Boardwalk Empire’s Aged Media Conundrum

January 6, 2011
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The HBO program Boardwalk Empire – executive produced by Martin Scorcese and Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg – is a richly indulgent historical drama of politics, crime, sex, and corruption in post-WWI Atlantic City, New Jersey. As the program follows the progress of Steve Buscemi’s Enoch “Nucky” Thompson through Atlantic City’s maturation as the east coast’s center of gambling, illegal alcohol production and distribution, and other forms of iniquity, familiar figures such as gangsters Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, as well as presidential prospect Warren G. Harding appear and comport themselves in ways that add HBO-style grit and detail to their mediated virtuality.

Among the many threads entwined in this production are its virtually fetishistic engagement with and display of early 20th century material culture, including forms of media. One scene finds Buscemi’s character in the company of a handful of other local bigshots, enjoying a hand-cranked bit of celluloid pornography, which catches on fire in the projector when the fellow at the crank tires out; other scenes present meditations on letters and postcards and the increasingly unfamiliar forms of time & space distanciation characteristic of “snail mail.” The sets and interactions captured in the program are crowded with objects of turn-of-the-century daily life. Reupholstered, refinished, renewed antique furniture populates cluttered sitting rooms; freshly tailored suits and dresses in century-old styles, curtains and lampshades, glossy vintage automobiles abound: objects reproduced or refurnished contribute to Boardwalk Empire’s Deadwood-style HBO hyperreality.

Some of the elements I’ve been finding most fascinating are the appearances and sounds of recorded music on spinning Victrolas and the lingering focus on one of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, The Road to Oz (1909). Ancient shellac 78s provide diegetic and non-diegetic music for numerous scenes; the Victrolas feature both as suppliers of musical sound and as big wooden obstacles navigated by the program’s cast as they move through the brocaded chambers. A scene takes place in an illegal casino housed in an H.H. Richardson-style brownstone, the camera placed such that the foreground is dominated by a table-top phonograph with the giant acoustic tone-arm caught fleck-fleck-fleck-ing in the locked end-groove. Thompson’s brother Eli, covering for the usual bag-man, enters to discover that he’s the victim of a robbery in progress, stalled in anticipation of his arrival; the phonograph needle’s repetitive circumnavigation of the disc’s matrix – and its foregrounded surface noise – a retrospective indicator that something’s going on here. The program’s modulation of the sound of the 78s’ surface noise, in both diegetic and non-diegetic aspects, appear as evidence of a conundrum: the surface noise is the accumulated wear that is probably an unavoidable dimension of any playback of a 90 year old analog recording, yet in the world of the program those recordings are new, or newish. What does this audible patina do here? The scuffs and wear on ninety-year-old furniture can be masked and polished; ancient platters can be digitized and manipulated; but the sounds of age in these records contribute to Boardwalk Empire’s construction of a hyperreal 1920 Atlantic City.

Baum’s The Road to Oz appears late in season 1, when Margaret Schroeder, widowed consort of Enoch Thompson, ensconced in a luxury suite at Thompson’s expense, is shown reading the book aloud to her two children. At this point in the series, Thompson has become a target of Arnold Rothstein’s thugs, and Richard Harrow, a grossly disfigured veteran, is installed in the suite to protect the family. The children are repulsed by Harrow’s appearance – half his face is missing and is ordinarily covered by a painted tin mask a la Phantom of the Opera – but when he makes a joke about being the tin man, they warm up to him. The camera soon finds the quartet happily settled on the couch, united through Baum’s fantastic narrative. But it’s the book itself that stands out here. Again, among the refurbished/reproduced, new-looking furnishings, a strangely aged, out-of-place first edition emerges briefly and we are shown John R. Neill’s starkly graceful, understated rendering of the Tin Man. “I was very happy among the Munchkins and Winkies and Quadlings and Gillikens…” Schroeder reads to her two children and the family’s bodyguard, as sense of homey peace settles around the threatened domestic scene.

In my perception of the program, these media artifacts draw attention to themselves; they stand out like sore thumbs in Boardwalk Empire’s recreated 1920s East Coast interiors. Their incongruity – obviously worn, ninety-year-old media amidst polished surfaces, carefully reupholstered furniture, freshly tailored vintage clothing, and reproduction Edison lamp bulbs – makes me wonder: what is it about these media objects that exempts them from reproduction? Why go to such trouble to make everything else look freshly made for sale in the second decade of the 20th century, but include these palimpsests of uncountable readings and listenings in their aged, scuffed, dried-out, intimately savored forms? What does the apparent “authenticity” of these reverse time-travelers do for the program’s producers? For its viewers? The expressions fixed in this book and these records exist virtually and could be freshly reproduced at, I’m guessing, little added cost. Why haul out and dust off these bits of bygone media, these pictures of Dorian Gray?

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One Response to “ Boardwalk Empire’s Aged Media Conundrum ”

  1. Christopher Cwynar on January 25, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    Very interesting post, Matt. Thank you for it.

    I like your point about HBO’s ‘hyperreality’ and the manner in which this quality is invoked in various ways in order to lend a deceptive sense of authenticity to the program. While I have not seen BE, I identified a similar quality in Treme. Preparing a paper on the program, I noted that the camera’s perspectives on various elements of the pilot episode’s second-line opening sequence betrayed the fictional nature of the show. The pseudo-documentary style and feel of the segment is underscored by the manner in which the camera almost seems to flaunt its ability to capture and hold sights and sounds that would elude even the most attentive witness. The effect cuts both ways – the viewer marvels at the level of detail involved in the scene and its action while also potentially becoming aware of its constructedness.

    It seems to me that this is similar to the phenomenon that you have identified in BE. I think that these elements of hyperreality play on the manner in which HBO’s programs often endeavor to position themselves at the limits of fictional television. Deadwood, BE, and Treme all want to be perceived as being as ‘authentic’ as possible, but there are always conspicuous reminders that this ‘authenticity’ is a function of a given subgenre. It seems as though these reminders are either a function of the progams bumping up against the limits of televisual representation or strategic allusions to those limits designed to acknowledge them as a means of disarming them (i.e. saying “look, we recognize this isn’t entirely authentic, but we’re as close as is televisually possible”).

    I’m still working through this, but it fits with the centrality of ‘authenticity’ to HBO’s brand identity as a purveyor of ‘quality’ and the maturation of this trope through the net’s early eras and onto today’s serial dramas. I have seen allusions in interviews with HBO show creators to their occasional desire to incorporate formal elements that allude to the story being told or the storyworld being constructed. It seems to me that the practice you identify might fit into this potential trend.