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Entries in eleanor morrow (73)

Sunday
Aug202017

In Which A Convent Remains Our Home Away From Home

Better Half

by ELEANOR MORROW

Black Narcissus
dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
100 minutes

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) had the good sense to select an order — an Anglican strain of the usual — that demands a renewal of vows once a year. This sort of optional religiosity is a breath of fresh air, for a young woman may learn all sorts of things about herself in a duration of 365 days. Kerr was only 26 when she took on this role as Mother Superior to a tiny convent in the Himalayas in 1947's Black Narcissus. Naturally, she spends most of her time thinking about all the hot sex she used to have, but does not anymore.

Shot entirely in England, Black Narcissus is a relatively wretched Indian film, but a substantially more exciting English one. By the improved standards of today, it is wildly racist. Jean Simmons portrays Kanchi, a seventeen year old orphan, in the most unconvincing blackface you will ever see — suggesting that perhaps the film's title was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek by this adaptation.

The best parts of the movie are actually the flashbacks to Deborah Kerr's life before she was a nun. Director Michael Powell was still obsessed with the woman who was his ex-girlfriend by the time Black Narcissus underwent production. Kerr's face is constantly shot in close-up as a matter of necessity; otherwise, she would just be another lithe body in a white habit. When we find Kerr in England, she is a whirling dervish of action, spinning to find her boyfriend Con (Shaun Noble), who seems perpetually out of frame.

The script of Black Narcissus was nothing special, faithfully based as it was on a rather turgid novel. Powell papers over this completely, shooting long sequences with music and limited dialogue, and pumping up the flashbacks whenever the pace starts to flag. (It still does, even in a film only 100 minutes long.)  His use of light here is particularly stunning, whether it is the way candles accentuate a growing despair, or how translucent cloth hides the light of the moon. Texture is the only morality left to abandoned people.

As Mr. Dean, the tempting male figure desired by both Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, Powell's girlfriend at the time), David Farrar almost ruins the entire movie. He is the hairiest screen actor perhaps of his century, which is all to the good, but his entire performance is far too hammy, suggesting more of a parody than a realistic presentation. His shirtless scenes are still rather striking, even if he comes across as n oversized boy in them.

Kerr saves things anyway. The restrictions a nun's habit places on the actor is nothing to this brilliant performer, who utilizes her hands and eyes to communicate what the body cannot. Powell constantly pushes the native wind of the mountains through Sister Clodagh's habit, making her the film's clear Jesus figure. "Work until you're too tired to think of anything else," she tells someone, anyone.

Things begin to fall apart in the Himalayas when the nuns start screaming at a little boy and accuse of each other of being overly hysterical. The shocking twist of Black Narcissus occurs entirely in the past — the flashbacks Sister Clodagh reminisces about so fondly are merely memories of a guy who never gave two shits about her. "Now I seem to be living through the struggle again," she tells Mr. Dean without looking at him. He might as well not be there at all.

The film's bravura sequence occurs at its end. Kathleen Bryon's Sister Ruth has been driven insane by jealousy — her eyes are tinged with opiates, or maybe this is only an exaggerated version of herself. She has been spurned by a certain Mr. Dean, which was probably foreseeable given that the man she loved never blessed her with the knowledge of his first name. He decides to send her to Darjeeling, a proper distance, but instead she returns to the convent in order to murder Deborah Kerr. Ruth cannot even properly accomplish that.

In this dramatic, sunset-tinged manumission, Kerr climbs back up from the cliff's precipice and tosses Ruth off to her death. She pretends to be surprised as her charge shatters in the forest below. The feeling is not mutual. We all knew this was coming.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Thursday
Aug102017

In Which We Have Returned To The Red Room Of Our Youth

Place to Hide

by ELEANOR MORROW

Twin Peaks: The Return
creators Mark Frost & David Lynch
Showtime

The only place you know is real is the town where you live. The bank, the trailer park, the diner. The police station, the bed and breakfast, the residents that only get older, never younger. Oh god, the residents. Recently I found myself watching older episodes of Twin Peaks. Although they are in general sloppier and substantially less satisfying than the precise brilliance of Twin Peaks: The Return, probably the best thing that has ever aired on American television, they are not really all that different.

The major difference is the subplots. In the original Twin Peaks, the subplots were sort of a lazy, soapy gauze around the main storyline. In Twin Peaks: The Return, they are merely reflections of something we can never exactly see. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that David Lynch would feature Kyle MacLachlan as a mentally deficient shell who merely echoes back whatever the people around him say, and that it would work for a solid fifteen episodes.

In a season full of haunting moments, probably the most haunting were the twin delusions of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn). In her fever dream, which is never explained or put into context, she is confined in her home with her husband Charles (the fantastic Clark Middleton). She wants to leave, but she cannot. She asks her husband if he has ever felt like he is two people. He tells her that he has not, that he has always been himself and knew this to be true.

Mental illness has always been major theme of Twin Peaks. The idea that there is something about our own personalities that we can recover from, like an illness, is not only fascinating, it is wildly optimistic. Whether or not this can be accomplished in our hometown is a matter of significant question in Twin Peaks: The Return.

