Monday, September 20, 2010

Not so excited about Boardwalk Empire

The pilot for Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series, didn't thrill me.

First of all, let me say that there is goodness in it: the sets, costumes, and lighting, all done very nicely, quite atmospheric and carefully, lovingly observed. The historical detail is superbly researched. Very educational.

Number one turnoff: my goodness, you've got all the brilliance of Jazz Age music to choose from, yet someone chose namby-pamby modern alt-rock-styled easy-to-forget theme music? For love of God, that's a huge opportunity lost. At first, I'd say that it makes no sense cinematically or musically, but upon saying that, I realized that it is sadly consistent with the shallow, contemporary tone of this production.

Number two fail: Steve Buscemi. He's awesome. I find no fault in his performance, he's a wonderful actor, whom I love to watch. But he's sadly miscast. Someone-- the script writer? Director? Casting agent? -- doesn't understand the Prohibition era, and gangster personalities. I'm sorry, Steve is not brutal. He could be vindictively vicious, I can get that. But brutal? No. The Nucky Thompson role is for a brute who knows how to dress and pose and present a facade, while keeping a cold eye on all the risks and angles. He's a dangerous man, and he dominates because people are afraid of him, and because he knows how to gain loyalty through favors. Go watch James Cagney!

Number three fail: Jimmy Darmody. All I'm getting from Michael Pitt is a pretty face. I don't get inner torment, the agony of young life destroyed in the trenches of Verdun (or wherever), I don't see the dead eyes of a man whose only remaining passion is ambition, and who isn't afraid to kill. There should be a certain quality in the voice, in the set of the face, that conveys this twisted inner life that gives birth to a gangster. Go watch freakin' Marlon Brando!

Number four major disappointment: Cinematography (and probably script). I'm getting the "made for TV" shtick here. For instance, the scene where the crime bosses meet at the Atlantic City hotel to negotiate territory. Just a bunch of guys walking into a hotel, and a goofy dialogue between G-men who are trying to describe who's who, but none of the gangsters seem exceptional. It's rather flat and undramatic, and frankly, un-theatrical. Go back and see how such scenes were blocked out in the great 1930's and 40's gangster movies. In those movies, each boss is economically, vividly introduced by the camera, with lighting, and drama, and nuances that great actors bring to their portrayals of character, to establish a meaningful entrance. Remember what it was like to watch those movies? You KNEW who those guys were. Each crime boss was unique. You NOTICED their entrance. Details immediately established their character and force, through all the tools of movie-making: blocking out the scene, lighting, MINIMAL dialogue, makeup, clothing, SHOES, music, all together creating the atmosphere of drama, and establishing the certainty of these characters. These gangsters were FULL of drama. Sigh, sorry for the caps, I'm getting carried away. Movie making used to be literate. It had a vocabulary.

I'm going to go put a bunch of great 30's and 40's gangster movies on my Netflix list right now.

What this production suffers from is what plagues so much TV and cinema today: the modern masculine archetype is a WUSS. Everyone has gone thru the mind-melt of the 60's and 70's and has forgotten what a man used to be. You (dear reader) probably think that's a really weird comment. But I recommend that you go watch those old movies again, and see if you recognize that our sensibility has changed, in a fundamental way. Our weltanshauung. Our way of being. Noone remembers what it was to be a man. I'm not even sure we're all women, either. We're all flat now. When people have sex now, it doesn't mean anything, or it means "intimacy". WTF is that? I'm sorry, I guess I should have warned you that I'm a romantic.

What we have in Boardwalk Empire is a modern show about black market profiteers, and, um, that's about it. While we get some nice historical detail, Boardwalk Empire misses the heart of the Prohibition era, and it doesn't capture the character of the men (and women) who were gangsters. I was expecting a film that was full of awareness of the films of the 30's and 40's. Silly me. It's as if the film makers had no acquaintance with the previous representations about Prohibition and gangsters, and thought, "oh, it's like modern-day cocaine dealers!" Well, sorta.

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