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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Hooked on Irony

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/18/08 at 11:39 AM

A certain kind of interest in matters cognitive leads one to attend to details of construction. Just how, exactly, is this thing put together? David Bordwell is the pre-eminent cognitive film analyst and theorist, and has been looking at such details for three decades. He has recently published (on his website) an essay on “The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema.

It’s about mid-level transitions in film. Not the high-level structure of acts (generally three or four), nor the low level structure of shots, but in between, groups of shots traditionally called a scene or a sequence. Bordwell estimates that the modern feature generally has 30 to 50 scenes. He observes:

Typically the scenes develop and connect through short-term chains of cause and effect. Characters formulate specific plans, react to changing circumstances, gain or lose allies, make appointments, act under deadlines, and otherwise take specific steps toward or away from their goals. Part of the screenwriter’s craft is to find ways to fit the short-term actions into the overarching movement toward resolution.

The hook, then, is a device that “links a specific causal element at the end of one scene to that at the very start of the next. The second, in a concrete way, completes the element we see or hear at the end of the first scene.”

But it’s not a modern feature that interests me. It’s The Sopranos. Feature films generally run between an hour-and-a-half and two hours. Episodes of The Sopranos run about 50 minutes. I’m not prepared to offer any generalization about how many scenes are in a typical episode. But I’ve counted them in two episodes. Episode nine of the first season ("Boca") has 36 scenes while episode four of the second season ("Commendatori") has 42. So we’re in roughly the same structural and temporal ballpark.

There is, however, a major difference top-level difference between feature films and Sopranos episodes. Feature films are complete; they tell the whole story. Individual Sopranos episodes are not like that. While each has a certain finality, each episode also links to episodes before and episodes after (except, of course, for the first and last episodes in the series). This allows for the possibility that individual episodes can follow multiple plot lines that have little or no causal relationship between them. They may, however, have a strong thematic relationship; that was certainly the case the “Boca” episode, which I examined in my previous post, though it is by no means obvious to me that it is the case in all episodes.

So, what happens in the transition between a scene from one plotline and one from another plotline? I have no generalization to offer on that issue. But I offer two examples from episode seven of season two. In both cases we have a visual hook linking a scene in one plotline to a scene in another plotline. There are no causal links between these plotlines and I’m not willing to hazard an opinion on whether or not there is a thematic link comparable to that in “Boca” – I’ve not done the analytic work. Nor am I prepared to offer any generalization about visual hooks connecting different plotlines. I’m simply offering two examples.

The Hooks

This particular episode is called “D-Girl” (development girl). One line of action is centered within Tony Soprano’s family; his son, AJ, has discovered existentialism on the eve of his confirmation in the Catholic Church. The other line of action centers on one of Tony’s soldiers, Christopher Moltisanti, who is flirting with Hollywood.

The first hook occurs at roughly 29 minutes into the episode, a bit over halfway. This scene is a relatively long one (four and a half minutes) in Moltisanti plot. Jon Favearu is in New York shooting a film and Chris gets invited to the set by Amy, who works with Favearu and is the fiancé of Chris’s cousin. In this scene Chris comes to Amy’s hotel room in the middle of the afternoon to discuss his script. She invites him in; they sit down on her bed to discuss the script; and she seduces him (at least, that’s how I read the action).

At the end of the scene he’s lying on his back while she straddles him. She leans forward until her hair brushes his face:

600 sop 2-7 1 chris & amy.jpg

The screen fades to black in less than a second. And then, a few frames later, it fades in on a bed:

600 sop 2-7 2 livia'a bed.jpg

Thus, one scene ends in bed and the next one opens on a bed. That’s the hook. Is it the same bed, or a different one? Within a few frames we see that it must be a different bed, one occupied by Tony Soprano’s mother – that’s her arm at the left edge of the frame. We’re now in the AJ plotline.

AJ enters the room. Here’s here to visit his grandmother and to discuss Life. The discussion is a grim one – as are most discussions with Livia, regardless of the topic – but it arouses Livia from her torpor. The scene ends (almost three minutes after it began) with her sitting up in bed, eating her dinner:

600 sop 2-7 3 livia eats.jpg

We then cut directly to the next scene (no fade). A few frames in we see Christopher leaning over, snorting some cocaine:

600 sop 2-7 4 chris snorts.jpg

The camera zooms back and, a few frames later we see Jon Favreau sitting on a couch in the background. We’ve returned to the other plotline.

Here the hook is a bit looser, simply that someone is ingesting something. The something is rather different, and so the mode of ingesting is different as well.

So What?

While these two hooks provide continuity between these three scenes, they also serve to enforce ironic distance. A bed may be a bed, but it’s a bit jarring to see a sexual bed become a sick bed. The same for the transformation of eating a meal into snorting cocaine.

It’s not obvious that there is any particular point in these two little ironies beyond the distance. But we should remember that The Sopranos swims in irony, much of which works through juxtapositions. Thus any attempt at a deeper analysis of these two transitions entails larger issues.

But then, that’s how art’s supposed to be, isn’t? 


Interesting points about the juxtaposition, but just a thought about the irony.  I am aware that there are many forms of irony--dramatic, tragic, cosmic, verbal, just to name a few.  But concerning the juxtapositions in The Sopranos, I wonder if they are just that—really good juxtapositions and segues. 

Irony entails a distance, to be sure, but it is usually a distance within the same thing.  Following Quintilian’s basic observation of Socrates that eironeia is the saying what is contrary to what is meant, Kierkegaard re-describes this as the phenomenon being different from the essence.  But, in the illustrations you point out, there are actually multiple phenomena.  Perhaps if it were the same bed, or the same action of eating or whatever, it might be closer.  But you still may be right on another level.  Thoughts?

By Eric Lee on 04/18/08 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not the author but I’ll chime in anyway. Irony requires an audience...a third party privy to the juxtaposition. And it requires that at least one of the other parties is not privy. It is obvious that we are the third party here...capable of comparing Chris’s lack of self-reflection, his loss in lust and the more grave situation of Livia. We might be capable of finding a weird sort of cosmic humor here, or even tragedy (youth is lost on the young and all that). It is equally obvious that if we are the third party in this sort of irony that we are like gods to the characters we observe who while each is capable of imagining the other, most certainly is not.

It seems to me that these juxtapositions: love bed/sick bed and eating/snorting are harsh, jarring even..and to one privy..ie, us...maybe even humorous. But I too question whether the juxtaposition is ironic. I don’t remember the episode but the these transitions seem more mechanical than thematic. That is, they are a means of easing the eyes while provoking the brain while moving from one scene and into another. But does the transition itself add anything to the analysis of the arc? If not, then these are mere spectacle and not ironic. If an interpretation of irony adds to our total analysis then, sure, I’ll bite.

By JimPanzee on 04/19/08 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thus, one scene ends in bed and the next one opens on a bed. That’s the hook.

Yep. You nailed it. But fairly tame hook. In a few years, prime-time producers will have upgraded the bed-hooks: dungeon-hooks, say.

Really, sir, there are no hard and fast rules of narrative continuity--are there?---even at the level of pop-noir like the Sopranos. Montages, or montage-lites will often work. Americuns don’t need some elaborate, Borgesian plot: they are cool with advertisement-like shows and movies with the right bed-hooks (or nipple hooks). 

A typical error of the naive “philosophical” critic consists in his attempts to posit some necessary structure or argument form to narratives, when there are none (assuming one knows what that form might be--even most phil. types have not quite figured out what material implication really, er, implies).

By Ben Billzon on 04/19/08 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not going to push for irony because, hey! I don’t really know what’s going on here. I suppose the first question is whether there’s anything at all going on beyond “mere spectacle.”

