Chronicle of a Nation Foretold
Back in 1983, the now gloriously reborn Australian auteur George Miller split himself in two. In the process of co-producing (and sometimes directing) a trailblazing succession of TV 'events' that are too often overlooked in current genealogies of the medium's evolution — ambitious series including The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) — Miller proclaimed his understanding of the essential difference between cinema and television.
Cinema narrative was big-screen, big-budget, 'stateless' fantasy aimed at an international audience. TV drama, however, was more narrowly national in character, even nationalistic: it was the way for people to learn, rehearse and debate their own, collective history. Where cinema was spectacular, TV was intimate. And TV — unlike cinema, which is lawless as well as placeless in its wild imagining — is charged with a solemn, social duty. It offers a chronicle of the times, past and present.
Does Martin Scorsese share this view? His TV work tends to the documentary mode — and to the form of the chronicle. Of course, an obsession with the 'changing times' and their textures forms an important aspect of Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). But, in cinema, Scorsese evidently finds it hard to balance the spiralling description of a world with the constraining demands of an individual anti-hero's story. TV, in this respect, liberates him: he can have story and world, 'his cake and eat it too'.
The pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (2010) did not convince me that Scorsese and the medium of TV drama were a natural fit. His new Vinyl, however, conceived with Mick Jagger and Terence Winter, is different. In a sense, it brings together many key strands of Scorsese's career: the criminal world, overstimulation on drugs, the disintegration of family, popular music history... and even (although politics have never been this artist's strong suit) a sense of social (and especially racial) history.
I get the feeling that certain cinema directors — including Todd Haynes (in Mildred Pierce) and Olivier Assayas (in Carlos) — 'spread their style thin' across the multiple hours of TV narratives, diluting the force of their work, and the control required to achieve it, for the sake of maintaining a basic consistency of look and tone within a fast-moving production schedule. Among cineastes, only Steven Soderbergh has pulled off the considerable feat of marrying a 'run and gun' shooting method to precise, dramatic point-making in virtually every scene of The Knick's (so far) two seasons.
Scorsese in Vinyl in fact adopts the conventional wisdom, which Tim Hunter has explained well in an audio commentary to his Mad Men episode: keep most scenes solid and professional, and save your best stylistic flourishes for those special moments when the director can demand a dolly crane, or digital effects, or whatever may be needed — and actually get them. This is the complete opposite to what Scorsese aims for in his cinema productions: there, everything has to be full-on, spectacular and excessive, at every moment — as we see in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
As a result, Vinyl has, generally, a calmer tone, and a more observant regard. But when it lets go for the big moments — the befuddled ecstasy of Richie (Bobby Cannavale) as he watches New York Dolls perform, and the resulting real-world cataclysm that this act appears to unleash — it really reaches heights of expressionism rarely seen on TV.
Like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Vinyl seems set to be a 'crime and punishment tale' about a man and his deep-seated guilt — where the evasion of capture, the cover-up of the 'inciting incident', and the ever-more elaborate webs of deceit and 'damage control' that need to be spun, constitute the tension that keeps us involved for ten episodes. But there'll also be, running all throughout and not just as scene-setting background, the multiple births of punk, disco, hip hop... presented somewhat fantastically, no doubt nostalgically, but with the elegant solemnity of an American chronicle.