Thursday, November 13, 2014

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is a four-hour mini-series first aired on HBO on November 2 and November 3, 2014 brilliantly directed by Lisa Cholodenko.  The mini-series is novelistic in ambition, following the destinies of a number of characters over a period of 25 years.  Olive Kitteridge derives from a Pulitzer prize-winning book written by Elizabeth Strout  and comprised of linked short stories; the eponymous character is a strong-willed woman, a schoolteacher retired for three of  the four hours of the mini-series and married to a pharmacist in a small and picturesque coastal village in Maine.  Frances McDormand plays the title role and her performance is brilliantly natural, penetrating, and uncompromising -- Olive Kitteridge is clinically depressed, an embittered kill-joy who finds the happiness of others disheartening, naive, and silly.  McDormand's portrait of this woman is bold -- she makes no attempt to soften the edges of this character whose abrasive demeanor and sarcastic remarks inflict injury on all those around her.  We tolerate Olive Kitteridge because she is witty, intelligent, and, as much a hapless victim of her own angry melancholia as those around her -- in the first scene in the film, the elderly Olive seems to be planning to commit suicide, loading and cocking a gun with which to blow out her brains.  Many years ago, I saw Bill Forsyth's excellent film version of the Marilynne Robinson novel Housekeeping.  In that film, a woman suffering from profound and disabling depression observes to a little girl entrusted to her care and there is nothing in the world that requires that a person be happy -- some people, the woman says, are naturally unhappy and dissatisfied with the world and that's just the way it is.  Indeed, in Housekeepintg as in Olive Kitteridge, the distance between those who are blessed with natural happiness and those afflicted with depression seems incalculably great, a vast impassable gulf:  in these films, happy people speak an entirely different language than the unhappy; those who are depressed regard themselves as the custodians of the truth about existence, clear-sighted victims of a vision of existence that is too acute for most people to bear.  The question posed by Olive Kitteridge are profound and ancient ones:  are human beings entitled to happiness?  And who has the truer vision of reality, the pessimist or the optimist? Olive Kitteridge's husband, Henry, is a man of perpetually sunny disposition, gentle, kind, and sentimental -- at the wedding of his son, he cries unabashedly and makes a stammering, naively sentimental toast that crucifies Olive with embarrassment and dismay.  As the mother of the groom, Olly, as she is called, prefers to sit in the front row of the wedding party, eating from a can of Planter's nuts, and making sardonic comments; she terrifies a flower girl and openly insults the conventional, self-absorbed, but well-meaning mother of the bride.  Her family is embarrassed by her behavior but everyone tiptoes around her, afraid of incurring her wrath.  (Later, we see that Olive's son has married a beautiful young woman who is, apparently, fierce in her own right and, probably, closer in disposition to Olive than might first seem apparent -- in a petty gesture of revenge, Olive has stolen one of the bride's earrings, a theft immediately apparent to the victim's eagle eye, and the bride seems quite willing to spend her wedding night tearing the honeymoon room apart in search of the missing jewelry.)  This scene raise the film's fundamental question   on which side of the great divide in human personality does this bride exist -- is she one of the satisfied cheerful ones or one of the perpetually dissatisfied?   You either see the world as a tragedy or as a comedy with a happy ending ; there doesn't seem to be much middle ground and the film's grim emblem seems to be suicide..  Olive Kitt3ridge is lovingly constructed; it is beautifully shot and acted and the script is a model of intelligent implication, proceeding through a series of leit motifs and tiny, penetrating details from which the audience constructs a picture of the people involved in the interlocking and linked stories.  The film observes certain aspects of existence that are tragic -- a young husband is accidentally shot while hunting; a woman drops dead of a stroke in the opening scene  -- but the film also accepts the proposition that these things are all a matter of perspective:  for some people, everything is fundamentally tragic and futile; for other people, nothing is tragic -- all will be well in the end.  The clash of these two viewpoints provides the film's drama and its rationale.  One of Olive's students has a mother who is a drug addict and so seriously depressed that we learn that she has killed herself.  Olive calls her "an interesting woman" and praises her intelligence.  Olive's pharmacist husband, refusing to fill the poor doomed woman's prescription of valium -- she is over-medicating herself -- suggests that she buy several 100-watt light bulbs to brighten up her house against the long Maine winters.  