Sunday, March 29, 2015

Discussing Movies vs TV with Adam Spector Part I

My friend Adam Spector is the head of DC Film Society's Discussion Group Cinema Lounge that meets once a month at the Barnes and Noble by Metro Center in DC. He also keeps a column called Adam's Rib.

I recently had a cross-blogging project with Adam about the state of films verse TV in six parts. The first two parts of the post are listed here:

OK -- Adam, I've enjoyed discussing movies with you this past year but I have to also confess that while I love to discuss film as much as ever, I'm not really watching a lot of films. While I eventually managed to watch 8 of the 9 Oscar-nominated films by Oscar night this past year, I doubt I'm on pace to equal the 24 films I saw last year, as I have only seen 8 films this year [Ed. note: I managed to squeeze in 25 films by Oscar night including 4 of 8 nominees]. What's more: I really don't mind. I've seen most of the films I've wanted to see and there are only a handful of films that have caught my interest. Last time I checked the redbox, there seemed to be mostly sequels, blockbuster films (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Maze Runner) based on source material I'm unfamiliar with, uninspired comedies (Tammy, Jingle all the Way 2) and animated films.

What I'm pouring my efforts into instead is TV because let's face it: This is the Golden Age of TV and whether it's a procedural, a serialized drama, or a multi-layered comedy TV has so much to offer these days. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: Oscar-winners like Halle Berry (Extant), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Jon Voigt (Ray Donovan) Octavia Spencer (Red Band Society), Francis McDormand (Olive Kitteridge) and Jane Fonda (Netflix's upcoming series) as well as directors like Frank Darabont (Walking Dead), David Fincher (House of Cards), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Michael Apted (Masters of Sex) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Pushing Daisies) are all flocking to TV in droves. Conversely, some of TV's most iconic show runners a decade ago--J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Seth MacFarlane, for example-- are all wildly successful on the big screen.

As for the advantages of movies, I love the idea of leaving my home to support and experience the arts and those new seats are really comfortable but that's about it. My style of viewing has changed. 

In the old days, the only social experience of watching a film was talking about it as you leave the theater, but with TV you can have dialogue with people all around the world while you're watching something (through Twitter), right after the episodes (through week-to-week reviews) or between episodes of a longer arc (on message boards). There's no water cooler discussion like trying to figure out where the plot will take you on a show like "Homeland," "Lost" or "The Bridge."

I'd even argue that the actual form of TV is better. The latest program I started catching on TV is "Silicon Valley" which is the work of Mike Judge of "Office Space", "Idiocracy", and "Extract." His comedic films satirize the absurdities of the American professional sphere with an eye on the razor-thin differences between those in power and the underlings through elaborate plots in which each of these two classes tries to cheat the other. Imagine watching "Office Space" [spoilers ahead] and waiting a week to find out that Michael Bolton's plan to steal pennies off the company backfired or that Milton's frustration over his paycheck would result in the building being burned down. The viewer has time to guess and ruminate at each stage of the story's development.

Granted, TV didn't reach its potential until just recently when shows figured out how to master these long-arcing stories like "24"or "Lost" a decade ago and now there are dozens of shows I can point to in the past 7-8 years alone that I just can't get enough of narrative-wise. In the face of all that, why see a movie?

AS – You may be surprised that I agree with much of what you wrote.   Your insights about the way television has advanced, both in the narrative form and in the talent attached, are on target.  I’d say the start of this change goes all the way back to the 80s with shows such as “Hill Street Blues,” that started telling stories and developing characters over seasons, not just single episodes.  The show that moved television storytelling to another level was “The Sopranos.”  It took the “antihero’ concept from 60s and 70s film and used the time and space that television offered to really explore how this type of person thought and felt.  Everything from “Mad Men” to “Breaking Bad” to “House of Cards” owes “The Sopranos” a great debt.  Television has broken free of many of its historic shackles, such as being beholden to ratings and advertisers, and the idea that every dramatic situation had to be tied up neatly by the end of each episode.  With cable TV, also gone was much of the language, sex and violence censorship, thus providing much more freedom of content.

More recently, television has also shed the time constraint.  With Netflix, viewers of “Orange is the New Black,” “Arrested Development” or “House of Cards” no longer have to wait until next week to see what happens.  This allows for even more innovation in storytelling and character development.   It also gives the audience more control than they have ever had before.   

You noted the actors and directors that have worked in television.  Gone is the idea that television is somehow beneath film talent, that it would only serve as a last resort if a film career is floundering.  Martin Scorsese helped develop “Boardwalk Empire” and is now working with Mick Jagger on an HBO show about the ‘70s rock scene.    The same year that Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar he also starred on “True Detective” for HBO.  Fincher directed "Gone Girl" while still working on “House of Cards.”

Television’s recent success does not portend cinema’s death.  Film’s demise has always been greatly exaggerated.  I remember attending a seminar at the Kennedy Center in the late 90s when a panelist proudly proclaimed that film was dead.  Ever since television first became popular in the 50s, some have been ready to pour dirt on movies.  But movies are still here.

It’s taking nothing away from television to acknowledge that there is still exciting work on the silver screen.  Just look at Richard Linklater’s innovative "Boyhood."  In less than three hours you see a boy grow up.  That would be very difficult to do on television, if only because no network would want to pay development money for a show it wouldn’t see in 12 years.  Another example is "Birdman", where the entire film unfolds as a long jazz riff, with the camera seemingly gliding through a struggling theatrical production.             

Sure, much of what you see at the local multiplex are sequels or franchise films.  First, that doesn’t always mean these are poor quality.  The latest Captain America film took some chances with the story and the casting, and was a successful homage to 70s conspiracy thrillers.  Knock Guardians of the Galaxy all you want, but its irreverent take on superheroes was fun and refreshing. 

Like television, films offer a wide range in content and quality.  Judging movies by their derivative efforts would be like me judging television by its stale sitcoms and mindless “reality” shows.  Sure, if one would only select films based on the box office charts, it would be very uninspiring to say the least.  But if you look at the art house theaters, you can still find plenty of movies that are worth your time.  In the DC area we are very fortunate, with the Landmark theaters here, the Angelika in Fairfax, and the AFI Silver.  We should take advantage of these offerings.

Watching movies and TV shows at home is wonderful.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, I own more than 500 DVDs.  Between Netflix, my DVR and On Demand, I can and do enjoy many quality TV shows.  But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we.

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