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The end of the epic film

The epic film has been rendered obselete by the advent of a new genre: the high-quality cable drama. Movies no longer have to attempt to do “grand sweep” type of narratives; indeed, the mandate for movies over 90 minutes long has diminished considerably. If you want to do a grand sweeping narrative like The Odyssey, do it as an HBO series (or whatever network), just like you’d do for the emergence of order out of chaos in an illegal frontier settlement or the consequences of the drug war in Baltimore.

The high-quality cable genre is still in its infancy, and arguably only The Wire revealed its full possibilities — the singular vision underwriting a multi-season sweep helped to keep the show from becoming a mere soap opera with high production values, something that previous shows like The Sopranos and Twin Peaks failed to avoid.

What you do with a movie in specific now remains to be seen, but I think we’re more likely to see it from someone like the Coen Brothers — or indeed, someone like Hitchcock or Bergman — than someone like Martin Scorsese.

January 3, 2009 - Posted by | boredom


  1. What about someone like Peter Jackson?

    Comment by Wrongshore | January 3, 2009

  2. I beg to differ here. Love it or hate it, The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential modern cinematic epic. Maybe even Kill Bill — not to mention Tarantino’s next movie.

    Another example: There Will Be Blood. Actually, one could argue that P. T. Anderson has made mostly epics (including Boogie Nights.

    I love cable dramas. But there is a v. real threat that its storytelling gives directors/producers warrant to not edit their stories properly, leaving them a little bloated (e.g., The Sopranos, Weeds). In the event that they aren’t bloated, it is often because they were cut short (e.g., Carnivale, Deadwood) – resulting, in my opinion, in some of the best work – or that there is no definable ending other than the arbitrary exhaustion of topics to cover (e.g., The Wire). To me, this is almost certainly the fate of Mad Men, too. The notable exception to all this is I, Claudius.

    Comment by Brad | January 3, 2009

  3. I just saw Synecdoche New York. I feel that it mostly swept over me. Also, I feel that the people in front of, behind, and to the left of me who laughed loudly and obnoxiously at every funny bit deserve to be cockpunched.

    Comment by ben wolfson | January 3, 2009

  4. Next up on the Tuesday Hatred: laughter.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | January 3, 2009

  5. I think of films, even epics, in terms of visual aesthetics also, and in that area TV is not coming close at all.

    TV series always have too much interference from the powers above and too many people working on them to get that good director stylization that make cinema such a strong artform.

    Comment by jesse | January 3, 2009

  6. It’s refreshing to write a totally crackpot post once in a while.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | January 3, 2009

  7. The Odyssey *is* pretty bloated, and the ending has as little to do with whatever happened in the middle as the inevitably silly ending to Lost will (or the X-files).

    I’m not sure the right line to draw is a formal one, though; it does seem like the zeitgeist is producing a different kind of filmic epic these days, but I bet it has more to do with a backlash against grand imperial narratives occasioned by the fall of Western Civilization (ongoing). Lord of the Rings, for example, already feels dated to me (is that just me?) while Synecdoche, NY (much as I disliked it) or Burn After Reading feel much more like the kind of anti-narratives we’re likely to see for a while.

    Comment by zunguzungu | January 3, 2009

  8. crackpot, but not entirely off base

    I’ve thought about this a bit because I’ve wondered whether the best representation of the world I’ve stumbled across with my work on the street would be an epic/anti-epic movie or a 5-6 year, high quality television drama.

    It may be that Brad’s right a la Lincoln’s “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time,” but it might also be true that there is just too much material for a 3 hour trip to the theater.

    I will have to say that I don’t think that Soderbergh’s *Che* would have been better as a t.v. deal.

    Only having seen *The Seventh Seal* with Bergman, I’m not sure I understand the contrast between he and Scorsese. Scorsese has done epics, especially lately (and my favorite of his pics is one of those), but his most critically acclaimed work was really some of the first great anti-epic film making, at least in the U.S. And I don’t think a movie like The Departed counts as epic either. I think it’s a slicker version of what Tarantino’s up to, which, in disagreement with Brad, I don’t actually see as epic.

