The Ron Howard Effect

This is all very effective as a comparison between film and television, but it does not yet hint at the greatest concern. After all, there are still movie theaters exhibiting new releases on big screens. The real issue is that the television ideal, namely plot-centered narrative, has fully infiltrated the theatrical filmmaking process. How else to explain the fact that one of the most celebrated and successful directors of the current era is a former television star now renowned for films of precious little visual innovation or interest—films that are celebrated instead for the stories they literally tell?

I am not really blaming Ron Howard for any of this. If anything, he is merely axiomatic of a paralyzing condition likely made inevitable (and perhaps inexorable) by the public's capitulation to the narrative style of television. America has been raised on television, and inculcated to its narrative strategy for several successive generations now. Still, this particular director's career (featuring as it does formative years literally spent in the bosom of the television industry followed by the peculiarly industrial film education that characterizes film study at USC) combined with the singular lack of discernible personality attendant to even brief overview of his oeuvre makes him a natural focal point.

This brief essay is not even intended to denigrate television; in this regard, the late Neil Postman has already done a more than adequate job anyway. It is merely to suggest that what makes television run is literally disemboweling film as an art form. Plot-centered content, which is now often literally based on television series of the past, adds nothing positive to the film equation. Unlike film, described in its relative infancy by President Woodrow Wilson as "history written with lightning," television is not an instrument of awe or wonder. It is a rudimentary communication device that has proven itself in practice to fall woefully short of any of the initial promise it had as an information source. The increasing pressures of advertising in an ever-fragmenting television marketplace has only accelerated and emphasized the shortcomings of the medium.

What the infiltration of television into the film world has meant is an ever-shrinking sense of the power of film as a medium. Attention to favorite films of the past, and to virtually all those films considered "the greatest," reveals that what sets them apart is not likely to be the story itself. As with great novels, the difference lies in the presentation. Their greatness lies in that inexorable quality possessed by all great works of art. It dwells in the how of the story's telling, as opposed to the what that the story is "about." Plot-driven narrative is inescapably centered on this what. When applied to film, the result cannot help but diminish its scope and effect.