Thoughts on Film vs Series via Quibi’s THE STRANGER

“Who needs God, when I have got an algorithm.”

From my software development experience, a bad algorithm is the one which copies elements from other short, generic algorithms to create its whole but works only for a couple of specific cases. Kind of like the script of this micro-series or film or whatever.

The series, with each episode not exceeding 9 or 10 minutes, prominently feels like an exercise to figure out the visual and temporal mélange of this new format, targeted towards current generation’s appetite for snack-like entertainment at the palm of their hands. It walks that line fairly well, looking at just the cinematography or beats of the story, but the logic get heavily sacrificed for bite-sized thrills. Its insistence on covering a huge ground of technological horrors, be it surveillance, hacking, social media bullying and such, ultimately consistently debunks reason, thereby robbing us of possibility of introspection afterwards, though we’re living in a very similar world. Even the trauma tossed around rather less seriously and later brought into focus as central motive, fails to compel or even convince because of the heavy changes in the foundation of the drama.

Perhaps Sud wanted each episode to be self-contained with its separate set of shocks. However, it becomes difficult to believe it as a whole and the trick to make it seem like a 13-hour affair doesn’t work. The craft on the display hits the conventional notes pretty well, with smartly designed long takes, exquisitely framed & colored visuals and stylish cliffhangers at tipping points. It certifies that with stronger content, Sud can design a pleasantly & satisfyingly atmospheric and tense tale. Her confidence with actors is also on display by way of how strongly each character comes on screen. Being unaware of Quibi’s another aspect (excuse the pun) that is the smartphone-oriented vertical framing, I watched the series on my laptop and later re-imagined it playing in a smartphone app, after watching the trailer. The experience is definitely not diluted on both the platforms. With the phone, it’s more in the face, more intimately scary. This is a weirder aspect ratio, somewhat closer to the old 4:3, but we’re slowly getting there thanks to the video on social media like Facebook and Instagram. And the intention to exploit the story into a meta narrative is right there, but with a less informed substance.

For me, the series raises the question of how tight a rope could this be to make someone glued to your story, and make them feel something after the conclusion. That struggle still remains inherent with these different ‘looking’ platforms. People love to ‘binge’ a series but roll their eyes at 3-hour films because they’re not really interested in focusing on the series. They’re interested in it as a background noise, a status quo, a fast food, and they prefer to have the agency to stop in the middle & still feel a sense of completion. This is why when a season ends, there’s a sense of emptiness because the designated ‘task’ is over. This emptiness is particularly felt by those who were watching it with interest, and if the mediocre/derivative series felt shallow as a whole. As many screenwriters, filmmakers, series creators might argue, the gimmicks of the format do not work as effectively as compelling, real, identifiable characters with believable narratives. Unless, of course, the gimmick is the main selling point.

Could The Stranger have worked differently as a film? Yes, it would have felt too blatantly staged. Of course, if the beats of the story are changed to fit a film format, then that’s a different topic altogether. Somehow the breathing space in between the episodes gives a way to regroup the horrors so far, while imagining what could be next. Maybe that makes it more immersive in a different sense? When we watch a film, we assume it would be its own complete thing and we will get all the answers at the end. With a series, we’re not sure if all the answers are within this season. I wonder if this point can be exploited smartly with a narrative, without unfinished subplots, and differently than how David Lynch does it.On the other hand, a film gets you more consistently engrossed into its world, which apparently is the problem we’re facing thanks to our shorter attention spans. This explains why we now rarely get self-contained epics like The Irishman, whose sprawling structure is not classifiable as anything except life itself. With a shorter attention span, we fail to cover bigger ground than expected while tracing back for a clue related to the latest event in the film, making us feel inferior to the film. This is the same inferiority that makes us dislike our life and anything that may resemble it. We don’t want to surrender ourselves to the film, we want to feel superior to the film. Anyway, I must curb this diversion that may as well be bigger than the ones we constantly see in The Stranger. Or does it still feel lesser?

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