Cinematic Episodes: The Secrets of Barslet

Cinematic Episodes is another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

One of the recent changes to the landscape of television here in the US is that in the gradual shift from the immovable regimented season structure there has also come a redefining of what a season is. Sure, if you follow entertainment outlets you’ll note that the major networks have recently concluded seasons and have announced what has survived to return in the fall and what pilots will be picked up. There is still that traditional structure, however, there is a greater flexibility to it all now than there ever was. There are shows, mostly of the non-scripted variety that start up in the summer; other’s are slated as mid-season replacements. Whereas during the first Golden Age of television seasons would run in excess of 35 episodes; even the now more common 22-episode season is not necessarily the norm.

The flexible nature of the length of a season or even a series, as opposed to the old mini-series mold, allows for more cinematic storytelling. In some ways this is a trend that has been adopted by US networks, both premium and not, from foreign TV Markets. And, yes, clearly there is a financial incentive to making smaller commitments, but there is also an artistically liberating aspect to this all as well.

One of the best examples of the narrative benefits of a limited TV run can be seen on the Dutch-produced The Secrets of Barslet. This was a show that aired 2012 and was comprised of merely seven episodes. However, for the story being told that was precisely as long as it needed to go. One of the things people can hold against television is that the brass ring is renewal even at the cost of the quality of the product on screen. This and many other foreign series never run into that issue because there is an emphasis, it would seem, on engaging an audience for the run of a show and trying to bring them back for another, as opposed to trying to “squat” on their devotion even as the product they used to love descends into tedium.

The Secrets of Barslet is a story that unfolds over the course of seven episodes. Each episode tells the story from the perspective of one of the central characters in the tale. As each perspective is taken into account blanks are filled in and previously unexplained or misunderstood mysteries are brought into sharper focus.

There are inevitably through the course of this series incidents that are examined from various angles, both figuratively and literally. Such that the program develops its own shorthand to quickly re-include previously seen scenes so that their place in chronology and the impact to that particular character is instantly made clear.

This structure of seven episodes of roundabout an hour of content is not unlike what Bela Tarr did with Satantango, in strictly structural terms only. In that film the structure is not unlike the steps of a tango such that the story will backslide chronologically when dealing with a new character. Here there are backslides, multiple dovetails and then each episode (for the most part) pushes things forward. So that the number is similar, as well as the character-based approach to the narrative. In terms of the aesthetics of the frame and the edit there are obvious differences.

Oddly enough, Tarr’s long-take ballet of the camera is, even with a necessary intermission, at its seven-plus hour length is a cumulative, more cinema-friendly experience. When I first viewed it I had it on VHS and watched it on four consecutive nights. When I acquired it on DVD I watched in one day and the experience, though harder to schedule was more complete and moving. The Secrets of Barslet not just with its mysteries but with its addictive nature is perfectly realized as a television show. You finish a chapter and you immediately want to proceed and are forced to wait until you can see the next one.

Another similarity it has Satantango is that there are some small mysteries this show feels no need to explain furthermore its not interested in the banal histrionics of having everyone understand everything in the end. True to its format of limited omniscience it allows the viewer to see the whole truth while the characters remain fairly myopic. The Secrets of Barslet is the epitome of a modern cinematic television series not just because of its aesthetic, or the way it cuts but because of its narrative sophistication.

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Book Review: Damnation by Janice Lee

As I have mentioned in the past, the only time I will stray from writing directly about film on this site is only in such a way that it still ties back to film. Therefore, when I was informed about Janice Lee’s book Damnation, I had to jump at the chance. Damnation is a book telling a fragmented narrative through prose poetry influenced by the works of filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr being the renowned Hungarian filmmaker (He also recently won BAM Awards for Best Director and the Lifetime Achievement Award).

Usually, I approach Prefaces/Forewords and Afterwords/Appendices as optional, however, they come most highly recommended in this book. They are quite informative with regards to the process and have great insights into the work, and Tarr as well.

That’s not to say that the narrative cannot stand alone. In fact, if you are familiar with Tarr this is a tale you’ll definitely enjoy a great deal. However, something that is referenced in the afterword, written by collaborator Jared Woodland, is of note: he refers to this work being one in “the genre of Bela Tarr.” That is a most astute encapsulation, not only of the book but of Tarr’s work; for the true greats seem to work in an arena all their own.

