Saturday, November 27, 2010

Life of the Mind (In Treatment, Season 2)

Is there an actor who listens better than Gabriel Byrne? Usually performers stand out by how adeptly they fill silences, and to be sure Byrne's distinctive Irish brogue can put a memorable backspin on moments of levity or gravitas. On In Treatment, though, he spends the majority of his screen time as an actor portraying a psychiatrist should -- by reacting to the actors around him. Not only is Byrne a great listener, he has a seemingly endless array of ways to listen: Sometimes he lets you in on exactly what he's thinking; other times he erects a wall around his character, Dr. Paul Weston, that keeps you out and leaves you guessing. In Treatment: Season 1 gave us a Paul Weston who was besieged on all sides, his skills as a therapist suffering as a result. Season 2 (now on DVD) shows Paul, if anything, facing higher personal and professional stakes than before; only this time he brings his A-game to nearly every session. (Season 3 is currently in progress on HBO.)

In Treatment is very much an actor's show: each episode, about 25 minutes long, consisting of two characters sitting in a room talking to each other. (Occasionally an episode will break this format, but not often.) It's a series that's ultimately only as good as its actors, and the first season's ensemble ran the gamut from the annoying (Melissa George) to the sublime (Mia Wasikowska). Something miraculous happened that year: What was to be the pivotal plot arc, Paul's falling in love with Laura, a neurotic patient (George), fizzled; but his sessions with Sophie, a suicidal teen gymnast (Wasikowska) soared, so that by the end of the season (five episodes per week for nine weeks), Sophie became the heart of the show, and all the earlier flaws seemed to dissipate.

Season 2 has no hole in need of filling. All the actors bring his or her A-game to rival Byrne's. Hope Davis (no stranger to screen therapy, from Mumford) leads off each week as Mia, a former patient of Paul's from 20 years earlier, now a successful attorney at the law firm representing Paul in a malpractice suit. (Fallout from the first season, with Paul's treatment of Alex, a pilot who kills himself, leading to accusations of blame from Alex's unstable father, played by the remarkable Glynn Turman.) Next comes Alison Pill as April, a young graduate student dying of cancer; followed by Aaron Grady Shaw's Oliver, an adolescent reeling from his parents' recent divorce. As Walter, a wealthy CEO with a sleeping disorder, John Mahoney (best known as the father of another therapist on Frasier) gradually reveals deeper layers of anxieties. Ending each week, like the first season, is Dianne Weist playing Paul's own therapist, Gina, a former mentor and friend who possibly knows him too well.

I watched the first season of In Treatment twice on DVD: the first time through every episode featuring every patient; the second time I selected only the characters who resonated with me (Sophie, Alex), following their individual arcs from start to finish. In Treatment: Season 2 is so consistently strong that when I revisit it I can't imagine skipping anybody. Each of the four patients we follow (other secondary patients are given glimpses throughout the season) represents an aspect of Paul's life that he's either confronting or avoiding: a failed marriage; estrangement from his children; difficulties with his father. Individually, their sessions are compelling; cumulatively, they serve as external manifestations of the inner workings of Paul's psyche.

Even more than before, the second season of In Treatment asks probing questions about the benefits and detriments of therapy, where the boundaries lie between therapist and patient. Mia questions whether feeling miserable after each session does anybody any good. Walter is so set in his ways that examining his life at this stage in his life "opens a Pandora's box," as another character puts it, that perhaps would be better left shut. April refuses to go to chemo or tell her parents about the cancer, forcing Paul to decide whether to intervene and take her himself. Oliver becomes such a lonely kid, living between two homes, that even a simple matter of asking Paul if he'll make him a sandwich blurs the line between being a therapist and being a friend or father-figure.

If this description makes the show sound like heavy weather, I should add that an assortment of moods and tones are juggled in every episode. Each session is like a fencing match, with Paul and his patients parrying and thrusting with jabs and barbs and accusations and recriminations. Oftentimes, the show is deeply funny. Then there are the silences, the long pauses where memories and dreams and friendships and romances are shared. I've called In Treatment an emotional epic: a single twenty-five minute episode can stretch across space and time, with descriptions of people in the patients' lives so vivid that it's astonishing to realize that we often never meet them.

While the performers deserve much of the credit for this, props must also go to the thoughtful writing and directing that go into each episode, following the template set by the original Israeli series BeTipul. (Paris Barclay took over the series for S2, following Rodrigo Garcia in S1.) The art direction and production design also add a great deal to the overall experience, turning the main setting from Paul's study in season one (in the house he shared with his wife and kids in Baltimore) to a Brooklyn apartment in season two (where he lives alone). Warm, enveloping shadows filter into the room, with signs of the seasons changing through the windows -- subtle shifts that mirror the fluctuating emotional states of Paul's patients.