It’s my impression that such transitions are rare in the Sopranos; these are the only examples I’ve noticed in the episodes I’ve watched (all but one of the first two seasons). But then I haven’t been explicitly looking at the transitions and noting what happens. I only noticed these because the first one tripped me up twice. That is, the first time I watched the episode I assumed that the bed after the fade was the same as the bed before it; thus I expected to see Christopher and Amy as well. When I saw Livia, I was thus a little, a very little, shocked.

The same thing happened on second viewing. Whoa! What’s going on here? That’s when I started paying attention. And that’s when I noticed the somewhat weaker hook leading into the next scene.

On the whole I’m predisposed to take transitions seriously. That these two transitions are unlike most transitions in this series, suggests an element of deliberation. These transitions are doing something. What?

The thing about the Christopher plotline is that there is mutual exoticism. Christopher becomes a bit of a fanboy in the face of these real Hollywood types while they’re excited that he’s a real gangster. He wants them to dig his screenplay and take him away to Hollywoodwonderland; they want him to give them the real dope of Gangsterland.

Chris comes to Amy to learn the fate of his script, and she starts giving him pointers, and then jumps him, looking for some authentic mobster sex. Then we have the scene with Livia and AJ. And then Chris comes to Jon Favreau about his script. They chat about it, Jon indicates he’s looking for advice on a mob script he’s writing and then Jon asks him whether he’s “strapped.” Chris laughs, pulls up a pant leg, grabs a revolver from an ankle holster and playfully tosses it to Jon, who’s taken aback. They chat, Jon can’t quite bring himself to ask whether or not Chris has killed anyone, and Chris engages Jon in some rough and tumble play with the gun that moves just to the edge of real violence. And stops.

Think of Chris’s assault on Jon as roughly parallel to Amy’s assault on him. And both take place through mirrored exoticism. What’s that have to do with the connecting scene involving Livia and AJ? In that scene AJ’s asking his grandmother for insight into life, and she blows it. She doesn’t “see” or “hear” him at all but simply uses him as a target for her complaints about life and the universe.

What’s going on here?

By Bill Benzon on 04/19/08 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not familiar with the specific episode, but the Sopranos’ visual style does not seem that avant-garde: Scorcese has been doing that for years, has he not--think Good Fellas, all about jump-cuts, startling juxtapositions, jazzy or rock soundtracks, a certain advertisement-like grittiness. David Lynch knows that visual language as well. Or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers: sort of the Ur-flick of splatterpunk, and not lacking a certain RealPolitikal force (a flick which inspires a few 187s can’t be all bad). 

The irony, supposing something like irony can be precisely delineated, often consists in the conjoining of the flash imagery and a traditional tragic atrocity like....Moider.  DeNiro juggles the silencers that the Liotta character brings to him: What is this you bring to me?  Mob cartoons with mucho sangria.  It’s difficult to understand how any Herr Doktor Hegemonic extracts some grand metaphysical scheme from noir, whether trad, sci-fi-ish ala PK Dick, or slightly marxista ala Stone. Noir remains supremely amoral, with a certain historical materialist aspect (not dialectic--dialectical), eros-thanatos dueling, a few hints of indeterminacy.........cops and robbers, pimps n ho’s, just with more gear.

By Ben Billzon on 04/19/08 at 04:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Who’s saying anything about avant-garde? I’m just trying to see what’s there. Scorcese’s certainly an influence - he even had a cameo as himself in season one. As for grand metaphysical schemes, I don’t give a flying fuck about no stinkin’ metaphysics. (Don’t think Shakespeare much cared for it either.)

That said, I took another look at this episode and noticed that the next two scene transitions, both switching from one plotline to another, are done with match cuts on head shots. I’ve now got to consider that this may just be the mark of an editor who likes visual continuity from one scene to the next.

By Bill Benzon on 04/19/08 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I recall, both “scenes” are about betrayal.  That is the thematic hook.  Chris is thinking about betraying Tony and the boys and taking his authentic gangster schtick to H’wood.  Ultimately, Favreau et al. blow him off b/c mob stuff becomes quickly passe.  AJ unwittingly reveals to Livia that Tony is seeing a shrink and that leads her to conspire with Junior to try to kill Tony.  The linking is not just imagistic, but thematic:  betrayal and counter-betrayal.  Beds and tables are the mere furniture of the narrative (sorry for the pun, but, hey, it works).  And that is the real point, from a craft POV, of hooking:  not just narrative continuity, but tying two important threads together.

