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Veronica Mars and the Case of 'What Is Cinematic'?

Glenn here to discuss Veronica Mars. Did you see it this weekend?  Maybe you streamed it on demand or (like me) trekked to a cinema to see it on the big screen and watch the crowd collectively laugh at the exploits of Neptune, California’s best young private detective. Either way, I find it hard to believe that anybody who loved the series wouldn’t also find the film a whole bunch of fun. I know I did, and even if it does spend a lot of its time providing lip service to fans, given its Kickstarter origins there was never any hope for a Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me style reinvention, you know? Not at all.

Among those who admitted to not having seen the show prior to the film, many complained that it looked like a 100-minute extended 'very special episode' of a series. While it’s hard to argue that creator/director/writer Rob Thomas pushes the envelope for the new larger canvas, I almost feel like that's missing the point. But I find it interesting that many were calling into the question the notion of what makes something cinematic.

Did Thomas have to use teal and amber lens filters? I’m glad he didn’t. Did he have to use helicopters and pyrotechnics? I’m glad he didn’t. Did he have to edit it through a wood chipper and lose the wonderful sense of rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat banter between his wonderful ensemble that made the series so memorable? I’m glad he didn’t. Whatever technical yardsticks people use to denote “cinematic”, I don’t think it necessarily applied to Veronica Mars. I also doubt whether the film would have been the subject of such arguments if it was an entirely original property. Maybe people would spent more time admiring the dialogue than wondering why it’s not photographed like a Scorsese picture. This is, after all, a genuine independent movie that came into creation because audiences paid for it. Why fix what ain't broke? Are these what people are talking about when they say such things? I mean, if it is then maybe more films could stand to be a little less cinematic, if you know what I mean (hi, Need for Speed!)

The same thing happened to Sex and the City: The Movie if I recall, as many bemoaned it was just the same ol’ same ol’ crammed into feature length with little to distinguish it from the television series they had gotten more or less for free for seven years. I will be interested to see if the Entourage movie cops the same sort of flak or whether its Hollywood setting gives it an automatic allowance to go big in a way that Veronica Mars never could. People paid for Veronica Mars, not Veronica Mars Goes to Hollywood (James Franco notwithstanding) or Veronica Mars Goes to Monte Cristo. Almost anything else than the movie we got would have felt like a betrayal.

With the advent of digital filmmaking tools making it easier for many people to make a movie, the definition of “cinematic” has gotten more and more blurred. I’ve used the term to complain about some movies before – mostly documentaries that look like 60 Minutes reports, yet expect people to pay $15 to go and see – but I don’t think this is one of those cases. Watching Veronica Mars unfold on the big screen, unaware of any of the plot twists that populate its busy second half, gave me a sense of glee the likes of which I rarely get in a movie theatre. Especially in this day and age where it feels legitimately impossible to not know the outcome of a movie. I felt thrilled and giddy like I assume Star Wars fan get when enjoying a new episode. That's just one version of what it means to be cinematic. How about yours?

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Reader Comments (13)

I've read a lot of nitpicking over the virtues of the movie in the past few days, and many of the criticisms are valid in my eyes, but I don't care!

It was both more and less than a movie, to me. I was getting to revisit my favorite place while surrounded by favorite people, snuggling into 100 minutes of blessed, fan-groveling bliss. And because I backed it on Kickstarter, I can re-watch my digital copy as many times as I want.

True indeed that the knocks on its status as 'cinematic' would probably not come up for an original property.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I haven't seen this yet but aren't they usually talking about cinematography exclusively when they talk about this (well, and plotting too). Film cinematography tends to be less brightly lit so that it doesn't look as flat (i don't know the technical stuff but this is what I hear) and of course with episodic television the plotting is much different. I do remember that the sex & the city movies did feel a bit like bingewatching episodes with the rhythms (like we just got two additional shorter seasons.

March 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I splurged and rented it on demand.

I think the criticisms have merit - and don't think the film works as well as it should, but I can't help myself, I like it anyways! Yes the story isn't necessarily that great, and the TV show was somehow both wittier and with more pathos, but the move was still a lot of fun and I"m glad it was made. Ultimately, it is cotton candy - but it is delicious.

