I used to know what a movie was. Now I’m not so sure.
Maybe that’s a dangerous thing for a movie critic to say. But as I contemplate the annual process of compiling a year-end list of favorites, I find more than ever that certain TV shows want to climb aboard. Should I let them? Is a movie any image that moves? Or do I have to erect a Berlin Wall between what TV critic Matthew Gilbert and I do?
I’m not the only one dithering over this issue. The contentious army of friendly strangers known as Film Twitter — basically anyone on that social media platform who writes about movies or has strong opinions thereto — has been hashing out which basket, exactly, “Twin Peaks: The Return” should fall into. Is the surreal David Lynch confection an 18-episode TV series? Or is it one 985-minute movie?
You have more important things to do, I agree, but these are the hairsplitting Talmudic arguments some of us get into. As it unfolded on Showtime over this spring and summer, “Twin Peaks: The Return” became exactly the kind of fiercely original cultural experience that delights a small, dedicated audience while pushing away a majority of viewers, many of whom took one look at Lynch’s baffling first episode and promptly fled.
Others, myself included, loved the thing, in large part because “TP: TR” felt so bracingly different from anything else out there; each week was a masterfully constructed bath of dream-logic and distorted temporal flow to which a viewer had to submit wholly or not at all. You needed to downshift into a whole new metabolism just to watch. What did it all mean? That’s asking the wrong question. Where did the show take you and how did it make you feel? That’s getting closer.
But am I allowed to put it in my year-end corral of moving movie experiences? Lynch himself has referred to the show as an 18-hour movie and said in an interview with Deadline Hollywood, “I always saw working in television the same as working on a film. It is a film. . . . It’s broken into parts.” The Brits and the French have come down on his side: “Twin Peaks: The Return” was No. 2 on Sight & Sound’s recent “Best Movies of 2017” (after “Get Out”) and No. 1 on Cahiers du Cinema’s list.
On the other side of the argument, there is an episodic structure to the show, if only due to the woozy onstage musical numbers that end each “Peaks” segment. And the project was never shown on a big screen, aside from the first two episodes premiering at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. A movie is something that plays in a movie theater, right?
Maybe that used to be true, but with more and more audiences watching films on demand at home — with Netflix and Amazon showing up at film festivals with open checkbooks and movies increasingly hitting the streaming market the same day they appear in theaters and many films going straight to streaming without a theatrical release at all — a movie is no longer something you exclusively see in a moviehouse.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” is going to be on or near my 2017 list of top films, but if I’d wanted to pay to see it in a theater, I’d have had to travel to New York or L.A. The majority of people who saw “Okja,” by far, saw it on Netflix, but I don’t know anyone who considers it “TV.”
Well, sure, “Okja” is a one-shot two-hour experience — a movie. But maybe the old labels don’t apply. Maybe they were fairly arbitrary to begin with. There’s precedent for treating a TV miniseries as a theatrical event: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-part “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was aired on West German television in 1980 and released as a 15-hour, multi-evening US theatrical event in 1983. Another German miniseries, “Heimat,” turned the same trick two years later.
Those were outliers, but now the borders are blurred as a matter of daily practice. Last year, the ESPN-produced documentary “O.J.: Made in America” premiered at Sundance, played briefly in theaters in New York and LA, was aired in five parts on ABC and ESPN — and went on to win both an Emmy and an Oscar. So was it TV or film? Should we even bother making the distinction?
As the places we watch shift with technology, so do the shapes and formats of what we watch. A show like, say, “Riverdale” is obviously TV; edited to episodic rhythms and open-ended in narrative, it could play for as long as writers keep coming up with scripts and audiences keep watching. But what about “Big Little Lies,” which ran for seven episodes on HBO this spring? Or “Stranger Things,” whose first eight-episode season felt entirely self-contained? Does the fact that the former was doled out in weekly installments while the latter was immediately available as one eight-hour splurge change their media taxonomy?
Cultures go through periods of stasis and flux, often pegged to new technologies, and we’re still living through the explosion of flux set off by the commercialization of the Internet 25 years ago. In the process, our media consumption continues to converge on smaller screens and/or home screens, while distinctions between types of content become increasingly moot.
At the end of the day, though, I probably won’t be putting “Twin Peaks: The Return” on my year-end list. No matter how Lynch thinks of his project, it was made for a TV network and seen on a TV network, in 18 installments made available once a week. Just the fact that we speak about it as “a show” is a pretty good indication that it is, in fact, a show. Of such tautologies is life in the pop-culture fast lane made these days.
As the places we watch shift with technology, so do the shapes and formats of what we watch. A show like, say, ‘Riverdale’ is obviously TV. But what about ‘Big Little Lies,’ which ran for seven episodes on HBO this spring?
So, yes, “Peaks” is Matthew’s baby this year, if he so chooses. But next year may be a different story, as the media marketplace continues to respond to our rapidly evolving viewing habits. And 10 years from now? Anyone who says they know is trying to sell you something.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.