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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

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Figures Traced In Light

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How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

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Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

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Archive for the 'Television' Category

When worlds collide: Mixing the show-biz tale with true crime in ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

Jeff Smith here:

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood might turn out to be the buzziest film of 2019. Some of this water-cooler talk is due to its unusual status within an ever-enlarging field of true crime stories. (Call it a “not quite true” crime story.) Indeed, the genre is hotter than ever thanks to a bevy of new podcasts, telefilms, and miniseries.

Industry analysts, though, are also keen to interpret Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s box office fortunes. As that rare big summer release that is neither a sequel nor a franchise title, it can be seen as a test of whether original content can survive amidst heavily marketed, presold tentpoles.

The lesson so far? To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” In The Washington Post, one unnamed studio executive warned, “I don’t see any blue-sky meaning here.” The executive added, “This movie has assets that almost no other film has. That’s what drove it.” At least one of those assets is Tarantino himself, who is a brand, if not a franchise. Fans know what to expect in a Tarantino film, which is why the film is sui generis when it comes to this summer’s slate. Due to its unique IP, it can’t really be compared with films like Men in Black International or Spider-man: Far from Home. Yet thanks to Tarantino’s larger than life presence, it also isn’t Long Shot or Booksmart or Stuber.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is catnip to Tarantino nerds like me. It has the usual surfeit of references to obscure films and television shows. Some of these are deftly interwoven into the story itself. It boasts a carefully curated soundtrack that unearths “some-hits” wonders. It also contains scenes depicting nasty yet comical violence, a hallmark of Tarantino’s work ever since Reservoir Dogs.

At first blush, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would seem to be Tarantino’s most linear film. Yet it still displays certain continuities with his oeuvre in terms of story structure and technique. Although the film eschews the chapters and title cards found in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, it still contains elements of what David calls “block construction.” In the case of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it is all about threes. The plot is structured around three days in the winter and summer of 1969: February 8th, February 9th, and August 9th. Each “chapter” is introduced showing the date via superimposed text. And all three chunks of narrative crosscut among the activities of three actors – Sharon Tate, Rick Dalton, and Cliff Booth – as they try to adapt to changes in the film and television industries.

If all of this assures that you’d never mistake Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood as the work of another director, other elements show Tarantino striking out in new directions. Chief among these is his mash-up of two normally distinct story types: the show-biz tale and the true crime yarn. Think of it as Singin’ in the Rain meets In Cold Blood. In what follows I outline some of the ways that Tarantino adapts his signature style to two well-established storytelling options: the multiple draft narrative and the network narrative. I also consider the effects Tarantino’s counterfactual history has on the conventions of the show-biz tale and the celebrity biopic.

My analysis contains major spoilers. If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, stop reading now!

 

My world and welcome to it

 

Quick trivia question: what actor was on the cover of TV Guide during the week that Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family? Sharp viewers of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood should know the answer. We see Tate’s housemate, Woychiech Frykowski, reading that issue of the magazine as he watches Teenage Monster on late night television.

Give up? It was character actor Andrew Duggan, who played the cattle baron Murdoch Lancer on the TV show of the same name. Yes, that Lancer! The same one that featured Rick in a guest spot some six months earlier.

Tarantino’s film treats this little bit of pop culture ephemera as an uncanny coincidence. It simply becomes yet another way that he can intertwine the destinies of his three protagonists. But that brief shot got me thinking: did Tarantino start with the idea that he’d recreate whatever series was featured on TV Guide the week Tate was killed?

If so, Rick might have appeared just as easily as an aspiring cartoonist next to William Windom on the NBC sitcom, My World and Welcome to It. The show debuted just six weeks after Tate’s death. It is not unthinkable that NBC would have pushed for a cover on TV Guide in an effort to promote the premiere. Yet Tarantino’s counterfactual history in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would have been vastly different if that had been the case.

Did Tarantino really base his screenplay on this conceit? I doubt it. Lancer fits so snugly into the world that the director captures onscreen that it is not be so easily replaced. Tarantino seems to have a nostalgic fondness for the show, much as I did in my wasted youth. (I recall having a Lancer lunchbox at age six.) Production designer Barbara Ling describes the steps she took to recreate Lancer’s mix of Spanish/Western design. This involved adding adobe storefronts to the wooden ones, and substituting iron coils for wooden pegs on the saloon’s staircase. Ling added, “This was a [rich] cattle town and the buildings are two and three stories. It’s not Deadwood.”

Many critics have characterized Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood as another hangout movie. This is Tarantino’s designation for a film that is leisurely paced, fairly light on plot, and mostly gives the audience a chance to spend time with the characters. Indeed, because of these qualities, reviewers often compare Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood to Jackie Brown, a film that Tarantino himself compared to Rio Bravo, which was Howard Hawks’ hangout movie.

The resemblances don’t stop there. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s three-headed protagonist bears certain similarities to Jackie Brown’s Jackie, Ordell, and Max.

Yet while watching Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I felt this film, more than any of Tarantino’s others, was an exercise in world-building. Normally we associate that term with sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book movies. It is especially important for transmedia properties where the fictional universe depicted exceeds the bounds of any individual film, television series, book, or video game.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is also an alternate history, a type of speculative fiction also common in sci-fi and comic book stories. The Avengers: End Game and Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse are both relatively recent examples. This suggests a loose affiliation between Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and other blockbusters even as Tarantino tweaks that formula by situating his speculative fiction within the generic framework of true crime.

Tarantino largely avoids the industrial motivations behind these two narrative techniques commonly seen in tentpoles. Instead, he simply recreates the pop culture world of his youth. In doing so, the director’s real world, his “realer than real” universe, and his “movie movie” universe all collide.

 

Keepin’ it real (and realer)

 

As Tarantino has explained in interviews, the “realer than real” universe is an alternate reality close to our own where his fictional characters can intermingle with real people. The “movie movie” universe, on the other hand, is a more overtly fantastic world closer in spirit to comic books or exploitation films. The characters have unusual abilities or even supernatural powers. The “movie movie” thus downplays the realistic motivations usually found in the “realer than real.” In Tarantino’s oeuvre, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance exemplify the “realer than real.” Kill Bill and From Dusk to Dawn are instances of the “movie movie.”

Each universe features a web of connections that can link particular tales together. For example, Kill Bill’s Sheriff Earl McGraw and his son Edgar pop up in Death Proof. Similarly, Lee Donowitz, the cocaine-sniffing movie producer in True Romance, is purportedly the son of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the “bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds.

In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the most obvious references to these two Tarantino universes are the fictional brands he has created. During the end credits, we see Rick in a TV ad for Red Apple cigarettes. According to a Tarantino wiki, “ads or packs of these flavorful smokes” can be seen in The Hateful Eight, Inglourious Basterds, Planet Terror, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk till Dawn, Four Rooms and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. (The latter is an obvious outlier. Yet the Red Apple nod was likely an in-joke related to Tarantino’s offscreen romance with Mira Sorvino, who played Romy.)

Similarly, Tarantino’s fictional fast food chain, Big Kahuna Burger, appears on a bus billboard in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It previously was featured in a memorable scene in Pulp Fiction. (“That’s a tasty burger!”) But it had already debuted as a delicious snack devoured by Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. Big Kahuna later comes back in two other Tarantino films, From Dusk Till Dawn and Four Rooms, as well as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

Other references to the “realer than real” are more arcane. In a montage sequence where Randy the Stuntman summarizes Rick’s experience starring in Italian films, we see a poster for Operazione Dy-no-mite, a James Bond knockoff directed by Antonio Margheriti. Fans of Inglourious Basterds will recognize “Antonio Margheriti” as the alias Donny Donowitz uses for the premiere of Nation’s Pride.

Much of the fun of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood comes from the way Tarantino overlays these three universes to create a singular fictional world. For example, at one point we learn that Rick was considered for the role of Captain Virgil Hilts, the part played by Steve McQueen in John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Tarantino even inserts digitally altered footage of The Great Escape to show us a scene of Rick as Hilts. Since Rick claims he never met Sturges, this moment appears to represent an imagined version of the film that could exist in some type of alternate history. It invites us to consider how different Rick’s career might have been had fortune smiled upon him instead of McQueen.

To disentangle this knot, one must surmise that The Great Escape and Steve McQueen belong to both the real world and the “realer than real” world. Yet the scene of McQueen at the Playboy mansion and Rick describing his missed opportunity can only belong to the “realer than real.” And the character of Hilts himself exists only in the “movie movie” world. Hilts shares this status along with other characters Rick plays onscreen, such as Bounty Law’s Jake Cahill and The FBI’s Michael Murtaugh. After all, movie magic enables Cliff Booth to stand-in for Rick for scenes involving physical action. That two actors can play the same character within the same scene suggests that fictional personae in cinema have a unique ontological status quite different from the real world.

Arguably, the scene where Sharon Tate watches herself in The Wrecking Crew raises even more vexing issues about what is real and what is fictional. Unlike the clip from The Great Escape, the theatre screening shows the real Sharon Tate playing the character Freya in The Wrecking Crew. The fictional Sharon Tate watches the real Sharon Tate, along with the rest of the Bruin Theater’s audience. Yet, because Margot Robbie only pretends to be Sharon Tate for Tarantino’s camera, she doesn’t really watch herself playing the role. Obviously, Robbie belongs only to the real world. Yet Sharon Tate, as both an actual person and a fictional character, inhabits both the real world and the “realer than real world.”

Here the film indulges the Bazinian conceit that cinema has indexical properties. While making The Wrecking Crew, the film camera captured an imprint of the real Sharon Tate that preserved her being beyond the reaches of time and even death. In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, this moment is both joyful and sad. The viewer imagines the thrill that Tate feels in watching herself on the big screen, basking in the glow of incipient stardom. Yet the delight we experience is colored by our knowledge of what happened to the Sharon Tate seen falling on Dean Martin’s camera case. Unlike Robbie’s character, that Tate is doomed to a grisly death at the hands of psychopaths.

By film’s end, however, we are forced to reevaluate where Sharon Tate fits into Tarantino’s universe. When Cliff and Rick thwart the attack of Tex Watson, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel, both Sharon Tates appear to move solely to the realm of the “realer than real.” Like the fictional Sharon Tate played by Robbie, the actress who appeared in The Wrecking Crew also lives on in a parallel universe created by the forking of time. And the fate of that character remains completely undetermined. Now fully a part of the “realer than real,” Tarantino’s Sharon Tate might eventually snort cocaine with movie producer Lee Donowitz or bum a Red Apple cigarette from Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace.

Once she joins the “realer than real,” almost any fate you could imagine for Sharon Tate seems possible. And it is that sense of the actress’ unlimited horizons that gives the ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood its resonance. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time films always situated viewers in the realm of myth. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, on the other hand, evokes the fairy tale.

Tarantino is known for his experimentation with narrative, and the simplicity of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s “what-if” scenario could seem like a retreat from the formal play seen in his earlier films. Yet I’d argue that Tarantino’s merging of fact and fiction is even more audacious in certain respects. It strikes me as an unconventional example of what David calls “multiple draft narratives,” like Krzystof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance or Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gives us a second draft of history, albeit one where the key decision point is saved almost until the end of the film. And unlike Blind Chance or Sliding Doors, Tarantino doesn’t need to tell us what the different outcomes are for each of these tales. The first draft of history is one we already know.

In fact, the notion of multiple drafts offers a useful lens for all three films in Tarantino’s “counterfactual” trilogy. (The other two are Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.) In Groundhog Day, Source Code, and Edge of Tomorrow, each iteration of the basic situation shows the protagonist inching toward his goals. They gradually progress to the point where they are able to alter destiny, either theirs or the world’s or both.

Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood all present images of history not as it was, but as it should have been. Such counterfactual histories run counter to the norms of speculative fictions that often present us with dystopian worlds we were lucky to avoid. (Think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, or Kevin Willmott’s “mockumentary” C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.) All of these stories depend upon our knowledge of the first draft of history. Yet Tarantino gives us second drafts that right particular historical wrongs in either small or large measure. In doing so, Tarantino gives us versions of history that are closer in spirit to his favorite movies. All three films in the “counterfactual” trilogy feature tidy resolutions. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, however, is even more self-conscious about the way Tarantino’s second draft of history takes the form of a “movie movie” climax. The realer-than-real version is the one we ought to prefer.

 

Paging Mr. Melcher, Mr. Terry Melcher…

If Tarantino’s conflation of fact and fiction evokes certain traits of the multiple-draft narrative, his vivid recreation of Hollywood circa 1969 illustrates another type of story popularized in American independent films and various art cinemas: the network narrative.

