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Entries in eleanor morrow (49)

Tuesday
Jun072016

In Which We Were Supposed To Do This Together 

Needs A Certain Something

by ELEANOR MORROW

Feed the Beast
creator Clyde Phillips
AMC

There is a scene in the first episode of the new AMC series Feed the Beast that typifies Clyde Phillips' writing style completely. Tommy (David Schwimmer) shows up at a group meeting where they workshop his grief over the death of his wife Rie. The group's leader asks Pilar (Lorenza Izzo) to stand in for Tommy's wife in a role-playing exercise. "I miss you," Tommy explains to this woman he has just met. "I need you. We were supposed to raise our son together. We were supposed to open a restaurant together. I love you. You're like a phantom limb." Pilar listens with a look on her face like she just won the lottery. In Phillips' vision of the world on shows like Dexter and Nurse Jackie, the deepest pain imaginable also brings the most unlikely pleasure.

This paradigm is exemplified by Tommy's best friend, recent parolee and gifted chef Dion (Jim Burgess). Burgess is the central performer on Feed the Beast, and to be completely honest the show would be quite drab without him. Fortunately, Burgess needed a role exactly like this one and he found it. Not only is he the most gorgeous, irresistible creature ever to saunter into a room and slice a leg of lamb, Burgess's performance as the cocaine-addled Dion naturally projects a non-physical threat to any established order. Just looking at him is dangerous.

Feed the Beast creator Clyde Phillips rarely concerns himself with deep, emotional connections, seeming to favor the abcesses constructed by various forms of sociopathic or antisocial behavior. The person Tommy Moran cares about the most is his son T.J., but that cannot help feel like a stand-in for his dead wife. Because of his grief, every relationship that follows can exist only on a surface level.

But that is entertaining enough for television — if Dion were not such a deceitful person, he would never have ended up in jail, where he became popular by cooking for the guards. His talent at cooking, and by extension, shaping his personality around his gift, is what makes him attractive to others. If God did not bless him in this way, he would simply be a piece of shit.

Dion owes money to a mafioso named Patrick Woichik (Michael Gladis), fresh off his disappointingly flimsy run as Paul Kinsey on Mad Men. Gladis tries to imbue the role with all the menace he can muster, but at his core he seems nothing like a Bronx mobster. It is not that Gladis is the wrong age or type for the part; it is more that the role of paper-thin villain with a funny nickname does not really suit his particular set of skills. Vicious men are usually at least one other thing, if not two.

I understand trying to cast against type and not reinforce certain Italian-American stereotypes, since Feed the Beast pretends to set itself in a Greek community. But the decision hurts the show by trying to offer something that is different but still ultimately the same.

Dion and Tommy decide to open a Greek restaurant in the Bronx by reclaiming money owed to Tommy by his racist, wheelchair-bound father, Aidan (familiar character actor John Doman). Tommy's father is something of a drain on the show as well. It is difficult enough to constantly re-experience one painful backstory in the case of Tommy's wife — but to have a second, peripheral tragedy that consumes him distracts from both.

The Danish series Feed the Beast bases itself on had a larger cast of characters surrounding their protagonist, and I applaud the move to a darker feel and shorter focus. These two male antagonists unfortunately seem muted and a bit powerless in comparison to our heroes, and end up detracting instead of adding to the milieu. Even with these criticisms in mind, I don't fully understand the reviews Feed the Beast has received, which are overall rather horrid for a show of this pedigree. For me, watching Schwimmer's foray into drama opposite the insanely charismatic Burgess would be enough for several seasons. There is no arguing that there is something missing from the story being told, however.

I think the main mistake is with Burgess' character, since he must carry the show. Giving him career success to reclaim is a marvelous start and we want to see him overcome his issues, but having him win the love of a family and a woman would make him even more sympathetic. Instead he fucks his beautiful lawyer and Tommy's son already seems to like him for no reason. No one can or should succeed at being that much of a misanthrope.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of her writing in these pages here.

"Be Careful Where You Park Your Car" - Cat's Eyes (mp3)

 

Tuesday
May032016

In Which Colin Howell Wished Only To Be Caught

No Service in the Club

by ELEANOR MORROW

The Secret
creators Stuart Urban and Jonathan Curling

The secret in The Secret is as follows: a God-fearing Christian man named Colin Howell grows tired of his wife and takes up with another man's beloved, a woman named Hazel Elkin. At a public pool in Northern Ireland he strokes her legs and thighs underwater. She has been desired, but not recently, and not in so open a fashion. Many women do not wish for worship, but those who do find it relatively intoxicating.

But this is not a secret for long. They are too open about their adultery — isn't it awful how people who commit indecent acts on some level wish to be caught? The shame is twice as uneasy as the act itself. This is not something religion instills in us, we bring it with us to our faith, or lack thereof.

In any case, they are spotted and Colin's priest comes to him with an accusation. (This is all a true story, or at least as much of it as we can stand.) Colin denies the allegation, but altogether not fervently enough. When Hazel is approached by the priest, she confesses immediately.

So at some point Colin gets in his head that if his ungrateful wife Leslie and his girlfriend's meek husband Trevor are still standing in the way of their love, instead of fading away as seems appropriate, it might be time to murder them. The real Colin Howell, it emerged recently, watches The Secret from his prison cell in Co Antrim. He can probably be proud of the performance James Nesbitt gives in his stead.

At first it seems like The Secret is just having a laugh at the expense of persnickety zealots. This is untrue, and potentially damaging to Colin's current reputation in prison. You see, Colin did hide his murder of his wife and his girlfriend's husband, but he never lost sight of what God wanted for him. (Police amazingly believed it was a double suicide.) And which is more important, really?

