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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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Who.S.A

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m always surprised and impressed when I encounter Americans who adore Doctor Who. Surprised because it must have been such a pain to track down on TV that animosity would be a more natural response and impressed because they always seem to revere the qualities of the show that many British viewers have forgotten ever existed. But let’s go back in time. The BBC had wanted to sell Doctor Who to American television networks right from its inception. In fact, it was once touted as a replacement for CBS’ heavyweight science-fiction series The Twilight Zone. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans finally got a run of the show, thanks in large part to PBS purchasing a block of Tom Baker serials. However, the series was being shifted around the schedules so regularly and so routinely butchered by editors that it became difficult to follow or enjoy.

Doctor Who at US Customs

The Doctor and Friends fall foul of US Customs

Despite these viewing challenges, a fan culture emerged around Doctor Who in the US at this time. In the 1980s, the BBC and the producers of the show started actively courting American viewers; having an American companion in the series, organising US conventions and tours, and looking to the states for money for specials e.g. The Five Doctors. When the show was cancelled in Britain in 1989, it was American television that attempted to revive it. In 1996, a TV movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast by Fox with an eye to launching an American version of the programme. Roundly regarded as a failure critically, commercially and conceptually, it nonetheless laid many of the foundations for the show’s BBC revival in 2005, not least the still sacrilegious notion of The Doctor making out with his companions, which is virulent in the re-launched version of the programme.

 The export of post-2005 Doctor Who to America has been more straightforwardly successful. This is thanks to popular showings on BBC America, new episodes being bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, and interminable spin-off Torchwood being co-funded by US network Starz (formerly known as Starz!). Now we are in a situation where the first two episodes of the 2011 series are co-productions with BBC America set (as far as we can tell) in the American West and involving the White House.

From my own experience talking to Americans about Doctor Who it seems that the devoted cult following might have actually been consolidated by the patchy US scheduling of the series in the 1970s. As a seller in a second-hand bookshop in San Francisco said whilst handing to me a copy of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Autons ‘You had to want to see it’. It’s also striking to me how much the Americans I’ve spoken to treasure the ‘classic’ series (or, more accurately, Doctor Who before 2005) and seem resistant to it being reinvented for contemporary TV viewers. ‘I can’t watch it now’ said the shopkeeper ‘it’ll spoil the memory of me and my brother staying up late to catch it’. Again, there’s a sense that the obscure scheduling of the programme was part of the pleasure but it’s also clear that viewers had great emotional investment in those 1970s serials. Others I’ve spoken to seem nonplussed by the more recent series, even when recognising its achievements. ‘Yeah, it’s a smart show’ another interested party told me ‘but I miss the big scarves and those robots with the stalks’. It’s interesting that the Americans I’ve met light up when talking about those earlier serials but talk dispassionately about the latest episodes, even when their image of the series is sharper now than it was then.

Genesis of the Daleks

Floppy Scarves and Robots with Stalks

It’s doubly interesting to me, as I have this ‘American’ perspective on the series too (though less so now the wonderful Matt Smith and some very capable producers and writers have taken over), and surprising as I don’t really have much of a childhood attachment to the series, it’s just my opinion gained through watching the programme as an adult. This perspective on Doctor Who seems much more sophisticated to me than that of the hoards of British viewers who were happy to jettison the show’s past and fetishise the aspects of ‘New Who’ that were completely at odds with what made it great, the worst culprit being excess of emotion. It’s natural for Britons to be protective of such a remarkable part of our national culture and want to protect it from Americanisation, but given stateside attitudes to Doctor Who in comparison to ours, I do wonder sometimes.

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