Tarantino has broached this form before in Inglourious Basterds. There he moves back and forth between three mostly independent storylines: 1) the Basterds’ guerrilla campaign against German soldiers, 2) Archie Hicox and Bridget von Hammersmarck’s initiation of Operation Kino, and 3) Shosanna’s plan to avenge her family’s deaths during the premiere of Nation’s Pride. SS officer Colonel Hans Landa threads through all three storylines. He orders the killing of Shosanna’s family in the opening scene. Later he shares apple streudel with Shosanna in a Paris café. Landa also investigates the scene where Hicox has been killed. In the climax, he interrogates Bridget in a scene that contains a grim allusion to Cinderella’s lost slipper.

Finally, Landa negotiates a deal with Aldo Raine’s superiors that guarantees his immunity from prosecution for war crimes.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is obviously much less plot-driven than Inglourious Basterds. Yet, as noted above, it shares a similarity in the way it interweaves the stories of three characters: Rick, Cliff, and Sharon.

It’s frequently said that Hollywood is a company town. By situating all three characters within the film and television industries, Tarantino tacitly stays faithful to that truism. The protagonists’ shared profession also facilitates the kinds of attenuated links between stories commonly found in network narratives.

Part of the fun of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood comes in recognizing the “six degrees of separation” that join all of these people, both real and fictional, in the same entertainment ecosphere. Take, for instance, one decidedly minor character: actress and singer Connie Stevens, played by Dreama Walker. At the Playboy Mansion party, Stevens listens to Steve McQueen explain the romantic triangle that has Sharon living with her current husband, Roman Polanski, and her ex-boyfriend, Jay Sebring. Stevens, though, is the ex-wife of actor James Stacy, who played Johnny Madrid in Lancer. Stacy (played in our film by Timothy Olyphant) is Rick Dalton’s scene partner for the episode of Lancer that Dalton hopes can spur his comeback. Dalton is Sharon Tate’s neighbor on Cielo Drive, the same house that Charles Manson targets as the site of the “family’s” first murder. This circuit even loops back on itself. When Stacy and Dalton first meet on set, Stacy asks Rick whether it was true that he almost got a part in The Great Escape, the same part played by McQueen.

Two characters in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood serve as nodes that connect all three storylines together. The first is Cliff, Rick’s stunt man and gofer. Although not a resident at Cielo Drive, he spends a lot of time in Rick’s home and thus is privy to what happens in Sharon’s abode. This is especially evident when Cliff repairs Rick’s fallen TV antenna. The camera is aligned with him as he overhears Sharon playing a Paul Revere and the Raiders album. He also notices Charles Manson approaching the Polanski residence. Tarantino’s casting of Damon Herriman as Manson is likely an allusion to the television show, Justified. Herriman played Dewey Crowe alongside Olyphant.

Justified was also an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Raylan Givens” books. Tarantino has long admired Leonard’s work as a writer of both westerns and crime novels.

Employing a redundancy that befits Hollywood storytelling, Cliff gets linked to Sharon’s storyline in other ways. While working as Rick’s stunt man for an episode of The Green Hornet, he gets involved in a dust-up with Bruce Lee. Lee gave Sharon Tate some pointers on fighting as she prepared for her role in The Wrecking Crew. And in real life, the martial arts legend was recommended for the role of Kato on television’s The Green Hornet by Sebring, Tate’s former boyfriend.

Perhaps Cliff’s most important role in the film’s network involves his dalliance with Pussycat, one of the many young women who viewed Manson as a kind of guru. Cliff picks up Pussycat as a hitchhiker and gives her a ride back to the Spahn ranch. Having worked on the ranch back when it was an active production site, Cliff grows concerned for the safety of its owner, George Spahn. Cliff notices how the Manson clan has taken over and is troubled by its weird vibe. Determined to see George for himself, Cliff forces his way into George’s house over the objections of the Manson girls, especially Squeaky. George seems careworn, but Cliff finds that there is little he can do for him.

When Cliff sees a pocketknife sticking out of his front tire, he confronts Clem, one of Manson’s followers. The conflict becomes physical. Cliff breaks Clem’s nose with one punch and then proceeds to beat him to a bloody pulp.

This proves to be a dangling cause that gets resolved in the film’s climax when Cliff recognizes Tex, Sadie, and Katie as people he met at the Spahn ranch.

The other character who links the storylines together is one we never see: record producer Terry Melcher. Melcher is the “Terry” that Manson mentions when he visits Cielo Drive in the scene described above. Later, Tex reminds Sadie, Katie, and Linda that Charlie directed them to go to the place where Terry Melcher lived and kill everyone inside.

Although these are the only explicit references to Melcher, he is indirectly represented in several other aspects of the film. Here it helps to know a little about Melcher’s career and Manson lore. Even if Melcher’s name draws a blank, you likely know many of the bands he worked with: the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

All these musicians crop up in one way or another in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Melcher’s last major credit of the 1960s was as producer of the Byrds’ Ballad of Easy Rider. When Rick berates Tex for parking his car on Cielo Drive, he yells, “Hey, Dennis Hopper! Move this fucking piece of shit!” Rick’s insult fits with his general disdain for hippies. But it also alludes to Easy Rider by comparing Tex’s look to that of Hopper’s character, Billy.

Two of the Mamas and the Papas – Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot – both appear in the party scene at the Playboy mansion.

We also hear the Mama and the Papas’ big hit, “California Dreaming” in a cover version by Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano. And when the car driven by Tex crawls up Cielo Drive, the music issuing from the Polanski residence is the Mamas and the Papas’ “12:30: Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon.” Even before Tex’s directive to the Manson girls, Tarantino has given us a subtle reminder that Melcher was Charlie’s intended, if indirect, target.

Finally, Sharon plays Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Good Thing” and “Hungry” on a hi-fi in her bedroom.

The choice of music is especially fitting since the band’s lead singer, Mark Lindsay, lived in the same house on Cielo Drive with Melcher and his then girlfriend, Candice Bergen.

Beyond these musical references, Melcher’s history with Manson informs Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in another way. Melcher recorded some demos of Manson’s songs, and even discussed making a documentary about Manson’s commune at the Spahn Ranch. In testimony at trial, Melcher said that any possibility of a record contract with Manson was sundered when Charlie asserted that he’d never join a musicians’ union. Manson’s staunch refusal was rooted in his desire to avoid entanglements with the establishment. Yet union membership was a condition for any contract with Melcher’s label, Columbia records. Another factor in Melcher’s decision was his assessment of Manson’s talent. Charlie couldn’t sing.

Although Melcher publicly stated that he only considered Manson’s musicianship, he privately expressed concerns about Charlie’s mental stability. These were heightened when he visited the Spahn Ranch and witnessed Manson in a physical altercation with a drunken stunt man. Tarantino more or less recreates this episode in his film, substituting Cliff for the unnamed stunt man and the hapless Clem for Charles Manson.

More importantly, Melcher is the son of screen legend Doris Day and stepson of agent/manager/producer Martin Melcher. In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he becomes the ideal, if absent, symbol of the combined worlds of music, television, and film that Tarantino so lovingly details.

 

How the West was lost

Los Angeles circa 1969 is presented as the epicenter of the American entertainment industries. It’s a place where a hairdresser like Jay Sebring rubs shoulders with action stars, TV cowboys, ingénues, film directors, and pop stars –and make $1000 a day to boot! The constant stream of hits from KHJ radio is as ubiquitous as the many movie posters, billboards, and theater marquees that feature Hollywood’s latest and greatest.

Tarantino’s press kit for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood makes reference to Joan Didion’s famous observation in “The White Album” that “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” Most critics take Didion’s reference to the Sixties as shorthand for the end of the “peace and love generation.” Yet Tarantino’s slightly revisionist take suggests it’s not only the youthquake that died, but also a certain strain of Hollywood filmmaking that passed with it.

Although I don’t doubt their historical accuracy, the litany of titles that appear throughout Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood feels as curated as any of Tarantino’s music soundtracks. Some, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, are films that entered the canon of great sixties cinema. Others, like The Night They Raided Minsky’s, are early films by directors who’d later achieve greatness. (In this case, William Friedkin, who won an Oscar in 1972 for The French Connection.)

But many, like Lady in Cement, Tora, Tora, Tora!, Krakatoa: East of Java, Mackenna’s Gold, C.C.& Company, and even The Wrecking Crew, are largely forgettable movies.

Tarantino clearly has affection for all of the drive-in theaters and Hollywood picture palaces where these titles played. But the titles themselves are evidence of the industry’s struggle to adapt to new tastes and a rapidly changing media landscape. Old-school show biz types, like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, continued their success as singers and television personalities. But their careers as actors had functionally ended by 1969. And the efforts to keep them relevant often seemed either strikingly anachronistic or just plain weird.

In the opening scene of Lady in Cement, Frank Sinatra fights off a small school of sharks while he is examining the body of a nude woman who, like Luca Brazzi, sleeps with the fishes. And yes, the scene is as ludicrous as it sounds. If this is what became of Hollywood’s once great tradition, it is hard not to think we should just let it pass.

Yet, the fear of obsolescence also explains the oversize role that Tarantino gives to the Western as part of this changing landscape. True Grit and The Wild Bunch were among the summer of 1969’s biggest hits. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would eventually become the year’s top-grossing film. All three Westerns feature cowboy heroes that are either aging, outmoded, or both. They reminded contemporary viewers that horse riders would soon yield to horseless carriages, the lone bounty hunter would soon be supplanted by paramilitary detective agencies, and the humble six-shooter can’t match the lethal power of a Mexican army machine gun.

In retrospect, though, the popularity of the Western in 1969 represents the genre’s last gasp. Studios continued to make Westerns during the 1970s, but only three – Jeremiah Johnson, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Electric Horseman – would surpass $10 million in rentals in the entire decade.

On television, such long-running series as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Virginian had their last round-ups. The networks tried their hands at new Westerns, like Alias Smith and Jones (below), Hec Ramsey, Dirty Sally, and Lancer, but they were all short-lived. At the start of the 1980s, the genre was completely moribund. Subsequent efforts to recapture the Western’s former glory were mostly the equivalent of flogging a dead pony.

As a total cinephile, Tarantino is entirely aware of this aspect of the genre’s history. This is signaled quite explicitly in the decrepit condition of the Spahn Movie Ranch. Yet Tarantino also uses Rick’s career arc to signify its downward trajectory.

No character in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is as strongly associated with the Western as Rick. His home is filled with collectibles like his Hopalong Cassidy coffee mugs. His walls are decorated with posters for The Golden Stallion and A Time for Killing. On set, he reads pulp oaters like Ride a Wild Bronc to relax between takes.

By using Rick to dramatize the twin declines of both Old Hollywood and its “bread and butter” genre, the narrative arc of Tarantino’s drugstore cowboy is one suffused with nostalgic melancholy. The key moment in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood occurs when Rick breaks down telling the story of Easy Breezy to Trudi Fraser, his Lancer co-star. He describes Easy “coming to terms with what it’s like to feel slightly more useless each day.”

The various threads of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s network finally knot together in the Manson family’s attack on Cielo Drive. At the moment of truth, it is telling that Rick reaches not for a firearm, but for the prop flamethrower he wielded in The 14 Fists of McCluskey. By recalling the moment when Rick shouts, “Anyone here order fried sauerkraut?”, Tarantino reminds us that violent spectacle and snappy quips will eventually replace the Western’s ritualistic showdowns.

Still, it is a musical allusion to the Western that gives Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood its final grace note. Cliff and Rick have thwarted the Manson family’s attack. The ambulance takes Cliff to the hospital. Rick offers an explanation of what just happened to his neighbors. Jay recognizes Rick as television’s Jake Cahill. Via the intercom, Sharon invites him to come up for a drink. As Rick walks to the house, we hear the start of Maurice Jarre’s “Lily Langtry” [sic] from his score for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

John Huston’s film begins with an expository title shown below that highlights the western’s tendency toward self-mythology. It is especially apt for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s counterfactual history.

Jarre’s cue, though, appears in a scene where the renowned actress Lillie Langtry finally visits Judge Bean’s Texas town. Langtry is given a tour of the Bean’s house, now converted into a museum that also acts as a shrine to her. Bean worshipped Langtry, but tragically dies before he gets to meet her. Tarantino inverts both Huston’s sad ending and its dramatization of missed opportunity. By altering the course of history, the cowboy in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets to be the real-life hero rather than the TV heavy. Rick also gets to meet the actress he’s admired from afar. Rick and Sharon are still both married to other people. But their chance meeting in the film’s epilogue feels more than anything like a dream fulfilled.

 

A star is unborn

In the previous section, I dwelt on the role of the Western in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because of its symbolic significance in capturing a particular historical moment. But Tarantino borrows quite freely from another narrative prototype: the show-biz tale. In fact, while walking out of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I wondered aloud if it was Tarantino’s twisted take on A Star is Born.