Jim H.

By Jim H. on 04/20/08 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

AJ unwittingly reveals to Livia that Tony is seeing a shrink and that leads her to conspire with Junior to try to kill Tony.

This happened during a visit in the first season, not the one in this episode.


By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Such is memory…

But, that raises the question:  wouldn’t it be more interesting (and better) if the threads had been tied together that way?  It’s funny how mishearing or misspeaking or, in this case, misremembering (misprision, generally) can be a spur to creativity.

Your analysis of Sopranos has my attention.  The narratives are neatly interwoven.  The hooks grab you.  The images resonate—within the story and with the reader.  The characters are flawed, but we are made to “care” for them and their fates.

By Jim H. on 04/20/08 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...wouldn’t it be more interesting (and better) if the threads had been tied together that way?

Yes. And I’m not sure they aren’t. But I’ve not figured out how.

Now, we can get betrayal into the AJ thread. The episode starts with AJ driving his mother’s Mercedes and getting in a minor accident. He’s not supposed to be sneaking rides in her car. So, a relatively minor betrayal. Further, he’s announced that he doesn’t want to be confirmed. Is that a betrayal? Of a kind, perhaps. When Tony (with AJ along) drives the car over to Big Pussy’s place to get it fixed, he asks Big Pussy to talk with AJ about confirmation and life and stuff. Big Pussy is the kid’s godfather and confirmation sponsor.

Now, Big Pussy’s been an FBI informant for awhile. That’s very much in the forefront on this episode, where the FBI have him wear a wire for the confirmation ceremony and, more importantly, the party afterward. Pussy does not want to do that at all, but does so in the end. Major betrayal.

But, that’s not directly in play in the scene where AJ visits his grandmother in the hospital.

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 12:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Like many of these series, “The Sopranos” had a team of writers and directors who rotated (not necessarily in a numerically progressive manner) the writing and direction of the episodes. “Boca” and “D-Girl” had a different director and writer(s).

In short, each series episode is indeed a separate film, technically speaking. Doing cross-episode comparisons of film techniques and visual thematics is likely to be confounded by the differences born of these separate-episode realities.

We’re not dealing with Charles Dickens’ novels and newspapers any more, are we?

By on 04/20/08 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, you know, David Simon was constantly comparing The Wire to Dickens. And it’s my understanding that on that show he would rough-out a whole season ahead of time and then individual shows would be assigned to different production teams. I believe Simon had to pass on each script before it went into production; in some cases he would make or ask for substantial revisions. Don’t know what role he played beyond that point, but I assume that nothing got broadcast without his approval.

I don’t know what the drill was on The Sopranos. But I assume Chase had to approve everything before broadcast. Did he rough out a season ahead of time? I don’t know. Did he approve each script before it went into production? I don’t know, but I’d imagine he did. How closely did he ride herd on editing? I don’t know.

Still, your point is well taken. Surely there are differences between episodes that can be attributed to differences between the people who made them. Beyond that, I can imagine that Chase would assemble episode teams according to some sense of appropriate fit between interests, abilities, and episode requirements.

I’m not looking for or positing some monolithic aesthetic unity. I’m just trying to get a sense of how at least some of these things work.

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, by my count there are 31 scenes in this episode. The scene between AJ and Livia is number 15. Pretty close to the middle. Timewise, it begins 29 minutes in (after the mid point) and lasts almost 4 minutes. It’s Livia’s only scene in this episode.

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Wire is considered among the modern classics of our time, with the New York Times commenting, ‘If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire. Unless, that is, he was already writing for it.’”

(Interesting rhetorical slip there, from the newspaper as medium to the narrative itself....)

