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Entries in rachel sykes (14)

Thursday
Sep042014

In Which There Is Something Surgically Wrong With Steven Soderbergh

Fear of Needles

by RACHEL SYKES

The Knick
creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler

This summer, TV seemed unseasonably dark, from the return of Hannibal and its totem pole of corpses, to the wonderfully pansexual Penny Dreadful, and the gruesome, woman-beating second season of Bates Motel.

Now, providing the season with its passage to September, Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick has aired its first episodes on Cinemax, showcasing a grotesque but uniquely historical approach to this season’s yen for horror. The Knick, like its predecessors, is straight from the Gothic tradition, exhibiting a kind of gross-out Gothicism which, much like Penny Dreadful, combines Victorian facades with blood, guts, and gore. The first episode opens in a suitably druggy haze, the camera slowly focussing on an opium den where Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) lies semi-conscious, surrounded by nakedly “exotic” women. So far, so period drama - except that minutes later Dr. Thackery is dashing off to The Knick, the show’s eponymous hospital, pulling off his coke-white shoes, injecting a needle between his toes and, only a little later, into the only part of his body with a visible vein: his penis.

This, in a nutshell, is how the show works, as a curious mix of turn-of-the-century repression and heavily mutilated bodies. Set in a downtown Manhattan hospital in 1900, The Knick follows Dr. Thackery and his team of surgical pioneers as they take-on breath-taking surgeries, staged in explicit detail before a gallery of starkly unmoved benefactors. And it’s not just the patients who suffer horribly: besides Dr. Thackery’s nerve-shattering addiction to cocaine, the show obsesses over the parallels between life-saving and/or endangering surgeries and the violent incidents that regularly afflict the hospital’s staff.

While the finance director (Jeremy Bobb) has his teeth pulled out by creditors, the hospital’s only African American doctor, Algernon Edwards (André Holland), is punching strangers in alleyways, where blood splatters onto the sidewalk and into the camera. The bloody tone is set most shockingly in the first episode when, after an exceptionally brutal caesarean section, and just minutes after Clive Owen shoots-up between his toes, Thackery’s mentor lays a sheet over his leather sofa and quietly, but gorily, shoots himself in the head.

Scrubs, this is not. In fact, the completely humourless set-up of The Knick reveals just how firmly Soderbergh has his sights set on History. The Knickerbocker hospital is real enough; the original was founded in 1862 although, located on Convent Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem, it was significantly further uptown than The Knick of the show. Up until the late 1970s, The (real) Knickerbocker gave free surgical and medical treatment to the “worthy sick poor” of New York City and, like the characters of The Knick, its employees regularly battled the high mortality rates and poor conditions that afflicted many down and out citizens in turn- of-the-century Manhattan.

Into this sound historical backdrop, The Knick adds Dr. Thackery, played so sternly by Owen that you can never be quite sure his face can move. Thackery’s gut-punching surgeries, numbering two to three per episode, anchor Soderbergh’s portrayal of the poor and the needy but curiously distance the viewer from the worthiness of the show. The Gothic elements of The Knick are a symptom of the city’s poverty and corruption; the flickering electricity that dims the lights, and fatally electrocutes one of the nurses, is not in any way mysterious or supernatural, but the result of bureaucracy and administrative extortion.

In much the same way, patients have their bodies turned inside out not only because it is their only hope for survival but also because we, as viewers, know that the goriness we are watching will lead to more successful procedures, to safer caesareans and quicker heart bypasses. We know, in other words, that the extraordinarily messy surgeries that Dr. Thackery and his team attempt will eventually be successful, but the benefit of hindsight effectively distances us from the shocking brutality of the show.

The problem with The Knick, then, is its middle ground between prestige and Gothic drama. At times, it’s like watching a version of Mad Men made only from its moments of shock, where lawnmowers continually eviscerate people’s feet and every employee presents Peggy with a sawn off ear in a box. Running throughout the first episodes of The Knick is also the suspicion that a more interesting show lies beneath it. This comes down, as ever, to gender and race.

Within the first three episodes, every male character has done something illegal and typically anti-heroic, making the men invariably complex whilst the women are presented as strong and, worst still, moral. The most interesting character, Dr. Algernon Edwards, is paralysed by the racist system he is placed in, left pandering to superiors who know less than him and observing on surgeries he initially pioneered. Although everything about The Knick screams its seriousness, the storylines favour tradition over innovation, patriarchy over matriarchy, and white men over black when the inequality it registers might have served as a better focus.