Like A Star is Born, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood centers on a male performer whose career has started to decline and a female newcomer whose star is on the rise. Moreover, Rick’s drinking problems create an obstacle to his comeback in much the same way that alcohol contributes to the downfall of the male protagonists in all four versions of A Star is Born.

Tarantino, though, subtly alters this template in two ways. First, he depicts his two stars as neighbors rather than as a romantic couple. Secondly, he cleverly depicts Rick’s career arc as an inverse mirror of Sharon’s.

Tate was an Army brat who grew up in Europe. Her earliest work was as an extra in Italian films. She moved to Hollywood in 1962 and got her break playing Jethro Bodine’s girlfriend on The Beverly Hillbillies. In the mid-sixties, Tate made the move to films, appearing in Eye of the Devil and The Fearless Vampire Killers.

It was during production of the latter that Tate met her future husband, Roman Polanski. Tate’s role in Valley of the Dolls further enhanced her status as an “up and comer.” In 1968, Tate earned a Golden Globe nomination in the category of “Most Promising Newcomer — Female.”

In direct contrast, Rick’s career begins in Hollywood and ends in Italy. Rick enjoys early success with Bounty Law and The 14 Fists of McCluskey. But soon finds himself reduced to guest star roles on television. Against his better judgment, Rick agrees to star in four Italian quickies. Two of these are spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Corbucci, a Tarantino fave who created the popular “Django” character. Rick returns to Hollywood but his future is uncertain. He could be the next Clint Eastwood, star of A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Or he could be the next Richard Harrison, star of $100,000 Dollars for Ringo and Secret Agent Fireball.

If this were all there was to the comparison, it would hardly be worth mentioning. But Tarantino hints at other parallels through a much more obscure and convoluted cinematic reference. An auteur as shrewd as Tarantino would undoubtedly remember that the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” –used in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood under shots of Rick’s return from Rome – was previously featured in the opening sequence of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.

The connection to Ashby’s film is strengthened by the casting of Bruce Dern as George Spahn, a role originally intended for Burt Reynolds. Early in his career Dern played Jane Fonda’s uptight, martinet husband in Coming Home. More importantly, during Coming Home’s climax, Dern’s character commits suicide by wading into the ocean to drown himself, just as James Mason does at the conclusion of George Cukor’s version of A Star is Born.

Which brings us back to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s controversial ending. Earlier I discussed the resemblance between its counterfactual history and multiple draft narratives. Here I want to discuss it as an illustration of the caprice of fame.

Much more than the endings of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the climax of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood feels both resolved and unresolved. Hitler’s violent death in Inglourious Basterds surprised audiences who first saw it in theaters. Yet the historical record indicates that the Basterds simply saved Hitler the trouble of later killing himself and his wife, Eva Braun. At the conclusion of Django Unchained, the protagonist’s revolt clearly hasn’t ended slavery as a “peculiar institution.” But its story of personal revenge remains deeply satisfying.

The ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood left me with more questions than answers. I get it. Sharon Tate lives instead dying at the hands of the Manson family. Tarantino gives us the Hollywood happy ending that this story lacked in reality. But what’s next?

Do the deaths of Tex, Sadie, and Katie mean that Leno and Rosemary LaBianca also survive? Maybe. Perhaps the loss of three members of the cult might cause the others to reevaluate their loyalty to Manson. Perhaps Manson himself would reevaluate his plan to trigger a race war.

But maybe not. If Manson were the hero of Tarantino’s grindhouse climax rather than its villain, one could easily imagine the film running another twenty minutes with Manson vowing to get even. You might imagine it as something like the surprising “second climax” of Django Unchained. After mourning the loss of his compatriots, Charlie would proclaim. “The fires of Hell will descend upon the Hollywood hills. This time it’s personal.”

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Sharon continues to be the “It” girl during the next phase of her career. The allusions to A Star is Born suggest a steady upward trajectory. But the reality is that success depends upon a certain amount of luck. It is never assured. A few box office bombs and Sharon Tate might be reduced to the same sort of TV guest spots that Rick is doing.

In this way, the ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood asks us to consider a potential paradox. Did Sharon Tate become more famous in death than she ever would have been in life?

The theme of talent tragically cut down in the prime of life is a hoary cliché of the celebrity biopic. Tarantino is smart to steer clear of it. Yet whenever we watch a film like Prefontaine, Beyond the Sea, or Lenny, one starts to wonder, “Would anyone bother to make this film if its subject had lived?”

To be sure, the totality of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood shuns any pat answer. Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas died at age 32. Initial reports said she choked on a ham sandwich in the midst of having a heart attack. I remember the media reports when Mama Cass passed in 1974. But does anyone who didn’t live through that moment?

James Stacy, star of Lancer, nearly died in a deadly motorcycle accident. (Tarantino hints at this fate by showing Stacy, sans helmet, riding his steel horse away from his trailer.) Stacy survived, but lost an arm and a leg as a result of his near fatal injuries. He eventually made a comeback in 1977 and even earned an Emmy nomination for his work on Cagney and Lacey.

Yet, if you mention James Stacy during dinner conversation tonight, I suspect your companion will ask, “Who?”

And then there is the scene where Pussycat and the other Manson girls walk past a large mural of James Dean in his iconic pose from Giant. Dean was certainly famous during his lifetime. But he became a legend at age 24 after his Porsche Spyder collided with another car, snapping his neck.

Would Sharon Tate have achieved stardom had she lived? God only knows. I certainly don’t. I do know one thing, though. Being a victim of the “crime of the century” preserved Tate’s image in popular memory with a vividness that very few human beings on this earth ever achieve.

Margot Robbie’s performance as Tate is extraordinary. She reminds modern viewers of the verve, spirit, and sensuality that Sharon brought to the screen. Yet it is the image of Tate as a tragically murdered heroine that Tarantino, like Mark Macpherson in Laura, appears to have fallen in love with. And it is this image that continues to haunt me some fifty years after Tate’s death.


Thank you to David and Kristin for their comments onf an earlier draft of this post. Thanks also to JJ Bersch and Maureen Rogers for letting me bounce some of ideas off them.

Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders remains the most comprehensive account of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Tom O’Neill, though, has spent the last 20 years investigating Manson’s crimes. His new book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the C.I.A., and the Secret History of the Sixtiesclaims that Bugliosi’s investigation was deeply flawed. Instead, his research suggests that Manson was a drug trafficker and C.I.A. operative. For O’Neill, the notion that Bugiliosi saved Los Angeles from a hippie death cult is wrong. The motive for the crimes was both simpler and more quotidian. All of Manson’s murders were the result of drug deals gone wrong. An interview with O’Neill can be found here.

The story that Terry Melcher witnessed a fight at the Span Movie Ranch between Charles Manson and a drunken stunt man sounds apocryphal. Yet it appeared in The Telegraph’s obituary for Melcher, which was first published in 2004. I haven’t been able to independently corroborate that story with another source. However, even if it isn’t true, it is part of Manson lore. I saw the same story repeated on at least three other websites. Doris Day’s death in May spawned the publication of a handful of articles about her relationship with Terry. They can be found here, here, and here. An brief overview of Melcher’s career as a record producer can be found in Rolling Stone’s obituary.

For those interested in learning more about Sharon Tate’s life, I recommend Sharon Tate: Recollection.  It was written by Tate’s mother Debra. It also features a foreword by her husband, Roman Polanski.

Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls survey the momentous changes taking place in the film industry during the late 1960s.

Bruce Fretts provides a fairly thorough overview of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s voluminous pop culture references.

Several articles have also appeared that address different aspects of the film’s production. An interview with choreographer can be found here. Cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Barbara Ling detail their efforts to recreate the sets of the TV show Lancer here. Richardson also discussed Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s visual influences in a Hollywood Reporter podcast.

An interview with Mary Ramos, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s music coordinator, can be found here. Guides to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s music soundtrack can be found here, here, and here.

An analysis of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s box office implications is found here.

Finally, the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has occasioned a number of think pieces that address aspect of the film’s counterfactual history and its identity politics. Here philosopher David Bentley Hart discusses the moral implications embedded in Tarantino’s counterfactual trilogy.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s gender politics is addressed here. The author, Aisha Harris, compares Tarantino’s depiction of Sharon Tate to other female characters in his filmography. Finally, zeitgeist readings of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in relation to the current political landscape can be found here and here.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

Vancouver 2018: Crime waves

Burning (2018).

DB:

It’s striking how many stories depend on crimes. Genre movies do, of course, but so do art films (The Conformist, Blow-Up) and many of those in between (Run Lola Run, Memento, Nocturnal Animals). The crime might be in the future (as in heist films ), the ongoing present (many thrillers), or the distant past (dramas revealing buried family secrets).

Crime yields narrative dividends. It permits storytellers to probe unusual psychological states and complex moral choices (as in novels like Crime and Punishment, The Stranger). You can build curiosity about past transgressions, suspense about whether a crime will be revealed, and surprise when bad deeds surface. Crime has an affinity with another appeal: mystery. Not all mysteries involve crimes (e.g., perhaps The Turn of the Screw), and not all crime stories depend on mystery (e.g., many gangster movies). Still, crime laced with mystery creates a powerful brew, as Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John le Carré, and detective writers have shown.

We ought, then, to expect that a film festival will offer a panorama of criminal activity. Venice did last year and this, and so did the latest edition of the  Vancouver International Film Festival. Some movies were straightforward thrillers, some introduced crime obliquely. In one the question of whether a crime was committed at all led–yes–to a full-fledged murder.

 

Smells like teen spirit

Diary of My Mind.

Start with the package of four Swiss TV episodes from the series Shock Wave. Produced by Lionel Baier, these dramas were based on real cases–some fairly distant, others more recent, all involving teenagers. The episodes offer an anthology of options on how to trace the progress of a crime.

In Sirius a rural cult prepares for a mass suicide in expectation they’ll be resurrected on an extraterrestrial realm. The film focuses largely on Hugo, a teenager turned over to the cult by his parents. Director Frédéric Mermoud gives the group’s suicide preparations a solemnity that contrasts sharply with the food-fight that they indulge in the night before. Similarly, The Valley presents a tense account of a young car thief pursued by the police. Locking us to his consciousness and a linear time scheme, director Jean-Stéphane Bron summons up a good deal of suspense around the boy’s prospects of survival in increasingly unfriendly mountain terrain.

Sirius and The Valley give us straightforward chronology, but First Name Mathieu, Baier’s directorial contribution, offers something else. A serial killer is raping and murdering young men, but one of his victims, Mathieu, manages to escape. The film’s narration is split. Mathieu struggles to readjust to life at home and at school, while the police try to coax a firm identification from him. This action is punctuated by flashback glimpses of the traumatic crime. The result explores the parents’ uncertainty about how restore the routines of normal life, the police inspector’s unwillingness to press Mathieu too hard, and the boy’s self-consciousness and guilt as the target of the town’s morbid curiosity.

This insistence on the aftereffects of a crime dominates Diary of My Mind, Ursula Meier’s contribution to the series. This too uses flashbacks, mostly to the moments right after a high-school boy kills his mother and father. But there’s no whodunit factor; we know that Ben is guilty. The question is why. Ben’s diary seems to offer a decisive clue (“I must kill them”), but just as important, the magistrate thinks, is his creative writing under the tutelage of Madame Fontanel, played by the axiomatic Fanny Ardent. Because she encouraged her students to expose their authentic feelings, Ben’s hatred of his father had surfaced in his classroom work. Perfectly normal for a young man, she assures the magistrate. No, he asserts: a warning you ignored. The shock waves that engulf onlookers after a crime, the suggestion that art can be both therapeutic and dangerous, the question of a teacher’s duty to both her pupils and the society outside the classroom–Diary of My Mind raises these and other themes in a compact, engaging tale.

 

Last hurrah of (movie) chivalry

Chinese director Jia Zhangke is no stranger to criminal matters. His films have dwelt on street hustles, botched bank robberies, and hoodlums at many ranks. Ash Is Purest White is  a gangster saga, tracing how a tough woman, Qiao, survives across the years 2001-2018. Initially the mistress of boss Bin, Qiao rescues him from a violent beatdown using his pistol. She takes the blame for owning a firearm. Getting out of prison, Qiao tracks down the now-weakened Bin, who has taken up with another woman.

Ash Is Purest White tackles a familiar schema, the fall of a gang leader, from the unusual perspective of the woman beside him, who turns out to be stronger than he is. Most of the film is filtered through her experience, and along with her we learn of Bin’s decline and betrayal, along with his integration into the corrupt and bureaucratic capitalism of twenty-first century China. The second half of the film shows Qiao forced to survive outside the gang’s milieu. A funny scene plays out one of her scams: picking a prosperous man at random, she announces that her sister, implicitly his mistress, is pregnant.  Just as important, Qiao’s adventures allow Jia to survey current mainland fads and follies, including belief in UFO visits.

