TV Is Not the New Film, But It’s OK That Festivals Are Blurring the Lines (Opinion)

With Toronto the latest sprocket opera to add episodic programming to its lineup, our critics revisit the old film-vs.-TV debate.

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PETER DEBRUGE: Looks like Toronto is the latest film festival to add a television section to its lineup. These days, everywhere from Sundance to SXSW to the Canadian “festival of festivals,” smallscreen content is getting a big push, which is intriguing — and even ironic — for all sorts of reasons (ironic because the state of distribution being what it is, many of the films in Toronto will end up trickling down to VOD, rather than ever getting a commercial theatrical run). On one hand, the trend isn’t exactly new: Classy longform features like “Carlos” (which premiered at Cannes in 2010), “Top of the Lake” (Sundance 2013) and “Olive Kitteridge” (Venice 2014) made their bows at top-tier film fests before going on to air as miniseries on Canal Plus, BBC Two and HBO, respectively.

But Toronto’s Primetime program — like SXSW’s Episodics, which launched in 2014 — represents something different: Rather than expanding the definition of “film” to include projects that were “made for TV” (such as Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra”), festivals are carving out dedicated sidebars to celebrate this competing medium. Since its invention, television has been luring eyes away from the cinema. And now, at Toronto, audiences can go watch an episodic series pilot on the bigscreen, after which they’ll have to patiently wait until the series arrives on TV to see what happens next.

JUSTIN CHANG: As someone who makes too little time for television even outside the film-festival circuit, I confess that the addition of Toronto’s Primetime slate (which, full disclosure, was curated by our mutual friend Michael Lerman) will have little bearing on my schedule this September — or yours, Peter, given that our assignment in Toronto will be to see and review as much in the way of new cinema as we possibly can. Oh dear, I may have struck a nerve there. There are many, after all, who have argued that the traditional line separating TV and cinema has ceased to exist for some time now, and that the ongoing creative renaissance in television largely puts all but the very best new movies to shame. This is deemed especially true in the realm of serial drama, whose astonishing embarrassment of riches includes the magnificent quartet of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and is still being carried aloft by the likes of “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones” and “Justified,” to name but a few.

As to the impossible question of which medium is superior, I submit that I would have to bone up on years of neglected TV watching before I could hazard a guess — as it stands, it feels like an apples-and-oranges comparison, and one where I don’t have the clearest idea what oranges taste like. (Presumably they taste like the new black.) For what it’s worth, I did recently catch up with “Breaking Bad” and found it every bit as darkly enthralling as the rest of the world did, a storytelling tour de force and a morally bracing work of art. Is it better than “The Tree of Life” or “In the Mood for Love” or “Mulholland Dr.” (originally intended to be a TV pilot, lest we forget), to name my three favorite masterworks of post-millennial cinema — honest-to-God, shot-on-35mm cinema? I think I’ll leave that judgment to someone else.

DEBRUGE: I’m even more handicapped in my ability to discourse intelligently about television, considering I grew up in a household that didn’t have one. That said, I had tuned in by the time David Chase rewrote the landscape with “The Sopranos,” in which he not only applied cinematic language to the smallscreen, but spun a complex, nuanced saga over the course of five seasons, going deeper than any film — or franchise (including “The Godfather”) — ever has in exploring its characters.

In the interim, as you suggest, Justin, the line has all but blurred. Once penned into their respective formats, talent now moves back and forth between the two. Season one of “The Sopranos” and “American Beauty” share virtually the same aesthetic, and after the latter went on to win a best picture Oscar, Alan Ball turned his attention to the smallscreen with his serialized black dramedy “Six Feet Under.” Last year, director Cary Fukunaga effectively treated “True Detective” as a long (albeit preposterous) eight-hour feature, and the fourth episode featured a stunning drug bust more cinematic than anything I witnessed on the big screen.

For me, the most revealing illustration of TV’s longform potential versus the limitations of squeezing an entire narrative into a two-hour feature can be found in contrasting any given season of “24” with the one-off political thriller “The Sentinel.” In both, Kiefer Sutherland plays a special agent dealing with ticking-clock threats to national security, but “The Sentinel” must resort to spy-movie cliches and genre shorthand to set up its characters and situation in the allotted time, while Jack Bauer emerged from the series a more nuanced and three-dimensional human being even than James Bond (who has had 23 features to work with), thanks to TV’s ability to burrow in and develop the world and characters it depicts.

CHANG: It’s an unfair comparison, of course, insofar as “The Sentinel” (which I haven’t thought about in nine years) had less than two hours to cram together a not-terribly-interesting story populated by not-terribly-interesting characters — unlike “24,” which has time very much on its side. (Time is not only Jack Bauer’s chief antagonist, but also the show’s true subject.) TV’s extended duration gives it an obvious advantage over film where the development of a sustained, novelistic, finely contoured long-form narrative is concerned. That’s why good moviemaking should be a matter of not just compacting plot and characterization into a two-hour timeframe, but of finding an audiovisual language that itself conveys dramatic meaning.