In the contrast between the points of view, we sense the heart of this mini-series:  Olive's husband wants to help people; he's a problem solver and acts aggressively, if naively, to "treat" the depression of those around him.  Olive doesn't even see depression as a problem -- to her, depression is a valid and truthful orientation to a world that is stony, cold, and, generally, disappointing.  (She loves a fellow-teacher, an alcoholic who reads John Berryman, and who, apparently, commits suicide when Olive's husband takes measures to limit his contact with his wife.  The dead teacher leaves a note scribbled on a bar napkin:  "Save us from shotguns and the suicide of fathers," a quote from one of Berrryman's Dream Songs.)  Olive Kitteridge has much of the subtlety and sadness of Chekhov -- it feels a bit like a Chekhov play, or the dramatization of several of Chekhov's stories:  we have the sense of characters whose relationship to the world is involuted and repressed -- Olive would never express her sorrow or anger explicitly; it is all bottled-up inside her, a rage that reveals itself through little twitches and spasms of sardonic cruelty.  When we see her bellowing with sorrow over the death of the alcoholic fellow teacher, we have a brief sense for the abyss of her grief, the inconsolable nature of her depression, but it is something revealed for only a moment, but, then, concealed again.  The entire film proceeds under the sign of Saturn -- it is dark, sad, melancholy.  When a young woman falls into the sea, the disturbed man who saves her can't conceive that she slipped into the icy waters accidentally -- he has come back to Maine to kill himself and his only explanation for the girl's fall into the water was that it was intentional.  But the girl is one of those people whose personality doesn't admit depression and she is completely unable to grasp the young man's point of view:  his idea that she might have intentionally dropped herself into the sea is completely incomprehensible to her.        

The notes posted above reflect my assessment of the first half of Olive Kitteridge.  Unfortunately, the second two episodes don't sustain the philosophical intensity of the series' opening two hours.  In the third hour, Olive Kitteridge and her husband are held hostage in a hospital hold-up -- the scene is frightening, but, also, implausible and seems extracted from a different film.  Furthermore, the sequence, and much of the film's second part, is overly explicit -- speeches are made explaining things that we already understand.  After the dissonant, confessional exchanges of the hostage episode, the film never quite recovers its equipoise and, in fact, slips into sentimental bathos.  The mutual confessions articulated in the hostage scene suggest that Henry and Olive's marriage will have to develop in a different direction -- but just as that relationship threatens to become interesting, Henry has a stroke and becomes inanimate for much of the rest of the film.  This removes Henry's perspective from the film and without his radical, unmotivated cheerfulness as a foil to Olive's nasty pessimism, the show loses force -- it runs out of energy.   Drama requires opposition and, without Henry, there is no counterweight to Olive.  A character like Olive is tolerable only to the extent that she is witty and funny; otherwise, her individualism, which is meant to be heroic, deteriorates into something like social autism -- the story of a woman who is impolite and doesn't know how to act in public.  And, at times, the second half of Olive Kitteridge threatens to become merely cranky.  There are still good scenes in the last two hours of the picture and, throughout, the attention to detail is dauntingly exact and powerful, and the acting uniformly (if, perhaps, monotonously) true to life.  Olive's trip to Brooklyn to meet her son's second wife is a humiliating catastrophe and those scenes are funny in a cringe-inducing way:  she slaps an offensive child and is, then, forced to accept the brat's forced "forgiveness" after first apologizing herself. During the last half-hour, Bill Murray appears playing the role that has become standard to him -- an old curmudgeon with a heart of gold.  Murray's always fun to watch -- he is s sad-eyed tragic clown and our knowledge of his history and career adds greatly to his performance.  But, ultimately, he's imported into the show as a sort of deux ex machina to cheer up the suicidal Olive.  Although I think the movie loses its way in the second half, it remains capable of small, but effective shocks:  when Olive peels an apple using a pocket-knife, she drops the green peel onto the ground at the edge of the seashore.  We recall how her unrequited love, the suicidal English teacher, peeled his apple and rebelliously let the peels drop to the floor.  Olive sees the fallen coil of apple peel metamorphose into a green serpent which, then, blithely drops into the sea. and swims away.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to seeing this as I read the depressing book.