Watch: One Person, One Frame: The Coen Brothers’ Embrace of Human Imperfection

Watch: One Person, One Frame: The Coen Brothers’ Embrace of Human Imperfection

The compassion of the Coen Brothers cannot be ignored. It shows up everywhere: in their storylines, which demonstrate repeatedly how difficult it is to simply live, carry on a life, without someone barging into your home and tossing a ferret in the bathtub with you; in their production design, which glorifies kitsch on the one hand and valorizes the clarity of a green desk lamp (as in ‘Miller’s Crossing’); and in their cinematography, which, as Tony Zhou demonstrates in his latest brilliant technique-obsessed video essay, allows us to become intimately familiar with the faces and souls of characters by simply letting them occupy an entire frame by themselves.

Watch: ‘Fargo’: The Cross-References and the Reshaping

Watch: ‘Fargo’: The Cross-References and the Reshaping

When I first learned of the existence of ‘Fargo,’ I’ll have to admit I was a bit skeptical. I’ve never been one for TV spin-offs of any kind, probably since I was traumatized by ‘Joanie Loves Chachi’ as a child. There are some ideas that are self-contained, and would best remain so. ‘Fargo,’ though, as has oft been said, is both a noble expansion of the Coen Brothers’ original film and, really, its own creation. The show runners took a world, created for the original, with its own prim, hospitable rules which dug in against violent animuses swooping in from the depths of the midwest–and expanded on it. What they have now is edgy, trans-generational, and wholly unpredictable. Arnau Orengo has created a video essay on ‘Fargo’ that both defeats and satisfies viewers’ expectations of the series, or the film.

Watch: James Burrows: From ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers’ to ‘Friends’ to You

Watch: James Burrows: From ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers’ to ‘Friends’ to You

The majesty of the sitcom is in its
familiarity, through both form and setting. When the medium is most successful,
the audience is made to feel at home, where everybody knows your name. But in
the annals of American art, the sitcom director is nameless.

Television doesn’t celebrate the auteur
the way film does. While the Scorseses, Spielbergs, and Allens et al. are fêted
for their artistry and filmic authorship, television’s directors are anonymous,
secondary, and uncelebrated. Traditionally, actors receive TV’s affections and
ceremony. In recent years, the showrunner has risen to prominence. But in the
background, TV directors ply their trade in obscurity, as if the productions
directed themselves.

Buried even further in the mythos of the
medium is the sitcom director. In film or television, comedy has always been
relegated to secondary status. Acclaim for the humourists comes only when they
step into the dramatic spotlight. From Red Buttons to Robin Williams, the funny
have been asked to be furious when they desire their community’s utmost
respect.

Which makes one wonder: If James Burrows
had directed dramatic films and not the funniest sitcoms of multiple
generations, would he still revel in the shadow of Hollywood?

If you’ve watched television anytime in
the past four decades, James Burrows has made you laugh. His IMDB page reads
like a survey course of the best in sitcoms: Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers,
Taxi, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory
.

But his Wikipedia page reads like that of
a professor of a survey course of the best in sitcoms. Its brevity is shocking,
and indicative of the status afforded to sitcom directors.

Burrows has been nominated for an Emmy
Award for directing an episode of a sitcom 24 times. He has received one
nomination every year since 1980, excluding 1997 and 2004. He has won an Emmy
five times. He has directed 30 sitcom pilots. His resume is unparalleled.
Imagine if Coppola had won an Oscar every eight years. His face would be placed
on a billboard next to the Hollywood sign. Instead, Burrows continues to work
without the adorations offered to his big screen brethren.

At a spry 71, he keeps stepping behind
the camera because he loves the medium he helped establish.

The sitcom in its multi-camera form is
the closest thing that TV or film has to stage productions. James Burrows’
inherited affection for the form has redefined it. The contemporary sitcom is
all James Burrows, from the joke setups to the audience’s laughter. And his
work has the utmost respect for the audience. As Burrows once noted: “I’ll tell
you what I love about directing: the surprise. You never know what’s going to
happen with your piece until an audience weighs in.”

But why is Burrows a lesser-known genius,
and why has his medium been stumbling towards irrelevance? Recently NBC, home
to the Must See TV sitcom blocks that starred Burrows projects for much of the
80s, 90s, and aughts, announced a fall schedule with only one hour of sitcom
programming. Has the form lost its way? Is Burrows a dinosaur in a nearly
extinct medium? The answer can, perhaps, be found in the words of the director
himself: “Most of the pilots I choose do not have high-concept ideas,” says
Burrows, “so for me it’s not the idea as much as the execution of the idea…  You take a bar in Boston, that’s not a
high-concept idea. But if it’s executed well, it makes a great show.”

