Author Archives: ms152er

“The Corner”/”Homicide”

“The Corner” immediately feels grittier than its predecessor “Homicide.” Perhaps the nature of HBO—a venue more liberated, or autonomous, and liberating, or acquiescing, than NBC—allows “The Corner” to ring truer to the voice of the series’ shared creator, David Simon. That is not to say that “Homicide” does not feel authentic in its own right. Rather, we cannot deny that if the two series were placed in split screen, we would notice some crude differences. First, the series’ focuses differ: while “Homicide” invites us into the perspectives of detectives in a homicide unit, “The Corner” presents the story of a family whom the detectives might target, the lives of “criminals,” technically speaking. In the series, we are tuned in to the respective parties’ daily struggles. As such, just as “Homicide” locates the heart behind the badge and traces the flesh beneath the uniform, so too does “The Corner” humanize its rough-and-tumble characters. One evident difference between the two series lies in the penetration of controversial themes pregnant with potential for enduring discussion, like race and poverty. While both series tackle these issues, “The Corner” seems to take a more direct, unrestrained approach. Perhaps its narrowed focus—“The Corner” is merely a six-episode mini-series as opposed to a multi-season series, and its cast is substantially smaller than that of “Homicide”—assists its emphasis on certain topics.

Why I Wish More Episodes of “Six Feet Under” Were Included in the Syllabus

I found the pilot of “Six Feet Under” provocative and gut-wrenching. Alan Ball already won my affection with AMERICAN BEAUTY, and I could not help but be absorbed by his complex characters, smart dialogue, dry wit, quirky narrative devices, and meticulous direction informing intriguing yet not overly stylized art direction. It seems that every aspect of production merges harmoniously to define a visceral viewing experience. Even the renowned Thomas Newman’s subtly affecting score struck me as pitch-perfect.

Like a foreboding bus at the hand of inertia barreling toward a helpless hearse, “Six Feet Under” forces us to collide head-on with an ugly grille slit into cavities of taboo topics. It is brutally honest in its portrayals of familial dysfunction, inner existential turmoil in the face of adversity, and other typically shushed life circumstances. Even seemingly minor aspects of the narrative seamlessly function together in the complication of central themes. For example, Nate’s homecoming after a long-ago departure—lamented, resented, and envied by different family members—touches on the theme of determinism. Likewise, the indirect cause of Nathaniel’s death, the patriarch’s quick decision to break his promise to Ruth and light another cigarette—a trivial but nonetheless willful act that ushers his downfall—begs the question of human instrumentality in fatalism.

Ball’s myriad of astute choices allows his mode of presentation to develop plot and communicate social commentary with a carefully calibrated tone. He employs surrealism to unveil latent conflicts within characters, as evidenced by the family members’ revealing reactions to their visions of the deceased Nathaniel. Another technique utilized for character development lies in Nate’s flashbacks of his unusual upbringing in a funeral home. In addition to establishing Nate as the protagonist of the series and centering us in his consciousness (Nate’s are the only memories portrayed), they allow us to probe his psyche. The avant-garde mock infomercials for funereal products are at once disturbing, comical, and telling of aspects of western society, like our approach to death and our dependence on consumerism.

Ultimately, beneath the meaningful colorization of the film, the emotionally torquing performances of a judiciously cast ensemble, and all of the other aforementioned surface-level features of the series, it is the unrelenting, brutal honesty of Ball’s teleplay that knocks the wind out of us and leaves us awestruck. Based on the pilot’s paradoxically no-holds-barred and restrained approach to weighty themes (and HBO’s established style), I predict “Six Feet Under” will manage its depictions of themes that are glimpsed at but not fully exposed in the first episode, such as sexuality, propriety, and religion, with equal vividness and control. (Wait—I forgot about the graphic sex scene between Nate and Brenda in the airport custodial closet. So much for withholding…)

Short Essay Proposal

The scene that I will explore in my essay is the one immediately following the opening credits in Episode 2 of Season 1 (“A Ghost of a Chance”), in which detectives Tim Bayliss (a.k.a. Tom Pellegrini) and Frank Pembleton (a.k.a. Harry Edgerton) reveal the death of eleven-year-old Adena Watson (a.k.a. Latonya Kim Wallace) to Adena’s mother. I was intrigued by the difference in length between the account of Pellegrini, Pembleton, and Fred Ceruti’s disclosure in the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and the scene in which the detectives break the news in the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets. Another notable distinction is the exclusion of Ceruti’s character not only from the aforementioned scene but also from the TV show as a whole. It struck me that the majority of the time the show expends more energy on character development than the play-by-play, procedure-driven book, in which David Simon seems to focus more on conveying the ins and outs of detective work than on surfacing latent character idiosyncrasies. However, the instance in consideration is incongruent with my general impression, as the book presents a more in-depth portrayal of the detectives’ emotional reactions to the situation than the episode does. I intend to examine how the respective manners in which the book excerpt and TV show scene are structured and shaped reflect the greater aims, which are at once like and unalike, of the narrative nonfiction work and its television adaptation.

