Friday, 24 July 2015

What I See in “House of Cards”

“House of Cards”

Kevin Spacey as the deliciously corrupt Frank Underwood, first a leader in Congress, then a leader in the White House

The problem with television, expressed briefly in an op-ed piece by film critic Armond White for the New York Times, is that, being made for screens meant to fit into the average living room or bedroom, the creators of a show are not as driven to artfully reflect their ideas and their vision in the images of the show as filmmakers are with a movie. The view is that there is literally too little space to fill the screen with the representation of a director's consciousness, and rather than focusing too intently on composition of shots, on peculiar performances, on mise en scène, the show runner concentrates effort on a continuous and compelling story, because that is what can be sustained, and where a viewer's interest can hope to be held, for a three-episode, or twelve-week, or seven-year run. Story is the triumph of television, and a show's chief creative force is not the director, but the writer. White refers to what many commentators are calling the current state of affairs being broadcast on our home appliances: “the golden age of television”.

Nothing beats the big screen. Simply put: Film is a visual art form and television is merely a visual medium. It’s generally accepted that television is a producer’s, or show runner’s, format, where content is developed to support advertising, but all this talk about “television’s golden age” overlooks the fact that television has never proven to be a medium for artists – or auteurs – who express themselves personally and, primarily, visually.

Although White is not the most revered critic alive, he is a strongly idiosyncratic one, and a highly intellectual one, and he speaks with great honesty and, though many would pettily dispute it, reverence for cinema. From these comments on television (mine, and White's which I've shown here), you've no doubt sussed out where the title of this post is going - the merit I find in House of Cards which is absent in many other series (including a number which I do enjoy, and wolf up expeditiously, such as Game of Thrones, House, CSI, Parks and Recreation, Friends, and my favourite of all, 30 Rock) is the attention given to the images that appear on the screen. Not to put too fine a point on it, what I see in House of Cards is what I see on House of Cards.

The first two episodes were directed by David Fincher, who also serves as executive producer of the series. Certainly one reason for the escalated veneration being flung at television is the increasingly popular practice of getting an esteemed Hollywood director to direct a show’s pilot episode. True Detective’s was directed by Cary Fukunaga, and Boardwalk Empire’s by Martin Scorsese, and both those directors stayed on as executive producers for all seasons, as Fincher did. (Side note: I’ve not seen either of those series, and perhaps if I had, they would be taking the place of House of Cards in this post.) As contemporary auteurs go, Fincher is among the most admired individuals available. With a track record of both cult classics and prestigious pictures (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), and a refined and formidable control over his craft, who better is there to fill the slot? And, having seen five of the seven films I mentioned, I’d say Fincher is right at home with the subject matter as well.

For those unfamiliar with the show, House of Cards tells us of an iniquitous, calculating, power-hungry U.S. politician named Frank Underwood. When we meet him at the show’s opening, he’s already the House Majority Whip (Democrat, in this case), and is preparing to step into the role of Secretary of State in the newly elected president’s administration. Frank is promptly passed over, however, and immediately begins a far-reaching and extraordinarily elaborate scheme for a place even higher up on the ladder, and it gradually becomes clear that his master plan, begun before the first episode, is to eventually preside over the White House, and the Free World. Hardly a modest venture, and Frank, gritty and resolute, is hardly the shark in whose path you’d care to find yourself. We’ve been configured to identify and empathise with the central character of a series, no matter how naughty he is, and the show’s creators take a sort of muffled glee in presenting us with Frank and his sins. We’re confronted with the common dilemma of being deliciously compelled by the immorality (some would argue amorality) of a character and his actions, and being repelled by that same loathsomeness, while deliberately remaining only half-conscious of the terrible implications of such business actually taking place (which it most probably does). The reason I maintain Fincher’s suitability for this show is that his career is one of dealing in misanthropy, and he is given to muse on the indecency of our viewing pleasures. (It’s not long before I expect his first excursion into the real underworld of jaundiced filmmaking; porn, that is. The Girl With the Dragon Lower-Back Tattoo, maybe?)

In his two episodes, Fincher set a standard of slick photography, swift narrative sweep, and as broad identification with the corrupt protagonist as is possible. Despite the reams of dialogue the characters spew out, jammed with political jargon and complex congressional and administrative procedures, it’s always fairly clear what’s going on, and we have the sense, from the first episode where Frank sets his plan in motion, that every minute manoeuvre and manipulation of his is made with an end-game in mind. In other words, there is the sense of a far-reaching narrative arc, of a plot that extends beyond the end of the next episode. The producers also maintain high production values on the show, and all subsequent directors have clearly made an effort – and were probably given the mandate – to emulate what Fincher provided them with in his two episodes.

Fincher brought with him his acute sense for framing, timing, movement, and detailed setting. Human figures are often placed in such a way as to convey the dynamic between their characters; colour schemes suggest the sickly moral equivocality of government; and the two lead performances, those of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Rep. Underwood and his wife, Claire, are rather more idiosyncratic and redolent than what most other actors will give you on television. In short, House of Cards comes closer to the fulfilment of a deeper purpose than mere story, through audiovisual expression.

