One of the sad things about the film industry is that it doesn’t have a proper jukebox. Every form of entertainment needs a martyr object, centerpiece on which to focus its nostalgia and longing for an imagined golden age; something obsolete, functional, and culturally present. The cranky jukebox in the diner, the Punch & Judy show at the circus, the scorebook at a ball game. Old fashioned theatres fill this need somewhat, but there’s a dark horse candidate out there that I would like to bestow with my favor: the film serial.
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I like to think of the serial as the bridge between the cinema and television, the precursor that laid down the format for TV programs when they started airing. They were shown in chapters, each with a 20-30 minute storyline that carried forward a finite plot that lasted no more than fifteen chapters. “24” is the best modern imitation of the serial structure that comes to mind, with “Lost” acting as an example of a serial with a blank check for funding. Money was a more immediately constraining force on serials than any comparable current program since they began in the silent era and were rented to individual theatres as precursors to the feature film. Before sound came along, their plotlines often centered around heroines who innocently made their way into distress that would reveal itself at the very end of the chapter. “The Perils of Pauline” was a hit, as were others that appealed to accepted attitudes towards gender roles at the time. The heroine in distress mold was very compatible with the serial because of its natural inclination towards cliffhanger endings, the serial’s most consistent and memorable characteristic.
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“Batman” was a serial that I watched as a child without realizing what I was viewing. It was made during wartime and had twelve parts, each one edging Batman one step closer to taking down a stereotypical Japanese villain who planned on enslaving American minds using a hypnosis machine that looked like one of those perm bowls they have in barber shops. If I remember right, the final chapter was hilariously entitled “A Nipponese Trap” to target flag waving ticket buyers who had abandoned their sense of cultural sensitivity on December 8th. Anyway, the chapters didn’t end with the mild-gasp sort of cliffhangers to which we’re accustomed. Oh no. This serial made it look like Batman died at the end of each and every one. Crates fell on him in the water, a room with spiked walls closed on him, etc. He had a tough rope to tow. By doing this the formula provided not only for an end to each episode but a beginning as well, since the next chapter always opened by revealing how Batman had managed to evaded death this time around.
You would think that with such a strict formulaic structure and characters that serials would have fallen victim to viewers’ boredom; but before we weigh that in we should consider the tragic longevity of the soap opera. Blandness did not kill the film serial; technology and its market-ready baby the television did, and its swift mid-50s efficiency makes me scared of what satellite radio might do to the BBC.
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A few popular serials like “Flash Gordon” were thrown onto the TV when they took the household throne that wooden radios had held up until then, but such transfusions met minimal success. The chapters weren’t designed to carry the show without a film feature or cartoon after, so with commercials as their back-up they fell pretty flat. A completely new layout and presentation was possible with television, and new tube owners were hungry to see it. Pauline had been saved before, after all, and watching Alfred the Butler get hypnotized in a perm machine just wasn’t the same on the small screen.
As an evolution of film, however, television bears prominent vestigial features from its serial ancestor. For shows that aren’t aimed at humor, it’s very useful to give the viewer some sort of greater story and endpoint in which to contextualize a given episode for broader, and from today’s “Flashpoint” to yesterday’s “The Prisoner” we see this in full force. Period styles aside, the primary differences between such shows and old serials are funding and length, characteristics that are closely related and make shows incompatible with feature films in the way that serials were. There’s no need to, of course, but there’s no denying the face even so. If we ever manage to slow down film making long enough to decide on a proper item on which to reminisce, it’s too late for the serial. Those twenty minute chapters have sunk too deep into obscurity to be saved by anything other than the odd DVD box set, and there’s no way theatres are going to bother with them as throwbacks when there are so many trailers and feisty Coke adds to run. Film will someday have its jukebox, however, and since I watch nearly all of my shows online at this point anyway, my money’s on seeing some vintage televisions sitting in a few cinema lobbies one of these days.