Having just finished an abbreviated re-watch of Friday Night Lights, it’s impossible to deny that it is anything less than astonishing. It is a television show that doesn’t outwardly reach for artfulness, but certainly achieves it. In an age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad – with The Soprano’s, The Wire and The Shield just in the rear view mirror — anti-heroes are all the rage. What is it about Friday Night Lights that allows it to be so universal? So American? So heartfelt? It is a show with indisputable heroes, yet it is often referred to as “down-to-earth” and praised for its realistic depiction of rural America (specifically, West Texas). How?
Friday Night Lights accomplishes this with faith. Not blind faith, but a kind of faith we don’t hear about in this country very often — rational decency. Churchgoing citizen or not, it is clear that these characters walk the walk. Proponents of Secular Humanism emphasize morality over faith and encourage a moral code derived from the Golden Rule — do unto others and whatnot. But Friday Night Lights demonstrates how much effort is lost in the debate over faith. Despite the fact that Christian scriptures lay out a meticulous system of rational decency, the debate has shifted. Rather than focus on leading a life of basic respect, we all try to prove or disprove God.
Friday Night Lights passes from extraordinary to transcendent by subverting this maxim. The show espouses a centrist ideology that American politics no longer support. In that way, the show couldn’t be less American. But by tapping into the lost belief in universal respect, Friday Night Lights (FNL) manages to deliver a one-of-a-kind critique of American ignorance and obsession. And, unlike Sorkin’s American fantasies, the show manages to avoid didacticism. Mistakes (the Landry/Tyra plot of season two, for example) that remove the show from its footing seem more painful because of the consistent realism that FNL usually observes.
Much of FNL’s realism stems from its audacity. It may not be immediately clear, but the show takes regular risks. No other show is so earnest about underage drinking. Tim Riggins is rarely seen without a beer in his hand. He is 20 at the end of the series. Much of the time it isn’t even acknowledged. Characters go to a party, get drunk, go to football practice and get on with their lives. Hardly ever is it the source of drama. In fact, in “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy,” Coach Taylor coaxes Tim into taking J.D. out for a good time. After J.D.’s domineering father finds out, he is forced to apologize directly to coach. In this case, underage drinking is even aligned with the most heroic figure in the show — Coach. Most corners of reality involve high schoolers drinking and still managing to succeed.
The same type of risk is taken with Julie’s character. While off at college during season five, she begins an affair with her married TA. Julie often functions as the “result” of Eric and Tami’s parenthood — which, on paper, isn’t encouraging; underage drinking, losing virginity at 16ish, and striking up extramarital affairs. But she maintains respectability. I would argue that this is true of most of the characters. They are rendered as flawed humans. And we are far more likely to project our flaws onto fictional characters. If they were made too heroic, we wouldn’t buy it. Just like the show seems to typify America by being un-American, the characters are made heroic by being un-heroic. Take a moment and think about the moral problems that are built into FNL — The Landing Strip, steroids, infidelity, just to name a few. It’s not easy to find a show that would allow Lyla to sympathetically wind up with Tim — remember how she cheated on wheelchair-bound Jason with him? There are so many examples of characters that might seem more flawed than good, but through understanding their humanity we are allowed to trust them.
This is the reason Eric and Tami possess the most believable marriage in television history. Their struggles are numerous and not trivial — their relationship dense with sacrifice. But the audience is able to believe in their steady affection because it is always tested. Of all the characters on television with whom I would want to buy a drink — Don Draper, Walter White, Roger Sterling, Meadow Soprano, Ron Swanson, etc — I would invite Coach. We attach ourselves to these characters because we believe that they’re not impossible archetypes. Sam Fuller once said that a hero needs to be flawed so that we can see ourselves in the Final Heroic Act.
