Of the Cinematic and the Televisual

Curator's Note

My most profound interest in television studies concerns the audio-visual force created by the art of television auteurs that impacts the way we think about, feel, and see the world around us. But should we describe the highest achievements of television narrative as cinematic? Well, consider David Chase’s The Sopranos and how it alters our experience of space in a purely televisual manner. In The Sopranos, spaces, for example Jennifer Melfi’s office, are defined by months and years of continuing spectatorship. Over the course of the series, this particular space is defined visually through repetition and variation as an area that conveys what is happening between Tony and Dr. Melfi. It is, normatively, as close as we come in this narrative to sacred space. As a result, every time the space appears it is an occasion for conveying respect and violation, and each appearance of the space becomes part of an overall series image that gives us perspective on spatial and temporal aspects of human relationships and their fluidity. Some appearances are more potent than others, however, and one of the most intense occurs in “Employee of the Month” 3.4, when Tony crosses the space to comfort Melfi who is caught between professional ethics and her desire to ask Tony for vengeance against her rapist. Unlike in cinema, the force of that event is the result of years of spatial definition.

As Tony moves toward Melfi and Melfi reacts the screen is charged with layered and unspeakable insights about their relationship, about how space and time defines social interchange, and about gender relations. This is art; this is vision in motion. And it is unalterably rooted in the temporal aspects of televisual production circumstances, in this case 86 episodes and six seasons over eight years, that are impossible for cinema. This vortex of meanings. which derives from previous moments and enters into the audiovisual force of all moments in that space for years to come, becomes an evolving part of the aesthetics of the series. What should we call it? If we call it “cinematic,” do we not lose the particularity and magnitude of the television auteur’s work, exalting cinema as the good object toward which inferior televisuality must strive?  


I love the focus on space; and on how serial television allows us to inhabit spaces that evolve over long periods of time. In terms of what we were talking about yesterday--namely, cinematic hauntings--what's really striking to me is the way that this scene is bringing back the very opening scene of Godfather 1, where the undertaker whose daughter was raped asks Don Corleone for vengeance. Well: in that scene, the request is unheard, since he whispers it in the Don's ear; whereas here it is unsaid, unspoken. But there are resonances in the lighting between the two scenes as well. That said, of course in The Godfather 1 we are entrenched in a pre-capitalist, feudal system, whereas in The Sopranos that system has become outmoded.

This is a compelling piece for me because I move between film studies and comics studies (rather than television studies): mainstream comics fans and some creators are obsessed with what they call continuity, the long-term serial structure that ostensibly links all Batman or Supeman (or more broadly DC comics) narratives for more than a half-century: the cinema has recently inherited a version of this with what it calls the DC or Marvel Universes, and so a version of what you find somewhat distinctive to television seriality is in fact at work in cinema's penchant for endless sequels, which links 2008's IRON MAN with next month's AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and something like 20 other films in between, creating a film series akin to a multi-season TV series that has been unfolding for over a decade now (and, like the vivid example you cite, it relies on patterns of repetition and variation that often play out over years rather than the running time of a single movie).  Has film learned this extended structure from television (as well as comics), mutating from the modest, occassional sequel (JOLSON SINGS AGAIN) to the series (the 3 GODFATHER films, and a lot of horror films) to the decade-long franchise (22 Marvel Cinematic Universe films, plus TV series)?  There are of course more highbrow versions as well, such as Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, or perhaps even Linklater's BOYHOOD (extended temporarlity condensed into a single film), all emphasizing the long duration of their production and, sometimes, reception.  My sense is that the distinctions between the television series and the film series as extended narratives may be collapsing.  

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