I wrote about the Criterion Collection, and why it matters to take seriously those works of pop cinema that are so often brushed aside as forgettable or mainstream. Movies are our cultural history.
I wrote about the Criterion Collection, and why it matters to take seriously those works of pop cinema that are so often brushed aside as forgettable or mainstream. Movies are our cultural history.
When FXX broadcast a marathon of the entire run of The Simpsons to date, they cropped the remastered images, slicing off the top and bottom of the original image to fit into wider HDTV sets. The Simpsons, like many shows of its era, was originally broadcast in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is what TV images looked like for decades. HDTV sets display a ratio of 1.78:1 (often referred to as 16:9, or 16×9), which is obviously wider. To show an older TV image on an HDTV set, you have two options:
1.) Center the image and put black bars on the sides (a practice known as pillarboxing), or
2.) Crop or stretch the image to fit the wider display.
The first option is always preferable. The goal isn’t to fill up your display with an image, but to view the image as it was originally intended using the best of our abilities. Before HDTVs, this meant opting for widescreen editions of VHS tapes or DVDs, which used letterboxing to insert black bars above and below the image to preserve a wide picture on a more narrow display. Many movies today will still be letterboxed on an HDTV, but because the display is already a good deal wider than old 1.33 TV sets, the bars are smaller and less noticeable.
That’s just for modern features, though. For older features and TV series, which were often created and distributed in a 1.33 ratio (or 1.37, aka Academy ratio), watching them on an HDTV and seeing a true representation of the work means having black boxes on the sides of the image. It’s the same principle as letterboxing; the bars are just in a different place.
Filmmakers and TV creators weren’t oblivious to the shape of the screens that would show their work. They composed and photographed images specifically in a 1.33 ratio. And this is where it gets important: a filmed image isn’t just a delivery device for plot, but a visual representation of the emotions of the characters and viewers interacting in the film space. Close-ups, tight shots, the interplay of camera positions. These aren’t haphazard, randomly chosen things. They’re all done with a purpose. And when you chop or distort the image, you twist and damage the intended emotions of the scene.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on DVD, some fans wondered why it wasn’t being presented in widescreen, especially as HDTVs began to gain footing in the market. Series creator Joss Whedon had this to say about it:
The fabulous episodes of BUFFY (and that one crappy one, sorry about that, seemed really cool when we wrote it…) were not shot in a widescreen format. They were shot in the TV 4 by 3 ratio. Now I’m a letterbox fanatic…. I want to see the whole screen, as framed by the director. The BUFFY’s I (and others) shot were framed for traditional TVs. Adding space to the sides simply for the sake of trying to look more cinematic would betray the very exact mise-en-scene I was trying to create. I am a purist, and this is the purest way to watch BUFFY. I have resisted the effort to letterbox BUFFY from the start and always will, because that is not the show we shot. This is.
The latest show to receive the HD remastering treatment is HBO’s The Wire, and it looks like it will unfortunately be cropped to fit HDTV sets, too. This is, of course, an affront to the creators of the original image, who knew what they were doing when they photographed one of the greatest TV series ever made. From a 2007 piece about the show:
The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, “The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show’s never been HD, even 4×3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16×9 version anywhere.” As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.
Insley explained, “When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it’s been consistent for the past two seasons.”
Watching a TV show or a movie isn’t just downloading the plot into your brain. If it were, you could get the same emotional and aesthetic experience by reading episode summaries on Wikipedia. The visuals, including the framing, are crucial to an understanding of the work. All the pieces matter.
The first Robin Williams standup special I saw was the one he performed in 1978 for HBO. It contained material that would be put on vinyl with 1979′s Reality … What a Concept, but this special was the first place I encountered these jokes. I grew up referring to it as Live at the Roxy, but I’m now seeing it listed online as Off the Wall. I think I saw it sometime during my middle school years, so somewhere between 1993 and 1995. My family didn’t have HBO growing up, either, so I would’ve seen a version that was edited for TV (likely Comedy Central). If I sound hazy here, it’s because the special itself was so influential and magnetic that the material has stayed with me for years even as the details of when I first encountered it have faded. His Shakespearean riff as he wanders through the crowd; the references that were already a little dated when I first saw the special; the frenetic, flagellating look at what he sees in his mind when he bombs on stage; the pleasant poignancy of the closing bit of the main set, where he plays an old version of himself giving advice to young people. As that character, he says, in part:
“From me to you, you’ve got to be crazy. You know what I’m talking about? Full-goose bozo. Because what is reality? … You’ve got to be crazy. You’ve got to. Because madness is the only way I’ve stayed alive. Used to be a comedian. Used to, a long time ago. It’s true. … You’ve got to be crazy. It’s too late to be sane. Too late. You’ve got to go full-tilt bozo. Because you’re only given a little spark of madness, and if you lose that, you’re nothing. Don’t. From me to you, don’t ever lose that, because it keeps you alive. … There’s no way any government in the world can handle madness. You’ve got to fly above it all. Remember: angels, they have wings because they take themselves lightly. … I don’t wanna preach to you, because preaching is like my grandfather used to say: you can fool some of the people some of the time and jerk the rest off. That sucks. But from me to you, keep bozo. You got to. And like Lord Buckley said, he said, people are kind of like flowers. It has been a privilege kind of pollinating here in your garden. Come back; I’ll be here.”
