Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Case for Movies, and Lots of Them

“‘Is TV better than movies?’ is a worthless question. ‘How is TV better than movies?’ can be a fascinating one.”

That tweet, from Philadelphia-based film critic Samuel Adams, has stuck with me since I first read it last November. Adams poses a really potent hypothetical and passes it onto any Twitter-addicted writer willing to elaborate. I knew then that said elaboration would make for a good column, but I realize now that the more pressing argument lies on the other side: How are movies better than TV?

Almost everyone I know spends more time watching, and arguing about, television than they do with movies, and some general assumption has settled in that TV is, in fact, objectively better than film. Like Adams, I do not believe that verdict, or its inverse, holds any water. Yet I do believe that many gloss over the beautiful qualities inherent to the film medium in exchange for the more addictive, long-form pleasures of television. Bearing witness to the carefully calibrated, 47-hour arc of Breaking Bad feels awesome and even transformative, but investing your time into dozens of films over that same span of time can provide even more mind-altering moments and, most crucially, a wider breadth of experience.

Nine times out of ten, movies look more interesting than television. Naturally, exceptions abound — Boardwalk Empire is stunning, while, say, Warm Bodies is not at all — but stick to the giant pool of quality films, old and new, out there and you will see not just tangible things but inner thoughts, biases, desires and so forth. What TV show could scratch all dialogue for its first 30 minutes to deliver a lucid, aching portrait of loneliness and environmental issues, as Wall-E does? Or stay within a man or woman’s unstable mind and depict their psychoses on screen, as 8 ½ and Repulsion do? Or try to visualize the grace of God, as The Tree of Life does? I mean, does anything look prettier than In the Mood for Love or Pacific Rim? All these films look dazzling, and many demand attention be paid to their visuals even more than their story. Unlike most good TV, good movies teach you how to watch them as they go, and that is a fun, thrilling thing. 

Because movies are single, one-unit experiences to be absorbed in one sitting, you can cover decades of film history in the same time it takesDexter to disappoint you over its last four seasons. The abundance of time TV requires means that the focus remains relentlessly on the present, on catching up and binging on the hottest new thing. Acquainting yourself with the various Golden Ages of TV, as The AV Club’s TV critic-historian Todd VanDerWerff gratefully has, takes more time than covering the greatest hits of Tarkovsky, Murnau, Denis, Iranian cinema, queer cinema, ’60s counterculture documentaries or whatever niche you may take a liking to. In between your fourth and fifth time watching The Lego Movie, you can easily catch an old ’50s noir or some mid-’00s War on Terror doc serving a life sentence on your Netflix queue. If you are interested in World War II, ignore The Monuments Men and actually watch a movie made during the war. You remember how your high school librarian always harped on and on about how primary sources are better than secondary sources? That.

The cost of television production means that some talented people, like Louis C.K., get handed a nice chunk of change to do anything with, but it also means that whole swaths of the population go unnoticed. The reason HBO’s Girls holds so much clout is because it is one of the only shows featuring a predominantly female ensemble. It must represent women, as a whole, in addition to letting these specific, affluent and meandering female characters do their thing. Half the time, I find Girls fresh and perceptive; the rest of the time I can’t stand it. Of course, I want to see female characters on TV: I want to see more, I want other options! Orange Is the New Black does it right, but look to independent film and from last year alone you will find Frances Ha, Mother of George, Enough Said, Stories We Tell, Gloria, Blue Is the Warmest Color and many more movies with strong female characters. No one of these shoulders the weight of half the population, which means fewer think pieces and a little more sanity in critical discourse.

Television draws us in because it builds slowly over time. The one lie we tell ourselves when opting for TV over movies is that this 30 or 60-minute episode is all I will watch, and a movie, after all, is longer than that. Of course, you watch another episode, or two, or more, and the time argument becomes irrelevant. The scope of styles you can unravel, sights you can see, lives you can live in cinema is staggering, and each of these vessels takes but a couple hours to come and go. Watching movies, and lots of them, helps to discern personal taste — what you like or don’t like. But film’s greatest power has nothing to do with criticism; rather, it concerns empathy: For a brief fraction of your life, someone else’s pours forth from a brilliant screen, flows over the heads of friends and strangers alike and washes over you.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

No comments: