- FIRST WATCH: Graeme Blundell
- From: The Australian
- March 19, 2011
A DECADE ago I had a small part in George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones, as father of Princess Padme, Queen of the Planet Nardoo, played by the sublime Natalie Portman.
This was the movie in which Lucas took the film and television industries to a new galaxy called Digital, an expanded universe of image acquisition, colour timing and image output processed by computers. It was the first big film to be produced entirely in high-definition digital technology and film-making would never be the same.
Towards the end we were shooting at the Royal Palace at Caserta, an astonishing pile modelled on the Palace of Versailles, just outside Naples. The actors were surrounded by a perimeter of huge scrims, blue screens and black gauzes that enveloped the camera crews and the little bearded filmmaker absorbed by the future.
During a break Lucas announced he was going to Rome to visit his friend Martin Scorsese, who was making the epic Gangs of New York, his violent historical film, for which he had painstakingly re-created the visual environment of mid-19th century New York City on the exterior stages of Cinecitta Studios. While they were being built, Lucas had created an entire universe in post-production at a fraction of the cost, using digital images. "He's still working the old-fashioned, classical way and I don't think he'll ever change," Lucas said. "He loves the huge solid sets, the streetscapes and that sense of actuality."
Well, 10 years later Scorsese has changed and, with his remarkable, highly stylised, highly visual period drama Boardwalk Empire, has embraced Lucas's digital world without losing any of his traditional film-making fluency or classical skills. Created by cable network HBO, which also gave us The Sopranos, The Wire and The Pacific, Scorsese's new TV project has become a critical and popular hit in the US. The brainchild of Terence Winter, the writer behind The Sopranos, the series is described by Scorsese, who is executive producer (he also directed the first episode), as "an epic spectacle of American history, or culture I should say, American culture". It is the most expensive pilot shot in US TV history.
Based on Nelson Johnson's nonfiction book Boardwalk Empire, the series meticulously re-creates Atlantic City during the roaring 20s, resurrecting an era of corrupt politicos, big bands, suffragettes, showgirls, bootleggers and capricious criminal masterminds such as Al Capone. Like illicit, sinful liquor, the series, starring Steve Buscemi, packs a wallop.
It's simply gorgeous to look at and has operatic style, grand complicated characters and confrontingly violent moments straight from the Scorsese gangland manual. It's just breathtaking, even if the pilot -- with so many characters, plots and foreshadowed subplots so fleetingly introduced -- can leave you feeling as if you've had too much hooch.
But we know from the experience of being addicted to many of HBO's serials it will pay off in have-to-see viewing. You will realise you've discovered a show that captures your heart; as with The Wire, Lost and Mad Men, you may wish to record it so you can backtrack and fast-forward on repeat viewings.
At its centre, Boardwalk Empire is a portrait of the birth of the American crime family, and the series in some ways provides Scorsese with the missing chapter between Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, something he acknowledges. It's set in the period in which "the good intentions of prohibition allowed crime figures of the time to become organised, to become more powerful".
Growing up around gangsters in Manhattan's Italian Lower East Side, Scorsese saw their legend and mythology had a striking aesthetic dimension. It was replete with larger-than-life characters and vivid episodes of murder, assassination and shoot-outs.
In the pilot there is a consistently ambiguous mix of horror and fascination, attraction and repulsion, as in all of Scorsese's gangster movies. There's also the same mirror of social values, reflecting our overt commitments to certain principles of morality and order and our hidden resentments and animosity against these principles.
"It's about the charting of the nature of this world, the underworld," Scorsese said on the series' release, "and also the nature of America's love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero; loving the gangster for doing everything we can't do but wanting him to pay for it at the end."
Some dyspeptic US critics were disappointed by Scorsese's tendency to pay homage to gangsters and gangster films, with all of the stylised violence and cliched figures normally associated with the genre. (He invented many of them.) But he has imposed on the show a lovely expressionist style that is entertaining and highly pleasurable. Boardwalk Empire is a gangster series that cleverly references old mob movies and TV shows. Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre and Robert Stack's The Untouchables come to mind.
Buscemi is inspired casting as Atlantic City's shifty treasurer, Nucky Thompson. He gets the stylised, almost non-naturalistic approach just right, making his character come alive with contradictions and flaws while holding together the vast enterprise.
The brilliant titles sequence, so deliberately suggestive of Rene Magritte's painting The Son of Man, establishes him instantly. He stands on the boardwalk, enigmatic and lonely, looking out to sea on a wild night. The water washes around his highly polished wing-tipped shoes, the sky goes black as he slowly smokes and the sea begins to fill with empty whiskey bottles. As the storm breaks and bottles tumble and heave, he turns his back and strides through the water, returning to his glittering empire.
"Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see," the Belgian surrealist said of his picture. "There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us." It could be some kind of writer's epigraph or producer's note for Boardwalk Empire.
Thompson is a widower who has his hand in every pocket in the city, eloquently courting the Women's Temperance League even as he takes his percentage from the moonshine businesses keeping the boardwalk awash in booze and the city drenched in blood. Buscemi is intense, sarcastic, volatile and disconcerting. He treats every question as if it's wired to go off. But there's a melancholy edge, too. He smiles constantly through those crooked teeth but always looks as if something is missing in his heart.
In another wonderfully surreal scene, as Sophie Tucker croons in the background (the show's music is wonderful), he blankly watches a nurse care for premature babies in the window of a boardwalk shop selling incubators. The sequence is held for a long time, perplexing and distressing, like an animated Diane Arbus photograph from a later period.
Later, displaying an oddly tender, sentimental side, he starts a regretful relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irish immigrant mother brutalised by her violent husband. Then there's his protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a veteran of the trenches, his boots still in the Flanders mud and his feelings anaesthetised; he is literate but drawn to violence.
But the real star of this extraordinary show is Brainstorm Digital, the New York-based studio that specialises in the photo-realistic backgrounds and digital effects that visually bring the glitzy, boardwalk to life. The boardwalk is actually a huge set in Brooklyn, surrounded by 30 massive shipping containers. Painted blue, they're stacked like building blocks to create a backdrop big enough to accommodate the special effects work that replaces the existing background with the prohibition-era Atlantic City skyline. Nearly everything in each shot, except for a few people and the odd pigeon apparently, is digitally generated. Lucas must be delighted in his old friend.
It's the series HBO hopes will lure the serial-loving audience still missing The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost. This audience craves a complex, multi-layered piece of storytelling with novel-like story-lines, complicated characters and saturated period detail. Scorsese says he was drawn by the freedom offered by the cable network "to create another world and develop character in a long form story and narrative".
Writing for London's The Observer, Mark Kermode asked Scorsese whether Boardwalk Empire wouldn't be even better on the big screen, in the cinemas that first fired his imagination. "Well, you know," Scorsese said, "it is made for what I guess you would call the small screen. But we made it like a film; an epic B-film in a way. And you know what? Those small screens aren't that small any more."
I DIDN'T really expect to like Winners and Losers, the new Seven Network series produced by the creators of the prime-time serial Packed to the Rafters. It's certainly not my demographic and I thought it would probably be a bit soapy, sentimental and condescending.
But it turns out to be an often very funny and occasionally quite perceptive comedy-drama that may just have some longevity in the currently confusing, omnivorous commercial TV market.
The broad idea shaping the series seems to be that our society is still pretty ambivalent about what makes a successful woman, especially women themselves, it appears.
Melanie Vallejo (Packed to the Rafters) and Virginia Gay (All Saints) star alongside sassy newcomers Melissa Bergland and Zoe Tuckwell-Smith as Sophie, Frances, Jenny and Rebecca. All 27, they were friends during their miserable school days with little in common except they spent most of their time hiding in the toilets from the dreadful bully Tiffany Turner (Michala Banas).
Each believes she has moved on from the awfulness of that past -- collectively they were known as "The Losers" -- but a surprise invitation to the class's 10-year reunion makes the women doubt their achievements and the lives they now lead.
What does it take to be a winner in life? A successful career or the letters Mrs in front of your name? Are they really the same people they were a decade ago, waiting to be trodden on and humiliated again? At the reunion -- a very funny, cringe-worthy comic set piece -- they rediscover each other and the solace they once found in each other's company.
It's a kind of TV chick lit, exploring the personal, professional and romantic lives of this group of young, single, working women (there's even a gay best friend). As with chick-lit novels, the series is marked by satire, comedy and sarcasm.
Our four heroines are all quirky, adorably beleaguered protagonists, full of droll humour and occasional self-deprecating one-liners, and all desperately looking for success. Each seeks a model of womanhood that emphasises independence, honesty and self-sufficiency.
During the next few months there are going to be many discussions between them about love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, jobs and weight loss, and there will be a lot of laughs along the way. All of it happening between visits to bikini-waxers, gyms and cuticle-enhancers. It's a great little cast. The play between the actresses is spontaneous and witty, and they appear to possess the skill to cope with any number of plot contrivances. It could be a lot of fun.