He was only 27 the year this special came out: impossibly young, lithe, energetic, raw. The bits here sank into me like only something you see as a child can. Rewatching the video now, I still know the words and beats even though I haven’t actually watched this performance in 15-20 years. Sometimes jokes from this special will pop into my head for no reason. It made such an impression that it took me years to realize just how big that impression was.
Critics are misunderstood. The knock against us is usually that we hate all movies, or that we only like “art house” or “fussy” movies, or foreign films. The truth, as usual, is more complicated and less interesting. Because we love movies, we wind up seeing a lot of them, and we also find ourselves working through issues of philosophy and worldview with every one. We find ourselves almost unconsciously building moral and aesthetic values that we bring to each successive viewing.
Most people engage in the same kind of basic opinion-building that critics do: I like this movie, that guy’s hilarious, this is a great action movie, etc. And if pressed, most people could probably give a more nuanced and reasoned defense of their opinions than they might imagine possible. The thing about being a critic is you push yourself to play devil’s advocate in your head after every movie. This (for me, anyway, though probably for others) tends to take the form of a series of questions.
For instance, say I see an action movie but find myself having a visceral negative reaction to the violence. The questions start to bubble up: Why am I having this reaction? What about the violence did I find off-putting? What did the images actually depict, versus what they suggested through editing and music? Do I always feel this way about screen violence? Why or why not? What about this other movie I love that’s full of violence; why are my reactions different? Is the violence portrayed differently between the two films? If so, what’s different, and how does it affect me? If not, why do I have different reactions to similar images? What purpose does the violence serve in the film in question? Who perpetrates it? Why is it in the story? Is it rooted in suspense or punishment, and what would either of those answers mean? Is it restrained or excessive, and what would either of those answers mean? This is just the iceberg’s tip, too, for just one aspect of the movie. And these questions don’t come fully formed in the mind. Rather, they take the form of emotions and urges that send you coursing through thought and belief as you wrestle with something.
As a result, you find yourself thinking a lot about all kinds of movies, every day, and applying to them the kind of standards or metrics that seek to ask “Why?” and not just “What’s happening?” You look at things as parts as well as a whole. In other words, you try to think critically about it. To a lot of people, this looks like relentless negativity. It’s not, but it’s understandable why it might feel like that.
I always find myself returning to something Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the introduction to How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, a collection of his criticism. It’s a phrase borrowed from Tennessee Williams, and Mendelsohn explains his application:
But to my mind Williams’s haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge these works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.
To that end, then, I thought it might be worthwhile to compile a list of movies I’ve loved, or liked quite a bit, or liked a little, or even just enjoyed in some way. My personal viewing list skews American and modern, and is woefully short of where I’d like it to be — I have yet to find a job that will let me make a living studying movies, having been born decades too late to b.s. my way into publishing or academia that way — but I’ve still seen a lot of things I’ve taken to heart in one way or another. Below, a list (culled from the master list of every movie I’ve seen). May it do whatever it can to dispel any rumors of despair.
OK in parts, but a little forced.
Over at Kill Screen, I take a look at blockbuster cinema, how it’s influenced gaming, and what it means for players and viewers.
UPDATE: Also cross-posted over at The Atlantic.
