When Bad Timing Happens to Good Work: The Soap Opera Structure in Burton’s DARK SHADOWS

27 May 2012

ABC’s daytime-drama Dark Shadows aired weekdays from 1966-1971.  Although the soap opera began without any vampires, ghosts, werewolves, or witches, Dark Shadows evolved into a gothic drama beguiled by the supernatural, most memorably its back-from-the-dead vampire, Barnabas Collins.  The soap also cast its magical spell on viewers, garnering just as big a fan base after its cancellation as it had during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Three of Dark Shadows fans happen to be Tim Burton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Johnny Depp, and those three recently collaborated to pay homage to the daytime-drama of yesteryear on the silver screen.  The Tim Burton directed Dark Shadows, which stars Depp and Pfeiffer, pays close attention to the infamous soap opera in both its content and its composition; however, even with all the attention to detail, Burton’s Dark Shadows could not cast its own spell on viewers the way its namesake did.

To begin, Burton’s Dark Shadows condenses some subplots of the soap’s five-year run into, roughly, two hours.  The film opens with Barnabas Collins’ (Johnny Depp) childhood in Liverpool, England.  As a privileged boy in the late 18th century, Collins moves to America with his parents to build a fishing empire in Maine.  A young witch, named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), falls in love with Barnabas, but he falls in love with a woman named Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott).  Unable to bear his family’s success or see Barnabas with another woman, Angelique kills Barnabas’ parents and Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and locks him away to suffer all his losses eternally.  Accidentally, in the 1970s, Barnabas’ coffin is exhumed and he is freed.  Barnabas returns to the Collins mansion and attempts to re-acclimate with his extended family and the (now psychedelic) world, nearly 200 years since he left it.  Of course, Angelique, learning of Barnabas’ return, serves as antagonist, working against all Barnabas’ ventures, leading to a final showdown between vampire and witch.

Because Dark Shadows, the film, is a loose remake of the daytime soap opera, Burton uses many elements of the soap opera structure in his filmmaking.  These elements echo the daytime-drama of yesteryear, allowing Burton’s film to emulate the original Dark Shadows in both content and construct.  For example, one classic element of soap opera structure is the pregnant pause; a shot, typically of a character, and even more typically a close-up, that holds and extra beat and is heightened by either dramatic musical accompaniment or (more contemporarily) complete silence, which signals a dramatic moment and/or realization.  These pauses are generally used right before the scene is cut, or right before the action in the scene drastically changes.  Often, in daytime television, this pause is used right before a commercial break, or before the program cuts to a new character and setting.  Burton picked up the pregnant pause for Dark Shadows, frequently holding an extra beat on his actors’ close-ups before breaking his scenes.

Another quintessential part of soap opera structure is blocking.  Typical soap operas film with a few cameras all at once, and then, in editing, the episode is arranged using shots from each camera that best communicate that action.  Because cameras used to film a daytime-drama are often stationary—with some basic tracking, tilting and panning—the blocking must work around the cameras’ mobility, instead of the cameras working around the blocking.  To accommodate this style, Burton, like soap opera directors, often layers his actors in the set; therefore, the actors will appear staggered spatially, yet all within one frame, allowing the camera to capture separate action through focus without the camera itself moving.  For example, when Barnabas Collins first returns home, he enters the main room of the family mansion.  After some interaction with the Collins children, Elizabeth appears, descending the grand staircase—this begins a pattern of Elizabeth appearing on those stairs.  Barnabas stands in the middle of the room, and the two talk with a great deal of physical distance between them.  With this blocking, Burton can easily put both Pfeiffer and Depp in the same shot, yet maintains a complicated, symbolic, and dramatic spatial arrangement, all helping him convey the initial tension surrounding Barnabas’ return to Collinsport.

One of the other major elements of a soap opera is an open-ended narrative.  Daytime-dramas typically run five days a week all year long.  Unlike the primetime drama, sitcom, or cable series, soap operas do not have seasons, and do not have the option of showing a re-run; every episode is new.  Thus, the storylines and conflicts in the narrative cannot be resolved in one episode.  The plot must be open-ended, giving the writers room to create new material for the demanding and unyielding schedule.  While Burton’s Dark Shadows in not a soap opera, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith did adapt material from five years of the daytime-drama’s open-ended narrative to film.  In doing so, he rather consciously echoed the original Dark Shadow’s unrestricted narrative.  Metaphorically speaking, if the narrative of Burton’s Dark Shadows was a road, Grahame-Smith points out several back alleys and unbeaten paths stemming from that road which could be explored.  For example, Barnabas is seen as an only child, so how does the family lineage continue when Angelique kills his parents and turns him into a vampire?  Also, who is Carolyn’s father, and where is he?  Most of these back alleys and unbeaten paths are never explained, but clearly Grahame-Smith, playing off the writers of the original Dark Shadows, includes a great deal of ambiguity, imprecision, and aloofness so the narrative could expand and veer in countless directions.

Yet, with all the attention paid to the original Dark Shadows, in content and construct, the film is not connecting with audiences, and there is a rather simple reason as to why.  Burton did a thorough and effective job translating a soap opera from small screen to big, but, in today’s society, we no longer have a place for soap operas.  In 2012, society is eradicating soap operas; last year, two of the longest running soap operas in America, All My Children and One Life to Live, were cancelled, leaving only four daytime-drama still standing.  Our entertainment desires have shifted and audiences are no longer satisfied with open-narrative melodramas; we want “reality” television, which is drama, not melodrama.

Take, for example, the pregnant pause.  We are no longer a culture that wants the extra beat, or the silent delay; we want action and we want it to move fast.  Our mantra has changed: don’t pause, if anything hit fast-forward.  And, we don’t want clever blocking for action that revolves around a camera’s placement; the camera should revolve around the action.  Moreover, open-ended narratives are much less climactic.  In an open-ended narrative, a heightened climax is suppressed so the narrative can continue on.  However, in film, the credits generally role after the climax and the narrative is over.  Thus, cinemagoers want a bigger climax; if the narrative ends, we want a big finish.  These expectations of the contemporary audience were not met in Burton’s Dark Shadows, and, as a result, the film flopped.

What this all comes down to is a matter of timing.  Once again, Burton and his team did good work with Dark Shadows, but it didn’t meet the needs of today’s audiences.  This year, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to The Artist, a silent film.  If The Artist was made in 1935 (a year picked at random from the 30s) it would never have won that Oscar.  In fact, the film would have likely flopped.  In 1935 audiences were tired of silent films; their desires shifted and had new expectations for their entertainment.  Nearly 80 years later audiences, world-wide, love The Artist.  That said, even well-made films have to be timed correctly.  Had Burton made Dark Shadows 20 or 30 years ago, when soap operas were in their heyday, the film might have been a huge success.  Maybe 20 or 30 years from now the film would be a hit.  However, in 2012, we are eliminating soap operas, and do not want anything that resembles one, even if it stars Johnny Depp.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 27/05/2012.

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