“None of us realized the potency yet of this medium — how many homes it was going to, what kind of affect it was having on people and so forth. I think everybody who works in the visual medium would love to have that kind of innocence again.”
Among the many converging currents revealed in and explored by the Rotterdam Film Festival’s newly inaugurated sidebar Changing Channels was the tendency of big screen directors to have a go at small screen auteurism. The progenitors of this trend are usually identified in directors such as David Lynch in America (“Twin Peaks”), Lars von Trier (“The Kingdom”) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”) in Europe. Unacknowledged in this genealogical effort are luminaries of post-war American cinema like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Lumet and others who actually cut their sharp teeth in television before landing on the big screen.
Auteurs and television are not strangers to each other, but today’s massive piling out of directors from the big onto the small screen may be signalling epochal changes lying not too far ahead. This confluence of directors in cable TV is significant on many levels. First off, it challenges the predominant figure of the writer/creator that has so far accompanied the TV renaissance presided over by networks like HBO and AMC and initiated by shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” The best and most successful series on television are often the creation of writers as opposed to directors (“The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” to mention but a few). The migratory movement of directors from the big screen to the small is obviously dictated by higher financial returns, which in turn means enhanced artistic possibilities and improved margins of risk.
With their daily lives usually marked by short-term flexibility and an uncertain future, contemporary audiences seem to appreciate the solid and long-term narratives of TV series. As existential linearity recedes on the horizon of our precarious lives, a serialized drama can provide a critical compendium on the dynamics of a struggling society — think of “Breaking Bad,” with its deconstruction of the American family and its ethical and financial unsustainability. And this goes well beyond the American frontiers, with quality TV setting up outposts in country as diverse and distant from each other as France and Japan, Chile and Czech Republic, as the Rotterdam program revealed.
Regardless of their nationality, all the TV series that screened at the festival presented common traits that have come to define the format, as it turned out, across geographical and linguistic borders. Genre, albeit in fluid and challenging forms, still defines most televisual products. Substantial and artfully scripted narratives are the pumping engine driving TV series and their popular appeal. In this regard, television seems to be filling the place that genre filmmaking occupied in the ’60s and ’70s. The Cormanian factory in the U.S., spaghetti westerns and giallos in Italy, exploitation cinema in Mexico and so forth were all commercial phenomena that spoke of and to their times, cashing in on their popularity while allowing its authors considerable room for experimentation. Similarly, pay television has in the last decade pushed its own inner boundaries by courting audiences while defying their expectations.
The Rotterdam sidebar was organized in three subsections that illustrated both emerging and established trends as well as the different productive regimes behind them. A “Web Lounge” — designed and built by Dutch-American artist Summer Wood — sitting in the foyer of one of the festival venues offered non-stop web series. Three distinct “TV Nights” screened assorted works in double bills, usually walking the blurring line between TV and web, while a more “conventional” “Series and Marathons” was dedicated to the partial or complete screening of shows made for television. Far from being three separate and compartmentalized sections, their hybrid content was indicative of the ongoing exchange between different formats and platforms.
At the ends of this continuum sat two different categories. The web, a calling card virtually free of charge for budding creators, hosts mostly young and inexperienced talent. TV series commissioned and produced by renowned networks on the contrary usually employ established names, like filmmakers Pablo Larraín, Agnieszka Holland and Hirokazu Kore-eda. The middle ground, which networks are tapping into with the creation of digital channels, is occupied by crossbred creations — “The Trivial Pursuits of Arthur Banks” and “The Boring Life of Jacqueline,” for instance, were created by AMC and HBO respectively for the web.
Unsurprisingly, web series were home to millennial’ anxieties and circular existentialisms. Pained by the (hopefully) terminal stages of western individualism, the vast majority of internet creativity on display at the web lounge was plagued by self-pitiful characters. Caught in the irrelevance of lives of pathetic privilege, effected by social media syndromes and malfunctioning social lives, the characters-cum-creators of web series find in irony their ultimate shield and straightjacket. “Broad City,” “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” “The Slope” and “I Hate Being Single” are all underpinned by the abovementioned, unimaginative predicament: middle class, creative types with no or unpaid jobs, living a life of unrelenting indeterminacy yet not even remotely intent on finding a meaning or purpose, wallow in their hip misery.
