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Television as cinema? Why not?

Anyone who has taken a film course has come across the Marshall McLuhan idea of film being a “hot” medium and television a “cool” one. (Or maybe you just remember his name from movie theater lobby scene in Annie Hall?) It was an intro class, so we never discussed the idea in depth, so I actually don’t really know what McLuhan means by “hot” and “cool.”

But I do know that lately, at least in the States, TV hase started to getting a little lukewarm (if not “hot”). There are still great films every year that we see in the movie theater, but we forget about the “movies” on television. It’s as if a line has been blurred now that we see how great television can actually rival great movies.

Nothing proved this to me more than The Sopranos. I didn’t watch it until I found out the show was going off the air. I was dreading having to catch up with all the seasons, but when I found out it was coming to an end, I felt compelled to get into the show after hearing about how much people were enjoying it. Since I was working in a video store at the time (and we had a decent TV show selection), I’d rent the first season, watch a couple episodes a day, return it, rent the next season, and so on. I came down with a light case of pneumonia, so I had even more time to absorb the series. By the time I finished, part two of the sixth season already aired, but the encore episodes were broadcast the following week. Just in time.

I didn’t take in the show in intervals like regular viewers did, but watching the first episode to the last episode within a matter of a few months was something amazing, practically transcendental. I’m not as knowledgable about good TV as I wish I was, but of what I’ve seen in the last twenty years of my life, The Sopranos is essential art and one of the great television experiences. Nothing is as tense, epic, insightful, bewildering, and beautiful as this show.

Comparisons to film don’t stop here, though. What about all the great movies that started with an involvement with television like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Scenes from a Marriage, Mullholland Dr., The Last Emperor (the so-called “director’s cut”), Fanny and Alexander, etc.? I remember when No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the life and times of the legendary Bob Dylan, was shown on PBS, and everyday people, including myself, began to realize how great filmmakers could use television to reach a mass audience (and maybe even as a more convenient method of distribution?) without having to worry about packed theaters because a movie experience at home is potentially more comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable than driving to a cineplex and being surrounded by talky cell-phone junkies.

In case you were wondering, this discussion did not start out of the blue. I began writing a post about In Treatment, HBO’s first half-hour show. The new series runs Monday through Friday at 8:30 CST as a therapist (Gabriel Byrne) has appointments with his patients, meeting with one patient each day (and sticking to that schedule for at least this season), and even visits his own shrink (Dianne Wiest).

I just watched the premiere tonight, and it’s off to a great start (it’s like watching a really good, well-filmed play), and I’ll write more on the show soon. Probably at the end of the week since no good movies are coming out for the second week in a row. I’ll be glued to the tube either watching the episodes I couldn’t catch during the week or checking out these Takashi Miike movies that are sitting on my endtable.

Yes, a Miike Mini-festival of Debauchery with Ichi the Killer, Gozu, and Izo. I think I have my sunny weekend planned out.


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