The idea of beauty in Beauty and The Beast

(This is an unpublished paper written for the Aesthetics of Television Serial Conference in Gandia (Spain) in 2017).

Beauty and The Beast created by Ron Koslow on CBS in 1987 is a very uncommon TV Series that had risen to the status of a cult show. It was broadcast at a turning point in the history of american TV Series, the 80’s, and has been quite influential, notably on Joss Whedon. As a modern adaptation of the fairy tale, it transposes the original story in New York and tells the tragic romance between an assistant District Attorney Catherine (Linda Hamilton) and Vincent (Ron Perlman), who is half-man, half-lion. The fairy tale obviously emphasizes the idea of beauty hidden behind appearances, but the show also organizes its fictional universe as a political statement on modern society and reinvents the story’s moral background. Vincent lives underground in a utopian community that is built upon acceptance and love. The series creates an opposition between the normative, unjust ang ugly world of a contemporary city that excludes the poor and the misfits, and the mythic and the beautiful world of the tunnels below groung. What is interesting in the show is that its aesthetic work -through sets, music and photography -, its narrative scheme -that combines a serialized aspect with a procedural structure – and its allegorical construction echoe its main themes. The aesthetic concept of beauty and its representation thus appear central in the series. They are at the core of the show’s philosophical, existential, political and metafictional discourse, which invites us to question our own relationship to beauty and empathy.

Vincent of course is at the core of the representation of Beauty in the series because in this story he is not a monster, and he is not supposed to change in the end to go back to a human form. He is fully human exactly as he is. He is a beast only for those who don’t want to accept him, but in fact he embodies beauty and humanity at their highest and purest. Vincent represents what the world below means : love, care, generosity and acceptance. So the main tension in terms of the idea of beauty in the series is between an idea of a normative beauty versus a beauty that is a pure relationship of love.  The world above is a world of unjust and unequal rules, that decide arbitrarily what is supposed to be right or to be beautiful, that sets apart anyone that does not correspond to it as a freak. Vincent is an example of that, he is the ultimate outsider, because of the way he looks. But in the world below, as Vincent says it in “Brothers”, the ninth episode of the second season, which is a sort of variation on Elephant Man: there are no freaks here. I think that this is the the key sentence of the series. Charles, “the dragon man”, in this episode is a mirror of Vincent’s life, not only for himself but also for the other characters who have to face the pain and loneliness of both Charles and Vincent. So this rejection of the figure of the freak is linked to a question of point of view and of empathy.

But this discourse depends on the narrative and the generic structure. In fact, the series is built around a generic tension between two types of narrative and each of these narratives leads to a political and moral point of view. So what is at stakes in the show is how you can keep both aspects together or how you can or cannot navigate between these two worlds. One, is a world that corresponds to the rules of a procedural TV show, based on characters in the district attorney office that are trying to help people and to solve some cases and, on the other hand, we have the world below which is a world of fantasy and of fairy tale. The 1987’s New York,  is filmed in a realistic way, a common way, and seems at best dull, but generally sad, ugly and violent, and apart from that, the tunnels, the world below, are designed and filmed as a fairy tale world. The sets, the costumes, but also the light effects and even the directing create a world of beauty and of magic. It is a dark world, without sun or nature, but it is a world of love and human relationship. And there are a lot of amazing visual ideas that create a fantasy world, with waterfalls and underground lakes, bridges over infinite abysses where you can hear the whispers of the world above, gigantic stairs, caves with cristals, etc. So it is a whole world of wonders the people from the world above have no idea it exists. It is a world of hidden truth and authentic beauty. Both worlds coexists, whether it is at the level of the episode or at the level of the series.

But the moral and political background of the series definitely put an emphasis on the world below. In this world, lives a community that gravitates around Father, a former doctor that saved Vincent’s life when he was a baby and around Vincent, who represents the heart and soul of the community. This group functions like a utopia where everything is shared and where there is no money, but most importantly where everyone is accepted exactly the way he or she is. So the political content of the show is very radically opposed to the Reagan’s America of the time revolving around money and power. Instead, it shows another way of life where everyone can bring something special and be happy, loved and not judged. And I must say that it is something of course that echoe our situation today too, unfortunately, because we are still in this Reaganian neo-liberal capitalism.

