con-artist!

It was unfortunate for DeMille that he died when he did – he would have made a lot of money as a televangelist. (On the other hand, admittedly, those of us still living are blessed that DeMille is dead – who needs another televangelist?)

Old joke –

God comes down to Moses:
God: ‘Moses, I want to give you a commandment.’
Moses: ‘How much does it cost?’
God: ‘It’s free.’
Moses: ‘I’ll take ten.’

(This little story tells the whole story – forget the film.)

This joke was actually a self-deprecating bit of irony devised by Jews, who well knew what Christian Americans thought of them. (Just BTW, it must be noted that the Jewish community, at least in America, has long adopted a tolerance for those Jews who do not believe. Most American Jews still support Israel because they want somewhere to retire to, other than Florida; But they are really not interested in the religious muck that the Israeli right-wing espouses; and certainly don’t buy the Millenialism such muck involves. Outside of Orthodox communities in Israel and elsewhere, the Jewish identity is really a matter of culture and tradition; and one doesn’t need to believe in god to believe in culture.)

The film, then, doesn’t really tell us anything about the culture of the Jews as it has been handed down for centuries. It is really about American Christianity. What the Ten Commandments really reveals is that American Christianity is extremely primitive in its religious horizons. It is all about flash and spectacle, suppressed sexuality, moral rigidity, fear, and the desire for a strong man (like Moses) who can somehow make everything right through the smiting of enemies. And of course money.  It is a prelude to fascism.

Ten Commandments at IMDb:

Creative details:

Directed by
Cecil B. DeMille … (as Cecil B. de Mille)
Writing Credits
Dorothy Clarke Wilson … (this work contains material from the book “Prince of Egypt”) &
J.H. Ingraham … (this work contains material from the book “Pillar of Fire”) (as Rev. J. H. Ingraham) &
A.E. Southon … (this work contains material from the book “On Eagle’s Wing”) (as Rev. A. E. Southon)

Æneas MacKenzie … (written for the screen by) &
Jesse Lasky Jr. … (written for the screen by) (as Jesse L. Lasky Jr.) &
Jack Gariss … (written for the screen by) &
Fredric M. Frank … (written for the screen by)


* Ed Wood: reputably the worst director in film history – so notoriously bad, Tim Burton made a film about him.

But truth be told, despite the monies made available to him – DeMille is far worse.  A shameless purveyor of ludicrous pap pretending to be serious art.  Truly one of cinema’s greatest con-men and schlock-mongers – why wouldn’t Hollywood love him after all?  He is the baseline that real film-makers struggle to overcome and get beyond.

From a strictly personal perspective, I must admit that Ed Wood’s films usually amuse me.  DeMille’s films just make me want to puke.

Creativity and the need for history


One of the most influential films of all time, its impact still felt among film enthusiasts and film-makers, is also one of the best ever made. Akira Kurosawa’s The Severn Samurai (Japan, 1954) is one of the most powerful historical adventure dramas in the history of film. The story is complex, so I can’t really do justice to it here. A small farming village is threatened by a group of forty bandits. The village decides to put up a battle and hire five down on their luck samurai, one samurai apprentice, and one renegade who wants desperately to achieve the respect of a true warrior. The samurai get enmeshed in the lives of the villagers, but ultimately remain alien to them. After brief skirmishes, a final battle decides the day. Only three samurai remain standing. But it’s not their victory, the lead samurai remarks – the victory always belongs those who belong and continue. The samurai don’t belong.

Some time ago, I was talking with a young man intending to get into film school, and of course, hoping to go on to make masterpieces of action adventure films which would earn him millions. He ran by me a plot of one of the films he was planning – a grand epic concerning an embattled planet that hires a handful of mercenary space rangers to defeat a marauding band of interplanetary outlaws. “Oh,” I remarked, “Like the Seven Samurai?”

He frowned in bewilderment. “What’s that?” he asked. I told him about the film, and he dismissed it. “That’s old stuff – no CGI back then!”


I was reminded of this recently when considering some movie trailers now available at Youtube. Avengers: Age of Ultron; Superman vs. Batman (or is it the other way around?); Ant-Man; Fantastic Four; what, no new Transformers movie this year?

The summer blockbuster season is soon to arrive in movie theaters everywhere, threatening to overload our senses with explosions and super-powered fistfights and roller-coaster rides through special effects, unenlivened by any but the most ponderously histrionic declamations of banal dialogue rarely rising above the level of advertisement cliches.

