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When is a movie a movie?

Craig Lindsey
Craig Lindsey newsobserver.com

A film-critic friend of mine, Michael Sicinski, recently made the bold choice of putting “Lemonade,” Beyonce’s audacious “visual album,” on his 10-best list for 2016. For film purists, this could be seen as sacrilege. After all, this hour-long collection of visually-striking music videos didn’t play on the big screen. It premiered on HBO last April. (There were repertory screenings that popped up around the country shortly afterward.)

However, for Sicinski, “Lemonade” isn’t that different from the avant-garde films or multimedia installations he’s listed in previous years. “I have no hard and fast criteria for all this,” he told me in an email. “But I think that there’s an intuitive sense about what a movie is, in terms of a coherent artistic audiovisual statement, something that forgoes the elements that television favors (characterization, serial drama, intimacy) in favor of bold imagistic and thematic thinking. That’s precisely what Beyonce did with “Lemonade.” Sicinski wasn’t the only one who thought “Lemonade” deserved some year-end love. “Lemonade” appeared on several other top-10 lists, including the list from RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz, who called it “one of the year’s most original works.”

The question of when is a movie a movie is becoming an oft-asked one these days. Lately, both critics and cinephiles have been crossing swords on Film Twitter over the cinematic legitimacy of “O.J.: Made in America,” Ezra Edelman’s outstanding “30 for 30” documentary on the rise and fall of football-star-turned-incarcerated pariah O.J. Simpson, that aired last year on ABC and ESPN. While the documentary has obviously been a critical fave amongst TV critics, it also ended up on many film critics’ lists. (It’s certainly my favorite movie of last year.) Before “O.J.” made its television debut, the documentary premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and was briefly released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, making it eligible not only for 10-best list consideration, but Oscar consideration as well.

Now, here’s where some film folks have a problem. With a 467-minute length that was broken into five parts when it played on the small screen, some people see “O.J.” more as a miniseries than a film. Another film-critic friend of mine believes this is just ESPN greedily angling for an Oscar. It may be, but can’t the same thing be said for Netflix and how they’ve distributed movies, like the 2015 drama “Beasts of No Return” and Ava DuVernay’s recently-released documentary “13th,” both in theaters and on their streaming-video service?

Bias toward foreign films

I can’t help thinking “O.J.” would’ve been seen more as a movie if it was done overseas and directed by an acclaimed foreign filmmaker. In the past, televised, internationally-made miniseries like “Carlos,” an epic biopic on terrorist Carlos the Jackal from French director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours”) and “The Best of Youth,” a decades-spanning, family saga coming out of Italy, were distributed in these parts as legitimate, critically-praised films, playing in theaters and everything. And I don’t recall hearing nary a peep out of my colleagues about whether or not they counted as movies.

The line between TV and movies has blurred so much, the Los Angeles Times devoted a special series to the subject last summer, aptly titled “The Blur.” In one piece, writer Mary McNamara argues that this age of peak TV has definitely put a monkey wrench in how cinema is seen these days. “Televised series often have just as much artistry and significance as any film, and both forms come in so many shapes and sizes – and are available on so many different sorts of screens – that it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart,” she wrote.

For as long as I’ve been in this game, there have been those who looked down on TV as an inferior medium and those who feel TV can pack just as much of a challenging and rewarding wallop as any movie. Back when I was in college, I used to thumb through old issues of Film Comment and often found daring critics slyly putting their favorite TV shows and/or episodes in their year-end lists. (I remember one guy writing that his favorite “Blue”-titled films that year included the controversial cop show “NYPD Blue.”) I still believe if it played in a theater, it’s definitely a movie. But since we’re living in an age where television can be just as cinematic as films – and people are more likely to catch both mediums on their mobile devices than on their designated screens – old film fogies may have to loosen up and understand that, sometimes, a movie doesn’t have to play at the movies in order to be a movie.

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