When it comes to television, for the most part we tend to still think of it as a writer’s medium. Whereas in cinema, we often assign authorship of a movie to the director—thus the widely circulated “auteur” theory—in television such authorship tends to go to a creator, who is often a series’ head writer and maybe even executive producer. Even then, though, individual episodes of a series tend to be discussed in terms of its writing and acting: plot, characterization, dialogue, and so on. Visual qualities—cinematography, editing, art direction, etc.—aren’t discussed as much, and in many cases perhaps for a good reason: Within a series’ broader world, it can be difficult for a director to bring his/her personality as much as a writer can do in a given episode, mostly because of the demands to stick to a certain style, keep a serial storyline moving along, and such relatively mundane concerns.
But maybe the tide is turning toward an era of director-driven television, especially with the advent of online streaming. Earlier this year, there was Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, in which executive producer Steven Soderbergh handed two indie filmmakers, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, the reins to come up with whatever they wanted, based on the concept behind Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name. Not only did they collaborate on writing all 13 episodes, but Kerrigan and Seimetz alternated directing duties (Kerrigan directed seven episodes, Seimetz six)—and while the deliberately cold and sterile visual aesthetic remained consistent, each episode they directed was distinct, with Seimetz’s episodes exuding a bit more emotional warmth than Kerrigan’s.
One of the most brilliant recent examples, though, of a director cutting through a series’ “aesthetic by association” came in the first season of the Amazon comedy-drama Mozart in the Jungle—specifically, its seventh episode, titled “You Go to My Head.” Granted, this particular installment is unusual in the series’ 20 extant episode in that writers Adam Brooks and Kate Gersten restrict all the action to one setting: a fundraising gala at a fancy estate. But even that relatively claustrophobic set-up doesn’t account for the luminous spell this episode achieves, thanks in large part to the inventive approach its director, Roman Coppola—one of the series’ creators, in the first episode of three he has directed for the show so far—takes in filming the events that occur.
The chief stylistic innovation Coppola adopts in “You Go to My Head” lies in its use of long takes. In all, there are a mere 13 shots in this episode, the first 10 of them lasting for well over two minutes. Within these extended takes, Ben Kutchins’s camera either stays situated on two characters; swirls around a single character; or roams around the party, picking up one conversation before drifting to another, just as a party guest wandering around by oneself might do. Coppola, however, isn’t simply showing off his directorial muscles here. In fact, he’s taking his cue from a dialogue exchange within its first shot between young firebrand New York Symphony music director Rodrigo de Souza (Gael García Bernal) and his assistant, and aspiring orchestral oboist, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), in which De Souza encourages Hailey to “explore” and “search for inspiration” at this party. Though the camera by no means adopts only Hailey’s perspective, in its own omniscient way, it’s doing something similar with this setting: exploring the nooks and crannies of this social event, trying to find pockets of inspiration amid the mass of humanity.
Though celebration is the general tenor of the evening, not everything the camera finds in “You Go to My Head” is joyous in nature. A confrontation of sorts between Rodrigo and Edward Biben (Brennan Brown)—in which the latter, a rich financial backer of the New York Symphony who doesn’t care for Rodrigo, challenges him to give an impromptu violin performance for a large sum of donation money—is fraught with tension underneath the barely held-together surface conviviality. There’s no hiding the hostility, however, in two smaller-scale but similar caught-on-the-wing moments between New York Symphony cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) and the seethingly jealous Claire (Margaret Ladd), the latter the wife of the orchestra’s former music director, Thomas Pembridge, with whom Cynthia was having an affair. But then, of course, life itself is always a rollercoaster of emotions, with quicksilver turns from soaring bliss, to the depths of despair always a possibility waiting in the wings. Long takes of the kind that Coppola uses in this episode are perhaps the visual medium’s most potent technical weapon in capturing that universal truth in the most organic way possible (just ask Alfonso Cuarón, whose opening 15-minute long take of his 2013 sci-fi thriller Gravity similarly packed a wide range of emotion in one exactingly choreographed shot).
And what moments of elation Coppola captures! Hailey begins talking with one particular party guest, Marlon Guggenheim (John Hodgman), who catches her eye—a move that leads into one of those all-night conversations between two people connecting on a deep level. Her friend/roommate Lizzie (Hannah Dunne) runs into a former high-school classmate whom she initially rejects, until a long-delayed confession of love from him coaxes her out of her shell. And then there’s Rodrigo’s search for the young girl dressed in angelic white, whose flute playing so enchants him at the beginning of the episode; when he finally discovers her alone, he can barely contain his enthusiasm in asking her about her training and trying to encourage her to hone her musical gifts.
All of these moments take place at night—a time full of limitless possibility, of the potential of inhibitions being cast aside in order to allow for people and/or personalities to flower forth. “You Go to My Head” is one of those rare works of art that understands the nighttime’s tantalizing, forbidding, intoxicating allure. It’s a mindset that Coppola understands well. His two feature films, CQ (2001) and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2015), are similarly freewheeling exercises in inhabiting the heads of dreamers: an aspiring documentary filmmaker in the former, a disaffected, womanizing graphic designer in the latter looking for an authentic romantic connection for once. As relatively restrained as this Mozart in the Jungle episode is compared to the flights of fantastical fancy in those two films, that romanticism is nevertheless still vividly apparent. In this context, even such strange details as waiters wearing bunny ears and a white horse inexplicably situated in a living room comes off more powerfully, an example of the lightly surreal texture of the scene.
Alas, all parties must end eventually, and though the party of “You Go to My Head” stretches until morning, that lingering feeling of being pleasurably trapped in a dream suddenly comes crashing down to earth in the form of Rodrigo’s face crashing onto the ground after a failed attempt to kick a soccer ball. As Hailey accompanies a nose-bandaged Rodrigo to a hospital in the back of an ambulance, Coppola formally reflects this snapping back into reality with a more conventional shot/reverse-shot pattern making up its last three shots. But the smile on Rodrigo’s face that closes out the episode ensures that the memories of this magical evening will remain, refusing to be boxed in by either bodily injury or a director’s conventional storytelling technique. The triumph is not just Rodrigo’s, but also Coppola’s, in an episode that gorgeously demonstrates what a director with a real personal vision can do behind-the-scenes, even in the context of a series’ “house” style.