One of the oldest jokes begins simply:
Man walks into a bar.

While the absence of concept helped
develop the sitcom as an art form, the high-concept approach has contributed to
its death. The premise of the situational comedy is simple: Provide a setting
and characters. Comedy will ensue. When the sitcom is most successful, this is
the recipe, as it was in most of the programs Burrows was involved with,
whether or  not they went on to become
iconic parts of American culture. And the sitcom should be welcoming, identifiable,
universal, and above all, funny. But it has moved away from that. The sitcom
now leans towards the cynical, the mean-spirited, or the pedestrian. As Burrows
says, “I have a fun clause in my contract. If I’m not having fun, I can leave.”
The American audience has stopped having fun, and has
left for dramas, reality TV, and film.

James Burrows is a giant in film and TV’s
smallest medium. In between commercials, he has been crafting our laughter
since the mid-70s. As the sitcom changes, and perhaps stumbles towards
obsolescence, it is making a violent departure from the Burrows sitcom, to
single camera and mockumentaries, to dramedy and to parody. But television’s
greatest director’s influence will forever be seen, in Labor Day weekend Friends marathons, in a network’s feeble
attempt at a mid-season replacement, and in the laughter born of an
unmistakably Burrows setup, whether on TV or out in the ether. Burrows has
taught generations what funny is, and it’s funny to me that so many of those
generations may not even know his name.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.


Steven Santos is currently a freelance television editor/filmmaker based
in New York. He has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The
Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal
Planet. His work can be found at
http://www.stevenedits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut (http://www.thefinecutblogspot.com). You can also follow him on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/stevensantos).

Watch: Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ Is a Lesson in Smallness

Watch: Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ Is a Lesson in Smallness

Throughout Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian,’ the quality I kept ruminating on, as one of the film’s foci, was the difficulty at the bottom of the story–the tasks Matt Damon’s Mark Watney has to complete to survive on Mars, versus the obvious obstacles in his way. And then in the completion of those tasks, there are the numerous steps involved, the patience, the waiting. Watney is successful, but not without considerable work on his part. Looming behind the fact of all this tedium is the larger and simpler fact of the sheer hugeness of Mars, as opposed to the smallness of Watney, the planet’s sole occupant. Ashley Perry, with this piece, makes a good point about the scale in this film, and the use to which Scott puts it. In ‘The Martian’ space becomes something that constricts Watney, rather than setting him free; instead of escaping into the vastness of Mars, he has to carve out his own space within it. 

Watch: Alejandro González Iñárritu and the Human Eye

Watch: Alejandro González Iñárritu and the Human Eye

It’s a special accomplishment if a director can make viewers pay attention to an actor’s physicality, in addition to the words coming out of his or her mouth. I don’t just mean the actor’s looks, or their body shape–I’m referring more to the way the body is used, the way Brian De Palma made the ultra-physical Robert De Niro somehow even more physical in ‘The Untouchables,’ or the way Noah Baumbach got self-aware physical comedy out of Greta Gerwig in ‘Greenberg’ or even ‘Frances Ha.’ Similarly, among the many things he makes us aware of, Alejandro González Iñárritu manages to make viewers focus on small body parts, such as the human eye. Consider Emma Stone’s unearthly eyes in ‘Birdman,’ or Benicio del Toro’s wincing, human eyes in ’21 Grams’–in both these cases, we see characters feeling emotions with their optical nerves. The act of looking becomes an act of outreach, and a whole story is told in a remarkably small space. Nelson Carvajal is sensitive to this element of the frequently grandiose Iñárritu oeuvre, and he does a considerable service to the filmmaker’s work with this video essay by showing that Iñárritu can "go small" as well, to great effect.

Watch: Jean-Luc Godard, Divider and Unifier

Watch: Jean-Luc Godard, Divider and Unifier

Break. Splinter. Split. Deconstruct. Consume. Reshape. Sample. Discard. Eject. Deify. Destroy. Regenerate. Halt. Start again. Groove. This was the spirit Jean-Luc Godard brought to such seminal 1960s films as ‘Breathless‘ or ‘Pierrot le fou‘ or ‘Band of Outsiders,’ and this is the spirit in which kogonada, whoever that may be, has constructed this latest video essay for the Criterion Collection. The piece is zippy, to say the least, and goes a long way towards kindling interest in Godard within the ranks of the sadly uninitiated. We claim, in the twenty-first century, to have a copyright on the fragment, on the incomplete story, on the uncomfortable juxtaposition of text and image, and yet, really, it all started here.   

