A marriage of convenience, not virtue The relationship between television and movies has evolved from hostile to supportive - and increasingly, commercial and cynical.

July 05, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Since television was introduced to the throngs at the New York World's Fair in 1939, TV and the movies have had a curious relationship: at times hostile, at times mutually supportive and even, on rare occasions, spurring each other to greater creativity.

Film and television have become so symbiotic it's difficult to believe that when TV was first introduced, the movie industry refused to have anything to do with it. Until the mid-1950s, the studios forbade their stars from appearing on television, and banned their films from being shown on the dreaded box.

By 1956, the folly of such strategies had been made clear by two groundbreaking TV events: The huge success of ABC's "Disneyland" series, which not only was a hit with audiences but also provided valuable cross-promotion for Disney's theme park and feature films; and the 1956 airing on CBS of "The Wizard of the first feature film ever to be shown on television, and proof positive that Hollywood's movies could be invaluable programming fodder for the networks.

Creative, not just commercial, cross-pollination followed. A generation of directors trained in live television during the 1950s and early 1960s - filmmakers like John Frankenheimer, John Cassavetes, Sam Peckinpah and Sidney Lumet - brought the edge and intensity of live TV to their film work; later on, TV series like "Miami Vice," "Twin Peaks" and "Homicide" would prove that directors could move fluidly from broad to small canvas - and vice versa - and lose nothing in genius or style.

But overall, the nearly 60-year marriage between movies and television has been hit-and-miss, with the two media coming together sometimes in creative collaboration, more often in crass cynicism.

Three movies in current release provide almost textbook examples of all the points along the spectrum. "The Truman Show" continues a long tradition of films satirizing a tube-obsessed nation; with "The X-Files," 20th Century Fox continues the Disney tradition of deploying one medium to promote another; and "Armageddon," a fractured, hyperkinetic disaster film designed to appeal to the shortest attention spans, gets its look and inspiration not from TV shows but from TV advertising.

"The Truman Show," which stars Jim Carrey as an unwitting 30-year-old whose life is a 24-hour serial drama, is by no means the first film to take a critical look at the hold television has on the American public. "Medium Cool," "Network," "Being There," "Natural Born Killers" and "Quiz Show" are just a few motion pictures that have effectively touched on and teased out the effects of the ubiquitous medium on society and the individual.

But even if "The Truman Show" doesn't break new ground thematically, it feels new, in large part thanks to the ingenious directing of Peter Weir. From the outset, Weir uses the conventions of both film and television to their fullest advantage. "The Truman Show" opens just like a TV show, with faux credits and a saccharine theme song, and from that first moment we're implicated: We're among the billions of people who turn to Truman Burbank (Carrey's character) for entertainment, escape into the prosaic or late-night solace.

In "The Truman Show" television is the ultimate camera, the Big Eye trained on all of us, exerting incomparable powers of surveillance and coercion over our thoughts and desires. (This is also called advertising.)

Weir continues to play with the idea throughout "The Truman Show," sometimes filming from the point of view of one of the show's 5,000 hidden cameras, other times reverting to the more conventional, objective point of view. But even as he critiques and revels in television's unique role and aesthetic, Weir never forgets he is making a movie. In making the ultimate TV show, Weir has created a film that is breathtakingly cinematic.

The same cannot be said for "The X-Files," a feature film inspired by the hit series on the Fox network. In addition to the millennial appeal of conspiracy theories and extraterrestrial sightings, one of the secrets of the TV show's success, many critics say, is its use of cinematic production values. "The X-Files" is one of the few television shows in which directors use the sorts of moody lighting, elaborate effects and large casts that can usually only be afforded by feature-sized budgets.

But as serviceable as "The X-Files" is as a sci-fi thriller, in theaters it just looks like a big TV show. What looks edgy and vaguely noirish on the small box looks mundane on the big screen, and the debt "The X-Files" owes to films like "North by Northwest" and "Alien" is obvious. The show may be groundbreaking, but the movie is strictly by the numbers.

In all fairness, "The X-Files" wasn't meant to break any new ground aesthetically. Rather, it was conceived as an extension of one of Fox's most successful franchises, as a way to give an added kick to a series approaching its sixth season and, just maybe, a way to add to its already huge audience.

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