I never found the original Twin Peaks alike to darkest noir, probably because of television broadcast standards at the time. Whenever it delved into the particulars of various drug crimes or the seedier elements, it felt so goofy or scary, but not at the level of darkness we have been experiencing this summer. Kyle MacLachan's "other" performance as Evil Agent Cooper is ridiculous when he assume the echoes of the earlier character, serious enough to give us a rotund chill. Lynch goes for a lot of laughs here as well, such as the decisive moment where Cooper kills a man with a single punch to the face. Watching all Lynch's favorite actors cheering an arm-wrestling battle on was hysterical, but the interrogation scene that follows was more chilling than amusing.

Why are you not watching Twin Peaks: The Return? What excuse could you possibly have? Your response to my entreaty falls on deaf ears.

Forget the production design, which is one of its kind and will be reproduced forever. Ignore the sound design, which Lynch handles himself and makes listening to Twin Peaks: The Return the best radio play in the history of mankind. I can't think of another production that has ever had the sheer volume of perfect acting performances Lynch coaxes out of his regulars and newcomers on Twin Peaks: The Return.

Particularly amazing are Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is so suited to the dialogue of Lynch and Frost, Jane Adams, who deserves a spinoff of sorts, Robert Knepper's bungling mafioso, and Fenn herself, who probably should have had a much better career than she did.

Traded and exchanged between this massive cast is a story ostensibly supernatural, but a tale which at its heart is more of a MacGuffin than ever. It does not really matter who evil inhabits, or the nature of evil itself — the question is of how to deal with this eternal challenge. Lynch passes along as few answers as ever, though he gives us the courtesy of a few, bracing moments as relief in the mind-blowing musical performances that conclude most episodes.

This last week, James Marshall performed David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti's marvelous hymn "Just You" while a woman looked on and cried. It told the story of several conversations over the course of many years. It completely removes a self-reflective irony, such a recurrent plague on both American comedy and drama over the last decade, and shows the world for how sincere it is. The town that knew you before you knew yourself, and you hated it for that. Years passed before you realized.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Friday
Aug042017

In Which We Move Our Base Of Operations

Credit Where It Is Due

by ELEANOR MORROW

Ozark
creators Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams
Netflix

Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) has perfected the art of the diet, and here is his secret. He never eats, not once in Ozark, but there is a good reason for this. He never sleeps either, which is maybe the easiest weapon Americans have against obesity. He can't feasibly do either of these things, because he is very afraid of his employer, a Mexican drug dealer named Del (Esai Morales).

His wife Wendy (Laura Linney) becomes aware of this situation relatively early on in Ozark. Quite naively, she attempts to empty their joint checking account and bail on her husband with about $30,000. (She also counts on the financial support of a lover who is later out of the picture.) Linney and Bateman have very little in the way of sexual chemistry, but that is no problem, because once Marty finds out about his wife's move against him, he dissolves their marriage in favor of a financial partnership intended to raise their two children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skyler Gaertner).

Everything in Ozark is generally gloamed in a somewhat annoying blue light, but not even less than stellar cinematography can take away the charm of this Missouri region. The Byrdes are forced to relocate out of Chicago because of a long monologue in which Marty saves himself from a bullet in the head, and they could not have selected a more lovely place. Wendy is designated with the task of finding the nuclear family an inexpensive home to house their belongings, and she chooses a gorgeous mansion directly on the water.

It is there that Marty spends a lot of time observing his children. He no longer has a day-to-day straight job that keeps him away from his kids. On an impulse, Wendy informs the teenagers that their father launders money for a living, and they generally take this news in good humor. During an extensive voiceover where Marty explains how tarnished cash can be magically transformed into useful assets, he makes it seem like the violent and evil business of which he is such a massive part is no more than the actions of a typical accountant.

In fact, Ozark does a great deal to convince its audience that this family is has only been placed in an untenable situation. Early on, an FBI agent named Trevor (McKinley Belcher III) oftens Marty immunity against prosecution from the government. This is a pretty heady possibility, since Marty seems to know very little of his boss' operation and basically only has $8 million in three suitcases that indicates he is on the other side of the law.

Watching him work that $8m is the primary fun of Ozark. He quickly employs a mendacious local woman, Ruth Langmore (the astonishingly talented Julia Garner), to rob a local strip club for him, and watching him interact with people who lack the income and power to resist the charms of his financial acumen is terribly enjoyable. Bateman has always been a disciplined and engaging actor, and this role, where all his comedy is bound up in verboseness without turning that way of speaking into something silly, suits him completely.

Linney has a somewhat broader challenge here, because she is the most unsympathetic member of the family with the least realistic character. Unsurprisingly, she turns Wendy into a much more multifaceted person than is ever evident in Bill Dubuque's fast-paced, thrilling scripts for Ozark. Watching her work as a local realtor is perhaps too familiar of storyline, but on the plus side, it allows us to see the local poverty from a unique vantage.

Netflix has been missing on so many of its original offerings lately, that it is exciting to see something of Ozark's quality emerge onto the scene. Sadly, enduring repeated seasons of this milieu would probably be more trial than godsend. There is a fun, brisk comedy to this fish-out-of-water story that keeps us engaged in the action. The second the heat falls down and lingers on any of the stiffer characters, we feel considerably more bored. There is not really too much depth to this Breaking Bad-clone, but that is all right.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.