Why I Listen to Most Movies & TV Shows

Without strong visuals, it might as well be radio

One of the most unfortunate things about knowledge is there’s no unlearning it. Whether that’s returning to eating hotdogs after you’ve seen the absolute shit show they put on to bring you your favorite baseball snack or learning your loved one’s past, once you know, you know.

As I’ve stated, I have a degree in Mass Media Arts with a concentration in Film Studies. Yeah, there’s some history learned and some criticism taught, but when one takes on Film Studies they can also go the route of Filmmaking.

Incidentally, that’s as good a racket as any considering that there has been a serious surge in people entering the field since the 70s where film was made popular (and most important, profitable)by the then wunderkind George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the rebel of the bunch Martin Scorsese.

Very few people rise to that level of success, however, even less (do) since the closing of most of the indie film studios that flourished in the mid 80s to late 90s. But if you paid attention, you did learn one thing — Film Grammar.

You can familiarize yourself with this grammar from watching any simple television show or movie and any layman can tackle a production by staying within the parameters of the basics of the language. When someone doesn’t, the results can be jarring — this is why Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was so revolutionary — no one had ever seen jump-cuts before…imagine that.

But when the director fails to go beyond that…well, that’s just plain old boring.

We’re six episodes into the Mick Jagger/Martin Scorsese HBO produced show, Vinyl, and while people have their opinions on the story and the like, we won’t be discussing any of that.

This is not a show review.

We’re simply go to talk about one episode, “The Racket” (s01eo4) directed by S.J. Clarkson, in reference to the other episodes.

I’ll say from the rip: I know…the direction given should suit the script and that often times visual style can be a cover for lack of story. I don’t care. Christopher Booker claims that there are only seven basic plots, and while I haven’t analyzed that in it’s entirety, it sounds about right. I’m not too concerned with story, only how it’s TOLD.

With that said, let’s jump on in.

If you’ve ever tried to make a movie, you already know; the entire process is full of decisions — indecisive people should not apply for the job of director. You have X-amount of scenes that you have to shoot a day to get through X-amount of pages of a script. The general rule is that for every page of the script, there’s a minute that you see on the screen.

How you shoot the scenes is call coverage and what you’re taught, and what is expected of you by the producers (the ones giving you the money) is that each scene has proper coverage. Because of this, most people when taking on their first production follow these basic rules:

1. Open with an Establishing Shot: this is a shot that gives you an idea of where your scene is taking place. Think of the Brownstone for the Cosby Show or that damn plane shot for Criminal Minds.

2. Move in to a Full Shot: here we have the scene where we see where the action is going to take place. Many times we start with a character or two characters and someone enters and that propels our story forward.

3. Then, the Medium Close Up: we now frame our principal characters together in the same frame. We either shoot them from the side or head on. Either way, they’re in the shot together.

4. Lastly, We go to our Over The Shoulder Shots: One character talks, we shoot over the shoulder of who they’re talking to, and we reverse it when the speaker starts to listen.

This is so common that the average consumer of media can recognize that to be the case straightaway. And, if you’re trying to tell a quick and basic story, follow those rules, you’ll never go wrong.

I give a show or movie ten minutes. Once I see this formula being utilized, I know that I only have to look up at the beginning of each scene and stay focused long enough to see who’s talking. After that, I know what’s going to happen. This is when I grab a book or scroll or write.

The Pilot of Vinyl was directed by Martin Scorsese. That says it all. If you’re familiar with Scorsese, you know that he and visual panache are synonymous. So really this is a comparison of five episodes. We could almost reduce it to four episodes, Episode 3, Whispered Secrets, was directed by Mark “Directed Every Milestone Video” Romanek so that almost doesn’t count either.

When episode 4 opens, we’re almost in a silhouetted Close-Up of what appears to be a Blues singer. We don’t know where we are. This type of first scene is frowned upon by producers viewing the coverage of a first time director or a hack. But it’s clear that S.J. Clarkson is neither of those.