Watch: How ‘Mad Men’ Is A Close Cousin to ‘The Swimmer’

Watch: How ‘Mad Men’ Is A Close Cousin to ‘The Swimmer’

It would be hard for me to choose a favorite, or even a favorite six, among the stories of John Cheever. Maligned though he may have occasionally been for grounding his tales of inner abstraction and desperation in the white upper-middle New York suburbs, it was what he did with his setting that really counted: the imaginative leaps, the shocks, the lines of articulated despair, falling into crisp, less-polluted air. It was this Cheeverishness that drew me to ‘Mad Men’ first, and held my attention; the sense that Matthew Weiner was not only trying to teach his viewers about the evil 1960s but also trying to transport them into Cheever’s universe gave me great admiration for the show. My admiration was not consistent, which I view as a sign of mental health, but the Cheeverishness was. Matt Zoller Seitz and Nelson Carvajal do noble and smart work in tracing the links between Cheever’s immortal story, ‘The Swimmer," Frank Perry’s film of same, and ‘Mad Men’ in this video essay for Vulture and RogerEbert.com. In the film adaptation, Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a suburban gentleman (possibly) who swims across his municipality by leapfrogging from pool to pool, a journey that takes him through various substrata of his particular layer of culture, a journey that, ultimately, leads him to an enigmatically empty destination: his own home, windows darkened, doors locked. What better progenitor for ‘Mad Men’? After all, doesn’t Don Draper take this journey every day, a long, winding trip through entitlement and intrigue and interpersonal slaughter, at the end of which all he has to look at is his own deceptively blank face? Carvajal, known in some quarters as the "Sultan of Splice," is in fine form here, snipping and sampling and matching clips with admirable adroitness; Seitz brings his near-encyclopedic knowledge of, and obsession with, the show, as well as his profound understanding of Cheever’s work, to bear in his analysis. This is a good watch, and a good encouragement to go out and buy Cheever’s Collected Stories. It’s a red paperback, big enough to fit in your pocket, and just large enough to shape your mind for the rest of your life. 

Watch: ‘In Bruges’ Is a Morality Play Plus Carnage

Watch: ‘In Bruges’ Is a Morality Play Plus Carnage

Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges‘ would be an easy film to miss for many viewers: it’s dialogue-heavy and personality-driven, and its action, though it comes, is neither dialed high enough to prove enticing nor handled in a way that would make it palatable. (A child gets shot, while praying, for example.) Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson turn in remarkable performances, but neither actor is showboating, really. That said, the film is a jewel, a personal, wrenching story, and it deserves a broader following: to that end, Evan Puschak, aka "Nerdwriter" on YouTube, has constructed a remarkable video essay on the axis of morality it examines, and the extent to which the questions its characters face are vast ones, not only intended the affect the shape of the story, but to expand viewers’ moral sensitivities as well. Watch, and think a little–and then watch the film, if you haven’t!

Watch: Martin Scorsese’s Urban Murals In Motion

Watch: Martin Scorsese’s Urban Murals In Motion

If David Lynch is American filmmaking’s Surrealist, and Michael Mann is its Impressionist, then certainly Martin Scorsese is its Abstract Expressionist. There has been no director before or since who could equal the unbridled energy, awareness, and imagination of early films like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Mean Streets,’ or ‘Raging Bull’; the films’ leaps, swoops, dives and feints were carried out within the context of a crucially American vision, of what it meant to be lost, unmoored, within the complexity of a culture that was and would forever be bigger than its individual components. This beautiful animation of the opening monologue of ‘Taxi Driver’ by Piotr Kabat brings out this restless, relentless, churning, hundred-eyed aesthetic of Scorsese’s with memorable elegance and suspension, momentarily making one wonder what would have happened if Scorsese would have made a swerve and gone into animation.

Watch: Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ and the Physical Act of Loving

Watch: Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ and the Physical Act of Loving

Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is an entirely physical movie. Much has been made, and perhaps seemingly justifiably, of the inward nature of the love relationship it describes, that between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s virtual Samantha, and yet the reality is that all we really pay attention to in the story is the action, or the physicality: Theodore running through a crowd, Theodore tripping and falling, Theodore’s human largeness by comparison with Samantha’s smallness or even invisibility. And look at the actors Jonze chose for the parts: Phoenix has been fairly compared to Brando for the degree to which he inscribes his roles on the screen with the power of his gestures, his physique, his face; and surely Johansson owes her allure in equal parts to the mind at work behind her portrayals and the voluptuous presence she brings to them, which she’s able to suggest here with only her voice. Michael Mclennan’s gorgeous, attentive video essay traces movements in this film, namely ascents and descents, as indicators of emotional fluctuation, of growth and change, giving us a window into the film’s quiet, sad beauty.