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Essays

Responses to a Cineaste Questionnaire
about Contemporary Television (2014)

  Breaking Bad Breaking Bad


1.

The great strength of the recent crop of episodic TV production has been in its development and exploration of long-form narrative: stretching, sustaining and exploring the by-ways of a story and its complex world. This gives rise to a particular type of in-depth involvement on the part of spectators. Within this mode, TV has provided a home – sometimes a refuge – for many talented filmmakers who have emerged since the 1980s, especially those figures (like Tim Hunter, Carl Franklin, Nicole Holofcener, and James Foley) who made their name with inventive riffs on established genres, but then found it hard to sustain a career between inflated blockbusters and reduced ‘indie’ formats. As well, TV has enabled important new talents, such as Michelle MacLaren, to emerge and make their mark.

 

The great weakness, from the viewpoint of directorial craft and aesthetic expressivity (which is the type of angle I personally take in relation to TV studies), is that the amount and rate of TV production often tends to result in the sense that filmmakers more accustomed to the feature-length cinema format are ‘spreading themselves thin’ across the sprawling hours of this new mode: that each moment or scene is more a necessary ‘link in the chain’ than a fully realized piece of the whole. I had this sense watching, for example, Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, or Olivier AssayasCarlos. By the same token, some directors – I think of Raśl Ruiz with his various long-form TV projects from the 1980s to Mysteries of Lisbon (2011), or Robert Altman with Tanner 88 – were like happy fish in the sea with extended running-times and constructing a story in multi-parts, with multi-perspectives: they were born for it.

 

Is the distinction between cinema and TV still relevant? I doubt it. At some basic, ontological level, I believe that anything you can watch and hear on a screen – of whatever size or technological medium – is ‘cinema’; every development (good and bad) in our culture points in this direction. We are living through a time when our terms are in flux, and always caught in a generational lag: where once we called certain films (by Visconti or Kubrick) ‘novelistic’, now TV gets called ‘cinematic’. When we are further down the road, we will doubtless be praising certain, fully digital works as ‘televisual’! All these terms, in so far as they are useful at all, simply point, here and there, to some particular characteristic of ‘audiovision’ that we wish to emphasize: long-form narrative, or sustained characterization, or a particular type of acting for screen, or a specific ‘look’, sound and feel to a production. This work of critical analysis will go on, reformulating itself for every new wave of production.

 

3.

TV has precipitated a crisis in old-fashioned, cinema-centered auteurism, but it seems to me largely a false or misconceived crisis. Despite the best efforts of (for instance) Matt Zoller Seitz in arguing that directors leave their indelible, personal mark on what they make for long-form TV, the show-runner is undoubtedly the ‘new auteur’. Here, we need to understand a specific mutation in audiovisual stylistics, and a new conception of the auteur: at least since The X-Files, the ‘signature’ that matters is not what the director does with his or her camera and lighting in any given shot or scene, but the overall ‘look’, sound and tonal ‘vibe’ of the production or series as a whole; and that is something that is set collectively, as a general template for the entire cast and crew (perhaps over many years), by the show-runner, the chief cinematographer, the head of the editing department, and the production designers. What the Australian critic Phillip Adams once said of Tarantino’s 1995 episode of ER, ‘Motherhood’, remains true: if it’s good Tarantino, it’s not good ER; and if it’s good ER, it’s not good Tarantino. If there is a ‘Tarantino touch’ evident in that episode (and there is), it can only be in side details – not in the central ER ‘manner’.

 

Naturally, and as this new strain of TV evolves, we will find ourselves making distinctions: Jonathan Demme’s episodes of Enlightened, for instance, are clearly his and nobody else’s. But could I really tell, if the credits were omitted, David Fincher’s inaugural House of Cards episode from Hunter’s, Franklin’s, Joel Schumacher’s, or Robin Wright’s? I don’t believe so. But this does not stop House of Cards being a major work of audiovisual drama in our time. The same verdict applies to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and quite a few other series.

 

4.

