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