Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question:
Recently, there has been a lot of chatter regarding projects like “O.J.: Made in America” (an eight-hour documentary that was produced by ESPN but premiered at Sundance) and “Lemonade” (which needs no prior introduction, and debuted on HBO), and whether they should be classified as films or television shows.
The conversation has only grown more heated and urgent in the shadow of awards season, which demands that things be lumped into a small number of binary categories: Actor / Actress, Comedy / Drama, Fiction / Documentary, Film / Television. In a world where feature films are premiering on Netflix and miniseries-length documentaries are eligible for Oscars, should we still be thinking of movies and television as different media?
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian
I’m going to tell you a quick story. Years ago I dated a gal who lived in Woodstock, NY. At around the same time I was getting into various forms of old folk music. (The Anthology of American Folk Music, also known as the “Harry Smith” collection, had just been remastered to CD, followed by the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” It was a perfect storm for me to really get into Uncle Eck Dunford.)
Anyway, I had been reading my Greil Marcus and Alan Lomax, so one time I went up to Woodstock and there was this old hippie on the village green who was playing the banjo. I stopped to watch him with a male friend of mine who joined me for the weekend, and when he was done playing (and after I’d thrown a coin or two into his hat) I quizzed him if he was playing “bluegrass” or “old time” music. “Oh, it’s all old time music,” he said with a smile, to which I responded, as only pedantic twenty-something could, that his fingering style was more in line with a bluegrass style. “So it seems to me,” I said, “that what you are actually playing is bluegrass.”
This bearded instrumentalist then turned to my companion, pointed at me and said “your friend here is real hung up on labeling things, man!”
This was an incident that, I kid you not, rocked me to my very core and fundamentally changed my outlook on life.
To that end, I hereby state: call it whatever the hell you want to call it, so long as it’s good. If theaters had programmed “Lemonade” with something else to make it feature-length they woulda had lines around the block (yeah, I know I just opened a can of worms with that feature-length crack). The TV vs Film divide is something that is worrisome to those who raise financing and those who put a lot of energy into end-of-the-year awards. As I fall into neither camp, I can’t get too worked up about it. I’ve got plenty of other problems.
Vadim Rizov, @vrizov, Filmmaker Magazine
Common sense helps answer that, maybe. If the team behind “O.J.” insists that they’re a film, going to the trouble of booking a qualifying run of the product in a theater, we should take them at their word. If you want to consider “Lemonade” as a movie because it’s an individual unit that could be plausibly be shown theatrically, by all means. This discussion only seems to pop up with stand-alone, prestige-y titles; I don’t see anyone arguing the merits of including, say, the episode of “Last Man Standing” where Tim Allen Absolutely Destroys Safe Spaces With Pithy Comments. (Though someone please let Kyle Smith know about it, maybe he might.) I think a lot about Todd Haynes’ very fine “Mildred Pierce,” of which the team behind it insisted it was not a film forced by pragmatics to take the disguised form of a miniseries; if that was really and truly how they felt, they should never, ever have allowed it to be shown theatrically. Anyway, use your common sense vis-a-vis the rules of whatever poll you’re voting in.
The bigger issues raised by this question are more irritating. There is x amount of money in each publication’s budget, and if they’re working in the cultural sphere there are decisions to be made about how much money is allocated to criticism/thinkpieces/hot-takes about film vs. TV. Many writers who previously only covered film have been forced by market exigency to add TV to their coverage duties, some with more unfeigned enthusiasm than others. There’s a *lot* I could say about that, but it’s mostly a market reality question, seems like: more people are going to click (and comment, over and over) on a recap than pretty much any film review. So should we think of the two mediums differently? I’d emphatically say yes, but the difficulty of applying that in practice in a writers’ market currently heavily tilted towards TV would suggest that no, it’s all now the same thing. Please enjoy the ensuing cultural conversation.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
I feel like an idiot for deferring, in my year-end list, to the conventions of other publications and organizations regarding what constitutes a theatrical release — let alone one that “counts” for the year 2016. I did so because such conventions provide a basis of comparison and of discussion — and I made sure to provide a snippet of that discussion in an essay to accompany the list, because it’s the discussion that ultimately matters. The survey question actually is two questions: first, what do each of us, individually, experience as a feature film; second, what, for the purposes of awards and lists, should count as a feature film?
