The Principles of Garden Design

On Tuesday this week I arrived back in Australia, early in the morning, from three weeks conferencing and researching in Europe. I spent the day engaged in the gently restorative process of unpacking, washing, and sorting through the accumulated notes and debris of scholarly behaviour. By twilight I was beginning to feel properly banjaxed and adjourned outside to my garden deck, Ipad in hand, to catch up on emails, steadily replying, deleting and offering assurances that yes I was back, but would return after a couple of days’ leave. While watching the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s excellent catch-up app I noticed our copy of Yates’ Garden Guide on the table. This is the product of a New Zealand gardening company which began publishing the Guide shortly after it was established at the end of the nineteenth century, and is the most popular gardening book in Australia. Not that ours is used much: the garden is a small modest affair, mostly a lawn, a tree and a few potted plants – a backdrop and mingling area for barbecues, drinks and other social and family kinds of entertainment – but the Guide is a useful resource nevertheless and an emblem of suburban horticultural good intentions. I’d never really looked at it before.

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Perhaps it was my slightly jetlagged subjectivity, but as I read it my mind went into analogy-mode, playing a game of ‘this is like this is like this’. After the first chapter on the historical and national background to Australian gardens (which I skipped) chapter two, ‘Garden Design’, begins grandly by asserting a declaration of the ‘principles of garden design,’ and I could not help but get it tangled up with my recent conference papers that were concerned with aesthetics and the medium. ‘A good garden is one which offers a multitude of pleasures,’ claims the Guide, ‘a place to relax by yourself or with friends, bounty to cook and eat, or even just a piece of living artistry to contemplate from the couch on a rainy day.’  Like television then, its pleasures are diverse and many; like television a garden can offer utility, aesthetic delight, the sense of nourishment we sometimes get after consuming another crop of our favourite show. There is the homely everydayness of both, available for gaze or glance, the setting before or in which we stage our activities; or the object of them. There are genres of plant and tree life, forms of spatial handling to encourage mood and atmosphere, even – and this is getting really Walden-esque – a kind of ‘news’ in the anchoring of garden and television to calendrical time, its daily immediate shifting as part of a seasonal journey.

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Now, I’m fully aware this kind of analogy-mongering can get silly, in the, ‘That’s like Our Lord Jesus’ mode; but consider how suggestive these bullet-point principles of design from the Guide are for our thinking about fine television:

  • Utilising and dealing with space.
  • Creating unity: linking the whole design so there is relationship between elements.
  • Maximising views and vistas.
  • Establishing a foundation for mood and response.

This expansive sense of design allows richness to emerge and evolve rather than settle into systems and stable forms; the restless growth of a garden is planned of course but it is necessarily hostage to organic spontaneity – some welcome, some not.  And the Guide’s principles are appropriately general and abstract in these early pages – first steps before a more schematic, systematised filling out of the practical details. Designing and criticising television may begin from such lofty heights but we also need to get down to the heavy spadework of sorting, assessing and comparing the results of such designs – not everything works, and not everything will be habitable or hospitable in ways that suit our preferences.

The work that has been done on gardening and television, notably by Charlotte Brunsdon and Frances Bonner – two of the most careful, attentive and patient scholars I know, as well as keen gardeners themselves – has tended to engage with those shows, which we would now call lifestyle programming, in terms of their social and cultural resonances and provocations. But I think there is something a bit more abstractly fascinating about the way the two – let’s call them mediums – are growing together.  By this I’m referring to the rise of mobile television watching and home Wi-Fi which allowed me, for example, to watch the ABC live news outside in the garden at my table. And I may have been prompted to the thought that television and gardens belong together during the stopover in Singapore that broke up my twenty hour flight from London to Australia. Upstairs at Changi Airport, for those who crave the open air, as well as the sustenance of drink and smoke, there is the Cactus Garden, a gloriously rich collection of the world’s finest cacti.  As I sat there Monday night, steeling myself for the final leg, I noticed many other travellers who like me, faces lit in the twilight by the glow of their smartphones and tablets were watching and interacting with screens among the beautiful flora of an international garden. Perhaps one day the Guide will incorporate this new behaviour in one of its principles of garden design.

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[First published on CST Online in July 2012]

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Sad screens and videots

I first saw Melancholia (von Trier, 2011) on my TV during the day while home alone. A few weeks later I saw it again at the cinema with friends. It’s a film about two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) a chronic depressive, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a rich bourgeois housewife, and their experience of the end of the world. The telly is a conventional widescreen and after watching the film on it I wondered if it might be better to see the movie again on the big screen with ‘big’ sound. Even in the domestic setting of my living room the aural impact of the film’s final scenes where a large planet (‘Melancholia’) collides with the earth seemed impressively overwhelming. But on the second viewing – in a good sized cinema during a Film Festival – I was thoroughly underwhelmed. This was puzzling. Like most people I assume that feature films are, generally speaking, best seen on the cinema screen. Melancholia tries hard to show us imagery that is resonant, strange and affecting, so why this was not amplified or felt more deeply second time around? Was it because I was just too familiar with the film and its aesthetic and narrative patterns? Or that the sensual impact of its spectacles, vistas and performances were not decisively changed or enhanced by the fact of a big screen/big sound experience? Perhaps the domestic space in which I first encountered it enhanced the film’s depressive, melancholy moods which were absorbed into the spaces of my home, infiltrating them so that it reached out and lingered long after the final credits. After all, this is a film in which the central character’s craving for self-annihilation and apocalypse to gets projected outwards and infects the cosmos: little wonder it rubs off in the place of home viewing but seemed diluted among the crowded cinema audience.

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But these are merely speculative impressions. One thing what the experience brought home to me was how inert and vacant all those old film vs. television distinctions now seem. There are no longer decisive differences between the two to do with quality of the image, or availability of spectacle or visual or aural depth or, given the prominence of large screen broadcast of sport and theatre and music, between live transmission and recorded film. The differences also seem less because they can be contrasted with new forms of media which cultivate out attention in apparently new and distinct ways. Equally, the experience reminded me that I don’t really have a screen preference. Like a lot of middle-aged screen scholars a vast amount of my viewing of movies has taken place on a television screen, not least watching the massive amount of feature films screened on British television during the 1960 onwards, as well as through the consumption of heaps of recorded movies and television on VHS and DVD. More recently I’ve been watching downloaded television and films on laptops and handhelds – episodic television being particularly convenient during the fifty minute train journey I take to work and back every day.

I think I can explain my reaction to the two viewings of Melancholia in a different way. It was less about the technology of consumption than my attitude toward each moment of reception. The first viewing took place during a quiet period at home in the middle of the day, and I was able to bring my full wide-awake concentration and attention to it, in a place and on a TV screen I use frequently for study, compared to a late-in-the-day cinema experience among friends who were new to it and thus differently positioned as spectators. And these days I am used to concentrating hard on the television screen. Sustained concentration, the ability to direct and marshall one’s undistracted attention is a quality that contemporary television seems to reward, in both its fiction and non-fiction programming. This is in contrast to the way television was seen by many in the past, when the smaller size of the television screen was always emblematic of other ranges of inferiority. This did not negate a perception that television was an overwhelmingly powerful corrupting force in the home, corralling and overwhelming the attention of its viewers in pathological and socially toxic ways.

According to Jerzy Kosinski one of the paradoxical ways in which television exerted its grip was as a medium whose overall power transcended particular programmes and moments as well as the distractions of the domestic setting:

While viewing, you can eat, you can recline, you can walk around the set, you can even change channels, but you won’t lose contact with the medium. Unlike theatre or cinema, TV allows, even encourages, all these “human” diversions. TV’s hold on you is so strong, it is not easily threatened or severed by the “other life” you lead. While watching, you are not reminded (as you would be by a theatre audience, for instance) that you are a member of society whose thoughts and reactions may be valuable. You are isolated and given no time to reflect. The images rush on and you cannot stop them or slow them down or turn them back. (‘A Nation of Videots, 337)

A version of Kosinski’s ‘videot’ thesis is elaborated in his novella Being There where the central character Chance (played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 Hal Ashby film) has ‘no meaningful existence outside of what he experiences on television’. Of course, today we do have the means to ‘stop’ or ‘slow’ television, and a lot of the finest work – I’m thinking for example of the dramas I have written about in previous blogs – demand reflection and depend on the acknowledgment of their viewer’s social, moral and ethical thoughts and reactions.

Toward the end of Melancholia, an increasingly panicked Claire opens her laptop and searches the internet for information about whether the planet Melancholia will collide with ours. It is an amazing moment in a film that has hygienically erased all traces of the media from its world (despite the fact that its central character has a career in the advertising industry). Perhaps it reminds the viewer how fully immersed many of us are in the immediacy and self-absorption of the web, particularly its social media. Indeed it seems to me that it is social media that has taken on many of the characteristics that Kosinski attributes to television, particularly the power over our forms of concentration, and its encouragement of diversion. Instead of depicting a medium that cultivates a narcissistic, self-absorbed engagement with the moods and (dis)connectivity of the self, Melancholia offers the character of Justine who embodies these qualities instead.

Television by contrast seems more and more to reward our concentration rather than corrupting it. But one of the problems with viewing it on hybrid devices like laptops, phones and tablets is that their connectedness tends to encourage proximity to the fleeting slices of immediacy that Facebook, Twitter, email etc offer. No doubt it is partially true to some extent that television helped socialise us in the forms of attention that social media now encourages as well. But if what you want to do is appreciate the achievement of the television that you admire, the best way to watch television (especially long form episodic television drama), is continuously – one after the after – and without the distraction and interruption of the new videot media.

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References
David Sohn, ‘David Sohn Interviews Jerzy Kosinski: A Nation of Videots’, in Horace Newcomb (ed.), Television The Critical View, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 334-349.

First published at CST Online.

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Witnessing Excellence in David Milch’s Luck

Passion and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part. Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion is enacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, however trivial or mean, are no measure of its power.

In 1970 David Sanford Milch submitted two chapters from a novel as part of his MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop (Richard Yates, with whom he was to become close, was one of the examiners). The never-to-be published novel was entitled The Groundlings and I’m sure that title was inspired by this passage from Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; since that time Milch’s writing has consistently engaged with the lives and passions of ‘groundlings’ – those apparently ‘low’, ‘cheap’, and ‘dirty’ creatures who live close to the ground and who we know intimately through works such as NYPD Blue and Deadwood. His new drama, Luck is set at the racetrack and does not buck this trend: its most immediately engaging characters are described in the script as The Degenerates – Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Renzo (Richie Coster) and the endlessly concupiscent Lonnie (Ian Hart), who together allow us to participate in their profound highs and lows at the racetrack (and off it), threatening to steal the show altogether from its big star heavy-hitters Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon.

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The first episode of the show was shown by HBO after the season two finale of Boardwalk Empire last December, and it has received some thoughtful reviews in the UK. Both the Guardian and The Independent noted the way old age was foregrounded through the casting (Hoffman, Nolte, and Gambon are all in the their seventies) as well as the fact the show draws on Milch’s own history as a gambler and racing horse owner (he has won the prestigious Breeders’ Cup twice). That juxtaposition between the slowness, deliberation and fatigue of age with the speed, impulsivity and energy of youth is rendered across various sequences that pitch movement against stillness, and reflection against action. As Hitchcock taught us in Notorious and Marnie, given the right performances the very act of watching horses race can electrify our attention, plausibly allowing eyelines to be directed outwards toward the camera at the action, while we as spectators of spectatorship watch the shifting currents of attention wash over the faces of the characters.

However, this is to state the obvious structural and aesthetic matter that is touted in the foreground. One of the first shots has Hoffman’s character, Ace Bernstein, about to be released from jail looking straight at the camera in close up so we can see the geology of his beautifully lined face, freighted with obscure but determined intention.

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The episode concludes with Bernstein and his loyal assistant Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina) reflecting on the day’s events as he succumbs to early evening tiredness in his hotel room. As he begins dozing Bernstein continues to plot some kind of revenge on the vaguely sketched powers who were responsible for his incarceration. Again, this obvious thing draws us into a deeper place than merely acknowledging that old folks get tired earlier in the day, by asking us to wonder about the nature of time and intention. Is it only the energy supplied by grievance, vengeance and the settling of scores that keeps us sharp in the face of gathering darkness? To draw on a favourite Milch reference from William James, we know Bernstein carries his cards close to his chest, but what he is holding is less important than appreciating the way he plays them. The same is true of the show as a whole: as some reviewers noted it seems to make few concessions to those not well versed in the language and jargon of the racetrack, and shares with Deadwood a certain opacity and complication of language. But we will live into it. Understanding the show is less important than cleaving to its moods and ways of binding as well as repelling us (that is, repelling in order to bind us even tighter to it).
When Bernstein first gets out of prison he asks Demitriou to get him a tape recorder because he doesn’t ‘hold his thoughts as well’. Milch too has his dialogue and discourse taped since he does not write with pen or keyboard but instead speaks the script aloud which is then copied onto a big computer screen in front of him; he then edits and revises as he goes, returning to it for revision and adjustment up until the last moment. Thanks to Milch’s long term production assistant (and also writer of the fifth episode of Luck), Scott Willson, I had the opportunity to briefly witness him writing a later episode, with his friend and legendary champion jockey Julie Krone and her husband, racing columnist Jay Hovdey in the room (as well as Milch’s long term amanuensis, TV writer and urbane LA podcaster Caleb Bacon).