Drainage of “Flow” in the World of TiVo

For me, the concept of flow, as defined by Kristin Thompson as “the scheduling of programs and the advertising breaks within and between them considered as a continuum,” has been challenged, or complicated, by technology that has emerged since Storytelling in Film and Television was published (6). With the rise of digital video recorders and the shift in programming viewership from the television set to the Internet, the intake of commercials has been transformed, if not eliminated. Our fast friend TiVo allows us to fast-forward through, and thus bypass entirely, commercials. Similarly, many networks have opted to post the latest episodes of primetime shows online, boasting limited commercial interruptions or providing the consumer with the option of downing a full-length commercial in one gulp prior to the “feature presentation.” (We can see the line between TV and film beginning to blur.) It is worth noting that the alternative—viewing an episode interspersed with punches of advertisement—already requires less time swallowing commercials than TV. And so, the question follows: does “planned flow,” which cultural critic Raymond Williams coined as “the defining characteristic of broadcasting,” the tool that shapes the viewer’s experience as it were, no longer distinguish TV (6-7)? And, if so, what element steps in as the determining factor that separates TV from other media, like film? Obviously, a number of distinctions remain, like the continuous serialization inherent in the mode of TV broadcasting versus the one-stop shop nature of film. Still, we cannot deny that just as the Kindle has irrevocably mutated readership, so too has modern technology drastically altered the act of watching TV. Furthermore, not only does a redacted experience on our end ensue from the arrival of new technologies, but these transitions also pose problems for the world of publishing and the creatively uninvolved “suits” sweating anxiously behind the closed doors of TV networks. How will these latter figures continue to transmit advertising, the makeup of the corporate realm of TV, which funds the production of the shows that we are now privileged to tune in to whenever we feel like it?

“Shifting relations” (Wollen 529)

In “The Auteur Theory,” Peter Wollen cites Renoir as proclaiming that “a director spends his whole life making one film” (529). After reading this argument, I began to ponder the filmographies of directors whose works seem paradoxically conspicuously yet subtly interconnected. A few individuals in particular sprang into my mind: Joel and Ethan Coen, Sofia Coppola, David Cronenberg, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. Consider the following: Coppola’s depictions of female ennui extending from 18th-century Versailles to 1970s American suburbia (i.e. Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides); Mendes’s expressions of convention-induced repression (e.g. American Beauty, Revolutionary Road); Cronenberg’s preoccupation with “venereal horror” (e.g. A History of Violence, Eastern Promises); Tarantino’s familiar pop-art, graphic violence and absurdist, experimentally delineated—ranging in presentation style from non-linear to novelistic—narratives (e.g. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill). In observing these patterns, we can discern that a director’s work is indeed revisionist in nature. Even the Coen brothers’ samples, which bounce around the galaxy of content—ranging from cat-and-mouse crime capers to a Homer-inspired, Depression-era, picaresque escapade (brilliantly scored by a quirky American roots soundtrack)—share a distinct vision as defined by thematic and stylistic elements including reverence for early-20th-century screwball comedies, dark humor, an aura of pathos, rogue characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, a concern with the influence of circumstance, and highly aestheticized cinematography. Examining the craft of any of the aforementioned directors allows us to see an auteur’s oeuvre as an aggregate of stabs into an esoteric artistic core. A director is constantly groping for “unconscious, unintended meaning” (532). Perhaps it is more accurate to conceive the director not as honing in further and further on an artifact that only she is capable of perceiving but adhering more and more layers to the microscopic parcel with which she began, the catalyst for her initial work. In this light, auteurship can be viewed as a productive rather than reductive process. An even more apt metaphor might be that of a kaleidoscope, with each film always budding from yet breaking from the last, shifting image, arranging, as Wollen describes, a “permutation” (529).

A Bone to Pick With Charles McGrath

Throughout his essay, Charles McGrath acknowledges, or hints at, the shortcomings of film. He suggests that many of film’s foibles are television’s fortes.

 

He argues that in the present-day realm of film, content is constrained by commercialist aims. Whereas writers, producers, and others involved in the creative process of filmmaking have begun to tend to abstain from confronting pressing issues, seeking to quench mass audiences’ thirst and in turn satisfy sycophant-rewarding studio honchos with net profits, the behind-the-scenes ambience of television is more liberating, allowing those in the field to take risks and espouse “social seriousness” (244). Shows like Law and Order are better suited to incorporate current events than their big-screen opponents. What is more, they can do so in a regimented, incremental fashion, providing for more continuous leakage of social commentary into and mulling over of big ideas in viewers’ minds.

 

McGrath also alleges that television proves more faithful to reality than film. Due to its serialized nature, it admirably traces character movement over time—not for one hundred and twenty or so minutes, but for entire seasons’ lengths. Moreover, television can include moments that in films fall victim to the chopping block—or, rather, the editing room—as they are deemed unessential to the dramatic/thematic arcs at hand and therefore unaffordable. In television, however, these moments are sifted through each episode, delivering a “slice of life,” a verisimilitude unique to the medium. Due to the range of fictional situations in which small-screen actors portray their characters, which, according to McGrath, allows them to project their personas not only through action but through reaction, the players can more smoothly slip into their roles.

 

Now that I have attempted to explicate some of McGrath’s points, I would like to say that I cannot help but sense a hint of bias beneath his subtle jabs at the silver screen. He seems to bolster television, the very purpose of his essay as implied in the title, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” by straining to unearth unsubstantiated flaws in film (emphasis mine). Many of his contrasts between television and film seem to rely on gross generalizations of the spheres’ respective products. He selectively draws upon specific television genres (e.g. police procedurals, medical dramas) to support the notion that television is more pertinent to our world than film. I realize that reality television is an easy target, and, personally, I would rather defend the genre than poke fun at it, but McGrath’s assertions undeniably beg the question, “Does an atmosphere of ‘social seriousness’ pervade even programming by Mark Burnett?” (Granted, McGrath’s essay was published in 1995, before the bubbling surge of everything but the kitchen sink in the reality television market.) And can McGrath deny that for every comic-book-adapted blockbuster shot out from the Marvel rocket-launcher, there is a low-budget Oscar contender singed together, reel by reel, in the fiery depths of Miramax or the Weinstein Company? I am all in favor of defending the validity of television, as is evident in my enrollment in this course, but do we have to take film down to bring television up? (And are Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis really the best examples to cite when claiming that film performances lack effortlessness?)