This brings us to the series finale, “Always.” Eric Taylor had been telling us how to be a real man for four years at the time of that episode. He had endured subversion and job insecurity (that did lead to the most successful reboot of any series that I’ve ever seen — would anyone argue that seasons 4-5 are less enchanting than 1-3?) to reach State once again. However, of all the plots to wrap up in this season finale, the primary one was with Tami. Offered the position of Dean of Admissions at a school in Philadelphia, the Taylors are faced with a big decision. I can hardly imagine what it would have looked like if they stayed in Dillon — then again, that outcome was never possible in this universe.
Fairness is a hard truth in FNL. Almost invariably, characters pay for serious indiscretions — often emotionally. Tim’s jail term is a great example. His anger towards Billy is made complex through our understanding that Billy has undergone serious emotional strain and has tried to give back by coaching football. The finale shows them both working on Tim’s house together. In fact, the entire final montage is in the business of settling issues of equality. Jess is coaching in Dallas. Vince is the star quarterback of the Panthers, wearing his ring. Luke is headed for the military — an honorable choice when we understand that he was not the best student and couldn’t play Division 1. Finally, we see Eric coaching in Philadelphia. Tami comes on the field before they walk away together and the lights turn off. FNL has never used football as a grand metaphor. It functions dramatically and is depicted as a way for boys to be crafted into men of good character — and in the final season, with Jess, girls into women.
The final montage works as drama and moral tool. Each character is finding success but also making sacrifices to enjoy that success. Vince is playing with the superteam that they fought so hard to avoid. Becky and Luke’s issue should be clear. Jess was forced to move to Dallas. And Coach is not in Texas anymore. The only segment that doesn’t fit this concerns Matt and Julie. However, their separation from their respective families is both necessary and sacrificial. FNL always traded in sacrifice and fairness. It ends that way as well.
Friday Night Lights is a rare example of a television show that doesn’t preach or advance a political fantasy. Rather, it displays characters who encounter difficulty and attempt to solve problems — sometimes successful, sometimes not. Most of the characters are practicing Christians, but the show is not interested in conversion. Rather, it tries to hand us a mirror. Every show tries to do this in one way or another, but FNL is incredibly good at allowing us to project our own triumphs and anxieties on its cast of characters. It’s this relationship that makes the show both great drama and great social argument.
Historically, Mad Men has put a lot of weight on the eleventh episode of each season. Each season has had a highlight in that spot. “Indian Summer,” “The Jet Set,” “The Gypsy and The Hobo,” and “Chinese Wall,” are all memorable episodes and served as a type of crux in setting up the seasonal endgame. Last night, the eleventh installment of the fifth season, called “The Other Woman,” aired.
To say the least, it holds up to them all.
In fact, I would posit that the back half of “The Other Woman” is some of the finest Mad Men to be produced.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.To recapitulate, the episode opens on a torpedoed SCDP board room full of tired copy writers working on the Jaguar campaign that Don promised to win. Elsewhere, Megan is preparing for another audition and Peggy is getting sick of being treated like an animal. That’s basically where the episode begins. Certainly not where it ends.
The primary impetus for “The Other Woman” rests in a dinner conversation between Ken, Pete, and Herb, some slob from Jaguar management. He asks them if he can sleep with Joan. However, he doesn’t want to work for it. He doesn’t want to ask her, either. Sure, she’s married and has a baby, but all women are really just prostitues, right? Pete, being the slime that he is, actually propositions Joan the next morning at the office. She says, “I don’t think you could afford it,” obviously flustered. Who wouldn’t be? Later, a partners meeting occurs where Don leaves in a huff, the only one opposing the idea, and the others basically vote to solicit Joan. It’s all just a lowly state of affairs. Long story short, she eventually accepts after Lane offers her a partnership and 5% of the company.
In a galaxy far far away, Peggy accepts an offer from Teddy Chaugh as Head of Copy and a $19,000 salary. The episode ends with Don being crippled by the news after Peggy basically tells it to him in a thoroughly prepared sales pitch of a speech. The closing image is her smiling face as she gets on the SCDP elevator one last time (?) to the sound of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. The final music choice was, as is usually the case, a brilliant mixture of irony and earnestness. It was jarring to say the least, but it left the taste in your mouth that inspires some extra inspection.
