discipline and punish

The second season of House, M.D. is available now on DVD. I picked up the first season last year, based largely on one person’s recommendation and my longtime admiration for Hugh Laurie, who played the buffoonish Prince Regent in the third Blackadder series and Bertie Wooster on Jeeves and Wooster, but who spent nearly a decade in the late 90’s and early 00’s playing the “overstarched British guy” in a variety of bland comedies and family pictures. I deeply, dearly wanted a good, meaty role for Laurie, and the first season of House absolutely provides that. Dr. House is a high-functioning drug addict, cripple, wit, and brilliant scientist who is both disgusted by and a prime example of human moral frailty. Otherwise, the show is a fun medical procedural with a unique hook (the doctors on this show are in the “Diagnostic Medicine” department, pinning down diseases that present as bizarre mysteries, usually just before the patient dies), with asides about Dr. House’s infuriating way of dealing with/abusing both friends and strangers.

But in the second season the weight shifts; the show becomes more and more about House’s relationships with his small circle of — well, given the way he treats them, “friends” is an uncertain term, but co-workers, let’s say. It says a lot about the way we now think about work and our personal lives that everyone who’s important to him works in his hospital, including his estranged ex-wife. But it says more about House — it’s hard to imagine people spending time with him if they weren’t forced to, and like Sherlock Holmes he seems to be unable to deal with the boredom of ordinary life when he’s not working. (There is actually a scene in which a message from the hospital about an unusual case keeps him from shooting up with morphine in his apartment.) Structurally, it’s also clever writing; as in some of Howard Hawks’ great westerns, the close focus on a small group of people who both irritate and need each other provides for greater emotional intensity than is possible with a large and fluctuating cast such as one finds on shows like ER or The West Wing.

The season is divided fairly straightforwardly into two halves, marked respectively by the presence and absence of Sela Ward as the ex-wife who for a while is also working as the hospital’s chief counsel. While she is around, she acts as a controlling and regulating force; she can’t restrain House, exactly, but she’s alone among the characters in being able to fully stand up to him, and love for her mutes some of the malicious joy he takes in being cruel. He will apologize to her when he hurts her or, better still, even try not to do it in the first place.

This is important, because otherwise House has attracted around him a group of highly damaged people. He openly admits he’s chosen needy people to be his subordinates; he wants their need to drive them to be better doctors. We find out in this season that House was dismissed by at least four other hospitals, but in Lisa Edelstein’s Dr. Cuddy, he’s found a hospital administrator who’s part indulgent mother and part mildly abused girlfriend. She’ll yell at him, but until almost the very end of the second season, she rolls over for him so consistently that you almost expect every episode to end with a shrug and an amused sitcom tagline: “Oh, House!” And finally, there’s Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard, in probably the most complicated performance of the show), an oncologist who’s House’s only friend, who tells us several times that he was there to “pick up the pieces” after the divorce, but who is ultimately too weak in both convictions and character to stand up to his friend. This means that House, essentially, runs the show; he controls everyone around him through a combination of wit, ruthlessness, keen but cynical observations about human nature, a great deal of dishonesty, and intellectual ability so great it asks to be taken as justification and redemption of all his moral flaws. When, finally, the ex-wife leaves the picture, he is absolutely dominant.

And here, for a while, the show starts to become less fun and unfortunately, peculiarly didactic. The show’s writers develop a particular brand of anti-humanism, an interpretation of materialism and “scientific” rationality that says that human beings are essentially selfish and ruled by their basest biological drives. That this philosophy is probably the result of too many Richard Dawkins books seems likely given the scene in “All In” where House distracts Wilson and Cuddy at the poker table by telling them that primate testicle size is inversely correlated to “the fidelity of their females”; we are, he says, “better and smaller than chimpanzees, larger and worse than gorillas.” When Foreman (Omar Epps) essentially steals an article Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is working on and publishes it first, House upbraids her for being shocked by his dishonesty:

You… continue to be flabbergasted every time someone acts like a human being. Foreman did what he did because it worked out best that way for him. That’s what everyone does.

That would be fine, of course — there’s no rule that says a main character can’t have a loathsome philosophical perspective — and it certainly leads to some amusing lines, if all in the rather narrow vein of “Did he really just say that?” Where the show goes wrong, I think, is in siding so consistently with House in his cynicism. It strikes me, watching this, that for such cynicism to really be effective, it can belong to the writers or the characters, but not both. That is, if House is cynical, that’s his character; but when the show supports him in it so often, so consistently bearing out his worst suspicions about people, we begin to feel the game is rigged. House begins to look less like a Darwinian realist and more like a mouthpiece for television writers who like to think of themselves as Darwinian realists.