I’ve written elsewhere about the extraordinary production environment he has cultivated which has finally allowed him to develop this work – he has been trying to write a version of Luck since shortly after submitting The Groundlings chapters in the early 1970s. Whatever we want to make of talk about Milch’s ‘genius’, what I saw in his writing room last year was the careful, unhurried pursuit of excellence in every moment, word, gesture and tone. And whatever the reported friction between the two auteurs, Michael Mann’s direction and Milch’s dialogue achieve a satisfying result together. Mann is an aesthetic technician of surface, able to articulate the hectic energy of the track and its spectators, especially in the dynamic, carefully composed racing sequences which convincingly convey a sense of thoroughbreds able to punch holes in the wind. The depiction of their motion is sublime and reminiscent of Milch’s mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren’s eloquent description in his novel A Place to Come To:

..watching the beauty of timing and fluid force and dreamlike retardation of flight, you felt that, as the last hoof broke contact with earth, both horse and rider had imperially floated into a dimension beyond gravity, time, and contingency.

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Milch on the other hand is a master of making us share the experience of the drama gradually and at depth rather than merely cognitively all at once. He is candid about his past drug use as well as his life on at the track from an early age (his father allowed him to gamble there at the age of six); and thanks to Dick Francis and other writers we know that the racetrack can be a venue where horses and jockeys participate in a vast range of exotic pharmacological interventions; tie this to the compulsive nature of gambling, and the dense layers of mendacity and thievery inevitable in such an environment and you have a typically dark Milchean environment. And yet this is leavened by a transcendent dimension. We glimpse it briefly when we see the character played by Nick Nolte, a patient trainer known as the ‘Old Man’, watching his horse running for the first time and realising he has correctly judged its potential as a sublime competitor. Elsewhere in the stands Jerry sees it too, as does – at another part of the track – Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), a stuttering jockey’s agent. We get a sense, familiar in Milch’s art, of a unity created from disparate, seemingly unrelated parts. Here it is mutual awe in the face of achievement, the simultaneous witnessing of excellence in motion. Luck promises to offer the same to us.

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An earlier version of this was published at CST Online.

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Inner and outer in Homeland

Steven Peacock’s recent observation that many academic analyses of television too often become ‘systematic, determined to “solve” the text’s engagement with a specific subject’ is a timely reminder that our evaluation of television art would do well to avoid treating it like a puzzle. It is true that a lot of contemporary television fiction is complex but we should not conflate that which is cognitively challenging with aesthetic achievement: and while puzzles do have aesthetic dimensions we generally (with a few exceptions) do not take them to be works of art. Tracking the formal patterning of dense layers of plot, ambiguous character motivation, and generic innovation might sound like the work of evaluation but it doesn’t add up to a hill of beans if the object under scrutiny is little more than pretty Sudoku-TV.

These thoughts found their anchor when I encountered Showtime’s recent political psychodrama Homeland for the first time earlier this week. Its title sequence references the puzzle form by depicting its two central characters, CIA agent Carrie Mathisen (Claire Danes) and US Marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in a maze, and the plot has a prominent central enigma that undergoes a series of clever shadings, reversals and surprises as the narrative develops – the sort of thing we have become accustomed to in quality American dramas of this kind.
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Ten years ago in Iraq Carrie was warned that an American POW had been turned by Al-Qaeda; when Brody is rescued by special forces after years of captivity in a terrorist compound, and exploited by the US authorities as a war hero, she instead immediately suspects that he is the ‘turned’ soldier. Predictably she is unable to convince her boss that her suspicions have any grounds, but she places Brody and his family under surveillance. In a further turn we discover that Carrie has been taking anti-psychotic medication for several years thus putting her own suspicions under suspicion.

Homeland’s early episodes alternate between slices of Brody’s difficult adjustment to coming home – facing intense media scrutiny, dealing with his two children, and his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) who has been having an affair with one of his marine comrades – and Carrie’s attempts to build up evidence that would substantiate her conviction that he is a terrorist. A lot of the time this involves us watching her watching Brody and his family at home via the many black and white surveillance cameras hidden there. I was struck by how similar Carrie’s intense scrutiny of Brody’s words, gestures and movements was to my own practice of studying television – sitting up close to a big screen, notebook nearby, pen in hand, rapt, honing in on the slightest details – dare I say clues? – in order to assess a performance.
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The most spectacular version of her close reading comes at the end of the first episode when she discovers – by her lights at least – that Brody’s apparent nervous hand movements at his televised homecoming ceremony are instead a means of sending a coded message to his Al-Qaeda comrades in the US.
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The moral dimension of Carrie’s scrutiny of the Brodys’ private lives (which she describes at one point to her helper, the aptly named Virgil, as a ‘reality show’) is brought home in a scene which echoes the famous homecoming moment in Peckinpah’s The Getaway, when Brody and Jessica have sex for the first time since his release. According to one of the show’s creators Alex Gansa:

“We tried to put Carrie in the most awkward, uncomfortable position we could put her in. That puts the audience in the same position: You are violating someone’s privacy. Without being doctrinaire, we’re really trying to show what it means to watch somebody all the time. What are you learning, and are you learning anything that’s relevant?”
[Hamed Aleaziz, ‘Interrogating the Creators of Homeland’, Mother Jones, 4 November 2011]

