Archive for quentin tarantino

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

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Tarantino on TV II

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

Once again – and just as unintentionally – Quentin Tarantino has re-opened the debate about TV and film. Speaking on the release of The Hateful Eight in dual versions, one complimenting a 70mm Panavision format, the other more conducive to multiplexes and subsequent TV airings, the director observed:

‘The 70 is the 70. You’ve paid the money. You’ve bought your ticket. So you’re there. I’ve got you. But I actually changed the cutting slightly for a couple of the multiplex scenes because it’s not that. Now it’s on Showtime Extreme. You’re watching it on TV and you just kind of want to watch a movie on your couch. Or you’re at Hot Dog on a Stick and you just want to catch a movie.’

A 70mm shotgun!

A 70mm shotgun!

Tarantino has always been a lone voice in the debate, distinguished by an unerring respect for television as an artistic medium and his belief that there is still a tangible distinction between TV and cinema. There are few commentators on either side that can keep hold of both these ideas. Some of Tarantino’s finest work as a director was in television – in ER and CSI, no less – and it’s clear from his movies that TV falls under his muse. But he’s a filmdamentalist and his staunch refusal to acquiesce to the digital industry standard is also an outright denial that TV and cinema have conflated. Tarantino’s vivid descriptions of two experientially different media are more compelling than most critics’ vague sense that TV is becoming more like cinema.

The auteur reserves his derision for the cultural no man’s land of mall-adjunct multiplexes where, as Jackie Brown’s Max Cherry once observed, you see ‘something that starts soon and looks good’. It’s here that film is simply an afterthought of conspicuous consumption, not a thing of grand beauty and spectacle or part of a boutique outlet delivering sophisticated cable programming. There’s an all-or-nothing-at-all fatalism about Tarantino’s views on cinema, a regression to the mid-century belief in a divergence between TV and movies based solely on the size of the screen. It’s a welcome counterpoint to the ubiquity of convergence rhetoric, but perhaps in the end just as misguided and myth-driven as its opposing view.

Another coincidence is that Tarantino’s remarks were reported in the same week that FX began airing the new season of Fargo, a series that asks questions about the relationship between TV and cinema. The series is a spin-off from the 1996 movie directed by Tarantino’s indie contemporaries The Coen Brothers, but once again this season is elusive about its status in regards to the cinematic source material. Actors in the series are frequently costumed and posed to look like characters from the movie, even though they’re playing completely new roles. This season is set during the Carter administration and has the crumpled golden look of late seventies movies, yet the split screen techniques speak more to TV title sequences of the era, not to mention a much more recent breakthrough in televisual narration, Fox’s own 24.

The previous season of Fargo – an anthology of season-long stories, which doesn’t make eliciting its cinematic and televisual qualities any easier – seemed at first a remake of the movie’s storyline with similarly Manichean characters and labyrinthine plotting yet by its end, it felt more like a sequel, having been found in and extrapolated from the timeline of the original. With Kieran Culkin’s uncanny resemblance to a young Steve Buscemi and in the very first episode a visual homage to the late Harve Presnell, whose implacable moustache loomed large over the movie, I suspect we might have just as ambiguous a play with the cinematic mythology this time around. The stars don’t help. Ted Danson has long been identified with television. Meanwhile there’s a Culkin in the cast and plenty of actors who are split exactly evenly across the two media. It’s almost as if Fargo wants to create a new hybrid creature that is neither and both.

Another funny-looking guy.

Another funny-looking guy.

Fargo’s messy intertwining of TV and film consciousnesses works at cross-purposes to what Quentin Tarantino is saying about the continued separation of the two. When we watch Fargo, we’re unsure about how much of what we’re watching belongs to which media. As Tarantino suggests, seeing a movie at a multiplex as a food court folly could lead to the same confusion, while watching it projected wide on film stock would absolutely not. The couch brings together movies and TV, often in the same flowing package, but does it always clarify which is which?