I'd be curious to know what real psychiatrists think of In Treatment. (The DVD set is, once again, disappointingly non-existent with special features.) My guess is they would regard the tests and challenges put before Paul as too dramatic, the breakthroughs occurring too soon. This is a television drama, however, not a documentary; and for TV the series paces itself much more gradually than is customary, its rhythms as metronomic and mesmerizing as that wave machine rocking back and forth in Paul's office (and appearing over the opening theme). And then there is Byrne, generously opening up a wide enough emotional space to include patients and viewers, penetrating with questions, basking in silences.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Wizard (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I)

Several reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I have cited a pair of scenes as standouts -- a lovely dance interlude between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and an erotically-turbocharged fantasy sequence that functions as the last temptation of Ron (Rupert Grint) -- but what impresses me most is how the two go together. Heretically, the dance scene is not JK Rowling's invention. On the run from Voldemort's endless supply of assassins, and abandoned by their insecure red-headed pal, Harry and Hermione hole up in a tent in the middle of nowhere, listening to Nick Cave's "O'Children" fading in and out through an old transistor radio, until the former offers the latter his hand and for a few minutes they awkwardly, charmingly boogie with the spirit of what remains of their adolescence. Not long after, Ron returns with a weapon that will destroy the horcrux in their possession. Before he can, however, the horcrux (a piece of Voldemort's soul, one of a handful that needs to be destroyed to defeat He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) attempts to undermine Ron with his greatest fear: a vision of Hermione and Harry together as lovers. While this passage is in Rowling's book, onscreen it's so surprisingly erotic (flirting with R-rated nudity) that it would be laughed at without the dance to precede it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: David Yates is a filmmaker who understands the difference between a book and a movie. The first director of the series, Chris Columbus, has never even understood movies, and made two films that are the definition of hackwork; while his successor, Alfonso Cuaron, turned in a highly-praised third installment that for me, between its Jamaican talking-heads and cheesy final freeze-frame, showed the downside of artsy personal moviemaking. Mike Newell's fourth film boasted the best special effects of the series to date, but was as ham-fisted and tone-deaf as one might expect from a director who admits that he doesn't care for children. Then Yates arrived, and finally Harry Potter found its stride. The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince streamlined Rowling's plotting and found the visual equivalent to her prose without treating every word as if it were Holy Writ. As somebody once said about the Bible, Yates shows the difference between taking Harry Potter literally and taking it seriously.

Deathly Hallows, the grand finale of Rowling's seven-part saga, has been split into two films -- Part I (this one) and Part II (released next summer) -- both directed by Yates. Certainly there are monetary considerations for doing this, but it also gives the filmmakers more room to breathe. Steve Kloves, who has adapted every Potter novel except for Order of the Phoenix (Michael Goldenberg had the honors -- and did good work -- on that one), and with Deathly Hallows: Part I he's allotted more time for the character-driven moments that are his specialty. (To be honest, I've often wondered if Kloves misses the larger points of his films, which in the pre-Potter era included The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone.) In turn, this frees Radcliffe, Grint and Watson to show-off their acting chops, which have improved by leaps and bounds since their Sorcerer's Stone days. All three are astoundingly good in the two key scenes mentioned earlier, as well as the array of dramatic, comic and tragic beats they hit time and again throughout the film's 146 minutes. More than any previous Potter film, the appearances by the League of Extraordinary British Thespians (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson) are little more than window dressing. Deathly Hallows: Part I is tightly focused on its trio of leads, and follows them from peril to peril.

Before seeing the film I had mocked reviews calling this installment the one where "Harry Potter Goes Dark," as the series has been ensconced in shadows since at least Goblet of Fire. But, I must admit, Deathly Hallows: Part I feels unrelenting in its travails and terrors. The Ministry of Magic becomes Voldemort's Vichy government, spreading Nazi-ish propaganda about the need to eradicate Muggles (non-magical persons) and "Mudbloods" (a slur of the former). Hogwarts too comes under the Ministry's jurisdiction, with Snape -- who killed Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince -- the school's new headmaster. In the backstretch of her series, Rowling had toyed from time to time with the common template in each book (Harry stays with the Dursleys, celebrates his birthday, arrives at Hogwarts, plays Quidditch, uncovers a threat, hijinks ensue). But with Harry, Hermione and Ron never arriving for their final year of classes, Deathly Hallows marked the first time Rowling was working without a net. Her plotting occasionally got clunky and repetitive, with some rather shameless pilfering from The Lord of the Rings; yet what she was saying about her characters -- that they need to use the knowledge they've learned in school in order to survive in the world -- was deeply insightful. Considering how much emotion had been invested in the final novel by her worldwide base of fans, it was also very brave.

