Small, striking moments: The Corner and The Wire

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 15 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject – a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) – as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

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The 30 books I intend to read in 2017

Not necessarily in this order…

  1. Graham Greene. The End of the Affair. Penguin, 1962. (Book first published 1951.) 187 pages.
  2. John Yorke. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. Penguin, 2013. 300 pages.
  3. Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Vintage, 2005. (Book first published 1997.) 457 pages.
  4. Patricia Highsmith. The Talented Mr Ripley. Vintage, 1999. (Book first published 1955.) 249 pages.
  5. Robert B Pippin. Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy. University of Virginia Press, 2012. 106 pages.
  6. The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. Composed and arranged by Douglas R Hofstadter and Daniel C Dennett. Penguin, 1982. (Book first published 1981.) 483 pages.
  7. Alison Bechdel. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Jonathan Cape, 2006. 232 pages.
  8. Alberto Manguel. A History of Reading. Flamingo, 1997. (Book first published 1996.) 319 pages.
  9. Dudley Andrew. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton University Press, 1995. 350 pages.
  10. Steve Silberman. Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently. Allen & Unwin, 2015. 521 pages.
  11. Ali Smith. Autumn. Hamish Hamilton, 2016. 260 pages.
  12. George Eliot. Middlemarch. Wordsworth Editions, 2000. (Book first published 1872.) 688 pages.
  13. Herman Hesse. The Glass Bead Game. Trans. Richard and Clara WInston. Vintage, 2000. (Das Glasperlenspiel first published 1943.) 530 pages.
  14. Martin Jay. Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme. University of California Press, 2005. 409 pages.
  15. Patrick Ness. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Walker Books, 2008. 479 pages.
  16. Steven Pinker. The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. Penguin, 2012. (Book first published 2011.) 841 pages.
  17. Tony Judt. Ill Fares the Land. Penguin, 2010. 237 pages.
  18. Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries. Granta, 2013. 832 pages.
  19. Bruce Springsteen. Born to Run. Simon & Schuster, 2016. 510 pages.
  20. Joe Moran. Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV. Profile Books, 2013. 376 pages.
  21. Richard Feynman. Six Easy Pieces. Penguin, 2001. (It’s complicated.) 138 pages.
  22. James Gleick. The Information. Fourth Estate, 2011. 427 pages.
  23. Richard McGuire. Here. Hamish Hamilton, 2014. 320 pages.
  24. David Hendy. Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening. Ecco, 2013. 335 pages.
  25. Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Penguin, 2015. (Book first published 2014.) 466 pages.
  26. Stephen Miller. Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. Yale University Press, 2006. 328 pages.
  27. Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine, 1994. 229 pages.
  28. Raymond Williams. Border Country. Parthian, 2006. (Book first published 1960.) 436 pages.
  29. Ted Hughes. Birthday Letters. Faber and Faber, 1998. 198 pages.
  30. David Bordwell. The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 142 pages.

That’s 11,385 pages. Dividing that by 300 (which allows for a fair few non-reading days) produces a number just under 38. So if I aim to read 40 pages a day, every day, then by the end of 2017 I will have read all of these books!

In praise of 1940s Hollywood cinema

‘the films of Hollywood constituted a world, with recurrent faces more familiar to me than the faces of all the places I have lived.’ Stanley Cavell

Recently I’ve watched, among other things, a little cluster of films made in Hollywood in the 1940s (Christmas in JulyChristmas in Connecticut, and It’s a Wonderful Life), and it brought back to the surface (it’s never far below) my love of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Decade divisions are of course ultimately arbitrary, but if I had to choose a single decade of Hollywood filmmaking to watch exclusively for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure it would be the 1940s. Continue reading

Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

On the decking

An annual chore which I certainly don’t relish is scrubbing clean and then painting the decking.  As I was hosing it down this evening, even though I was listening to Bruce, strains of Elvis popped into my head, and my mind started to wander…

(With deepest apologies to Mac Davis.)

As a bird flies
On a warm and dry East Yorkshire eve
A man scrubs down upon his knees
On the decking (On the decking)
Then the wood it dries
And if there’s one thing that timber needs
It’s oil that rejuvenates and feeds
On the decking (On the decking)

People, don’t you understand
The wood needs a helping hand
or it’ll rot, it’ll splinter and fade to grey
Once a year is all it takes
What a difference it makes
A wax-enriched barrier
Against water and decay

Well the world turns
It’s a hot mid-summer day and the sky is blue
An ideal time for a barbecue
On the decking (On the decking)

And the charcoal burns
It took an awful long time to light
Oh, but now it’ll glow
It’ll glow through the night
On the decking (On the decking)

Is it just trendy decorating?
A nuisance to maintain?
Do you reckon, in years to come
People’s decking will be thought dumb?
Every fashion dies

Winter comes around and there’s rain and there’s snow
Moisture penetrates cracks and algae it grows
On the decking (On the decking)

Then it’s summertime
On a warm and dry East Yorkshire eve
A man scrubs down upon his knees
On the decking (On the decking)…

Related content: http://betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/music-and-lyrics.html