Classic Film and Television Home Page
2- 1-98 Pacific Blue: HOUSE PARTY (Hostages in Precinct station) W: David Kemper D: Michael Levine
This is an above average in quality, but otherwise "typical" episode of a TV series. Its writer and director are both frequent contributors to the Pacific Blue series. Neither is famous; neither has extraordinary prestige, the way, say, Tim Burton would have if he decided to direct an episode of a TV show. One suspects the show was produced with a typical budget for its series. Despite all this "normalcy", extraordinary care has been taken with the direction. Perhaps the majority of the shots are elaborate moving camera set-ups. Bazin himself could not be more pleased.
The detailed camera movements have probably been made possible, both technologically and economically, by advances in film technology. Such devices as the Stedicam have made elaborate camera movements easy and affordable to do. It has reached the point that a TV series episode, with all its limitations of time and budget, can produce an episode like this.
The "typical" moving camera shot of the show is as follows. It starts out with a moderately long shot of a character. The shot is in sharp focus throughout its field of vision. It shows the character in full figure, and everybody standing near him or behind him, as well as all details of the environment. It then begins to move, circling around the character, or moving forward, or moving laterally (to the side): the shots have considerable variety. The action gets more dramatic, in terms of the script and storyline. At the climax of the action, and the shot, the camera moves in on the character. The movement is forward, propulsive, and dramatic. It ends on either a close-up, or medium shot of the character and their upper body. The effect is to tremendously underline the character. It emphasizes everything they say, their facial expression, and the emotions it conveys, their personality and role in the plot.
This "grammar" of a shot is repeated again and again. The underlining through the final move-in occurs dozens of times in the show. Russell Mulcahy used a similar move-in climax repeatedly in The Shadow (1994).
The shot has two different effects. It unites the character with his environment and the other characters. Yet it underlines and glamorizes him as a unique individual during the final track inward.
The track to a person, underling a climax, is a Hitchcock convention. Hitchcock also uses the direct reverse: The pulling back to a full length view of a person, then stopping. Both underline the individual person, and suggest a climax in the action. One sees it is Rope (1948), where the total lack of cutting makes it one of elements of the film grammar that Hitchcock relies on. But one also sees it in other Hitchcock films, such as Vertigo (the early scene in Madge's studio), and North By Northwest (the murder at the UN).
There are other, elaborate camera movements in the show, that do not fit into this paradigm. One of my favorites starts out by showing good guy Victor, who is secretly aiding the hostages by looking through the ventilator panel in the ceiling. The shot revolves around the ventilator with a rotating motion. This would be impressive and beautiful just as it is. But after it completes, the camera pans down to the eye level view of the hostages, from its vertical direction. When it becomes pointed horizontally, it focuses on two of the hostages in their side by side jail cells. There is a brief pause of movement at this point, while this two shot becomes a stabile image. After a while, the camera starts moving in again, pushing in to a close-up, medium shot of the two hostages. This is much like the other final move-ins, except that it encompasses two people in the final move. The united shot stresses the solidarity of the two hostages, and their strong emotional bonds (they are father and daughter). It heroizes them as well. The fact that Victor is united in a single shot with them also underscores the union of Victor and the hostages. Although they are separated by physical space, Victor and the hostages are all united in a common enterprise.
The camera movement shots in House Party are shorter in duration than the elaborate camera movements of some 1940's films. They are not typically "long takes". To cite an extreme contrast, Kenji Mizoguchi's 47 Ronin (1941) has camera movements that take many minutes. The moving camera in these shots is slow, steady and relentless. By contrast, the tracking shots in House Party are not much longer than many fixed camera shots in a typically "edited" Hollywood film of the 1930's. The camera movements themselves are relatively rapid, although not so fast as to induce dizziness, or to suggest excessive speed.
There is a use of cutting in House Party, as well. Classical cutting back and forth is briefly used in some scenes of extreme confrontation between the hostages and their captors. Levine resorts to this approach only when he wants to show an unpleasant confrontation. There is an association of camera movement with joy, and traditional editing with pain. It is almost an editorial comment on the two kinds of filmmaking. "We're going to have a conflict scene here. It's unpleasant. Let's roll out the eye-matching editing!"
The numerous confrontation scenes on the lawn in front of the station use a version of editing, of sorts. The police, and the ordinary people out there, tend to be united in camera movement shots. This stresses their unity of purpose, and solidarity. Even when they have disagreements with each other. Levine keeps them unite in common shots. This suggests the disagreements are mild.
Often the police outside are communicating by phone with the gunmen inside. On occasion however, the head gunman emerges from the station, and confronts the police from the steps of the station. In these cases, the criminal is always shown in one shot, followed by the police in another, then the criminal again, alternatively. The camera does not encompass both. This suggests the fundamental opposition between the criminal and the police. To a degree, these contrasting shots are classical editing. However, the camera movements do not cease during these shots. The police shots, especially, continue their beautiful camera movements, and their final track-ins on their central character. So the cutting back and forth is combined with elaborate camera movements.
The action scenes of the show use a different kind of cutting. It is more like montage, than the tradition back and forth cutting of dialogue scenes. A fight between two characters will not be staged as one shot. Instead, it will be broken up into many shots. These shots are typically NOT back and forth, alternating shots of the two characters. Instead, they are views of the fight from different camera angles. The idea seems to be to make the fight more exciting by frequent cutting. It adds a rhythm to the film; quickens the pace and makes the events seem dynamic. One is reminded of Godard's dictum that montage is like a beating heart.