As I read it, I found that although the book is called Damnation it culls influence from many of his works to form this story, and sure enough in the back it lists the references as four films (Damnation, Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse). It also struck me that since this is a pastiche, my long-burning question about what the best introduction to Tarr would be has found an answer, and it is Damnation by Janice Lee.

However this book is not inundated in its influence. For in any work that’s considered an homage there has to be some personality or spin from the author herself to make it work, and this book absolutely has a personal touch. It paints with Tarr to tell the author’s tale.

Any cinephile, whether familiar with his work or not, should enjoy the book as well for the poetical styling of the prose; the images wrought play out like a film. Scenes begin and are cut, and one can see the cuts within scenes. It’s a living embodiment of Eisenstein’s theory of poetry as a verbal montage.

The tale-such-as-it-is is interesting. It’s phrased as such because the narrative doesn’t follow a conventional form. There are incremental repetitions of locales and characters, who all have designated labels rather than names. However, it’s also because Tarr created stories-such-as-they-are. The works referenced especially are multi-character tableaux wherein the personages ruminate on the various existential and metaphysical questions at play.

The book offers neither setting nor location to lend it a timeless quality, as it follows the universal theme of decay. Yet, even with this tonal portrait of the commonality of disintegration, it’s still a page-turner, and not just for the cinematic elements within for there are many equivalencies in the writing technique that make it a cinematic as well as a literary document.

One way in which the flow is manipulated is that towards the end the vignettes become smaller and intensify. This portrait of a dying town on the verge of apocalypse, painted in labels, inviting involvement/creation, is quotable and filled with descriptives of sound again making it audiovisual, but passages about stench and texture bring you into a literary realm anew. Its staying in the present tense and insisting that you proceed, without stopping; also makes it cinematic.

Tarr may have just recently retired, but aside from the work he is doing to teach young filmmakers at his school, his legacy can be felt here, and in the countless other artists he will continue to inspire. The obsession for Lee and Woodland isn’t over either, for they are currently writing a book on Tarr’s long takes in Satantango. So aside from a work of fiction he inspired there will now be a scholarly, cinematic work on one of his masterpieces.

It’s a joy, and not a wonder, that sketches of frames (re-created storyboards) from Tarr’s films are found in the appendices of the book as well. For the book is not only drawing from said images but expounding on them, creating new ones; a new tapestry. The power of Lee’s work is as undeniable as the films that inspired her and are truly a gift to us all. Do yourself a favor and seek this book out, you’ll be glad you did.

For more information on Janice Lee you can visit her website. Damnation is available for (pre-)order at Amazon here.

2012 Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award

In my 2005 BAM Awards wrap-up, I wrote how I was considering creating a Lifetime Achievement Award and giving it to Ingmar Bergman. The idea was to award him upon completion of his swan song that proved unnecessary when I saw Saraband and it was one of my favorite films of that year and he won Best Director.

It seems this prize has now come full circle as another great director has made what he claims (and right now I believe him) is his last film and it is a great one. This year’s recipient is Bela Tarr.

Tarr is a director I’ve come to know well. However, when I first learned of him and what many consider to be his masterpiece (Satantango) I knew nothing save for the plot of the movie, that it was very long and I had to see it. I went in fairly cold and there was a sort of kinship there. I connected and I got it. That connection extended through much of Hungarian cinema, but it started with Tarr and it started instinctually.

I’ve since come to learn about him, read writings on his work – perhaps what is most fascinating about him is he went from stark cinéma vérité to an aesthetic all his own of long takes, moving cameras, black-and-white minimalist existentialism that is unique in all the world.

I’ve tackled Satantango a number of times, I agree it’s a film that could be viewed annually but I haven’t in a few years and its time to change that. I’ve, of course, seen as many of his films as possible.

It’s one I want to watch all over again. For one thing that is certain is that he proves that auteurism is indeed a live and well. He’s a rare breed, and is also giving back to the cinema fostering artists and striving for aesthetic excellence first and foremost.

The one thing that in my experience I’ve found Tarr has in common with Bergman is this brilliant final bow, his being The Turin Horse.

Tarr’s cinema is one that has evolved and is as exacting as Bergman’s, though not as prolific.