Hogwarts will play a more prominent role in the second Deathly Hallows film. (There is a nice bit of foreshadowing in this one -- another scene not in the book -- with Neville Longbottom [Matthew Lewis] standing up for a fellow student on the train en route to the school.) Much of Part I takes place in woods and along shores, as the search for horcruxes pulls our heroes far away from civilization. Before their departure, the semi-principled Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy, who starred in Yates's The Girl in the Cafe) has a Galadriel moment and gives Frodo and Sam Harry, Hermione and Ron items bequeathed to them from Dumbledore's will -- possessions which, of course, will help them along their journey.

I adored Yates's visual storytelling in Order of the Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince. Yet there are passages in Deathly Hallows: Part I where his timing seems off. A daring raid on the Ministry of Magic is pulled off with panache. Other scenes, like an ambush on a wedding reception, fly by so fast their momentousness barely registers. The most frightening scene in Rowling's book, when Harry and Hermione encounter a woman who may know secrets about Dumbledore, has its impact diluted in the film. There were times when I wanted Yates to hold an image or a beat a moment longer. Other action sequences are protracted to the point where they're bludgeoning. (I should add that there was a problem with the sound in the theater I attended, which may have accounted for the aural assault.)

Many of the flaws in Deathly Hallows: Part I have nothing to do with the filmmaking. They're a product of an original narrative that lurches from finding horcruxes to discovering swords to searching for the "deathly hallows" themselves. In a gorgeous animated sequence that taps deeply into Potter lore, we learn just what the "hallows" are, a marked improvement on Rowling's exposition. Additionally, Yates and Kloves condense the interminable bickering of their protagonists from the novel by about 85 percent, and do their best to balance a sense of frustration felt by characters who believe they're going in circles with a clear narrative trajectory toward a climactic destination. While this certainly recalls The Lord of the Rings, another film to which Deathly Hallows has been compared is The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, Hallows is like Empire with the lead trio sticking together (Ron's brief departure aside). The Empire Strikes Back separated Luke, Han and Leia in order to shape their characters. Harry, Ron and Hermone evolve in tandem, and more than any other film, all are given nearly equal weight.

There is so much to admire in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (I haven't even mentioned the marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, fast becoming my favorite film composer) with so much being eagerly discussed around every water cooler and every coffee shop I've frequented over the last few days, that I'm surprised barely a peep has been written about it so far in the blogosphere. My guess is what does eventually come will be in the form of a rant or a dismissal, which is the prerogative of the unimpressed but I think takes for granted the accomplishment of this series. Nothing quite like the Harry Potter movies has ever been attempted, and that they've grown fresher rather than more stale is a testament to the talents both before and behind the camera. So many films leave me with a shrug, often at best a flickering interest. The last few Harry Potters, by contrast, have made me feel the tingles I had watching movies as a kid. I never knew how much I missed those tingles. I do know how much I will miss this series when it comes to an end.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Dark Places (The Best American Noir of the Century)

"If you find light and hilarity in these pages,
I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional."
--Otto Penzler, in the Foreword

"The short stories in this volume are a groove. Exercise
your skeevy curiosity and read every one."
--James Ellroy, in the Introduction

39 stories spanning 84 years over 731 pages: as far as literary anthologies go, The Best American Noir of the Century (2010) is as definitive as they come. Moreover, as indicated above by the book's co-editors, the collection is as pleasingly self-contradictory as the subject of noir itself. Recurring themes run through these tales -- murder, kidnapping, torture, revenge, theft, greed, adultery -- but no two authors approach any of these the same way. Different attitudes, tones, perspectives are brought to the table in each of these stories, and whatever readers take from them will have partly to do with what they bring as well.

The Best American Noir succeeds in demonstrating this variety despite Penzler's rather irksome efforts to distinguish "noir fiction" from "detective fiction." In the Foreword, he states that the private detective in American fiction "retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle," while noir is populated by characters "whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead the into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry." That's quite a bit of pigeonholing there -- in literature or cinema -- which the ensuing collection blessedly contradicts. But I see what Penzler is trying to do: eliminating the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett opens the door to a wider range of voices. And even if this anthology ends up being a bit top-heavy with stories following the "Golden Age" of noir (26 of the 39 were published after 1960), this is still an impressively eclectic ensemble.

