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Fall Previews and Small Screens

For the New York Times' AO Scott, the "salient question is this: Will any of the movies surfacing this fall provoke the kind of conversation that television series routinely do, breaking beyond niches into something larger?... Look back over the past decade. How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of The Sopranos or The Wire? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of Mad Men? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of Lost? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family?"

Scott isn't presuming that these are new questions. They've been simmering throughout the 00s, and as we enter the 10s, they'll only get stickier, he adds, "since the television networks and the movie studios belong to the same conglomerates, and there is frequent crossover among executives and producers as well as directors, actors and writers. And looked at from another angle — from your couch to the living room wall, say, or from your armchair to the laptop or other mobile electronic device in your hand — the distinction between movies and television grows more tenuous every day."

As yet, though, we still recognize a difference. "With film you're in and you're out and you go on with your life. TV is like a long relationship that ends abruptly or wistfully. One way or another, TV will break your heart." That's one way of looking at it, David Bordwell's, specifically, stated as a prelude to an examination of the way a 50-year-old sitcom, Hennesey, was put together. And what a conversation-opener. Do we really just shake off a movie and get on with things the moment we leave a theater? Not exactly what he means, I understand. After all, he does eventually confirm part of the point Scott makes in his series of questions, conceding that "the rhythm of real-time viewing seems to me one of TV's artistic resources."

So, do some TV series make use of its artistic resources to create artistic value that can be measured against the best cinema has to offer? David Hare would be among the many who'd answer with an unequivocal yes. "Mad Men," he writes in the Guardian, "at its most basic, plugs into the theme of class which powers so much great American art. Like Some Came Running, The Godfather, or A Place in the Sun, it features aspirational characters who think they want to move up through society, but who are then haunted by the feeling that gain is loss." He then turns to Truffaut's last interview, recently published in English for the first time in the New Yorker: "The intention of the nouvelle vague, he said, had been 'more personal films,' but the results were films which were, in fact, 'more than personal: they became narcissistic.' Gradually, Truffaut said, he had himself returned 'to a narrative tradition based more on observation and synthesis than subjectivity and self-exploration.' The lessons painfully learned by Truffaut in 20 years still haven't been absorbed by the Anglo-American cinema in 60. Mad Men has auteurs, all right. They're the boys and girls who write it."



In this week's New Yorker, Nancy Franklin notes that once The Sopranos and The Wire completed their runs, "there was some slack in HBO's offerings," but "Showtime and AMC made up for it; by last year, AMC's Breaking Bad and Mad Men had become appointment television for increasing numbers of obsessive fans. But HBO's breather is about to end, with the première, on September 19th, of Boardwalk Empire, a series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, about which one feels that it's fair to say 'It's no Sopranos,' because it doesn't just invite comparison with the earlier series — it demands it. Boardwalk Empire was created by Terence Winter, a writer and producer (and, by the end, an executive producer) of The Sopranos," and she goes on to list a healthy handful of further connections. Then: "Presiding — looming, so to speak — over the enterprise is Martin Scorsese, who is the show's co-executive producer. Boardwalk is Scorsese's first foray into television (except for The Blues, a group of seven documentary films that he executive-produced, each by a director with a distinct signature), and it's seemingly perfect for him: the story of a larger-than-life, charismatic, canny man, who controls Atlantic City like a Mafia boss, with an army of not always controllable underlings — sometimes comic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes both at once — and whose good works are made possible by corruption. And yet, as familiar as this shaky moral ground is to Scorsese, you'd think the setting, the particular history of Atlantic City, would give him a chance to do something fresh."

But Salon's Heather Havrilesky is far more bullish on the series: "From its breathtaking cinematography to its meticulous period costumes to its smart, snappy dialogue to its talented cast, Boardwalk Empire presents a TV program that's so polished and beautifully executed, each episode feels as rich and memorable as its own little Scorsese film. In fact, the Academy should save itself a little time and effort and just roll a big truck full of Emmy statuettes over to the Boardwalk Empire studios right now."

