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Saving "Snakes & Ladders"
..or: How to Kill a TV Series in One Easy Lesson


There's a lot to recommend about Snakes and Ladders -- CBC TV's new serio-comic political drama.

A series about the goings on in Ottawa, it's a series for Canadian West Wing fans who can never quite figure out what's going on in the West Wing because it's a foreign political system. Watching the back room dealing and back stabbing of Snakes and Ladders, a Canadian can snap his/her fingers and say, "Hey -- I know that!"

Star Amy Price-Francis definitely has "it" -- presence, talent, beauty and versatility (contrast her performance here with some of her other roles). Oh, sure, the makers of the series make it sound as if they discovered her in a bread line somewhere, not acknowledging that she already has three TV series under her belt, two as one of the principals. That's just the insular view of Canadian filmmakers: no one likes to acknowledge there might be other productions out there. And the rest of the cast seems good: reliable Catherine Disher; Marcel Jeannin who was the funniest thing about the ill-fated Blackfly, here playing it straight, etc.

The series is created by Wayne Grigsby, one of those perpetual fixtures of Canadian television with a long string of successful-if-unremarkable productions. But here, he rises a little bit more to the challenge. What's more, the characters, at least in this first episode, aren't unlikeable. Sure, the script got away from itself occasionally (the heroine breaking down periodically, sobbing, seemed a bit unbelievable given that things didn't actually seem to have got that bad), but overall, it was decent entertainment.

But, as every artist knows, executives love to mess with things, they love to demand changes just so they can feel they're part of the creative effort. And that's where the Snakes & Ladders people got cunning. How do you keep the executives from messing with your formula? How do you keep them from swooping in and demanding you fire your star and replace her with, I dunno, one of the Dale sisters? (No offence to Jennifer and Cynthia -- I'm just making a point) How do you kkeep them from demanding changes in the script, or a refocus of priorities?

You do something that's so obviously inept, so completely, idiotically incompetent that the executives will focus on that, and demand that you change that...when you never intended to keep it in the first place. It's like negotiating a price where you ask more than you want, so the other person can feel "victorious" when they wrestle you down to the amount you wanted all along.

You see, despite a good cast, a decent script, and a great milieu, Snakes & Ladders was almost painful to watch.

A few years ago, in Hollywood, filmmakers went all hot for a hand held camera look -- to make it seem more real by making it seem more like a documentary. Series like NYPD Blue started out appropriating a jittery, "find the subject" style of camera work (where instead of centring on your actor, you begin a shot slightly to his left or right, then swing in on him). It's supposed to make the scene seem more spontaneous, as if the cameraman didn't know where the actor was going to be. It was annoying, it was ineffective, it was silly, and the Americans quickly stopped doing it because they realized all of that.

Not to be dissuaded from taking an ill-conceived idea and making it really, really stupid, Snakes & Ladders director Sturla Gunnarsson has gone a few steps further. For one thing, he and his people have, apparently, hooked their cameras up to rubber bands, precisely so the images can bounce and shimmy like crazy. No, I'm not kidding -- that's what I read on the series' website! This is where the "find the subject" concept becomes totally silly. The reason documentaries sometimes employ a find-the-subject style is because, duh, the cameraman is trying to find the subject! He (or she) is in the middle of a war zone or something, dodging rockets, while also trying to focus on a particular image. If Gunnarsson wants to film a fictional action scene using a find-the-subject technique, fine. But why do you need to "find the subject" when you have people sitting demurely at a table? No one's making any sudden moves, there are no unexpected elements intruding into the scene. If this really was a documentary...all the footage would be scraped and the cameraman fired, replaced by someone who wasn't suffering from the advanced stages of a neuromotor disease (which is what it looks like).

Add to that the peculiar, albeit more trendy, technique of doing jump cuts (that is, cutting from one shot of a character to another, almost identical shot) and freeze frames within a scene (I wasn't sure if that was on purpose or whether my TV was malfunctioning) and you have a show that was, literally, inducing nausea.

I was tempted to watch the show with my eyes closed -- as a television program, Snakes & Ladders would make a great radio play.

Except for that blaring soundtrack, of course.

A problem with many modern series is a strangely mis-mixed soundtrack, where dialogue is drowned out by street sounds or by jarring music. More and more people I've talked to have admitted to me that, even with their favourite programs, they find themselves missing a lot of the dialogue. To be fair, during the office scenes of Snakes & Ladders, the focus was kept on the dialogue, but in other scenes (in the halls, at the party) you were straining to hear what was being said. Plus, the music -- an eclectic mix of rap and, uh, well, mainly rap -- seemed to be played at ten times the volume of the dialogue, so that if the sound was up loud enough to hear the dialogue, your ears would be battered when the scene cut to the blaring music.

This isn't new, of course, the CBC's ill-fated private eye series, Tom Stone, was killed, at least in part, by an incompetent sound mix that meant you literally couldn't make out the dialogue.

But I realize, that's the point! After all, I can't believe people were sitting in the editing room, cutting the images together, mixing the sound, and totally unaware of what a mess it all was. But that's just so they can throw the executives a bone. When the angry call comes from upstairs, Wayne Grigsby can dutifully respond by offering a sacrificial goat by having Sturla Gunnarsson marched out behind the set and beheaded (for poetic irony, the execution can be filmed using one of his own bouncy-bouncy cameras with a rap song playing in the background) and then they can get on with the business of making what might be a promising TV series without the nausea inducing camerawork and the headache causing soundtrack.

How clever of them.

Granted there are an increasing number of directors in the film business who think movie making is all about them, about indulging themselves, about having fun with a camera. It's not, though. Movie making is, first and foremost, about storytelling. And anything you do with a camera and direction -- split screen, bouncy camera, jump cuts -- should serve the story, should bring out the elements of a scene. Anything that doesn't serve the story is intrusive and destructive. The two most important things in a film or TV production are simply the script and the actors. That's what it's all about. Anything that interferes with that is a bad thing. Period.

I know there are some people who want to make a production "difficult". They consider it a badge of honour if people walk out of their movie, or turn off their show. But people who believe that are hacks -- elitist hacks, but hacks nonetheless. Storytelling is about communication. If you are unable to communicate your ideas because of nausea inducing camera work, then you've failed at the most basic level of filmmaking.

Officially, the justification for the jittery camera work and the blaring soundtrack is to reflect the chaos and frenzy of the story. Of course, since the story wasn't that chaotic or frenzied, it seems more like an attempt to obscure the fact that they hadn't quite achieved what they were aiming for. But the point is, the CBC's other new series, This is Wonderland, is almost an identical concept -- a comedy-drama about a beautiful, guileless heroine plunged into the madness and chaos of a professional world she barely understands. It, too, wants to create a sense of chaos and frenzy...and it succeeds. More to the point, it succeeds better than Snakes & Ladders, and without jittery cameras and a blaring score.

Maybe once they've chopped off Sturla Gunnarsson's head, the Snakes & Ladders people should talk to the This is Wonderland people.

Come on, folks! I can't say Snakes & Ladders is a sure fire winner, but it's promising...so, please, don't blow it.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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