What is ‘real’? According to the Cambridge dictionary: ‘existing in fact and not imaginary’i. Therefore, one could argue that what you watch in cinema or on TV is not real, but realistic: ‘seeming to exist or be happening in fact’ii. This article’s aim is not linguistics and most definitely not an in-depth, intricate and eye-bleeding Lacanian psychoanalytic approach on how to perceive what you watch and why. These are never-ending academic debates that don’t mean much outside the Academia, replace the art with science, and, to a certain extent, convolute the moviegoers’ cinematic experience. Yet, I will very briefly – I promise – combine the absolute basics with my experience of watching the HBO/BBC joint project, The Night Of (2016). Minor spoilers are included, but I will deliberately leave certain details and the ending out. My goal is, mostly, to emphasise on the first episode and what it achieves to do and how it does it. If you have watched it, it may offer you a different perspective, and, if you haven’t, to prepare you for a yet another existential HBO achievement. Get comfy…
Logline: After spending a debaucherous night with a woman he had never met, a young man wakes up finding her stabbed to death, and charged with murder.
‘The Beach’ is, arguably, one of the most slow-burn and intense first episodes in a series or miniseries. It is also one of the biggest investments in both character and story development and I would consider it a masterclass in the narrative/editing relationship. What we get to know about Nasir, how people perceive him, the way he wants to be perceived by his peers and, especially, women are all parts of him that need to carefully develop before the inciting incident takes place. And after the alleged establishment of who he is, it happens! The girl he instantly falls for and cares about is stabbed to death, Nasir loses it, everything he can do wrong, he does it, and, ultimately, he gets caught accidentally for something else that he also did wrong. All this wrongdoing creates so many questions in the audience’s mind that, inevitably, places them into Nasir’s shoes and that is the realism I was referring to earlier. ‘What happened?’. ‘What would I have done?’. ‘How is he going to prove he is not guilty?’ All these questions are created while, at the same time, Detective Dennis Box and his future lawyer John Stone are also introduced.
For anyone who is not familiar with, I’d like to introduce a couple of terms from Warren Buckland:
Restricted and Omniscient Narration: In restricted narration, the audience and the character share the same information whereas in omniscient narration the audience has access to more information than the character(s) separately. Regardless, the director is the one that, at any given point, decides how much the spectators need (not want) to knowiii.
Everything you know so far, or you think you know, comes through Nasir’s eyes. As much as you would like to know a lot more about what is going on, you don’t. What you do get to know very well though is what is happening in Nasir’s head and the editor is solely responsible for that. Before I go into it, always keep in mind this: Every sequence you watch on the screen comprises of carefully selected and trimmed shots, picked from numerous reels of that very sequence that has been filmed in numerous ways, numerous times. Even though the following is merely an example, it encapsulates the meaning that editing creates and how that particular meaning builds up the suspense while moving the story patiently, and cautiously forward.
While being caught for something minor and waiting at the police station, Nasir realises that this is his last chance to sneak out (yet another wrong decision). Not a single word is said, yet, through the extremely effective editing, the audience can ‘read’ his thoughts. And that becomes a paradigm of how ‘show, don’t tell’ works.
Nothing needs to be said because everything has been shown. The pace and rhythm that define the suspense build-up, ultimately pays off and, by the end of it, creates the perfect cliffhanger, preparing the ground for the suspense’s prolongation. Before he ultimately gets caught with incriminating evidence, as you can see from the last shot, the Detective who plays a significant role later on shows up at the police station, and after a series casual events and incidents, only then the audience realises that now it is too late for Nasir to do anything. Buckland would say that: any sequence that does not directly contribute to the conflict’s resolution is a ‘Delay of Resolution’iv.
If it wasn’t for these delays, any film or series would have been significantly shorter and the audience would get, potentially, the desired results the moment they wanted them. Fortunately, not getting what we want when we want it is part of this cinematic experience that mirrors life itself – excludes people who always got what they wanted.
The Night Of is not just the brilliant first episode though. Everything that happened, happened to lay the foundation for the next episodes to build on. The legalities, the charges, the transport, the detention… Through the eyes of a young man who has never experienced anything like it, but never even had such a horrible nightmare, you, the audience, get to live this nightmare with him as you go through every step of the process. And it is excruciating. And to make it even more horrible, as if that was possible, you become omniscient and you get to experience his parents’ agonising pain too. The Paradigmatic Narrationv: each segment introduces a new story, location or character(s)… introduces new faces as it unfolds and gets scarier by the minute. The series seems to be changing direction and becomes more and more of a case study on ‘what will happen to you if you end up in jail’. At the same time though, two questions flare up: If he hasn’t done it, who has? And, how will his innocence be proved? What has been achieved so far is the plot to stay in focus and the sublots to amalgamate with the sole purpose of supporting it and, consequently, advancing the story. And one of the many paths the story leads to is what was invested in the first episode; the hero’s metamorphosis. A metamorphosis that will, gradually, raise unexpected questions that will pile on the already unanswered ones and will make, especially, one rise to the top: Is he actually innocent?