Among those follies, Bin suggests, is a trust in mass-media images.  As Ozu’s crime films (Walk Cheerfully, Dragnet Girl) suggested that 1930s Japanese street punks imitated Warner Bros. gangsters, so Jia’s mainland hoods model themselves on the romantic heroes of Hong Kong cinema. They raptly watch videos of Tragic Hero (1987) and cavort to the sound of Sally Yeh’s mournful theme from The Killer (1989). They derive their sense of the jianghu--that landscape of mountains and rivers that was the backdrop of ancient chivalry–not from lore or even martial-arts novels but from the violent underworld shown on TV screens.

Bin’s decline is portrayed as abandoning those ideals of righteousness and self-sacrifice flamboyantly dramatized in the movies. But Qiao clings to the imaginary jianghu to the end. She explains to him that everything she did was for their old code, but as for him: “You’re no longer in the jianghu. You wouldn’t understand.” You can respect his pragmatism and admire her tenacity, but he’s still a feeble figure, and she’s left running a seedy mahjongg joint–one much less glamorous than the club she swanned through at the film’s start. Appropriately for someone who got her idea of heroism from videos, we last see her as a speckled figure on a CCTV monitor.

 

From dailiness to darkness

Burning.

Often the crime in question is presented explicitly, but two films leave it to us to imagine what shadowy doings could have led to what we see. In Manta Ray, by Phuttiphong “Pom” Aroonpheng, we get the familiar motif of swapped identity. A Thai fisherman finds a wounded man in the forest and nurses him back to health. The victim is a mute Rohinga whom the fisherman names Thongchai. They share a home and the occasional dance and swim, even a DIY disco.

But who attacked Thongchai in the forest, and why? And what is the connection to the unearthly gunman who paces through the forest, bedecked in pulsating Christmas bulbs? And what makes the foliage teem with gems glowing in the murk? Somewhere, there has been a crime.

Manta Ray accumulates its impact gradually, with the scenes of the men’s routines giving way to mystery when the fisherman vanishes and Thongchai (named by the fisherman for a Thai pop singer) is trailed by a ninja-like figure clad in a red cagoule. A disappearance and a reappearance (of the fisherman’s wife) punctuate moody scenes of trees and sea. The opacity of the action makes a political point: offscreen, Thais brutally hunt down the refugee Rohingas. But the critique of anti-immigrant brutality is intensified by the lustrous cinematography (Aroonpheng was a top DP). You can feel the texture of the planks in the cabin and the sharp edges of the gems that fingers root out of the forest floor. This is probably the most tactile movie I saw at VIFF.

Then there was Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Lee started his career strong and has stayed that way. The slowly paced, Kitanoesque gangster story Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (1999), with its reverse-order chronology, both achieved local popularity and established him as a fixture on the festival circuit. Oasis (2002), a daring romance of a disabled couple, won a special prize at Venice. Secret Sunshine (2007) brought Lee even more widespread fame. Like the episodes of Shock Waves, it dealt with the aftereffects of a horrific crime. Virtually everyone I know who saw the film remembers most vividly a particular scene: the heroine, having converted to Christianity and at last ready to forgive the perpetrator, visits him in prison. It’s one of the most nakedly blasphemous scenes I’ve ever seen, carried off with a shocking calm. Crime–this time, a gang rape–is also at the center of Poetry (2010), with another mother facing familial tragedy.

Most of these plots, particularly Poetry, are rather busy, but Burning is more stripped down (though not short). Lee Dong-su maintains the shabby family farm while his father is in jail awaiting trial. In town Dong-su meets Haemi, a former classmate now running sidewalk giveaways.

She lures him into her life by asking him to feed her cat while she’s in Africa, but before she leaves they start an affair. But he seldom breaks into a smile, favoring a puckered-lip passivity. After their coupling, we get his POV on a blank wall.

This turns out to be the first of many disquieting passages. Between bouts of tending livestock, feeding Haemi’s cat, and masturbating to her picture, Dong-su gets mysterious phone calls with no one on the line. He meets Haemi at the airport only to discover that she’s formed a friendship (or more?) with the suave Ben, whose gentle courtesy makes Dong-su feel an even bigger bumpkin. Soon the three are hanging out together, but at parties Dong-su can only stare at Ben’s yuppie friends. Dong-su, who wants to be a writer, is a fan of Faulkner, but Ben compares himself to the Great Gatsby.

After a long night of relaxing at the farm, with the men watching Haemi dance topless, she disappears. A black frame, a dream of a burning greenhouse, and Dong-su is left alone halfway through the movie. What happened to Haemi? And why does Ben say he enjoys torching greenhouses? Dong-su turns detective,

Lee is a master of pacing, and the deliberateness of the film delicately turns a romantic drama into a critique of entitled lifestyles and then into a psychological thriller. We are locked to Dong-su’s consciousness except for a couple of telltale shots of Ben calmly studying his rival from afar. We get Vertigo-like sequences of Dong-su trailing Ben and probing for clues and perhaps having more dreams. At the same time, Dong-su starts writing, as if Haemi’s disappearance has inspired him, but he finds more violent ways to release his simmering bewilderment.

After only one viewing, I didn’t find Burning as devastating a film as Secret Sunshine or Poetry, but I’d gladly watch it again and probably I’d see more in it. Lee manages to sustain over two and a half hours a plot centering on three, then two principal characters. He has earned the right to soberly take us into the mundane rhythm of a loner’s life and then shatter that through an encounter with two enigmatic figures who may be playing mind games. As with Manta Ray, we have to infer some of the action behind the scenes, but that just shows that in cinema, classic or modern, crime can pay.


Thanks as ever to the tireless staff of the Vancouver International Film Festival, above all Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Jenny Lee Craig for their help in our visit.

Snapshots of festival activities are on our Instagram page.

Japadog, a Vancouver landmark.

So these two English magicians walk into a library …

Mill burning ELS

Kristin here:

Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand;
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hill . . . (John Uskglass, The Raven King, via Vinculus)

A word of explanation about why I am writing about a television series is in order. I write almost entirely about films (and occasionally literature), but in 2001 I succumbed to the temptation of an invitation from Oxford University. I was to become a visiting professor and deliver a lecture series on “broadcast media.” The closest I could come to talking about broadcast media was a series comparing film and television narrative structure. The lectures were subsequently published as Storytelling in Film and Television (Harvard University Press, 2003).

This book has given me a lingering reputation for knowing something about television, even though I had not researched or published on television since. Within the past year I have declined two invitations of speak at television conferences, one of them a keynote address. But until now my small dip in the television-studies pool has remained an aberration.

I happen to be a devoted fan of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 bestselling tale of two magicians in Regency England, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I also, despite some reservations, much enjoyed the recent BBC/BBC America seven-episode adaptation of it. The DVD/Blu-ray is being released in the USA today, and I herewith offer some comments on the series.

My main objections to the adaptation relate to changes in the relationship between the two main characters. I think the reasons for this particular problem can shed a little light on how mainstream film and television narratives are conceived and sold to the public. I’ll deal with that subject first before pointing to some of the things I admire about the series.

Many SPOILERS for both book and series from this point on.

 

Hanging it on the Amadeus hook

Amadeus jealousy scene

The opening of Robert Altman’s The Player is famous for its pitch phrases heard through studio office windows, with variants of the familiar, it’s X Title meets Y Title (“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.” “Not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.”)  The scene is funny, but it’s not far from the sort of thing that happens in reality.

According to series director Toby Haynes, speaking of the BBC, “I pitched it in my first meeting as Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings. They really responded to that.”

Clearly The Lord of the Rings has nothing in common with JS&MN apart from being a long fantasy tale, and I assume it was included to evoke the idea of a big, really successful example of that genre.

As for Amadeus, at first glance one might consider the book’s Norrell-Strange dynamic as being similar to that of Salieri and Mozart, but upon closer inspection there is virtually no resemblance. Salieri’s prime motivation is intense, heartrending jealousy of Mozart’s seemingly effortless genius. Norrell comes into conflict with Strange, but he’s not jealous of the other magician. The barrier between them is a profound theoretical disagreement over the type of magic they should be doing, and it tears the pair apart after their initial delight in discovering each other. There’s no easy comparison for that sort of conflict, no X meets Y. But anyone can grasp the idea of jealousy.

Once the Amadeus idea was in place, it seems to have guided the filmmakers, at least Haynes and presumably screenwriter Peter Harness, to turn Norrell into Salieri and Strange into Mozart. The effort was not entirely successful, partly because thoroughly changing them would gut the premises of the novel’s plot. Staying at all faithful to the book, as many of the scenes do to a remarkable extent, meant that the motivations for the two main characters’ actions, particularly Norrell’s, became inconsistent.

The Amadeus idea proved useful in publicizing the series. Haynes, Harness, and actors Eddie Marsan (Mr. Norrell) and Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange) were probably instructed to try and mention it during interviews. Haynes referred to the “Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings” idea frequently (e.g., here). It’s a catchy phrase, and reviewers and entertainment reporters dutifully spiced up their writings with it. In the Wall Street Journal, John Anderson commented, “The two are, in fact, like Salieri and Mozart in ‘Amadeus,’ had Salieri been a little more talented and a little less poisonous.” Rolling Stone‘s David Fear refers to Haynes’s formula, and fan blogs picked up on it. Google “Amadeus” and “Norrell” to find many more examples.

Although Marsan frequently invoked the Amadeus idea, when interviewed on the BBC’s The One Show, he mentioned another comparison suggested to him by Clarke when she visited the set: “She said they represent the two sides of the brain. The right side of the brain, Norrell, is the analytical side, he’s like the librarian, but Jonathan Strange is the spontaneous, confident, creative side, and it’s the juxtaposition between the two.”

This seems to me a better image for the title characters’ relationship than the Amadeus one: two halves of the same entity, ideally working together in balance. It’s a pity it wasn’t used, but Clarke didn’t mention it until the series was into principal photography.

 

Norrell is not Salieri

Norrell & Strange reunited

In Clarke’s book, Norrell is far and away the better magician, at least until fairly late in the plot. He certainly has no reason to be professionally jealous of Strange when he appears on the scene, and he doesn’t seem much to care that Strange is more flamboyant and socially adept.

The series often suggests, however, that Norrell is the inferior magician. The second episode’s opening depicts his ship illusions at the port of Brest during the first Napoleonic war. Seemingly the French are fooled for only the time it takes some officers to row out and investigate them. Norrell’s illusion seems ineffectual, and one might wonder why in the next scene Parliament is so enthusiastically applauding him and promising all sorts of cooperation in exchange for his help. This, I would suggest, is one of several plot holes resulting from the makers’ devotion to the Amadeus model.

In the book, the ship illusion is highly effective. Not only Brest but “Rochefort, Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Venice, Flushing, Lorient, Antwerp and a hundred other towns of lesser importance” are blockaded by Norrell’s ships.

Everyone, it seemed, was delighted with what Mr Norrell had done. A large part of the French Navy had been tricked into remaining in its ports for eleven days and during that time the British had been at liberty to sail about the the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the German Sea, just as it pleased and a great many things had been accomplished. (p. 108)

This triumph leads to a successful ten-year career. Although Strange is the one who aids Wellington at the front lines using magic, Norrell contributes in other ways. After the victory at Waterloo, “Mr. Norrell had the satisfaction of hearing from everyone that magic–his magic and Mr Strange’s–had been of vital importance in achieving this.” (p. 337) He then goes into the respectable business of dealing with commissions such as flood control for the Admiralty.

The TV series also presents Norrell’s system for protecting England’s southern coast as a failure, never completed and ineffectual where it did exist. Directly after he installs the system, its faults are apparently revealed when a ship goes aground on a shoal near the same beach, a situation solved by Strange with his flashy creation of giant sand horses. In the book, Strange collaborates on the coastal protection project alongside Norrell. It is installed nearly a decade after the “Horse Sands” episode and works very well. Indeed, the Admiralty finds Norrell so useful that he cannot deal with all the projects they propose to him, especially since he refuses to take on students after Strange leaves him.

Thus unlike Salieri, Norrell’s problem is not inferior talent but an inability to excite others about his magic. He is, as Clarke makes clear over and over, boring. An odd trait in a book’s protagonist, or co-protagonist in this case, but one that she manages to make entertaining. The novel describes Norrell’s first visit to Sir Walter Pole and his attempt to explain his feat of having brought the statues of York Minster to life: “Curiously, though Mr Norrell was able to work feats of the most breath-taking wonder, he was only able to describe them in his usual dry manner, so that Sir Walter was left with the impression that the spectacle of half a thousand stone figures in York Cathedral all speaking together had been rather a dull affair and that he had been fortunate in being elsewhere at the time.” (p. 68)

Even at the end of the ten years, Norrell remains clueless about public relations. Late in the book he and Lascelles go to Brighton to check the new coastal protection system:

“It is invisible,” said Lascelles.

