Monday, December 18, 2017

Wormwood (and American Vandal)

Wormwood is a chilly immersion in a river of Stygian gloom.  I've now watched three episodes of the six program series available this month on Netflix.  Directed by Errol Morris, the program has an eerie, disembodied aspect -- voices, ghostly faces, documents, and grim-looking corridors and hotel rooms appear in the murk and, at first, the entire enterprise is off-putting, abstract, and perilously close to self-parody.  (See, in that regard, the series American Vandal, another plunge into the river Styx, but this venture a parody of extended, immensely detailed-oriented true crime shows such as Making a Murderer.  In American Vandal, someone has spray-painted penises on twenty cars owned by faculty at a Midwestern high school -- the vandalism has been pinned on one of the usual suspects, a stoner reprobate named Dylan.  But Dylan protests that he is innocent and the show evokes the entire mechanism of film-maker-manufactured indignation at injustice, ritualistic forensic science, and talking-head witnesses inadvertently exposing a culture of ignorance, poverty, and abject victimization existing at the lower fringes of the criminal justice system.  Vandal is intended as satiric parody, but the show's appropriation of the standard tropes of this kind of programming is so pitch-perfect that the audience loses track of the fact that the whole thing is intended as a larky joke -- you actually yearn to know who really spray-painted the "dicks on the cars" and the show engenders considerable and authentic suspense.)  Wormwood involves a scientist complicit in the Department of Defense secret biological and chemical weapons program.  A couple days after Thanksgiving in November 1953, the scientist, Frank Olson, committed suicide by flinging himself out of a 11th floor window at the Statler Hotel in New York -- a purgatorial property that looks somewhat like the nightmarish corridors in the hotel figuring in the Coen Bros. Barton Fink.  Olson was under CIA custody at the time of his death.  Beginning in 1973, DOD documents revealed that Olson was part of a study as to the effects of LSD and that he may have died while under the influence of that drug.  Wormwood is about paranoia and obsession and it shows how the extended Olson family was fundamentally destroyed by uncertainties relating to how Frank Olson died.  The program is structured around an extended interview between Frank's son, Eric Olson and the film maker Errol Morris.  Morris doesn't use his celebrated Interrogatron in this movie -- instead, we see him interviewing the fantastically intelligent and loquacious Eric Olson in some kind of institutional setting. There is a sense that Eric Olson, himself, may be clinically insane -- and this notion is enhanced by the grim room where he tells his story to the inert, almost entirely silent, Morris.  Olson is tall and extremely pale and has an unearthly look about him and Morris is heavy-set with a shaved head that makes him look like a survivor of a Russian penal colony.  None of the people in the film are conventionally attractive and so they all seem, at first at least, garishly ogre-ish, almost monstrous in the film's huge close-ups -- faces half-drowned in deep mahogany-shadow; everyone is lit as if sitting for a Rembrandt portrait.  Encircling the interview sequences are reconstructions of the events leading to Olson's death.  These reconstructions involve baroque camera-angles, strange obstructions of some or most of the image field, and are very extensive -- they comprise a saturnine film within a film:  Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olson as morose to the point of being comatose; a rogue's gallery of CIA operatives, some of them quite famous, accompany the hero on his via dolorosa.  (Participating in Olson's demise was Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA assassin who later killed Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.) These parts are also played by plain-looking actors -- including Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban (playing the sinister Dr. Abrahamson, an allergist, who treats Sarsgaard's paranoia with doses of Jack Daniels apparently laced with LSD.)  The film is filled with bizarre interludes -- the CIA takes Frank Olson to a Broadway musical, a Rodgers and Hammerstein production featuring an aria called "No other Love"; this song is repetitive visual leit motif that alternates with images from Hamlet (in the Lawrence Olivier film), documentary shots of the war in Korea, where the US is accused of using "germ bombs" and where American POWs are "brainwashed", possibly through the use of LSD or other psycho-active drugs.  At one point, Sarsgaard is said to have danced to the song "Hound Dog" and, then, stood on his head in the corner of his room -- although Eric Olson thinks this is probably a lie.  Sarsgaard was surreptitiously  administered LSD in a snifter of Cointreau at a place named Deep Creek Lake -- he was at a fishing lodge with other CIA and DOD scientists.  He's convinced that he "failed the acid test" and that the CIA now wants him to "disappear".  The filmed re-enactments collide with interviews which detail years of litigation and government cover-up.  If the story seems familiar its because Seymour Hersh reported on it in the mid-seventies.  Although Olson and his family members, now all dead except for Eric, seem modest, middle-of-the-road bourgeoisie this is a misapprehension.  At one point Eric, who is psychologist himself working on a "collage" mode of therapy at Harvard, notes that a couple friends joined him for a "sort of séance" in Room 1018A (the place from which his father jumped or was pushed):  the friends are Betty Lifton (the wife of the famous Harvard psychologist and political activist, Robert Jay Lifton) and the son of Marshall McLuhan.  So there's more going on here than meets the eye.  The show is intentionally slow-moving and repetitive -- it's also obsessive and eerie:  the program seeks to recreate in the viewers the general paranoiac malaise that led to the hero's death and is reasonably successful in that venture.  Morris directs from a screenplay written by others and so the film has a curious hybrid aspect -- it's not entirely Morris' work although recognizably a product of his style of film-making. 

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