Before speaking about the evident thematic stuff, it is right to give unusually high praise to the production/costume design of this episode — especially centered around Joan. Her red hair is mentioned a couple times and is complimented by the blood red robe worn by Herb and his blood red bed. Her emerald necklace is matched by the most ravishing robe anyone has ever seen, wearing it when she walks out to touch Don’s face.
Is this how women get ahead? We need not consider Peggy’s future at the moment. At least further than the fact that she has left SCDP. We see her liberation and her pride as she steps into that elevator to the beat of The Kinks. Weiner&co. have set up two different examples of progress in Peggy and Joan. Where Peggy gets a charming Chaugh and some Kinks, Joan gets Herb. Are we meant to understand one type of progress as more genuine than another?
There was a startling moment at the end of the episode. Just after Peggy gives her speech to Don, he thinks that she is kidding and says, “You know I can’t put a girl on Jaguar,” and “Is this about Joan being a partner?” Those two comments were shocking to hear come out of his mouth because it alerts you to the volatility built into Mad Men. In one episode, everything can change. And, here, it has again. Don’s words to Peggy install more meaning into her choice to leave. CGC seems to represent equality and all that is progressive in the ad world. Of course, I can only assume that things will not play out that way. But in Don’s moment of desperation, he proves to himself why she is leaving. All season, we have been seeing how similar Peggy and Don can be. Again in “The Other Woman,” Peggy is given a moment of spontaneous genius, talking to a perfume company on speaker phone. She even spits a nasty insult at Ken. Both of them knew it was out of place, but we knew it was just Don speaking through her.
The portrayal of women in this episode didn’t stop at Peggy and Joan. Megan’s friend is shown crawling around on the board room table, giving Ginsberg the revelation he needs for the Jaguar tagline. Megan is treated like property at home and like meat at auditions. This is nothing new, but there is no reason for her to feel any type of security when walking into those auditions. She does get one step closer this time, and we see Don react to the prospect of her extended leaving. Don is clearly being impulsive when saying, “Well, forget it.” But there’s something genuine, or genuinely ill, about his desire for her. This season has repeatedly shown that Don is the weak link in his string of failed relationships. He is slipping into an unhealthy, albeit different, type of relationship with Megan. Nothing new on the Draper family front this week, but his mental health is starting to spin out of control.
Don and Peggy’s last interaction recalls “The Suitcase,” where he also kisses her hand in the same office. Jon Hamm and Liz Moss imbue that scene with sandbags of regret and nervousness. It might be Peggy’s liberation, but it is only an element of Don’s ruin. His disappointment in Joan’s prostitution is what led him to speak with Peggy in the first place. It all seems to pile onto him. Does he deserve it? This isn’t like the situation with The Sopranos where Tony deserved pretty much whatever he got. In fact, when Joan touches his face she says, “You’re one of the good ones.” Heartbreaker of a line. So is, “Don’t be a stranger.”
While Don and Peggy’s scene was a behemoth in its own right, it was dutifully matched by the obvious, but still deft, intercuts between Joan’s evening with Herb and Don’s pitch to Jaguar. “What behaviors would we forgive?” he asks in the presentation. The slogan, crafted by Ginsberg, (Don, still a mess at work) is “Finally, something beautiful that you can truly own.”
Indeed, there lies the indisputable theme of the episode, neatly tucked into the Jaguar campaign. Women are moving up the ladder. But at what cost? These women are paying with their personal lives. Peggy is forgoing one entirely. Joan is being solicited. We can all see the ramifications of Megan’s achievement. These ladies have a special bond and it is in the forfeiture of their private existence for any amount of respect in the workplace.
The question then becomes — is it worth it?
[EDIT] For the last few minutes I’ve been imagining Weiner&co. strolling around the Internet this morning, shaking their heads as everyone wigs out about Joan soliciting herself while so many have praised Draper for doing the same thing to exponential ends over the last 5 years.
[FURTHER EDIT] Re-watching this episode only serves as a reminder. Mad Men is the most thoughtful and well engineered show on television. Every line seems (and is) packed with significance.
