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…!

I love that moment in ‘Once More with Feeling’…

…at the end of the ‘in-between’ scene that separates the numbers ‘I’ll Never Tell’ and ‘Rest in Peace’. There are no cuts in the scene. The camera tracks laterally, following Anya, Giles and Xander as they walk along a Sunnydale street, sharing information (and frustration) regarding the musical spell that the town and its residents are under. Whedon artfully modulates our attention: at first the main characters are the main thing we have to look at and listen to, but then, as well as tracking, the camera moves back to allow us to take in some amusing surrounding sights. We see a woman (producer Martin Noxon) protesting her parking ticket, in verse, and three street cleaners in matching boiler suits doing some choreographed broom work. (So much, in fact, is going on around the main characters that we might even miss some of their killer lines, like Giles’s ‘I managed to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias.’)

The characters come to a halt, and the conversation turns to Buffy, who has recently been brought back from the dead, and is behaving despondently and disconnectedly.  ‘I’m helping her as much as I can, but uh…’ Giles says, trailing off.  Then comes the moment I want to talk about.

Anya 'comforts' Giles.

Anya ‘comforts’ Giles.

In an attempt to comfort the downhearted Giles, Anya pats his shoulder.  By this point in the series a regular viewer will have become used to the difficulties that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, has in understanding and participating in some of the more subtle and unspoken human social rituals.  Sometimes, as in ‘The Body’, this is used to create pathos; usually, as here, it is used to create comedy.  One can see that Anya knows that in situations such as these, one of the things to do is to offer reassurance and comfort to someone by patting their shoulder.  The thing is, she is not yet particularly well-practiced in the delivery of the gesture, so its execution is comically mechanical.  Emma Caulfield is excellent at delivering such moments.  In this instance, Whedon’s framing lends a nice helping hand.

The broom dancers have just exited behind Giles and Xander, leaving the frame, for the first time in the scene (and just as it is about to come to its end) almost still. In the closing moments of the scene, the main motion is provided by Anya’s patting of Giles’s shoulder.  This, as well as the fact that we cannot see the face of the person performing it, helps us to focus our attention on the gesture.  The communication of the particular quality of the gesture is also supported nicely by the staging and framing.  Anya is slightly too far from Giles for the gesture to be comfortable (even if she were more comfortable with it); she is forced to perform it with a straight arm.  From our vantage point, we see the arm jutting out slightly awkwardly from behind Anya’s hair and across the frame.  Our angle of view also means that the up-and-down motion registers well, and we notice the slightly too-rhythmic quality of the patting, and the way Anya lifts her hand slightly too high above Giles’s shoulder between pats.

It is a delightful grace note to a delightful scene.

I love that moment at the end of Frances Ha…

Mini-spoiler alert:  Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012) is not a film particularly susceptible to being ‘spoiled’ by learning how it ends before one sees it, but readers should be warned that the below does talk about the film’s closing minutes and answers a question that viewers may well have been pondering whilst viewing.

I love the final scene of Frances Ha (along with the rest of the film).  Frances, after sharing two different apartments with friends during the rest of the film, is moving in to her own place.  The film ends with her in the hallway of the apartment building, making a name label for her mailbox.  She begins by writing out her whole name (I can’t remember her surname, and can’t find it on the internet either!), but it’s too long to fit in the window.  Instead of re-writing, Frances just trims (or does she fold?! I wish I could see the scene again, and apologise for any other falsely-remembered details contained here!) the piece of paper.  The film ends with a close-up, held over the credits for quite some time, of the finished result: ‘FRANCES HA’.

This detail is lent some weight by being the last image we see, and also by finally explaining the film’s title.  And its implications when it is treated as a symbol are a nice fit with the rest of the film, and a nice note to end on.  Over the course of Frances Ha, we see Frances suffer embarrassment, financial hardship, insecure employment, and difficult friendships.  In the film’s closing minutes, though, we see a series of small triumphs, which cluster around a dance recital that Frances has choreographed and put on.  Frances achieves some measure of artistic and professional fulfilment through having planned and executed a short dance sequence featuring a small group of small (and very cute) children, shown to a respectable gathering of friends and acquaintances.  At the same event, she receives the praise and approval of her former mentor, and appears to reach reconciliation and a new phase of friendship with her former room mate and best friend Sophie.

Structurally, then, after this event, the writing of a name tag feels like a coda.  But it also marks a new beginning, and serves as a(n appropriately-understated) declaration.  Frances does not have her name in lights, or even her whole name on display, but there is a label that tells people ‘I am here’.  The apartment and all that goes with it may not be enough to accommodate or express Frances’s whole being, but they are a landmark on the journey.

Close reading; or, my teaching timeline

On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’.  We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers.  It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone.  The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude.  My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds.  (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar.  Those lessons have never left me.)

The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.

The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy.  We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were).  That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!).  We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’.  What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant.  It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).

University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this.  For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term.  Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture.  And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.

Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying.  Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.

The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach

I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar.  However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading.  I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline.  (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.)  I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing).  I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here.  I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.

In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters.  Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.

The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008).  One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously.  Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:

I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring.  What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.

It was the slowness that fascinated me.  Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications.  I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings.  It was not an easy lesson.  In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick.  I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)

Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading.  Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]).  His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv).  (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education.  The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings.  I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room.  V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching.  One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives.  I am sure this list could be extended further.)

The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature

I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.

I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly.  Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?

I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’.  I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.

