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Culture Warrior: Breaking the Movie Mold

By  · Published on March 15th, 2011

A very strange thing happened at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony. Somewhere between Ricky Gervais’ biting monologue/critique and Robert De Niro’s uncomfortable lifetime achievement acceptance speech, an epic international arthouse film won the award for Best Made for Television Movie or Miniseries, beating out the other nominations in the typically HBO-dominated category. Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is, from an American perspective, quite difficult to classify.

We first heard about it when it was met with rave reviews at Cannes and other festivals, then it was distributed theatrically through IFC (in its original 5 ½ hour run time) while it had a three-episode “miniseries” run on the Sundance Channel just as it had done in France when originally commissioned for French television. Now, before an explicitly planned DVD release (though there is some certainty that the film will be the latest IFC release to get the Criterion treatment), it’s available streaming in its three-part miniseries form via Netflix (which is how I eventually saw it).

All this is to say that it’s quite a task to say with any certainty precisely what Carlos is and in which medium it belongs. The film was financed by French television, yet it’s shot in a widescreen aspect ratio (2.35:1) typically reserved for theatrical cinema, and its 3-episode structure doesn’t follow the expectations of brief closure at the end of each segment typical of, say, an American television miniseries (it comes across more like a necessary break for exhibition and an arbitrary break in storytelling). Now with its instant watch run, it’s up to the viewer to experience it as a work of cinema or with necessary episodic breaks as a work of television – which only further situates Carlos as neither a work of cinema nor a work of television.

But in terms of its descriptive uncertainty, Carlos is hardly an isolated case.

The Mold

Last year UK television produced a three-part 6-plus hour miniseries on the Red Riding murders in the 70s and 80s. With each movie-length “episode” directed by three different filmmakers with experience in both cinema and television and loaded with a bevy of well-known British actors (Andrew Garfield, Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, etc.), the Red Riding Trilogy also came across as a television movie in-name-only (like Carlos, parts 2 and 3 of this series used the 2:35 ratio), and the trilogy was distributed in America theatrically in limited release (also from IFC).

That I repeatedly assert that these “made-for-television” movies look and feel like films isn’t intended to draw an essentialist line of quality and polish between the media. American quality television, has, of course, put the death knell in the always-false notion that one medium was inherent superior than the other. The usual suspects of the “third golden age of television” do possess attributes that one might deem “cinematic” (no commercial breaks on some networks, actors who regularly contribute to both media, sleek technical qualities, atypical pacing for television in shows like Mad Men), but the recent successes of television should also be attributed to quality programming’s embrace of qualities typically thought to be exclusive to the medium – that is, the development of stories and characters over a longer period of time through the benefit of an episodic format. Carlos and Red Riding don’t look and feel like movies because they’re so damn good, but because they come across as quality television in reverse: movies which have used the expressive possibilities of television rather than television programming which has used the expressive possibilities of movies. As Paul Brunick in the January/February issue of Film Comment asks, “We’ve always watched movies on TV – are we now watching TV at the movies?”

Breaking It

Of course, there are problems inherent in comparing American quality television to European miniseries. Carlos and Red Riding don’t look and feel like made-for-TV movies because they don’t look and feel like American made-for-TV movies. Western Europe has historically enjoyed a more fluid correspondence between films and television programming than the United States, which viewed the media as irreconcilably separate and has arguably only begun to realize the potential of each medium’s mutual determination in the past decade or so. After all, in Sweden Ingmar Bergman made much-celebrated films specifically for television in the 1970s (Scenes from a Marriage) and 80s (Fanny and Alexander), each of which was released theatrically with abbreviated running times elsewhere. For Europeans, to be a filmmaker hardly meant that you only made films, or that a film was an object exclusive to the movie screen.

While Carlos and Red Riding might be unusual in terms of European television history, as specifically 21st century objects they represent and function as components of a larger international framework. Both these miniseries are, for all intents and purposes, films, but their stories are inarticulable in a conventional theatrical running time. It is not a coincidence, then, that their source material is history, for history itself often evades the three-act structure and narrow temporal framework forced upon traditional works of cinema.

The biopic is especially important in this case as conventional biopics often collapse so much information into the expected running time that we as audiences feel no closer to (and often further away from) the “real” subject ostensibly being depicted. That Carlos doesn’t allow itself to be subject to the limitations of cinema ultimately makes it a better work of cinema. We are allowed to experience episodes of Carlos the Jackal’s story in full (the lengthy OPEC sequence is of particular note), witness his rise and fall in more detail (just as the pacing changes in the twilight of one’s life, so do we get to see the many implications of what the slowing down of a political assassin’s life means) and know the supporting characters of his story more intimately. Other Europe-financed films have adopted lengthy or multi-film strategies to better explore their respective subjects, like Soderbergh’s Che or Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part Mesrine.

History and life don’t often follow three-act structures, so why should we expect films about them to do the same?

This shift to more open storytelling frameworks has already been visible in Hollywood franchises. Existing material is adapted with the full knowledge that its story cannot adequately be told within one film alone, so successful franchises (LOTR, Harry Potter) develop one intricate story over a series of films and unsuccessful franchises (The Golden Compass) forever persist as incomplete stories. That last year Warner Bros. released a franchise picture that was essentially half a film (Deathly Hallows Part I) for reasons pertaining to business practices and/or storytelling needs speaks to the fact that films are not being looked at as autonomous entities with uniform, predetermined running times and expectations of story structure, but their borders are instead being seen as permeable and arbitrary in everywhere from Hollywood to the international arthouse.

Between making film and television indistinguishable, sharing aspect ratios outside the medium of their perceived “belonging,” and allowing stories to be told outside the temporal confines of traditional moving-image storytelling, the act of complicating medium specificity has permitted new storytelling opportunities. I say, let the mold be broken.

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