Dr. Doug is easy to spot. Sitting coolly in the front row with one leg crossed over the other. Arms folded. Face amused, but not too amused. The camera cuts to his face whenever Billy Crystal makes a worthy crack. You can still hear your mom, sister, and probably brother gasp at this graying stallion of bachelorhood. But he deserves to be in the front row. George Clooney is one of the hardest workers in Hollywood and in 2011 he released two big films that (under the covers) deal with the same thing, but arrive at two very different results – The Ides of March and The Descendants. Both pictures take to task the difficulty in truly understanding another person and, most importantly, the scary rift between what happens when no one is watching and what happens when someone is.
The Ides of March assumes, like the numerous films that form its ancestry, the plausibility of a naive Democrat who will never play dirty. That is something to which many can relate. I remember someone older telling me, as a fifth grader with grand social ambitions pushing for a Gore presidency, that “everyone is a Democrat until they get their first paycheck.” Of course, I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but there might be some truth to it. This film imagines that same claim. Ryan Gosling portrays a baby Dem with pure wishes who “needs to believe in a cause” in order to make a move. It’s a tale of the Incest of the Left. Everyone floats somewhere between idealistic and cynical, usually representing both. Like Primary Colors and The American President did before, The Ides of March tells us little we didn’t already know. Instead, it elects to dish out Clooney’s political wet dream — a president who mandates two years of military service, has no religious conviction (but he respects yours!!!), and never plays dirty unless he knocks somebody up.
Directed by and co-starring Clooney, it is his predictable political antidote for the American Red/Right Infection from the very beginning. The first words of the film are “I am not a Christian. I am not an atheist.” As a whole, the film shares the same non-committal. Every character but Gosling’s is little more than a stepping stone. Visually, The Ides of March misses the methodical neatness of Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney’s directing and writing styles are capable and wide. He is clearly interested in wordy pictures that search for meaning inside, not on the surface. Luckily for him, he found a balanced talent in Ryan Gosling, who also had a promising year with Drive and this picture. His masculine sensitivity and smoothness recalls the old masters, harnessing the cool charm of Cary or Gary. His quiet charisma also recalls Clint. The sum Dashing-ness of Clooney and Gosling is rich. You’ll only need a couple bites of their cake, but it’s good.
Unfortunately, Ides does little to advance a committed ideology. The stakes are low and cool jazz is playing in the background while these characters talk. I’m unsure whether Clooney was seeking to make a good movie or a political statement. Either way, it only swallowed half of the glass. Whether it’s half full or half empty is your call.
The Descendants, on the other hand, was written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) with Clooney in his most masterful performance, deserving to defeat Dujardin’s silent romp. The story is smooth but not necessarily polite, detailing the wavy family dynamics of a grieving clan.
Though the two daughters are excellently played by a pair of talented young actresses, the real leading woman is Hawaii. While dealing with his comatose wife, Matt (Clooney) is also deciding whether or not to sell a large piece of inherited island property, enduring pressure from his cousins who are seeking to cash in. The Descendants uses the paradise for contrast. Matt even says in voiceover at the very beginning, “paradise can go fuck itself.” Indeed it does! The film walks the common contemporary line between tragedy and comedy, often seeking progress in visual contradiction and dramatic irony. Inside of these universes, everything does seem to be lined up for one character or family. In a way, they are becoming more Movie by trying to become less Movie, if you catch my drift.
But Descendants tries to understand more than that. We are allowed to inherit Matt’s difficulties and indecisions. No character gets a free pass. Even Sid, the bum tagalong, and Elizabeth’s father, the closest thing to total opposition, are given moments of earnest explanation. The people who populate this island habitat are imbued with the completion that other movies aren’t able to find. It doesn’t stop at the notion that the human experience is both comedy and tragedy, it actually builds that duality into each character, no matter how marginal. When everyone says “Elizabeth is a fighter. She’ll make it.” we are allowed to see their error and their effort. The film doesn’t only let us in on the joke.