It’s significant that even when staging and ostensibly exploring the lives of sexual (“The Slope”) or racial (“The Misadventures”) “minorities,” the disengagement with anything that does not orbit around their own claustrophobic obsessions remains the series’ sole stylistic and philosophical concern. An exception can be made for Joe Swanberg’s “Young American Bodies,” which, despite sharing the same socio-emotional background of the other web series, has at least the decency of exposing the uncomfortable (naked) truths lurking behind an existential void of apocalyptic proportions.
The consequential and more successful byproducts of web seriality can be identified in shows like “Girls,” the first two episodes of the second season of which were shown in Rotterdam, and “The Boring Life of Jacqueline.” Both series in fact take the self-entitled and long-winded obsessions of net(ted) hipsters to TV audiences in a slightly more digestible formula. A little more interesting, from a stylistic perspective, was the mini-web series “The Trivial Pursuits of Arthur Banks.” Though indulging in its titular triviality, this AMC experiment in serial web fairy-telling stands out for its aesthetic eccentricity.
Set in present-day America, the web series plays with the visual codes of noir, avoiding the hyper-realism that tends to dominate the form. As pleasant as it might be to watch, it remains unclear what the commercial prospects of such a product could be. A truly unexpected surprise came with “The Eric Andre Show,” an unhinged parody of late night talk shows that falls somewhere between subversive dementia and cultural decoding. With wild rhythms and ruthless sarcasm, the show revels in sudden inventions, visceral comicality and politically incorrect diversions to treat audiences to a surreal media circus of hilarious proportions.
Whether by directly setting up foreign branches of successful networks (HBO Latin America/Europe) or simply replicating the acclaimed format, TV series are finding new territories beyond the American frontier. The Changing Channels section introduced Rotterdam punters to serialized products from all over the globe. In “Going Home,” Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Maborosi,” “Still Walking”) spreads his trademark naturalism over the episodic structure of a domestic drama. It centers on an advertising executive, his food stylist wife and their daughter, who share a cosy and peaceful existence. When the man’s father is hospitalized, the family life takes an unexpected turn as an unknown woman turns up at the hospital, eventually leading him to his father’s native village. Marked by a contemplative pace, “Going Home” dwells on the seemingly irrelevant details of daily life to narrate a story of enriching simplicity and unfolding wonder.
“Les Revenants” (Rebound) by Fabrice Gobert and Frédéric Mermoud is a Canal+ production flirting with the supernatural to convincing if rather earthbound results. It’s set in an idyllic village in the French alps that’s shocked back into life when a series of former inhabitants thought dead make their way back in town. Astonished and incredulous, the former parents and lovers as well as perplexed strangers grapple with these ordinary-looking living dead as their lives take on a new dimension. The eerie reappearance of presumed dead people accompanied by inexplicable natural events function as a narrative device to enfold and dissect the mysteries hiding behind the postcard-like landscape.
Scored by post-rock outfit Mogwai,”Les Revenants” slowly builds up a captivating suspense that was abruptly interrupted -= as the festival only showed four out of eight episodes. Despite scheduling and timing issues being incumbent when programming TV series at festivals, the Changing Channels section at Rotterdam was a welcomed “diversion” at an event whose main competition verged on the colourless. It’s significant that the other main attraction in Rotterdam this year came with the retrospective dedicated to Dominik Graf, a German director who often applied his singular genius to the small screen and genre filmmaking in general. What this new section (which apparently was devised as a one-off event) showed is that television, far from being a square box of pre-determined possibilities, encompasses a varied range of formal endeavours. As the financial returns of art cinema grow thinner, the room pay television has opened up is attracting more and more talent and bearing more and more interesting fruits.