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David Lynch Is Wrong: Why Cable Television Isn’t the New Art House

We've heard this argument before. And it misses the point.

David Lynch

David Lynch

David Lynch isn’t usually predictable, but he certainly struck a familiar chord when he trotted out an all-too familiar assumption about the future of the movies. “Cable television is the new art house,” Lynch told Time Out, and for good reason: He’s putting the finishing touches on his “Twin Peaks” relaunch with Showtime, and hasn’t directed a feature since 2006’s “Inland Empire.”

But here’s the thing: He’s wrong. Even when Lynch says it, that truism misses the point about what the art house offers. He’s the latest artist to make the misguided comparison between two very different art forms — only one of which is predominantly governed by a commercial industry.

I’m not talking about Hollywood, which represents only a fraction of filmmaking today. If the future of movies were solely defined by the multiplex, we’d be doomed to an endless cycle of superhero victory dances. Cable television caters to certain fairly conservative expectations of visual storytelling; movies produced outside the studio system present a superior arena for creative risk. Their audiences will always be smaller, but that may be enough.

Ironically, Lynch’s pronouncement about the transformation of art house appeal landed a few days before the inaugural Art House Theater Day September 24, a joint initiative of 160 theaters nationwide. In Austin for the genre festival Fantastic Fest, I popped into a 4k restoration of Don Coscarelli’s beautifully haunting “Phantasm” as it was simulcast to some 100 theaters.

After the screening, Coscarelli and some of his original cast participated in a Q&A as fans watched across the country. The film received a warm reception from viewers in the room, many of whom had never seen the 1979 chiller. To some, “Phantasm” — in which an alienated child uncovers an alien threat lurking in his local funeral home — may have resembled “Stranger Things,” the hit sci-fi Netflix series loaded with nostalgia for the same tropes. But “Stranger Things” requires a long-term investment in an ongoing narrative. “Phantasm,” by contrast, is a concentrated dose of narrative experience, the essential quality that differentiates movies from television.

Do audiences still care? These viewers certainly did. At Fantastic Fest, I encountered a wide variety of intriguing cinema that would never work in episodic format — from the atmospheric Bergmanesque “Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl,” about a young woman tasked with caring for her mysterious aunt, to the Polish musical “The Lure,” about a pair of mermaid singers doomed by their love for the human world. What network would possibly want to greenlight episodic versions of these peculiar stories?

Filmmakers from around the world continue to churn out bold, surprising works that would never succeed in the televisual format. The film festival circuit continues to provide a safe haven for movies that offer a range of possibilities, and distributors and programmers sift through the sea of options. Some movies may never get beyond a few hundred viewers. But for the riskiest titles, that alone provides a modicum of victory.

At this year’s New York Film Festival, Barry Jenkins’ layered, decade-spanning “Moonlight” trades the sweeping plot of most drama series for small moments that only work in the context of a two-hour package. However, that only touches the surface of the way film can stand apart from the possibilities of the television arena.

"The Ornithologist"

“The Ornithologist”

Locarno Film Festival

Another NYFF entry, Portuguese director Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ “The Ornithologist,” involves the mysterious chronicle of a man who awakens to a new identity in the wilderness. It’s a fascinating puzzle of moments as the central character faces his sexual desires and the looming shadow of Christianity through a series of fairy-tale events that are hard to comprehend.

For viewers willing to simply absorb the strangeness on its own haunting terms, that’s enough. “The Ornithologist” provides the kind of memorable, shocking, and inventive storytelling that bears the mark of a would-be cult phenomenon — much like Lynch’s “Eraserhead” did nearly 40 years ago.

So he should know better, and maybe he does. Lynch has been cranky about audiences in recent years. In 2008, as mobile viewing was on the rise, he famously asserted that, “it’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.” From that combative stance, Lynch seems to have arrived at a more defeated state. But cinephiles shouldn’t fret. They just have to know where to look.

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