Frame Vs. Frame

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles arguing about whether TV or cinema is better. They don’t start off like this. Usually they begin as a debate about which medium is in better shape but they quickly descend into partisan defences of one or the other. Those in the film corner like to base their arguments on what cinema can do rather than what it’s currently doing. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s absurd defence of cinema’s dominance over TV (not that it needs it, of course!) argues that cinema is better than TV because the big screen can do anything the small screen can, even if it tends not to, and that when it does the same thing as TV, cinema is always better because you’re out of the house. There’s no impassioned defence of contemporary film just a retreat into the past to blind readers with movie nostalgia. Guardian Film’s Tom Shone can’t find a director more contemporary than Ang Lee to substantiate his case for cinema (though many more recent names come even to my mind).

The Golden Age of Television…or whatever happens to be on!

Critics defending the box in the corner have the opposite problem. They are so preoccupied with what today’s television says about the quality of the medium there’s no acknowledgement of how TV’s history might also be useful in arguing the point. While critics like Turan can throw off allusions to Gance and Cocteau, TV’s advocates rarely reminisce further than Weiner or Gilligan (the Breaking Bad creator not the TV cast away). This may be because TV critics are not asked to be historians in the same way film critics are but why is that? Well it’s down to the profound disrespect we have for old television and the widely held belief that TV is ephemeral. TV critics don’t seem to understand that if they argue TV is great because it’s better than it used to be, they leave themselves open to these rebuttals from cinema’s proud history. Throw in a Serling and a Huggins occasionally and maybe you’ll convince a cineaste that TV is good because it’s always been capable of being good not by accident of circumstances. And you’re at a severe disadvantage against someone with a photographic memory when you’re an amnesiac.

It’s all part of a critical bigotry that resorts to casting aspersions on a field of culture you happen not to cover (but probably would if commissioned to) rather than taking a cold, hard look at the industry that you do. Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe. But the behaviour of TV critics irritates me more, because in a way they’re maligning television far more than any film critic has done – with the possible exception of Mark Kermode, who writes about TV like an unreasonable drunk. TV has been, for the most part, wildly excellent for a good thirty years now and was always pebble-dashed with artful gems throughout its long, ignominious history on the air regardless of the creative problems of the era. Yet TV critics keep trying to carve out this idea of an ever-beginning ‘new golden age of television’ that is just about now. This assertion that good TV is periodic is insulting enough as it strongly suggests that it’s uncharacteristic of the medium but the refusal to see the best of TV as connected by the medium rather than just a point in history is absolutely baffling to me.

It’s a new golden age and has been since 1999!

Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian film and TV blog suggesting that the golden age of television may already be over turns a matter of quality into one of timeline. Instead of seeing a historic tapestry of TV that lets us see the magnitude of what has been accomplished, we’re disputing the dates of hermetically sealed and arbitrarily compiled golden ages. The ‘golden age’ thesis is also a very weak argument if you’re trying to build a case for the quality of television. I wouldn’t let the continuous stream of terrible new releases I encounter at the movies on a regular basis lure me into thinking that cinema wasn’t one of the great gifts humanity has given to culture and art. Equally, I wouldn’t think any more of television than I already did if I found out it managed to put together a few good shows back-to-back. I would think twice if I knew it kept happening.

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