One Small Scene: “When this world began…”
[Spoilers from Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 will follow]
After excusing herself to go on stage and sing for the crowd, Dr Valentin Narcisse buttons on his shirt, adjusts his moustache, and settles himself in front of a backstage mirror to listen to Daughter Maitland sing. The cresting voice rises, and as his eyes close and the tune begins its first stanza, the camera pans closer to his head while the clarity of her song overrides the scene. Having shared their history with the audience, receiving a report for the affair he has planned all along, the gangster giving commands is without his suit and any company, his world and the audience’s consumed by the song and his newfound serenity.
The swell of the music as Narcisse closes his eyes creates the best use of diagetic audio in the entire series, and one of the better musical moments in HBO cinema. Margot Bingham’s voice is not only beautiful, and the entire song played without being dropped entirely without interlude; we are at precisely experiencing two warring mediums with opposite messages. The subdued, dialogue laden Boardwalk characters speaking of the horrors of the past and confessing their cruelty, and the beautiful star drawing the attention of an audience blind to their story. Daughter Maitland is the spiritual successor of the previous season’s Billie Kent, an actress just beginning to shine who dies before her time. But as we see more on-screen focus listening to her talent as a singer, the source of the soundtrack will also be used as an effective emotional weight tugging at the heartstrings of Season 4’s tragedy, and the conflicting triangle of Daughter, Narcisse, and Chalky White.
The brilliance of this, in taking the recently revealed villain with his cruel intellectualism and hypocritical racism and use of slavery is exposing his heart. Twisted though he is, and more vile he seems the more subtly one observes his mannerisms re-watching the show; importantly he is as struck with her voice as both the characters, and I certainly was myself as an audience member. This song initially arrives only in the third episode, and the power of Bingham’s singing just starting to shine. Narcisse is human, enjoying a sophisticated sensation that gives his character initial class. Indeed, the experience alone is rather universal and touching, love of music and hearing it made by one close to us.
The man is not moved -in this moment- by prostitutes he preys upon, or heroin he peddles to the community he affects to uplift. Not by money, alcohol, or murder. But by music. His rapturous appearance, much like the buttoned shirt, and the casually smoothed moustache typify the conflict of his character and the ‘gangster archetype’ (of which he was a fascinating new interpretation). The criminal overlord of the 1920s and 30s is a bootlegger, a powerful person with access to money purchasing them power and the ability to dress. Regardless of personal feelings about it, history and Hollywood have seen to it that the Capone attire, the Jazz Age, the speakeasy are burned in the mind as notable aesthetics contained within our history. They present the allure of culture and power. And, as with most individuals of power there is also a question there: what does one think beyond appearance? Is the gangster a sophisticated gentleman? If not, how does the extortion, the violence and racketeering reflect their character? It took a degree of mastery to perform. I would guess scenes like this, and this role was the start of Jeffrey Wright’s surge in popularity. While I was disappointed that they avoided casting him in a Felix Leiter American Bond series, by now many know Wright’s name from his role as Bernard in Westworld, and many others as his prestige has grown. From a birds-eye view this speaks more to the actor’s versatility, and also the nature of people and what is suave, class, or detailed cinematically.
Narcisse is nothing like any of Wright’s roles, much as this particular villain is nothing like any other in Boardwalk Empire. Because his villainy is of a personal nature, and this is by design. Boardwalk Empire does not concern itself with reductive or mob-based factionalism pertaining to Irish, Italian, Jewish, African American groups despite it being easier and timely to do so. Heritage and culture inspires the speech and associations of the characters. But by design for every one of a given group that is villainous, another is heroic. For every act of serene threat, murder, or callousness; Narcisse makes perfectly valid points and even instils a sense of empathy or pity when scorning the abuses of the J. Edgar Hoover’s of the world, forced to call the Director ‘sir’ in an obviously demeaning way that has little to do with justice or necessity, but affirming the ego of an enforcer and peddler of a different denomination.
Art and beauty are grandiose, powerful concepts. Part of their majesty is that we can all be moved by them, aspire to embody, craft, and create them within our corporeal existence. And yet they are also affected, better yet, unaffected by perception or morality. Many criminals can, have, and do either manipulate the art world to hide their personality, enjoy it as a reflection of power and wealth rather than a higher or beneficial thing of itself, or enjoy it personally despite being far from a work of art personally. Narcisse is a disgrace to his fellow men, his people and his cause. Precisely because he is a liar, a slaver. It’s good to see the home of the NAACP and hear his stern admonishment about heroin being brought there…but such things start at his feet. This same corruption applies to Daughter. She is a trophy, a prostitute, a tool to him. She sings as a captive bound in the most horrid confinement, verbal abuse and manipulation since childhood cultivating a half-love of the most unhealthy nature.
And yet, with all this unsaid and postulated upon; there is no denying the rising of the music. The applause of the younger, eager, talented singer above. And the man below. A well-dressed, domineering man. But no talent himself.
Seamlessly, with no indication until the end it appears that this scene was a call-back. The seventh episode ties in to the third, shows the fickle nature of the emerging affair with Chalky. The lyrics take on an unpleasant and entirely unromantic tone, centred upon the love of a father figure and not a lover. The moment also feeds into a soft monologue spoken earlier, as Daughter speaks of the jar of lye and her rescue. The woe, the story all conveyed to the ear are something that we put together in shows, we do it in all mysteries, TV, in all the fictional and real stories of our lives. One wonders at the earlier song having heard the first verse now. They wonder about the revelation, the visual echo of the lover’s chest exposed, and the dawning realisation that Narcisse’s burned chest came from murder of Daughter’s mother. That he both did, and didn’t save her at all and the inevitable question we ask ourself about what love is. What it is, what it isn’t to these people. Maybe what it is and isn’t to us, in those touching, those awful relationships; possibly those with a touch of both if we have the blues in our own lives.
The scene is a means to reveal the extent of Narcesses self-righteousness, deviousness, and a twist for the end of an episode. A minor cliffhanger. But it is also one of the experimental scenes of a season that definitely wanted to experiment with music in particular in 2013. It aimed to see how much it could say with no dialogue, paint a picture purely with gesture.
Our ears register the serenity, our eyes the repose. But our reason heeds that the tune is a performance of a dual nature, the man is not the picture in the mirror, and the pair are unseen and artful in a dozen ways clear and subtle.
One small scene, perhaps a minute or two at most.
HBO, Boardwalk Empire. Episode 3, ‘Acres of Diamonds’ 2013.
HBO, Boardwalk Empire. Episode 8, ‘The Old Ship of Zion’ 2013.