10 July 2016

Cinema v Television: Dawn of Justice

Twitter dustup! It got a tad unwieldy at 140 per, so I'm writing a lengthier response to several folks here; most of the rest of you can safely ignore this.

The article Scott praises here, written by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth) mostly bemoans The Neon Demon's poor box-office performance, seeing it as symptomatic of the industry's general failure to support visionary cinema. That's an argument I'm sympathetic toward, but Perry annoyed me mightily at the end by taking what I perceived as a needless potshot at television:

"It isn’t just that the film could not be farther away from the nondescript look and feel of practically everything on television: it is that the film exists in such furious opposition to television’s straightforward imagery and linear storytelling as to make television seem obsolete and irrelevant. It is a tragic irony to imagine The Neon Demon eventually living forever on Amazon alongside their stable of low-key, relatable sitcoms and dramas (that I have not watched)."

[Note to people who insist that the various solecisms in Listen Up Philip's narration are intentional (which they are not): Perry means "further" in his first sentence, not "farther." Of course, a copy editor should have caught that, but what's a copy editor, you ask? Good question. I forget.]

Now, I could easily write a 1500-word essay refuting the above paragraph—there's a lot to say. Nobody's currently offering me money to do that, though, so instead I'm just gonna skim the surface as it relates to the Twitter debate that my reply to Scott subsequently sparked. The main thing that annoyed me, to be honest, was the parenthetical "(that I have not watched)," the ostensible purpose of which still escapes me. Is Perry trying to be fair, noting that he hasn't seen the shows he's disparaging, and thus could conceivably be mistaken in his assumptions about their formal merits, or lack thereof? I really kind of doubt that. But the only alternative I can think of is that he's bragging about not watching them, as a way of signaling his coolness. Plus I generally think the whole TV vs. cinema debate is dopey, about which more below. So I replied to Scott as follows:

Consternation ensued. There was some incredulousness from Scott:

First of all, I doubt I'd rank among the top 20 of The Most Learned Cinephiles Scott Knows. ("These are the nerds I know I know / These are the nerds I know.") More to the point, though, my decision to concentrate primarily on cinema doesn't mean that I view it as superior to every other artistic medium on earth. My entire childhood was devoted to reading—so much so that I was widely known in my neighborhood as the weird kid who always had his nose buried in a book, even when skateboarding around the cul-de-sac where we lived (because my stepfather insisted on my getting some exercise). My obsession with movies developed later, and to some extent I chose to focus on them because cinema seemed far more manageable—only one century of history, and most movies take less than two hours to watch vs. novels that take days or weeks to read. There was never any implicit value judgment involved. I love movies and TV and literature and music and theater and etc. Sorry if that horrifies anyone.

Comparing movies and television in particular always seems tempting, because there's a fair bit of crossover. But they're really completely different media with radically different strengths and weaknesses. (Here's where I could write the lengthy essay, though I'm not gonna pitch it to anyone, because I feel like the points I'd make are fairly obvious; no doubt it's already been written many times.) That's the crux of my disagreement with Daniel Goldhaber (@chronopics), a filmmaker who pushed back hard at me about the whole TV thing. I admire Daniel's passion about what cinema can and should be; I just think he's misidentified the bogeyman.

He and I went back and forth for a while, but before I get to that, let me note some things that (I think) we completely agree on:

The Neon Demon is a formally audacious movie. (Neither of us actually likes it that much, but that's sort of irrelevant.)
• It should ideally be seen in a theater, not on a TV set or a laptop or an iPad.
• Persuading people to see bold, adventurous films like The Neon Demon in movie theaters is getting harder and harder.

No argument from me on any of that—the whole reason I travel to Sundance and Cannes and Toronto every year (in most cases at significant personal expense; I'll spend roughly $1500 on TIFF this year, for example, which I'm not covering for anyone) is to see a hefty number of the year's most important art films on the big screen, in (mostly) superior presentations. And it saddens me that one increasingly must travel to major festivals to have that experience. But I don't think that prestige TV is to blame.