Of course, this is nowhere near an audiovisual personal expression, and House of Cards remains very far away from the artistry of good cinema. If anyone’s consciousness is being relayed here (and I rather doubt it), it’s still the writer’s, and the director remains more than just a step away from the show’s helm. A particular disappointment for me, here as elsewhere, is that lead performances do not develop once they’ve been sufficiently established at the beginning. The writers ensure that the characters develop on the page – we’re filled in with heaps of back story, intimate feelings, new events and changing perspectives – but Spacey and Wright are never given any chance to surprise us, to show us some deeper, previously hidden place in their characters in a moment of indiscretion. In shows such as this where fundamentals remain consistent to continually meet and not surpass a core audience’s expectations, it is the supporting actors who must be relied on for these brief expressions of humanity, but the only such instance I can think of is a shot near the end of Season 2, when President Walker is faced with charges of money laundering, and deep probing by the media into his private life. In the shot in question, during a conversation with the First Lady, he looks at her with a face shot through with anxiety and fear, and it really is a jolting moment. Otherwise, throughout the two seasons (I’ve not seen the third), it’s business as usual, with actors merely hitting their marks and keeping up accents and grim countenances.

A smart move by the show’s creators is to include a prominent thread throughout Season 1 involving a young, ambitious reporter, who first works at the prestigious Washington Herald, and then at the independent Slugline. Her story line is just like any other, with its highs and lows and anal sex, but it presents a marvellous opportunity, which the writers and directors capitalise on, to contrast, for the audience’s sake, what goes on in the backrooms of government, and what gets reported on. And we’re shown that not only does the media fulfil its express purpose of relaying information and the progression of events to the public, but it can have a real influence over those events as well. We’re given the chance to contemplate – in addition to the broad abstraction of a politician behaving badly in private while presenting himself well in public – the gap between our own private conduct and our public personas, the extent of our furtiveness and the essential part it plays in our everyday lives and interactions.

One noteworthy element of watching House of Cards is finding connections between it, and what is probably my favourite of the Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth. (SPOILERS AHEAD) There are the obvious parallels in the plot, with someone already very important in a nation’s hierarchy setting out to oust his lord and take his place, while maintaining the appearance of noble innocence. But I first thought of the correlation when considering the Underwoods’ household. Frank and Claire are profoundly in love with each other, while with surpassing irony Shakespeare presents the Macbeths as the happiest married couple in all his work. And despite both childless couples’ dreadful crimes and misdemeanours, they are not acting purely out of greed and wickedness, but with the purpose of building empires to share with each other. They understand that each is the entire world to the other, and how powerful they are together (neither Macbeth nor Frank Underwood would be even what they start off as without their wives), and intend to fulfil their powerful potential by assuming the highest power possible. On a side note, a passively liberal viewer might expect there to be marks of enormous advances in gender equality when comparing a contemporary series with a four-hundred-year-old play. As it is, Claire Underwood’s work and her career objectives are still subordinated to her husband’s, and, in the proud tradition of the First Lady Hilary Clinton, she seems set to play the role of the enterprising wife of a strong and fortunate husband. Perhaps if Clinton wins in the upcoming primaries, we may soon get a serious political series with a strong female contending for what Frank aims for.

In addition to the surface links between the series and the visionary drama, there is also the Shakespearean device employed by Frank in each episode, of the aside, where he addresses the audience with his own intimate feelings, his plans, his commentary on present characters or situations, and sometimes just his brief grimaces and winks. Here is where his dialogue becomes most rhetorical, and the writers (perhaps intentionally, though I somewhat doubt it) immodestly mix metaphors and puff up the tone of the proceedings. These scenes have “camp” painted all over them, and they provide a delicious hold for the audience among darker, dryer and far more earnest scenes. The congruencies with the bard end rather abruptly, though. Shakespeare’s play engulfs us in a phantasmagoria, and a deluge of its central character’s imaginings and hallucinations. We’re hurled into the immensities of his inner life, and, since he dominates his play, we can’t resist identifying with him. It accounts for the overwhelming reaction the play elicits from each of us: Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth. He terrifies us because his imagination seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists. Macbeth is the Mr Hyde to our Dr Jekyll. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s marvellous story, Jekyll ultimately turns into Hyde and cannot change back. Shakespeare’s art is to suggest that the same could happen to us. Also present in the play, Shakespeare being the supreme ironist that he was, is the awareness in the audience of the superiority of our consciousness over Macbeth’s, and of the fact that he consistently says more than he knows. No such potency exists in House of Cards. Frank’s imaginings aren’t on any vast cosmological levels, and there are no hallucinations or reveries of inner life. We identify with Frank only insofar as we wish to satisfy our own lust for power, which, for most people I think, is less ardent that his. We are not terrified by any of the show’s implications, only meant to be critical of ourselves and the current social and political climate for our enjoyment and absorption in it. And the writers ensure it’s abundantly clear that Frank is always the most intelligent person in the room, and almost always knows more than he says. The point is hammered out, highlighted, and double underlined in a visual gag at the opening of Season 2. Frank has just received a birthday present of cufflinks, and the closing shot of the episode is of the cufflinks on the counter, filling the screen, engraved with his initials: F. U.

I hadn’t intended to write on how television is a tier below drama as well as cinema, but it seems I’ve landed myself there in any case. I’ll continue watching shows, as a form of lazy cultural observations, on the lookout for a series sparkling with something like the artistry of movies. I’ve heard that Mad Men was made with the express intention of being shot in a style more informed by cinema, particularly Hitchcock, than average television, and perhaps I’ll report back once I’ve seen some of it. For now, I’ll have to settle for thoughtful close-ups of Kevin Spacey reciting in his delicious southern drawl, and reruns of David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, with 90s haircuts, falling in and out of love (and bed) in a totally fictional New York City.

Frank Underwood, charming in his southern sensibility, and frightful in his utter lack of morals

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