Monday 19 November 2012

A few words on clichés

There is a scene in the Argentinian film The Puzzle (2009) where a couple is seen in bed at night, husband and wife lying side by side, apparently sleeping. I thought to myself "She will open her eyes ... now." And she did. It is such a well-established convention that I might have been tempted to make a bet, had I watched it with someone.

In the beginning of the first Bond film with Daniel Craig, Casino Royale (2006), Bond has had a fight with a man in a public toilet, and apparently killed him. But as he catches his breath after the fight the "dead" guy suddenly wakes up and reaches for his gun. This is a well-established cliché, although it may or may not be used so I would not have made a bet, unless I was a gambler.

Complaints about clichés in films is almost as old as the medium itself. Yet even though most would in all likelihood say that clichés were a bad thing more or less all films are filled with them, and it could not be any other way. Our lives and our speech are based on clichés, and consequently so is art. The trick is to learn to separate the invisible and necessary clichés from the bad and annoying ones. Or, as has been suggested, separate the clichés from the conventions, where clichés are just bad conventions. But I am not sure that all clichés are bad.

If I say "You broke my arm!" to someone, that is not a clichéd thing to say. If however I say "You broke my heart." that is a cliché. This is partly because "You broke my arm!" is literally true, the person did in fact break my arm. But the person who betrayed my love did not literally break my heart, my heart is pumping away oblivious of any emotional agony I might have. It is a metaphor, one that is used over and over again, and thus a cliché. However, few would get upset and say "Oh please, must you be so clichéd?" to the person who used that metaphor. It is acceptable. Similarly, to say "I fell in love with you." is not clichéd, to say "You stole my heart." is, but again perfectly acceptable.

I recently went to a photography exhibition and according to the curators the exhibition challenged and changed our conceptions of what a photo exhibition is. Obviously the exhibition did nothing of the sort. Also, I am not sure that those who went to see it had strong prejudices as to what a photo exhibition is anyway, besides it being an exhibition containing photographs. What the curators had done was writing down an art gallery cliché, and of the kind which is used regardless of its relation to the actual exhibition. (I suppose the only kind of photography exhibition that would be really challenging would be one without any photographs at all.)

But in order for a person to notice this that person must have been to many exhibitions and frequently come across that expression (such as I have). Repeated exposure is an essential aspect of clichés. That is why we are much more likely to condemn Hollywood films for being clichéd than films from most other countries, whereas a indigenous audience, or an expert on a particular national cinema, might find it just as clichéd as Hollywood cinema. Only different clichés. (Personally I feel that modern Danish cinema and so-called American independent cinema are about as clichéd as cinema gets.) You are in a much better position to judge the number of clichés in Swedish or Hungarian or Thai cinema if you are really familiar with their cinema and culture. What somebody might feel is a fresh approach is to another a boring cliché.

Often-times clichés are used because it is convenient. If instead of saying "She broke my heart!" I said "She strangled my ankles!" nobody would understand, even though both statements are equally nonsensical on a basic level. Many clichés pass by without being judged, or even noticed. But some stand out, and often annoy. I think one thing that is needed for a cliché to become annoying is if it is meaningless exactly because it is a cliché. That is the case with the killer who appears dead but is not really, as in Casino Royale. Something unexpected becomes expected after it has become a cliché. And they are so easy to avoid. It is the same as when some unexpected family secret is suddenly revealed by some drunk member at a wedding (which seems to happen in most, if not all, Danish films for example). What would be unexpected is if the wedding was an event of pure joy with not a single misstep or embarrassment.