Perhaps, though, the show is headed somewhere different. As early as episode two, stifled by the short leash that Thackery has him on, Algernon takes matters into his own hands and begins to treat the hospital’s unwanted African American patients in an abandoned basement. A show about the challenges facing an African American hospital seems infinitely more watchable than the show that The Knick purports to be and perhaps, if Soderbergh leaves behind Dr. Thackery’s slow circling of the drain, The Knick will uncover its purpose in amongst its detail.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. .

"Blue Movie" - Lowtide (mp3)

"Missing History" - Lowtide (mp3)

Friday
Mar212014

In Which Hannibal Contemplates An Aesthetic of Murder

Consumer Society

by RACHEL SYKES

Hannibal
creator Bryan Fuller

The remarkable thing about Hannibal is that it should never have existed. Adapted from the fiction of Thomas Harris, whose novel Red Dragon originated the Hannibal myth in 1981, when the show premiered in 2013 it seemed like a redundant addition to an already exhausted format.

The compelling first season largely dismissed low expectations by focusing on the budding relationship between FBI investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and forensic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as they work to solve a number of highly disturbing murders. Indeed, their relationship upends the Hannibal canon by disturbing the viewer’s expectations of who the reliable narrator might be. Agents refer ambiguously to Will’s place on the “spectrum” yet the FBI continues to exploit his inability to judge social situations, to rely heavily on the paranormal levels of empathy that allow Will to visualise the ways in which a killer has worked simply by attending the crime scene.

Of course, Hannibal still murders people and regularly feeds their limbs to his house guests in increasingly ambitious and experimental attempts at haute cuisine. But throughout the first season, it is equally clear that Will is unfit for FBI employment, that he struggles to function in society, to maintain personal relationships, and ultimately to switch off from the horrific crimes he is called on to solve.

The finale of Hannibal’s first season was particularly startling for the speed with which it motioned towards the future in which Will and Hannibal are mortal enemies. By the end of the episode, Will realises that Hannibal is the psychopathic murderer the viewer knows him to be and, just as quickly, Hannibal frames Will by planting the ear of one victim down his throat miraculously, and comically, intact. The finale also set the scene for a startling twist on the memory of Lecter as he will be in The Silence of the Lambs.

At the beginning of Hannibal’s second season, it is Will who wastes away in an archaic prison cell, waiting for his fate to be decided in an elaborate series of dystopian cages and ever decreasing scenes of grey. The bleakness of Will’s reality is then mirrored, if not parodied, by the FBI’s increasing involvement with Hannibal, who becomes central in aiding their investigations. Will can only escape his cell through the power of hallucinatory daydreams.

What’s interesting about Hannibal and its distinctive take on mass murder is its curious reach for objectivity. At times, the show comes close to stilted affectation because each character seems so consumed with the avoidance of emotion. With Hannibal, this process is self-explanatory - mass murderers pathologise the emotions of themselves and others in order to enact their gruesome tasks. But with others the absence of feeling spreads like a sickness and emanates from their involvement with Will and the crimes to which he lends his profiling acumen.

Similarly, show runner Bryan Fuller’s phantasmagoric approach frames the act of murder as a statement of aesthetics, troubling the idea that Hannibal is set in any reality we might know. None of the murders in Hannibal could be described as crimes of passion and motives are generally conceived aesthetically.

This variant of Harris’ text is disinterested, then, in serial killers as an absent threat or as a symbol of fear – if Hannibal, or any his contemporaries, want you dead then you will, very soon, be dead. Rather, the killings that occupy the center of each episode are statements on the nature of art and reality, on the aesthetic differences that colour our varied perceptions of the world. People are murdered in Hannibal, often graphically and without warning, not to induce fear or disgust in the viewer, but to show how people express and hide themselves in art and how the artistic process is at once creative and destructive, for the creator but also for the consumer.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about American Hustle.

"Give" - Octo Octa ft. Raw Moans (mp3)

"Cause I Love You" - Octo Octa (mp3)

Friday
Jan102014

In Which We Get Lost In The Follicular

Consider the Hustle

by RACHEL SYKES

You may not have heard, but American Hustle opens on a hair. David O'Russell's newest film begins with a single strand, quickly revealed to be part of a larger, more capricious hairpiece that is itself just one of many sculpted styles punctuating the movie. If the internet is to be believed, as many people leave American Hustle with an appreciation for its styling as for its Bee Gees-heavy soundtrack. The clue is in the title. A film about hustlers, it’s a film about front, a film about image and what we do to both make and keep it. From Christian Bale's opening toupee to Amy Adams's disco crimp, from Bradley Cooper's tightly manicured perm to the desperate flop of Jennifer Lawrence’s platinum curls, the movie’s many stars recreate the 1970s through the rich, external life of their hair.