Or as Carrie shouts at Virgil – and us – after he discovers her anti-psychotic medication, ‘What are you saying? That I’m making this shit up? Well, maybe I am – you know maybe it is all in my head but you’re in it now Virgil – up to your fucking neck.’ Danes does an extraordinary job here and elsewhere of depicting an agent driven by her desire ‘not to let it happen again’ which, the show hints is in some way caught up in her pathology that makes us in turn doubt not only the means she uses but her perceptual reliability itself. For she is facing the problem of matching up ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ – that is human subjectivity and its embodied expression – where the stakes of getting it right or wrong are the security of her nation. (Homeland was adapted by Gansa and co-creator Howard Gordon from the hit 2010 Israeli show Hatufim/Prisoners of War.) Hence we might say that one of the fundamental issues of modernist aesthetics – the question of the clarity, reliability and source of meaning is taken up here as specific issue about the gap between inner truth and outer expression. What is the psychological, political and social meaning of a gesture or look or mood or face? This show therefore seems to be thinking about what I take to be a central problem in Western modern life which is the matching up or congruence between the inner and the outer, between internal thoughts, intentions and motivations and their expression or concealment by the face and body.

As with Claire, it is by no means certain that Brody himself knows for sure how to match up his inner and outer. We are repeatedly given privileged insight via flashbacks into his memories of captivity – the torture, his resilience and, in a wonderfully eloquent series of ‘surprise’ reversals, gestures and emblems of care and worship. These are issues that go beyond, it seems to me, the compelling patterns of enigma and revelation this puzzle show offers us. What are those ‘strings and pulleys’ that connect our flesh with our minds and how do we use them to nurture and express or break and destroy the bonds of family and community and nation? What is it that moves us?
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(Originally published at CST Online.)

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Up and Down with Boardwalk Empire

What to make of Boardwalk Empire? HBO’s costume drama set in the USA during Prohibition reminds me of one of those fascinating objects that often crop up on Antiques Roadshow. One can admire from afar the detailed textures and evident craft of the thing without having much of a clue as to its function. Everything looks so good – the fabrics, the sculpted light, the big complex stage of the boardwalk itself; Steve Buscemi as the central character, corrupt political boss of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson, has never looked so compelling. But what is he for?

The puzzle begins at its beginning during the extraordinary title sequence. As aesthetic objects such sequences are interesting because they are designed to be resilient to repeated viewings and to absorb the meanings generated by future episodes. This one shows Buscemi, all dressed up as Nucky walking on the seashore, looking out at the ocean expectantly and watching as a bunch of liquor bottles wash up at his feet. Waves crash. There is a storm. A seagull takes wing. As all of this goes on the main creative credits are posted over the spectacular imagery. Then he walks back toward what we can assume is Atlantic City, as the show’s title lights up the top of the frame.

Why does it show what it does? It must be about more than simply showing in compressed form the narrative content of the series, where this figure controls the arrival of alcohol in his territory. There are many other ways to do this. Why not show boats arriving, people unloading crates, shots of the rest of the city and its characters?

Why does it look the way it does, with its vivid colour and dynamic range, somewhere between a Magritte and HDR landscape photography?
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And most puzzling of all why does it sound the way it does, with this bombastic rock music which seems to completely jar against the other period elements?
Well, by doing it this way we get a strong sense of the bottles arriving at the will of a supernaturally powered character. He seems to be a King-like figure surveying an ocean that follows his command, filling itself with bottles without the bother of human transport. It is as if he is not merely a witness to, but the Creator of the forces of nature – like the sea, the wind, the air and the light, the sand and the water. Seeing the flashes of lightning in his eyes suggests it is part of his interiority his mind not a witness to, but a creator of its energy. This is particularly explicit in the moment which seems to animate the camera’s movement around his head – even that motion is swept up by his will. Or is he being swept up by the forces around him, by the camera’s motion?
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At the beginning of the sequence he is fragmented by the editing; we get bits – his hands, the flower in his lapel, his watching eyes. By the end he is fully formed but distant from us, seen in long shot, a creature created – but only seen from behind. This sense of the creaturely is further emphasised by the odd, plodding way he walks back from the ocean to the cityscape in the distance, an amphibious freshly evolved thing. And yet he walks toward the built up shapes of modern civilisation not a primordial forest.

In a sequence where time is elastic – moving between slow and normal motion – there is also a tension between the historical and the contemporary. Buscemi is a face I strongly associate with American Independent cinema of the 1990s, a modern figure, yet here photographed in such a close way as to emphasise his age (he is in his early fifties). He seems calm here, yet he is famous for playing characters that are irritably paranoid.