A great filmography is one where many films stand out and apart; Tarr has that:

Hotel Magnezit
Family Nest
The Outsider
Prefab People
Macbeth
Almanac of Fall
Damnation
Satantango
Journey on the Plain
Werckmeister Harmonies
The Man From London
The Turin Horse

I’ve come to know Hungarian cinema in part because of Bela Tarr and admire it. I admire this man, his work and his vision. This admiration grows leaps and bounds when you add the fact that he’s trying to help ensure the future of the artform in his home country, and around the world.

A great filmmaker’s films will last forever, even greater is the man whose trying to ensure cinema itself lasts forever.

My Year in Film: 1994

First, a tip of the hat to @bobfreelander who was the first I saw doing retroactive year-in-review posts and why I will do a few. Now, while I will be able to contextualize my picks to an extent I cannot be as anal retentive as I wanted to. Ideally, I would’ve loved to say I saw these movies in the year in question and these later, but I cannot with any degree of accuracy. The reason this matters to me is that I was 13 to 14 when these films were being released. Now I, unlike many students around me when I was in school, have been able to exonerate many films I saw before studying films formally from over-analysis. So while many are getting a pass or some sentimental value attached to them I shall not disown them, they are still me. Much in the way I am no longer making BAM Awards for years where I didn’t actively track releases, I am also not changing winners as I did on rare occasions in my teens. This list like those awards are a snapshot, time can reshape one affection for a film, whether heightening or lessening it but the films that mark that year for you mentally remain pretty much identical.

I start with 1994 in part because it was a great year for me in general, I was out of sixth grade and into 7th and 8th and I rather enjoyed Junior High where using your mental faculties to achieve a heightened sense of immaturity was rewarded, at least amongst my circle of friends. Sports-wise it was a great year as my faith in my beloved New York Rangers was rewarded, I knew it’d be a championship season in pre-season and it was. Then not too long after I saw Brazil win its 3rd World Cup while visiting my family.

Not that movies lagged that far behind, if at all. Many of these films, whether I saw them during the calendar year or soon thereafter, have been favorites for many years.

The films are in no particular order.

1. Satantango

Sátántangó (Kino Lorber)

I’ve been meaning to give this film an annual viewing but at 7+ hours in length it is very hard to schedule. I first heard about this film in college when it wasn’t readily available on DVD but I hunted it down. Having it was like having gold such that I even loaned it to a professor once. It’s an impressive example of story-telling muscle-flexing as it goes back and forth in time with many events repeating at intersecting points of perspective, as we follow characters and see certain events over through their eyes. Its ending is a shocking as such a minimalist ending can be and gives me goosebumps every time.

2. Milk Money

Milk Money (Paramount)

Here’s one I could’ve seen in ’94 but didn’t. In a world where I didn’t have a computer or access to the IMDb I couldn’t confirm my casting misconceptions, namely at the time I confused one of the girls in a quick shot in the trailer with Anna Chlumsky. I did eventually see it on HBO and this was where my admiration for Melanie Griffith originated and I hunted down practically everything she did after seeing it. Now hooker with a heart of gold stories weren’t new to me even then but the context and the slightly verboten yet laissez-fair handling of this one along with its outcome are a major part of what won me over.

3. Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors (Fine Line Features)

When the Independent Film Channel (IFC) first hit the airwaves I watched it practically every night for a week, and as an atypical teen movie fan I craved something different and I got it. This is a harrowing tale of a Maori family in New Zealand. I’m not even sure if I’ve even revisited it. Even if I have it could surely qualify as a film you only need to see once.

4. Disclosure

Disclosure (Warner Bros.)

This is a great film. Yes, it’s true Michael Douglas gets Michael Douglas-ed in it, if you’ve seen enough of his films you get what I mean, but sexual harassment was a hot button issue in the country as there was a politically correct renaissance about and to flip expectations to have an actress like Demi Moore, in likely her best role, in that position make it a compelling drama.

5. The War

The War (Universal)

For those of you who may have been asleep during the 90s and didn’t know, Elijah Wood was one of the most prodigious child actors who ever graced the silver screen. This film of his is his most criminally under-seen. It’s a great allegorical tale wherein Wood does his most serious work as a youth but he’s supported by Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham and Lexi Randall. If you’ve never seen this film do yourself the favor.

6. Little Giants

Little Giants (Warner Bros.)