Writers have absolute control over everything that goes on in their fictional universes. To use that power to essentially bend reality into a particular worldview is not merely irresponsible art; it’s ineffective art. Every time the writers on House, M.D. close the door on human nobility, spirituality, character, and strength, every time House’s dour generalizations about human venality are validated by the course of the narrative, it makes us question the reality of the show. All of us can think of counterexamples, both from history and from our own lives. That the show gives so little space to such counterexamples is not merely annoying to people of a different philosophical bent; it violates our belief in the fictional milieu.

Dr. House, in many situations, ceases to be a character, and becomes instead a kind of Panopticon, relentlessly exposing our deviations from our moral standards. Sometimes the show successfully integrates his searching, pitiless intelligence into his actual character; at these times, we may feel a kind of pity for his inability to trust, as well as an admiration for his lacerating honesty. But this “honesty” too often becomes mere simplification. House’s theories about human behavior often turn out to yield correct predictions, but they also seem to leave out a great deal; some hand-waving and a great deal of studied indifference to the facts that don’t fit, and we can easily be fooled into thinking that this kind of theory is a “grim truth” that we had best accept if we are to be really honest with ourselves.

I am reminded of the wonderful chapter in C.S. Lewis’ allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress in which the main character encounters a giant (representing materialist reductionism) whose gaze causes people to become transparent, revealing their innards:

Consequently, when John looked around into the dungeon he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons. A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins… And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. And when John sat down and drooped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the working of his own inwards… and suddenly he fell on his face and thrust his hands into his eyes and cried out, It is the black hole… I am mad. I am dead. I am in hell for ever.

The point, of course, is that by showing (or claiming to show) us the inner workings of human behavior, materialist philosophies like Marxism and Freudianism and Darwinism often make us ashamed or afraid of our own natures. Even those who, like Dr. House, claim some superior level of honesty or integrity for being willing to face these ugly workings are, still, essentially capitulating to the sense of disgust. But these inner workings of human nature are not all revolting, and to treat them “objectively,” without differentiating them, is to miss, as John does, the difference between the strange beauty of the flow of blood through the woman’s brain and the genuinely sickening cancer of the old man.

Moreover, Lewis says, the giant who makes too much transparent risks missing something:

You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it… If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

And it seems clear that House does miss things. There are whole fields of human behavior that seem out of his grasp — charity, unselfish love, joy, religious ecstasy, idealism. To the degree that such things can be self-serving, he mocks them, and to the degree that he can find no selfish motive, he irritably dismisses them.

The degree to which the show is insufferable or compelling is the degree to which it goes along with House’s limited worldview or challenges it. Sometimes, as in “Skin Deep,” about a supermodel who turns out both to have been molested by her father and to be technically a boy, or “House vs. God,” in which a 15-year-old faith healer is shown to be a con artist and hypocrite, it leans very far toward “insufferable.” But just as often, thankfully, it’s compelling, as in “Autopsy,” when House’s bitter theorizing about a young girl with cancer turns out to be entirely off-base, or “TB or not TB,” in which none of House’s jabs at a humanitarian doctor seem to find their target. House doesn’t always get the last word, the best line, the tangiest philosophical zinger — just most of them. And the fact that he is so articulate and insightful and cruelly funny in his dismal worldview makes it all the more satisfying when humanity gets the better of him and does something humane.

If House, who is brilliant, misses too many things about people’s character and intentions, even as he believes he sees through them, how much more often does this happen to us ordinary film critics and historians? This article in the Atlantic, ostensibly a review of Simon Callow’s recent (and ongoing) biographies of Orson Welles, is inevitably an essay on Welles himself. Now dead more than twenty years, Welles still can’t get justice in the press or in most of the institutional film histories. I haven’t read Callow’s weighty and expensive books, but Benjamin Schwarz’s review sadly recapitulates most of the conventional wisdom:

Callow brings few new insights to the much-discussed, pivotal event…: Welles’s fateful decision to leave [The Magnificent] Ambersons without finishing… post-production work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary…. For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably… his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO… and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons…. At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons — and his own role in that destruction. four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

Sure. And Fatty Arbuckle murdered Virginia Rappe. Here is the classic Hollywood myth, given the Atlantic‘s prestigious imprimatur — Welles was a brilliant but profligate young man, little more than a boy, who had greatness within his grasp but pissed it away partying in Brazil. I’d have thought all this was well-addressed more than a decade ago, between Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent Welles essays in Placing Movies and Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel’s excellent documentary/reconstruction It’s All True. But apparently legend is far more compelling than the truth; a hardworking filmmaker who got screwed by a change in studio management and a certain degree of American racism is a clunkier character, harder to sell, than a flamboyant child genius run amok with “the best train set a boy ever had.”