Clichés come in all shapes and forms. A style of acting can be clichéd, a type of lighting can be clichéd, a twist in the plot, a setting, a title, an ending. In all kinds of films these different kinds of clichés are being used, even in much of avant garde cinema. And that is as it must be. A common mistake is to deliberately be anti-cliché, something which is often even more annoying than the original cliché because it is obviously made to be anti-clichéd, which is a bit of a cliché in itself. But, if it is good, and works, it can only be used once, or else it just turns into a new cliché. In North By Northwest (1959) Hitchcock wanted Thornhill (Cary Grant) to be attacked in the most unlikely and unclichéd of places so he sent him out in the countryside in broad daylight, to an immense flat field on which corn is grown. There, completely alone, he was attacked by  assassins. But that scene can not be repeated, because it would immediately be considered a copy or at best an homage to Hitchcock. It is too much of an anti-cliché as to be unusable thereafter. But there will always be scenes where people are attacked in dark alleys in the city.

A collection of essays and criticism by Martin Amis is called The War Against Cliché, but I do not think it is possible to avoid clichés, at least not if we want to make ourselves understood. What we should do is avoid the clichés that only draw attention to themselves as clichés.

Monday 5 November 2012

Hill Street Blues

"When does it stop Francis?"
"I wish I knew that."

When I grew up my favourite television series was Hill Street Blues, about a police precinct in a non-specified town in the U.S. It was an MTM production which ran from 1981 to 1987 and I do not know what it was like in other countries but in Sweden it was a huge hit. The actors became rather famous, especially Michael Warren (I still remember how excited the media was when he visited Stockholm). Steven Bochco, who created it and wrote it together with Michael Kozoll, also became rather well-known, much like Michael Mann became known after Miami Vice. (Anthony Yerkovich, who was a major force behind Miami Vice, was also part of the creative team of Hill Street Blues for a few years, as was David Milch, now famous for Deadwood, among other series.)

As I have written before, Hill Street Blues was a key development in the history of television, and its impact of subsequent TV and cinema has been substantial. TV critics in general have remarkably short memories, but still occasionally Hill Street Blues is mentioned in passing. My own memory is rather long, but I decided to look at it today and see what I would think of it. It is hard to come by but I have been able to watch all of season 1 and a substantial part of season 2 (there are seven seasons), and it is just as good as I remembered it to be.

The Wire (2002-2008) is usually held up as being about as good as television gets, and there is no denying the power and quality of it. It is often said that it is like a snapshot of society, an anthropological study. This is exactly what Hill Street Blues feels like, and this is one of the things that make it so good, and so fascinating. It is as if the creators wanted to capture the conflicts in the underbelly of an unjust society, some kind of Marxist exposé of Reagan's America. It is not a pretty picture that is painted here, where the role of the police is not necessarily to combat crime but rather to control the lid on a pressure cooker, just making sure that too much steam is not let out at once. The police force is not pretty either, riddled with abuse, racism, sexism, corruption, alcoholism and violence. But it is not all bleak (it would not be as interesting if it was), there are also good men and women trying to do the best they can, even if it means negotiating a truce with a gang rather than locking them up for whatever crimes they have committed.

One remarkable thing about Hill Street Blues is that there are hardly any beginnings or endings. Things happen constantly, but nothing ever settles or comes to rest. Each episode is filled with a number of stories, some which lasts a whole season, some that lasts for a few minutes, but often they are somewhat opaque, and unpredictable. Things that seem unimportant suddenly escalate, things that were important suddenly fizzles out. A sequence might be funny but ends with an unexpected and tragic death, or a scene that begins dramatic ends with black humour. And you never know who might get shot. There is a real sense of urgency and desperation in the episodes, which is sometimes close to unbearable.

Hill Street Blues is filled with vignettes that can be quite powerful. In one episode a detective, Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano), helps a woman carrying her grocery shopping up a flight of stairs. When he is about to leave, she starts to cry. She is living alone with her mother (after the mother had a stroke), her husband left a year ago, and nobody has hold her since then. So she asks for a hug. Such moving snapshots of broken lives contribute to create a broad canvas of a whole society. The quote that opens this post (said after a pointless shooting) is also an illustration of the tone of the series. Sometimes despair is the only possible feeling.

