Saturday, September 5, 2015

How "JUSTIFIED" is a perfect example of the Seismic Creative Shift from Theatrical Movies to TV

Every month we have the privilege of sharing with you an excerpt from Doug Pratt’s Newsletter. 
And this month I could not resist highlighting some content overlap
with Mr. Pratt's latest newsletter and my recent blogs.  

When MAD MAX: Fury Road  was released theatrically, I praised the movie, calling it one of the summer’s best movies. I wrote that it was the rare time a sequel, shot decades later, “feels very much conjoined in spirit to the original films.” 
In the September Newsletter, Mr. Pratt’s appraisal of the film is way more insightful than mine. Here's how his review begins – 

The beauty of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic classic, The Road Warrior,, was its low-budget simplicity. It grabbed you with a strong, clear story, some terrific driving stunts, and innovative designs that would quickly come to define practically all subsequent post-apocalyptic action films. What strikes you immediately about Miller’s 2015 reworking of the same premise, Mad Max Fury Road,, is that there is nothing simple about it, at all. 

When I saw Jurassic Park during its original theatrical release, the scene where the main characters see the dinosaurs for the first time was a watershed moment for me as a filmgoer. The scene  was an unveiling of how far CGI/SFX had evolved in the movie industry. Sitting in a Westwood theatre watching the movie, I thought to myself – That looks so... real.  
However, on the tech side of the industry, the buzz upon the film’s original theatrical release was -- “how long will all of that look amazing?” And those who felt this way weren’t being cynical, but realistic. They were speaking about how fast the technology for special visual effects was progressing within the film industry.  It’s an issue Mr. Pratt tackles in his review of Jurassic Park 3D because he points out how a technological change can add new life to an older movie. 

This month's excerpt is Mr. Pratt's newsletter lead -- a review of the Final Season of the TV series, Justified
If you were to go further down on my blog, you would discover on one of my recent posts that I write abou the pilot for Justified being one of the best TV pilots ever written. 
However, Mr. Pratt uses his review of the last season of Justified as a jumping-off point for something more profound. He writes about the issues that were in play when the creation of high quality entertainment for mass audiences had a seismic shift 
from Theatrical Movies to TV. Mr. Pratt runs through some of the significant points of this transition including a point I have not read anywhere else - the seismic shift had a critical bridge... DVDs

I’m excited to be able to share this excerpt from Mr. Pratt as he celebrates his 31st year writing his newsletter. 

Insight can be captured in a moment. 

And Wisdom can come from a thoughtful soul. 
But I believe Profound comes only from the combination of Insight and Wisdom… plus Experience
When someone has been looking through the same window, 
at the same street corner for 31 years... 
that person might have something Profound to say worth paying attention to...  