I am tired of commercial filmmakers preying on the young by obscuring the fact that, as filmmakers, they have nothing original to say or do, by chewing up the past and spitting it out again with “new, improved” special FX. It is hard to believe that film was once considered an established art form, capable of bringing rich experience of other worlds and other peoples to local screens, along us enjoyment of the infinite humor and deepest drama of which humans are capable – as well as sheer, exhilarating adventures. Of course, there was always a lot of garbage – Film is a business, after all, and Hollywood is famous for its vultures, vampires, leeches, and other creatures of the capitalist menagerie of greedy beasts. But now there seems to be almost nothing more than garbage splashing across our big screens these days.

I once believed that if more were attuned to the history of film, they would make greater demands of their contemporary film-makers (and their producers and investors), and that the quality of all boats would lift in response to the demand. But I don’t think this anymore.

The sad fact is that many young viewers are not only ignorant of film history, they earnestly wish to remain ignorant.

What could possibly be gained by a surrender to one’s own ignorance. An ignorant man has to be told what to do and what to think. Simply rejecting the advice of one’s elders does not constitute freedom of thought – it is exactly when we reach a decision contrary to that of our peers that we discover what it may mean to become an individual.

This means, of course, that statistical arguments concerning the uselessness of history are wholly unconvincing. to say that ‘most people agree with me on this point’ doesn’t say that the point is well-made; possibly everyone in agreement with it is simply wrong.

To assert one’s independence and then turn around and say that the ‘majority agree’ is self-evidently contradictory. To abide by such statements despite evidence and reasonable disproof, is not simply exposing ignorance – which can be corrected through education – it is simply stupid.

Furthermore, since an ignorant person has to be told what to think, it follows that such a person is a victim waiting for a crime to happen. Such people seem proud of their ability to thumb their noses at people who reach out to help – but they easily and quickly fall victim to con-artists, who usually know how to make such people feel good about the victimization.

Knowledge of history means: not getting scammed for want of it. It means deepening one’s awareness of the strengths and faults of those we admire. It means that we learn the tricks used to produce something of value, thus making it easier to find and judge value.

In film it is also well to bear in mind that good film-makers are precisely those who have studied film history the most. This gives them a stock of film-techniques developed by others on which to draw for increased effectiveness of their own films. I find it unclear, why it is young viewers of today wish to remain in ignorance of where contemporary film-makers draws inspiration.

This fact blasts away the commonly proffered assertion, ‘we do things better now than anything they did “back when”‘. If that were true, then the film-makers of today would not need such inspiration; but they do.

Finally, it is simply a fact that those who profess ignorance – as a desirable quality – are simply incapable of saying anyone might be able to learn. They always get basic facts wrong.

I have actually seen reviews of the film that argue that, being an action film, the character development in the Seven Samurai is unimportant -it slows the film down; ‘get to the sword-fights – it’s a sword-fight film, after all!!’

But the Seven Samurai is not an action film; it is a period adventure film with both action elements but also, and more importantly, elements of serious drama.

The importance of the character development in the first half of this film is that some of us happen to like human beings and want to understand better: what makes them do the things they do – and what makes some of their actions mistakes – sometimes fatal mistakes.

As the remarks of the lead samurai at one point imply, the biggest mistake these men made was becoming samurai. But that being the hand life has dealt them, they need to play it out as best they can – and as gracefully as they can.

Hemingway once remarked that what truly made a man was ‘grace under fire’ – and I seem to recall he admitted that he had heard of this as a volunteer with the Italian army during the first world war, that this was the quality the Italians admired most about Americans.

Well, that’s what the Seven Samurai is about – not the action, but the ‘grace under fire’ that the samurai learn about themselves, and also teach the villagers – or those villagers willing to be taught. When someone is not willing to be taught, that one is not worthy of teaching – in which case bandits can rape, rob, and slaughter them, and no one would care.

Finally one must point out the tasteless ignorance of insisting that a film is weak because – heaven forbid – it’s not in color. That’s wholly irrelevant to any movie whatsoever. A good director can handle color well – but he or she can handle black and white lighting and composition equally well. A bad director can have state of the art technology and still come up with a mind-numbingly childish exercise in cinematic shite.

There is hardly a wasted frame in the Seven Samurai. And there are some stunningly beautiful and haunting images – in glorious black and white.