It would be easy to get lost in the follicular, but stay a moment to consider the hustle. Based on the true story of the Abscam scandal, the film begins in 1978, as FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Cooper) forces con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) into an elaborate sting operation to unseat corrupt politicians in New Jersey. While the sting itself was real enough, O’Russell pre-empts the audience’s disbelief with a screenshot that reads “some of this actually happened,” a phrase so callously open to inaccuracies that it draws laughter from the audience.

Truth is en vogue this Oscar season. Since Argo won Best Picture over Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, this year's American Hustle must square up against The Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks, and 12 Years a Slave, all films that are, in some way, “based on a true story.” However, O’Russell’s admission that only “some” of the scenes in his film “actually” happened paraphrases Mark Twain’s oft-quoted phrase: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Twain’s point riffs on the idea that the imagination is capable of projecting events that might never have occurred, a theme that the movie’s hustle embodies. In a world where the con is your living, the film asks what prevents the con from then becoming your life.

Behind or even beyond the hair, Twain’s quote speaks to the existential angst in which O’Russell’s film is immersed. These characters are troubled for the sake of making trouble, lost in a swirl of frustration and naivety that characterized the limited freedoms of the 1970s. Indeed, American Hustle feels very much like a director assembling a company in order to set them free. It is not surprising, perhaps, given the O'Russell’s reputation for treating his cast with an air of barely concealed aggression, that Hustle's actors seem pushed to the edges of their impulses, producing performances that feel like fight or flight.

Christian Bale is unrecognizable as the hairpiece-fondling, potbellied Irving, whose belief in the love of a good woman leads to the most romantic dry-cleaning montage ever committed to celluloid. By his side, Amy Adams reaches peak sincerity as a lost girl desperate to believe in love and other transformative costumes. Together, the two lead the audience through questionable dialogue and a meandering plot, buoyed by equally low neck lines that sweep Bale’s impressive potbelly and Adams’ omnipresent side boob with indiscriminate joy. Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s destructive wife, steals every scene she’s in, depicting a woman so young and fragile, so oppositional to Adams in her complete fear of change, that she can’t fix the curls on her head long enough to put out the fires she quite literally starts around her.

You'll instinctually love or hate this kind of acting; instinct, also, will define the extent to which the disturbing revelations about O’Russell’s personal life change your understanding of the film. Whatever the truth to the accusations, there is an incredible innocence to American Hustle’s version of the 1970s that remains unsettling, a pervasive nostalgia that ear marks the decade as a time when things were simpler, when sex was sexier, when corruption was a little more innocent. Halfway through, Sydney and Di Maso strike out on their own and head to the discothèque. She's Donna Summer and he's John Travolta, so iconically dressed that the costumes often become divorced from the context in which they were once so powerful. The earnestness with which Sydney and Di Maso believe in the healing rhythms found dancing under disco lights is another kind of nostalgia porn that feels good to the audience because it is so easy on the eye.

Adams's brief nod to Donna Summer as a style icon is also telling of the movie’s wider problem of diversity. Though the stars and associates of American Hustle are white, the African-American and Latino populations of Atlantic City are only granted a brief cameo as prospective recipients of charity from a politician come good. Not only do the spectres of diversity feel like an allusion to a collective poor that have been filed, neatly, somewhere off screen, but their appearance in the film is no larger than a scene in which they are called to collectively applaud their benefactors. No voices, then; just the sound of applause.

The silencing of any non-white voices extends to the plot of the hustle itself. In order to convince politicians that a mysterious Sheikh is willing to fund their project, the team dress an FBI agent of Mexican descent in Sheikh-like clothing. This allows for a pithy punchline, but you can't help but get the sense that the storyline exists to silence the "Sheikh": he must hold his tongue so as to keep his poor command of Arabic a secret.

As a result, American Hustle feels like a film about fantasy, simultaneously attempting to convince you of the illusion while constantly alluding to the fact that it's just an illusion. This was a problem, too, in Silver Linings Playbook, a film stuck somewhere between Garden State and Dirty Dancing, that never seemed to settle on how it could represent its characters' emotional truths. In both cases, it is often hard to tell whether the actors are tapping into profound emotion or simply making loud noises to convince you that they are.

When Irving and Sydney first meet at a party they connect over a love of jazz. Making doe eyes at each other over a Duke Ellington record while the party continues around them, O’Russell misses something fundamental about their situation. Unable to communicate the profundity that follows an unexpected connection with a like mind, he draws the scene around his actors like two teenagers who believe no-one else could ever understand them. And that, his films suggest, is what O’Russell believes of himself.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. She last wrote in these pages about music in December. She tumbls here and twitters here

"We All Went Down With The Ship" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)

"Love Is A Minor Key" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)