If you haven’t trod the byzan­tine world of the Board­walk lately, get stuck in now for some grip­ping re­wards first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

FOR decades Martin Scors­ese, ar­guably the great­est liv­ing movie di­rec­tor, dis­dained the siren call of TV: the small screen, the fre­netic work­ing pace and the 44-minute for­mat was a du­bi­ous pedi­gree to which he never as­pired. ‘‘ He’s still work­ing the oldfashioned, clas­si­cal way and I don’t think he’ll ever change,’’ his friend Ge­orge Lu­cas told me on the set of 2002 film Star Wars: At­tack of the Clones in Caserta, Italy, where he was shoot­ing in the Royal Palace, a 30-minute drive from Naples. ‘‘ He loves the huge solid sets, the streetscapes and that sense of ac­tu­al­ity; he’s a cel­lu­loid guy to the end.’’

Lu­cas was mak­ing the first dig­i­tally filmed and post-pro­duced fea­ture film and af­ter it was suc­cess­fully re­leased the whole busi­ness of film­mak­ing soon be­came a mat­ter of high­speed elec­tronic ma­nip­u­la­tion. TV, es­pe­cially, ben­e­fited cre­atively and eco­nom­i­cally from the way Lu­cas ap­plied his laser sword to the ac­cepted in­dus­try wis­dom, ‘‘ if it’s on film it’s im­por­tant; if it’s on tape it’s not’’.

Through the fol­low­ing decade it be­came ob­vi­ous that a large part of TV’s au­di­ence craved com­plex, multi-lay­ered sto­ry­telling with novel-like nar­ra­tive lines, com­pli­cated char­ac­ters and sat­u­rated pe­riod de­tail. Univer­sal ac­cess to Lu­cas’s new dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy — an ex­panded uni­verse of im­age ac­qui­si­tion, colour tim­ing and im­age out­put pro­cessed by com­put­ers — made all this pos­si­ble. TV, at the high end char­ac­terised by the con­fronting and of­ten in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­ruly shows em­a­nat­ing from US ca­ble net­works, be­came bet­ter than cinema. The speed­ier, snap­pier, TV-rooted sen­si­bil­ity grabbed hold of the think­ing per­son’s high ground.

I can still re­mem­ber a time when you fell in love not just with its stars but with film it­self. The mon­tage aes­thetic be­came an influence in our lives, the slow dis­solve, the jump cut and the zoom rep­re­sented moral ques­tions. Per­haps, as Su­san Son­tag wrote more than a decade ago in her essay The De­cay of Cinema, it’s not only this kind of cinephilia that has dis­ap­peared, but the spe­cific love that films in­spired, derided now as some­thing quaint, out­moded, snob­bish.

To­wards the end of the first decade of the new mil­len­nium, Scors­ese, the con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller and visual stylist who lived and breathed movies, was con­verted to TV. His re­mark­able, highly stylised, highly visual pe­riod drama Board­walk Em­pire, just en­ter­ing its third sea­son on pay-TV’s Show­case, em­braced TV’s dig­i­tal world with­out los­ing any of his tra­di­tional film­mak­ing flu­ency or clas­si­cal skills. If you’ve never seen it, it’s based on the true story of Nucky John­son, played by the pal­lidly com­plected Steve Buscemi, the cor­rupt politi­cian who used Pro­hi­bi­tion to turn At­lantic City into his own il­licit em­pire be­tween 1911 and 1941. (Coin­ci­den­tally, SBS has just an­nounced it is screening the se­ries from the first episode from Septem­ber 29.)

Cre­ated by ca­ble net­work HBO, which also gave us The So­pra­nos, The Wire and The Pa­cific, Scors­ese’s new TV project has be­come a crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar hit in the US.

