The Knick is an extraordinary and ground-breaking series in many ways. First and foremost, it’s the first real example of the kind of serial auteurism that has functioned as something of an aesthetic horizon for the recent Golden Age of television. While series creators and showrunners have certainly developed their own brand of auteurism – David Chase and Vince Gilligan have become as legendary as any director – it’s taken a surprisingly long time for an established, canonical director to turn their hand to an entire television series. Certainly, there have been movements in that direction, with Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and David Fincher lending their talents to Boardwalk Empire, Luck and House of Cards respectively. Similarly, there have been directors who have lent their talents to miniseries, or shortform series, such as Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and Lisa Cholodenko’s Olive Kitteridge. At the same time, there have been established directors who have had something of a journeyman presence within contemporary television, such as Agnieszka Holland, who has directed multiple episodes for The Wire, Treme, The Killing and House of Cards, as well as helming her own three-part miniseries for HBO with Burning Bush. And yet while big-name directors have certainly included television amongst their portfolio, The Knick is the first recent series in which an established cinematic director has chosen longform television as their preferred medium, rather than a side project.
In part, that commitment is due to Soderbergh’s increasing disillusion with cinema, as elaborated in his epic State of Cinema address at the 56th San Francisco Film Festival in 2013. Since then, Soderbergh has stated that his rough trilogy of films that came out around the same time – Side Effects, Haywire and Magic Mike – would be his last and that he would henceforth pursue some other outlet for his cinematic and cinematographic passion. For another director, that might seem cantankerous or sensationalist, but Soderbergh’s position has been more than borne out by his subsequent career choices. Following the release of Haywire, he made an immediate transition into telemovies, and while Behind the Candelabra may have also screened at Cannes and received a limited theatrical release, that very transitional status seemed to make it clear that Soderbergh was consciously turning to television as a way of exploring his cinematic style and sensibility in ways that were no longer available even in independent cinema. In other words, Soderbergh hasn’t left cinema behind, but turned to television as the next logical evolution of cinema, distancing himself more from cinema as an institution or as an affiliation than cinema as a sensibility. That distinction was particularly clear in his contribution to Magic Mike XXL, which may have been nominally directed by Gregory Jacobs – in only his third directorial venture – but was driven by Sodebergh’s editing and cinematography, and was very much his film. Given that Soderbergh’s auteurist vision often subsists on precisely this unique brand of editing and cinematography, it was quite an extraordinary gesture for him to relinquish any kind of directorial agency in this case, especially given that the film was so continuous in style with the world he elaborated in Magic Mike. Released as he was busy filming the second season of The Knick, it made it clear that whatever claims to auteurism he was continuing to uphold would be decisively severed from the cinematic market forces that had led to the production of a second Magic Mike film in the first place. From now on, it seemed, Soderbergh would be dealing in serials, rather than sequels.
Even with all that background, I was still a little bit hesitant and sceptical when it came to approaching the first season of The Knick. In many ways, the idea of Soderbergh directing what in effect would turn out to be a ten-hour movie seemed almost too good to be true. Add to that the fact the reviews had tended to be somewhat lukewarm – at least relative to the size and scope of the project – and I wondered whether this might turn out to be a kind of companion piece to Boardwalk Empire, another period series helmed by an auteurist director and a project that – I felt – totally misunderstood the best way to bring that director’s vision to the small screen without making it feel bombastic or caricatured in the process. My trepidation was all the more intense in that I thought that Soderbergh’s last sequence of films, from The Girlfriend Experience onwards had been amongst his most beautiful and accomplished, detailing a new and mercurial iteration of his digital style that was by no means exhausted by the time he made the move to television with Behind the Candelabra. Finally, I thought that Soderbergh had already made a completely unique television series with 2003’s K Street, and while it seemed possible that The Knick might consummate his late digital style in the same way K Street consummated the earlier digital innovations of Traffic, I couldn’t help but feel as if that was also something of a one-off at the same time. Not dissimilar to my feelings when the third season of Twin Peaks was announced, I felt a looming sense of anticipation that was as apprehensive as it was exciting, and desperately hoped that this series would live up to all its various promises.