In a way, in the series, the world below is our point of view on the world above, leading the viewer to question the world he or she is living in, because the aesthetic of the tunnels contaminates sometimes the whole series. For example, the musical themes are a way to create links between both spaces. These themes are very lyrical and emphatic, and corresponds to the spirit of the tunnels. Every episode opens on aerial shots of New York with this kind of music and so we are compelled to see the city through this expressive and emotional point of view, that emphasizes all the tragedies that are taking place in the city. Likewise, when Vincent comes out at night sometimes in the streets, the directing changes and transforms our perception of the streets, that seem to be more dreamlike, with smoke, and slow motion, and strange framings. So this work on the visual aspect of the show underlines the idea that beauty is a point of view, it is something that Vincent and Catherine bring with them, whatever the situation is. Indeed, what the world above needs is an empathic point of view to be transfigured.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that art has such an importance thematically in the series because it is another way to question beauty and also to mirror in a reflexive way the ideas of the show. Beauty and the Beast incorporates many episodes about artists (dancers, painters, musicians) and also many scenes of characters reading poetry out loud which is very unexpected in a network TV show, especially at the time. You have sometimes very long scenes were they are reading Shakespeare or Blake. Literature is considered on the one hand as a means of communication. For instance, Vincent gives Shakespeare’s sonnets to Catherine to express his love. Also we can often see characters reading to children creating a sense of community and love, but literature is considered as a means to access reality. Because Vincent is confined in the world below and the only way for him to see mountains, and lakes and sunsets are the books that he reads. I think that this representation of, I would say, classical arts, such as poetry or classical music, is in a way a mirror to what the show is doing, because the show is in itself a means of communication and an access to reality for the viewer, because it creates feelings that are real and it also gives us to see our world, especially in political terms, in a different way. You have to accept this odd beauty that the series has to offer and so you experience, as a viewer, beauty as a relationship of love.

In the series, art is everywhere, not only in literature, music or painting, but in the fact that everyone is an artist in his or her own way : Pascal for example is an artist concerning a very special means of communication, the use of pipes in the tunnel. Catherine says to Vincent : “Your world is so different from mine. In mine, people works for a paycheck but here, Pascal and his pipes.” The pipes chamber is Pascal’s life, his masterpiece, his viewpoint on the world. The relationship the characters have with their function in society is more an art than a job. Same thing with Mouse and the art of building stuff. Every character has something special to offer to the community. And it is also revealed by the way the episodes are written. The emphasis on one different character in every episode is a way to make the viewer care about them, to understand them, to see what is special about them, except that it is shown as being applicable to anyone. So the procedural aspect reveals every character’s beauty whereas the serialized structure of the show reintegrates every character in a community of love.

Even if the show builds a serialized structure on the progressive discovery of what we can call a mythology and on the development of the love story between Catherine and Vincent, the long term plot is very loose. I’m not talking about season 3 because I don’t want to spoil it. Season 3 is far more serialized but I don’t want to explain why. It doesn’t matter for what I’m trying to say today. But in the first two seasons, the characters do not really evolve, and this is because they are perfect heroes since day one. Catherine and Vincent are pure generosity and love and their relationship is almost immediately at its highest point. They never really doubt of each other. The only events are contained in the fact that sometimes Vincent could be at risk to be discovered in the first season or in the second season about the decision to live together or not. In terms of characterization, Vincent and Catherine are very unique because they possess the complexity, the authenticity of a realistic psychological storytelling but also the heroic and bigger-than-life quality and ideal nature of mythical characters.  You can see here the ending scene from labyrinths, the 8th episode of season 2 that symbolizes this double nature of the characters by a fade out that creates a superimposition of the model of the characters and the characters themselves. In this episode a young role playing gamer, that has met Vincent and Catherine, incorporate them in his game. His friends ask him who is Vincent : “Is he new?” And he answers : “No, he has always been there”. Exaclty as mythical figures of whom we cannot really know since when they exist.

So the series is trying to, I think, reconcile symbol, image and utopia with our reality and it is presented many times as an impossible dream, but at the same time, the TV series makes this dream come true, in terms of the community of viewers and because its aesthetic and narrative structure demonstrate the existence of this beauty as a way of seeing the world.

