Title: War and Peace
Written by: Robin Green and Henry Bromell
Directed by: Bill D’Elia
Aired: May 13, 1991
Log line: Passages from War and Peace are woven into the lives of Cicely’s residents and visitors, who experience Tolstoyesque nightmares and Dostoyevskian passions.
Listen to our discussion of the episode on the podcast here.
Seeing Lightfeather through Ed’s eyes
When Ed meets Lightfeather, we witness the meeting from his subjective point of view, something we seldom see on Northern Exposure. We (via Ed) see the event in slow-motion, which includes Lightfeather’s wind-swept hair and her smile, and we hear the song “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” (from the 1955 film of the same name). It is as though Ed unexpectedly finds himself starring in a romantic movie. (Based on her other scenes, we doubt that the smile we see from Lightfeather is real; more likely, it’s the smile Ed wishes she had given him.)
Later, when Ed meets Lightfeather in the barn, the scene opens with a 29 second shot that tracks his movement from entering the barn to his discovery of Lightfeather milking the cow. The light pouring in beside Lightfeather bathes the scene with an otherworldly glow, as it does when they’re reclining in the hay in their post-coital moment. Again, this light may also be largely generated by Ed’s perception of the moment rather than the actual reality of it. (It may even have even been suggested subconsciously somewhat based on her name, Lightfeather.)
Using a stop watch to test a theory
We decided to test the theory that the shots involving Ed are longer than those with other characters. This led us to the concept of Average Shot Length, which first came to the attention of most film scholars through Barry Salt’s 1974 article “Statistical Style Analysis of Motion Pictures.” The method we used to measure Average Shot Length (ASL) was the simple one described by film scholar David Bordwell: “To measure ASL, I simply record the length of the film (in meters, feet, or seconds) and count the number of shots. I then divide the latter into the former.” In other words, the higher the ASL number, the longer the shots in a film last. (If we had a newer computer, we would have liked to try out the freely-available Cinemetrics tool, which allows you to easily calculate the median shot length and standard deviation.)
Overall, the entire episode (2,782 seconds long) had 479 shots for an ASL of 5.8. To give this number some context, here is a quote from Bordwell’s 2002 article “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film“: “Before the 1960s, many filmed TV programs had ASLs of ten seconds or more, but in the decades since then I can find no ASLs averaging more than 7.5 seconds. Most programs fall in the five-seven second ASL range, and a few (1960s ‘Dragnet’ episodes, ‘Moonlighting’) run between three and five seconds” (p. 22). So, this episode of Northern Exposure is in the middle of the 5-7 second ASL range Bordwell noticed.
Overall, the scenes involving Ed didn’t have an ASL that was particularly high compared to the overall episode. The Ed-centric scenes had an ASL of 6.3, which is slightly larger than the episode’s 5.8. That said, Ed is featured in the scene with the highest ASL for the episode: the post-coital sequence in the barn where he compares sex to itching his leg and going to Uncle Anku’s sauna, while Lightfeather recites the letter. This scene has an ASL of 36.5 and features a shot that lasts 71 seconds.
Two trends worth noting are the average length of opening shots, as well as the difference in ASL between the opening scene and the final scene. We noticed that most scenes began with a fairly complicated camera movement before moving into shorter, easier-to-film shots. The opening shots for the 20 scenes in this episode had an ASL of 20.2, which is much higher than we’d expected. Because this isolated number isn’t particularly useful on its own, we wanted to compare this to those for other shows that were popular at the time (Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Murder, She Wrote, etc.), but we didn’t have the time to do so. Likely setting up these more cinematic opening shots had to do with the crew’s ability to spend time orchestrating one complex shot per scene before falling into blocking that was easier to shoot. After all, they were filming on a tight-deadlined weekly television series, not a movie. Then again, these longer shots don’t always appear at the start of a scene and they do often tend to happen in scenes involving Ed. (Interestingly, Ed’s hero Woody Allen has the highest ASL among modern Hollywood film directors.)
The opening scene (Holling’s nightmare) has an ASL of 1.1. (The first part of his nightmare actually has an ASL of 0.9, meaning there was more than one shot a second in this brief segment.) The frenetic editing of this scene is contrasted with the final scene in the Brick, which has an ASL of 14.9. The episode clearly begins much more calmly than it began, tonally and editing-wise. In fact, the last two shots (both with nice camera movements) have an ASL of 25, among the highest of the entire episode. As mentioned on the podcast, we thought the scene with the deer was reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows, which ends with a deer appearing in front of a massive window where a couple is reuniting. The stock-footage-filled opening sequence reminds us of Koyaanisqatsi (1982), which features striking images of nature and cities, as well as time-lapse photography. (There are no raccoons in shower caps, though.)
Dissolving into Russia
Speaking of editing, this episode has a surprising number of dissolves. Yale Film Studies’ Film Analysis website offers a good definition of a dissolve: “A transition between two shots during which the first image gradually disappears while the second image gradually appears; for a moment the two images blend in superimposition.”
We believe the dissolves appear in this episode because they are one of the editing techniques used in montages, with Russian filmmakers such as Eistenstein (whose Battleship Potemkin is mentioned in the episode) being pioneers of the montage.
We noted the following four dissolves, all of them related to Russian-themed scenes:
Bored chess spectator Joel dissolves to Ruth-Anne at the large chess board:
Bored crossword-puzzle-doing Joel dissolves to a concentrated, chess-playing Nikolai:
The cow looming over Ed and Lightfeather in the barn dissolves to a discussion of the “Russian soul” in the Brick:
Ed and Chris watching Dr. Zhivago dissolve to the snow-covered site of the duel:
Themes / Recurrences: Power/lack of power of words; dreams; moon; nature/destruction; breaking of bonds; rules; war
The Good: We very much enjoyed Nikolai’s singing. Elya Baskin does a masterful job of singing everything from a Russian song, to a cowboy tune, to an Irving Berlin jazz standard, and he does it all while being utterly charming.
The Bad: The character of Lightfeather was a little broad and cartoony. We would have liked someone with more charisma for Ed’s first love, but perhaps that was the whole point.
The Notable: In this episode, we learn that Ruth-Anne has been married twice. The episode is also a superb (and surprising) example of breaking the fourth wall in television.
The Linkable: In the podcast, we read an excerpt from Darren Burrows’ new book, Northern Exposed. You can purchase the book & DVD here. We also read an excerpt from Jimmie Cain‘s article “War Comes to Cicely”, which was published in the journal Critical Studies in Television (2006, 1.2, 52-63). Unfortunately, it’s not freely available online, but you may be able to get it (for free) as an interlibrary loan through your local public library.
On’s Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Shane’s Rating: 8 out of 10