Archive for the coen brothers

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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?

Reality TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.’

These words appear onscreen before the opening credits of every episode of Fargo (so far) in front of the master shot one sentence at a time, with a gradual fade on the first one which leaves the word ‘true’ alone on the screen for a second. They follow a network warning which also tells viewers how real the show is going to be, but here it is not the veracity of the events depicted in question but the adult nature of its content. First-time viewers will most likely accept these words on face value as they are delivered without a trace of irony in the solemn legalese one expects from such prefixes. Those coming to Fargo from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie on which it is based will probably be in on the joke, if only for the sake of not being fooled twice. They will remember that the movie opened with almost the same words, the only difference being the date which was originally ‘1987’. Most of them will have subsequently discovered that this was in fact a lie…in fact. I doubt the producers of Fargo are counting on people falling for the same trick but choosing to begin each show with a hoax is more than mere homage.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The series would have to have been made anticipating viewers instantly finding out about the movie’s hoax from any number of debunking websites and presuming the same of the TV version, or at least assuming fiction until there is evidence to the contrary. As the programme rewards knowledge of the original film by segueing their storylines into a coherent fictional world, we can deduce that if one is bogus, the other is too. The original prefix was clearly designed to convince audiences of its legitimacy, with formal white text on a serious black screen set aside from the dramatic body of the movie. The adaptation more or less tells us the prefix is phoney, reduced to its basic meaning (‘true’) to show us how flimsy and insubstantial it is without the window-dressing of dates and places. Despite all these mitigations, I still can’t help but feel that the producers are clinging to the hope that somebody somewhere will be duped if only because of the longstanding reputation of television as a truth-telling medium. They may be counting on viewers making distinctions between the way TV witnesses events of the world and how movies provide escape from it to get them to buy into the illusion against their better judgement. This could be why we get the prefix week-upon-week rather than at the beginning of the season. Indeed, I hope it has been included in attempt to pull off a hoax against the odds of a multi-platform age of information plenitude.

White Lies.

White Lies.

After all, TV still cares about distinguishing truth from fiction, or at least it pretends to. After carrying us along with a montage-based fiction for an hour, many reality programmes remind us with a straight face that ‘portions of the programme have been edited’, though as we have not seen a reaction taking place in the same shot as the preceding action for the entirety of the episode, we can guess as much. Simply from the self-evident fabrications of what we see, we are as aware that a reality programme is fiction offered as fact as we are that Fargo isn’t and never was a ‘true story’. But reality TV producers aren’t putting up the disclaimers because they think we’re suspicious about the truth of what we see. They’re doing it so as not to be accused of cheating. The disclaimer usually comes with the condition that it applies to parts of the episode ‘not affecting the outcome of the competition’. It’s not being lied to that is the problem, but what we’re being lied to about. In the hierarchy of reality television, making an artificially conceived competition reasonably fair to contestants is more important than representing people fairly. There isn’t anyone specific being lied about it in the Fargo prefix, but by claiming that the events actually happened in a certain place and time, there is a distinct odour of misrepresentation, at least regionally. Maybe Fargo’s built-in self-denials derive more from fear of offence than disillusion with the masquerade.

%d bloggers like this: