Perspective: In defense of movies

The week-after-week format of television admittedly builds a depth of character study richer and deeper than most movies are capable of. But would you watch a 13- or 22-hour movie? Huge swathes of recent episodes of “Mad Men” would hit the cutting-room floor in even the most luxuriously paced movie, as the amount of wheel-spinning and narrative churning that can go into a television show would never pass with cinemagoers. Face it, the recent “Fat Betty” story line would definitely be trimmed from “Mad Men: The Movie.”

The systematic design of television is often paramount, leaving shows looking self-same. Think of how the once-original faux-documentary style of “The Office” has now become commonplace. Say the title of a movie and often a single bold image comes to mind — the bustling train station in “Hugo,” that satin scorpion jacket in “Drive” — while the same is rarely true for the generally uninspired look of television.

Though they are both products of the industrial/cultural dream space known as “Hollywood,” television and film have in the past often existed as separate realms, feisty neighbors who have learned to tolerate each other. Television’s small screen was something you graduated out of into the big time of the movies for generations both behind and in front of the camera, from John Frankenheimer to Judd Apatow, Warren Beatty to Leonardo DiCaprio. Recently, as big-name filmmakers have turned (sometimes back) to television, most notably Martin Scorsese with “Boardwalk Empire” and Michael Mann with the ill-fated “Luck,” there has been a rise in the assertion that TV is somehow now better than the movies.

This idea seems to have reached a kind of climax with the May issue of Vanity Fair. The cover line teases “Admit it… You love TV more than movies” and columnist James Wolcott posits “TV is where the action is” in the culture at large, with shows such as “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” “Modern Family,” “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” allegedly dominating Twitter feeds and cocktail banter. Leaving aside whether the mediums even need be seen in competition, it now must be written — a defense of movies.

Even as viewing habits change and some audiences now mostly watch their movies at home, there is much to celebrate about le cinema. Movies end, even obliquely, while television shows are specifically designed to go on and on, giving movies a satisfying narrative compactness and resolution that television can rarely match. The emotional gut-punch of a film such as the recent British thriller “Kill List” gains its power in part because when it’s over, that’s it, audiences are left reeling to grasp for themselves the death blow of the film’s moral sinkhole and sort through their own feelings without the cushion of more to come.

Also, while no one would confuse the ragged sincerity of films like Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” with David Wain’s absurdist comedies “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” when both directed recent episodes of “New Girl” the final products were relatively indistinguishable, with the personal, defining characteristics of their films steamed out by the smooth machinery of television production.

Or take the sublime ridiculousness of “21 Jump Street,” a fresh, funny poke at the rather turgid television series, the superhero origin story as found-footage coming-of-age drama in “Chronicle,” the tender touch of “Beginners,” the heartfelt shaggy-dog storytelling of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” or the down-home exoticism of the upcoming “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” all films that allow viewers to enter, explore and then exit their specific worlds with a compressed efficiency that heightens their impact. (And that doesn’t even include the expansive cultural exchange of foreign-language filmmaking.)

Writer-director-performer Lena Dunham was the signature breakout star of the South by Southwest Film Festival after her 2010 film “Tiny Furniture,” and she returned this year for a premiere screening of the first three episodes of her highly touted new HBO series “Girls.” However funny, insightful and promising the show may be, the end of the program in a movie-theater setting felt less like a payoff conclusion than a sales-pitch tease for more.

The recent reliance on comic book properties and young-adult fiction to create pre-packaged franchises at the movies could even be read in part as a way to replicate the addictiveness of serialized dramas on television, though that influence is not necessarily for the good. The ending of the current hit “The Hunger Games” is straight from TV; without even trying to exist on its own apart from its impending sequels the film might as well end with a title card that says “See you in 2013, folks!”

Though one may not want to spend an endless amount of time with Will Ferrell’s gently dim Spanish-speaking ranchero from “Casa de Mi Padre,” the film works surprisingly well as a single, consumable piece. On the other hand, on the television show “Eastbound & Down” — on which Ferrell is a credited producer and occasional guest star — the character of disgraced baseball pitcher Kenny Powers (played with brusque depth by Danny McBride) has proved to be capable of remarkable ongoing pathos, benefiting from the amount of extra time viewers have been able to spend with him.

In his Vanity Fair piece, Wolcott mentions and disregards such recent acclaimed films as “Margaret,” “Bellflower,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Future,” “Shame,” “Take Shelter” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” while also noting that he largely hasn’t seen them, as if his decision to skip them means they can’t possibly be worthwhile. That kind of blinkered dismissiveness is symptomatic of a cultural incuriosity that is a separate problem, but as relatively small releases those films are in many ways analogous to shows such as “Mad Men” or “Downton Abbey,” which exist essentially as the prestige art house of television.

Those who would make a claim for the current cultural and artisitic superiority of television also overlook how films such as “The Help,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Social Network,” “Inception” or even “The Hunger Games” do become cultural talking points/touchstones just as strongly as anything on TV. If it seems television shows are more often dominating conversations, that may simply be that new episodes of a favorite show happen every week, hitting the talking-point refresh button. People have to talk about something while nervously waiting for the elevator, and just because they fill the air talking about last night’s TV doesn’t make it more earth-shattering. The silken dark of a movie theater transports to a time, a place, a world completely of its own making, and each time the lights go down there is the possibility of something entirely new. That transformative excitement simply isn’t part of the comforting week-in, week-out familiarity of the television experience. The cultural longevity and cross-generational appeal of movies is something that few television series can match, with touchstones such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Dark Knight” becoming a permanent part of the fabric of popular culture.

The current vast, rapid changes in how people consume their media, on a variety of screens and devices around their own schedule, is having a serious effect on defining what is a television show or what constitutes watching a movie. When someone downloads or streams something from online to watch on their large flat screen at home, are they watching a movie, a television show or something else?

The 2010 film “Carlos” by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was available as a three-part miniseries broadcast on a cable channel over multiple nights but also consumable as a single 51/2-hour immersive event and also in a shortened version. That hybrid adaptability may be a defining characteristic of how we come to think of narrative storytelling with moving images.

The dexterity with which creative talent such as Assayas, Mann, Scorsese, Dunham, “Eastbound” writer-director Jody Hill and “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether can move between television and film is the thing that should be celebrated in today’s fluid media landscape. Declaring one format dominant over the other seems wrong-headed and oddly retrograde.

NBC just recently aired all six produced episodes of a new series called “Bent” over just a few weeks, sometimes two episodes a night. Created by Tad Quill and with a cast that included Amanda Peet, David Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, Margo Harshman and J.B. Smoove, the show had engaging characters, witty, banter-driven dialogue and a strong arc toward a final moment that felt like a finale. If you took out the commercials, streamlined a few scenes and watched it all together, you know what you might have? A pretty good movie.

Olsen writes the Indie Focus feature for Calendar and reviews films for The Times and other publications.