Anyhow, I partook in a debate at The Dionysium this last Wednesday night at the Alamo Drafthouse.
http://dionysium.com/march-2012-film/ I debated the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League. The resolution was: Modern TV upholds greater artistic standards than modern film. Yes, a tricky very broad-based topic. Difficult to do indeed.
I'll go ahead and share the prepared opening statement of the debate here, followed by the closing statement....
Mad Men, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Lost, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Dexter. And on and on. TV has come around…again. We are in another golden age of television.
With the economic downturn and shift of media distribution through the internet, TV and film have responded very differently to these two realities. In an attempt to appeal to the masses, film studios have retreated into creating more tent-pole genre-driven junk, or nostalgically revamping successes of the past. Originality is largely gone. However, TV has opened up to fresh innovative ideas, embracing the notion that not every viewer out there has the brain the size of a pea.
In this fear of risk taking, most films have lost inspirational vision, no longer enrapturing or influencing us as it has at different points in its history. On the other hand, quite a bit of TV programming has an immediacy, relevance, and intrigue that is unparalleled.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to define what makes something “artful,” then locate these qualities in TV and film. But for the sake of this short debate, I’ll state their common ground is they are both time-based mediums that rely on story-telling as their art.
However, time is on the side of television, and TV, where writers are king, are taking advantage of this. TV resembles and honors the conventions of the novel. Writers complicate the system of narrative and stylistic relations within episodes, largely ignoring the familiar outmoded signposts of genre and plot which play a greater role in writing for film. In TV, we meet more than just one singular protagonist, but very slowly forge into the minds of many characters with unparalleled intimacy and detail.
Although narrative film has greater time constraints, the writing for film has not stepped up and become as innovative. Studio films continue to revamp comic books, old TV shows (Smurfs, Dukes of Hazard. The Chipmunks), or hits from the past like Tron or Transformers. Audiences have become so accustomed to these predictable formulas of modern film. They know the good guy will triumph. Evil will be vanquished. Boy will get girl.
Film does not motivate or intrigue us like it used to. I think about Bonny and Clyde’s depiction of violence and what it changed in the way films were made after. Or the way Easy Rider exposed a subculture, reminding viewers that America is not just the wholesomeness of Leave it to Beaver. How did Rebel Without a Cause speak to a young generation about it’s self-identity? Do Harry Potter and Twilight even come close to this? Millions of people in this country look to John Stuart for their source of news, a comedian, who can make a political rally happen in a week. His show influences policy. Not since Mark Twain, have we seen such a politically influential populist entertainer.
Just on these two perspectives alone I think it’s clear that modern TV has been artfully breathing new life into story-telling and influencing viewers in ways modern film currently does not.
Film is still artful, but has become stagnant. It is not moving or motivating viewers the way it used to. I rarely overhear the same amount of excitement for a film that is expressed for an upcoming season premiere. Personally, I dread the day when the last episode of Breaking Bad is over. Largely this is due to film failing to take risks, trying to remain accessible for the masses in order to recoup budget. This has only served to make most film, quite frankly, boring. But TV programming has embraced the niche audience. Most might say that indie and art films remain the pinnacle of what can arguably be deemed as art, but the conventions of art cinema are easily incorporated into TV serial drama, and production values of TV are on par with even the best examples of cinema. So it’s hard to believe that art house films are really that much better. Eighty to 120 minute films also lack the advantage of longform story telling that TV has, and thus over time, are not able to maintain and immediacy and relevance in our day-to-day lives.
But despite that TV has this narrative advantage, it’s really about the writers, creators, show runners, and the staff of cable and network stations who have embraced the idea of pushing the boundaries and being comfortable with reaching a niche audience. Film can and has been just as artful and innovative, but for a while now, there has been a definite lack of inspiration and creativity that existed at different times in the past.
To quote Steven Axelrod,: “The novel isn’t dead – it’s alive and dangerously robust, and television of all things, that ‘great wasteland’ that gave us Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, proves that extraordinary fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.”