If you care about film, you owe it to yourself to see the film; had it never been made, neither would any contemporary films that you enjoy today, or that you may enjoy tomorrow.

The Seven Samurai is still one of the best films in the history of cinema, and still a film necessary to see and appreciate.



Holy Signification, Batman! (1)



Part 1: Redundancy is so ironic

(or: Reading a reading of the movie title “Movie”)


I have long thought that there is much to be learned from popular culture, as long as we don’t allow our aesthetics or class-biases to get in the way. Those who treat popular culture with contempt, or patronizingly, fail to recognize that this attitude subverts any attempt at objective assessment of popular culture. And without some objectivity, reason has no claim to either criticize of judge, it cannot form an argument or a proposition. Knowledge will not ‘submit’ to us, it must be submitted.

‘High’ culture or ‘low,’ sub-culture or criminal culture, much can be learned from even the most egregiously offensive cultural phenomenon; if nothing else, then how not to duplicate it.

Of the Saturday morning cartoon shows developed by Warner Bros. studios, among the most interesting in the 1990s was an animated version of a ‘live-action’ film series derived from an inanimate illustrated narrative periodic magazine about a well-to-do crime fighter with a taste for apparel in imitation of flying rodents. But this remark is but segue into our real discussion:

There have been now four efforts to realize a cinema narrative with, living actors in performance, concerning the comic book hero Batman (copyrighted and trademarked by DC Comics). The first, in the 1940s, developed as a serial, or series of interconnected narrative episodes released to theaters weekly. There was a highly respected, well-budgeted feature length film in the 1980s, directed by the respected Tim Burton, which led to several sequels, that last dissolving into embarrassing self-parody. Recently, Christopher Nolan, another critically respected director, helmed three Batman films with enormous budgets, fashioned stylistically after the Return of the Dark Knight illustrated novel of the 1980s.

Most people have now forgotten that, between the serial of the 1940s and the Tim Burton film, there was a one-off theatrical film developed out of a then-popular television version of Batman narrative. It was made as an understandable effort by Twentieth Century Fox to capitalize on the success of the television show. The film, appearing in 1966 and starring Adam West as the renowned ‘Caped Crusader,’ was titled Batman: the Movie (to distinguish it from the television series). Leslie H. Martinson is credited with direction. But Batman: the Movie, unlike the other attempts to bring the character to live action cinema, is a comedy; and as the humor of the film originates from a principally verbal wit, the primary author of the film should really be admitted to be its screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Composed with a low-budget television sensibility, Batman: the Movie won no Oscars, and is destined for nobody’s Hall of Fame. The direction meets minimal standards of acceptable film-making, as do most of the film’s other technical endeavors. However, aesthetically, the minimum is not quite good enough. The film looks shoddy, not much better than the TV sit-coms of the day. As for the acting – well, the dialogue is enunciated clearly. Although, to be fair, this was probably intentional. ‘Ham’ seems to have been included in every character description. The script – but that’s where things get interesting. However unsatisfying as cinema, the film, as a deployment of signs, is a mother-lode to be mined for cultural significations.

The first sign that we are embarked on a comic adventure through the the significations of its culture, is the movie’s main title. I have described it as “Batman: the Movie,” but the colon, which is proper to this usage, does not appear on screen. Instead, the movie opens simply with the words:

the Movie

– a freak of grammar.

But there more to it than that. The word ‘Batman’ is presented in an almost ideogrammatic fashion. The original comic book character has a costume with a yellow oval on the chest; within the oval is a black bat, or rather the outline figure of a bat’s head and wings. In the title of the movie, the oval is presented, but where the wings should appear, we find the word ‘BATMAN’ – however, this is presented in letters shaped to conform with the outline of bat wings. Above this word, as in the emblem on the comic book character’s chest, we should expect to find the silhouette of a bat’s head, except that isn’t there, not even in outline. Instead, we find the cartoon head of the comic book character.

Alongside this design we find the words “the Movie.”

“Batman the Movie” is a verbal construction that is somewhat familiar to moviegoers today, and has been since the popularity of Star Trek: the Motion Picture in the early 1980s. So we miss the fact that this grammatical freak was a very unusual construction in the 1960s (Batman the Movie may be the first film to use such a title). However, its use in the Batman movie conveys what is most importantly obvious about that movie, although now less noticeable than intended at the time of its release.

