Saturday, June 15, 2019

From the Large to the Small Screen

From Steve Erickson's old website. One of three texts from The Wage of the Channel Hopper column.
From the Large to the Small Screen 
Where, as a matter of provocation, it is affirmed that there is no serious reason for a film to stop being great on the grounds that it is shown on television. 
Nothing is more unanimous (and more self-satisfied) than the following cry: films (especially the big ones) are not shown on television. Yes, of course, television shows them, but they are 'shown' so badly. What we lose by this transfer from the large to the small screen would be downright inexpressible and the images that were large (when we were small) would not survive if they became small (while we have become big). This would also be true for images that, instead of becoming large, were long (like in Cinemascope). This would also obviously be true for spectacular frescos, ornate epics, and films of suspense and pathos. 
To watch Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now or Once Upon a Time in America on television – to cite three recent examples – is an act of highly dubious masochism, a self-induced sabotage of perception, a suspicious taste for the compressed and confined. Nothing could ever replace the theatre, that congenial belly of the cinema whale, and its bigger-than-life actors and sets. 
There can be no response to this cry when it comes from the heart, which is not always the case. As time goes by, the films that could justify this nostalgia for the cinema theatre and for the myth of a perfect projection are becoming rare. There are big films, of course, but it is not because we see the Iguazu falls or the mistral in close-up that The Mission or Jean de Florette cease to be, fundamentally, telefilms. For what, in the ultimate analysis, distinguishes a film from a telefilm is that, in a film, even scenes of intimacy are cinema, while, in a telefilm, even spectacular scenes are television. 
By going through the technical gadgetry of television, cinema, to be sure, does lose something. The question that will be increasingly asked is what? The better we know what is lost, the better we will realise its cost, and the better we will realise what, on the other hand, may have been gained. (We must not forget that television is often the cruel revelation of what was not all that great in cinema.) The question should be asked, film by film, without any preconceived answers. Gigantism is not necessarily a great loser, nor the Lilliputian the great winner. Perhaps Duras' India Song loses more on television than DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Who knows? 
The strangest thing is that the cinephile generation born after the war knew only the decline of large cinema theatres, even as, in the 60s, it lent its support to the adventure of art and experimentation, small theatres and then multiplexes. Those who have lived through the 'Hernani'-like controversies of L'Avventura or Les Carabiniers can scarcely express their regret at the destruction of the Gaumont Palace, where they never went. Just as the exhibitors of art and experimental cinema, currently threatened with depleted audiences, would be wrong to have us believe that the quality of projection in their theatres is not, for the most part, somewhat pathetic. 
If there is regret at all, even at its most sincere, it is more an arbitrarily assembled longing for cinema in its earlier state (as celebrated, for example, by Eustache in Mes Petites Amoureuses). Only, by reducing the size of theatres we have arrived at a point beyond which, at comparable reduction, there is scarcely any difference between a semi-private projection in an empty mini-theatre and the viewing of the same film at home on television. 
We are tempted to ask those who systematically denigrate cinema as it comes across on television, the following question: do you miss the film or the fact of going to the movies? In the latter case, raise your voice so that films may be made once more – real films – that will require large theatres (but do not be too surprised if such films are mostly American and if there are good reasons for French cinema not being able to deliver on such a large scale). But if it is the film that counts and the film was already a work of genius in a theatre, ask yourself if this genius is so volatile that it disappears with the mere change of medium. Chances are rather stronger, perhaps, that the word 'genius' has been used lightly. 
Canal Plus has just had the idea of showing six times, instead of once, one of the least-known films of the last few years, the admirable Once Upon A Time In America by Sergio Leone. A film that has in any case been ravaged, cut in length by one hour: a shade too involved in its plot, but really ambitious (and not pretentious); one of the most beautiful testimonies of love in the American myth ever to come from Europe, but testimony of the lucid love of the eternal immigrant. Yet, what characterizes this film, like the astonishing Lawrence Of Arabia? The fact that, in close-ups or in long shot, things do not happen differently. The film does not change when we move from a spectacular shot with elaborate sets and a large cast to a scene with two characters enclosed within four walls. It is this mastery of distances that really differentiates a film from a tele-film. It is this distance (a way of seeing) that has increasingly abandoned cinema, making way for the non-distance of the zoom (a question of touch, digitalisation, optical zapping). 
So much so, at the end of Leone's film, when an old De Niro, after the lapse of time, accepts the invitation of his ex-friend who has become a big shot in the town, and visits the only woman he ever loved (and raped), 30 years before, when De Niro discovers her in her green room, her face pale (and doubtless withered) beneath her make-up, we are watching a purely intimate scene (in which the music is quite evocative of John Ford), that was magnificent on the large screen and remains magnificent on the small one. Not an iota of emotion is lost in the meeting. There is no greater loss than in Dreyer's close-up of Falconetti's face, or in Chaplin's appearance when condemned to death in Monsieur Verdoux. Our conception of films that moved us strongly in the theatre must be very poor if we imagine that they will not touch us at all if shown on television. In sum, what is strong remains strong. 
The study of cinema today, whether we like it or not, inevitably, takes recourse to television. This will perhaps last only a moment, but this is our moment. Something is lost of course (but paintings too lose their colours, and cathedrals were once white), but something more important is saved. And if there is to be a debate at all, that is what we should discuss. 
We might prefer that films, rather being consumed by the protected and museographed circles of cinephiles, should be shown a second time, running the risk of their natural environment, made up of other images (those of television), and a different use of our time. This risk is real but less than if they were thrown en bloc into the folk-lore of archaeological celebration of 'old-world' cinema. 
It is preferable that, falling upon L'Inhumaine by accident, while zapping between two commercials and a video clip, we thereby discover a beautiful film, rather than that we should feel obliged to call it beautiful (or, worse, 'interesting') because we saw it during a highly mediatised 'cultural' sermon. 
Quite simply, there must be enough faith in images (and in the audiences to come) to believe that where once there has been beauty, there cannot be nothing at all overnight.

Originally published in Libération on November 16, 1987. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani. With minor edits by Steve Erickson and myself.

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