       “Invisible, yes!” agreed Mr Norrell, eagerly, “But no less efficacious for that! It will protect the cliffs from erosion, people’s houses from storm, livestock from being swept away and it will capsize any enemies of  Britain who attempt to land.”

        “But could you not have placed beacons at regular intervals to remind people that the magic wall is there? Burning flames hovering mysteriously over the face of the waters? Pillars shaped out of sea-water? Something of that sort?”

        “Oh!” said Mr Norrell. “To be sure! I could create the magical illusions you mention. They are not at all difficult to do, but you must understand that they would be purely ornamental. They would not strengthen the magic in any way whatsoever. They would have no practical effect.”

        “Their effect,” said Lascelles, severely, “would be to stand as a constant reminder to every onlooker of the works of the great Mr Norrell. They would let the British people know that you are still the Defender of the Nation, eternally vigilant, watching over them while they go about their business. It would be worth ten, twenty articles in the Reviews.”

        “Indeed?” said Mr Norrell. He promised that in future he would always bear in mind the necessity of doing magic to excite the public imagination. (p. 688)

The fact that many of Norrell’s commissions are designed to prevent things from happening also means that the public forgets about them. This scene demonstrates well how Clarke manages to generate amusement out of a character who is so intrinsically dull.

The Norrell we see in the first two episodes of the series is fairly similar to the one in the book–naive, petty, anti-social, and arrogant. His first act in both versions is to twit aspiring magician John Segundus about having read his article on magician Martin Pale’s fairy servants and noticed that he had left one out. He then lets it sink in that he himself owns the only copy of the only book that mentions that servant and thus Segundus could not possibly have read about him.

Despite his faults, however, Norrell is frequently amusing, something the series captures well, especially in the opening episodes. He also arouses our pity when he visits Sir Walter Pole to volunteer his help in the war with Napoleon and is summarily dismissed.

Unfortunately, starting with the third episode the makers abruptly change Norrell’s character, making him more devious and villainous. One reviewer commented on this change:

It’s ridiculously difficult to make you feel a sense of loathing for an actor like Eddie Marsan, but Strange and Norrell went a long way in making you feel like that this week. It’s kind of amazing in such a short space of time how the show has managed to make you feel for Norrell’s plight to restore magic to England, to suddenly very much wondering if that was a good idea.

The reviewer hints that the series has accomplished this change well, but the inconsistency of Norrell’s character continues in later episodes. As he also suggests, it is really Marsan’s splendid performance that manages to make all this hang together.

In the book Norrell does some nasty things, though not nearly so many or so bad as what we see him do in the series. In the novel he neither tries to intimidate Lady Pole into silence nor threatens Drawlight with torture to make him go to Venice to find Strange. He does not accompany Strange to see George III, because he is genuinely convinced from the start that magic cannot cure his madness. When he makes Strange’s book disappear, he offers to pay the publisher’s costs for the entire edition. (He also leaves Strange’s own copy untouched.) He does not berate Childermass for being unconscious for four days after taking a bullet for him. Lady Pole does not create a tapestry in an effort to reveal her situation to Arabella, and hence Norrell doesn’t order it stolen. He never threatens to destroy the other magician, as he is shown doing at the end of episode 4.

His primary mistake, in both versions, is that through shame and fear he hides the fact that he had violated his own principles by summoning the gentleman with the thistle-down hair to resurrect Lady Pole. (The fairy is referred to as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair throughout the book and simply as the Gentleman in the series.) Had he found the courage to tell at least Strange the truth, it might have made him less eager to try contacting a fairy to help him with his own magic.

Norrell does none of these things through jealousy.

 

Strange is not Mozart

Windmill scene night

Strange is portrayed as the Mozart to Norrell’s Salieri. He does magic spontaneously rather than learning spells out of books. In the scene where he first demonstrates his magic for Norrell, he says, “One has a sensation like music playing at the back of one’s head–one simply knows what the next note will be,” (p. 233) a line changed slightly for the series. The obvious similarity of this statement to Mozart’s effortless ability to write heavenly music probably sparked the initial link in the makers’ minds between JS&MN and Amadeus. It no doubt influenced Harness to portray Strange simply as a natural genius. Yet the book makes it clear that Strange’s moments of inspiration often either turn out wrong or he simply cannot replicate or reverse them.

For example, the “Horse Sands” episode, so crucial for the series’ creation of the idea of Norrell’s inferiority and jealousy, turns out quite differently in the book. Strange’s sand horses do free the ship from the shoal, but “These did not just disappear when their work was done, as Strange had said they would; instead they swam about Spithead for a day and a half, after which they lay down and became sandbanks in new and entirely unexpected places. The masters and pilots of Portsmouth complained to the port-admiral that Strange had permanently altered the channels and shoals in Spithead so that they Navy would now have all the expense and trouble of taking soundings and surveying the anchorage again.” (p. 278)

The feat impresses the Ministers in London, however, leading them to dispatch Strange to Portugal to help with the war. There Strange’s first successful piece of magic, building a road, is managed through a spell derived from one of Norrell’s books. It’s the same sort of respectable task with which Norrell continues his own success. Later, though, Strange performs ancient, black magic to bring to life some Neapolitan corpses to supply vital intelligence information to Wellington. Norrell refuses to bring rotted bodies to life, but Strange tackles decaying, maggot-ridden ones. The series’ scenes of this episode (above) well convey the horror Strange feels after he succeeds. One of the most effective shots in the series is the long view of the troops, including Strange, moving out of the camp toward victory with the burning windmill in which Wellington has had the zombies locked appearing prominently in the composition (see top).

This parallel to Norrell’s raising of Lady Pole is usually not remarked upon, but it suggests that both have compromised their principles in somewhat similar ways to gain respect and aid the war effort.

Undoubtedly more important, in the book Strange never becomes obsessed with bringing Arabella back to life after the Gentleman tricks him with the moss-oak double of her. Instead he goes immediately to Venice to grieve and to try and summon a fairy to teach him magic and become his servant. He does this solely because he thinks that fairy magic, long gone from England, is an exciting alternative to Norrell’s stodgy, respectable magic. Clearly the plot additions of Strange desperately seeking to revivify his wife and Norrell’s cold refusal to answer his letters or explain how he resurrected Lady Pole were added to heighten the dramatic conflict between the two.

 

Friendly Enemies

Norrell delighted by strange

Yet that conflict is for the most part a half-hearted one and fated to end. It is quite different from what happens in Amadeus. Salieri hates Mozart and vows early on to destroy him, while Mozart is largely indifferent to Salieri. In contrast, Norrell and Strange have an immediate affinity that never completely disappears, and they grow more and more like each other in the course of the book. The abrupt change in Norrell’s initial skeptical, fearful attitude toward the second magician comes during their second meeting (their first meeting in the series), when Strange performs magic for him. “Mr. Norrell, who had lived all his life in fear of one day discovering a rival, had finally seen another man’s magic, and far from being crushed by the sight, found himself elated by it.” (p. 233) This elation is wonderfully conveyed by Marsan in one of the series’ best scenes (above).

Contrast this moment with the scene of Mozart’s meeting Salieri, where Mozart humiliates Salieri by playing his little welcoming march and improvising a far better piece from it. This leads directly to Salieri’s vow to God that he will destroy Mozart, ultimately leading to the latter’s death (see first section above).

In the series’ next scene, Norrell’s delight continues as he meets with Strange to plan their studies. He even manages, with some difficulty, to hand over a book that he wishes his pupil to read. Thereafter, unfortunately, we get very little of the two interacting, and the viewer might get the impression that their break occurs a short time later. After seeing only two episodes, Anibundel, a blogger and fan of the book pinpointed the problem:

Though Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are magic together, there was no getting around it–they weren’t together for nearly long enough. The complex nature of their relationship–being pulled towards each other while at the same time repelled by their philosophical differences–is the heart of the novel, and by the show deciding to spend their energies focused elsewhere makes it feel like they’re missing the nut of the story in order to let us indulge in the trimmings. Strange barely became Norrell’s pupil, and barely had time to note how much his teacher held back from him. We barely got any of Norrell’s excitement and joy at discovering someone who he can really talk to and connect with most emotionally and intellectually, before the show already separated them again, putting Strange on his way to Portugal.

Part of the problem is that the adaptation conveys little indication of how much time passes. In the novel, Clarke simply dates every chapter. We know that the precipitating action of John Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot visiting Mr. Norrell happens in the autumn of 1806 and the final scene in Padua in the spring of 1817. The adapters would have done well to employ superimposed titles for the same purpose. As it is, even non-readers who know the era of the Napoleonic wars and Regency England pretty well would be hard put to estimate that the action covers that long a span.

In the book Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil in September, 1809 and parts ways with him in February, 1815. His first wartime stint lasts for a little over three years, from approximately March, 1811 to May, 1814. The second begins in June of 1815, after the two split. Thus he studies with Norrell for a little under two and a half years.

During that period, Strange temporarily takes the place of the devious Drawlight and Lascelles in assisting his teacher:

In the past year Mr Norrell had grown to reply a great deal upon his pupil. He consulted Strange upon all those matters which in bygone days had been referred to Drawlight and Lascelles. Mr. Norrell talked of nothing but Mr Strange when Strange was away, and talked to no one but Strange when Strange was present. His feelings of attachment seemed all the stronger for being entirely new; he had never felt truly comfortable in any one’s society before. (p. 279)

Nevertheless, the one issue that drives the pair apart is their stark disagreement concerning the desirability of using modern, respectable magic or calling upon the 300-year-old, wild magic of the Raven King and fairies. Their disagreement comes to a head when Strange writes his lacerating review of the book about Norrell and arrives to announce that he will no longer be his pupil. In the book, far from arguing with Strange or berating him over the review as in the series, Norrell is entirely conciliatory and emphasizes their affinity in a conversation which is perhaps the most important summary of their relationship.

“You think that I am angry,” said Mr Norrell, “but I am not. You think I do not know why you have done what you have done, but I do. You think you have put all your heart into that writing and that every one in England now understands you. What do they understand? Nothing. I understood you before you wrote a word.” He paused and his face worked as if he were struggling to say something that lay very deep inside him. “What you wrote, you wrote for me. For me alone.”

Strange opened his mouth to protest at this surprising conclusion. But upon consideration he realized it was probably true. He was silent. (p. 417)

Norrell then makes a revelatory confession that as a young man he, too, had been obsessed with the Raven King and spent ten years trying to contact him. His failure led to a traumatic disillusionment and a rejection of old magic. This, of course, explains a great deal about his character, and it is odd that the screenwriter avoided it so entirely. In the series, Strange simply insists that that they are too different in their views to continue together. Much of the emotional dialogue spoken beside the fireplace comes only from the last section of this important conversation in the book, leaving out the parts quoted above.

“Oh,” cried Mr Norrell, “I know that in character . . .” He made a gesture of dismissal. “But what does that matter? We are magicians. That is the beginning and end of me and the beginning and end of you. It is all that either of us cares about. If you leave this house today and pursue you own course, who will you talk to? –as we are talking now?–there is no one. You will be quite alone.” In a tone almost of pleading, he whispered, “Do not do this!” (p. 421)

He also offers Strange the things he offers in the TV scene, including an equal partnership and the key to the library at Hurtfew, and he says he will not demand that the review be retracted. Strange nevertheless insists on ending their relationship.

Even so, in the novel he somewhat regrets his decision the next day: “As a consequence of what Mr Norrell had said he had developed a great many new ideas about John Uskglass, and now he was suffering all the misery of having no one to tell them to.” (p. 423) This misery, however, is not sufficient to make him return to Norrell.

From this point the two are separated, but in the novel there are indications that they are destined to reunite. Much later, Strange, with a mad expression, sends Drawlight to tell Norrell “I am coming!” As in the series, Norrell rushes from London to Hurtfew Abbey to defend his main library from attack. At this point, the narration describes a slightly eerie discovery recently made by Norrell.