    Comment by old | January 3, 2009

  9. Singular visions are overrated.

    Comment by ben | January 3, 2009

  10. I don’t know if the two phenonmenon have really been as seperate as one might think – it’s just that American television really sucked up until fairly recently. Remember that Fassbinder’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz was actually a German TV miniseries. Still, there’s probably places that television can’t go – it’s unlikely that a television audience would be able to watch Rob Nilsson’s nine-movie cycle “9@Night”, for instance. By the way, 9@Night is literally awe-inspiring, go watch it.

    Comment by burritoboy | January 3, 2009

  11. Is there anything “epic” about any of these TV serials? They are long running, unresolved narratives, always ironic commentaries on familiar life, which ultimately stumble and splutter out when the scriptwriters lose the thread. Or expose too much of the implausible plot. Or lose their sense of humor. Or run out of digressions, or run out of funding.

    Comment by Lloyd Mintern | January 3, 2009

  12. lloyd is correct. though long in running time there is nothing of “the epic” to “the wire” or “berlin alexanderplatz.” now these did not stumble, or splutter, etc. but in their style, substance and form they are quite far from the tropes or construction of that which makes an “epic” movie.

    Comment by rb | January 3, 2009

  13. And not only that, but Adam cannot spell “obsolete”.

    Happy New Year!

    Comment by Lloyd Mintern | January 3, 2009

  14. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by It’s always already been the end of epic film. « The Edge of the American West | January 3, 2009

  15. “though long in running time there is nothing of “the epic” to “the wire” or “berlin alexanderplatz.” now these did not stumble, or splutter, etc. but in their style, substance and form they are quite far from the tropes or construction of that which makes an “epic” movie.”

    Ok, that’s a narrow definition of what an epic film is. I just wonder whether there’s ever been a successful epic film, then. Except perhaps for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Visconti’s Leopard and maybe Kubrick’s Spartacus, I don’t think there is one (ok, let’s leave aside Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). To boot, most war-and-peace-type costume epics were absolutely horrid movies, particularly considering the level of resources put into them. Visconti’s Ossessione? Good movie. Visconti’s Senso and The Damned? Mediocre to lousy.

    Comment by burritoboy | January 4, 2009

  16. I just saw an episode of Mad Men and it looks to be great. I don’t know if qualifies as epic — to be honest, I don’t know what “epic” means here, if it is wide enough to include both The Wire and e.g. the Lord of the Rings trilogy — but it looks to be great all the same.

    Comment by Currence | January 5, 2009

  17. […] can hardly arise: the second option is clearly to be taken. Thus I acknowledge the wisdom of strasmangelo jones’ prediction even as I must, inevitably (don’t look at me, don’t blame me, it’s not my doing!) […]

    Pingback by Tuesday Hatred: you are happy enough, and you know it; and everybody else is as happy as you, and you know that, too; and we shall all be happy after we are no more, and you know that, too; but no, still you must have your sulk. « The Weblog | January 6, 2009

  18. I liked this post. Also, “epic” movies tend to be lousy, precisely because they fall back on grandiose yet empty cinematic gestures in order to cram all the Meaning in their story into just 2-3 hours. They need to signal that their story is grand and vast. In longer series there is room to let meaning emerge through the gradual accretion of detail and observation, more subtly.

    Love it or hate it, The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential modern cinematic epic.

    Hate it. But it was nine hours or whatever long, as long as a miniseries. Just the little cutesy hobbit antics alone were as long as a normal movie (although they felt much longer).

    Another example: There Will Be Blood.

    The only point I could see to that movie was to make various Epic gestures. Hollow at the core. Also, the jump over twenty years to the final Citizen Kane like lonely craziness in the mansion ruined the movie. They needed a good long TV season to do all the necessary character development.

    Comment by PGD | January 6, 2009

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