Whitewatching: up from “underground”

Impish as usual, Armond White’s latest dual review (a common device with him, in which two recent releases are presented as “dueling” for the soul of American pop culture) contrasts Steven Soderbergh’s alleged swan song, Side Effects, with Walter Hill’s latest, Bullet to the Head (which, given Hill’s age and its box office, might turn out to be his big screen swan song as well). What stood out to me in the review was this sentence:

Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike belong to an era of cynical banality while Hill’s sharp, inventive technique seen in The Warriors, Geronimo and Undisputed went unappreciated (and underground in TV projects like Deadwood and Broken Trail).

Most film critics now pay lip service to the notion that television series have progressed to the point of being on par in quality with the average feature film. White is one of the old school holdouts who frequently peppers his reviews with sleights against TV in the form of pejorative references: if he thinks a film looks like crap, he’ll say it uses “TV aesthetics” or something along those lines. Of anybody working in his field, White is unquestionably the most candid about his prejudices. He thinks cinema is where it’s at, television is not, and that’s that. For this (among many, many other things), he takes a lot of flack. Justifiably so.

Yet I think it’s true that, while most folks would readily acknowledge TV’s ascendancy over the course of the last fifteen years or so, its newfound mantle as a viable medium for sophisticated art is not yet cemented. For one thing, there are very few shows that have attained what you might call canonical status. Even “classic” shows are usually framed in the context of their time, both in terms of the storytelling conventions adopted, but also budgets and available technology. The lexicon of cinema is very well documented by superb critics and widely accepted as a form of high art. The lexicon of TV, while almost as well documented, is not accepted as a form of high art, and there are very few critics who have made their names doing TV criticism. In most respects, TV criticism is from a fan perspective, rather than a critical perspective. There are many shows considered to be “favorites,” but very few considered to be “greats.”

This is evident in the non-presence of TV references in most film criticism up to the present. While shows like The Wire and The Sopranos are oft-cited as examples of shows that created benchmarks of quality — and thus are often represented in reviews of crime stories — it is not apparent precisely why those shows are benchmarks. At least, not in the context of the reviews in which they appear. Ben Affleck’s The Town invited comparisons to The Wire when it came out, but few critics teased those out. The Evening Standard and The Guardian were content simply to name-drop the series. The World Socialist Web Site asserted that the film didn’t have the show’s depth. Not that comparisons to films like The Departed or Heat are less relevant, but apart from both being crime genre and both fuzzing the moral/ethical line between cops and criminals, what are the relevant points of comparison between The Town and The Wire? Are there similar characters? Plotlines? Techniques? Even on a thematic level, do The Town and The Wire even overlap in their perspectives on the whole cop/criminal dichotomy?

This is typical of how film critics grapple with the relationship between TV and cinema. It is as if critics are aware that there is such a thing as TV; they are familiar with some several programs that they watch, or about which they’ve heard from friends, colleagues, or the buzz in the critical ether; they’ve noted the uptick in production values and aesthetic rigor in TV programming. Yet they don’t really know precisely how to merge the two worlds. So you often find TV references dangling just above the surface of film criticism, serving the purpose of telegraphing that the critics are pop culture savvy, without bothering to engage in any meaningful way with that hemisphere of the culture that keeps millions glued to their TV screens every night.

If I may inch out a little further on this limb before a chipmunk’s sneeze knocks me off, allow me to suggest that this is evidence of a prejudice that critics still harbor about television. Not just critics: us, too. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of us, if we’re honest, would acknowledge that the standards we have for TV shows are a bit lower than the standards we hold for cinema. And not just because of the vast differences still intrinsic to the two media. It’s because that’s simply how the culture views them. For all our protestations and bluster, it is my distinct impression that TV is regarded as the lesser medium. To be crude: cinema is for art; TV is for entertainment.

We all know that it isn’t that simple, though; we know it isn’t entirely true. Even a staunch TV-phobe like White is occasionally confronted by the limits of his prejudice. His Zero Dark Thirty review compares the film to “the bland procedural manner TV viewers favor,” suggesting that it’s not so much a case that there are bland procedurals on TV, but that it is the people who like to watch TV that favor bland procedurals. In his review of Silver Linings, he says, “TV shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The New Normal turn everyday eccentricity banal.” Skim White’s reviews for yourself. Chances are, every time you find a reference to television, it is in the context of implying its erosion of good taste and standards. Yet when it comes to Walter Hill’s forays into TV Land, all of a sudden TV is “underground.” Banal, bland television gains a potentially subversive edge when the right person uses it. A medium utilized nearly four hours a day by almost all Americans is, by this formulation, veritably avant-garde.

As easy as it is to nitpick the consistency of White’s peccadilloes, in this instance, I think he’s fairly representative of his profession. There are dozens and dozens of TV critics out there who have been doing amazing stuff with their criticism (Alyssa Rosenberg does exceptional TV criticism, for instance), but film still gets the lion’s share of the physical ink, and it still occupies the place of pride in the hierarchy of artistic pop cultural pursuits. Just because this is the way things are does not mean that TV is “underground.” On the contrary. What would be useful, however, would be for film critics to start integrating TV into their discussion a little more proactively. Nobody knows for certain how technology will evolve, but it looks likely that TV and film are going to overlap a lot more in the future, so getting ahead of that curve would be a smart idea for film critics who don’t want to specialize themselves into irrelevance. The first step would be to recognize television’s potential and to start sifting through how much of that potential has been historically realized. Many critics have already begun doing this. I hope White and his kind come in from the cold sooner rather than later. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

