Features and Columns · Movies

Television in The Criterion Collection

By  · Published on December 20th, 2012

The Criterion Collection devotes itself to important classic and contemporary films. But cinema hardly exists in a vacuum. Moving image artists have often moved between media formats, and movies have had a history of influence from their many competitors. Would we have seen Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, for example, in widescreen Technicolor had 1950s cinema not competed with television? Therefore, even though The Criterion Collection is overwhelmingly devoted to the art of cinema, the Collection has recognized select important works of television. But the inevitable question arises: which works of great, influential television are justifiable to include in a cinema library? The Criterion Collection doesn’t include works of television that are great in television’s own terms, but instead recognizes works of television that are great for cinema.

American TV

The library’s release that’s most explicitly devoted to the medium of television is undoubtedly The Golden Age of Television, a package of famous 1950s television plays including Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (which aired on TV before it was made into a Best Picture-winning Hollywood film) and Rod Serling’s Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight, which he made before his Twilight Zone days. These broadcasts could be unthinkingly lumped into the broader, more contemporary genre of “made-for-TV film,” but using such a moniker would obscure the historically unique status of these works. The entries that comprise this set all aired live, simultaneous with their respective broadcasts. In fact, as there was no established means of “recording” live feed during the 1950s, none of these television plays are the particular performances that originally aired, but are later performances.

Paradoxically, this wonderful preservation of a moment in television history long past actually highlights the ephemeral and immaterial nature of television broadcasting; or, more pointedly, the fact that television is less a “preservation medium” than cinema is. The paradox that this collection embodies speaks to other seeming contradictions in the classical television experience; for example, that television is experienced domestically and intimately, but is also a shared public event. But what’s particularly remarkable about the content these television plays are their social consciousness and empathy, portraying narratives that deal with social alienation, economic constraint, and labor exploitation from writers that would arguably later become television’s first auteurs (particularly Chayefsky and Serling). Initially, that these aren’t television shows, but one-off feature length broadcasts, would suggest the justification for their inclusion in a collection devoted to cinema. But the fact is, these works of art are far from cinema, totally unique not only to the medium of television, but a particular moment in its history that won’t be lived again.

Other American television entries in The Criterion Collection have a more direct relationship to cinema. John Lurie’s strange, subtle, and hilarious short-lived series Fishing with John (1991) features a range of 90s-indie guests including Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, and Willem Dafoe. As Criterion is a fan of Jarmusch’s 80s work, it’s no stretch that this IFC-aired cult TV series that parodies the most innocuous of TV genres (the daytime fishing show) would end up released as a sort-of extension of Jarmusch’s brand of NYC-rooted idiosyncratic cool. In each episode, Lurie, who has little knowledge of fishing, takes a celebrity guest to an exotic location to fish, where they encounter unexpected difficulties and esoteric third-person narration. Fishing with John is cult television at its most accessibly bizarre.

But it’s probably Tanner ’88, Robert Altman’s mockumentary miniseries about the campaign of a fictional presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, that stands as American cinema’s greatest contribution to television within The Collection. Shunned by a numbers-driven Hollywood that hardly knows what to do with its 70s auteurs, Tanner ’88 is Altman’s resulting turn to television where, in his liberal and playful mix of reality and fiction, he made (in his own words) the most creative thing he’s ever done. Keep in mind that Tanner ’88, hardly beloved in its initial release, aired on HBO well before the premium cable network became known for groundbreaking original series. Tanner ’88 mixes Altman’s easygoing mosaic style and humor and socio-political relevance with the immediacy that only television can provide.

The Euro Tube

But when it comes to Criterion’s preservation of European television, the output in entirely different. Rather than featuring television titles related to, but exclusive from, film, European television titles in The Criterion Collection blur perceived, perhaps arbitrarily placed, American-exclusive boundaries between film and television.

The most recent example of this is Olivier Assays’s Carlos (1990), a French TV miniseries chronicling the life of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Like several biographical films about crime and political upheaval during the turn of the most recent decade, Assayas’s work isn’t satisfied with using the restrictive temporal boundaries of feature filmmaking to tell the complex, layered story of one man’s absolutely crazy life.

But what paved the way for Carlos are no doubt the examples set by prior European auteurs. Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) and Scenes From a Marriage (1973) both aired on Swedish television as miniseries. Though Bergman made many great films well under two hours, late in his career he found that stories about the interrelations of family and the complicated arc of marriage deserve a multi-part treatment that allows for more episodic and less contained narrative structures. In the case of Assayas’s biopic and Bergman’s sprawling tales of family and marriage, it’s easy to realize how unfit the 90–120 minute running time is for portraying the ebbs, flows, and changes incurred when full lives are lived, and these works of art are all the better for their expansive approaches.

But what’s interesting about Carlos, Fanny and Alexander, and Scenes From a Marriage is that they all have their respective, shorter “theatrical cuts” which, while good films on their own, inevitably reduce the weight of the expansive version and alter the work’s meaning. What’s even more interesting is how the fact of two versions of three great films challenges the notion that there is necessarily an ideal, original “director’s” cut that holds authority over all other versions. Instead, the same work of art can be productively experienced in a number of ways.

The same can’t be said, however, for the television work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who provides no shortened versions of his television-aired masterworks. The deliberately-paced, gorgeously shot sci-fi head-trip World on a Wire (1973) is divided into two episodes at a decisive point where we begin to doubt the psychological trustworthiness of the series’s protagonist. But perhaps the greatest television achievement in The Criterion Collection, and Fassbinder’s magnum opus, is the 13-episode miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). The episodic division of this sprawling narrative about a small-time criminal in Weimer Germany allowed the ever-audacious Fassbinder to experiment with a variety of styles and tones that shifted from episode to episode, a summation of an incredible career that he arguably never achieved with any other individual entry.

Final Thoughts

The Criterion Collection has selected a handful of works of television that do not necessarily represent the best of the medium of its own, but instead speaks to the ways that television best challenges and opens up our conceptualization of what film is and can be. Cinema can be limiting in form, structure, and address, arguably unable to convey the socio-political immediacy or the long-form storytelling that has come to be expected of television. But then again, the longer versions of Carlos and the films of Bergman and Fassbinder were also exhibited theatrically, so perhaps Criterion’s television-originated output is best understood as a selection of works that do not necessarily fit in a category defined by a specific medium, but instead trouble the reductive associations of medium specificity altogether.

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