“At one stage I was simultaneously hooked on The Wire and the BBC’s brilliant adaptation of Bleak House, and it struck me that Dickens serves as a useful point of comparison; David Simon and his team of writers (including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane) swoop from high to low, from the mayor’s office to the street corner—and the street-corner dealers are shown more empathy and compassion than anyone has mustered before. The hapless Bubbles, forever dragging behind him his shopping trolley full of stolen goods, is Baltimore’s answer to Joe the Crossing Sweeper.”

(Yes, David Simon and Dickens for _content_ and _seriality_, and even for “vision”, so to speak, but surely not for _medium_.)

The whole point is that the “auteur” in cinema or video/television isn’t reality most of the time. “Mediated” images have become collective enterprises with broad brush strokes from the series creators or producers, et al. Sometimes the only things that identifiably hold a series stylistically together in the mind of the viewer are its opening visuals sequence and its cast of regular characters (I’m thinking of “Miami Vice”, for example). Once it gets down to the narrative shots and the storyboard, yes, stylistic syntax appears to be evolving into visual genres—but it isn’t all that “personal” any more.

Oh, and remember the dual endings of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? And the contemporary tendency for televised novellas in some South American countries to conform the storyline to the desires expressed in audience participation in their evolution? A sort of collective, artistic “just in time” phenomenon?

What does this do to film criticism’s paradigms? That’s the real challenge to those in the field today. Facing the realities of the _collective_ and _interactive_ nature of art and writing and film, etc.—which have been often glossed over in earlier centuries in other media as well (e.g. Rodin’s “atelier” and Camille Claudel, etc.).

By on 04/20/08 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Think about Shakespeare. He didn’t write plays in the abstract with the expectation that at some time some one or another would stage them. He wrote for his own company, for actors he knew would be acting the roles. Who knows how the existing texts actually came about. To what extent do they reflect the input of actors and the process of playing before an audience?

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: Shakespeare, et al.

Well, not exactly, once a playwright has a troupe of actors (and we know from who’s on stage when in Shakespeare’s plays, which actors played which roles), well, writing for the performance, and sometimes for the particular actor (or for the specific juxtaposition of actors) becomes a part of the art itself.

(And the variations among the Quartos and the Folios themselves tell us something very important about our search in vain for the “definitive Shakespeare”....)

For example, we know that Shakespeare’s troupe had no women in it so a young man played the role of Cordelia. The Fool in “King Lear” was probably played by the same actor as Cordelia—thus giving visual overtones/meanings to the king’s “My poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?” which are rarely ever discussed in an English literature classroom.

No, face it: the rhetorical training even of the cinema critic has been centered on the literary, linear, univocal, and consecutive in “narrative” (rather than “story-telling” which is a “mediated” _process_)—and, further, “property rights"-oriented around the “auteur"/author as an individual (attaining, as in the case of Shakespeare, mythic proportions).

However, the realities and ramifications of the collective nature of artistic creation in the new media are not as easily swept aside as in the myths of the solitary author inherited from centuries past, encapsulated as they had to be in linear paper texts (which often post-dated the memorizations of performance and story-telling, themselves).

English Departments either confront these “mediated texts” (all puns intended), analyze them, and teach “writing/s” as inter-active, multi-media communications—or they die.

But then again, we know that, don’t we?

By on 04/20/08 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that such “mediation” is deeply problematic for the intentionalist because it makes it difficult to locate a single source for the intention behind a given text. If you’re not an intentionalist, however, then it doesn’t make much difference. The text is still the text. Who cares how it came into existence?

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/08 at 07:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, is it purely “structuralist” and not at all “intentionalist” to note, for example, as above:

“There is, however, a major difference top-level difference between feature films and Sopranos episodes. Feature films are complete; they tell the whole story. Individual Sopranos episodes are not like that. While each has a certain finality, each episode also links to episodes before and episodes after (except, of course, for the first and last episodes in the series). This allows for the possibility that individual episodes can follow multiple plot lines that have little or no causal relationship between them.”

That’s the reader/viewer’s call here, I guess.

By on 04/20/08 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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