Split Images

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

One of the only saving graces of a great artist dying, though oblivious to them, is the opportunity it grants us to talk about their work. Doing so always carries feelings of guilt-especially if the artist was still working at the time of their death-as we recognise this is what we should have done all along and curse ourselves for exploiting their demise to fill our quotas. I’m taking advantage of an obituary-led spike in the commentary on one of the foremost writers of our time to talk about where he and American television have crossed paths. Morbidly timely it may be, but hopefully it sheds as much light on the medium as it does the departed, and covers parts of his career that will remain untouched by most tributes.

Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

This time last week novelist, short story author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke earlier this month. The post-mortem of his oeuvre will undoubtedly focus on his contribution to literature and the movies, and rightly so given his prolific output of books, stories and scripts, as well as the ongoing cycle of adaptation, imitation and homage to his writing in the cinema. But Leonard meant a lot to American TV. Television’s engagement with Leonard was sporadic to say the least, nonetheless it bookended his career. Leonard’s last completed book was Raylan, a novel-length revival of a character from some of his earlier novels and stories, Marshal Raylan Givens. Not only was Leonard inspired to write a book based around the character following his screen incarnation by Timothy Olyphant in the TV series Justified, but the loose collection of cases that make up Raylan and its meandering style of storytelling seem heavily influenced by TV’s episodic nature and large story canvasses. The first screen adaptation of Leonard’s writing was on the small screen rather than the big one. In 1956, the CBS anthology series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars featured an adaptation of Leonard’s western story ‘Moment of Vengeance’, a year before Hollywood cinema would do the same with ‘3.10 to Yuma’. TV introduced Leonard to the screen and it concluded his career.

Raylan: Art imitates Art!

Despite this early entry in the history of American TV, it would be a long time before Leonard would feature again. In 1980, during the heyday of the American TV movie, Leonard returned to the medium to attempt the daunting and foolish task of penning a television sequel to Stanley Kramer’s High Noon. Inevitably lacking the Hollywood star and filmmaking quality of the original and as clunky as any unnecessary sequel, the dispiritingly titled High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane notably improves on its predecessor in several respects. Leonard’s screenplay uses the quotidian, eye-witness qualities of television to carve out a politically, economically and socially realistic vision of the western frontier rather than using the ‘old west’ as an allegory for 1950s blacklist America as High Noon did. Leonard’s versions of the films’ characters are far cooler and more credible with complicated personal moralities that put the Manichean originals to shame. The script also demonstrates Leonard’s effortless skill at integrating his characters into an ongoing story world and coherent universe of his characters. The casting of David Carradine cast as a sympathetic, laid-back outlaw and the movie’s progressive representations of African-Americans gunslingers and frontier racism suggests that Quentin Tarantino, who adapted Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into Jackie Brown (still his most mature movie), may not have restricted his fandom of Elmore Leonard to the literary and cinematic efforts.

High Noon 2: Even Higher, Even Nooner!

The western TV movie would be the form that Leonard’s involvement with television would take throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with numerous adaptations of his work and contributions of original screenplays. However, TV didn’t get serious about adapting Leonard’s work until the turn of the millennium when it attempted to ride a wave of successful versions of his books in independent American cinema throughout the 1990s. The TV adaptations would be beset by many of the same problems of translation that faced earlier screen adaptations of Leonard’s work and took until the last decade of the century to be resolved. In TV, such problems were compounded by Leonard adaptations having to fight for their right to remain onscreen. Despite bringing Leonard’s Get Shorty to the big screen with great success, Barry Sonnenfeld could not do the same for a TV series based on Maximum Bob-one of his most celebrated novels-cancelled in 1998 after a truncated debut season of seven episodes. Even Leonard characters that had already entered the popular consciousness were trampled by TV. In 2003 a series was developed around FBI Agent Karen Sisco, a character who had been portrayed by singer-actress Jennifer Lopez in the movie Out of Sight, a hit star vehicle for her and George Clooney based on the Leonard novel of the same name. This time it didn’t even make it past the pilot stage.

Was Elmore Leonard justified in his decision to stay with TV?