Some of the best scenes are ones that sit in the gulf between our public selves and our private selves. The two big revelations about Elizabeth’s affair (one involving Alex and the other Mr. Speer) have so much energy and construct an exciting amount of audience instability. The scene at the Speer house is a twisty counterpoint involving the characters x 2 — the public self and the private self. It rolls to a gentle but uncomfortable climax and stands up to most any great scene in recent memory.
Clooney’s crinkled brow is just tired enough to never let us doubt his ability to pull through everything. In living through him, we are allowed to flirt with those moments of feeling that the movies can sometimes concoct. The Descendants is populated by complex, thoughtful characters and situations that feel so close and familiar even in these extraordinary circumstances.
Bob Dylan turned 71 yesterday. The guy still tours all over the world, croaking out songs new and old. Saying that the man was important would be a ridiculous understatement. Along with a couple other folks, he created the movement we call Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the upcoming paragraphs, I quote from three different sources, all of which are worth understanding. They are — Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America, and No Direction Home, a documentary produced by Scorcese.
Dylan’s career is sprawling. It’s a stunning demonstration of personal evolution, not only in appearance but also in spirit and sound. He was never primitive, but in a consistent mode of innovation and reinvention. Not only is his career one of the few that can maintain such a puzzling level of revolution, it also parallels the rapid shifts in American culture during his lifetime. Greil Marcus, a Dylan specialist and author of The Old, Weird America, a book detailing many pivotal events in his life, claimed that he had the motivation to “make [himself] up.” (Marcus 19) Dylan’s will to embrace evolution was the key to a deadlocked American musical atmosphere. His activity is best judged through contradictions. Evident in so many public appearances, he would both embrace and denounce the same ideology as it was convenient.
In understanding the most transformative and static moments in Dylan’s career – from Highway 61 Revisited and “Royal Albert Hall” to his “Basement Tapes” – in dialectical terms, it becomes clear that his revolutions were dependent on his internal contradictions and personal contempt for the American variation on personality as cultural iconography.
Dylan’s tendency to seem prophetic and revolutionary is based, in hindsight, on America being primed for his personality. Hegel claims that progress is rooted in contradiction or opposition within a system. Therefore, Dylan’s inversion of public expectation and the previous nature of national iconography allowed him to function as such a potent agent of change within America’s existing cultural foundations. His most infamous evocation of this contradiction is undoubtedly his decision to, as so many say, “go electric,” or even “go commercial.” When he was young, he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar in order to play folk music (Scorcese). In 1964, when he decided he “would be better with a small group,” he chose to switch back to electric instruments, which reportedly had nothing to do with sounding “modernized.” (Scorcese). Dylan began performing electrically in Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 recording that shows a heavy influence from artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. It revealed a relationship with the blues that was deeply rooted in his musical identity. As a teenager in Minnesota, his first recorded song was one that recalled Lead Belly’s heavy hand and wail. However, it is in the release of Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s most imposing revolution becomes evident.
It is only fitting, given Dylan’s absorption of the blues, that he names the album after the famed “Blues Highway.” But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?) As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems. His career has proven that he had no ambition to cure social ills. Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is important to treat any of his claims as suspect, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress. In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to reveal cultural inconsistencies was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress. His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy. Dylan features two types of songs on Highway 61 Revisited; the “you” song and the meandering pseudo-narrative. He chose to address an unknown object with the most clarity in three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record.
Dylan’s progress through opposition is most evident in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the end of the first side. The biting refrain “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” forms one of the most cynical, but also sincere, moments on the album. In it, “Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found American’s defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not” (Marcus 8). This chorus revealed the most power by allowing the listener to believe that Dylan knew “what [was] happening,” when he never felt like he knew more than anyone else. Of course, this is the engine that propelled his progress through tumultuous relationships with the public.
