Private Viewing: Is TV now the place for quality filmed storytelling?
- Credit: PA
Is television now the preferred home for intelligent drama? Arts Editor Andrew Clarke asks if cinema wants older audiences back?
As a lifelong film fan I find myself rather ashamed at admitting this but I have long found the summer blockbuster season to be tediously long and rather overblown. This would serve as a rather apt criticism of the majority of films that are released during this time. I have little interest in Transformers – sentient alien robots who have a fondness for turning into earthly cars, or an endless avalanche of special effect-filled superhero movies.
Throughout the summer these seem to form the vast majority of the big screen entertainment available supplemented by more science fiction action-adventure usually set in a CGI-enhanced, post apocalyptic world or loads of generic family friendly 3D cartoons. There doesn’t seem to be anything special any more. There’s nothing different. Nothing that stands out. It’s all more of the same.
I want a greater choice of films during the summer. I never used to have an allergic reaction to superhero films – in fact the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films, first two X-Men movies and the Sam Rami Spiderman films are among my favourite pop-corn films but the reason for this that they were about something more than explosions and people with extraordinary powers. All three film franchises were used as parables to talk about real world problems.
The Batman films dealt with the dark notion that vigilantes may be just as damaged as the villains they are fighting, Spiderman is squarely focussed on the Peter Parker quote: “With great power comes great responsibility,” and finally the X-Men films were all about combatting prejudice in all its many forms.
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These sub-texts have largely vanished from modern superhero movies, replaced with bigger explosions and extended fight sequences, and they are much less interesting as a result.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The principle reason for this change is the fact that an increasingly large proportion of Hollywood’s income now comes from the non-English speaking world. Russia, Asia and, in particular, China now provide huge audiences for summer action films. Bullets, bombs and laser beams work much better for a global audience than long involved dialogue sequences. In many ways it’s a return to the age of silent cinema when action, out of necessity, spoke louder than words.
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The other big change is that the movie studios are now trying to emulate their comic book equivalents by creating an inter-connected superhero universe which is why you have individual films for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk and then they all appear together in The Avengers series of films.
For me – and, I suspect, for many others – this results in superhero overload. They all merge into one another. I wish there was more choice, a greater variety of films for different audiences.
So where have all the other types of film gone? Where have the adaptations of novels gone? The classy dramas, the mid-scale independent movies and the quirky comedies? It appears that television has nabbed them and has used its extended running time to delve deeper into the characters motives and identities.
This development of quality, film-like drama is usually associated with American cable channels like HBO and Showcase but is also being driven by the BBC and Channel Four. Series like Homeland, Breaking Bad, Penny Dreadful, Girls, Game of Thrones, The Wire, even the remake of House of Cards would have been a movie 20 years ago. Older series like The Sopranos and Band of Brothers forged a new trail which proved that television could deliver movie quality in terms of visuals and casting but use the time to develop the substance of drama.
It’s not just American shows that are getting that feature film look. British series like Doctor Who, Downton Abbey along with crime dramas like Broadchurch, Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge and The Fall all appear to be would-be grown-up films which have been given a welcome refuge on TV having been exiled from the world of cinema.
It’s also noticeable that there is no stigma for stage and film actors appearing on television any longer. Actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks no longer baulk at appearing on the small screen.
I think the reason for my disillusionment with summer movies is that the programming is less diverse. The target audience is narrower and the season is longer. Before the summer season started at the beginning of July in time for the school summer holidays. Today it begins in May with its first major release opening as Cannes draws to a close.
I think the big studios are doing themselves a huge disservice by ignoring two thirds of the population. They are subliminally saying: “If you want movies driven by character and dialogue then look elsewhere, we’re not interested in you.” More discerning audiences are finding more rewarding viewing on television and cinema will find it difficult to attract them back – which is a pity because seeing a film on the big screen with an audience is still an unbeatable event.