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Entries in eleanor morrow (59)

Friday
Feb032017

In Which Kem Nunn Did Not Get Along With His Shrink

Four People

by ELEANOR MORROW

Chance
creators Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham
Hulu

"God is an American," it must have occurred to Hugh Laurie at some point. He has spent much of the second half of his career with the best American accent he can muster. There were American men who talked the way that Hugh Laurie does to his wife and she to him; in the 18th century, they lived in mansions in Virginia and were at home in the country. While he filmed House he spent most of the year away from his wife and kids, and of course on the show, where he portrayed a perpetually cranky doctor, he did not have either.

Laurie is deeply acquainted with the subject of depression as well. Despite the fact that he is a semi-capable neuropsychiatrist, whatever that is, Dr. Eldon Chance is suffering from this familiar phenomenon. It began shortly before the divorce with his wife, Carla, initiated when she began fucking her personal trainer. Carla (the hard-to-look-at Diane Farr) has one main complaint about her soon-to-be ex-husband. He is not decisive enough – he doesn't make things happen, he simply receives them when they do.

Chance seems to take this characterization as a personal challenge. Novelist Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source) used Chance to fold a book-length indictment of the institution of psychiatry into a noirish murder mystery. Nunn never says so directly, but he hates shrinks. He finds them lacking from every conceivable angle, and the man he loathes the most in the genre is Dr. Freud. The only thing he believes Freud is any good at is writing – identifying psychiatric treatment with what he does, bullshit, is the most backhanded compliment Nunn can pay to this troubled profession.

Dr. Chance does not really treat patients often. His position in the medical firmament is that of a diagnostician, and the reason he seeks this role is because he is frequently alarmed by the intensity of the empathy he feels for others. This experience scares him again and again, giving him insight into himself. We thus see therapy as an act that exists mainly for the person perpetrating the dialogue. In addition, it is key for the economic sustenance of therapist, and thus this arrangement can never be wholly positive no matter how genuine the concern on the part of the practitioner. There is always poison in the drink.

Chance refers Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol) to a psychiatrist better equipped to deal with her multiple-personality disorder, Dr. Suzanne Silver (LisaGay Hamilton). The two discuss their patient in extensive scenes which allow Nunn to display how self-involved and ill-equipped they are to treat this woman. Therapy, Nunn argues, is like groping around in the dark for another person and finding only a mirror when you flick the light on. Dr. Silver is most upset about how long she had to wait for her lunch.

Once he begins fucking his patient, Dr. Chance is still referring to the literature, caught up in his shifting view of a person about whom he never really cares enough to get to know. "Freud had famously said that he had come to regard any sexual act as one involving at least four people," Nunn has Dr. Chance think in the novel. "Chance had no idea how many of them were there in the room, coming and going at all hours of day and night, but between the two of them it was how it had been with the madman among the tombs, that their number was legion." The analysis itself is the only guide a lost soul has available to him.

Despite its San Francisco setting, the environments that surround Dr. Chance never really play a huge part in the novel. Nunn's collaborator Alexandra Cunningham and director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) have made a point of indicting San Francisco as well. The separation between the haves and have not could not be more apparent. Chance uses a homosexual black man (Clarke Peters) to sell his furniture, and befriends the man's in-house carpenter, Darius (the brilliant Ethan Suplee). Like any tourist who stays too long, he does not know anything about such types, and endeavors to learn.

In the character of Darius, Nunn manifests his most appealing creation – a self-proclaimed veteran capable of inflicting violence on everyone but Chance himself. Laurie makes a point of not appearing too physically frail, in contrast to his most famous role, but he struggles to compete with Darius and the litany of more present people that fill the rest of the narrative: his troubled patient (a harried-looking Mol), her mysterious husband (Paul Adelstein), and his troubled daughter (Stefania Owen).

Like much of Nunn's work, Chance seems to operate with its own set of moral strictures and bears little resemblance to the contemporary world or current events. This gives the series a certain timeless feeling, and many times it channels the never-ending atmosphere of another noir, Vertigo, with which it shares a city and many themes. If we really believe what we are seeing, we risk incriminating ourselves. Thus it is only possible to watch Chance in a detached way, to hope that we are not as these people are.

There is no cinematic mood more difficult to sustain than menace. At times Chance seems to thrive on this not-knowing, fearful state, but it is much more achievable in the short running time of a feature. Stretching out this sensation into multiple seasons is just that: a stretch. We cannot possibly identify with a group of people who only see themselves as victims or perpetrators, and the uneasy feeling never coalesces into an understanding that could make either side any kind of a victor.

By the end of Chance we have not found anyone we really like. As Nunn puts it, there are feeders and receivers, and the world is full of the latter, perhaps completely full. This meaningless binary is even sadder if it might, in some respects, be true.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Tuesday
Jan032017

In Which Brit Marling Died More Times Than We Can Count

Time to Go Online

by ELEANOR MORROW 

The OA
creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij
Netflix

Sometimes you really just need to get on the internet. Once there, you can safely check Drudge and maybe see what's in your e-mail. Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) sounds like a euphemism for something terrible, but instead it's just the name of a woman with a similar feeling. Ms. Johnson prefers to be called The OA, which means Original Angel. After the OA returns to American life after seven years imprisoned in an abandoned mine, she just needs to get some wifi, so she gets in touch with Steve (Patrick Gibson). He gives her a mobile router in exchange for help in preventing his father from shipping him to a military academy.