We quickly learn that the Blues singer, singing Otis Blackwell’s “Please Help Me Find My Way Home” is singing in an empty church (1), it’s just the intro music, we slowly whip pan (2) to reveal that we’re at a funeral, we continue to make our way around (3) to the wooden coffin and photo of the murdered ‘Buck’ Rogers, the first shot, the closest we get to an establishing shot is (4) when we finally get a full view of the funeral.

Clarkson had my attention.

Sometimes you can be fooled. You think someone is taking you on a visual journey only to find out they’re a one trick pony.

I must say that the script written by Deborah Cahn made use of the actors in ways that I don’t recall in the other episodes. The next scene with Jules, Skip, Zach, and Tony in the limo is hilarious unto itself…

but the final visual gag with Zach answering one of the first car phones made me realize at ten minutes in…I need to actually watch this.

The next scene sold me fa sho.

The introduction of a new character should always be memorable. Especially if the character plays a pivotal role in the plot. Hannibal is such a character. The leader of a Funk band, it appears that he’s the only act keeping American Century afloat…and he’s thinking about defecting.

Clarkson’s fluid camera moves from the marveled staff to the grand entrance of Hannibal. Naturally it takes place in slow-motion but it was the slo-mo combined with what most people now call the “Spike Shot.”

Brought to these shores by Scorsese in Mean Streets, cribbed from Fellini, the actor on the dolly shot is often misused or is too extreme but in this scene, it was subtle, perfect.

Another effective way of keeping the viewer visually interested is presenting shots from unusual angles. What makes the above shots unusual, of course, is these are not how we conventionally see the world. Clarkson does this throughout the episode, placing the camera in places that the human eye rarely sees from.

What makes these type of shots exciting to those of us that love cinema is that for all intents and purposes they are totally unnecessary — the story could be told without them. But the director made it a point, for whatever reason, to take time out of the day to get that coverage.

Like this sequence, for instance:

The story would have not lost anything had we just cut from Skip hopping out of the cab and walking into the Record Plant Manager’s office. Instead, we were treated to a few second, visual tour on how vinyl records were pressed.

The camera stays moving throughout this (and most every other scene) — a kinetic movement that one would have expected to see more of in Episode 6, “Cyclone” where Richie is spinning out on a serious coke binge. Unfortunately, the only scene in that episode that had any energy was where we meet the potential lead guitar of the Nasty Bits.

And it wasn’t just the sweeping movements and the odd angles that got me. It was also the subtle, graceful moves like the shot that opens on a Close-Up of Lester. We see he’s nursing a drink but have no idea who he’s talking to.

Lester’s just set an old recording of his on fire in Richie’s office and could be possibly letting off steam to the bartender. But as we Pull Back we see that he’s conversing with Kip, the lead singer of the Nasty Bits, schooling him on the ways of the music industry.

We keep Pulling Back finally revealing that Lester is schooling the whole band.

This is a scene that could have been shot in many ways but it was handled here with one graceful move. A thing of beauty.

A similar action, though more complicated, is used in one of the final scenes.

Robert Goulet has convinced…or rather eased the idea by Richie to record a Christmas album of standards, much to Zach’s chagrin. The actual recording is covered in one fluid shot starting from a Close Up on the playing of a violin, through the string section — Up To Goulet singing and orchestrating, and across to the suffering Zach.

Again, a subtle, smooth shot, handled in a single-take. And just so you know — those single-take shots that people rant and rave about — strictly for live men…and women, not for freshman.

I was so impressed with S.J. Clarkson’s work, I went and looked up her directing catalog, downloading her 2010 release Toast at that.

Despite the vast amount of offerings on network, cable, and subscription sites like Netflix & Amazon, (even Sony Playstation has original programming…wtf) very little excites me. If I know how something is going to look, as well as predict where the story is going, my only reason for “watching” it then is to be a part of the public conversation. And this is where I agree with Hitchcock who famously remarked:

I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.

That may be a bit extreme for my taste, but my main interest is in the cinematic art. If all the different elements that the medium affords are not being used, I’ll just listen. Happily, S.J. Clarkson provided a touch of cinema in what many are calling a predictable, color by the number show. I don’t care about any of that. Just keep me visual entertained…or I’m going to scroll til I zzzzZZZZ.

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