HBO versus Apichatpong Weerasethakul

19 11 2009

'Syndromes and a Century'

It’s ten years now since Tony Soprano first waddled onto small screens around the world. In the decade since we’ve seen something of a revolution in the way that television shows are made and watched, with programmes like The Wire, Mad Men and Six Feet Under representing a new, smarter kind of television drama. Here in the UK, DVD box sets of HBO shows are phenomenally popular, in a way that could barely have been imagined fifteen years ago.

The HBO revolution is generally seen as having been a good thing for television, encouraging good writing, experimentation and ‘dumbing-up’ in what can be a pretty dumbed-down medium.

What’s less often explored is the impact that HBO has had on cinema. On the face of it, things don’t look good. There’s a widespread feeling among people of my generation that the cable channel has beaten cinema at its own game. Having stolen cinema’s clothes by incorporating cinematic techniques into small-screen storytelling, it has proceeded to create narratives of a length and complexity that cinema simply can’t rival. Most films have two or, at a push, three hours to tell a story. HBO dramas have at least ten, spread out across a season. You only have to dip into Mad Men to see how much pleasure its writers take in delaying, deferring and waylaying the kind of narrative developments that in a two hour film would have to come thick and fast every ten minutes. 

I’d like to suggest though, that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Some prominent film directors (cough! – Martin Scorsese) have certainly had their fingers burned, but cinema continues to grow and develop in directions that are not easy for TV shows to follow.     

On a basic level, there are still plenty of genres that TV can’t really convincingly do. The action-adventure film is an obvious example. You can put a brutal fight or a chase through the streets into an episode of The Wire or 24, and you can even throw a Hollwood-style budget into filming it, but you’ll always be outgunned by what Hollywood can do on a bigger canvas, with big Dolby speakers. Can it be a co-incidence that in the last ten years the action film has re-invented itself, with the Bourne trilogy, a re-tooled James Bond, The Matrix, Christopher Nolan’s Batman etc.? Well, yes it could be, but you see my point.

Alongside this big noisy transformation, there’s also been the kind of quiet growth that you’ll always find going on in cinema if you look hard enough, with new directors searching for new cinematic directions.

Film-makers like Alexander Sokurov, Claire Denis, Carlos Reygadas and David Lynch, to name but a few, have spent the last ten years staking out their own unique cinematic territory, producing work that wouldn’t fit easily onto the small screen. And then there are those like Paul Thomas Anderson who, having had the multi-layered, ensemble style of his early work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) so convincingly appropriated by TV drama, has set off to plough new, equally exciting cinematic furrows. There Will Be Blood is a character study, sure, but a character study of such all-encompassing, deranged energy that it clearly belongs up on the big screen.

'There Will Be Blood'

Perhaps most strikingly different from anything HBO has to offer is the work of the Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a man whose name, if nothing else, would put you well ahead in a game of Scrabble. David Thomson once described his first viewing of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as ‘the last moment of transcendence I had felt at the movies’, and I have to say I felt much the same after my first viewing of Apichatpong’s 2006 film Syndromes and a Century.

In it, the director tells two mirrored stories of love, one set in a rural and one in an urban hospital. We, the audience, drift languidly, dreamlike through the film, overhearing gentle conversations and witnessing private, unguarded moments. What at first seems like a collection of trivial, unimportant moments gains weight through repetition and the change of perspective and, slowly, steadily, becomes compelling. It is a ‘difficult’ film, I suppose, but an easy one to watch, and infused with a uniquely Buddhist sensibility (in case you’ve ever wondered what Buddhist cinema might look like).    

Apichatpong’s earlier work contains the same intriguing mix of languor and mystery. His 2004 film Tropical Malady begins with an intense friendship between a soldier stationed in the countryside and a young local man. The relationship is possibly homosexual or possibly not – in the context of the film it doesn’t really matter – but it does contain from the start something primal and non-human: in one distinctly odd scene the young man is seen sniffing the hand of the soldier. Like Lynch’s Lost Highway, the film fractures in the middle, and we find that the young man has now become a ‘beast’ who the soldier must pursue through the jungle and kill in order to protect villagers’ cattle. As the two characters retreat further into the jungle they encounter talking glow-worms and the ghost of a cow, and the director draws on old Thai myths about shape-shifters and shamen. 

'Tropical Malady'

If these two films sound a bit trippy then, erm, that’s because they are. But they’re also powerful and moving in a way that is uniquely cinematic, and that helps to distinguish the cinematic experience from the televisual one.

Narratively then, with its ten hour plus running times, HBO may well have backed cinema into a corner. But to speak of an exhausted, half-dead art form is to assume that cinema is about nothing but narrative storytelling. Storytelling is important in cinema, obviously, but it’s always been capable of much more than that. At its best it can achieve something that cannot be found on TV, something spiritual and transformative (and I don’t mean Transformers – The Movie).     

So, while I love The Sopranos and Deadwood as much as the next box-set owning 31- year-old, I’d suggest that if you’re looking for the future of cinema, you should probably look elsewhere.

Primitive, a video installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, can be seen at the FACT Gallery in Liverpool until 29th November.

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7 responses

19 11 2009
Jonathan McCalmont

Interesting post Kieron. You’re right, I can’t imagine Apichatpong making the leap to TV unscathed but that’s primarily a structural thing. While HBO has introduced some degree of flexibility, TV is still about very clear narratives and stories. Apichatpong is more about texture and mood than narrative.

20 11 2009
Neil Fergusson

Tropical Malady, is a fuckin’ shit hot film! And as a rule of thumb, it is always better to look at cinema for the future of cinema, than say TV.

Lets catch up Kieron.

23 11 2009
paul baxter

Nice. I agree that Cinema will always be able to out muscle television in terms of scope. I think the closest TV has got are the pilot episodes of Lost and FlashForward but they are the occasions where money was positively launched at the screen.
Can anyone else see a parrallel with cinema in the 50s when trying to deal with the threat of TV?
The development of techniques such as CinemaScope, Cinerama, 3-D, Smell-o-Vision etc with the studio led pushing of 3-D films today?

23 11 2009
kieronclark

Screw 3D, let’s go back to Smell-O-Vision! Although maybe not in the case of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or ‘The Name of the Rose’…

7 01 2010
Michael Russell

Glad to see an appreciation of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Alexander Sokurov. I agree that both directors travel in far more adventurous directions than even The Wire could go and that they both demonstrate that the rumors of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Though I see what you mean about the big screen providing greater spectacle, for me, the big epic of the 2000s has been the Doctor Who revival on the BBC. Though it clearly has a lower budget than, say, Avatar, it has an imaginative sweep and scope that makes any recent big-budget spectacular I’ve seen look puny by comparison.

7 01 2010
kieronclark

Thanks for the comments Michael. Now that Russell T. Davies has retired from Doctor Who, maybe someone should give him the chance to write / direct a low-budget feature film. Could be very interesting indeed.

19 01 2010
Michael Russell

Thanks, Kieronclark. An RTD movie could be intriguing.

Does anyone know what Apichatpong is up to this year?

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