Television was in danger of incurring the same animosity Leonard held for the movies’ mistreatment of his work. Clearly, any continuation of the relationship between Leonard and television would have to be justified. And so it was. In 2010, producer Graham Yost created Justified, a procedural about Marshal Raylan Givens returning to police his hometown in Kentucky, which took as its jumping-off point Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. Though following its own course after Leonard’s point of closure, Justified continues to weave characters from Leonard’s canon into the episodes-including the extended Crowe and Crowder families who genealogically permeate his writing-and structures the central dynamic of the show around the tensions between Givens and Boyd Crowder in the original story. In his last years, Leonard was vocal about his admiration for the series’ sincerity as an adaptation of his work and was particularly taken with its faithfulness to his dialogue style. Justified also embraces the no-bullshit ethos of Leonard’s storytelling, stripped down yet flamboyantly funny, giving audiences what they want and need according to taste. Leonard is credited as producer, a title vague enough to mean anything from muse to head writer. Given that Leonard’s comments about the show seem to be from the outside looking in, it’s probably more like the former. There’s certainly no greater screen testament to the power of what Elmore Leonard does than Justified.

It’s not TV…It’s Netflix

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

What am I watching? It’s the nature of the beast to find yourself in front of the television asking this very question. But usually when we ask we know exactly what we’re watching. It’s generally a comment on the poor quality of the programme we ended up watching or a realisation we drifted into something we didn’t choose to watch (like the time I accidentally turned over from The Terminator to Ordinary People and kept waiting for the robots to turn up). However, watching the Netflix series of Arrested Development, I found myself asking this question and genuinely not knowing.

‘Arrested Development’ delivered in one block.

I’ve grappled before with the question of whether content designed primarily for internet distribution can be considered television. When teaching media studies, I used to debate with students whether programmes that had all the characteristics of television but were being seen online-like the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner space jump-still qualified as TV. Since people are going to the internet to watch this content, on first impression it would seem not. But it’s the case with much television today that people will see it first-and often only-online. So is all the TV that is watched online disqualified too?

Impressive…but is it TV?

With internet content that originated online, you can argue it both ways. However, content that was previously a television programme but subsequently moved online should be a pretty clear cut case of television, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I saw the 15 30-minute episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix last Saturday night. The series, a revival of a Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s, heralds a new way of telling stories online, adopts a style based on how information is presented on internet devices and is fit-to-burst with points of reference from consuming media content via web technologies.

Flashbacks provided by Showstealer Pro!

It’s a lot to do with how the episodes are delivered to the viewer. Instead of 1 or more episodes broadcast once a week until the run is complete, Netflix make all episodes of the series available at once. Of course, this is a way of watching derived from the possibility of consuming TV series all at once that has arisen from DVD, on-demand services and internet file-sharing. But that was always an option not the primary port of call. The producers of Arrested Development have clearly identified the difference this makes to how viewers are likely to watch the series.

‘Arrested Development’…full stream ahead!

Each episode has been constructed in the knowledge that viewers are able to watch each of the instalments out of order and expect some gratification for watching the concurrently available episodes in their entirety. The full story of what happens is revealed fragment by fragment and at different stages of the series depending on which of the endless combinations of chronologies the viewer chooses. Whatever journey you take, you’ll encounter non-sequiturs which will eventually become comprehensible while what you’re seeing is clarifying an enigma in another later or earlier episode. However, this all assumes viewers will take advantage of the potential for viewing episodes in a random, non-chronological order. In the end, it’s the old Jurassic Park question; of course you can but should you?

TV from the Great Dark Period!

I’m guessing that most viewers wouldn’t know to watch the episodes piñata-style without having been told in advance. Pre-publicity made a big deal of the chronology-optional viewing pleasures, and we’ve been hearing about the revival for some time, but I’m not sure it would be most people’s natural inclination to watch the show like Tarantino storyboarding Pulp Fiction. Sure, Netflix’s catalogues of full series allow for cherry-picking episode highlights, but at the point of selection we’re still in the dark about what episodes these might be. Basically, watching through is as good a way as any of getting to the end.

Who’s story do you want to see first?

In its network TV days, Arrested Development made a big deal of what it meant to be on Fox, and the Netflix revival seems as keen on reminding viewers that it is now internet content. Flashbacks and cut-aways come in the form of online videos, hacked TV-rip software and Prezi-esque slideshows. At times we think we’re looking at the world through a camera only to find we’re looking through someone’s eyes at a webpage. Network TV is still there in the background, with spot-on sideswipes at CBS’ This Morning and NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the flow of US TV entertainment and news anymore, you feel like you’ve plucked what you’re watching from the annals of cyberspace.

