Thinking Outside The Box

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

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