To wit: How many times have you or I seen a bigscreen adaptation of a novel and thought, this would work better as a miniseries? But happily, there are superb exceptions to the rule. A&E’s six-hour “Pride and Prejudice” may still be the definitive adaptation for Jane Austen completists and Colin Firth devotees, but there’s no denying that Joe Wright’s 2005 film version is superior filmmaking — the mise-en-scene is richer, the cinematography earthier and more tactile, with long, luxuriant tracking shots (a Wright signature) that masterfully articulate the characters’ unspoken desires and motivations. The BBC’s seven-part adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” remains one of television’s crowning achievements, but whatever Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film lacked in narrative intricacy, it more than made up for in moldering production design and enveloping atmosphere. You walked out of the theater after that movie and felt like you’d visited another time and place.

Much of the TV-vs.-film debate was revisited in Mike S. Ryan’s recent Filmmaker magazine essay, aptly titled “TV Is Not the New Film.” It’s a thoughtfully written piece, if a bit prone at times to over-generalizing; I’m more stirred by Ryan’s arguments about what film can do than I am convinced by his claims about what television cannot. Yet I fully appreciate the impulse that I suspect drove him to write it in the first place, which is the sense that audiences are generally more receptive to television — which offers in abundance the addictive pleasures of serial narrative — than they are to certain strains of cinema, in which style, tone and imagery can be crucial to grasping a movie’s meaning.

Ryan, of course, is himself an exemplar of this kind of underappreciated filmmaking, having produced Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy” and “Meek’s Cutoff” — superb works all, but definitely not to be consumed anywhere outside a darkened theater, and with anything less than wide-awake attention. Which I mean very much as a compliment.

DEBRUGE: Listen, I’m a die-hard cinephile, but Ryan’s argument is not only wrong, but disingenuous. He describes the medium of television as much of it once operated — a relatively clumsy, multi-camera format where everything had to be communicated by dialogue, so viewers could be fixing dinner in the other room and still follow along — while pretending that directors such as Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu are somehow representative of contemporary cinema. But the DVR revolution long ago made it possible for TV creators to take risks and serialize complex narratives, even requiring fans to carefully re-view certain episodes to pick up all the nuances.

At Cannes, jury co-president Ethan Coen admitted, “I haven’t watched a television show in decades.” (That’s too bad. The Coens directed my all-time favorite movie, “Fargo,” but the TV spinoff, while different, expands on many of the film’s strengths.) Anyway, it seems pretty clear to me that Ryan hasn’t been watching TV either, since there are obvious counterexamples for every argument he makes — like the one about how TV creators are forbidden from using silence (not true), while pretending that all film directors practice “pure cinema” (showing, not telling). What about the Emmy-nominated “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Hush”? Or the season-one finale of “Lost”? Or that all-sign-language episode of ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth”?

Today, American studio filmmaking is even more beholden to the demands of mass consumption than TV, which, in this fragmented-audience universe, has gotten every bit as experimental as the movies. (In animation, that’s why Pixar must try so hard to be even half as edgy as Adult Swim.) One of my favorite recent examples is “Fly,” a Rian Johnson-directed episode of “Breaking Bad” in which Walter White obsesses about an insect contaminating his meth lab. HBO and AMC series do that on a regular basis, devoting an entire episode to something digressive or wacky, and then making fans wait an entire week before picking up and advancing the narrative.

CHANG: The point being, though, that these examples you mention — and we could also throw in “Buffy’s” musical installment (“Once More, With Feeling”), or the “Frankenstein”-inspired episode of “The X-Files” (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”) — are by their very nature, as you put it, digressive. Ultimately there is still a narrative to advance, a concrete dramatic foundation to which the show will eventually return — and without it, I imagine, the audience’s tolerance for that degree of stylistic experimentation would quickly subside. “Twin Peaks” remains the great TV test lab for exactly how much boundary-pushing craziness an audience can handle; so long as all those surreal vibes and deadpan asides were tethered to the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, viewers lapped it up, but they checked out when the show’s second season went irretrievably haywire. (It’s too bad so few of them sought out “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the difficult but devastatingly great theatrical feature that David Lynch salvaged from the series’ ashes.)