The style of shooting is connected with the content. It has a rough edge, with jittery and "ugly" camera work, keeping close to the characters but constantly moving, as if trying to capture everything at once. It often misses the action though, as some things seem to happen just before the camera gets there. It has that quality which is often called "documentary", with people and things blocking the camera, dialogue hard to hear, and what we do hear is often just fractions of what is said, as people pass the camera. Sometimes the camera follows characters A and B, and then suddenly starts to follow character C and D instead. Important information is often mentioned in passing, and might not even be taken up by the spectator if she is not paying attention. It is a fair assumption to make that the makers have been influenced by Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet (Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) for example).

Race places an important part of the series, and is a constant source of tension, between white, blacks and Latinos in particular, but East Asians too. The police force itself also consists of a number of different ethnicities. However, it is partly here that the show shows its age, particularly the somewhat shrill acting among some of the Latino gang members.

As I said above, Hill Street Blues does not tell a conventional story and neither do the individual episodes stand on their own. There is hardly ever any kind of closure, and there is a constant sense of confusion and lack of payoff. Yet stories are told. One example in season 1 is the decline and fall of one of the plain clothes policemen, J.D. LaRue (played by Kiel Martin). In the beginning of the first episode he is confident, good-looking and something of a ladies' man. At the end of the season he has become a drunk who gets humiliated and thrown out of bars. This fall from grace is handled very subtle, so that there are small changes from one episode to another, until his unshaven face becomes so pronounced as to be unmissable. Just by watching one episode you will not get it, it comes from watching the whole season. No particular reason is given for his decline; it is a combination of bad habits and stress. Then in the last episode of season 1 he attends an AA meeting, sent there by captain Furillo (the police chief). 

That AA meeting is also an example of what is so good with Hill Street Blues. Because at that meeting is also Furillo. This is good because it is a complete surprise yet makes perfect sense. There has not been any mentioning of the fact that Furillo was a former alcoholic, but there has been scenes sprinkled through the season that now takes on a new meaning (such as a lunch when Furillo had orange juice instead of beer). These scenes though have probably been forgotten by those that saw it on TV, one episode each week. By watching a whole season over a weekend on DVD or online, all these hints, suggestions and connections will be remembered and they add to the impact of the series. It is important to pay attention to all that is going on since you do not know when something happens whether it will be come back in a later episode.

Speaking of Furillo, he is one of the best things about the series, and Daniel J. Travanti's performance. He is soft-spoken, like Lt. Castillo (Edward James Olmos) in Miami Vice, but fearless and filled with integrity. Whereas the rest of the police force is somewhat unruly and frequently do the wrong thing, or even illegal things, Furillo can be seen as the voice of reason and moderation. But the integrity can be a two-edged sword. He is the true hero of the series but his integrity sometimes works against his better interests, or even against the interests of the community. Sometimes he can come across as naive, yet he is also sometimes seen filled with rage (a rage he does his outmost to control). And, of course, he is a recovering alcoholic.

Furillo is not alone, he is having a relationship with a public defender, Joyce Davenport (played by Veronica Hamel) and due to a potential conflict of interests they keep their relationship a secret. But their relationship is a highlight of the series, because it feels real. It has the right combination of tenderness and resentfulness, since it is hard to have a relationship when you are always on call, and when you cannot show your affection in public. Some of the best writing and acting in Hill Street Blues is to be found in their intimate scenes together.

Davenport is a powerful and successful female character, but also is the only major character who is a female, although I think one of the female cops (played by Betty Thomas) develops into a major character as well, at least that seems to be happening in season 2. There is also to ex-wife of Furillo, Fay (played by Barbara Bosson) but she is more of a comic relief, at least in the beginning. Eventually she becomes more forceful.

So Hill Street Blues is a major series of considerable importance and need to be included when the history and development of TV is discussed. I hope all seasons will be released on DVD or online in pristine versions soon. As it is now, the title sequence, with Mike Post's great theme, is perhaps more known than what happens after. But the gloomy weather, the melancholic music and the decidedly unglamorous milieus is a great introduction to the world as it is presented in Hill Street Blues.