• The action sequences are usually the least interesting part of a Marvel movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy is no exception. This isn’t because of any personal failing on the part of the director or writers. Rather, it’s because 1) Marvel movies all tend to gravitate toward a house style, and 2) that house style is both shaper of and shaped by the current trend toward making action films less visually comprehensible and more impressionistic and chaotic. The last act of Guardians involves an enemy armada attacking a peaceful planet and being met in force by squadrons of ships. The sky is a blurred, packed mess of information, and only rarely do we as viewers get a sense of where different characters and ships are within the narrative space. Marvel’s employed a string of talented directors to helm their movies — including Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, and now, on Guardians, James Gunn — but their respective sensibilities are almost always trampled by their films’ overloaded climaxes.1 These sequences are the most visually aggressive, and the least interesting: there’s not much use of geography, the viewer’s never given a chance to inhabit the frame, etc. You aren’t able to hold in your head an idea of what’s happening where and to whom, which is standard now for impressionistic action. The final battle here feels pasted directly from many other movies, and the body count is so astronomically high you just stop caring. Death ceases to have meaning. You could cut 90% of the “action” from the movie and not lose anything. If anything, you’d probably improve the final product.
• Guardians of the Galaxy is more entertaining than most Marvel movies because it wants to be a comic sci-fi actioner, not a moody superhero drama. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are very good, and probably the best examples of how to marry operatic drama with cartoony heroes and make everything feel realistic and grim and engaging. The problem is that success breeds imitation, and most of that imitation only goes as far as aping a few random details on the surface. Every superhero movie now tries to be serious and earnest and maudlin when these things are not guaranteed to work in every situation. They aren’t cogs that can be moved and replaced at whim. Guardians, though, has a different tone altogether: reckless adventure, with a little goofy heart thrown in. In other words, it’s actually enjoyable to watch.
• Few people can nail the mix of seriousness and clownishness like Chris Pratt. It’s a hard line to walk.
• The plot’s Macguffin is fine, if generic — a mysterious orb that can blah blah explode planets — but overall the movie’s pretty streamlined. It’s certainly more focused than the latest Captain America movie from earlier in the summer, which tried to glue several plots together into a messy whole. Guardians zips right along.
• Speaking of death ceasing to have meaning: a friend of mine wrote a piece for the New York Times earlier in the summer about the overuse of death in blockbusters, specifically re: the way death is used as a cheap and artificial way to raise the stakes because it’s so often reversed. That happens here in Guardians, too. When it looks like the whole gang’s going to die in a crash, Groot expands from a tree into a giant cocoon of branches that protects everyone else. Rocket worriedly warns Groot that such a move will kill him, and sure enough, when they wreck, Groot is destroyed. Nothing remains but scattered branches and twigs. Rocket sits and weeps over the remnants of his dead friend. But a few minutes later, Rocket is seen carrying one of the branches in a planter. I thought at first this was a kind of memorial, but in the next scene, Groot is shown regrowing himself from that tiny branch, while Rocket holds the planter in his lap. There’s no mention or discovery that Groot has survived the crash. Rocket and everyone else act like things are pretty much going as planned here.
Groot’s death, then, is rendered narratively and emotionally pointless. If he was actually going to die the crash, Rocket should’ve been far more excited to see that he actually survived. And if he could actually survive the crash, Rocket shouldn’t have announced that Groot would die, nor would he have needed to spend time weeping over the remains. It wouldn’t damage the story in any way for Groot to suffer serious injury in the crash. He’s spent the entire film being pretty much indestructible: this would be a chance for him to actually risk something greater. We’ve seen that he can regrow lost limbs, but what happens if he sustains a more grievous injury? Wouldn’t something like that test him without also cheating us?
Additionally, what are the chances that Gunn is going to kill off one of the five main characters in the gang’s first appearance on screen? He isn’t Whedon (and Whedon can do what he wants with his own characters; messing with Marvel’s is probably a whole other issue). We know, as viewers, that it would be shocking and nonsensical for Groot to die here. It seems highly unlikely. Therefore, his death scene is even more misleading because we know that somehow, someway, it’s going to be reversed. It has to. And sure enough, it is. This whole turn felt like a misstep, which was a shame, since Gunn did so many other things well.
• I can’t remember the last time a film’s score — especially one for an action movie or blockbuster — stayed with me. Many modern scores seem to have jettisoned melody and themes in favor of sustained, shifting chords or generic drums and stings to underscore the mood. It’s fitting, then, that Guardians is loaded and mostly scored to pop songs.
• The central characters aren’t referred to as the “guardians of the galaxy” until they’re captured at the end by the villain, who uses the term sarcastically and seemingly without prompting, after which it seems to stick. It feels random and a bit forced, as if Luke Skywalker had moaned, “These star wars are tearing my family apart!” Indeed, you can see in earlier trailers that the phrase originally popped up in other places in the story, but having now seen the movie, I can’t understand why the guard (John C. Reilly) would’ve said “They call themselves the ‘guardians of the galaxy,’” since the group had just been arrested and this was the first time they’d all been rounded up at once. They hadn’t even worked together yet at this point. It’s always hard in these origin stories for catch phrases to get worked in, but still.
