Auteurist TV — the new frontier

APRIL 27 — For quite a few years now, “the death of film” has been a constant theme in editorials and discussions regarding the future of film as an art form. 

The arrival of high-definition digital cameras ranging from professional ones to “prosumer” ones was more or less the beginning of the end for 35mm film stock as more and more film-makers opted for the cheaper, lighter and more flexible digital options. 

But what surely sounds the death bell for film stock is the transition from film projection to digital projection in cinemas. So fast is the transition that even here in Malaysia we’ll be completing the full transition into digital projection in cinemas by either the end of this year or next year.

Maybe it’s the fetishistic nature of cinephilia itself that leads to all this worry about the future of cinema, but to me the death of “film” doesn’t necessarily mean the death of “cinema” itself. 

While it’s true that I’ll undoubtedly miss the lovely texture and grain that you can only find on films that are shot on film, going digital still does not and will not kill all the lovely cinematic techniques that make us fall in love with films in the first place.

The biggest proof can probably be seen in the increasingly high-quality. made-for-television movies and series, especially in the last five years or so.

While it’s normal to see a TV director make the transition to making feature films for the cinemas, to see things happen the other way around is not so common, mainly because film directors do not see TV as a respectable or classy enough avenue for them to display their film-making skills, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that many film-makers nowadays see TV as a truly viable option.

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was probably where it all started, but HBO more or less paved the way, with everyone from Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) to Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, The Right Stuff) to even Jay Roach (Meet The Parents) making one of their event TV movies and an auteur as highly respected as Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe) making the Mildred Pierce mini-series for them.

It’s not even an America-only trend as in Europe we can see examples such as the United Kingdom’s Red Riding Trilogy (directed by James Marsh, Anand Tucker and Julian Jarrold respectively), France’s outstanding Carlos (directed by Olivier Assayas, who made Irma Vep, Demonlover, Summer Hours) and the one I’d most like to see — Germany’s Dreileben (by Christian Petzold who recently made the arthouse hit Barbara, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhausler). Even Japan has seen an established auteur like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director of the original Pulse aka Kairo, Tokyo Sonata) make the mini-series Penance for TV.

Over here Astro has been looking to jump on the bandwagon as well with its “super telemovie” concept, which in my humble opinion misses the actual point of the trend, which is to give respected and critically acclaimed film-makers (not mainstream ones) carte blanche and a lavish budget to work with.

A TV movie from people like U-Wei Saari or Dain Said would be in line with this global trend, so let’s just see if we’ll finally get that here.

The biggest sign that auteurist TV is fast gaining prominence is the arrival of two series this year with major auteurist credentials behind them. For the Sundance Channel there’s Top Of The Lake by Cannes Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion (The Piano, Sweetie), on which she shares directing duties with Garth Davis and which has been described by some as Twin Peaks meets The Killing

Watch it and see for yourself why auteurist TV is different (and better and more exciting) than normal TV. Or like HBO likes to put it — it’s “not TV.”

If Top Of The Lake comes armed with the credentials and prestige provided by Jane Campion’s name, then House Of Cards, which is popular US streaming service Netflix’s virgin foray into original programming, comes armed with even more guns, the biggest of which is series producer and mastermind David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network). 

Yes you read that right, arguably the man when it comes to critical acclaim and box-office clout in Hollywood has gone into TV, and streaming TV at that. 

And he even ropes in a few other highly respected film-makers like Joel Schumacher (Tigerland, Phone Booth), James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) and Carl Franklin (Devil In A Blue Dress, Out Of Time) to direct some of the episodes.

With names like these, and with Netflix reportedly spending US$100 million (RM303 million) for two 13-episode seasons, and the other aforementioned TV series and TV movies also costing quite a pretty penny, it’s looking increasingly likely that TV is the next frontier for auteurs looking to create and practise their art without much executive interference, and on lavishly comfortable budgets. 

The already on-hand subscribers (both for cable channels like HBO and Sundance and streaming like Netflix) means that there’s already a built-in audience, which represents far less a risk than trying to market movies into cinemas, which in turn allows for more risks to be taken creatively and artistically. 

This is probably why auteurist TV is looking more and more like a viable option and a win-win situation for not only both parties, but for audiences as well.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.


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