But we will start with that oval:

The word ‘Batman’ we recognize as the name of the character. If he were in the vicinity, we would call his name, and he would answer the call; the name as statement signs: ‘Batman is here’ if only as a sign.

The oval was (according to the fiction) a personal choice of the character, his emblem, his self-presented non-verbal sign of himself. When it is seen on his chest, he no longer needs to be called, he has already answered any possible call, the emblem presents itself as immediate sign of identification, it could be said to say, ‘Batman is here,’ without him having to utter that.

In the movie’s opening title, the head appearing above the word ‘Batman’ with letters shaped as wings, is a true icon. It is pure duplication of the cartoon Batman, and thus represents all that we might expect of his presence, were he here with us. It says to us, in effect, ‘Batman is here,’ without that being uttered.

(In fact, since the comic book character is a cartoon, and this is its exact likeness, the likeness might almost be said to be that character, immediately present. However, this appears in the title of a ‘live-action’ film, not the comic book, so the figure cannot be the character, only its icon.)

What we have here is a graphic presentation of the principle governing much of the presumably humorous significations of the film. Seen through the prism of a perspective especially designed for reading signs, the main title image of the word ‘BATMAN’ presented in Batman’s oval emblem and mounted with the icon of the cartoon character’s head, reads:

*Batman as Batman is here as BATMAN*

– which is, of course, a ridiculous over-emphasis of the character’s symbolic representation as title to the movie.

The principle at work here, serving the rhetorical function of irony, I would like to call immediate redundancy: the immediate presentation of a sign appended to another sign, where both signs refer to each other and yet also refer to another object.

In the present instance, the word ‘BATMAN’ refers to the comic book character represented iconically above the word; but the image also itself refers to the character, but also to the word as proper name, ‘Batman.’ And both are enclosed in an emblematic oval which is itself recognized as symbolic representation for the comic book character, for the iconic image, and for the word as proper name, ‘Batman.’

So, uh…. Is Batman here yet?

Actually – no. Because, in the title, beneath this representative construction is the additional notice: “the Movie.” This is where the film begins charging into humor through irony, by announcing its own artificiality. We will not be in the presence of Batman, we are in the presence of ‘Batman the Movie.’ The combined signs of the title tell us so.

Again wearing our sign reading glasses, we can read the main title thus:

“‘Batman as Batman is here as Batman’ as the movie you are watching.”

But since both the filmmakers and we already know that we are watching a movie, we should recognize that the message is really decipherable as:

‘The movie “‘Batman as Batman is here as Batman’ is here as the movie you are watching” is here as the movie you are watching.’

What a tangled web of self-reinforcing signification is woven for us here!

I suppose some inattentive English professor is going to complain that I am being redundant in this interpretation of the title. Of course I’m getting redundant, how does one explain a theory of redundancy without getting redundant?

Of course, the question is, would the audience to the film translate the film’s title presentation in this fashion?

The answer is, they wouldn’t need to, their brains would do this rapidly and automatically (although there would need to be some prior training in cultural norms of significance to interpret). We are always wearing sign-reading glasses – they’re called eyes.

What the audience would have been expected to recognize and articulate is the irony in a movie the title of which asserts the artificiality of its presentation. It should be remembered that at the time, a title of the form *X: the Movie* – where X is the title of a work of fiction in another medium – television, books, or in our day computer games, etc. – was quite rare. We no longer see irony implicit in such construction because we have become familiar with it. But consider the problem in terms of the title including reference to the medium of original presentation: “Batman the Television Series: the Movie.” But of course the television series was developed as a parody of the comic book. No, let’s be precise: The television series was intended as a parody of the old ’40s serials based on the comic books. So, for maximum irony, the theatrical film should have been titled “Batman: the Comic book: the Serial: the Television Series: the Movie.” But that would not fit well on the newspaper advertisement.

So the audience of the time – the fairly hip, culturally informed audience the film was targeted at – would be expected to recognize the self-referential nature of the title and the artificiality signified, and the comic irony implied, to which it was expected to respond. They would know that they were not there to indulge the illusion that they were participating in the adventures of the title character; because the title character of the movie is – the movie itself. Which is wholly consistent with the “Pop-Art” aesthetics that were in vogue in the culture of the time. So we’ll get on to the discussion of that culture next.


“Holy cultural crisis! Can Batman the Movie save Cultural Redundancy from the clutches of Irony? Or will it get ‘ironed’ out into a mere strip of film? Find out next episode, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”