His costume grounds him strongly to the period, but the dynamic music seems in harmony with the elemental movement of the sea, the seagull, the birds, and the lightning storm. It is an instrumental adaptation of a track called ‘Straight Up and Down’ by the American neo-psychedelia band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, released in 1996 on an album that is itself a finely graded homage to British rock music. Why use this modern music made, as one journalist pointed out, with instruments not even invented in the 1920s?

The first episode of the second season replies to these suggestive enigmas by beginning, directly after the titles, with shots of bottles of booze being collected from the beach by bootleggers, juxtaposed with what sounds like period song being played (but – also puzzling? – one that sounds in perfect condition with no dust or scratch sounds, as if from a just minted vinyl). Perhaps this potential for the internalisation of criticism and responsiveness to it is what makes long form television drama the different kind of aesthetic experience it is.
As with the use of the music here, the show as a whole puts in tension an emphasis on the intense display of period textures with the modern kinds of motion, thinking, and subjectivity of its inhabitants. To some extent we feel that this is what the world would be like if contemporary consciousness was projected backwards into a vividly created past. Of course, that is precisely what it is. But I’m not sure. It remains a puzzle. Which I will go back to again and again.
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(Originally published at CST Online.)

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Against Occupation

Last year John Caughie published an essay (in Screen vol 51 no 4 [Winter 2010]). Entitled ‘Mourning Television: the other screen’ his article characterised contemporary television in terms of decline, decadence and loss. I have responded to this elsewhere (Screen vol 52 no 4 [Winter 2011]) but here I want to address its key moment of praise for television which comes at the end of the essay and concerns Peter Bowker’s three part war drama, Occupation, shown on BBC television over consecutive nights in June 2009, and which was about the intertwined fate of three British soldiers in Iraq. Caughie describes it in the following terms:

…my initial viewing of it was somewhat distracted, happening to watch the first episode in that characteristic way because it occupied time rather than choosing to watch it by setting time aside…. for most of the final episode I was taken somewhere beyond speech, beyond judgement and, I guess, beyond aesthetics: taken by surprise by television in a way which is quite distinctive, and quite different to the package of the box-set (2010: 420).

Surprise tends to be a quality of the present and Caughie praises the show for its ‘untidiness’, a quality that takes us out of routine systems of affective entanglement and which makes it ‘not at all the same as the well-shaped multistrand narratives or the “puzzle narratives” which have engaged recent film studies, and which actually shut contingency out’ (ibid).

Really? Thanks to the DVD box-set, we can place Occupation under the critical pressure that is not hostage to its time of transmission. The narrative is in fact a very balanced, tidy, and quite traditional alternation between coverage of each of the three leading characters, dwelling on their moments of intersection, then building up individual dramatic sequences with each character before regularly bringing them together again, where their separate changes are played out in a group. Certainly the drama does have some engaging sequences which exemplify what I take to be a typical approach of the best of British television – its anthropological interest in what Stanley Cavell calls ‘the moods of faces and motions and settings’ (2005: (xxiii)). We can see this in an early scene of a homecoming party at one of the soldier’s houses, when the shifting currents of mood, puzzlement, feelings masked or half-transmitted between and within subjects structure the implicit underlying tension of an outwardly happily rowdy social gathering.
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Shifting currents of mood

However, this achievement is overshadowed by the drama’s most prominent failure: its figuring of an American marine, a character who has to be the one of the most unpleasant constructions of a national stereotype since the real Sergeant John Sweet played the wide-eyed GI Bob Johnson, gawping in wonder at the rootedness of British tradition in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). This is Erik Lester, a large black US Marine (in fact the only member of the US military given a face) played by British actor Nonso Anozie, who convinces one of the main characters, Danny (Stephen Graham who is Liverpudlian and small in stature) to join with him in setting up a private security service in the ‘post’-war emerging nation. When on leave back in the UK Danny is depicted as suffering chronic anomie; we see him alone in his tiny bedroom, bored, drugged and violent: in Occupation’s terms this entrepreneurial work with Lester gives shape and meaning to this excess of depressive energy. While Danny and the other leading British characters Mike (James Nesbitt) and Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) are drawn with attention to a developing sense of their interiority, Lester figures as an simple emblem of the exploitation of the war for corrupt financial reward. We first see him in the opening moments of episode one during a British raid on a sniper position. In the attack a grenade wounds a young Iraqi girl and Mike, who is an army medic, attends to her; Lester arrives by chance and offers to evacuate the soldiers who have priority over the care of civilians – even injured children. The terms of distinction between the systemic rigidity of the American Marines versus the plucky heroic flexibility of the Brits is clearly established when Mike, in great danger, single-handedly carries the child through enemy fire to a hospital. Later, we see Danny and Lester’s security firm, who are engaged in protecting foreign investors, employ an Iraqi translator, Yunis. He becomes a lively member of the team revealing that he is saving his pay from the lucrative job in order to open a Pizzeria. However, he is assassinated by Iraqi police causing great distress to the rest of the team: at this apex of collective trauma Lester’s response is mechanical and sinister: ‘Expand and diversify. All this that just happened. It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’ This is a particularly childish depiction of an evangelical monstrosity whose pursuit of money offered as an insane Divine Right.
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Lester: ‘It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’