The brain­child of Ter­ence Win­ter, the writer be­hind The So­pra­nos, the se­ries is de­scribed by Scors­ese, who is ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer (he also di­rected the first style-set­ting episode), as ‘‘ an epic spec­ta­cle of Amer­i­can his­tory, or cul­ture I should say, Amer­i­can cul­ture’’. He means gang­sters, of course, those some­times mon­strous out­siders, and their at­tempts to gain ac­cep­tance or suc­cess in re­spectable so­ci­ety.

Scors­ese’s was the most ex­pen­sive pi­lot shot in US TV his­tory and the show re­mains sump­tu­ous and vis­cer­ally cin­e­matic. It sucks you right into the end of the Roar­ing 20s, res­ur­rect­ing an era of cor­rupt politi­cos, big bands, suf­fragettes, show­girls, boot­leg­gers and capri­cious crim­i­nal mas­ter­minds such as Al Capone. It’s sim­ply gor­geous to look at and has op­er­atic style, grand com­pli­cated char­ac­ters and con­frontingly vi­o­lent mo­ments straight from the Scors­ese gang­land man­ual.

Scors­ese didn’t meet the TV press dur­ing the se­ries launch. In­stead, he was pre­sented live via satel­lite from the Lon­don set of his lat­est film, the 3-D chil­dren’s movie Hugo. Sud­denly, he had two projects with HBO — the gang­ster epic and a his­tory of rock ’ n’ roll with Mick Jag­ger, both with Win­ter. ‘‘ What’s hap­pen­ing the past nine to 10 years, par­tic­u­larly at HBO, is what we had hoped for in the mid-60s with films be­ing made for tele­vi­sion at first,’’ he told the world. ‘‘ We’d hoped there would be this kind of free­dom and also the abil­ity to cre­ate an­other world and cre­ate long­form char­ac­ters and story. That didn’t hap­pen in the 1970s, 80s and in the 90s, I think. And of course HBO is a trail­blazer in this. I’ve been tempted over the years to be in­volved with them be­cause of the na­ture of long-form and their de­vel­op­ment of char­ac­ter and plot.’’

I thought Board­walk breath­tak­ing when it started, though it took a while to set­tle, as these big epic novel-style pieces of sto­ry­telling do. The many char­ac­ters, plots and fore­shad­owed sub­plots were so fleet­ingly in­tro­duced the se­ries re­quired an un­usu­ally con­cen­trated form of view­ing. It was just a bit tir­ing.

By the end of its first sea­son, the se­ries had de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion in the TV in­dus­try as the best show that no­body re­ally loved. And that was still the case dur­ing the just com­pleted sec­ond sea­son. The rat­ings were de­cent both in the US and here for a ca­blepro­duced sub­scrip­tion TV se­ries. Re­cently, Board­walk won this year’s Screen Ac­tors Guild award for best ensem­ble, a wel­come fol­low-up to last year’s Writ­ers Guild award for best writ­ing in a new se­ries and the 2011 Golden Globe for best tele­vi­sion se­ries drama. But it still hadn’t be­come one of those shows we felt we had dis­cov­ered, that we owned ro­man­ti­cally, that we thought was ours alone, a per­sonal and ad­dic­tive se­cret plea­sure.

Board­walk rarely came up in con­ver­sa­tion; there just hasn’t been that kind of ob­ses­sive de­vo­tion that still at­tends shows such as The Thick of It, Break­ing Bad or Parks and Re­cre­ation, which are al­ready cult clas­sics. So I went off Board­walk, in­ter­mit­tently dip­ping in and out of the sec­ond sea­son un­til I was sucked in by the last episodes.

I still en­joyed the con­sis­tently am­bigu­ous mix of hor­ror and fas­ci­na­tion, at­trac­tion and re­pul­sion that’s such a fea­ture of Scors­ese’s gang­ster movies.

I also re­mained in­trigued by the way Win­ter and his writ­ers work off what critic John Cawelti calls ‘‘ the myth of equal­ity through vi­o­lence’’: the way in crime fic­tion lower or lower-mid­dle-class in­di­vid­u­als use their skills in vi­o­lence to achieve a level of equal­ity with

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