De Beauty and The Beast à Person of Interest, en passant par Angel

Il y a quelques années de cela, Sarah Hatchuel et moi, chacune de notre côté, en travaillant sur des séries différentes, nous sommes arrivées à la même conclusion : l’importance de la question du semi-feuilletonnant (et dans mon cas plus particulièrement du formulaire) dans une lecture éthique des séries. Sarah a développé cette réflexion notamment à partir de Person of Interest et moi à partir d’Angel. Je viens de terminer il y a quelques jours Person of Interest et je comprends mieux pourquoi nous en sommes arrivées aux mêmes types d’analyse. Pour moi, PoI est une réécriture science-fictionnelle magistrale d’Angel. Il ne s’agit pas évidemment de subordonner une série à l’autre, chacune ayant sa dynamique propre et sa beauté spécifique. Mais toutes deux développent effectivement un même projet éthique, une vision du monde où la personne à aider dans chaque épisode (c’est-à-dire l’aspect formulaire de la série) est affirmée comme étant ce qui est le plus important, contre un feuilletonnant dévorant qui voit les personnes comme des objets ou des fonctions dans un grand récit qui les dépasse.

Tout commence de la même manière, un homme au sombre passé de tueur, efficace, taciturne et désespéré, cherche une forme de rédemption. John Reese, ex-espion, est sans domicile fixe au début de la série (tout comme Angel dans certains flashbacks) et rencontre Harold Finch, une personne qui va redonner un sens à sa vie. Il lui donne accès, en effet, à une puissance supérieure (la machine) qui lui indique des personnes à aider. C’est exactement ce qui se passe avec Angel lorsqu’il rencontre un demi-démon dont les visions sont envoyées par « the powers that be ». La dernière saison de PoI rejouera d’ailleurs la dernière saison d’Angel, notamment par le biais de l’actrice Amy Acker, qui interprète Fred dans Angel et Root dans PoI. Tout se passe comme si l’actrice était tellement exceptionnelle qu’elle en appelait la série à transcender – je dirais littéralement à transfigurer –   son personnage. Ainsi la mort de Fred, devenant la déesse Illyria est littéralement rejouée avec la mort de Root devenant l’avatar de la Machine. On retrouve dans les deux séries ces systèmes de pouvoir si puissants et omniprésents qu’ils en deviennent invisibles et contre lesquels les personnages luttent à mort, dans une structure proprement tragique.

Ce qui me frappe ainsi, c’est le fait que la série devienne une œuvre-somme d’une certaine lignée de séries, que l’on peut faire remonter à mon sens à Beauty and The Beast, une série des années 1980 créée par Ron Koslow. Les séries de Joss Whedon doivent déjà beaucoup à cette œuvre, mais on peut tirer le fil jusqu’à PoI. Ainsi, Beauty and The Beast est fondée sur plusieurs éléments structuraux et notamment le fait que les personnages principaux aident quelqu’un à chaque épisode : or les aidés deviennent par la suite dans Beauty and The Beast les aidants (the helpers). Ce n’est pas qu’un motif, c’est bien un des fondements de l’éthique de la série, qui met en place une communauté utopique fondée sur la confiance, la générosité, l’empathie et l’altruisme. Or l’arrivée, à la fin de PoI, d’une nouvelle équipe formée d’anciennes personnes d’intérêt qui ont désormais repris le flambeau et aident à leur tour, s’inscrit tout à fait dans cette lignée. Plus remarquable encore, les personnages de PoI installent leur QG, au cours des dernières saisons, dans une ancienne station de métro abandonnée dans les souterrains de New York. Or la communauté utopique de Beauty and The Beast vit dans des tunnels en dessous de cette même ville. Dans un épisode où un personnage cherche justement à situer cette communauté, un employé de la mairie, qui lui transmet des vieux plans de la ville, lui raconte que, lors de travaux, une vieille station de métro abandonnée dont on avait oublié l’existence avait été retrouvée. CQFD.

On pourrait aussi tisser des liens avec d’autres séries, notamment Lost de toute évidence, mais quoi qu’il en soit, PoI s’impose comme une série contemporaine consciente de tout un héritage sériel, pas seulement d’un point de vue métafictionnel, mais bien dans un certain rapport à la vie. Ainsi, si les personnages d’Angel ne se rendent véritablement compte que dans la dernière saison du choix qu’ils doivent faire – ce qui amène d’une part à une oscillation des formes de la série, mais aussi à une oscillation des positionnements éthiques des personnages -, ceux de PoI l’ont compris presque dès le départ. La structure est en place et explicite dès le début de la série et trouve son aboutissement à la fin. Comme si elle avait hérité d’un savoir-faire mais aussi d’un savoir qui s’étaient transmis de série en série. Un héritage qui passe par une prise au sérieux de la forme que ces séries utilisent et par la prise de conscience du pouvoir d’une fiction empathique et généreuse.

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