Two quick TV notes: "The Wire's intentional difficulty and rigor — along with academia's ongoing love affair with cultural studies — might very well explain its emerging as a centerpiece in a growing number of courses at many colleges and universities in the United States." Trevor Dodge reports for PopMatters. And Nellie Andreeva broke the news a week ago at Deadline Hollywood that two filmmakers, Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham, will be working on a half-hour comedy project for HBO.



On to movies and movies on your TV. Most of the fall preview packages are out by now, so let's list them: Mark Asch (L), Nick Davis, Cheryl Eddy (San Franisco Bay Guardian), Noah Forrest (Movie City News), Tom Hall, Aaron Hillis (Voice), indieWIRE, the Los Angeles Times, Neil Morris (Independent Weekly), New York, the New York Times, PopMatters, Time and Time Out New York.



Previewing the season's DVD releases are the New Yorker and Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek for the NYT. Naturally, there's more to rouse excitement in those roundups than in this single week's batch. Still, a new Louis Feuillade package is nothing to overlook, and it seems appropriate that, following the discussion above, we'd begin with a series.

Andrew Schenker for Slant: "Ridiculously entertaining and nearly immeasurable in their influence, works like 1915's Les Vampires and the following year's Judex not only laid the groundwork for nearly every policier to follow, but first showed the cinema's potential for extended narrative, unfolding their perpetually engrossing, if inevitably episodic, plotting over five-plus hours of screen time. Feuillade's first great serial and the work that set the pattern for his subsequent output began in 1913 with Fantômas in The Shadow of the Guillotine, the initial entry in the five-film series detailing the adventures of the eponymous arch-criminal, all of which are collected in Kino's new set Fantômas: The Complete Saga. Opening with a title sequence showing the protean star morphing via dissolve into his various disguises (prefiguring Dr Mabuse's own store of camouflages by nine years), Feuillade's movie serves notice of both the complexity of narrative to follow and his penchant for a proto-surrealism."

"Like a missile out of the declared Hollywood underground, the Werner Herzog-directed, David Lynch-produced, Michael Shannon-starring My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done lands in your yard and dares you to get near, lest it finally detonate." Michael Atkinson for Movieline: "Fresh to DVD this week, it's not a movie you can bring expectations to, unless you're expecting a cranial injury and a case of vertigo."

My Son opened in the UK on Friday and Neil Young wrote, "It's unlikely that Herzog will ever find a partner-in-crime as diabolically suitable as the late, much-missed Kinski, but he's come pretty close in the last year with first Cage from Bad Lieutenant and Shannon here (indeed, one can only dream of a future sequel that might somehow bring the two characters together) — the performance from the latter, six-foot-odd of sustained, glowering intensity, is quite literally a tour de force."

"Thirty-two years after its American release, Luigi Cozzi's epic space opera (and, yes, Star Wars riff-off) Starcrash has finally found a home outside of Cozzi's résumé and the hearts and minds of those who caught the film on the big screen way back when," writes the Austin Chronicle's Marc Savlov. "As part of its ongoing and ambitious Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection, Shout! Factory has released Starcrash in a spectacular double-disc collector's edition featuring a gorgeously remastered, anamorphic wide-screen transfer, complete with a lengthy commentary by Austin screenwriter, novelist, and self-described 'Crasher' Stephen Romano (see 'Shock and Awesomeness,' Oct 24, 2008, for an interview with Romano). For those who have only seen Cozzi's valentine to interstellar swashbuckling as a washed-out, scratch 'n' splice midnighter (or at one of the Alamo Drafthouse's several screenings over the years), Shout! Factory's remaster — the film's first-ever official home-video release in America — is a revelation."


For Sean Axmaker, Starcrash is "both the most ridiculous and the most irresistible of all the Star Wars knock-offs of the late 70s and 80s."

"The tension between [Leonard] Cohen the showman and Cohen the tender, at times mercurial poet obsessed with communion and not 'cheating' his audience, his band, or himself with anything less than emotional honesty is very much a part of what makes his concerts as riveting and even transcendental," writes Josef Braun. "This tension is eloquently captured in Tony Palmer's documentary Bird on a Wire."

DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker, Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail) and Stephen Saito (IFC).

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