Marling and collaborator Zal Batmanglij have been on the internet a lot in preparation for this eight episode Netflix series, which feels like the prodigious and exciting dramatic efforts of a newborn baby reaching out. Like their feature film Sound of My Voice, The OA has a somewhat different pacing than what we are used to from traditional movies and television, resembling more of a youtube video than a traditional dramatic series. This slight shift is liberating at a time when the inclination seem to over-explain in order to justify the expense of locations, budgets and actors.

Marling herself holds this diverse cast together. She is an exceedingly subtle performer. There is one brief scene where she is just curling up on a blanket that I think about a lot; she is in the first throes of being a person and she is literally deciding which way to turn. The teen actors Marling has cast around are just as talented, and their story in the present is as compelling as the tale of incarceration that the OA tells them at length. "You have to pretend to trust me until you actually do," the OA explains to them. "Before you close your eyes, I want you to imagine everything I tell you as if you are there yourself, as if you are me."

The OA describes a Moscow childhood, and we are not really sure if we are supposed to believe her or not. Even the series' title sequence seems more like a cosmic joke than a plaintive representation of reality. Beauty in The OA comes completely unexpectedly, but it holds no particular or specific meaning. It is only the details of the story meant to convince her new friends. Moscow is not Moscow, it is merely images from a helicopter. A tale is only as credible as the people telling it.

For seven years the OA is imprisoned by a scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) in what resembles a massive human terrarium. There her fellow captors discover five movements that, properly aligned, intend to create a way to escape from their captivity. This core tragedy never engenders much sympathy, and as much of a monster as Hap is, he seems to be going about things for generally positive reasons. He doesn't overly mistreat his captives, and even after he drowns them in a tank they always come back to life. 

Isaacs himself is the worst performer in this entire milieu. I can understand why he keeps being cast as the prototypical middle-aged man, and here it maybe helps that he is so transparently not a scientist, since it gives a bizarre illegitimacy to the story the OA is telling. Still, the present tense of the OA's return to civilization is what really compels us, the "invisible life" of the four teenagers and one teacher (The Office's Phyllis Smith) who are drawn into her dark circle. 

"Sometimes I just need to be alone," the OA explains to her adoptive parents, Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (Scott Wilson). Their bracing care for her is one of many instances of inadequate love in The OA. Everyone here, it seems, loves someone who cannot fully receive their affection. It is not that they cannot express love themselves, it is that they can never be loved in the way that they imagine would make them completely happy.

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

 

Friday
Dec022016

In Which We Went To Sleep For Fifteen Years

Hurt Those Creatures

by ELEANOR MORROW

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
dir. David Yates
133 minutes

There is an ongoing trend, in the age of climate concern, to attribute human qualities to everything that surrounds us. This attitude extends to every creature in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling's not-so-humorous and not-so-exciting jaunt through the world that would eventually give birth to Harry Potter. There are oversized rhinoceroses desperate to mate, duck-billed platypuses who love nothing more than to steal, and mastodon-type creatures who only crave the touch of others. Would that any of the actual characters in this story had such manifestly human motivation!

It is almost shocking to see a Rowling film in which the actors are actually decent performers. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages a marvelous cast in comparison to the shit show that was the last gasp of Harry's quest to kill a man without a nose, that fellow who did something completely heinous: left him alive. In those last movies, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint looked completely checked out, not that they were really suited for their roles in the first place.

We desire a real love story, but instead of providing it, none of the characters in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ever give over to animal instincts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is the actor's usual sexless fop; despite being exposed to several beautiful women who invite him into their home, he can't escape quickly enough. His platonic friend Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) lives with her sister (Alison Sudol) and has no man in her life. "What makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you?" someone asks Newt halfway through the film, but we never get the pleasure of finding out.

Despite being named after the most magnetic iteration of 20th century masculinity, the Muggle at the heart of these events, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), is a baker/veteran nearing 30 who works in a canning factory and has never had intercourse. During a particularly revealing interchange with Newt, Kowalski asks him whether he likes canned food. Newt just shakes his head.

Well, there is nothing wrong with canned food. Usually it tastes just fine, and it keeps forever. It's pretty good for the environment, but you have to understand that these are the types of people who only care about such things to the extent that they do not actually affect their lifestyle. Newt keeps all the endangered species he collects in his suitcase. In his head he is a progressive, but in actuality he is nothing more than a fancy zookeeper.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them inserts Newt in New York just after the war. In America, Muggles are colorfully referred to as non-Mags. You can tell that Rowling's trips to this country were relatively sheltered, because it is remarkable how completely whitewashed this New York is. Percival Shaw (Colin Farrell) is a magical official trying to track down a devastating cloud of smoke. If that idea excites you, you may suffer a coronary when the time travel yarn Harry Potter and the Cursed Child makes it to the screen.

The best way to do a prequel series would have been to create certain circumstances under which we could finally appreciate why the death of Mr. Potter was necessary – for example, it may have prevented Now You See Me 2 from ever being shown to audiences. If you have read the spoilers for Rowling's return to the character, you know that he has been basically put out to pasture in favor of his son, a spoiled brat with a famous father. There are no more orphans, just beneficiaries from Rowling's tremendous financial success.

I am probably too hard on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling at least does a nice job unraveling the basic mystery here, and Yates' command of the various special effects required by the series has come a long way. The art direction of the animals themselves is immensely pleasing, and Redmayne's use of animals to save the life of a Jewish woman he barely knows is a lot more enterprising than a mere spell. There is one moment where Newt emerges in the Arizona wild where we actually feel the beginnings of a great adventure. A few minutes later, Newt's platypus is robbing a jewelry store, and all we want is to go back.

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