’In contrast to Danny’s starry-eyed partnership with Lester, the other Brits adopt a narcissistic therapeutic relationship to their experiences. In the final sequence of episode three, during the funeral of Mike’s son, Hibbs offers reading from Gilgamesh: “let your everyday be full of joy, love the child that holds your hand, let your wife delight in your embrace, for these alone are the concerns of humanity”. After the depiction of terrible scenes of bloodshed this reading offers an understandably comforting view that is confined to the homely, the domestic and the particular: a feminised account that is, unfortunately, depicted as a kind of traumatised passivity. Against this Danny, during the culminating argument between the three of them, proclaims a pathetic defence of the pursuit of money because ‘that’s what makes the world go ‘round’. Brutal mercenary acquisitiveness or psychologically wounded withdrawal are the only responses imagined in a West that no longer has the authority to stamp coherent meaning on its actions, and where the warrior ethic has vanished. While this scene is immediately engaging it does not seduce us sufficiently so that we feel our involvement the stakes in play. I take it that it is scenes such as this that involve what Caughie describes as the drama’s unsettling distance that ‘breaks the contract, takes us by surprise and changes the perspective’ (2010: 421). However, the crude opposition of Danny’s barely articulate, half-believed allegiance to the mercantile and mercenary ethic, and Mike’s bewildered outrage (James Nesbitt delivers this with a wonderfully stunned face, gripped by hurt and grief) allows for no entanglement within the action by the viewer because what is at stake is laid out before us, not something we can participate in and discover for ourselves; we are involved merely as spectators who must take what has to be the easy side of empathy with a Mike’s grief-stricken father.
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Distance and estrangement in the final shot.

Early in the second episode of Occupation Danny grills Mike about his reasons for volunteering for a second tour in Iraq: Mike, who is married, reveals that his had returned in order to locate the Iraqi doctor, Alyia, who he met after rescuing the injured child from the battlefield (the child was flown back to the UK and Mike became a front page tabloid hero). Subsequently, his relationship with Alyia who accompanied him back to the UK develops into mutual love; but she suddenly leaves returning to Iraq without telling Mike where or why she has gone. ‘I just want to know why she went. I can’t get her out of my head.’ Mike tells Danny. For the latter the idea is madness: ‘You seriously think it’s gonna work out? You get measured up for a dish-dash and live happily ever after? No chance: the Jedi’ll cut your bollocks off live on Al Jazeera. Just leave it alone.’ The conversation takes place in a noisy mess hall of a barracks somewhere in Basra; Mike wears British infantry fatigues whereas Danny is wearing black body armour, the anonymous uniform of his and Lester’s private security firm which by this point we know is set up in order to exploit the vast number of dollars poured into devastated nation for “reconstruction”. The next day Danny and Lester meet with Mike in a small office, revealing that they’ve found Alyia: they note that Mike’s celebrity status will help them secure a contract for a hospital building project. In the sequence Mike stands in front of Lester and Danny who are seated at a desk:

Danny: Mike, you rescued Misa [the injured girl]. She was airlifted from that hospital. So surely you must have some leverage with this bunch.

Mike: Leverage? What are you talking about?

Danny: We need you to put a word in for us at the hospital. A recommendation.

Danny knows where Alyia is and will tell Mike as long as he agrees to put a word in for their bid. Mike is incredulous: ‘I thought you told me to leave Alyia alone’:

Danny: That was me talking as a friend this is me talking as a businessman… You need us and we need you. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. I know where she is. And I’ll tell you. If that’s what you want. It is what you want? Innit?

The scene marks a decisive shift in their relationship; a personal confidence as well as a friendship is taken up and exploited; we share some of Mike’s surprise at the way he has become a means, an instrument in the furtherance of a business agenda, a shill. We see his gradual astonished realisation that something that one imagined external to one’s desires and wants becomes necessary for their pursuit. Watching this scene, particularly the way the actors are arranged, I was immediately struck by its similarity to those regular moments in reality television, particularly the competitive genres, where contestants are judged in front of a panel, or compelled to betray one another, or work in ways that offer uneasy tension between personal desire for solidarity with the group and external demands of the show, the nature of which can be unclear and potentially contrary to one’s self interests. Both share the spectacle of the shattering and remaking of interpersonal bonds in instrumental ways.
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A moment of judgement and betrayal.

