After watching the series premiere of Boardwalk Empire, I was struck by how cinematic it felt. Not just in its production design or narrative form, but in the way that it was shot and edited. A number of the examples I had in mind right after that episode have exited my brain, but the one that has stuck with me is the slow, wordless, and artfully framed mob hit in Chicago that follows the big meeting in Atlantic City.
It is rare in series television to have a sequence like this, where so much time and effort is devoted to crafting a moment for visual effect. Most of what happens in this scene has no narrative purpose, and it centers on a character about which the audience knows little and who, by virtue of being killed in the first episode, is at most a footnote in the series. I thought a lot about this in the week between episodes, but did not fully trust my thinking because, like just about everyone who watched the pilot episode, I knew that Martin Scorsese directed and that Thelma Schoonmaker edited. Maybe I was being unduly influenced by that knowledge.
For the most part the first season of the show settled into a more familiar set of rhythms for a TV drama, but the finale, which Anne-Marie and I watched last night, returned to a cinematic presentation, and I began thinking again about what kinds of visual and narrative codes work across the two media and which are more difficult to transpose.
For me, a cinematic gesture that did not work in the finale is Margaret finding the rag in the barnbrack cake. Film has a different narrative economy than series television, and within that economy, this kind of broad signification can be effective because you get so little time with the characters and stories often need to be moved forward with efficiency.
In the context of Boardwalk Empire, however, this moment seems cheap and unnecessary. We already know what the stakes are in the choices that Margaret has to make about staying or not staying in Atlantic City and with Nucky. Margaret is a complicated, smart character and even the implication that she would be moved by pulling the rag undermines her and what the audience has learned of her during the show’s twelve episodes. The rag is an anvil here. In a film, it may have worked as shorthand for Margaret’s dilemma.
At the same time, the companion moment where Nan finds the ring does work. There is a difference in mode of address, straight versus ironic, but also as much as we have come to know Margaret, we know little about Nan. We know that she harbors romantic fantasies about Warren Harding and the White House, fantasies that are belied by her being shuttled off to Atlantic City as Harding seeks the presidency. This lack of knowledge gives weight, and even a poignancy, to her finding the ring. I also think that Nan’s situation works well in conjunction with Anabelle’s, showing both sides of the fantasy and the fragility of life for women, especially the young and unmarried, in this time and place. Notably, these two characters never actually meet (or if they do, only in passing). Rather, they are woven together in the narrative over multiple episodes, culminating in Nan finding the ring and Anabelle finding George Baxter.
After these examples, are the cinematic gestures that I am still processing.
One of these is from the musical montage at the close of the finale. After conspiring with the Commodore and Eli, Jimmy is seen, smoking, on the beach, first in close-up profile and then in a long shot from the back. These shots reference the opening credits, supplanting Jimmy for Nucky. This moment is at once obvious and subtle, mostly for the way it appears to visually signify the outcome of the conversation at the Commodore’s.
What I can’t help thinking, though, is that the impact of these shots, especially the long shot, is mitigated by having been made for television. How different would my reaction be if I had originally seen this moment in a darkened theater and on the big screen, amplifying the power of the image (on the other hand, I’m not sure that these particular shots can be read effectively out of the context of the opening credits, credits that the audience will have had twelve occasions to view and think over before seeing Jimmy on the beach)?
The murdering of the D’Alessio brothers while Nucky holds forth in front of the press is an explicitly cinematic gesture as it directly references the baptism sequence from The Godfather and, maybe more obliquely, Jimmy Conway’s killing spree in Goodfellas. Each murder is given its own time, each is done in a particular style and with a particular kind of flair, and the sequence ends with a return to the site of each killing, now artfully adorned with pools and splatters of blood.
As with the hit from the premiere, the extension of this scene does not serve any obvious narrative purpose. There have already been multiple opportunities to see how cold blooded Jimmy, Capone, and Richard Harrow can be, but I think each of these characters has also been presented as more complicated than just that. Just in the finale alone is a conversation between Angela and Jimmy about his PTSD, and a reminder of Al’s decision to ‘grow up’ (I was glad that he grabbed the apple from the shopping bag after doing his part of the killing; that was an effective way to show that simply deciding to mature does not make it so, especially not when one is engaged in an illicit way of life). By contrast, the assassins in The Godfather are largely anonymous or background characters whose primary reason for being is to service their principal scene, and De Niro’s Jimmy is a psychopath (and, significantly, in Goodfellas, you get shots of bodies, not murders).
Scenes such as this, and the shots of Jimmy on the beach, at the moment, to me, seem out of place. In fact, the murders and press conference montage seems to want to situate Boardwalk Empire within film, and not TV, history. But is that a good or bad thing? What do I want from television? What do I want from film? What makes for visually arresting TV? And how does it look different from what works on film?
I think we all know that the experience of watching a movie made for the big screen on a television, especially at home, is a very different experience from the one intended. I suspect that this also means that attempting to make a TV series as if it were a film, while an interesting exercise, is something that won’t quite work either.
Which is not to suggest that Boardwalk Empire, taken as a whole, does not work as compelling television. It does, and I am already looking forward to a second season. But I am also interested to see how the series develops its visual and narrative style over time. Right now my thinking is that it will be more interesting to see less borrowing and quoting from film(s) and more of an attempt to do what the creators want to do in ways that seem more adapted, or ‘native’, to television. And yet I have to admit that I don’t really know what might look like.