Yes, but it’s not cinema
By James Knight.
It’s been thirty-two years since Wim Wenders shot Room 666 in a hotel room at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. What concerned Wenders at the time was the future state of cinema, and primarily, cinema’s relationship with television. The film featured several well-known directors alone in a hotel room speaking directly to a camera, answering the question, “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” Wenders positioned a TV set on mute behind each of the directors. The set seemed to lurk over their shoulders, foreshadowing possible upcoming doom.
Wenders’ documentary seems more prevalent in today’s media culture than it did during the 1980’s. In America, for instance, we are now living in what has been termed the “golden age” of television. An era when small screen stories are reportedly trumping those found on the big screens. But is this really the case? Certain critics, particularly in the States and the UK have argued that the stories being told on TV offer greater avenues for intelligent and intriguing entertainment. That the long-form nature of television allows writers to further explore the complexity and the individualism of the flawed human being. Not to mention, that TV as a medium has become the convenient entertainment outlet for the modern day man and woman.
The quality of the shows that make up the “golden era” of television is not in question, but rather the claim that TV has overtaken cinema as the dominant contemporary art form. TV, for all its qualities, is essentially an exclusive medium. Whereas film, on the other hand, is a medium that is all inclusive. TV has rules, strict rules, as well as a ceiling to what can be achieved creatively, and if you want to join the club you have to pay a hefty membership fee. Anyone not playing by the set rules is excluded. Cinema however, in theory, is inclusive to every genre of story and filmmaker imaginable. Cinema has room for everyone. Bela Tarr can make a seven hour plus film in black and white about the collapse of Communism in Hungary. He can make a film about Nietzsche’s horse, where the characters barely speak, and highlight the repetitious nature of the human existence by repeating the same actions over and over again. The works of Tarr and say for instance, Andy Warhol, specifically his film Sleep, a five hour plus film where the static camera focuses on a man asleep, could only exist in the world of cinema. TV locks its doors to filmmakers who are interested in redefining what a story is or what a story can be.
For well over a century film has been the chosen art form for the experimental storyteller. Whether it’s Jean-Luc Godard’s use of jump cuts in Breathless, or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which was filmed in one continuous long take, cinema is inclusive to the different, to the challenging, to even the downright unusual. Without question, there are certain directors that could quite easily fit into the TV mould, but just think of the many films that would never have existed if the creators were forced to follow the rules that govern TV. Vera Chytilova’s Czech New Wave film Daisies for instance or Sergei Parajanov’s film-poem The Colour of Pomegranates. Even filmmakers such as the Coen brothers would have a hard time telling the stories they like to tell under the ‘rulebook’ of television.
Part of TV’s exclusiveness springs from the restrictions it puts on stories when it comes to location and setting. Meaning, with the exception of Breaking Bad and possibly HBO’s newest hit, True Detective, TV has never been able to compete with cinema when it comes to shooting wide, vast, open landscapes. Whether it’s the orange deserts of John Ford’s The Searchers, the wandering emptiness of Wenders’ beautiful Paris, Texas or how Miklos Jancso blocks and choreographs his characters against the harsh Hungarian terrain in films like The Red and the White and The Round-Up, TV has always been limited to basic locations. Whereas a film, in essence, can be shot anywhere in the world.
Now don’t get me wrong, there has been some exceptional directing on TV in recent years, with even some reasonable scope for experimentation. Think of Boardwalk Empire, where ironically, the king of American cinema himself, Martin Scorsese, highlights in the pilot episode of the show what TV production is truly capable of achieving. Or another Boardwalk director, Tim Van Patten, who pulled off a superbly shot sequence in season three of the show, with a spectacular overhead shot of Bobby Cannavale, similar in style to what Scorsese did in the penultimate scene of Taxi Driver.
Television in America has become “golden” in this period because of directors like Scorsese but also because it has simply improved and suddenly become good. It has leaped up from its low base and raised its head above the water level shouting, “Look at me, look at me.” In my opinion, the whole TV versus film debate is the result of TV’s recent pursuit to combine art and the ‘truth’, something that the best cinema has always prided itself on doing. When thinking about this generation of television, one particular line of dialogue comes to mind. It’s from season three of The Sopranos. Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s right hand man, is getting dressed for Tony’s mother’s funeral. He turns to his wife and says, “I gotta miss the Jets season opener for this s**t.” This is an example of when TV found the truth. His best friend’s mother has just died, but all the character can comprehend is his own inconvenience
It is however prevalent to quote a line of dialogue to represent the “golden age” of television because another factor which makes TV an exclusive medium is that it requires stories to be told primarily with words. Contemporary stories told mainly in images, akin to the films of the silent era, only exist in cinema. Cinema is inclusive to films that strive to tell stories in as few words as possible. Films such as, Ray Milland’s much forgotten The Thief, Days of Heaven, No Country for Old Men, Werkmeister Harmonies and Under the Skin. Cinema is inclusive to every possible way in which a story can be told, but the networks and companies that run television are petrified of the naked image. Words are therefore forced onto to the TV writer when an image is more than often sufficient.
Another fault critics writing about the comparison between film and TV have made is generalising “film” to mean films only made in America. To claim TV’s superiority whilst ignoring non-American filmmakers is simply naive. Add into the debate the likes of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, Iranians Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, not to mention Oscar winner Michael Haneke, and things really get put into perspective. When I think about cinema and television, I think about how natural cinema feels, about how it lives and breathes in the moment. I think of that encounter in Pierrot Le Fou of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Samuel Fuller. That spur of the moment meeting could only happen in cinema because there are no rules.
James Knight is a film critic residing in Wales, UK.