It was incredible then, to discover – almost from the first scene – that The Knick was not only stronger than K Street and a worthy apotheosis of the latest stage in Soderbergh’s career, but that it is possibly the very finest thing he has ever directed. Admittedly, the script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler isn’t as nuanced or as sophisticated – in some ways – as the scripts of Soderbergh’s most recent string of films, but in some way that frees up Soderbergh’s camera to tell a story of its own, as well as to supplement the story in increasingly innovative and breathtaking ways. Set in 1900 at New York’s famed Knickerbocker Hospital, it’s essentially a medical melodrama, revolving around Chief Surgeon John Thackery, played by Clive Owen, as well as a cast of other characters, most of whom play some administrative or philanthropic role in the operation of the hospital. As might be expected, a great deal of the drama turns on the relationships between these characters and the ways in which they reiterate or challenge the barriers of class, race and gender in what is supposed to be the democratic space of medical research, with three relationships, in particular, driving the series. Firstly, there is the professional relationship between Thackery and Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), his Assistant Chief Surgeon and the first African-American doctor to be admitted into a white hospital in the city, after Thackery grudgingly – very grudgingly – concedes that his talents “transcend” his racial background. Secondly, there is the romantic relationship between Algernon and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylace), the Knick’s Social Welfare Officer and the betrothed of a wealthy New York aristocrat. Thirdly, there is the pastoral or medical relationship between Thackery and Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), a young nurse who stumbles upon him in the midst of his morphine addiction and acts as something between a carer and a lover for him as his dependency worsens over the course of the season. While there are many other memorable characters – an earnest young doctor (Michael Angarano), the Knick’s opportunistic Ambulance Driver (Chris Sullivan) and a nun and midwife who assists with abortions (Cara Seymour) – it’s these three pairs that imbue the series with its peculiar flavour.
In part, that’s because it’s these three relationships that strike to the heart of the melodramatic kernel of the series. At the same time, however, it’s also because it’s these three relationships that tend to be most preoccupied, in their various ways, with medical procedure, which is finally the main focus and subject matter of the series. In some ways, it’s that medical focus that allows Soderbergh to develop his signature in what amounts to his first genuinely historical story, as well as what draws it into continuity with the sharp hyper-contemporaneity of his recent string of films. Throughout his career, Soderbergh’s perennial subject matter has been data, with his bewildering away of styles and registers all feeling like so many ways for him to embrace the informational excess of his cameras at the exact moment at which he happens to be encountering or using them. Cinematography in Soderbergh’s world is never a transparent recording function, or even a conscious expressive function, but rather a will to handle the camera in such a way that it discloses its non-conscious, non-expressive capacities as an information recording device, which is perhaps why Soderbergh’s cameras often feel somewhat autonomous in their scope and ambit, leading to him being labelled an anti-auteur in his apparent lack of conscious agency. Given how inextricable this datascape is from digital or proto-digital technologies – even the camcorders of Sex, Lies and Videotape had a digital flavour – the return to such a historical milieu might be expected to examine some earlier iteration of data in order to afford Soderbergh some scope to genuinely develop and expand upon his directorial vision and style.
At some level, of course, the sheer seriality of the series is a kind of development for Soderbergh, and one of the many distinctive things about The Knick is that it manages to elaborate an extraordinarily original aesthetic vision by way of a televisual form that has become increasingly unfashionable in an era of anthology television, boutique telemovies and variable-length miniseries – namely, an old-fashioned serial structure, planned around multiple seasons and season-length narrative arcs. For Soderbergh, this structure is the perfect way to gesture towards the informational insatiability – a will to know data that can only be felt – that has contoured his recent films, and there is something truly extraordinary in the way that The Knick takes the various tropes of his directorial and cinematographic style – washed-out, tungsten-style lighting, a camera that seems to breathe and judder in ways that put more conventionally “embodied” mobile cameras to shame, an exquisite taste for digital granularity – and simply expands and elaborates them, immersing us further and further in their unique vision until data becomes a kind of consummation of his directorial style and atmosphere.
And that informational insatiability is very much inscribed within the narrative itself, which is above all a narrative of addiction, and above all about information as the ultimate addictive object. That has become particularly clear in the opening scenes of the second season, which sets up the next serial arc in terms Thackery’s efforts to find a “cure” for addiction and to thereby deflect his addictive impulses into the medical research process itself. However, virtually every narrative event of note in the first season is also driven by Thackery and Algernon’s ceaseless medical experiments, as well as Cornelia’s corresponding social experiments, which revolve around the best way to bring medical discourse into philanthropic parlance as a democratic language available to all rather than an exclusive and insular sociolect set up merely for the sake of the upper crust of Old New York. Similarly, while Soderbergh’s style does ensure a remarkable fluidity between episodes, there is also something of a week-by-week vibe whereby we’re successively introduced to a series of medical conundra that may undoubtedly play a role in the grander narrative scheme of things but are also fascinatingly addictive spectacle on their own terms,.
However, there is a more pervasive and powerful way in which this particular period of medical history syncs up with our own present lifeworld, at least in the way in which Soderbergh describes it. For, if his films have any particular overarching thesis about data, it’s that data has always exceeded cognition and has always been an affect, best represented by way of the direct impact it has upon our bodies before it is processed, contained or organised by thought. At the heart of the cold warmth that has tended to swathe Soderbergh’s films in the wake of The Girlfriend Experience – or in the more remote wake of Traffic – is an effort to capture data as this kinaesthetic phenomenon that increasingly contours and cushions our bodies but is itself resolutely disembodied at the same time. To some extent, that has gravitated Soderbergh towards screenplays about situations in which the human body has become somewhat autonomous of conscious control, or in which consciousness itself has been forced to acknowledge its limitations over the body’s affective drives, specificially by way of routines – whether strip shows, girlfriend experiences, musical spectaculars or sleeping pill addictions – that the body is induced to learn, develop or perfect at a purely kinaesthetic level, through muscle memory and preconscious instinct more than any kind of conscious concentration or intentional mastery.
Of course, while this conflation of data and physiology feels quite unique to our present moment, there have been previous historical moments when it has felt just as unique – and, as Soderbergh presents it, the early twentieth-century is another such moment. Early in the series, Thackery observes that more knowledge has been acquired about human body in the last previous five years than in the previous hundred, an observation that is reiterated in a variety of ways to present this particular period of medical history as a prototype of our own current digital milieu. The difference is that where we are faced with a situation in which data is becoming corporeal, Thackeray and his assistant are in a situation where the human corpus is becoming increasingly datafied. No doubt there is a crossover between those two situation – data-becoming-human bleeds into human-becoming-data – but there is nevertheless a difference in emphasis between the respective becomings of the early twentieth and twentieth-first centuries that ensures that The Knick is more than a mere origins story or a study in the history of technology. For Soderbergh, data is by definition both present and sentient, which means that data is always by definition somewhat anachronistic, forcing us to challenge conventional embodied temporalities both at a quotidian and historical level, and one of the sublimities of The Knick is the way that Soderbergh manages to both create an authentic historical milieu while simultaneously evoking data’s science-fictional capacity to anticipate future data, in the same way that Walter Benjamin once suggested that old media anticipate new media before human consciousness and technology have managed to catch up with and actually create them.
As virtually all fans of the show will agree, the most striking index of this anachronised present of data is Cliff Martinez’ pulsing, robotic synth score, which makes its first appearance in the opening sequence, shortly after Thackery has started to make his way back to the Knick after one of his addictive episodes. When I first saw the series, I had no idea about the soundtrack, and the wonder I felt as Thackery proceeded through New York on a horse and buggy accompanied by blinding synth stabs is still a defining part of my experience of the show – the kind of moment that has ensured that I will always defend it, even if there is a decline in quality or critical acclaim. When those kinds of audacious and experimental moments occur in television, I feel compelled to support them as a matter of principle, let along when they set the scene for such an incredible series as occurs here. What makes the score even more amazing is that it is choreographed with the action in such a way as to preclude their juxtaposition ever settling into the steampunk aesthetic that, in one way or another, has come to characterise so much historical and horror television in the last half-decade. To me, steampunk seems to be about importing the present into the past in order to reiterate or restore the uncanniness of pastness, as well as the past as a category unto itself, which perhaps explains why it is such a symptomatic postmodern response to the crisis of historicity outlined by Fredric Jameson. What Soderbergh is doing, however, seems to be the exact opposite – namely, reiterating a connection with the past by way of a radical present tense that can perhaps only be glimpsed from the perspective of data itself, which stands in for the material basis of society and the Real of every representation, at least in Jameson’s schematics.
At the same time, there was something about the juxtaposition of Martinez and Old New York that also rehabilitated the synth score in a new and exciting way as well. Since roughly the release of Drive, the pulsing, minimal and occasionally arpeggiated synth refrain has moved from being a fairly novel throwback to a cliché in itself, in the same way that John Carpenter has quickly moved from an eclectic reference point to a necessary namecheck for virtually any synth-based outfit anxious to exhibit their credentials in the second decade of the new millennium. More on Carpenter in another post, but for here it suffices to say that – for me at least – Nicolas Winding Refn’s appropriation of Martinez has tended to obscured the richer and more understated synergy he has always had with Soderbergh, whose images sync so perfectly with his soundscapes that together they create something of the kinaesthetic impact so critical to the kinds of datafied affect that they collaboratively promulgate. As their first collaboration since Contagion – Martinez was absent from Soderbergh’s last couple of films – there’s something of a reunion here, but also something that consummates Soderbergh’s movement into television, which not only offers more space for visual inventiveness and elaboration, but more room for the kinds of extended sonic invention that have often found their way onto Martinez’ soundtracks but haven’t been able to be explored in their entirety within the film itself. Within The Knick, however, there is a very clear sense that we are hearing the soundtrack in all its iterations and varieties, with the second season recently introducing a totally new set of related motifs.
Of course, Soderbergh has always had an uncanny knack for making his images tactile on their own terms, and if there’s a component of his mise-en-scenes here that gives the anachronistic abrasiveness of the score a run for its money in terms of sheer visceral impact, then it’s undoubtedly the surgical sequences. Sometimes these are procedural, sometimes they are experimental, but they’re all characterised by the odd kind of visceral disembodiment that characterises the series at a whole. In another context, they would be utterly unwatchable, but the way in which Soderbergh positions the human body as just another informational surface means that they fall short of being as gruesome as they could be, or at least fall short of the grotesquerie that’s come to characterise a certain brand of horror television over the last few years. In part, that’s down to the critical role that the Burns Archive has played in the development of the surgical sequences, with Stanley and Elizabeth Burns playing a key role as the medical, technical and historical consultants to the show. Easily as significant in their collaboration as Martinez, their expertise as the co-ordinators and curators of the world’s greatest medical history archive has frequently been called upon by directors, screenwriters and researchers, but never quite as organically and extensively as it is here. Not only does their extensive collection of medical photographs lend the surgical procedures an incredible historical veracity, but their active involvement in the surgical prostheses ensure that they are garishly accurate but already somehow cloaked in the informational imperatives of classification, curation and collection, which is perhaps why the series often feels like an extension or demonstration of the Archive itself, just as the surgical sequences often seem pre-emptively archived and slotted into some future informational system far removed from the gruesomely embodied here and now.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the Burns Archive is first and foremost a collection and curation of the history of photography, from its earliest inception in the 1830s to around the mid twentieth-century. While a significant portion of this collection is devoted to medical history, it is nevertheless by no means exclusively medical in its focus and ambit. Nevertheless, there is an organic connection between the medical and photographic aspects of the collection that is perhaps best summarised by Stanley Burns’ two Sleeping Beauty publications, volumes of post-mortem, mourning and memorial photography that give the entire collection a somewhat melancholy quality, but also position it in terms of the way in which photography, as a medium, managed to bestow a certain kind of post-human existence upon its very human subjects. Within the logic of the collection, the camera is not merely a recording device but a medical device, a way of ensuring longevity and survival beyond the reach of the various instruments – many of which were, as The Knick demonstrates, traumatically fallible – that are housed alongside these photographs and often portrayed within them. In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Andre Bazin famously suggested that, within the history and study of photography, “there is room…for a study of the psychology of the lesser plastic arts, the molding of death masks for example, which likewise involves a certain automatic process. One might consider photography in this sense as a molding, the taking of an impression, by the manipulation of light.” By including medical equipment within the realm of “the lesser plastic arts”, the Burns Archive provides a peculiarly concrete example of this photographic ontology, as well as positioning photography as one of the earliest harbingers of a post-human future.
At first glance, of course, nothing would seem to be further from Bazin – and the Burns’ – photographic ontology than Soderbergh’s hyperfluid datascapes, even if his individual shots are composed with such an extraordinary sense of poise and poetry – the kind of poise that is perhaps only possible when you have ten whole hours to luxuriate in your vision – that they seem to demand to be paused, scrutinised and themselves commemorated or archived in some way. When I watched the series last year, I indeed felt compelled to do just this, choosing a sequence and breaking it down into its component shots which I then shared on Facebook, not for the purpose of formalist analysis but more in the spirit of tribute. A very talented academic I know once said that, after seeing John Cassavetes’ Shadows, she wanted to hang it up on her wall, and part of the curious aesthetic of The Knick lies in the way in which this series that is so enmeshed with the curation of institutional knowledge and discourse itself seems to be eminently an object of curation, as if the avid cinephile were suddenly faced with the onscreen equivalent of ten perfect Soderbergh DVDs lined up pristinely back-to-back.
What Soderbergh’s camera does share with those of the Burns Archive, however, is the way in which it seems to tap into this inherently post-human capacity of reproductive technology, as if to capture just how far Thackery’s prophecies for medical intervention and augmentation might have ranged at his most visionary and far-sighted. As in Contagion, the perspectives tend to be epidemiological rather than experiential, as Soderbergh disaggregates all the body’s discrete sensations and perceptions into a remarkably busy portrait of progressivist New York as a sliding spectrum of humans, micro-organisms and urban infrastructure, not exactly organic, but not exactly inorganic either. Every shot feels viral, on the verge of sentience, while Soderbergh’s style has never seemed so autonomous, so indistinguishable from the unextinguishable flicker of data that sustains it. Soaking up all the hinges between gas and electric light, absorbing all the residual gloom and murk that hasn’t yet been accounted for, his camera feels like the forensic tool or medical breakthrough that everyone’s anxious to patent, perhaps explaining why it’s so attuned to the Knick’s surgical stage, whose whitewashed walls are so bright that they feel backlit, blinding you like a digital tablet shone on a world that’s barely even electric. In some ways, this is the central tableau of the film, as Soderbergh repeatedly places some visceral operation in the midst of this space that already feels as if it’s surpassed the limits of the human body, just as the surgeons’ characteristic resting-pose – hands raised in the air to allow the disinfectant to dry – feels utterly out of time and place, like a post-perceptual posture that has somehow found it way back to a moment when perception itself is just starting to be formally understood.
At the same, the digital light of the operating room feels even more uncanny in that the rest of the hospital is just being electrified, giving Soderbergh an opportunity to tap into the gloomy sepia and tungsten palettes that inhabits so naturally, in something close to a photographic or daguerreotypic palette. In that sense, there’s a kind of fusion of the surgical sequences with his cinematographic vision, insofar as both exist as a common denominator between these utterly incommensurate conceptions of light – the surgical sequences by transitioning us out from the gas-and-electric wards to the digital operating table; and the cinematography by effecting fluid transitions between gas flare, light bulb and digitally backlit tableaux, often in the course of a single scene and sequence. And it’s that fusion of surgery and cinematography that also makes it feel as if Soderbergh has finally turned his camera into what it always longed to be – a mechanism that bypasses perception and even cognition to feed data directly into our photoreceptors and to effect physiological changes that only it can address and assuage. As both cause and symptom of this post-perceptual recalibration, Soderbergh’s cinematography seems designed to have an addictive power – or at least had an addictive power for me – which is all the more intense in this is palpably not a television series that operates in accordance with the single release Netflix model even or especially as it seems keen to offer itself up as the the most unified television series, in style and sensibility, that has been released over the last decade, and therefore also the television series most conducive to a single sustained, “cinematic” viewing.
In Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First Century Media, Mark B.N. Hansen suggests that we live in a media landscape that has more or less exceeded our capacity to perceptually process it, necessitating the need for “feed-forward” devices, perceptual supplements that can extend consciousness backwards into the pre-conscious media ecology that underpins our conscious lives without us even knowing it. For me, The Knick is one of the most beautiful feed-forward mechanisms out there, taking us back to a putatively historical past only to make us more aware of the few seconds before our body registers media – or at least more aware that we are not aware – in what often feels like a period drama about the last few seconds as much as a period drama about the last few years. In a wonderful piece on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bazin reflects that “the rapidity of TV production and the relative paucity of its resources actually guarantee a certain freedom in working method, encouraging creative resourcefulness, something that Hollywood relinquished long ago.” Clearly, Soderbergh has the same idea, and while the synergy Bazin distinguishes between cinema and television – cinema is spectacular and big-budget, television is austere and low-budget – may no longer hold, there is something about The Knick that suggests a new synergy and recalls one of Bazin’s most lovely speculations: “As Jacques Rivette said so well, in the swift precision of Rossellini’s style, one finds something that belongs to television. Yes, the little screen proposes to revive the cinema.”