The first indication Leslie had that something was wrong was the money she found in the pockets of her husband's athletic gear. He used it on a payphone to call Hazel during his runs. In order to prevent their late night phone conversations from being recorded on the telephone bill, each lecherous conversation between Colin and Hazel was kept to a period of nine minutes, the perfect length for anything.

After Colin was caught out the first time, he insisted that he had never consummated the relationship. The spouses and their church believed them — what else could they do? Leslie Howell considered suicide and took a trifling overdose without success. She spent money on new clothes, dieting to become more appealing to her husband. After her father died, the inheritance was enough to pursue a new life. After she died, her killer took that money, some quarter of a million pounds.

The night of the murders, Hazel mixed a strong sedative into her husband's food. Colin blocked his children's doors with a hockey stick so they wouldn't walk in on things. He planned to gas Leslie quietly as their children slept, but she woke in her last moments, and he had to smother her with a quilt to finish off the murder, as she cried out for her son. For this murder, he will serve nothing close to life in prison: just twenty-one easy years.

Instead of turning Colin into an uncaring sociopath — he isn't a mass murderer after all — Nesbitt plays him as a twitchy cautionary tale. His singing and guitar playing in church is solid if unspectacular. As a father he is kind to children who had to live without their mother, and even had six more kids with his second wife Kyle. As a doctor he committed more crimes, touching female patients when it suited him. This is a person who maybe only has a few things wrong with him, but they are the worst possible things.

Maybe the wildest part of Colin Howell's story is that he was free and clear of murder charges but that he felt guilty enough to confess decades later. The Secret itself, despite being a retelling of a well-known true crime story, is still sensitive enough a subject to inspire secrecy.

"We have been left trembling in the wake of it," said one of Howell's daughters about the television production. "The insensitivity of this intrusion is in direct proportion to the trauma that it causes." The fact of a failed marriage is the real secret, the disastrous life that led to the killings. These Christians believed as a corollary to their faith that unhappiness must be concealed, hidden. This misery should have been abandoned by any of the participants, but since they knew no other reality, they kept on living their nightmares.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

"Dear Brother" - Nadia Nair (mp3)


Tuesday
Mar012016

In Which The Frosted Tips Of Tom Hiddleston Electrify And Outrage All Concerned

Foreign Bodies

by ELEANOR MORROW

The Night Manager
creator Susanne Bier

Tom Hiddleston's frosted tips have taken on a life of their own. As a brunette, Hiddleston was a swerving force of flowing locks, always looking down on you through his nightmarish blue eyes, with an expression that seemed to say, "I know you are surprised that I am also a person as you are." Yet there was always something alien about the man, and frosting those tips has brought that inimical quality into the light.

Hiddleston's character in The Night Manager is a former military man who works at a hotel in Cairo for some reason. He starts to take an interest in the mistress of a powerful Arab man and decides to save her from her wicked life, using his frosted tips alone. She is all beaten up from her boyfriend, and looks like she has just been in a car crash, but he feels like this is the optimal time to start a romantic relationship with her.

The next time he sees her, her little poodle is covered in her blood. If you think this is a somewhat heavy-handed allegory for western imperialism, you have not read very much John le Carré. This is actually him being subtle.

I recently watched David Gordon Green's very funny, somewhat racist version of a true story, Our Brand Is Crisis. The movie was never attempts to be particularly complex in the style of The Night Manager, and it ends when Sandra Bullock's heartless political consultant suddenly grows a conscience because she was furious the man she was working for was trying to do the best for his country.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a rollicking and funny portrait of what might ostensibly be a very dull election for the president of Bolivia. Bullock's interactions with poor young men are a novelty, turning the plot into an actual referendum on the goodness of people and what it means. Our Brand Is Crisis takes something completely simple and problematizes it into something deeper. The Night Manager does the exact opposite.

The same sort of rigorous moral certainty pretends to pulsate through The Night Manager, but we can sense the bullshit. It is naivete, pure and simple; the idea that international relations, and the managing of various dictatorial regimes would be pathetically facile if only the people on the ground would go after the real bad guys. In The Night Manager, that bad guy is a British arms dealer who also runs a multinational corporation, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).

This cartoonish Bond villain had the temerity to sell weapons to someone! Tom Hiddleston's frosted tips did not really seem to understand that governments manage this monstrous feat almost every single day. When he finds a written list of weapons Roper plans to sell, he immediately calls British intelligence to complain. Four years after he gets a woman of color killed, he is night managing a resort in the mountains when Roper shows up with an entourage.

The Cairo parts of The Night Manager are transparently not filmed anywhere near the city, but up in the mountains we get a fantastic sense of place. In the evening, with the cold restraining the flagging movement of those blondish tips, Mr. Hiddleston starts to grow active in his den, like a nocturnal rodent. He is not very handsome in this guise, or very strong, or very smart. But he is busy.

Laurie is a great performer, but The Night Manager accentuates too many of his weaknesses. He is not naturally intimidating, fearsome or menacing. His friendliness seems to complete explode his cruelty. Sure, he is capable of awful things but combined with a braying smile, we sense he must be a far more complicated man than Tom's tips give him credit for.

Director Susanne Bier has Laurie give elaborate speeches about the virtues of capitalism which come across completely ridiculous. The rest of the time is spent making his subordinates dance with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Debicki, looking quite sussed). Intelligence professionals back in Mother Britain meet for hours to think of how they are going to shut down this maniac. I don't know, maybe they could just arrest him? Christ.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Steel & Stone" - Caleb Caudle (mp3)