One of our big disagreements is best summarized here:

Yes, most TV is disposable and a celebration of mediocrity. But so are most movies. I feel like Daniel is comparing "highly acclaimed art films" to "all of television" and finding the latter wanting by comparison, which duh. But speaking as someone who's been reviewing movies for just shy of 20 years now, I can assure you that the vast majority of them are just as bland and forgettable as the vast majority of TV shows. Excellence is rare in every medium. At the present moment, I honestly find it more difficult to keep up with the first-rate TV out there than with the first-rate movies, though that's largely because TV is so much more volume-heavy—10 great movies take maybe 20 hours to watch, whereas 10 great TV shows, seen start to finish, could easily take 450 hours to watch. (I multiplied 45 minutes per episode x 60 episodes per show x 10 shows. Obviously just an estimate, but in the ballpark, I think.)

And then dialogue kind of broke down when I called the following...

..."a load of horseshit." Which was overly harsh, but "prestige TV" is, if anything, a symptom of indie film's troubles, not the cause of them. (Admittedly, that can eventually become a feedback loop.) Major filmmakers—including stylists like Soderbergh and the Wachowskis—are increasingly turning to TV because theatrical exhibition has shifted almost exclusively to branded tentpoles. Breaking Bad did not cause that shift, or the resulting migration, and I don't believe, as Daniel does, that the (wholly deserved imo) critical celebration of Breaking Bad is preventing films like The Neon Demon from being made and released. TV is not working to sabotage cinema, and those seeking to make adventurous, challenging indie films are wasting their energy by complaining that people who say "TV is so good right now" are making their lives harder. Never in the history of cinema has it been anything other than incredibly difficult to achieve something worthwhile. Just two nights ago, I watched Cassavetes' Opening Night, which barely got released in 1977 and reportedly played to mostly empty houses. That's not because so many people were too busy watching James at 15 on NBC. Hell, there wasn't even any Internet back then. People still didn't go. It has always been thus, and while the current influx of must-see TV certainly isn't helping matters, neither is it worth shaking an angry fist at.

After multiple (much briefer) exchanges, I suggested to Daniel that Twitter wasn't the best forum for this argument, and we called it a day. The following day, however, Brandon Nobles (@MrBrandonNobles) came upon the thread and resuscitated it, focusing on the style aspect and asserting

My response to this was "How many truly televisionistic quality films are there, out of that equal wilderness of shit?" Which Daniel didn't understand—hence this long post. It's really just a recapitulation of my point above: that TV and cinema are different media with radically different strengths and weaknesses. Yes, the nature of television is such that formal ambition is scarce—a stand-alone feature can spend several months crafting 90 or so minutes of footage, whereas a TV series generally has to churn out 10 times that amount of footage (or much more) over the same time period (or much less). So there aren't many TV shows that look as remarkable as the very best art films. Conceded. But neither are there many movies that can—to cite just one possible example—match the richness of characterization found in the very best TV shows. Having dozens of hours to create a character provides much more opportunity for depth and complexity and shading than does a mere two hours. Not every show takes advantage of this, to be sure...but, again, neither does every movie take advantage of the opportunity for visual dynamism. The whole comparison seems goofy to me. They're doing completely different things; they just happen to look superficially similar, in that both involve images that move. It's like comparing prose and poetry because both involve words arranged on the page, and complaining that The Recognitions lacks the piercing concision of "No Second Troy." That's certainly true, but so what?

In short, I just don't see the point of viewing TV as an enemy of cinema. It isn't. It's its own mostly unrelated thing, in the same way that, say, theater is its own mostly unrelated thing. At this historical moment, it happens to be offering more creative freedom to established professionals who'd like to do work they care about that has a shot at also making them some money. But that's not television's fault. It's the movies' fault. The barriers that exist have always existed. There's just a new alternative in town.

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