Bordwell on Television (and me on film)


Yesterday, David Bordwell blogged about television watching, and the reasons why he generally doesn’t do it (at least made-for-television fiction – he obviously watches many films on his television screen). Soon, my Twitter feed was all atwitter with anxiety about how Bordwell (one of the major figures in film studies, if you don’t know) was bashing television, and a couple of people directly asked me if I would respond. So here are some meandering thoughts in reply.

First let me contextualize something: David was one of my professors in graduate school, and I consider him a friend. Besides being a brilliant scholar and one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen, he’s a tremendously nice guy and very supportive of his students. He’s been a direct advocate for my work on television genre and narrative, and even though he’s got a reputation for being polemical, he’s always encouraged many of his students doing work on other media, including television, video games, and comics.

Now that sounds like a big caveat before laying down a big “But…” However, there’s no “but” here – I agree with nearly everything David wrote in his post. Much of it is an auto-ethnography (a genre that few people would imagine Bordwell would be writing 10 years ago!) of his television-saturated youth, culminating in a detailed discussion of Hennesey, an early-60s show that I have never encountered. What seems to be creating indigestion among telephiles is a brief section in the middle of his post:

I see the difference between films and TV shows this way. A movie demands little of you, a TV series demands a lot. Film asks only for casual interest, TV demands commitment…. With film you’re in and you’re out and you go on with your life. TV is like a long relationship that ends abruptly or wistfully. One way or another, TV will break your heart.

There’s a long tradition of critics who are passionate about one medium decrying other media for not living up to the standards of their preferred form (see Ebert on videogames for a recent example). But I’ve never seen a condemnation of another medium for being comparatively too involving, too much of a commitment, and involving characters that are too deeply drawn – usually television is dismissed for being too trivial, shallow, and ephemeral. And that’s because Bordwell is not condemning or even critiquing television – he’s telling us why it doesn’t work for him.

One telling point in Bordwell’s piece is in his negative reaction to The Wire, which I obviously disagree with – he calls it “rather fragmented and uninspiringly shot.” I see its fragmentation as a virtue, but will grant that the show’s shooting style is not a primary pleasure – not a distraction, but I’ll grant that it’s “uninspiring.” But I don’t think it aims for much more visually – the goal is to document & capture the scenes, rarely using visuals for emotional or stylistic flourishes or nuances. There are moments that are visually effective, but the style is always subordinate to the narrative and I can’t really imagine loving the show on the visual plane. Aside from a few shows (like Breaking Bad), I don’t find myself embracing television due to its qualities as a visual art (as I discussed a few years ago in reference to Bordwell and other film scholars) – while television storytelling is obviously visual, it’s rare that visual aesthetics motivate my consumption over other narrative, performative, and sonic cues. And if you’ve ever read anything that Bordwell has written, you know that his interest in cinema is in large part due to visual style, so it’s not surprising that the comparatively unimaginative visuals of television fail to pique his interest.

The larger thrust of his explanation for why serial television holds little appeal is the relative merits of long-term investment in television (with potential disappointments implied) versus the short-term possibilities of film. I completely respect his choice to nibble broadly at the tapas buffet of cinema rather than commit to a full meal of serial television. It’s a matter of taste and priorities – for someone who watches as much film as Bordwell, the long-term demands of serial television are legitimately daunting. And if he’s anything like me and many other scholars, you can’t dive into a medium or genre partway, as tendency toward completism and mastery demand full engagement.

The one point of substance that I’d quibble with is his, certainly tongue-in-cheek, characterization of the potential endings of any series:

Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon.

This might have been an accurate characterization for 20th century American television (and it’s important to remember that TV in the U.S. is comparatively unique in valuing infinite longevity as a marker of success – in other countries, a series is typically bounded from its inception). What classic shows ended on their own terms, without abrupt cancellation or overstaying their prime? Maybe Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore, but not many others come to mind.

While it’s true that almost no series launches with the established horizon of its completion, many contemporary serials have ended on their own terms. Maybe their final seasons were not up to peak quality, but personally I experienced neither steep decline nor abrupt cancellation from The Wire, Lost, The West Wing, or Battlestar Galactica (your mileage may vary). And occasionally, a finale can work so well as to raise the value of the whole series, as with Six Feet Under or The Shield (or, for some, The Sopranos).

