Prime time for character

Several contenders for Oscar noms seem to share a artistic sensibility with quality cable series

In the neverending cycle of ups and downs between the movies and television, the impact of the kind of intimately filmed, sophisticated storytelling characterized by the prime series in cable’s prestige district — HBO, Showtime, AMC — may finally be felt in the films that are strong contenders in the race to the Oscar nom circle.

The fissures that develop in the lesbian union at the heart of “The Kids Are All Right,” the rapid-fire and smart-tongued verbal roundelay propelling “The Social Network,” the domesticated and familial slant to the boxing movie verities of “The Fighter,” the brittle yet funny faceoffs between a monarch and his verbally helpful subject in “The King’s Speech,” and the granite determination of one young woman defending her family in “Winter’s Bone” share many of the qualities that have sent adult audiences fleeing over the past decade from the multiplex to cable: Characters driving the narrative, writing that can be heard through actors challenged by psychologically interesting roles, visual imagery at the service of a story rather than sensational spectacle.

“There used to be an aesthetic divide between TV and movies, where movies were considered the art form and TV was where movie actors would go when they were washed up,” says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “That went by the wayside about a decade ago, and good actors increasingly gravitated to TV.”

But Rainer casts a worried eye on the trend of cable-influenced films: “I think what you’re seeing happening more is that the framing and filming of movies is being influenced by TV because a lot of filmmaking isn’t being done on film, but on video, and it marks a diminishing of what movies can look like.”

The reality may lie somewhere in between, a blend of high-end cable and film.

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, one of the producers of “The Kids Are All Right,” says that “everybody involved with making ‘The Kids’ appreciates the shows on premium cable, but there was no direct influence. Instead we referenced the great films of the ’60s and ’70s, such as ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Five Easy Pieces.’ I feel that the resemblance to today’s premium cable is a matter of convergent evolution. The films that influenced us all had something deep to say about complex human relationships, they embraced ambiguity and difficult (real) emotions. Premium cable has constructed a business model around programming that embraces similar values.”

The interplay between what TV narrative drama (especially in longform format) can do best — present fully developed characters who can talk in complete sentences — and what the movies do best — an immersion in image and sound to expand the filmmaker’s ideas — may not represent something new.

Film Comment contributing editor and critic Scott Foundas notes that several of the current contenders “harken back further than cable landmarks like ‘The Sopranos’ to the older longform drama that appealed to adult audiences.”

In this light, Foundas adds, “it’s notable that a film like ‘The Social Network’ is being made not by the studio (specialty) divisions that used to exist, but by Sony. Maybe the studios are revising the old calculation that they can’t make films that cost in the $20 million-$30 million range.”

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