Bob Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award for Freedom” in 1963. In accepting it, he gave a speech clearly refusing that he was a topical or political songwriter. During a sequence of largely criticized performances in the UK during the summer of 1966, he told a reporter, “all I sing is protest songs” (Scorcese). Instances like this and his frequent interchanging of acoustic and electric performances reinforce his application of progress through internal contradiction. His affirmation and rejection of dominant trends allowed him unprecedented freedom in manipulating his own material. Imagining him as a performer who chooses a successful operation and sticks to it is impossible. It is Dylan’s public enactment of Hegelian progress that established him as a legendary American figure.
One famous performance, closing his 1966 tour of the UK and wrongly thought to have taken place at Royal Albert Hall, marked a critical point in his career. Even his setlists contained internal contradiction, performing the first half acoustic and alone while the second half was with a loud rock ensemble. Audiences were split. Some were appreciative of his innovation and most were livid. Greil Marcus claims that, “Dylan’s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart – and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there” (Marcus 31). So many fans felt betrayed by a man who once epitomized their ideology. Famously, one concertgoer called him “Judas” just before the final song at the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan told his band to play “fucking loud” when barreling into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that transformed into an even more seismic indictment during one dramatic moment. This performance, full of spite and contempt, seemed to contain the entirety of Dylan’s mounting frustrations. Still, there is an air of pleasure that he takes in his power. He wrote, “[i]t was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” (Dylan 121) This may be true, but his artistic innovation and reinvention was dependent on an audience. It was as though his contradictions meant nothing unless someone could pick them out and throw them back.
After the tumultuous 1966 tour of the UK, Dylan retired to America, feeling spiritually depleted. He suffered injuries from a motorcycle accident and subsequently took an eight-year hiatus from public performance. Secluded in a Woodstock, NY home, he gathered a band to record a series of extemporaneous sessions titled, “Basement Tapes.” Dylan, throughout his career, mentioned that he only “sang because [he] felt like singing,” he was “determined to play,” and that the people who didn’t understand him were “outside the music community” (Scorcese, Dylan 43). The sessions in Woodstock, a situation dense with potential for artistic license, thus became an opportunity for Dylan to be a musician without anyone watching. Marcus wrote, “[t]he sense of people playing with no accounts to settle – the sense that everything is possible and nothing matters – defines the basement tapes once they get rolling.” (Marcus 75) A lethargic philosophy dominates the “Basement Tapes”. The seclusion warded off any public ghosts but also chased away Dylan’s determination. The “Basement Tapes” are an astonishing demonstration of cultural virtuosity and musicianship that has seeped deep into the bone. However, they are also a collection of recordings that show so little development. When in the public eye, Dylan was able to be the darling of Newport and the begetter of punk within a few months. The recordings that comprise his stay in Woodstock only affirm that Dylan’s personality is one that requires an audience to witness his contradictions and progress. His trajectory is distinctly American and would form a trademark of rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan wrote, “I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming a performance” (Dylan 17). This was a technique he had mastered to the point of, as becomes evident with the “Basement Tapes,” needing the audience so that he could maintain a stable personality – one only comfortable when in performance. This reading also serves to explain his current obsession with touring, even in a crippled vocal state.
Dylan may have considered popular American culture “lame as hell and a big trick,” but it is clear that he needed it to implement his revolutions (Dylan 35). His influence and legacy cannot be overstated. In hindsight, it seems as though America needed Dylan and Dylan needed America. None of his innovations would have carried if he weren’t so charged with internal contradictions and if he didn’t have a public to watch it all happen. This is the wrong way to interpret Dylan’s career. His interest in delivering answers or conclusions seems to be miniscule. His ability to create profound cultural questions through contradicting himself is paramount. In terms of defining a massive, pluralistic society, Dylan is one of the most efficient and prolific practitioners without ever trying to be. About America, and probably the world, he wrote, “[i]t was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (Dylan 35)
It is impossible to see Napoleon without recalling several scenes from the film repertory. An unenlightened know-it-all might rave about the Odessa Steps and the innovative camera techniques in Barry Lyndon. The truth of the matter is that, “Abel did it first” might as well become a mantra in Film 101. Without ever achieving a level of even modest storytelling success, Napoleon manages to remain legendary on the strength of its imagery alone. In this way, the comparison of Gance to Eisenstein and Kubrick isn’t far-fetched at all.