Here’s what I experience as a feature film: a closed-ended drama. The relevant distinction between film and TV isn’t where it’s shown; it’s closed-endedness. Even before the age of home video, I saw plenty of feature films on television, knowing that they were the same kinds of things that were playing in theatres; whether they actually did so or not seemed irrelevant. Many of Fassbinder’s movies, whether in the two-hour range (“Martha”), the two-part, four-hour range (“World on a Wire”), or the fourteen-part, fifteen-hour range (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”), were made for television and first shown on television. Denying that these are features because they were first broadcast is contrary to artistic judgment, is merely protectionism to aid movie theatres and distributors. OK, but what about “The Girlfriend Experience” or “The Knick”? I find them to be aspirationally serial, leaving the door open to Season Two and beyond. Fassbinder, had he lived longer, wouldn’t have pitched “Berlin Savignyplatz.”
And as for “Lemonade,” which I admire, it doesn’t seem like a feature film — to me — but like an hour-long music video, which is to say that, as good as its images are, they exist mainly to promote (or, shall we say, to supplement) the more or less uninterrupted album to which it remains tethered. That’s the difference between a music video and a feature, but I’d happily read an endorsement of it as a feature; the discussion’s the thing. The point is that the criteria for what constitutes a feature film are subjective and personal — which is the reason for setting clearly defined and simple rules on the subject, and setting them in terms of where and when something’s released is a reasonable place to start.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
What Richard said. Although I’d point out that the concept of “closed-endedness” has become a lot more difficult to define in these strange times, particularly since the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dawn of our new blockbuster era. You’d have a hard time finding more aspirationally serial media than this ongoing spate of superhero films, each installment of which exists to serve a greater whole and ends with a “tantalizing” preview of what’s to come (there’s a world of difference between “James Bond will return” and some cryptic footage that hints at whatever villain is coming to fight the Avengers next). To that point, “Lemonade” was far more closed-ended to me than “Captain America: Civil War,” and therefore perhaps more of a “film.”
Of course, all of these questions inevitably between back towards economics as much as they do the viewing experience, and that pertains to where these projects are shown. But we’re only talking about this because the borders have blurred and the definitions have become so slippery, so I find it easiest to set my default position to: “I know a film when I see one.” It’s the only argument I need to be able to feel comfortable with the conclusion that “Lemonade” is a film, but Frank Ocean’s “Endless” is not, but it’s also porous and pliable enough to allow for someone to convince me that the opposite is true.
Christopher Rosen (@chrisjrosen), Entertainment Weekly
Should we still be thinking of film and television as different media? No? Movies are dead, except they’re not. Allow me to quote something I wrote previously about this very film: “Maybe instead of expiring, movies have just transformed into something else. As television has risen to cultural prominence, the biggest films have become episodes — sequels and spinoffs about characters we know that end with a call to tune-in next week. Even ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ a sequel no one wanted and that everyone hates, closes with a tease for the next chapter. Hey, why not?”
So if that’s the world of movies in 2016, why not “O.J.: Made In America — The Motion Picture”? It’s an astonishing movie but dressed up like prestige television. It’s #content of the highest order, where storytelling trumps delivery system (and longform is more than a buzzword). That should be the goal — theatrical runs and classifications be damned.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics / Film School Rejects
In the case of “O.J.: Made in America,” I’ll respect Ezra Edelman’s claim of intent that he wanted to make a long feature film, even though it does seem made to fit the episodic TV broadcast most people saw it as. But I tend to accept documentary miniseries as equal to documentary films, such as in the case of most Ken Burns works. Longform music videos are fine to accept as films, as well, and I think that’s been a question at least since “Thriller,” if not before. There is some greater blending going on lately, where I think the longford narratives of “TV series” “Fleabag” and “Search Party” both work best as lengthy features in need of watching all at once. There are still some certain distinctions between TV and film. I would never equate “Modern Family” with cinema, but classification in general can always be faulty.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Rolling Stone, Vulture, the Verge
Of course film and TV are different mediums, the difference being that movies are good and TV shows are bad. I’m kidding! (Probably. Mostly. “Mad Men” was good, like, movies-good.) But hey, it’s 2016 — we’re abolishing binaries all over the place, with media classification diversifying to occupy as complicated a spectrum as gender. In the olden days, movies were movies and TV was TV, but defining characteristics like episodic structure or location of exhibition have gone completely cuckoo. Maybe a TV show wakes up one day and tells its parents that it’s really been a ten-hour movie all along, and wants to be addressed as such. Farkakte millennials.
In all seriousness, though, I find the whole “is [x release] a movie or TV show or short film or music video or recorded play or animated chapbook or whatever the hell” rigamarole to be tiresome and unproductive outside of list-making signposts. So at this time of year, when critics are compiling their best-of selections for 2016, semantics squabbles are kind of unavoidable. But after the New Year, we’ll all have better things to talk about.