Ever since he and Strange had parted he had been in the habit of summoning up visions to try and discover what Strange was doing. But he had never succeeded. One night, about four weeks ago, he had not been able to sleep. He had got up and performed the magic. The vision had not been very distinct, but he had seen a magician in the darkness, doing magic. He had congratulated himself on penetrating Strange’s counterspells at last; until it occurred to him that he was looking at a vision of himself in his own library. He had tried again. He had varied the spells. He named Strange in different ways. It did not matter. He was forced to conclude that English magic could no longer tell the difference between himself and Strange. (p. 713)

In the book Norrell later surmises that he and Strange are both trapped in the Darkness, a curse designed for Strange alone, because the Gentleman had been so imprecise as to direct the curse at “the English magician.” (p. 749) That same imprecision occurs in the spell devised by the two and intended to summon the Raven King. They address the spell to the “nameless slave,” allowing Stephen, rather than the Raven King to gain the power necessary for him the kill the Gentleman and take his place.

 

Mr Norrell with the candlestick in the library?

Norrell with candlestick

I’m not sure what viewers unfamiliar with the book would expect to happen when in the final episode Norrell solves Strange’s labyrinth and reaches the library. Given how badly Norrell has acted at times and also given Strange’s madness, they could reasonably expect a big fight in which Strange might kill Norrell or at least triumph over him. Indeed, in the book this is what the servants and Lascelles, locked out of the labyrinth, imagine might happen: “Images of magical battles flitted through the minds of everyone present: Mr Norrell hurling mystical cannonballs at strange; Strange calling up devils to come and carry Mr Norrell away. They listened for sounds of a struggle. There were none.” (p. 721)

In the book there is no fight at all. Norrell, terrified of what Strange intends to do to him, finds the other magician reading historical accounts of fairies kidnapping humans. Strange’s first comment to his former teacher is a compliment.

“I like your labyrinth,” he said conversationally. “Did you use Hickman?”

“What? No. De Chepe.”

“De Chepe! Really?” For the first time Strange looked directly at his master. “I had always supposed him to be a very minor scholar without an original thought in his head.”

Relieved that Strange is not going to attack him, Norrell gives him a mini-lecture on De Chepe, and they quickly slip back to their old relationship. Norrell returns Strange’s compliment.

“You own labyrinth was quite remarkable,” said Mr Norrell. “I have been half the night trying to escape it.”

“Oh, I did what I usually do in such circumstances,” said Strange carelessly. “I copied you and added some refinements. (p. 741)

Later in the scene, the roles are reversed. Strange requires a summoning spell, and Norrell fetches a sheet of paper from a drawer and gives it to him, saying it is the best such spell he knows. It is written in Norrell’s hand and labeled “Mr Strange’s spell of summoning.” Norrell pedantically points out three changes he has made, including “I have omitted the florilegium which you copied word for word from Ormskirk. I have as you know, no opinion of florilegia in general and this one seems particularly nonsensical.”

“It is as much your work as mine now,” observed Strange. There was no trace of rivalry or resentment in his voice.

“No, no,” said Norrell. “All the fabric of it is yours. I have merely neatened the edges.”

The two are at last capable of adapting each others’ work as equals. Far from having a physical fight, they don’t even argue. Instead, they work together to devise and implement the spells that create the climactic resolution.

Again, contrast this with the climactic scene of Amadeus, where Salieri takes dictation from Mozart. He not only cannot keep up, but he is also baffled by some of the choices Mozart makes in composing the Requiem. There remains no affinity between the two.

The two magicians’ reunion in the library is where the series’ final episode goes thoroughly off the rails, in my opinion, departing from the book and introducing all sorts of new premises and actions that make little coherent sense. The departure begins at 16:30, to be precise, when Norrell throws something (the candlestick, I think) at Strange and their brief struggle ensues. David, being my test case of a non-reader viewing this part, said he had followed the story reasonably well to then but after that point he suddenly didn’t understand the rules. Quite.

I will not attempt to list all the peculiar premises suddenly introduced into the story. In brief, how does Strange know that the Gentleman has closed the King’s Roads to him? How does Norrell know that the rule doesn’t apply to him as well? Norrell’s speech about the Gentleman’s “alliances with the forces of nature within the Christian world, our world, not his–ergo, his curse will not affect us here” baffles me. Why does the darkness not follow the pair into Faerie? As far as I can tell from the book, it is itself a part of Faerie. And why has the series added the premise that Strange is dying under the continued influence of being in the Darkness? (Screenwriters seem to love such ideas. It reminds me of the absurd premise in The Return of the King that Arwen is dying because her fate is linked to the Ring. Aren’t all of their fates?) The Gentleman’s taste in revenge is not for death but for perpetual misery.

Certainly by this point the Amadeus comparison has been abandoned. But why were the makers so determined to pursue that idea in the first place? Once they had used the analogy in order to get a greenlight for the project, why did they not simply drop it and take the book as their guide? Perhaps in part because once they had posited that the Salieri-Mozart conflict is similar to the Norrell-Strange one in Clarke’s book, they had fixed that in their minds and couldn’t see it any other way. But we return to the fact that the Amadeus premise is simply easier to understand than the very complex dynamic between the two magicians in Clarke’s book. Once the hook of the Amadeus comparison got out into the public through reviews and interviews, the audience could have a simple interpretive key even before watching the premiere. A bitter conflict is more dramatic than a complex competition/cooperation dynamic between two protagonists, a dynamic based on a fundamental theoretical disagreement.

And why not, after all? What difference does it make that the series’ makers battened onto Amadeus and went with it? Might it not make it easier for viewers to cope with a very complicated story?

Perhaps. Still, a considerable price is paid in the loss of originality. Clarke’s book is very good, possibly great, in part because the shifting relations between its title characters are so slippery, with both of them having many faults and vastly different views of magic but nevertheless by the end belonging together as partners. The TV series ultimately settles instead for a well-known formula from a classic, familiar film. For lovers of the book, the core fan-base for the series, disappointment in at least some aspects of the series was likely.

Perhaps more important, however, is the loss of unity. The sudden changes in Norrell’s character that I’ve pointed out are among these. I would think that, after Norrell’s more villainous moments, the viewer might reasonably be puzzled by the cheery, cuddly reunion between the two, with Strange buttoning up Norrell’s cloak (see the “Norrell is not Salieri” section above) and promising to come to breakfast. Similarly, the sudden deep emotion of the scene where Strange breaks with Norrell might seem odd. I expect that Norrell’s misdeeds caused some non-readers to mistake him for the villain, though the Gentleman clearly should centrally occupy that role. The messiness of the final episode comes in part because the two must reconcile and work together so abruptly, despite all of Norrell’s misdeeds. Finally, I think the emotional appeal of the main relationship between the two magicians, which is the core of the novel, is vitiated to some extent.

 

Two super-magicians and their flying library

Norrell & Strange reunited

There may also be one more reason why Norrell is made villainous in the central section of the story and then comic at the very end. The makers possibly wanted to avoid using the original, highly unconventional ending of the book, perhaps feeling felt that spectators would not accept it.

The novel sets us up for the idea that the Darkness may not be such a bad thing. Immediately after Norrell discovers that Lady Pole and Mrs Strange are no longer in Faerie, he also realizes that the curse of Darkness has not lifted. Naturally he considers this in a rational fashion.

This then was his destiny!–a destiny full of fear, horror and desolation! He sat patiently for a few moments in expectation of falling prey to some or all of these terrible emotions, but was forced to conclude that he felt none of them. Indeed, what seemed remarkable to him now were the long years he had spent in London, away from his library, at the beck and call of the Ministers and the Admirals. He wondered how he had borne it. (p. 770)

The book’s final scene occurs about two or three months after the climactic events. Strange and Norrell travel to Italy together, in Hurtfew Abbey and conveyed by the Darkness. How they do this is not explained, but clearly they have quickly learned to live with and even to control the conditions of the Gentleman’s curse. Arabella is living in Padua with Flora Greysteel and her father, friends Strange had made during his time in Venice. She meets Strange for the first time since their brief reunion in Lost-hope. Naturally she asks him, “Have you found any thing yet to dispel the Darkness?”

His insouciant response is miles away from what we might expect: “No, not yet. Though, to own the truth, we have been so busy recently–some new conjectures concerning naiads–that we have scarcely had time to apply ourselves to the problem. But there are one or two things in Goubert’s Gatekeeper of Apollo which look promising. We are optimistic.” He goes on to describe the pair traveling around the world in the Darkness: “Who is to say that the Darkness may not be an advantage. We intend to go out of England and are likely to meet with all sorts of tricksy persons. An English magician is an impressive thing. Two English magicians are, I suppose, twice as impressive–but when those two English magician are shrouded in an Impenetrable Darkness–ah, well! That, I should think, is enough to strike terror into the heart of any one short of a demi-god!”

Although Strange does reassure Arabella that he and Norrell will keep trying to end the Darkness curse, he seems more enthusiastic about traveling with Norrell and having unspecified kinds of adventures. Indeed, the two magicians are still tethered together invisibly, with Norrell of necessity waiting nearby during the conversation, no doubt reading a book. Norrell, poor traveler though he is, can do all this quite comfortably because, as Strange explains, “He need never leave the house if he does not wish it. The world–all worlds–will come to us.” (pp. 781-82)

Lest we worry that Strange is caddishly deserting a weeping Arabella, Clarke sets up for the final scene by making it clear that Mrs Strange has grown tired of the stresses of life with a magician. When Flora remarks that it is “very odd that he should have gone back to his old master at last,” Arabella replies, “Is it? There seems nothing very extraordinary in it to me. I never thought the quarrel would last as long as it did. I thought they would have been friends again by the end of the first month.”

Flora objects that Norrell had attacked Strange in the magical journals. Arabella gives a reply that echoes Norrell’s speech to Strange in the parting scene.

“Oh, I dare say!” said Arabella, entirely unimpressed. “But that was just their nonsense! They are both as stubborn as Old Scratch. I have no cause to love Mr Norrell–far from it. But I know this about him: he is a magician first and everything else second–and Jonathan is the same. Books and magic are all either of them really cares about. No one else understands the subject as they do–and so, you see, it is only natural that they should like to be together.”

She has gradually settled into a pleasant social and domestic life in Padua with Flora and her father: “Of her absent husband she thought very little, except to be grateful for his consideration in placing her with the Greysteels.” (pp. 779-80) No wonder she takes Strange’s startling news about his and Norrell’s plans so calmly.

Strange and Norrell’s final design for living is not the conventional romantic ending that we surely expect, with husband and wife reunited, living happily in Shropshire and occasionally visiting Norrell. Intellectual debate and the lure of further adventures, for once, carry the day. Whether audiences would have been seriously upset at such an outcome is unclear. It would have been worth a try, I think. The series’ scene of Strange appearing to Arabella as a reflection in a well and telling her he loves her is schmaltzy and, to me at least, unsatisfactory as closure.

The series ends with Childermass and Vinculus visiting the newly re-instituted Learned Society of York Magicians (a scene which in the book precedes the  Strange-Arabella conversation). The Society now consists mainly of Strangites and Norrellites. Childermass suggests to the group that Strange and Norrell are caught in some unknown place “Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain.” (p. 778) He hints that the new writings on Vinculus, if they can be deciphered, might affect the two magicians’ fates–perhaps implying that they could be rescued from the mysterious limbo in the sky into which the Darkness sucks them. Given how few rules we have been given about the Darkness, this is more vague than pleasantly ambiguous.

 

All the books in the world

Norrell's rolling ladder 1     Norrell's rolling ladder 2

I mentioned at the beginning that I have very much enjoyed the series, having now watched it straight through twice and gone through again making notes and taking frames for this entry. Putting aside my complaints, I would like to mention some things that I particularly like about it.

In order to inveigle David into watching the series with me, I told him that it was basically about books. Seeing it again, I realized that I did not really exaggerate. Both the causal action and the characterizations depend heavily on books, and there is also just the sheer sensuous pleasure of the beautiful rare books and the libraries they reside in. Both Clarke’s book and the series are beloved of bibliophiles. The novel is famous for its many  footnotes, many of which refer to obscure (and fictitious) books of magic, most importantly Jacques Belasis’ Instructions (date unknown), a frequent reference for both Norrell and Strange, and Thomas Lanchester’s Treatise concerning the Language of Birds (16th Century). One scene in the series, the book auction, is loosely derived from a footnote (#5, pp. 283-84)

Most of the important male characters in both book and series are characterized by their relations to books. Norrell’s manipulative power and selfishness comes through books, though he clearly loves them in and of themselves. They have essentially replaced human interaction for him. A poignant little moment comes after Norrell agrees to send forty books with Strange on his wartime journey. He does not make an angry speech to Childermass about regretting having come to London, as happens in the series; that speech is actually derived from a description of Norrell’s sad thoughts over dinner.

He wished he had never come to London. He wished he had never undertaken to revive English magic. He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought was worth the loss of forty books.