Both the police and the crooks in this tale are deep into impersonation, dressing up in clothes that disguise them and give them new roles. T.C. dresses up in a SWAT uniform at the end, purely for the sake of the scene where he is with his rescued girl friend. He looks terrific in the elaborate SWAT clothes: a complete hero. The shot of the two of them next shows them embracing. Many men would like to be heroes to the women they love: this scene is a wish fulfillment fantasy for men.
There are elements of a performance within in a performance for Tony's role. As senior officer for the police, he has to take charge of the situation, and give the hostage-takers the feeling they are being controlled. So his behavior is of a man who is acting. The performer is now acting a man who is himself acting a role. Rossovich's performance here is vivid, and has conviction. There is always a hint of something "assumed" in it, that he is adopting a macho stance to take charge, as part of his plan to intimidate and subdue the crooks.
The scene where Cory discards the yellow flyers is motivated by the plot, but it also adds a nice element of visual style. One is reminded of the scene at the end of Swing Time (1936), where Fred Astaire discards the pack of cards he used for gambling. In both cases, the forms go all over, in a shower of paper.
10- 5-97 Pacific Blue: MATTERS OF THE HEART (Skaters, anti-drug, T.C. as Cyclist, chase through arcade, merry go round, Yuppie baby broker, little girl) W: Emily Skopov D: Terrence H. Winkless
This episode of Pacific Blue also has some elaborate camera movements. One fine long take opens with T.C. on a bike outdoors. He is immediately joined by a young punk on rollerblades, who skates along with him. The moving camera is right in front of the two men, and smoothly tracks along with them, as they make their way along a meandering asphalt path that twists and curves through a park. The camera is presumably on a car or bike or motorized vehicle. Other people are also in the shot: two women cut between the guys, moving in the opposite direction along the path. Later, a guy on a bicycle will move along, sometimes parallel, sometimes ahead or behind the two men. There are many people in the background of the park. Eventually the two men pull up to a complete stop, and the camera stops with them. The camera stays fixed for a while, as are the two men. Then the camera slowly begins to move. But it is clearly either hand held at this point, or proceeding at a walking pace: it is just adjusting its position relative to the two men. The young criminal gives T.C. a key piece of evidence, then leaves. T.C. holds the evidence up in awe: it is the dramatic climax of the scene, and what the whole shot has been about. At this point, the camera executes a 180 degree semi-circular motion around T.C. It is very dramatic, and underscores the climactic nature of the scene.
Such an elaborate camera movement would be famous, if it were in an older film. For example, no one forgets the circular camera movements in Ophuls' Lola Montès (1955), or Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Here is the same sort of movement. But it is not just a separate shot; it is linked to a whole complex long take through a park. Because these movements are in a TV show, no one seems to notice them.
The camera movements in Pacific Blue, and other contemporary TV dramas, are not just invisible because of critical indifference, however. The movements, however complex, also seem designed to be "invisible" to a naive viewer. The movements always seem to be closely linked to the plot and action. For example, the long tracking shot through the park is just keeping up with T.C. on his bike. Since Pacific Blue is a show about bikes, a viewer watching this could say: "Wow, what an exciting scene with a bike". The camera movement simply serves the function of giving us a very vivid, close-up view of what it is like to ride a bike through a California park. Similarly, the circular camera movement around T.C. at the end serves to underscore a dramatic climax of the scene, his triumph in obtaining key evidence. It is a great visual flourish. But a naive viewer, caught up in the emotional "rush" of the scene, could simply experience the dramatic climax, and not be conscious of the camera movement in and of itself.
In some famous older films, the camera movements are somewhat gratuitous, or at least disconnected from the plot. Noël Burch cites such film as L'Argent (1928), which I have never had a chance to see, or Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) and The 47 Ronin (1941), both of which I know well, because they have at last shown up at the local video stores! In these films, the camera movements are more conspicuous, because they serve as somewhat independent directorial comments on the action. Pacific Blue takes the opposite approach. A naive viewer can watch these films without noticing the camera is moving at all.
Such famous fifties films as Ophuls' Lola Montès (1955), Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) or Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), were all box office flops. They were all rediscovered by cinéastes, who were awed by their artistic riches. Because of this, no one ever asks what these films looked like to a naive viewer. Everyone knows they didn't have any naive viewers, just sophisticated cinéastes who had a conscious appreciation of their art.
By contrast, Pacific Blue is mass entertainment. It has apparently not been discovered by film lovers at all, who seem completely unaware of its existence. The show was clearly sold to network executives as "Baywatch on a bike". The show's complete lack of decadence also makes it remote from today's tastemakers. The characters on the show are heroic, wholly admirable people of high moral values. Everyone is beautiful, and the show takes place in lovely California beach settings, in Santa Monica. The show is designed as PG rated escapism and fantasy wish fulfillment. The series is also designed as family entertainment. The characters are as G rated as possible, without being namby pamby. The show appears at 8:00 PM, the family hour on TV, and is rerun on Saturday mornings.
Not that I want to see the show change: I love Pacific Blue just the way it is. I look forward to watching it on Sunday nights. I just want the film community to sit up and take notice what is happening on the show, technically. Pacific Blue is one of the parts of Hollywood making best use of new technology in the service of film art.