There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’.  What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’.  Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular.  (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material.  I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.)  However, I do not see things this way any more.  I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same.  But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us.  They are ways of getting a handle on them.  Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory.  A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art.  It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not.  At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.  And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)

I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.

We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read.  I would go one further: we are the order in which we read.  I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo.  (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)

I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response).  This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.

Much Ado About Nothing

My review of Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is now available on alternatetakes.co.uk.  The editors trimmed it down a bit in line with their word count policies.  What follows is the slightly lengthier version I submitted, with more of the clauses that I have a(n over-?)fondness for.

Watching and trying to get to grips with Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, one is presented with an interesting dilemma.  Either this film is set in the present day – as its clothes, haircuts, cars, guns and occasional pieces of communication technology would suggest – yet peopled with characters who speak and think as though they were living about 400 years ago, or it is set about 400 years ago, yet with the visual trappings just mentioned.

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I love that moment in The Sopranos where…

That’s the great thing about the movies. … After you learn – and if you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little… tiny pieces of time … that they never forget. James Stewart, quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Hell’s In It? Portraits and Conversations. Faber and Faber, 2004.

Towards the end of the tour de force first season Sopranos episode ‘College’, there’s a scene between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) that has always stuck in my mind.  Tony has been away overnight, taking daughter Meadow around a series of colleges in New England that she may attend the following year.  Anthony Junior has also been away overnight, staying with a friend.  After greeting his wife and during his search for food in the fridge, Tony is told by Carmela that their priest, Father Phil Intintola (Paul Schulze) stayed the night.  (There isn’t time to go into detail here, but what we have seen unfold between Phil and Carmela is just as poised and sharp as what is about to unfold between husband and wife.)

At first, Tony dismisses the information with a ‘Yeah, right’, not even bothering to turn to face Carmela.  But the tone of her ‘O-kay’ makes him take notice.  At first, we see Tony struggle to compute the situation:

TONY: The priest spent the night here?  What happened?
CARMELA: Nothing.
TONY: Where was Anthony?
CARMELA: He was, uh, sleeping over at Jason’s.
TONY: The priest spent the night here, nothing happened, and you’re telling me this because…?
CARMELA: You might hear something, take it the wrong way.  His car was out front all night.

A huge part of The Sopranos, and of the huge pleasures it offers, is anticipating how Tony will react to a series of (exquisitely crafted) dramatic scenarios, and then watching how he actually reacts.  A high-ranking member of the New Jersey mafia must spend a large portion of his life engaged in often labyrinthine social mind-reading, if he is interested in holding on to that life.  Even the perception or the possibility of betrayal or weakness can lead to fatalities (hence the significance of the detail of the car parked out front all night).  Such a man who also keeps mistresses, visits a shrink and is trying to be a husband and father must extend such mind-reading to his private sphere too.

However, in this case, Tony’s reaction to the mild cognitive dissonance he is feeling in trying to envisage a scenario in which ‘the guy spends the night here with you, and all he does is slip you a wafer?’ is not anger, but humour.  ‘You know what?’ he declares, ‘This is too fucked up for me… even to think about.’  (Tony is not entirely wrong, as it happens, in this assessment; when Carmela declares that ‘nothing’ happened, she is of course talking about sexual intercourse, and that the scenario sketched did not involve sex is what a man of Tony’s appetites and mindset struggles to comprehend.  However, both Carmela and her priest are shown to gain complex gratification from standing at and stepping back from that particular precipice.)  Galdofini plays the scene with a contained mirth which, especially given this scene’s position at the end of an often-tense episode, offers a great humour pressure valve for the viewer as well.  Edie Falco, too, has a smile in her eyes when she reproaches Tony’s wafer comment with a ‘That’s verging on sacrilege.’

It has been said perhaps too many times already, but if Tony were merely a monster (the kind of monster that Michael Corleone becomes by the end of The Godfather Part II), The Sopranos’ eighty-six episodes would probably be unbearable.  But we often see the childlike, the playful and the tender come through (as we do in the moment I have just pointed to), in ways that (without absolving the character) complicate Tony’s actions and our reactions to them.  It is James Gandolfini who gave us an amazing number of amazingly rich little tiny pieces of time, and it is hugely sad that we will not receive any more.

Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

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Jean Renoir

Dear Ingrid, we had many amusing arguments together and I was the first one to defend, stupidly, the importance of “great subjects”.  I wasted a large part of my life by becoming uselessly busy with “the significance” of my pictures.  In Hollywood we also use the word “message”.  Today, I regret not having busied myself with the endless, ant-like work of small, cheap pictures of a definite style, like “westerns” or “murder” stories.
In a structure that is always the same, you are free to improve what alone is worthwhile, the detail in human expression.

Renoir in a letter to Ingrid Bergman, 29 August 1949, reprinted in Jean Renoir: Letters. ed. David Thompson and Lorraine LoBianco. Faber and Faber, 1994.

Thomas Vinterberg

No major US director has yet attempted a Dogme movie, though David Fincher, director of Seven and Fight Club, tells me that he has been having light-hearted discussions with Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne (Election) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) about the potential for a ‘purification process’. ‘You’re not supposed to use anything that you used in your last movie – none of the equipment, none of the elements. Steven said, “Look, David, you can’t have any rain, you can’t have any CGI…”‘ Vinterberg is visibly thrilled when I tell him this news: ‘It would be very interesting to see Fincher undressed, because he is always so well dressed.’

Ryan Gilbey. ‘Dogme is dead.  Long live Dogme.’ The Guardian, Friday 19 April 2002.