It's hard to tell whether Penzler (founder of the Mysterious Bookshop and the Mysterious Press) really believes his own thesis or is deliberately setting himself up as overly cautious curmudgeon to Ellroy's trigger-happy button man. By now the public persona of the self-proclaimed "Demon Dog"/"White Knight of the Far Right" should need no introduction, except to add that Ellroy's actual work (including his last novel and reportedly new memoir) reveals his reactionary stance as a front for some highly attuned empathy toward idealists. Not that the guy is bereft of wit or irony or amusement. "Noir sparked before the Big War and burned like a four-coil hot plate up to 1960," reads his Introduction. "Cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people ran concurrent with American boosterism and yahooism and made a subversive point just by being. They described a fully existing fringe America and fed viewers and readers the demography of a Secret Pervert Republic. It was just garish enough to be laughed off as unreal and just pathetic enough to be recognizably human."

In Best American Noir, we enter the Secret Pervert Republic by way of Tod Robbins' "Spurs" (1923) The sordid tale of a conniving circus performer scheming to swindle her husband, a dwarf, "Spurs" is an intriguing choice as it is better known in its onscreen incarnation Freaks, the iconic 1932 cult film. Much of Best American Noir shows the cross-pollination between books and movies. "Gun Crazy" (1940), by MacKinlay Kantor, became Joseph H. Lewis's archetypal film noir of the same name (1949); though, like "Spurs," the original story takes a vastly different approach to the material than the movie. The Killer Inside Me's Jim Thompson lends a characteristic feel-good tale ("Forever After"), as does The Talented Mr. Ripley's Patricia Highsmith ("Slowly, Slowly in the Wind"). Jeffrey Deaver ("The Weekender") and Lawrence Block (Like a Bone in the Throat") offer rivetingly competing takes on how people behave in hostage situations. Stories by well-known authors, namely those from the 40s and 50s (e.g., Dorothy B. Hughes; David Goodis; Cornell Woolrich; Evan Hunter), not only are compelling as stand-alones; they reflect the significant contributions that their progenitors would additionally bring to the screen (e.g., In a Lonely Place; Shoot the Piano Player; Rear Window; The Birds).

Other big names make less of an impression. Out of the way thankfully early is Mickey Spillane's "The Lady Says Die!" (1953), a ludicrous self-parody of his chest-thumping style. Not terrible, just drearily obligatory, is "Faithless" (1997), yet another slo-mo sucker-punch by Joyce Carol Oates that pummels us with the obvious. (Men are scum -- never saw that coming.) Harlan Ellison provides an initial jolt with the unexpected appearance of his sci-fi noir "Mefisto in Onyx" (1993); yet this novella-sized narrative, despite being a fast read, bottoms out with a preposterous turn followed quickly by another. "Mefisto" may have worked better as a full-scale novel, as would "When the Women Come Out to Dance" (2002), a swift Elmore Leonard yarn that renders his prose style shallow. "Since I Don't Have You" (1988), by Ellroy himself, brims with energy and verve but is really a dry run of characters and ideas developed to their fullest in his "L.A. Quartet" of crime novels (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz). "Missing the Morning Bus" (2007) is a disappointing entry (and concluding story) to the collection, for both its own shrug-worthiness and the fact that its author, Lorenzo Carcattera, is a prototypal charlatan for our times (see Sleepers for details). Lastly, it was inevitable that I would dislike Dennis Lehane's "Running Out of Dog" (1999), though I must commend the author for resisting the urge to kidnap, torture, or kill a child character. Must have been hard.

Still, there is more than enough good stuff on these pages for either citizens or tourists of the Secret Pervert Republic to enjoy. Among my personal favorites are "Iris" (1984), Stephen Greenleaf's shattering detective story about a woman who asks a private eye to deliver a package with a surprise inside; the flabbergasting "Her Lord and Master" (2005), in which Andrew Klavan boldly depicts a kinky S&M relationship with increasingly hair-raising stakes; and the most brilliant of the bunch, "All Through the House" (2003), Christopher Coake's elegant, mournful account of a multiple homicide that starts in the present as tabloid fodder and wends back to the distant past to reveal a killer's humanity. Stories like these reflect the very best of The Best American Noir of the Century, rolling right over Penzler's demarcation line with Ellroyesque glee.