Whether he knows it or not—and “he” being Adam Kotsko, I’ll bet he knows it—this Weblog post is less about the formal fit between epic and the television serial than the relation of film to the episodic form. I know that sounds backwards—what with MOVIES! being PRESENTED! on SCREENS! the SIZE! of WYOMING!—but the compounded facts of run time and the modern American attention span necessitate we consider film the proper realm of the self-contained episode. Even films which promise sequels announce their completion in terms of whatever -ology they embrace.
Films should be about something in the original, locative sense of the word. They should surround some subject matter, be “on every side” “wholly or partially,” as per the OED. They should be self-contained. Not that they shouldn’t be sweeping—you can frame Guernica or a sublimely panoramic view of the Hudson River and slap it on a gallery wall without robbing them of sweep—but they should recognize their formal limitations. Films can only intimate narrative epicness. They can’t achieve it.
“But But But!”
Try me. Start listing epic films and I’ll start listing films with grandiose tableaux. The Lord of the Rings? Shot in that sewer of New Zealand. Blade Runner? The Lord himself envies Ridley Scott’s matte painters. With film we confuse the formal qualities of narrative epic for the GIANT! SCALE! presented by the movie screen. Cases in point: Iron Man and The Dark Knight.
Both were hailed as epic upon release, and yet both are far superior films on the small screen. Before you ask: I do remember what I wrote about The Dark Knight on IMAX, and inasmuch as it relates the experience of watching an obscenely high-quality image projected on the side of an eight-story building, I stand by it. Watching the film on a small screen—one on which a bug of a Batman glides between five-inch tall skyscrapers while Heath Ledger’s Joker licks human-sized lips and establishes human-sized eye-contact—it’s impossible to deny that this supposedly epic performance is better suited to the televisual medium. (This goes doubly for Iron Man, which barely passes for “good” on the big screen but shines when we connect with Robert Downey Jr. as a human actor in corporate world.)
Not that I think we should deny that the serial drama is also better served on the small screen. A solidly written, solidly acted television show can be a better film than most films. To wit: having finished the first four episodes of the blogosphere’s own Leverage, I can’t help but wonder what went so terribly wrong with Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen.