Split Screens Festival 2018: “Can TV Really Be Cinematic?”

David Lynch told us that Twin Peaks: The Return was an 18-hour film. Of the few things he did tell us, this is one that stuck, and it has become galvanised ever since with the inclusion of The Return atop so many critics’ Best Of 2017 film lists, including Cahiers du Cinéma and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound. So is it any wonder that this was the question on the minds of so many during the Summer of Peaks?

Yes, we watched it on our televisions. Yes, it was on a network that traditionally produces television programming. But times have changed. We can watch amazing films on our TV at the click of a button thanks to digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and TV networks are filled with film quality shows with movie-quality budgets (Game of Thrones springs immediately to mind). The old boundaries between TV and film are not as clear cut and defined as they once were. And while some might cry foul over this erosion — the stuck-up say that TV was, for the longest time, the place where the stars went when they could no long make movies, the palliative care unit for Hollywood careers, though it hasn’t been that way for a long time; conflating the two is an affront! — others are not so quick to discount this shift in the way we think about the age-old dynamics between these mediums.

A more distinguished panel of TV critics could not have been found to discuss this topic at the Split Screens Festival held in Greenwich Village over the muggy first weekend in June. It felt, appropriately, like a Wizard of Oz fever dream — Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic from the New Yorker was there…and Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and author The Man from Another Place was there…and The Daily Beast and Birth.Movies.Death film writer Candice Frederick was there…and Frank Guan, a pop music and literature critic from Vulture, was there too! The panel was moderated as well by Split Screens artistic director Matt Zoller Seitz, who might have been slightly biased — he claimed Twin Peaks: The Return as his favourite TV program of 2017 — but I challenge anyone who watched the thing to say it wasn’t one of the greatest things they’d seen on any screen last year.

The conversation began, and largely centered around, the question as to the distinction between cinema and television, and whether such a distinction continues to make sense. All of the panelists more or less agreed that such a distinction is, at very least breaking down, with Nussbaum and Seitz each suggesting that the term ‘cinematic’ may well be vacuous, and Frederick indicating that she does not use the term because she views both to be equal. Lim noted that while there used to be more of a technical distinction, movies no longer tend be shot on film, such that we tend to be talking about digitally created media, regardless.

Frank Guan posed an interesting inversion of the panel’s titular question, by noting the way in which cable television opened a door for movies to be shown on TV more and more. Can cinema be televisual? Is a film still a film if it is cut to include commercial breaks, and perhaps otherwise edited for content in terms of bad language, etc.? Ultimately, Guan suggested something of a distinction between cinema and TV along the lines of this question of immersion, or being taken into a different world, perhaps paraphrasing David Lynch himself.

Nonetheless, by and large, all of the panelists agreed that no firm distinction can be drawn at this point between cinema and TV. Nussbaum suggested that critics who can only laud great television by calling it “cinematic” perhaps continue to be beholden to a kind of status anxiety – as though TV could not be worth acclaiming qua TV, but only in relation to something else (film, the novel, etc.).

Structural changes in how we watch television, however, have of course played a role in its evolution, and the wearing down of any neat distinction between it and cinema. It is no longer the case that one has to plan to watch a show when it is on week to week, or risk missing it forever (a scenario that Seitz recalls his children being flabbergasted to learn about — as if he had told them he used to hunt for his own food). Frederick lamented this fact; wishing that more services like Netflix would dole things out on a weekly schedule. It was noted, however, that this would incur a backlash: contemporary audiences demand everything now.

And indeed, streaming services increasingly make everything available at once. Dead, for the most part, is the notion of “event viewing.” It is remarkable, then to what extent Twin Peaks: The Return managed something close to it last summer. This enabled the burgeoning of a wonderful community, which is certainly not limited to this site. Any number of podcasts sprang into being. There was a week of thinking and conversation, as we all collectively waited for the next Part to air.

But, even then, not everyone did. There were those who waited, or skipped weeks and then caught up, and so on. Even if any number of us did watch the show each Sunday night when it aired, this was in no way required. What is more important than the question of binge-watching, then, may be that of having the ability to access shows whenever one pleases.

Lim suggested that there is an expectation of control the defines television at this point. One decides when to watch, can stop, pause, come back later, etc. This is of course in stark contrast to how television worked historically, but feels on point in the present moment. On the other hand, going to a theater to watch film is something Lim thinks of as involving a kind of surrender. One hands oneself over to the work, cannot ask for it to be paused for a bathroom break, and so on.

It is with this distinction in mind that we might approach the question as to whether The Return is a film. As Guan noted, one never feels in control when watching this work. It is immersive. One must pay attention, but also that attention is rewarded, in contrast to so much of what is on television. But this is not a distinction pertaining to the medium — as The Return was certainly not limited in its art by being on TV — it is about the nature of the art itself.

Thus, perhaps we should stop feeling the need to compare “prestige television” to film in order to praise it. Further, one might ask whether ‘television’ remains an appropriate term if everyone is watching on a streaming service; and the same goes with ‘film.’ These old distinctions are eroding due to structural changes in how shows and movies are consumed. The old categories are breaking down.

And, that’s OK. One could even argue that it is a good thing. But in light of this new reality, we should perhaps search for new terms to form a new language of critique that is not dependent on what is a “film” and what isn’t, but instead aims to articulate what various works do and how, taking each seriously on its own terms.

Is the soap opera, for example, to be demeaned? Nussbaum noted the crucial role that it played in the move towards serialization. Seitz noted how it presents an open-ended structure as opposed to a goal-oriented one. It is not a question of whether the goal was achieved or not by the end of the hour, but of entering into a world that one feels pre-existed one’s entry, and which will continue to exist afterwards. And that sounds a lot like Twin Peaks.

Lim noted the way in which Lynch was clearly aware of the context of The Return, and the 25 years of “negative space” he had to navigate. One can see the way in which the series responds to those intervening years of television history. Despite the fact, as Nussbaum noted, that the language of TV has increasingly owed much to Lynch, The Return still feels different, or novel. To what extent is there a social critique embedded in this work? Not a direct one, but, as Lim put it a way of capturing a kind of dread, anger, sense of crisis, or collapse?

And to what extent might we see within it a critique of television itself? Of film itself? Am I the only one who watched the Sam and Tracy scene and thought of the phrase “Netflix and chill?” Perhaps, rather than asking whether The Return is a film or TV, we should think about the way in which the work moves to deconstruct the very distinction.

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz, Emily Nussbaum, Dennis Lim, Candice Frederick, and Frank Guan for a stimulating panel! It was certainly something interesting to think about!


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