8 responses to “Whitewatching: up from “underground”

  • jubilare

    Intriguing thoughts, as usual. I agree, critics who ignore the fact that television seems to be coming into its own as an art form will fall behind. If you ask me, it’s been marginalized far too long.
    There’s a hitch that you don’t mention, though, and I am curious what you think on the matter.
    That hitch is length. To put it into literary terms, short-films are poems, feature-films are short stories, and tv series are either novellas or novels. Historically, the shorter forms (in both literature and film) have been considered art more readily than the longer, for numerous reasons.
    The shorter forms require more finesse, as every flaw is more damning, A poem cannot get away with the wrong word, a short story cannot get away with a bad passage, but a novel can get away with a bad chapter. Likewise, the seconds matter in short films, the minutes matter in feature-length films, but a tv series can often get away with a bad episode (or sometimes season).
    The novel and the tv series have been the favorites of “the masses” but derided by “the critics.” Part of this has to do with the quality of the majority of these larger and looser works, but I suspect it partly has to do with the size.
    The longer forms require more commitment. People go to them to immerse themselves, and there are few people willing to slog through a series in order to review its artistic merits.
    That’s starting to change with the quality of the overall narratives. TV, whose story-telling has been largely picaresque so far, is starting to explore other plot forms, just like the novel before it. Documentaries were probably the first to do this. Now our fiction is following suit. Reality and game-show tv aside, some of our story-shows are forming cohesive rather than episodic story-arcs.
    As this happens, the number of serious tv critics are increasing. But the time commitment is still a formidable barrier and will continue to be so.
    My points are these: 1. tv is intimidating to reviewers because of its length and involvement. Shorter forms lend themselves so much more easily to artistic critique. and 2. how much can feature films be compared fairly to short films or tv? There are some elements in common, as with poetry, short-stories and novels, but at some point the three paths diverge.

    • mjschneider

      You’re absolutely right: time is a major factor in the difference between film and TV, for all the reasons you mention, plus a few more. Films are generally made to be viewed in one sitting. Traditionally, TV series are not. They simply can’t be. However, with the rise of services like Netflix and Hulu, that’s changing. Netflix has started producing original series, but instead of making one episode available each week, it simply dumps them all at once, since many (if not most) subscribers prefer to “marathon” a series, often watching two-three-four episodes at a pop.

      One of the aesthetic aspects film viewers are aware of on some level, but frequently don’t consider as a deliberate part of the aesthetic experience, is how much time a story takes to be told. We often complain that it’s “too long” or “too short,” and what we frequently mean by that is that it’s not paced well — which is not the same thing as saying “two hours is simply too much time to spend watching a film.” Tarkovsky is famous for considering the experience of time as a part of his aesthetic. At the moment, I’m not sure that TV series are constructed with time as an aesthetic component. After all, length and air dates are usually prescheduled, and there’s a certain structure that is usually adhered to by TV drama. But for all that, the *experience* of time is not lost on viewers when they watch TV the way that it’s frequently lost on them when they watch movies. At least, that’s my working hypothesis. The more that our tech evolves, the more latitude TV makers might have to develop the time component as a deliberate technique, rather than an exigency of the format.

      There numerous other things that set TV and film apart, and those deserve attention, and that’s what your second main point gets at. And I was trying to come at it from another angle, which is that when film and TV are discussed/compared/contrasted in the same breath, does that do a service or a disservice to the media formats involved? Do critics actively consider that? Should they?

    • jubilare

      “I’m not sure that TV series are constructed with time as an aesthetic component. ”
      That’s a good question. Hmm…

      As in so many things, I’m probably on the fence, here. I’d say there are aspects of feature-films and tv that are similar enough for comparison and can benefit from comparison, but there are some aspects that just don’t fit. What those aspects are might cause one heck of a debate.

    • mjschneider

      Definitely. The debate is currently ongoing. I frankly haven’t given that particular debate enough thought to opine on it any further at the moment, but what I’ve read has been fascinating. :)

  • Dan Heaton

    Excellent article. I’m just discovered this site and will definitely be returning soon. Your post raises a lot of interesting points about the relationship between film and TV in our current age. The reputation of TV in general has gone up, and actors who would once consider it beneath them are taking starring roles in television instead of movies. That said, you might a good point about film critics and how they view TV. Even the standard bearers like The Wire and The Sopranos are considered the exception and hardly the norm when it comes to TV. While I think White is hardly a good model for most discussions of film criticism, I agree that his views are hardly that out there within this group. He’s probably more blatant in his disdain than many, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for reading and for your comment! White is very useful in that regard. His total disregard for tact is in many ways a virtue, because he emblematizes a lot of issues at the heart of contemporary film criticism, often (apparently) unconsciously. Which is one of the reasons I wish he would write seriously about television. I do genuinely like him much more than most readers, but setting that aside, he brings up a lot of stuff in such a way that (however inadvertently) cuts to the topical bone, as it were.

    • Dan Heaton

      There are two things that do bother me about White. First of all, he loves being a contrarian, which can get tiresome when he takes positions just to go against the norm. Second, I’m not a fan of the way that he basically dismisses all other critics as hacks, especially online writers. That said, this doesn’t mean that he can’t also make accurate points about films and film criticism. He’s still worth reading even if he can be maddening at times.

    • mjschneider

      I tend to be more generous toward White than most folks, primarily because I empathize a bit with being labeled a troll simply for taking a contrarian position, though I do also find some real nuggets of insight inlaid in his writing from time to time.

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