As Hawaii’s volcanic rock bubbles and folds itself into the sea along its unstable coast, so too does time and history on this “perilous idyll” gather and pleat around its fictitious inhabitants.[i] “Isolated, vulnerable, and yet unimaginably beautiful,” Hawaii, argues Christopher Anderson, also exercises “a powerful symbolic force” upon the imaginations of those that experience this “tainted Paradise” vicariously through the various television detectives that have populated this “promised land […] tainted by blood.”[ii] For Anderson, these shows “blend into our domestic environments and the rhythms of our lives,” constructing through their narratives a peculiar form of “mental architecture” that we co-inhabit with the cast.[iii] There is one detective in particular, Anderson argues, that has done more to blur the boundaries of participation within this “symbolic arena” than any other: Donald Bellisario and Glen Larson’s hirsute private investigator, Thomas Magnum.[iv]
There are numerous episodes of Magnum, P.I. (1980-88), Anderson insists, that “display all of the qualities that we seek in our finest motion pictures – ambiguity, attention to detail, thematic complexity, formal self-consciousness, a concern for their social and historical context.”[v] However, he continues, the program’s significance does not rely on its producers’ ability to maintain these cinematic qualities. Each season, he admits, is regularly punctuated with “miserable episodes that make Fantasy Island seem like Ibsen.”[vi] Understanding this inconsistency, states Anderson, facilitates the consideration of an alternative measure by which to gauge the show’s achievements. In response to its “distracted” audience, television has developed a narrative structure based upon “formulaic repetition” that runs counter to traditional notions of “narrative unity.”[vii] To “appreciate” Magnum, P.I., suggests Anderson, we must therefore “remain conscious of the ways in which the series acknowledges narrative fragmentation […] and transforms it into an important expressive characteristic.”[viii] Television develops meaning from the interplay of “similarity and difference,” a process through which a single program gains significance both through its “identity with the stories that precede it and through its disruption of these stories […] Magnum, P.I. stands apart from most television series because it consistently examines its function in this system.”[ix]
Horace Newcomb identifies the reflexivity of Magnum, P.I. as indicative of a mode of television storytelling that he terms “cumulative narrative” – a format that exists between self-contained episodic programs and open-ended serials.[x] In cumulative narrative shows, the “past plays an active, significant role in the plots of the present. Nothing is lost. Everything is cross-referenced. And as characters remember, so do we.”[xi] As these series “expand into the past,” continues Newcomb, they become “about their own pasts”:
[Their] essential connections are not in the sequence of events, but in their resonance. Each event reverberates with the harmonics of a hundred others. Tone and texture make the shows work, and liberate them from a repetitive style or motif. Seen in first run or rerun, they are more like a mosaic or a tapestry than a series.[xii]
Repetition, narrative fragmentation and the peculiar resonances between private memories and social history are also characteristics of the work of French writer Marguerite Duras. In both Hiroshima mon amour (1960) and The Lover (1984), Duras explores how traumatic events can compel those who experience them to replay, re-enact, and re-imagine certain incidents over and over again, and how this compulsion subsequently blurs any stable distinction between the past and the present.
This video juxtaposes Magnum P.I. with the work of Marguerite Duras - not as cultural adversaries (as Anderson suggests) - but to act as a prism through which to refract the distinctive temporality that Newcomb and Anderson attribute to the 1980’s CBS TV show.
The model for this project is Duras’ 1976 experimental film Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta desert (1976), in which the soundtrack from her previous film (India Song, 1975) was combined with a new sequence of unrelated images. For Honolulu mon amour, various excerpts from Magnum P.I. were re-edited and combined with a new soundtrack which consists of Duras reading from her novel The Lover along with dialogue from Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour (for which Duras provided the screenplay). As well as exploring common themes of trauma, identity, grief, and violence, Duras’ work and Magnum P.I. also map the psychological states of their fictional protagonists onto actual geographical locations. As the ruins of Hiroshima provide the concrete analog for the mentally and physically brutalised characters in Duras’ psychodrama, so too does the fragmented topology of Hawaii’s volcanic archipelago define its inhabitants’ corporeal and mental reality. Vietnam also plays a significant role in establishing the psycho-geography of Magnum, P.I. and The Lover, representing a past to which their characters did not fully belong but nevertheless have trouble escaping.
The “contrapuntal flashback structure” developed by Magnum, P.I., writes Anderson, throws “into doubt the possibility of ever isolating memory, fiction, or history […] No single expression of the past takes precedence over the others.”[xiii] For Andrew Hebard, Alain Resnais’ “disjunctive and non-progressive” narratives also work to undermine any static differentiation between past and present, memory and imagination. Through his subversive combination of fictional and archival footage, argues Hebard, Resnais “forces a reconsideration of the possibility that an event can be contained within a ‘certain’ time or place. To question this possibility is also to question the temporality of the event, a temporality no longer contained by a historical telos.”[xiv]
For both Newcomb and Anderson, it is the viewers’ identification with Magnum “as he struggles to create a consistent sense of self from the anguish of the past”[xv] that has assured its perpetuation as a re-run on daytime television. However, decades after its initial transmission, has the nature of this identification changed? Has Magnum’s search for a coherent sense of self post-Vietnam become an analogy for our own search for an audience identity post-Television? As Anderson concludes: “In a medium that changes perpetually – even when the television set is off – nothing on television is precisely as we imagine, remember, or hope. Even series television, defined by repetition, forever plays havoc with our expectations.”[xvi]
[i]Anderson, Christopher, ‘Reflections on Magnum, P.I.”, in Television: The Critical View, ed. by Horace Newcomb (New York: Oxford U. P., 1987), pp. 112-125 (p. 115)
[ii]Anderson, p. 115.
[iii]Anderson, p. 121.
[iv]Anderson, p. 115.
[v]Anderson, p. 113.
[vi]Anderson, p. 112.
[vii]Anderson, p. 121.
[viii]Anderson, p. 122.
[ix]Anderson, p. 119.
[x]Newcomb, Horace M., ‘Magnum: The Champagne of TV?’, Channels of Communications, 5.1 (1985), 23 – 26 (p. 24)
[xi]Newcomb, p. 24.
[xii]Newcomb, p. 25.
[xiii]Anderson, p. 122.
[xiv]Hebard, Andrew, ‘Disruptive Histories: Towards a Radical politics of Remembrance in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog’, New German Critique, 71 (1997), 87-113 (p.101).
[xv]Anderson, p. 123.
[xvi]Anderson, p. 114.
Dr. Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections for the School of Art, Media & American studies, University of East Anglia, UK. His research interests include experimental film and video art, the critical relationship between film, video and philosophy, and contemporary art photography. He currently teaches an undergraduate module on artists’ film and video as well as lectures on photography theory, cinema in a gallery context and new-media art.