The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, is a ten-part TV show which may be the best thing Steven Soderbergh has ever done. Since I haven’t always liked Soderbergh’s films, this may seem like faint praise, but on the other hand I like a bunch of them plenty, and really this show would stand out as a high point on anybody’s filmography. It can’t be because Soderbergh is suddenly allowed greater freedom by TV, even though he complained about the way film directors were being treated (it’s probably true that directors are afforded less respect today, are regarded as “presumptively wrong” during any discussion — but it could be that it’s Soderbergh’s status that had fallen) — but Soderbergh chose his own projects, sometimes wrote and produced them, always photographed and edited them, and would seem to have a certain amount of clout. Nor can it really be that the lack of control in TV, traditionally a writer’s medium, is constraining Soderbergh in a favourable way. It just feels like he has an incredibly good set of scripts and has risen to the challenge.
As I hinted when discussing Parade’s End, period dramas on TV have started trying to seem modern and feisty and to throw off the musty mantle of “quality” and “classic” — in the UK, this has mainly resulted in bizarre and inappropriate directorial choices which seem overly self-conscious and artificial (the blatant swiping from JULES ET JIM in Michael Winterbottom’s JUDE can serve as a warning here). Soderbergh gives us a 1900 New York with electronic music (Cliff Martinez), hand-held camera and wide lenses, freeze frames and a shots taken with the camera strapped to the actor (a very effective drunken brawl in ep. 3) and all manner of modernistic flourishes, and it all feels JUST RIGHT. (However ultimately successful his films, Soderbergh’s stylistic choices have always been smart, and only in THE GOOD GERMAN did he prove not equal to achieving them — turns out the b&w classic Hollywood aesthetic is about the hardest trick there is).
Partly the unusual visuals work because they are supported by really impressive visual detail in the set design and costumes, and also in the script, which shows all the evidence of a tone of research not only performed but digested and then transfigured into solid drama. So we have a living, breathing world full of unpredictable and unfamiliar-but-credible characters, and so almost any filming choice would work — Soderbergh’s just happens to be interesting.
I can illustrate this idea — that a credible world trumps any stylistic choice — using the words of Jim Sheridan (as I recall them). The MY LEFT FOOT guy is one of the most entertaining raconteurs in cinema, at least in small doses, and he said, approximately: “The first question a novice director wants to answer is ‘Where do I put the camera?’ which is dead wrong, because your job is to create a moment of emotional truth, and if you do that right, it doesn’t matter where you put the camera. You might not even need a camera.”
Like all the Great Truths, this is only true sometimes, but Sheridan was able to neatly illustrate the most boggling [art of his assertion by pointing to the documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, in which a crucial, emotionally renching scene occurs after the camcorder has been knocked to the ground — the entire scene is delivered as audio only, and it’s devastating.
Of course, one of the things I like about films is when a composition or a movement or a cut makes visible an underlying truth — you can see it in the frame above, snatched almost at random from the first episode.
Anyway, The Knick was shot with a camera, for which we can be grateful — many medical atrocities are thus presented in graphic detail, but also:
Matt Frewer sterilising his beard; André Holland teaching a laundress to sew chicken skin; a beautiful girl with no nose; a novelty striptease entitled “The Busy Flea”; the wonders of cocaine.