Now, I must concede that some of the mystique of the film is lost on me since I have never seen it in a theater and was re-watching the film from a Laserdisc on a 27″ TV. Thus, the famous triptych at the end was about the size of my foot and the “overwhelming power” of the piece, as one critic puts it, becomes harder to receive. Nevertheless, that fact doesn’t stop me from wanting to advocate (as loud as possible) for the release of this film. I’m about to be unenthusiastic about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it really is a chunk of boss filmmaking that crosses the road long before many others would.
While the final triptych is certainly the most cited excerpt from the film, its best moments are undoubtedly on the other end. Napoleon begins with a short (meaning about 35 minutes in this context) series of scenes from Buonaparte’s childhood. In depicting a large, organized snowball fight, we don’t only learn of Buonaparte’s precocity as a strategist, we get to play along. This segment, along with the following interpretation of Le Marseillais’ proud beginnings, is the most organized and taut in the entire film. Slicing between moments of genuine chaos and big shots of Napoleon’s face, the audience can do nothing but hold on for Dear Life. After the first 50 minutes of the film, I was thinking that if the pace held up, it would outrun virtually every multi-million dollar action movie ever produced. It didn’t, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that there are portions of filmmaking bolder than your deepest imagination — even today. Segments remain modern and will for time to come. The breadth of setting and stylization is difficult to anticipate. The coordination alone is admirable.
Gance tries to tell this story in a number of ways. Indeed, it is one almost told in faces. Close-up’s litter the bulk of the film, populating the most placid and erratic moments. Even without genuine character motion and acting, Napoleon is still a testament to how much bare expression lives on the surface of the human face. Andy Warhol and a few others have learned to trust the face, but more filmmakers need to take this page from Gance’s book and paste the shaky camera pages back in. Another mildly shocking element is the degree to which Gance decided to tint and expose the film. At times, the contrast and color is so intense that it is very literally difficult to understand the images. It’s not subtle and it’s not tasteful, but who said it had to be?
The thing that knocks Napoleon down from A- to B is the substance — the meat. This argument has been made before and has been over-emphasized too much in criticism of the film. In fact, I wouldn’t be nearly as upset about the storytelling if I didn’t know that Gance was more than capable of sustaining a better narrative. As the opening of the second half proves, when he puts down his bag of tricks, the picture assumes a level of experience that is comparable to Intolerance and Birth of a Nation — you have to start working at it. Gance tells you that he’s got the stuff. The scene where Napoleon sees Josephine’s face in the globe and begins kissing it. When he begins to see the ghosts of the Reign of Terror. These are two brief moments of mature storytelling. But it’s also TWO brief moments of mature storytelling out of about 2,000 possible. Unless I’m missing something (very possible), the general level of visual narrative is not high enough to sustain a 240+ minute film. Gance relies too heavily on flowery, descriptive intertitles and not enough on solid visual representation. If I’m willing to sit still for 5 hours, I want to travel. Not just drop my jaw. Of course, the counterargument would be that the dropping of the jaw must be the point and Gance probably didn’t expect to get all 5 hours in the final cut. Great. I’m perfectly okay with getting WOW’ed for about 90-110 minutes. Longer does not mean better in Napoleon‘s universe. Which is why I find it legitimately surprising that so many cinephiles devote large segments of their lives to stretching out the picture. I know I’m being that guy. But the film mainly functions as an episodic treasure box. And treasure’s they are! But, as a good friend says, “there’s not enough there there.”
But no criticism can push away Napoleon‘s deserving status as a must-see piece of art. The first 50 minutes will match the excitement level of any action sequence you’ll ever see and there are some passages that will make you want to leap out of your chair and holler. The triptych is orgiastic French grandeur of the highest order. Moments of the film are on par with The Big Parade in measure of pure cinematic and patriotic ecstasy that surely would have been overwhelming to see in a theater 90 years ago. It should be required viewing in Film 101 and “Abel did it first” should begin to enter the rotation.