In 1980, the Grammy for Song of the Year went to “What a Fool Believes,” 3 minutes and 41 seconds of syncopated bliss. (More precisely, it went to Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, who wrote it.) That year’s other nominees included “Chuck E.’s in Love” (3:31), “Honesty” (3:53), “After the Love Has Gone” (4:24), and “I Will Survive” (a whopping 4:56 in its original album version, though the single edit is just 3:15). Left out in the cold, to the outrage of many, was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” a 26-part epic (spanning an hour and 21 minutes) that arguably forever redefined what a song could be. Granted, a few sad sticklers claimed that “The Wall” is in fact The Wall, an album, and that lumping the entire thing together as a single song is patently ludicrous. Anyone with ears, though, must acknowledge that this landmark work’s ostensibly individual tracks flow into one another without pause (excepting breaks necessitated by the limitations of vinyl), forming a continuous narrative. Hell, they even made a movie out of it a few years later. Come to think of it, maybe the movie was really one of the best songs of 1982.
That manufactured history may sound absurd, but one need only look at the results of this year’s Village Voice Film Poll — in which eighteen TV episodes aired on Showtime over the course of four months have been deemed, by many voters, one of last year’s very best “films” — to see a similar taxonomical battle royale. Debates about the classification of Twin Peaks: The Return have been raging for a while now, with heated camps on opposing sides battling for the hearts and minds of a sizable “who cares?” contingent. The Voice, true to form, elected to punt on enforcing restrictions — not for nothing is this the newspaper in which J. Hoberman was free to include a World Series game among his list of 1986’s best films. “A film is eligible if it was first distributed, streamed, or released in the United States in 2017,” participants were told. So far, so good. But then: “If a piece of work meets these requirements and you consider it a film, then feel free to vote for it.” If you consider it a film? Anarchic enough for the Thunderdome, if you ask me.
Admittedly, we’re in the midst of severe flux right now when it comes to defining a movie. It used to be simple: Movies were what played in movie theaters. There was a subvariety created for television, called the TV movie (or miniseries, when in multiple parts), and occasionally one of those would escape its coaxial confines and invade theaters, at which point it would be reclassified. Even in those cases, though, it was generally understood that some rejiggering was required. Steven Spielberg shot new scenes for the theatrical version of Duel, released overseas; more commonly, a lengthy foreign miniseries would be whittled down for U.S. art houses, as happened with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. But it wasn’t a movie unless you had to get off your couch and go see it in public with a bunch of strangers. That notion started dying with the advent of home video (which allowed low-budget action flicks and “erotic thrillers” to bypass both theaters and TV), and now streaming services are on the verge of killing it off entirely.
All the same, I can’t get behind this “if you consider it a film” business. Nobody should consider Twin Peaks a film (unless we’re talking about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which absolutely is a film). It’s television. It’s designed as television. David Lynch — who ranked eighth in the Voice poll’s Best Director category — has not spent his entire career wishing that he could make an eighteen-hour movie, only now finally receiving the opportunity courtesy of Showtime. He and Mark Frost (his collaborator on the original series) filled the series-long container that they were afforded, just as they did in 1990–91. One need only look at episode 8 — almost universally considered the series’ zenith — to see that Lynch and Frost didn’t (as they’ve occasionally claimed) just write a giant 500-page screenplay and arbitrarily divide it into hour-long chunks, slapping a musical performance onto the end (usually) and calling it an episode. Had they actually done that, they would have made bad TV. Instead, they made superb TV, crafted with that specific medium in mind. I’d even argue that the decision to air the final two parts back-to-back on the same night was a mistake, as part 18’s upending of part 17’s apparent resolution would have been (even) more effective had viewers processed and discussed the latter for a full week.
Yeah, yeah, I know that Lynch says he made an eighteen-hour movie. Google around — just about every prestige showrunner now claims that his or her series is “really” or “essentially” or “fundamentally” an x-hour movie. It’s a standard way of asserting that this here is some art, buddy! Cinephiles take Lynch at his word because he’s one of the great film directors of all time, and because Twin Peaks: The Return (or, as I prefer to think of it, Twin Peaks, season three — the credits read simply “Twin Peaks,” same as the first two seasons) is such a staggering achievement that not claiming it for cinema hurts. But to call Twin Peaks a TV series is not to diminish it. Nor is it to concede defeat in some pointless TV vs. film cage match. It’s simply to acknowledge that there’s a real, essential, fundamental difference between works designed to be viewed in one sitting and works designed to be viewed piecemeal over days, weeks, or (in this case) months.
As it happens, Twin Peaks isn’t the only refugee from episodic television that received votes in this year’s Voice poll. Some folks have decided that the season finale of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You, a feature-length episode titled “Finding Frances,” qualifies as a film. I confess that this still seems a bit silly to me, since it implies that all the previous Nathan for You episodes, running roughly 22 minutes apiece, are short films, and thus further implies that every sitcom episode ever made is likewise a short film, and now maybe episodes of hour-long dramas are all short features? (They’re no shorter than Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.) Maybe there’s no such thing as television; maybe it’s all film. Anyone want to see the results of that poll?
Still, at least “Finding Frances” is a self-contained work, viewable in a time frame that doesn’t require multiple meal breaks. It could be released as a movie. When the Museum of Modern Art showed all of Twin Peaks: Sure Let’s Call It The Return last month, on the other hand, the eighteen episodes unspooled over three separate days. Here’s my personal line in the sand: If watching it takes up your entire goddamn weekend, it’s not a film. That disqualifies a few other mammoth projects — Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (originally a German fourteen-part TV miniseries but similarly claimed by cinephiles), Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (an eight-part, thirteen-hour epic that even Rivette didn’t seem to know how he’d exhibit, which consequently went all but unseen for decades) — but so be it. To include them in a poll like this one is a classic apples and oranges situation. Weighing Thor: Ragnarok against Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is plenty crazy enough; there’s no need to muddy the waters further by throwing in ten episodes of The Knick (all directed by Steven Soderbergh!). Even if we eventually wind up watching almost everything at home on a TV set, there should still be separate categories for stand-alone and serial works, just as any music-based poll or awards body (including the Voice’s Pazz & Jop) distinguishes songs from albums. And leaving classification up to the voter’s personal whim is a recipe for disaster in the long term. What a fool believes, he sees.