• I knew nothing about the history of these characters before I saw the movie, and I still don’t know anything more than what was on screen. The parts of the movie that worked best were, unsurprisingly, those that felt free to do their own thing instead of adhering to Marvel’s internal memos for franchise expansion. The interchangeable villains — Thanos, done entirely in CGI and looking not unlike a rhino the color of bubblegum; Ronan, acted by Lee Pace chewing every available piece of scenery; a rare-items dealer played by Benicio del Toro with hair and costume out of a Schumacher Batman movie — seemed to appear to satisfy brand obligations. The origin story of the Guardians, though, was a more entertaining and enjoyable part of the narrative simply because it felt like Gunn was able to tell a little story of his own.
• It comes as no surprise to learn that Groot’s animation and personality were inspired by Gunn’s dog. The character’s face doesn’t change much, but he’s given large eyes, a big mouth, and no nose. He looks like a giant smiley face, eager for affection and acceptance. We’re hardwired as viewers to respond to animals like that. The dragon in How to Train Your Dragon was modeled after a cat, and the creatures in Avatar also had feline inspiration. It works, though. Groot plays really well, and in a movie where several characters are fully CG, he’s the most enjoyable one. This also has to do with the fact that his dialogue is only three words (“I am Groot”) distinguished by intonation dependent upon the situation, and his reaction shots are sparingly used. He turns out to be the secret weapon.
• The post-credits scenes in these Marvel movies are almost laughably vague now, as well as symptomatic of a larger style of filmmaking-as-pure-product that shows no regard for viewer experience on an individual movie basis. They’re an endless tease. That’s what makes the stinger here so perfect. It’s a dumb, pointless scene featuring Howard the Duck. It has no bearing on the events of the film we just saw, nor does it tease some new villain or twist for whatever’s next in the franchise. It’s a blissful screw-you to those who expect, who demand, a juicy post-credit scene and who get upset when one doesn’t appear. The stingers always feel so narrowly targeted as to be pointless: only long-time comic book fans are usually going to understand what’s going on in them. It was great to see Gunn go the other way. It’s so hard to make these movies feel like they have a voice; this was an opportunity for him to make himself heard.
• No one here is old, and in fact the actors are all right in the age range for the characters they’re supposed to be playing: by the end of 1983, the year of the The Big Chill’s release, the oldest members of the group (Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, and Mary Kay Place) were only 36. The youngest, Jeff Goldblum, was 31. JoBeth Williams was 35, Tom Berenger was 34, and William Hurt was 33. They were all physically true to the roles of people who knew each other in college at the tail end of the 1960s and awkwardly reunited years later.
But they seem older than their years, and they seem older than whoever would be cast in their roles if the movie were remade today, and I think that has a lot to do with the way Boomers aged into adulthood compared with Millennials. Basically, they act like adults. Twitter user @benheller tweeted pretty presciently a few weeks ago: “They could never remake BIG, since most 31-year-olds now act like 12-year-olds and nobody seems to give a shit.” Yes, there are all kinds of people in every generation, at every age, but the thirtysomethings in 1983 didn’t have Marvel movies or Comic-Con or TV recaps. They didn’t have Tumblrs with GIFs of their favorite Nickelodeon TV shows. There weren’t blockbusters devoted to smearing a patina of seriousness over their old cartoons. There was no industry dedicated to fetishizing their childhoods, so while they remembered their youth with fondness — what else is the movie, after all, but a gentle paean to nostalgia? — the characters here still look and feel like adults. Yes, they’re conflicted and confused like everyone everywhere, and yes, they’re dealing with the same tension between career and personality that haunts us all. But they feel like actual grown-ups in transition, not children who were rocketed into the future.
• Part of what makes them look older is the way stars have changed over time, and the evolving look of what filmmakers and audiences want to put onscreen. Kline, Berenger, and Hurt are solid men, and Close, Williams, and Place are all normal-looking women. Compare that with the 2014 riff on the film, About Alex, which starred a group of smaller and more slender men and women. I’m 32 right now, and the people in The Big Chill still feel a lot older than I am because I’m fighting a conditioning to see different things. Younger actors today like Chris Pratt (35), who’s 6’2″ and beefy, feel like the exception. The Big Chill, like its characters, is caught in a weird transitional period for Hollywood productions. It was still not long past the film brat 1970s, when men like Gene Hackman could be cast in star roles, but it was also in sight of the 1990s, when the increasingly overblown size of 1980s action stars would lead to a burnout and subsequent push for smaller bodies overall.