You can’t banish heartbreak (in media or in life), as I still mourn the untimely deaths of Pushing Daisies, The Middleman, Firefly, and many others. But for me, the rewards of long-term investment in robust characters and storyworlds, no matter how they end, are so much greater than the short-term pleasures of a film. I see very few new movies, aside from kids’ films with the family. Most films I do see pale next to the television I watch, and even good movies seem like a waste of time when they’re done – two hours spent in a place and with people I’ll never see again! What’s the point of that?

Sure, there are some great films to watch that I don’t have time for. But I can’t imagine there are many film comedies I’m missing on the level of Louie or Parks & Recreation, or crime dramas as good as Breaking Bad or Justified. And I value the joy found in anticipation of the next episode and seasons of such favorites far more than the uncertainty of a new film that is likely to fall short.

To conclude, I’ll repeat my immediate Twitter-rebuttal to Bordwell, grossly characterizing contemporary cinema via a comparative quote from back when film was better than television: “The food here is terrible, and such small portions!”

8 Responses to “Bordwell on Television (and me on film)”

  1. 1 Sean O'Sullivan

    You politely omitted Bordwell’s broader characterization of The Wire–an “overhyped” “sturdy policeman’s-lot procedural.” That’s presumably a bigger red flag to you than complaints about visual style.

  2. 3 Bob Stein

    Superb response, Jason. Thank you.

  3. A well-reasoned commentary, Jason. And my response to David’s post was quite similar to yours. He doesn’t seem to be bashing or even dismissing television or TV studies. He’s just explaining the different pleasures of the two media, for him — an “auto-ethnography,” as you say.

    And your comments on his comments on THE WIRE suggest to me why I’m less impressed with it than you are. That is, I have trouble getting beyond its mostly functional visual/sound style. In fact, I found the first few eps downright clumsy in stylistic terms. But I have to admit (having watched all five seasons over the summer) that it does have some compelling narrative arcs (Omar!) and it did eventually pull me in.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  4. 5 Matt

    I’d love to read your thoughts on Louie sometime.

  5. Excellent response, Prof. Mittell!

    My impression on Bordwell’s text is that I think he got accumulatively annoyed by all those comments that he had heard throughout these years about television’s narrative innovation, could you say then his post is merely a reactive defense of film?
    Ethnographically speaking, if we want to analyse it this way, I feel that film-watching has become more ephemeral actually, if I compare it with my own experience of having a weekly viewing of The Wire and Breaking Bad with a number of friends and relatives. We debate, we muse, we hypothesize on characters’ development and narrative outcome on a weekly basis accompanied by good wine and masala tea.We don’t have this with film anymore, even after we spent 3 hours or so in a cinema somewhere, or at home watching Tim Burton’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland. And phenomenologically speaking, somehow the “trouble on the horizon” that he remarks below,

    “Having been lured by intriguing people more or less like us, you keep watching. Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon.”

    does not echo our experience in engaging with the multi-season series. If anything, it shows how rich contemporary American television fiction viewing is; when a show is canceled, it’s a shame, but I’ve never felt “spit upon.” Of course there is the third possibility as he states as follows, “You might die before the series ends. How comforting is that?”, but I mean c’mon, you could also die while watching Che 1 & 2!

    I could be wrong, but then again I’m just an outsider who happens to love television above and beyond!

    Ari From Indonesia/The Netherlands

  6. 7 rahul bakshi

    If someone criticizes the visuals of a television series I couldnt care any less, because the medium is already limited in its use of depth, so its as inappropriate as asking a lame person how fast he can walk.As far as visual style concerned,it is a reflection of the core idea and so makers should be given proper liberty especially in this medium.I think mainly a film works in its objectivity and a television series works in its characters, in such a respect, I feel Mr. Bordwell compliments the longer medium by using words and phrases like ‘devotion’,’TV demands commitment’ & ‘You have lost some friends’.

    Can you please post the link of Mr. Bordwell’s article? I havent read it and would love to.

    Thank you.

  1. 1 Recommended daily reading – 14 September | A Weird Fish

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