Tarantino on TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Tom Steward

Like a racist American businessman announcing self-deportation after Obama’s re-election or an old-school British entertainer forewarning a one-man emigration movement in wake of a 1990s Labour landslide, Quentin Tarantino has threatened to quit cinema. In a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director discussed his desire to retire because of the industry conversion to digital cameras and projection. But what debased metaphor could possibly capture the dire straits that the film industry now finds itself in? ‘I mean, it’s television in public’, said QT, as if there was nothing less dignified. To add insult to injury, Tarantino may have to lower himself to actually working in television. ‘If I’m gonna do television in public, I’d rather just write one of my big scripts as a miniseries for HBO’, he said, declaring his intention to slum it with such mediocre fare as The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

I quit says QT!

I’ll admit I expected more than bald TV-bashing from Tarantino, a director who has never been embarrassed to borrow influences from TV-see his adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode ‘Man from the South’ for the portmanteau film Four Rooms or his use of a refrain from the Ironside theme tune as a leitmotif in Kill Bill. Besides, he always seemed entirely comfortable with the prospect of directing for television. Let’s not forget that Tarantino directed a formative episode of lauded medical series ER called ‘Motherhood’ which not only saw his signature style and imagery seamlessly interweave with the fabric of 90s TV drama but also pioneered many of the show’s representational strategies, not least its handling of gore and casual violence. Tarantino also managed to direct an episode of CSI in which you actually cared about the characters and somehow managed to artfully deploy the series’ egregious audio-visual excesses.

A QT word in your ear!

Using TV to flagellate cinema runs contrary to what I think of as Tarantino’s egalitarian approach to popular culture. The usual snobbery you find from film directors about the aesthetically inferior nature and lack of artistic worth of television always seemed alien to QT, who appeared to recognise that it was at the heart of the popular, commercial Western imagery he was so fond of reappropriating, like a modern-day Lichtenstein. This makes his belligerent reluctance to making ‘a miniseries for HBO’ harder to swallow, especially as an announcement such as this deserves to be accompanied with enthusiasm and pride. Tarantino even admitted that this change of medium could solve a number of problems with producing his work as cinema. Speaking of the extended running and production time of HBO’s series, he said ‘I don’t have the time pressure I’m usually under, and I get to actually use all the script’.

Tarantino hangovers some nurses!

I’m sympathetic to Tarantino’s rage against the digital takeover of cinema and, as someone who finds that the signal beamed on to his television works far better than the digital projector at his local picturehouse, empathise with his feeling that television provides a better platform for a director than a medium that is now ‘film’ in name only. But he should take comfort in knowing that veteran film directors can use TV networks like HBO to reach artistic heights that their later-period movies continually fail to achieve. Mike Nichols hasn’t been able to make an above-average romantic comedy in decades and yet his HBO miniseries Angels in America was a transcendent delight. Scorsese hasn’t done a gangster movie in the last 20 years that could compete with Boardwalk Empire. Even an indie-hack like Gus van Sant looks like Ken Loach when surrounded by the hard-hitting political drama of Starz’s Boss.

CSI’s in Grave Danger of giving a damn!

Not to sound too much like a tele-fundamentalist but quite frankly Tarantino’s work has gotten too big for cinema. Since the two-part Kill Bill franchise, QT’s films have tended towards the epic and become distinguishable by their languor. This has protracted his cinematic vision and also compacted it at times, as in cases of cut-downs such as Death Proof. Like his beloved generational family martial arts TV sagas that spawned Kill Bill, television’s massive and never-ending texts and perma-fashion for serial storytelling can accommodate Tarantino’s expansive scale and indulgent timekeeping without a hint of bloat. A smaller screen it might be but it’s also a lot more elastic than the 3-hour radius of the silver one. At a purely PR level, Tarantino’s announcement might not have invoked the desired shock and dismay. For a director not exactly at his creative peak, the prospect of a TV afterlife looks positively heavenly.

 

 

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