G-Men! OK, if you read my intro you probably surmised I’m a native New Yorker, however, that’s not the only reason that this film makes the list, there are some others. It is smart that this film does play into actual NFL rivalries and takes the Bad News Bears motif to football but there’s some more to it. Part of it has to do with seeing Ed O’Neill in a movie and perfectly cast, it being one of Rick Moranis’ last theatrically released films plays into it some. Yet it’s also about the team, which plays into the appeal of any underdog story, and also it may be the most effective rivalries in terms of having certain off-the-field relationships with the opposition.

7. A Feast at Midnight

A Feast at Midnight (Live Entertainment)

This is a film that I found a few years later. One thing that’s refreshing about it is that it’s a tale of boarding school mischief that doesn’t get too dark. Essentially the boys at this school are tired of their crap food. They learn to cook and bake and sneak about in the dead of night to have proper feasts. More comedy and tension are added by Christopher Lee who plays the headmaster who they refer to as a dinosaur and many scenes play out as homages to Jurassic Park, which are just brilliantly done.

8. Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street (Sony Pictures Classics)

If I recall correctly this was an impromptu purchase. I typically used my weekend allowance to take a bus to the multiplex and then to the mall after to pick up another film. This was likely one of them. It didn’t lead me to instantly pursue more Chekhov but it was the spark that opened the door for my appreciation of his work.

9. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before? I didn’t see it in 1994 as it was slightly before I discovered Stephen King, and my life forever changed. I saw it later and I saw it before I read it, and I learned Frank Darabont is a King adaptation master, and this is his best work.

10. North

North (Columbia Pictures)

Here’s the section of the list where I’ll place a couple of movies you likely hate and I hope you’ll do me the kindness of scrolling past them if you do hate them rather than closing your browser window. For those of you who are still with me, I can even understand how you can dislike North and It’s Pat, the latter much more than the former. However, with this one I really don’t get how some claim its one of the worst things ever. Yes, it’s another Elijah Wood title and while here he’s more comedic this one really does have more to do with the concept than him or the supporting all-star cast. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and yes, based on the tale you know where it’ll likely end up, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective fantasy in my estimation.

11. It’s Pat

It's Pat (Touchstone Pictures)

I get it on this one, OK? Pat is gross, that’s what makes the sketch funny for those who do think it’s funny. I’d say this is likely the most avoided and reviled SNL-sketch based feature of them all, I will not claim that it’s the best, but I do like it. Julia Sweeney is a very underrated comedienne and this is her best character.

12. The Little Rascals

The Little Rascals (Universal Pictures)

I can’t remember if I ever consciously wanted to see this movie but having younger siblings it was acquired on home video and I ended up watching it many times and I ended up liking it quite a bit also. Looking back you could almost draw a parallel between this and The Three Stooges in as much as those actors were The Little Rascals, so theoretically a remake shouldn’t work but it was cast so well and the story was very much in the spirit of the original with minor updates such that it works very well.

13. Airheads

Airheads (20th Century Fox)

When you rely on cable television for your viewing you can end up watching things over and over whether you want to or not. An example or not would be Empire Records, I have no idea what convinced me that seeing it over and over would change my opinion of it. It just kept getting suckier. This I liked right away and wanted to see many times over, it’s just a hilarious and well executed premise.

14. The Client

The Client (Warner Bros.)

Joel Schumacher can be very divisive and I certainly cannot defend all of his films. However, those that I can I will tooth and nail. This is one of them. I watched The Client many years later and it has in it perhaps one of the tensest first acts I can recall. It doesn’t let up much from there.

15. Speed

Speed (20th Century Fox)

Here’s a film that’s become a bit of a punching bag in hindsight. I will grant there is a level of silliness to it, however, if you get past the whole 50 MPH thing, (which I have) it rather works. Also, one must bear in mind that this was really Sandra Bullock’s breakout role so she was new to us and about to be beloved by many. Also, this is Keanu many roles before we saw that being Keanu is about the extent of his range.

16. Trading Mom

Trading Mom (Trimark Pictures)

This is a film that it took me a while to track down, eventually it debuted on cable. My willingness to see it was mostly due to Anna Chlumsky’s involvement. It would be a great double-feature with North as there are similar themes to it, Wanting to Change Parents but Realizing Yours Are the Best, however, it also features a great performance by Sissy Spacek in many incarnations. Its a more down-to-earth and stripped-down version of the aforementioned premise that still works rather well.