After Lord Liverpool and Strange had gone he went to the library to look at the forty books and hold them and treasure them while he could. (p. 287)

In the novel, the forty books get quite battered, but they are not destroyed, there being no such scene as the battle in the forest. Indeed, Jeremy Johns, Strange’s servant and book porter, also survives the war. I couldn’t find a mention of Strange returning Norrell’s books, but presumably he does.

The other characters are also defined to a considerable extent by their relationship to books and other publications. Although Strange is often taken to be a “natural” magician needing no training, he greatly desires to have access to Mr. Norrell’s library, knowing full well that he often cannot replicate or reverse his own spells. Lascelles in effect controls Norrell’s PR by managing the authorized publications. Childermass is a frustrated aspiring magician held back by his working-class status in Norrell’s household, and he surreptitiously reads the books in the library. Segundus and Honeyfoot’s sincere desire to learn magic, or at least read about it, marks them as the humble helper figures. Although Stephen is not directly associated with books, he has had an excellent education that has gained him no respect because he is black. The Gentleman, on the other hand, has nothing but scorn for learning magic through books. When Norrell tells him that he has taught himself magic, his response is a contemptuous “Books!” Being a fairy, he assumes that magical abilities can only be taught by a master. He twice presses his services as a teacher upon Norrell, who has such a hatred for fairy magic that he indignantly declines and thus gains the enmity of the Gentleman.

The street magician Vinculus is the embodiment of fairy-derived magic, carrying the book of the Raven King written in tattoo-fashion upon his body. Although he cannot read himself as a book, he has in his memory the prophesies of the Raven King, and he delivers them to predict and presumably guide the fates of Norrell, Strange, and Stephen.

Books are central to the causal anatomy of the plot. They permit such things as the relatively inexperienced Strange’s successes in his wartime service, including the magical construction of the road, which convinces the skeptical Duke of Wellington that magic might have military advantages after all. Norrell’s suppression of Strange’s book leads to suspense over whether Strange will take a violent revenge on him. The two successive texts written on Vinculus have a function that is difficult to pin down, but perhaps we are to assume that it consists of the magic that governs all the rest of the action. As Vinculus tells Childermass, in both novel and series, Norrell and Strange “are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been. And he is doing it now!” (p. 758).

The series keeps books in the forefront as a general motif. Most obviously, Norrell’s bibliophilia is used to counter the more villainous aspects of his character added by the adapters. He remains a charming character in part through little bits of book-related business and dialogue. Norrell’s attempt to escape the crowd at Lady Godesdone’s party leads him to discover some books in a side room; he appreciatively, even lovingly, sniffs the book before he starts reading, a detail not in Clarke’s novel.

There is a similar moment more difficult to notice. In the first teaching session, Norrell emphasizes respectable magic and moves to fetch a book. He gives a large rolling staircase a push and steps onto it while it is moving; it stops exactly by the book on the top shelf that he is after (above).

There are other such moments. When Norrell hears Lucas, his footman, handling some books, he detects carelessness and calls out, “Mind the spines, Lucas! The spines!” His desire to acquire a specific volume at auction is emphasized by his petulant remark, “I’ve been looking for that book for years.” How many of us could not sympathize with that? Finally, there is Norrell’s exclamation during his ecstatic reaction to Strange’s spell: “It is not in Sutton-Grove!” Francis Sutton-Grove’s De Generibus Artium Magicarum Anglorum, 1741, classifies 38,945 areas of magic. It is “reputed to be the dreariest book in the canon of England Magic.” Mr Norrell is “Sutton-Grove’s greatest (and indeed only) admirer.” (Footnote 6, p. 59).

All this is why I think the adapters made a serious mistake in having Strange demand that Norrell sacrifice his entire library to provide the handsel for their final spell. Nothing of the sort happens in the novels. At one stage in the proceedings, all of the books briefly turn into ravens and swirl around the room, but they all turn back. There is no logic to having Norrell’s books offered to the Raven King. Why offer “all of English magic” to him? He embodies English magic, and he surely has no use for books. I suspect that this peculiar idea was added to allow the cheap humor of Norrell’s trying to bargain Strange into to taking only half of his library, or at most two-thirds. I can’t see a necessary function for it. The idea of the library being lost like this surely sent chills through fans and bibliophiles everywhere.

 

Like a film

Planimetric, Norrell-Pole meeting

I often read about a television series that has been made in the style of a film. Again, I don’t see much television, but I had to this point not seen one that does look like a film. But JS&MN does, much of the time. Given its comparatively limited budget compared to a typical historical epic of this type, it’s very impressive in its design (see bottom, for example) and cinematography (as in the top image, with its suggestion of a Turner landscape). The digital matte shots in the special effects are usually obvious as such, but they give the images an old-fashioned look that somehow seems appropriate.

At times Toby Haynes’s direction reminded me a bit of Spielberg’s, in that he has a similar habit of varying his setups within scenes. Clearly each separate framing is chosen for a specific action, as with Spielberg. These six framings open the scene in which Strange visits Norrell for the first time, and the sequence as a whole continues in this way throughout, with few repeated setups. The choice of framings manages to focus on the conversation between Stange and Lascelles while keeping us aware that Norrell is nearby, torn between suspecting that Strange is a fake and fearing that he is a rival.

Meeting scene 1   Meeting scene 2

Meeting scene 3   Meeting scene 4

Meeting scene 5   Meeting scene 6

To keep with the Amadeus theme, the series frequently contains too many shots. Do we really need four separate images of Vinculus reading the titles of the spells he has stolen from Childermass? Still, Haynes has the good sense to keep his camera on a tripod most of the time, though he is overly fond of push-ins.

One device that particularly impresses me is the systematic use of planimetric shots to characterize Norrell. This begins in the scene where he tries to interest the politician Sir Walter Pole in using his magic in the war effort and Pole humiliatingly rejects him (top of this section). It becomes more complex, though, in the beach scene where Norrell underwhelms the onlookers by silently installing his invisible beacons. This episode is presumably inspired by the scene in the book, quoted above, where Lascelles chides Norrell for not adding impressive visual elements to his coastal protections.

It begins with a crane down from the distant onlookers to Norrell inaudibly muttering his spell. For a time, variant shots of him against the empty seascape alternate with framings of Strange looking on with increasing doubt and Sir Walter chatting to Arabella about the dire situation of the war. Arabella holds her binoculars ready, expecting to see something appear.

Norrell has clearly been prepared for the occasion by Drawlight and Lascelles. He wears a new, expensive-looking outfit, and he seems to remember being told to gesture impressively. He raises his hands for a lackluster flourish, looking none too confident, and turns to the crowd, announcing, “It is done.” Arabella and Pole look surprised, as Norrell continues, off, “The sea defenses are now in place.”

In a shot of the onlookers, Lord Liverpool calls out, “I cannot see anything!” In medium close-up, Strange reacts, and Norrell, off, says “You will not see anything. They are invisible.” In long shot, Norrell looks out to sea and insists, “It is done.”

Beach scene 1     Beach scene 2     Beach scene 3

Beach scene 4     Beach scene 5     Beach scene 6

Beach scene 7     Beach scene 8     Beach scene 9

Beach scene 10     Beach scene 11     Beach scene 12

Beach scene 13     Beach scene 14     Beach scene 15

Beach scene 16     Beach scene 17     Beach scene 18

As Drawlight tries to arouse some enthusiasm by cheering for Norrell, there is a transition to a new section of the scene. An oblique view shows Norrell rejoining the group. Strange moves toward the sea and Sir Walter follows him. A planimetric shot of the pair, taken in profile rather than straight onto or away from the sea,  contrasts with the earlier part of the sequence. As Norrell and the others watch them chatting, Sir Walter and Strange are shown in two variant framings from behind. While the horizon line had hovered just above Norrell’s head, the hats of these two reach the horizon in one view and slight break through it in the second. They do not look as small and ineffectual as Norrell had against the seascape.

Beach scene 19     Beach scene 20     Beach scene 21

Beach scene 22     Beach scene 23     Beach scene 24

Beach scene 25     Beach scene 26     Beach scene 27

Beach scene 28     Beach scene 29     Beach scene 30

Beach scene 31     Beach scene 32

Finally, after declaring that he dislikes Portsmouth intensely, Norrell trudges away toward screen right while Strange and Sir Walter remain looking leftward out to sea on the other. The visual style conveys both the humor and pathos underlying the shifting fortunes of the two magicians.

Other scenes use planimetric shots less extensively, including Norrell’s escape from the crowd at the party and several framings in the two magicians’ visit to George III, in some of which Norrell’s figure is again overwhelmed by his surroundings. (See also the bottom image.)

Norrell at Godesdone party     George III scene 1

Others include his visit to Lady Pole, the magicians’ reunion after the war (see Friendly Enemies section), and their final parting.

Planimetric, Norrell visits Lady Pole     Planimetric, Norrell-Strange parting

After the latter scene, the planimetric framings disappear. I suppose this is because once the two part, there is less necessity to play create contrasts between the magicians.

 

Too challenging for BBC Sundays?

Why was the series relatively unsuccessful? Apparently viewership in England started off high but dropped precipitously thereafter. I don’t think the quality of the production can be blamed. Gerald O’Donovan praised the series in the Telegraph and wrote that it did not deserve such a fate. He suggests that it “was just too odd and convoluted to appear to the Sunday night mainstream. It should be interesting to see whether it lives on and wins further fans via the more cult-friendly media of boxed sets and online streaming.”

O’Donovan’s diagnosis is probably correct. Even considerably compressed, the thing was just too complicated for people to follow. The episodes move at a relentless pace. Episode 2, though perhaps the best in the series, in particular crams a surprising amount of the book’s narrative material into its approximately 50-minute running time. There is little time for redundancy in the presentation of causal material.

For example, everyone can grasp the scene in which Strange reveals to Arabella that he has become a magician and proves it by doing a spell with a mirror that allows him to see a different room, occupied by a man he doesn’t know but whom we recognize as Norrell. Most will understand that this is one of the two spells Strange bought from Vinculus after the latter recited the prophecy about two magicians (see top). But where did Vinculus get the spells, and who wrote them originally?

They were written by Norrell in an earlier scene, where he gave them to Childermass as an aid to getting Vinculus to leave London. He orders Childermass not to use them unless necessary, and Childermass never gets the chance, since Vinculus steals them out of his pocket.

It’s not absolutely necessary that we grasp this connection between the two magicians, who do not yet know each other’s identities. But it is helpful at least to understand that Norrell writes simple spells because he has only allowed Childermass to learn a limited amount of magic, and thus even Strange, who has never done magic before, can successfully use “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently.”

There are many connections that I failed to notice on the first time through and picked up on the second viewing. I can only imagine how people who have not read the book can follow much of the action. (After one viewing, David had no idea that Norrell had written Strange’s spell, and I think it is safe to say that he is pretty good on narrative.)

Another possible puzzler is the frequent reference to “Christians.” Clarke explains that this is what fairies call all mortal creatures; the series doesn’t. It’s a subtle point, but it explains why the tales that Lady Pole tells when she tries explain her enchantment all refer to characters and even animals as Christians. As Mr. Honeyfoot points out, these stories are told from the points of view of fairies.

As O’Donovan says, another probable obstacle has been that the series, however much it has conventionalized some aspects of the story, still tells a very odd tale indeed. People expecting a cross between Harry Potter and Jane Austen (another frequent reference made in entertainment coverage) will be caught off-guard.

I ordered the British Blu-ray, which came out on June 29 in the UK. It has excellent visual quality and a few mildly interesting extras, the most helpful dealing with the special effects. The American Blu-ray/DVD has a dreadful cover, nothing like the amusing portrait of the two title characters that graces the British version.


All page numbers are from the American first edition, Bloomsbury, 2004.

Chapter Four of my The Frodo Franchise deals with the way that studios control what reporters write through giving cast and crew certain talking points that get repeated over and over in the hundreds of promotional interviews that they will undergo at press junkets, on talk shows, and during public appearances.

One might ask why Norrell, having so little dramatic flair in his magic, puts on such an impressive show in York Minster. I wondered for a while whether this was an inconsistency in Clarke’s book but concluded that Norrell simply doesn’t see the difference. Magic is magic, and it should always impress people.

I am atypical in finding the last episode disappointing. Most reviews of it were positive. See again Anibundel for an intelligent and more enthusiastic view of it. The TV series was extensively covered on this site, and other entries are worth reading as well.

[August 20: Den of Geek has an interesting piece taking to task reviewers who compared the series to Harry Potter and generally gave the idea that it is for children. (Hardly. The British Blu-ray has a 15 rating.) I doubt that was the reason for the fall-off in viewership as the series continued, but it might have caused some people not to watch the show altogether.]

Strange & Norrell w George III

 

Filling the box: The Never-Ending Pan & Scan Story

The Limey (1999).

DB here:

Here’s a story, so far not finished.