From a perspective of criticism, television is the most unwieldy artform there is. Despite entertaining almost as many people as music does, it has been for years looked down upon or dismissed outright as being unworthy of deeper analysis.  
No newspaper in the entire world gives its television critic a higher billing than it gives its film critic. And indeed, newspaper and magazine critics can no more write about a new television series than a geologist can tell you about a new planet from a handful of rock samples. They see the first couple of episodes, pass judgement on the series as a whole, and only catch up to you later, perhaps in anticipation of the Emmy Awards, or the start of the next season, to let you know that the previous season turned out to be a masterpiece, or a turkey. 
A motion picture that runs 4 hours is considered massive or daunting. A television series that only runs 4 hours is called a ‘miniseries,’ or it is such a resounding flop that it was immediately cancelled. 
It wasn’t until DVDs were invented that  the  perspective upon which viewers addressed these series changed from regarding an individual episode as a complete entity to regarding the entire season as the complete entity. Kicking and screaming the whole way, DVD distributors eventually realized that consumers did not want cherry-picked episodes, they wanted complete seasons, and indeed, it is the ‘season’ unit that best defines a television work, because that is the unit under which most of the same artists on the show have collaborated.  In other words, most of the artists working on a TV show work on more than one episode together within a season, but may be less likely to return to the work for the next season. That is not to say that the seasons aren’t connected, or that a show’s complete run should not be judged as a single entity, but for practical purposes of judging the work as a whole, it remains both logical and practical to address the work by its seasonal components. 
As obvious as this may be, you have never read it before. There is no James Agee or Pauline Kael or Cahiers du CinĂ©ma of television.   There is no ‘Television Theory.’ It is not a coincidence that the current ‘Golden Age’ of television began at the same time that these DVD seasonal sets became popular. This ‘Age’ closely mirrors what happened to motion pictures in the Sixties, when censorship was relaxed by the invention of the ratings system and artists could begin to explore with more accuracy the nature of the human condition. The development of cable television provided the same freedom that the ratings system provided for motion pictures, because viewers could then choose to not subscribe to a channel that would offend their sensibilities, thus giving other viewers the opportunity to indulge themselves. 
But  it  wasn’t until DVDs established a secondary market that the cable networks  could really risk the investments required to attract major artists to the medium. Yet even today, when many people nod in agreement at the concept that television has become better than film, there is no critical compendium to guide a viewer to the artistry (other than an occasional special issue of Entertainment Weekly), and indeed, the only aesthetic standards that can be applied to TV are the aesthetics of film.
If we step back to look at the concept of ‘art’ as a whole, there are two basic, exclusive forms of art—drawing and music. Something for the eyes, and something for the ears. All other artforms build from  parts or wholes of these two, whether it is storytelling or dance or poetry and so on. Film and television are indeed very similar mediums, but only in the way that dogs and elephants are similar mammals. They both have the same basic body structure, and the same basic intelligence. Each is to be respected, and loved, so that in talking about them, you would use pretty much the same language, and apply pretty much the same values to their behaviors or personalities. But their differences are pretty obvious, as well, and if you are genuinely trying to judge their individual souls, and express that judgment, you would do so by comparing the individual to other members of its  species (and to yourself, because that is how criticism works), but not to the individuals of a different species, except as a peripheral form of illustration.

As most everyone has heard, the scripts of films are written by writers, and then money for them is acquired and a team of artists  is assembled by a producer, but it is the director, overseeing the actual collaboration of those artists, that is considered to be a film’s ‘creator,’ even when he or she steadfastly denies having exerted that sort of authority.  It  is the creative personality of the director that makes a clearer imprint upon a film than the creative personalities of the other artists, an imprint pattern that can usually be seen from one directoral assignment to the next. The other personalities are still there—you can see similarities of tone in films written by the same screenwriter or produced by the same producer and so on, but in most cases, the overriding tone of a movie is reflective of its director, and in many of the instances where it is not, it turns out that something was going on behind the scenes—the producer was exerting more control than normal,

for example—to account for the exception.  In television, however, the  directors of the individual episodes makes less of an imprint upon the series as a whole. It is usually impossible to even spot the episodes within a series, let alone from one series to the next, that were shot by the same director. Instead, the tone of a
season, and its overall aesthetic value, is guided by what used to be termed the series’ producer and is now called more specifically (as it has become recognized through the success of this Golden Age) the  ‘show runner,’ although the term, to our knowledge, has never actually appeared in a title card or credit scroll.

Unlike a director, however, or an author, or a composer and so on, no television producer or show runner has any idea whatsoever what the sixth season of a TV show is going to be like as production begins on the first season. The art form is simply too massive and too complicated. Sometimes, the general arcs of future seasons are sketched out in advance, but the  farther in advance the sketch, the less like the actual work it is when the real season finally arrives. The realities of popularity and production are simply too complex for any person or even group of people to anticipate. In the first season of Justified, which we reviewed in May 13, Walton Goggins (having made a strong impression as a badder cop than the other bad cops in the initially outstanding crime series, The Shield), was cast as the primary villain for the season, a foil for star Timothy Olyphant. 