17. Serial Mom

Serial Mom (Savoy Pictures)

I’ve seen this movie a lot of times but none very recently. This could be John Waters at his demented best. This is where I not only learned a rule of fashion but also got “Day Break” stuck in my head for life. Kathleen Turner is incredible in this.

18. The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy (PolyGram)

I avoided this film for a long time for a number of reasons. I like Coens films when I watch them but my viewership of their filmography is very incomplete, the title and description also made it seem like it couldn’t be that interesting. It’s perhaps the best argument for just watching the movie. I love it.

19. Major League II

Major League II (Warner Bros.)

As opposed to the sequel later in this list this is one that I think I like more than the original. It’s sillier, funnier and doesn’t take the high road in the ending but those are all things I like about it. Plus, taking the approach that this team overachieved and now rests on its laurels and struggles is pretty smart and true to life.

20. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Warner Bros.)

It’s a very simple discussion when dealing with Jim Carrey: Either you love the over-the-top end of his comedic repertoire or you hate it. I love it and Ace Ventura is the prime example of this facet of his gifts.

21. Trevor

Trevor

This film I first saw only last year. It’s the only short on this list. It’s almost more important for its significance than the film itself for this film is what spawned The Trevor Project. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that it really was ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of a hot button issue. It deals with a youth struggling with his sexuality and is suicidal. It won an Oscar after it was made and was re-introduced in a TV special hosted by Ellen DeGeneres but now it has a third incarnation as The Trevor Project is one of the most notable and active NGOs in the nation right now. Granted its a film buoyed by its message and its significance but few films, especially shorts, have this kind of track record so far as reemergence and staying power are concerned.

22. Menino Maluquinho- O Filme

Menino Maluquinho - O Filme (Filmes Europa)

Below you will see another comic character that I love come to life. I saw this a few years after the release of the film. This film benefits from the fact that though this character is featured in Brazilian comic strips he originated in graphic novels and this film tackles the story told in the first of those books for the most part and that streamlines things and makes the interpretation very pure.

23. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump (Paramount)

This is another film that has become somewhat of a punching bag over the years. Taking the visceral arguments out of the equation (for I do like and connect to the film) the significance of this film in certain cinematic is in fact that it breaks rules about a passive protagonist, in that it employs one, and it works very, very well. You’d be hard pressed to find many other situations where it would but here no doubt it does. I predicted Tom Hanks would win the Oscar on the eve of the show when asked, and not only was I right but I was pleased. It’s another question of time. Hanks has become more interested in producing and has become an Oscar ceremony staple but I’d never question his merits in the roles that won him statues.

24. Little Odessa

Little Odessa (Fine Line Features)

Here is another IFC special. I did revisit this one at least once. It’s a tremendously underrated film and features a great turn by Edward Furlong before his depressing decline.

25. Richie Rich

Richie Rich (Warner Bros.)

Macaulay Culkin is precisely 364 days older than I am, so his stardom was kind of a big deal for me growing up for he was, and is, essentially my age. Furthermore, add the fact that here he was interpreting one of my favorite comics characters of all time and this was going to be a must see for me. Now, here’s an example similar to one you’ll see below where the star and the involvement in a project is more significant to than the film, for I definitely nitpick this one and the follow ups (though they be Culkin-less) it wasn’t an interpretation completely without merit, I did like a lot of it.

26. Blue Chips

Blue Chips (Paramount)

Another cable special and another I’ve given many viewings. Nick Nolte is, as he tends to be, brilliant in this film. However, what really elevates this film for me is the great examination of the moralistic quagmire that amateur athletics are. Nolte’s confession speech while rather unrealistic in a real context, as sports fans know all too well, allow for the film to really expose the inevitability of star athletes getting perks and incentives to go to certain colleges.

27. My Girl 2

My Girl 2 (Columbia Pictures)

Alright, no My Girl 2 is not a great film, there are a few entries on this list I wouldn’t call great. As I mentioned in my introduction that’s not quite the point of this post. It was a film that was overly delayed, in my estimation, and brought a new writer into the fold but the fact of the matter is it’s the sequel to what was at the time my favorite movie ever, and a film I still have a great affection for, so that makes this notable. It’s a film I do pick nits with endlessly but the fact that it matters to me cannot be denied.