I agree with Caughie, then, that the value of Occupation then is more than a matter of aesthetics, but for me this lies in its resonance with less exalted genres. It reminds us, as Helen Piper has claimed, of the debt reality genres owe to both documentary and fictional forms of television (2004). James English has persuasively argued that what he calls the ‘self-anthropologising tendency of a collapsing Empire’ was the source of much of the energy of British documentary and its manifold insinuation in fictional films and British television (his key example is, unsurprisingly, Ken Loach); the theatricalisation of documentary, call it the showbizzing of the real is one arc of this momentum that, in English’s view leads directly to what are the most dominant global forms of television in the world (2011). In terms of format licensing (…Idol, …Got Talent) the British dominate, he argues, not because they successfully exported an aesthetic or a style but a means of assembly, an architecture that can be filled with whatever local, cultural specificity required to sufficiently indigenise it. (In contrast the introspection of American drama points to English’s characterisation of an earlier stage of national self-anthropology.) What makes them distinct from their drama and documentary antecedents is that they are fundamentally rooted in the real time immediacy of the broadcast schedule; they also, I suspect, have little hope of an afterlife beyond the time of their transmission. This does not make them bad texts or unworthy television: but it does mean they are unlikely to bear the repeated critical attention which produces rich criticism. What they might well produce instead is an extension of the kind of critical commentary exemplified by Helen Piper’s essay ‘Reality TV, Wife Swap and the drama of banality’: which is to say reality television may well continue to be the object where paradigm shifting theoretical work continues to get done. It is ironic that Occupation in its ethically hygienic depiction of the monstrosity of US commercialism subtly reminds us of a televisual mode where the Brits really do dominate the business.

(Originally published at Critical Studies in Television Online.)

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Lunch in Milchworld.

I am writing this at the desk of one of the staff writers for David Milch’s Luck in one of the many offices in the building complex where Milch’s Red Board Productions lives. The office and building is clean and modern with a large carpark, restaurant and in many ways could be anywhere in the world – a university, government building, or business park. The writers discuss character arcs, story design and the usual matters one might expect in any creative work that involves a collective and dispersed effort. What is there to say in 2011 about this process that creates art? There is no formula for it, but there is a kind of recipe. In this case collective work (of course the norm in mass entertainment) enriches rather than diminishes, but still there must be shadings and gradations of control and authority and at the top of the list most often is Milch. I am exploring ways of thinking about this that do not simply assert a reformed auteurism or a confected construction a la “Milch”. Nonetheless these are notes that will not make it into my book but seem to capture an aspect of Milch’s world that may be just as important as the hard yakka of creative labour. Over lunch which Milch’s horse trainer, Julio Canani regales the table with stories of notable events concerning Milch’s horses, as well as the story of his own coming to LA in the 1950s after skipping school to train horses in his native Peru. Ben Milch, a successful artist is also there and reminds me that the waiter, Brian Farrell has posted a stand up routine about serving his father on youtube; Milch himself recounts the story of when his horse Gilded Time damaged its leg and Milch drove a hundred miles back home only to be called by his wife: ‘At what point were you going to take us back as well?’. Or when he took fifteen minutes stuffing wads of five thousand dollar bills into Julio’s French army parka; ‘When a guy like me hears “bet all the money you have”…’
It must be wrong to say that this kind of conviviality is unrelated to the work produced that day, but like the buidling and its rooms it sounds something like pleasant lunch talk one might find around the world. What is different is that the art this work endeavours to produce is trying all the time to interpret human experiences like this, taking these congealed bits of humanness and tracking thoughts and registers of ideas through them. It is trying to grasp the world in all its uncertainty, doubt, doubleness, and in all the ways we cleave to the human figure or character as a medium for giving significance to those experiences; or it otherwise tries to bear the burden of representing, carrying a world or a life.
Two things seemed to be at issue today: one is the plausibility of things – minds, worlds, their sights, sounds, pasts – which all must become airborne in order to sustain themselves and enable their own generativity. This requires the currents and moments of feeling and emotion depicted to point beyond themselves, leading to the second thing. Fiction is fundamentally about mimesis but its accuracy depends to a great extent on the audience’s involvement with the world depicted. Psychological plausibility and complexity is time and again bound in tension with the audience’s sense of being on the inside of something they do not fully understand. Hence, part of our stake in Milchworlds depends on the promise of further discovery and revelation, not necessarily of plot but of character. When shaped we experience this as dramatic art, but in terms of content it resembled the unfolding of narrative upon narrative that characterised our lunchtime.
(March 9 2011)

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