The show had a strong episodic structure, despite a continuing narrative that was also woven through parts of it. Based upon a specific story by Elmore Leonard, but also evoking his other writings, some of the episodes were cute little crime short stories, with eccentric villains whose intentions were upended by the hero’s quick thinking and ingrained understanding of his environment—Harlan County in the rural mining country of Kentucky—and human nature. The show worked in part because of Olyphant’s charm—he had also come over after finishing one of the founding series of the TV Golden Age, DEADWOOD. But just as in  DEADWOOD, where, despite his anchoring of the lead, he was somewhat outshown by the principal villain, played by Ian
McShane, so too in Justified did the antics of Goggins’ character (and his enthusiastic performance) attract more attention, to the point where, rather than killing off the Goggins character, as the creators initially intended, they ended up carrying him through the entire series, as the show’s second lead. Aided by a dazzling supporting performance from Margo Martindale, the second season tended even more toward a single running narrative, and, as will happen on a show from time to time, the personality of Goggins’ character was slightly tweaked to accommodate his expanded position in the series (rightfully, even as he changed his tactics, his character ought to have continued quoting  the scripture that was ingrained within him; instead, he drops it entirely).   The next three seasons were, in essence, three complete crime novels brought to the screen. The recurring characters continued to go through a basic level of emotional  (and  career)  development,  while,  for  every  season,  guest  stars would be brought in to facilitate the season narrative. Individual episodes would sometimes have distinctive thematic constructs, or would otherwise blend with the episodes on either side to advance the story as a whole, retaining only the common structure of a gripping teaser, a rise to a midpoint crisis, and then wrapping up with something of a cliffhanger, which may or may not be addressed right away in the teaser of the next  episode. The concept of an episode providing a coherent freestanding story was long forgotten.  Each of those three seasons was outstanding entertainment,  witty as all hell, with decent twists and turns befitting tales of crime, and a fantastic array of characters who become richer and richer with every scene. And now, alas, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released the show’s sixth season, as Justified The Complete Final Season (UPC#043396453890, $56).
The final seasons of some series have been unnerving embarrassments that have tainted both the pleasures and the value of their preceding seasons. The more we think about it, the more we cringe at our memories of the final seasons of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire. There were terrific moments in some of the episodes of each, but overall, they were simply de facto wraps ups, created under the concept, perhaps valid, that a resolute ending is better than no ending at all, especially if you want to market a complete series boxed set.
Justified, however, concludes with perfection. 
It’s not that you wouldn’t want to see a motion picture spinoff, but you don’t need to. Another complete crime story, the writers, to use a Harlan County metaphor, play out the mine and shut it down while staying profitable. 
Sweet Mary  Steenburgen is brought in as a vicious gangster, working in tandem with her lover, played without a mustache by Sam Elliott. In another amazing performance, Jeff Fahey, of all people, plays a former miner who lives in the hills and is roped into a scheme by Goggins’ character to steal the gangsters’ stash. Olyphant’s character is essentially chasing after the bits he knows about the crimes building up to the big crime, getting himself further and further into trouble with his superiors because he continues to recognize there is more going on than is immediately apparent. The dialog is as glorious as ever (“Do you even know when you’re lyin’ any more, or is it just like blinkin’?”). The show follows through on the fates of all of the main characters, even bringing  back a component of Goggins that had been discarded after the first two seasons, and then bows out with a beautifully composed epilog that sort of seals the entrance to the mine, as it were.
If we were to find fault with the season, it is that the geography of the setting is sometimes compromised for the sake of the story—it will take one character a very long time to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ but then another character will pop up at ‘B’ with barely an effort—but the trade off is the momentum that is being generated within the drama, and it is never a blatant cheat, just a bit of a stretch of reality from time to time.
Originally broadcast in 2015, thirteen episodes are spread to three platters (it’s pretty much impossible to stop watching the third platter once you start it) and run a total of 560 minutes. There is a ‘Play All’ option. The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer looks  fine. The filmmakers, overseen by show runner Graham Yost, do a better job finding locations that
don’t pull you out of Kentucky than they did on some of the previous seasons. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has occasional moments of dimensionality but is primarily centered, with reasonably strong tones. There is an alternate Spanish track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a very good 6-minute featurette about doing  the research in Harlan to better replicate the atmosphere of the town.