As mentioned in the beginning, my goal is to bring this miniseries to your attention as it, instantly, got mine with its diverse techniques but also its realism. And to be perfectly clear with what I mean by saying ‘realism’, and not get caught into respectable theoretical arguments, I have summarised it the best possible way I could:
Susan Hayward, analysing realism and realism in cinema, states:
The term realism comes from a literary and art movement of the nineteenth century which went against the grand tradition of classical idealism and sought to portray ‘life as it really was’. […] Film as cinema makes absence presence, it puts reality up on to the screen. It purports to give a ‘truthful’ view of the ‘real world’ through the presentation it provides of the characters and their environment. […] There are, arguably, two types of realism with regard to film. First, seamless realism, whose ideological function is to disguise the illusion of realism. Second, aesthetically motivated realism, which attempts to use the camera in a non-manipulative fashion and considers the purpose of realism in its ability to convey a reading of reality, or several readings evenvi.
Andre Bazin claims that the arguments surrounding realism derive from a ‘misunderstanding’, a bewilderment between these two types: the aesthetic (aesthetically motivated) and the psychological (seamless). He refers to the former as true realism: ‘the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence’, and the latter as: ‘pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances’vii.
Film theory has no immediate applications to the average viewer who wants to enjoy a film or a series. Personally, regardless how much I have studied or worked in film, I try to ‘live’ the moment when I watch something. And The Night Of felt like a ‘based-on-a-true-story’ to me. Towards the end, see what happens with the suspects. Think about their motives. Think about how they act and if you like them or not. Even though, does it matter? Have you made up your mind already? Are you more confused? Such narrative is meant to deceive you and editing is the best tool to do so. Every ‘whodunit’ is meant to be misleading, and the right combination of narratives needs to get you engaged while, purposefully, misguide you but not insult you by feeding you with lies. I find intriguing the difference between withholding the truth, and lying.
A couple of personal notes… The Night Of is presented like a dramatised documentary on how the American wheels of justice work. The people’s apathy, the system’s autopilot, the lawyers’ rivals… all that become the charade behind the scales that leans between a doomed life eternally ruined and an ambitions life where hope is still alive. What I found very interesting from the very beginning is the police officers’ attitude towards crime but also criminals. At first, it strikes as indifference which is somewhat annoying, but give it some time, the truth is much worse; it is habit. There is nothing they have not seen. They take crimes and criminals as a matter of course. Detective Box is called as a witness in court and the lawyer tries to corner him:
I am not saying that you consciously thought about it.
I am wondering if, maybe, it was subconscious. If you
were having doubts about his guilt from the beginning.
Well, if one could describe what goes on in their
subconscious mind, then it wouldn’t be subconscious,
would it? So, there is no way for us to know. Unless, you
got Freud out there waiting to be called.
HBO productions, among others, have always paid attention to the character development, and dialogue has been a big part of it: Every series they have produced has numerous lines that one can only wonder how they come up with that stuff, in so many different levels. The Sopranos (1999), The Wire (2002), The Leftovers (2014), True Detective (2014) Westworld (2016), Big Little Lies (2017), Sharp Objects (2018), Chernobyl (2019), The Outsider (2020)… all these are prime examples of how to make a series; of how to start, develop, and finish it in a way that will not only meet the audience’s expectations, but will by far exceed them1.
Even though is not part of the article, before I conclude, I would like honorary mention that none of the realism or narrative techniques that I mentioned earlier would be effective if the acting was not solid. Riz Ahmed, John Torturro, Bill Camp, Payman Maadi, Poorna Jagannathan, Amara Karan, Jeannie Berlin, Paul Sparks, and Michael Kenneth Williams give astonishing performances, engaging you, and leaving you with no choice but to empathise with them, love them, loathe them, and/or truly feel for their suffering. It is a shame that the late James Gandolfini passed a month after putting the producer’s hat on and never saw how brilliant his project ended up being.
Maybe, one day, I will write about why Hollywood keeps casting British actors portraying Americans when very rarely the opposite ever happens and what are the criteria behind casting specific actors for specific roles. Again, not really part of this article, but what got me thinking (further) was casting Glen Fleshler, and Adam LeFevre as Judges; juxtapose their current position to previous roles of theirs. But this is yet another story for another time – just saying.
To conclude, I am not here to dictate to you how to interpret films and series, but I would like to give away signs that will help you interpret them yourselves, and see for yourselves that a captivating narrative encompasses numerous techniques to irreversibly appeal to you, stimulate your senses, and make you question what you know or you think you know. As the story develops, chances are that you will pick on details here and there (i.e., the prison environment, Chandra’s choices and unknown future) and you even, maybe, build an argument on why this was not your cup of tea. Be it as it may, this is the way The Night Of articulates the story, evoking certain feelings that you might find confusing. Upon watching it though, honestly, swear that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, you have figured out how the cogs of life work.
Thank you kindly for reading.
1Just in case you picked on True Detective, season 2, please, read my counterarguments here: http://theworldofapu.com/true-detective-2014-2019/
i(Anon) (2021). ‘Real’. [Online]. Available: <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/real>
ii(Anon) (2021). ‘Realistic’. [Online]. Available: <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/realistic>
iiiBuckland, W. (2006). Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. New York: Continuum, pp. 44-51
ivBuckland, W.,pp. 44-51
vBuckland, W.,pp. 44-51
vi Hayward, S. (2006) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. Third Edition. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. p. 334
vii Bazin, A (2005) What is Cinema? Vol. 1. University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. p. 12