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Posted in American TV (General), Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2015 by Tom Steward

Though I’ve devoted the last decade of my life to television (in both work and play!), movies were my first love and they’re still at the heart of what I write and do. Consequently, I’m often asked what the best movies about television are. I’m always unsure what I’m supposed to evaluate; the quality of the movie or how well it deals with TV. The two very rarely go together. For instance, my first instinct is to say Morning Glory, a mature TV news satire that neither skirts around the rampant commercialism of American television nor uses it as a brush to tar the medium with. But the acting is regularly terrible, the (non-TV related) storyline lousy, and the ham-fisted direction really kills the comedy. But as a movie about television, I infinitely prefer it to the pious nostalgia of Good Night and Good Luck and TV writer Paddy Chayefsky’s glorified revenge pic Network, as superiorly artful as those two films are. So I was conflicted in my feelings about the TV news thriller Nightcrawler.

...not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

…not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo give remarkable (and remarkably unusual) performances. The script is utterly solid, something which cannot be underestimated in contemporary American cinema. The suspense elements are well-handled, and the photography mixes the best of cinematic vistas with the seedy beauty of urban photojournalism. I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is a rare experience for me in the cinema (seeing a new movie). I have no issue with the portrayal of American TV news, as it clearly is as base, gruesome and sociopathic as the movie suggests, and just as culturally defunct and laughably moribund. But it’s a narrow view of television that is loath to admit the frequency with which contemporary TV beats out cinema for complex drama and art and unfairly highlights its tabloid extremes. It also suggests that the capacity for TV to be live (not that it really ever is anymore!) is a crutch to its expression that makes TV necessarily artless and sensationalist. But as far as movies about TV go, these kinds of representations are old news.

Movies about TV almost always focus on the production of non-fiction (typically news), stress the live aspects of television broadcasting (regardless of how live TV is at any given historical moment), and never fails to mention any quality of the medium that might situate it as inferior to cinema, like its commercial interruptions or diminished screen size and image quality. Comment me if I’m wrong, but all movies about TV have at least ONE of these three typicalities. What’s also significant is how ahistorical this cinematic portrayal of TV is. You could understand it when TV was the new kid on the block and the film industry wanted to play up the disparity between fulfilment and experience in consumption of the two moving image media (although historians question whether we can ever see the two so separately). But it doesn’t really make sense when you consider that film and TV industries have for large swathes of their history been interrelated economically under dual or conglomerate ownership. What is the advantage of saying TV sucks then?

It’s not a riddle I’ve particularly solved, except that the mythmaking of movies depends so heavily on the distinction of the cinematic experience that it behoves the industry to promote the fairytale of exceptionalism in the face of overwhelming economic, technological and cultural evidence to the contrary. I’m pretty sure that hijacking the feeling of live TV in these movies derives from a kind of jealousy about the immediacy and presence that the medium can cultivate, as in Tootsie which go to extreme expository lengths to make a broadcast of the intra-diegetic soap opera live. With bigger, clearer home sets and smaller, digital ‘studio’ theatre screens as well as a parity of commercial content and product placement in both new movies and TV transmissions, cinema hasn’t a leg to stand on. It is, however, a strategy that boutique television networks also use to distinguish themselves from everyday TV flow, judging by the number of tiny, flickering sets we see on HBO and AMC shows in the service of dispensing an endless barrage of homogeneous crap.

Fishing for a story!

Fishing for a story!

It may be time for the movies to start acknowledging some of the realities of contemporary television. It wouldn’t be hard – just ask the many actors who now regularly moonlight between the two! TV is better than its news output and infinitely more interesting than its increasingly rare live transmissions.

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