“Fly” is another great example; for every fan who ranks it among their all-time favorite “Breaking Bad” episodes, there’s another perplexed by the way it stops the story dead in its tracks. Except that it doesn’t, of course. One of the key points of that Filmmaker piece is that there’s more to telling a story than simply this-happened-and-that-happened. I wouldn’t presume to know how much television Ryan has watched (any more than I would question your qualifications, Peter, based on the privations of your childhood). But I don’t think there’s anything particularly strange about his contention that there is a certain level of aesthetic freedom in filmmaking — and he’s talking about the entire spectrum of filmmaking, not just the American studio variant — that remains largely uncharted territory on television, and of which the vast majority of moviegoers and TV watchers remain largely ignorant. He’s talking about a kind of storytelling that doesn’t lend itself to easy bingeing.

Bresson and Ozu may have left us, but you can see their fingerprints are all over the landscape of contemporary art cinema, as the work of filmmakers as different as the Dardenne brothers, Michael Haneke, Aki Kaurismaki, Eugene Green, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Jim Jarmusch can amply attest. Many of these names, of course, are not widely known outside festivals, where alternative, non-industrial modes of filmmaking have long been able to thrive. And it’s here, of course, that we return to the issue of TV’s expanding presence at these events — which perhaps understandably strikes some as a slightly ominous incursion by one medium into the world of another.

DEBRUGE: But let’s not forget that it is TV that has recently given such cinematic masters as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and the Wachowski siblings a more robust sandbox in which to play, as evidenced by “Boardwalk Empire,” “House of Cards” and “Sense8.” And while I think it’s unfair of Ryan to compare European auteur cinema with American series television, it’s worth pointing out that a surprising number of those festival-launched art films are financed by and indeed ultimately destined for television, enabled by the (at times government-mandated) support of such European networks as Canal Plus, Arte, ZDF, RTBF, BBC and so on.

There’s no denying the fluidity between the two mediums: Toronto will debut the first episode of “Trapped” from Baltasar Kormakur, the same director responsible for the Venice Film Festival opener, “Everest.” “Casual,” another Primetime selection, is produced and directed by Jason Reitman, whose films have long been Toronto staples. But I think the addition of series television at film festivals calls into question the fundamental cultural role these events can (or should) play. If the idea is to support independent storytellers, the way Sundance does, then it makes sense to include those expressing themselves in other formats — from television to new media. There are certainly creators (many of whom, like “Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway, who’ve made an impact on the world of indie film) trying their hands at outsider TV projects that could use such a platform.

At the same time, there’s the sense that TV is cannibalizing events that once celebrated cinematic expression, a phenomenon you can see at San Diego Comic-Con, where the fanboy confab now hosts TV panels in the venue’s largest hall — and where, just last month, Tarantino teased the prospect that he could imagine a miniseries (or three) in his future. Given Comic-Con’s stated goal of celebrating the popular arts in all forms, it makes perfect sense for film and television to share the stage.

But the motives are different at Toronto and SXSW, two supernova festivals obsessed with growing ever bigger, while depending on ticket/badge sales to survive. Sure, their artistic directors suggest that adding television to their lineups is supposed to make an important philosophical statement, but in reality, the new programs only serve to dilute their existing programming. Whereas Cannes maintains its pole position among festivals by keeping its lineup tight and focused (including a TV project, like last year’s “L’il Quinquin,” makes a powerful statement), a new sidebar featuring six TV pilots in Toronto merely creates more noise to distract an industry audience already overwhelmed by the glut of world-premiere features the festival already has to offer. That said, the prospect of a dedicated television festival popping up somewhere? Now that seems like a great idea.

CHANG: There are already several dedicated television events, like the Edinburgh Intl. TV Festival and the Banff World Media Festival, though none of them yet have the immediately recognizable stature of a Sundance or a Cannes. And while I’d agree with you that the selectiveness of Cannes is one reason why it remains in a festival class by itself, it’s arguably been too insistent on maintaining the TV-film partition. Because it was made for television, “Carlos,” one of Olivier Assayas’ finer achievements (and one that I’d hesitate to classify as either film or television), was denied a spot in competition by the festival’s board of directors in 2010, despite the heroic protests of Cannes director Thierry Fremaux. Had it been allowed to screen in competition, it might well have won the Palme d’Or. All of which makes it even more deliciously ironic that the festival’s disastrous 2014 opening-night film, “Grace of Monaco,” wound up airing on Lifetime. (And received an Emmy nomination, to boot! Truly a princess-worthy happy ending all around.)

Not having seen any of the shows that are set to be unveiled in Toronto’s Primetime slate, I’ll refrain from commenting on whether they are diluting or enhancing the festival’s lineup. Yes, Toronto can be a bit of a clearing house. But we are talking about just six programs, which feels like a drop in the bucket given the 283 other feature-length works the festival will unspool this year. So why don’t we suspend judgment for the moment and trust that — insofar as the boundaries between TV and film are more porous than ever — there are aesthetic as well as commercial considerations in play. If these shows are worth seeing, after all, surely they’re worth seeing on as big a screen as you can find.