For me, the reigning distinction between TV and cinema aesthetics does not relate, primarily, to issues of cinematography, or (more broadly) audiovisual style: for every ‘rule’ about what films can do that TV cannot do, we will swiftly find glaring exceptions that make nonsense of the supposition. In my view, the most important distinction relates, above all, to the primacy of narrative. Recently rewatching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental Dekalog (1989) series, I was amazed to note the director’s boldness in suspending the initial narrative ‘hook’ of certain episodes for up to 15 minutes, content to play instead on atmosphere, suggestion, slowly accumulating threads … and this is exactly what almost every current TV series, even the best and most progressive, dare not do. TV still holds itself hostage to narrative intrigue and ‘drive’ at every level: in an episode, across episodes, and in the seemingly inescapable ‘breaks for advertising’ that are evident even when consuming these shows away from their initial broadcast presentation.

 

In the current ‘cinephile mania’ for what is variously called slow or contemplative cinema, we are witnessing the last, available bastion of anti-TV purism among celluloid freaks: for it is slow cinema that suspends, distends, or loses its narrative line altogether in favor of ‘pure’ description of a time, a place, some people … and it is precisely this that even the best TV work of today dare not do. At least, not yet. Because, on another level, it is easy to imagine Lav Diaz, Lisandro Alonso, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, or (if he comes out of early retirement) Béla Tarr making long-form TV of a radically new kind: a new kind of soap opera (these are the days of our lives …), or a new kind of melodrama (mundane family chronicles), even a new kind of crime-action-adventure (a Zodiac-type crime investigation that, after 8 seasons, still does not resolve itself). In the most progressive cinema of today, there is space for hybrids of documentary and fiction that are not yet conceivable within the ‘show-runner’ model of long-form TV drama. But it will happen, one day, somewhere: someone just has to take the plunge.

 

6.

There are two frequent ‘blind spots’ in the current discourse about TV that I would like to see redressed, and rather urgently. Firstly, there is a marked lack of any historical sense. Many commentators, if they look back at all, don’t reach much further than the Twin Peaks box set sitting on their shelf. Twin Peaks is indeed of major importance in this history; but we are overlooking a lot here, including Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Ruiz’s Manoel on the Island of Marvels (1984), to take only two, groundbreaking examples. But the 1970s is probably where it all began, with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Maurice Pialat’s La maison des bois (House in the Woods, 1971) – the latter of which is, for me, the single greatest TV mini-series, devastating in its accumulative heft and impact. Never forget that the careers of many European auteurs in the modern era – from Fellini and Bertolucci to Kieslowski and Fassbinder – could hardly have existed without TV co-production and joint distribution on both small and large screens.

 

My examples already imply the second lack: an international grasp of TV production. Recent commentaries fixate on the US, as if the long-form had been created there over the past decade or so, starting with the Big Bang of The Wire or The Sopranos. Don’t get me wrong: I like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Hannibal and Web Therapy as much as the next cinephile-convert – but I also adore, for instance, Uli Edel’s German production Hotel Adlon – A Family Saga (2013), whose three, wholly engrossing parts I encountered, on a very small screen, during an international plane flight. This ‘history melodrama’ – reminding me of the epic TV work George Miller produced in Australia during the 1980s, such as Bangkok Hilton (1989) – was reportedly watched by 25 million people in Europe during its initial presentation (and it even boasts Billy Wilder among its cast of characters); but you try finding a single appreciative, in-depth (or even off-hand) reference to it in English, online or anywhere else. And I am not even beginning to mention here the TV production slates of Russia, Japan, and so many other places: we in the English-speaking world may know Assayas’s Carlos, but what about Pablo Larraín’s similar, Chilean production Prófugos (2011- )? Hopefully the move of Bruno Dumont into the TV format with P’tit Quinquin (no doubt inspired by the example of Jane Campion with Top of the Lake, her best work to date) will encourage some film critics to, at last, get beyond their standard-issue, US obsession. I certainly hope so.

 

© Adrian Martin June 2014


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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