Perhaps pointing out that it is virtually impossible to tell the story of the man who made Citizen Kane is cheap irony. But Welles moved on, as he matured, from “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life” to suggesting, in Mr. Arkadin, that a man can’t even explain his own life, and in F for Fake, that authorship of masterpieces is cheap and unreliable. Welles lied gleefully about his own life in practically every interview, telling Peter Bogdanovich, for example, different lies at different points, always relying on hyperbole to sell the lie. He would always make reference to his “favorite” film, the “worst” thing that every happened to him, his “greatest” tour-de-force. Welles knew that a grandiose lie is more convincing than a mundane lie, if only you have the charm and the bravado to sell it. Don’t say the Germans are invading, or the Japanese — make it the Martians. There are probably more whoppers orbiting Welles and his life than that of any other filmmaker in history. That, no doubt, wouldn’t have bothered him at all.

Meanwhile, later in his career:

Welles would make movies with flashes and aspects of great beauty and brilliance (most notably, I think, his Othello and Chimes at Midnight). But in all his subsequent efforts he was, as Callow discerningly remarks, essentially “an experimental artist, deeply unconcerned with… the idea of a finished artwork.” When not yet a man, Welles had made two pictures that were carefully wrought masterpieces, but, submitting to his own boyish and wanton profligacy, he had helped ruin the second before it was born. That he afterward shrank from the pursuit of perfection seems inarguable.

Wow. Out of context, it’s hard to know exactly what Callow’s words here mean. Was it meant as a compliment, from one artist to another, or was he calling Welles a dabbler? Considering the extraordinary lengths he went to to finish the handful of movies he was actually able to complete, often financing them from money earned acting in lesser men’s productions, this hardly seems supportable. Welles worked for two years to complete Othello and six years to finish Chimes at Midnight, having to shoot in stops and starts as he struggled to find financing. He spent more than a decade on Don Quixote, which he was not able to finish, and nearly as long on The Other Side of the Wind, his last great effort: financed by the brother of the Shah of Iran, that film was locked up in indefinite legal wrangling after the 1979 revolution. When the costumes for a scene in Othello failed to arrive, Welles is said to have wrapped his cast in towels, creating the famous steambath murder sequence on the spot. When funding for set construction on The Trial disappeared, he moved shooting to the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris, yielding some of the most memorable visual backdrops in film history. None of this suggests someone who is either flighty or uncommitted to finishing his projects.

I prefer to see Callow’s comment as an artistic appreciation of what changed in Welles’s work after he left Hollywood. Had he not suffered the Ambersons disaster, had he not fled to Europe, had he not begun financing his own work and shooting piecemeal under the worst conditions, it’s entirely possible Welles might have gone on to a fruitful career as the undisputed master of clockwork melodrama. But personally, I vastly prefer the nightmarish oddity of The Trial, the editorial jazz and dash of F for Fake, and even the low-budget chutzpah of these pirated clips from The Other Side of the Wind to the mechanical completeness and (yes, I’ll say it) adolescent smugness of Citizen Kane. Is it possible he would have matured into the messy, difficult greatness of his later films if he had stayed in Hollywood? Certainly, and had a great deal more money to make them with. But we should probably end the practice of fetishizing his Hollywood films and damning his more adult work with faint praise. To accuse Welles of having shrunk from the pursuit of perfection is to miss the point: perfection is available to human beings only in small, not in great, endeavors. There is no perfect Cassavetes film, no perfect Godard film, no perfect Kusturica film, no perfect Malick film, and later in his career, there was far from any such thing as a perfect Welles film.

(I’m indebted to John G. West, Jr.’s essay C. S. Lewis and the Materialist Menace for the above quotes. The Atlantic article is only fully available to online subscribers, though six bucks and a quick scurry to the newsstand will get you the whole pony.)

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