• The (rightfully) legendary soundtrack is packed with classic songs, but it’s also a reminder of how hard this concept would be to pull off now. (About Alex only briefly touched on music, and it was mostly to take a jab at a Springsteen record as “our parents’ music.”)1 The counterculture was a major unifying force, and you could believably sell a record to an entire generation and have it be remembered years later by the characters and the viewers. When Karen steps up to the organ to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” it’s not just that all of Alex’s surviving friends smile in recognition; it’s that the audience does, too. What song could possibly work in that situation for the collegiate class of 2004? “The Scientist”? A stripped-down “Hey Ya”? Some lesser known track that only had special meaning for the characters? Pop music changed later, yes, but the audience fragmented, too.
• The music was deployed pretty well throughout the film, with Kasdan’s earnestness helping to sell the relatively on-the-nose cues. (The news of Alex’s death travels through the grapevine; his friends wish he were still around, but you can’t always get what you want; etc.) And the music is loud, too. Instead of opting for pure diegetic (originating from within the narrative space, like a character’s stereo) or non-diegetic sound (originating off screen and laid over the action to underscore the mood), Kasdan opts for a kind of hybrid. The organ version of the Stones turns into a bright soundtrack version, which is in turn heard on car stereos. The Temptations set the mood for cleaning the kitchen, but they’re also coming from the hi-fi. Music doesn’t fade down or out when characters talk, either, no matter the music’s source. It’s just a shimmering part of the landscape.
• The most awkward music cue, though, has to be blasting “When a Man Loves a Woman” as Sarah goes doe-eyed and decides she wants her husband to impregnate her best friend. There’s making the subtext text, and then there’s just screwing around. But more importantly, this is the least plausible development in the movie, and one where the characters involved stop acting like recognizable humans in any form. The lack of baggage or complication feels false, especially when Meg has either turned down or been rebuffed herself by her other male friends for similar baggage-related reasons. The Harold-Meg-Sarah thing is also weirdly calm given that Sarah cheated on Harold five years earlier with the now-departed Alex, so this whole setup almost feels like she’s trying to let him even things out. Even for a story about wistful former aspiring revolutionaries, this whole turn feels out of place.
• Most dated aspect of the narrative: lots of cigarettes being smoked, often indoors. The recreational drug use still plays normally (well, the pot more than the cocaine, which was a very 1980s touch), but the abundance of cigarettes was occasionally jarring. Partly it’s because smoking in movies has decreased (the ratings board will even hit you for it now), but also because generational preferences and health ideals have changed in three decades. The gang in About Alex tokes up a few times, but nobody ever reaches for a pack of Marlboros.
• Runner-up for most dated: an employed journalist.
• The film’s also great at allowing the characters to softly explore the way that technology has started to change their lives. Two of the men admit to unwinding by playing video games, and this was very early in the console era, with Atari at its peak. (The industry actually crashed in 1983, around the time of the film’s release.) But the most meaningful is the presence of the home video camera in Harold and Sarah’s home. The characters film themselves talking to it, or interviewing each other, and then play those tapes back later. Sometimes Kasdan will frame up the TV screen showing such tapes, and it’s not immediately clear if we’re watching the recording happen or watching the characters watch themselves. This was the generation that was going to change everything, but wound up (to paraphrase Meg’s disillusioned lawyer) defending scum instead of marching with Huey and Bobby. The revolution really wasn’t televised, but they can’t help but try to reenact their hopes that it would be. They’re also remarkably candid on camera, sometimes more than in person. The only time Alex’s girlfriend Chloe opens up is when she’s being filmed. They’ve lost the muscle memory of being honest with each other, so they pour that honesty into a void and hope someone will watch it later.
• The jagged structure is perfect, and it’s blessedly free of “answers” or easy endings. Harold has transitioned into a more driven businessman than he likely was in college, and he even refers to his friends as “bleeding hearts” in a gentle debate. Nick winds up in a slightly better place by the end — taken in by Howard, eyes weakly on the goal of getting clean or settling down — but most of the characters just keep ambling forward after being disabused of whatever fantasy they had going into the weekend. Michael doesn’t score; Karen and Sam sleep together but walk away; nobody is any closer to knowing what was happening in Alex’s life or mind. Sarah worries that their youthful talk of changing the world was “all just fashion,” realizing that it always is, on some level. College isn’t when you figure yourself out, but when you start to understand how to allow yourself to eventually figure out who you want to be. Maybe you never get there, but if you’re lucky, you have company for the walk.
I liked it. A meta-riff on The Big Chill with a sturdy cast.
I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.
But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.
In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.
Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.