 

Chapter 1: You can’t put ten pounds of mud in a five-pound sack (Dolly Parton)

Once upon a time, before home video and cable, movies were broadcast on television. They might be drawn from local TV stations’ 16mm collections or transmitted from the networks on “movie of the week” shows. When the film was a widescreen film, especially in anamorphic processes, it was adjusted, as we now say, “to fit your screen.”

That TV screen was in an aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 (4 x 3), like pre-1950s commercial films. But the film to be shown might be 1.75, 1.85, or 2.35. How to show it?

You could retain the whole original frame with letterboxing at top and bottom. This was done more often in Europe than in the US, I believe. Our TV system had 100 fewer lines, so the tiny picture area became quite degraded. And then (as now) there were people who persisted in believing that those black bars at top and bottom were somehow taking away part of the movie.

Far more common was the tactic of somehow making the wider image fill the box. This tactic came to be called “pan and scan.” It gained the name because in preparing the TV version, an engineer would sometimes swivel the TV frame across the original image, carving into it and sliding to and fro. The term pan and scan covered another tactic, simply making two shots out of one. We might call it “cut and scan.” Here’s an instance from an old VHS tape of Advise and Consent, one of the most daring American widescreen films. The slightly fatter faces are due to the distortion of the CRT monitor I shot from.

     

Sometimes there was neither scanning nor cutting, just simple cropping. The engineer would find a 4×3 chunk and extract it from the bigger image. To keep things simple, that chunk was usually around the center.  This “center-cutting,” as it was called, could yield some funny results, as in the protruding nose in a 16mm TV print of Tarnished Angels.

 

Chapter 2: Shoot, protect, screw up

Some widescreen processes from the 1950s onward didn’t frame the image wide during filming. The image would be captured “full frame.” The result might later be “hard matted,” or letterboxed, during printing, as in the shot from The Limey surmounting today’s entry.

Sometimes,  the 35mm theatrical prints would retain a 4:3 image, or something even squarer. The frames in a 35mm print of Do the Right Thing are about 1.19:1. Note the extensive headroom in the left image, from a 35mm print. For screenings the projectionist would mask the image to the proper proportions—typically 1.85. Here’s the version on the Criterion DVD, at 1.75 for widescreen monitors.

     

The full-frame image was available for cropping to 4:3 TV viewing. Many cinematographers used the “shoot and protect method” by composing for both 1.85 and 1.33.

There were problems with this “open matte” process in theatres. I recall a mis-framed version of Jerry Maguire in which the locker-room scene showed more of Cuba Gooding’s goodies than was intended. And a full-frame print of Godfather II reveals the duct-taped marks on the set floor (as if Pacino would ever hit them).

The same problem would appear in full-frame TV versions that were carelessly transferred from film. Microphones, unfinished stretches of the set, and other production elements might jut in. Some cinematographers didn’t consider TV versions important enough to worry about. “Fuck TV,” was heard occasionally.

More basically, the full-frame result wasn’t faithful to the “original” theatrical version, which was designed to be shown wide. Purists objected that TV versions, even if shot full-frame, didn’t fulfill the intention of the director.

 

Chapter 3: 16 into 9 won’t go

In the 1990s there came laserdiscs and DVDs. These offered properly letterboxed framings. Cinephiles cheered. It seemed that the days of pan and scan were over.

Actually, pan-and-scan hung on quite a bit. Many laserdisc editions weren’t letterboxed. Airline versions offered cropped images, and still do. (Those tiny screens, after all.) Some DVDs were released in pan-and-scan versions, while others offered a letterboxed version of the film on one side of the disc and a full-frame version on the other. But serious cinephiles could assume that the general public was starting to understand that films intended to be seen at a certain ratio should be shown that way.

As the new disc formats emerged, so did a plan to standardize High Definition video for a 16 x 9 display. The European Union promoted it during the mid-1990s, and over the next twenty years it became accepted for both computer monitors and video displays. The new format developed in sync with the gradual replacement of analog broadcasting by HD transmission.

The problem is that 16:9 is a ratio of 1.77:1, close enough to 1.85 for most purposes but far off the ratio of 2.20:1 (many 70mm films) and 2.40 (anamorphic widescreen after about 1970). Yet maybe this isn’t a problem. Why not just letterbox those wider images within the 16:9 format?

If only things were so simple.

 

Chapter 4: Slightly off, and more

Today, at least 77% of US households have HD monitors. (Surprisingly, 41% of TVs still in use are Standard Definition, many presumably comforting children and old people.) Broadcasters make concessions to the 4:3 ratio by keeping the key action centered and cropping the 16:9 image.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and TV monitors apparently can’t bear blank space. So some purveyors of movies on video have updated pan-and-scan for the HD age. Cable, for instance.

It’s been years since I clicked my cable remote to the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel, now known as IFC. Seeing them a couple of weeks ago was a mild shock. Now each boasted a bug in the lower right corner, and swarming over the image were lots of texts plugging other programs. Worse, there were commercials for weight-loss scams, Burger King, and Portlandia. More to the point here, these services give us a new version of pan-and-scan.

Thanks to the center-cutting method, I found plenty of examples of anamorphic 2.40 films sliced up to fit our monitor. Here are a couple of examples from IFC’s version of Jaws. In the first pair, the wider image gives Bruce room to move, and Brody is more salient. In the second pair, Hooper is speaking, but in the IFC image he’s even more peripheral than Mr. Nose in Tarnished Angels.

     

     

In rare cases, IFC seems to run full-scope prints; I spotted one of Chinatown. But it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Maybe IFC’s New Age pan-and-scan is trying to live up to the channel’s slogan: “Always on. Slightly off.”

Many films of the early widescreen era are compromised even at 16:9. The nose shot from Tarnished Angels would be a bit cramped in a 1.77 format, and many other shots would suffer as well.

When the wide format was still new, filmmakers were exploring what they could do it, and that included scattering important information throughout the frame. Preminger was all over the place in the Senate and Committee-Room scenes of Advise and Consent. What would you do to fit these shots into 16:9? I make a silly stab at center-cutting.

     

    

Films like this remind you of how the technology of home video has made our filmmakers less daring in their compositions. Would anyone today risk the  bold composition that Richard Fleischer uses in the mortuary scene of Compulsion? As you can see from the image at the end of the entry, the crucial pair of eyeglasses rests on the lower frameline, as if on a shelf.  ‘Scope nudged some directors toward quite intricate shot designs.

By the time Tootsie was made, with home video on the rise, filmmakers were pressed to shoot and protect better. So here there’s plenty of unused space on the sides, and most action will fit into any old frame proportions. In the shot below, the 1.33 version (available on the flip side of the DVD) is extracted from the Scope version (and slightly squeezed as well). The 1.77 version I grabbed from the Sundance Channel is also extracted from the wider framing. Both reframe the image to emphasize Michael and Jeff, the comic duo. The original 2.35 image centers the food counter and for some reason gives equal space to the inconsequential aisle and stove on the right.

          

Obviously, composition isn’t particularly important here. Solid as Tootsie is at the level of writing and performance (“Oh, God, I begged you to get some therapy”), we wouldn’t point to it as a model of pictorial finesse.

Moreover, pan-and-scan isn’t just a matter of retaining the action in different framings. Recasting the image changes the scale of the things in it. Old TV pan-and-scan, as in my first Advise and Consent example, makes the figures chopped out of the composition seem closer to us. Sometimes today’s pan-and-scan makes the figures seem smaller. That’s because the full-frame original image offers a bit more space at the top or bottom than we see in the anamorphic version, and that gets incorporated into the 1.77 or 1.33 version. (You can see it in the Jaws example above, with the space above Quint’s head.)

The push-pull of different versions is particularly noticeable in close views. The center-cut (and perhaps slightly squeezed) IFC version of The Matrix keeps Cypher prominent in the foreground, with the car crash in the rear. Yet do you see him and the crash as closer to us in the wide original? I do. Maybe it’s because both Cypher and the background plane are larger in the second frame.

     

By contrast, several shots in the IFC version of The Matrix have areas at the top and bottom not visible in a wider-frame DVD. In any case, extracting from an anamorphic frame or here, pulling the 1.77 version out of a full frame, can subtly alter the scale and perspective relations within the shot.

In the old TV days, networks would show credit sequences in full widescreen, as they were obliged to make all the contributors’ names visible. So you often had the odd situation of a widescreen credits sequence that would end a movie shown in 4:3. Sundance has updated the technique. Tootsie’s penultimate shot of Julie is at 1.77, but as she and Michael walk off, we cut immediately to a final shot at 2.35 letterboxed, over which the credits roll.

     

Another old trick has been revived. Back in 1960s TV, you’d have an obligatory widescreen image with credits information, but the shot might go on to show story action. Then the TV framing would close in on the wide image and gradually fill the screen with a 4:3 composition. Damned if I didn’t find the same thing happening last weekend on Sundance. The opening credits for The Graduate were in full ‘scope. That shot dissolved to the famous shot of Benjamin sitting in front of his aquarium, blankly facing the camera.

          

To retain the credits and keep the dissolve smooth, the engineer slowly enlarged the original shot to 16:9 proportions as Ben’s father comes in. (You can see the Sundance bug lift slowly into the lower right of the image.)

     

The result is a camera movement, a zoom in, that isn’t in the original film. In the original framing below, the shot scale on Ben isn’t much different, but the little scuba diver remains prominent in a way he isn’t in the 16×9 image.

 

Chapter 5: VOD = Variants On Demand

On cable TV we Americans can go to TCM for a purer experience of widescreen from the old days. But the more recent films shown on IFC, Sundance, Pivot, and other cable channels are likely to be hacked up in the new way. In this respect as well as others, cable has become the network TV of the new age. We get shows of all types, not just sports and movies but original series, except that now we get to pay to watch commercials.

Surely things are better with streaming?

In the spot-checking I did on Amazon and Hulu Plus, I didn’t find instances of cropping. In particular, the Criterion films I checked retain their proper aspect ratios. Netflix is another story. At this point we must thank the anonymous genius behind What Netflix Does. This site exposes a great many ways that the most popular streaming service has relied on pan-and-scan, with different crops for different markets.

     

     

In fairness, once the anonymous genius contacted Netflix, some deficient versions were replaced by proper ones. But several of the more recent examples have not been changed. Who knows how many others remain panned and scanned because the alterations haven’t yet been detected?

 

In the light of all this, I’m wondering if filmmakers have been protesting this mangling of their work. During the early days of TV broadcasts, directors complained about cuts and commercials, and in more recent years we’ve learned that directors were won over to digital projection in theatres because then “the film would be shown exactly as the director intended.” With many more people seeing the film on video platforms than see it in theatres, you’d think we’d have heard more from the creative community. Once more their movies are being jammed and lopped to fit whatever box they’re put in.


I’m tempted to say that when we want to get the movie in a form close to the ways its makers wanted it to be seen, we need to see it in a theatre or get it on DVD/Blu-ray. There are exceptions, of course. Theatres can botch aspect ratios today just as they have in earlier decades, chiefly by using the wrong masking. And we have filmmakers who alter the aspect ratio on DVD, usually to expand the field from 2.35:1 to 1..77 in hopes (vain) of evoking the Imax effect (Tron: LegacyThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

Without getting into technicalities, some of the 1.77 versions you’ll see have a bit more area at the top and the bottom of the frame than we find in the full anamorphic image. In many cases, like the shot of Cypher in The Matrix, it’s because the film was shot in Super-35. This very full-frame capture format allowed filmmakers to extract a 2.40-proportioned image, or a 4:3 image, or images in other aspect ratios. The Wikipedia entry on Super-35 is very helpful on this and other aspect ratios, both for cinema screens and TV. Some shots in the IFC Jaws had a little more vertical area as well. I assume that’s because the ‘scope image on the DVD cropped a tad off the top and bottom of the full-frame image on the film.

Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for pointing me toward the site What Netflix Does. More general thanks to James Quandt for our long-running conversation about aspect ratios. Other entries on aspect ratio on this site involve Fritz LangJean-Luc Godard, and Wes Anderson. I set out some ideas on CinemaScope aesthetics in this video lecture.

P.S. 28 January: Thomas Zorthian was ahead of the curve on this. Back in 2011 he noticed the Netflix pan-and-scan.

Your article hit home for me as I have been trying to bring attention to this problem for a while. I even wrote Roger Ebert hoping he could use his influence. He was kind enough to publish my letter: http://www.rogerebert.com/letters/netflix-stream-sometimes-overflows-the-banks. I have also written to HBO and am considering a petition to ask them to show movies in the proper ratio before HBO GO becomes a standalone service. This would enhance the value of this new service.

Thanks to Thomas for corresponding!

Compulsion (1959).

David Bordwell
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