Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Signing Detective - Part 1 ("Skin")

*As a result of a serious computer issue at chez Sean, yours truly will be in charge of the content for the foreseeable future. This of course means that no fun will be had, and that all the reviews will be serious discussions of capital-A Art. So, with that warning, let me begin with a 6-part review of a 22 year-old British mini-series.

I had a good feeling about The Singing Detective. Not sure why, but I just did. I first heard of it a few weeks ago while reading Anthony Lane's rather harsh review of Synecdoche, New York, where he mentioned the 1986 mini-series as a counterexample to Charlie Kauffman's apparently limp portrayal of a "fading man." The only comment about Dennis Potter's BBC classic was that it was "rendered with unstinting vigor." From Lane, I guess this was enough.

After the first Episode ("Skin"), hell, after the first scene, I can say I've been hooked. The opening shot is a classic noir overhead of a man outside a bar examining his hand. A monologue, one you can feel coming from the opening bars of the harmonica score, begins, "The doorman of a nightclub can always explain that it's lipstick on his hand and not blood, but how did it get there? Lets be economical, nothing fancy...if he smacked some dame across the mouth then he's got both answers in one."

After a few more cryptic comments and scenes we cut to a modern hospital for the terminally ill. As a contrast to the dark and hazy opening scenes it's jarring, all white and fluorescent lights, with everyone in the ward as ugly as the noir characters are attractive. What we learn soon enough - soon enough so that this isn't a spoiler - is that the opening scenes are all taken from the possibly insane mind of Phillip Marlow, a disagreeable patient in the ward suffering from a painful and disfiguring skin disease.

Marlow is played by the excellent Micheal Gambon, an actor I'm sorry to say I couldn't have named but who has appeared in at least a half-dozen fine films, most probably known for his work in Harry Potter, but whom I knew best as Oseary Drakoulis from The Life Aquatic. As a man who can hardly move or talk, it must have been a challenging role, but also a pleasure, as Potter gives Gambon some rants that would put Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet to shame. There are several great examples, but my favorite involves an internal monologue as Marlow tries to keep himself from having an erection while a nurse "greases" him. It's way too long to capture, but it includes references to Finnegan's Wake and Semiology.

As should be clear, Potter is unashamedly literate, naming his main character (short an "e") after Raymond Chandler's classic detective, and references to all things high and low abound, with Marlow joking to his doctors that he considers himself a Malthusian interspersed with elegies on the cigarette. Every conversation, in both worlds, crackles with wit and spontaneity in a way that makes you wonder why television writing is so boring (it does that in retrospect; at the time, you're just enjoying the show). Even shows I adore, from Northern Exposure to The Wire to Mad Men, simply don't have this high level of writing (though they all have their own qualities - I admit writing is not everything). And it's not all melodrama and the over-enunciation of the stage that drives the writing, but simple conversations, reflections, and straightforward rage.

Complementing Potter's writing is some nimble work by Jon Amiel, who directed all six episodes yet surprisingly isn't listed in the opening credits.* This is Potter's show, for sure, but Amiel does a fantastic job of capturing the world of Marlow's mind, setting up angles and lighting that are perfect copies of classic 50s-era of noir. If these weren't supposed to be fantasy, it would be too much, but for the drama of the mind, it's perfect. Amiel also gets to stage a few great musical set pieces (here's where the Singing part comes in), one of which rivals (in staging, if not in overall production values) the best work from All That Jazz.

*Amiel seems to have stuck out on his first shot at Hollywood, with forgettable works like The Core, Entrapment, and Copycat, but he returns in 2009 with Creation, a biopic of Darwin.

The Singing Detective is quite simply a revelation. And I mean that seriously, in that its methods of visual and aural story-telling open up ideas that I hadn't realized were available. It is at times heartbreakingly sad, painful, and funny. So far, we've seen the raging and bitter Marlow, the one who won't accept his disease and mocks his doctors, and we've seen that his hallucinations or imaginations (depending on your perspective) have begun to get more elaborate. I have no idea where the show will go from here; I'm assuming the rage will be tempered a bit, but we won't be heading for a happy ending. Marlow is in at least his early sixties, can no longer write because he cannot hold a pen, and has been suffering an untreatable disease for close to twenty years that is now at it's most painful point. Oh, and he may be losing his mind. If "unstinting vigor" means what I think it means, I'm preparing for the worst.

Anthony Lane's review of Synecdoche, New York (and High School Musical 3!)
Chapter 1 Part 1 (I'm watching this from a Torrent, but it's all there on youtube) To find the rest, just change the 'CH' and 'PT' numbers in the search query.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Gambon is simply amazing in this series. And it should be noted too that Potter went through a painful skin disorder similar to what the main character goes through here. Brilliant stuff.

It should be noted too that I sat through the first half of the heartfelt yet misfired film adaptation of a few years back with Robert Downey jr in the main role. While you could tell it was a passion project by people who deeply respected the material its tiny budget and truncated storyline really failed to touch on the scope of this original series - even though I believe Potter adapted the screenplay himself.

I have read that the US film adaptation of Potter's Pennies From Heaven is actually a secret success - something I hope to catch up with soon.

Operations should be up and running at RFC HQ-US shortly - maybe by next week.