I know it is comparing apples to oranges, but the Firefly film was much more successful in keeping both the darkness and the charm that made the TV show so great.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

I never saw the series but always read great things about it. So I saw the movie on Sunday (at a theater 2/3 full of Marshmallows) and I thoroughly enjoyed both the movie and the audience's response to it. Is it cinematic? Yes, because to me "cinematic" means smart, engaging, interesting characters, sharp humor and some surprises along the way. I got way more bang for my buck than when I paid to see MAN OF STEEL, a movie loaded with visual fx but rotten and stupid to the core.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterleft coast

left coast: Man of Steel showcases at least two problems:

1. Current creative. If they really want the long term, stable, DC Cinematic Universe buckaroos, they shouldn't have backed horses (Goyer and Snyder, in particular) that were probably only going to really want to build up to an excuse to film an approximation of that The Dark Knight Returns fight scene. Anything else that happens, if it happens or is forced on them? Well, that's just peachy as far as they're concerned. If they wanted different, they should have hired people who'd appreciate the art of Alex Ross as much or MORE than the art/writings of Frank Miller.
2. The need for an actual overseer. No one's really keeping a close eye on these things and they think things are going fine (they're not). My idea of the best avenue would probably be Lewis Lovhaug. Has spent 5 years going through the annals of bad comics with dry wit and reasonable passionate commentary that gets better as it goes along. It's a bit rinky dink as far as an actual WRITING track record is concerned, but if people in Hollywood were willing to swallow the move, I couldn't imagine a better candidate for oversight. He's young, impassioned, and, unlike the "well he did the DCAU" choice of Paul Dini, he cares about the ENTIRE DCU (Dini is still MOSTLY a Batman guy (see also: His really bad Wonder Woman, the big mess step of the DCAU), even if he's much less extreme than Frank Miller), which is what's needed for a continuing cinematic universe set-up.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I saw this in the theater yesterday (proudly wearing my official backer t-shirt) and had a blast. It basically IS an extended very special episode, but I, too, wonder just what people mean when they say it isn't "cinematic". I know, I'm guilty of saying I was worried about exactly that when I wrote up the trailer here, but watching the actual movie, I didn't think it was framed poorly or edited poorly or anything. In the past couple of weeks I kept having to remind myself that while Warner is distributing the movie, Veronica Mars is still very much an independent production, and to be honest I didn't find it any less "cinematic" than any other character-driven indie film. In any way. I think it's just easier to make that claim about this particular movie because of its origins.

I suppose Rob Thomas could have gone "bigger" in some ways for the bigger canvas a movie offers, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with what he put up there, and there were some shots in which deep focus was used that definitely played better on the big screen than on my TV at home (yeah, I watched my digital download copy last night when I couldn't sleep, so what?), so in my mind he did shoot the movie for the cinema, NOT for television. And that makes it cinematic enough for me.

I'm more curious to know if any non-fans saw it and what they thought of it. I thought it was pretty admirable how they kept the fan service down to mostly just the one reunion scene, but I don't think all the supporting characters were sketched out fully enough to resonate with someone who had little or no knowledge of the show.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Denny, I didn't actually donate - I'm too poor to donate money to something like that which was a given for success - but I did win a Veronica Mars trucker hat a trivia night last week so I did wear that.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Being cinematic is not about the looks only. The script for the Veronica Mars movie is very telivsion inspired.

March 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I wonder if this is just a TV vs. film thing for a lot of people, whether they realize it or not. I think a lot of folks see that VM is a TV spin off, directed by a first time movie director who is mainly a long time TV writer/producer, and they just reflexively call it uncinematic. TV people can't make movies without having their efforts dismissed out of hand to a certain extent, but a modestly accomplished film director works in television (like Fukanaga on True Detective) and he's hailed as the second coming, even though, that sequence shot aside, it looks just like every other prestige drama on the air. Joss Whedon faced similar criticisms re: The Avengers to what Thomas is getting here, and that movie had plenty of "cinematic" flash. It has little to do with the actual work - it's where these guys come from.

March 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Roark, I agree with you. A lot of criticism (like Sad Man's) seems to focus on how similar to the TV show the movie was in tone and feel. Well, yes. It was. If it hadn't been, it wouldn't have been a Veronica Mars movie, it would have been a movie that happened to feature the cast of Veronica Mars. As far as it's "cinematic" aesthetics, it definitely looked and felt filmic, so no worries there.

I'm biased, because I loved the film, flaws and all. I love that its fundraising, production, and release are the most publicized experiment for a major studio in an industry that's going to be going through a lot of such experiments in the next few years. I think accusing the movie of not being "cinematic" is a weak criticism at best, and ultimately distracts from the larger narrative about (and within) the film.

March 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Case in point, here's Scott Tobias taking seven paragraphs to decide that he should, grudgingly, in fact call Veronica Mars a movie.


March 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I saw it Sunday (in a theater) and enjoyed it greatly, though I definitely felt like I would have enjoyed it just as much at home on a small screen. Don't know if that means it's not "cinematic" or just that us fans are *used* to seeing the show on a small screen.

Anyone know how it did at the box office?

March 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

lylee - Veronica Mars was in the 10th spot at the Box Office this weekend, making just over $2 million on only 291 screens. It had the second-highest per-screen average of any film in the Top 20 - behind only Grand Budapest Hotel. So I'd say it did pretty well. :-)

March 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

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