Tripping through Television Cinematography

In this morning’s Introduction to Electronic Media class, which one member of the university staff referred to as my “volunteer job” without even the slightest sense of irony, we covered American network television. The topics involved the networks’ competition and a bit of its style over the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. It’s a lot to cram into a one-hundred fifty minute section, but I like to make sure students can see a bit of what television looked like some decades ago.

One of my favorite programs to screen from the 1960s is an episode of Dragnet from 1968. In this episode Joe Friday and Bill Gannon stumble upon an epidemic: youngsters taking LSD. In the clip I screened in class, Joe and Bill go to an abandoned house only to find several youngsters tripping on acid. The representation of the hallucinating kids is a bit over the top. One guy holds a paintbrush and proceeds to put it in his mouth. A woman takes to climbing a wall, although her feet never leave the ground.

Dragnet - Big LSD - Wide Angle Interior

As a way to disorient the viewer when entering this mind-altering den, the cinematography establishes the room in an unconventional way, at least for the television medium. We see a very wide-angle shot with several planes of action. The most string element is the placement of the colored lightbulbs throughout the room. There is even one in the front and center of the frame. The framing does not last very long. The subsequent shots are of the officers’ bewildered expressions and then of the kids tripping. It’s not the most innovative message: kids taking drugs is bad. It does however take advantage of the visual form to make the audience trip a little without resorting to unnecessary effects.

It’s hard to say anything new about Miami Vice that hasn’t been said, especially concerning its form. But I wanted to share a very different shot than the Dragnet example. While the shot of the kids tripping on LSD is a wide shot, this is the opposite: a telephoto lens that collapses the planes into one flattened image.

Miami Vice - Brothers Keeper - Telephoto Exterior

In this shot, we see Crocket call his estranged wife before heading out on a potentially fatal mission to take down a Miami drug lord. As he and Tubbs speed to their mission, Crocket stops the car and pulls it over at a phone booth. (Yes, this is slightly before “car phones”.) The shot shows this neon sign, which we see earlier in the episode, the phone booth, and the marina. Because of the telephoto lens, it makes Crocket seem very distant. Moreover, it is also disorienting because of the unconventional use of the flattened space. Subsequent shots show close-ups of Crocket and of his wife and reestablishes the conventional focal length to revert the television style back to “normal.” Normal focal length…normal television style…normal action-packed episode.

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