Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Affair, The Leftovers and the Death of Normal


        When Showtime’s The Affair premieres tonight, much will rightly be written about its experimental approach to structure, form and point of view. In its first episode, which is actually already available online, the show dives into a tale of temptation and (potential) infidelity that unfolds like a dream or a languid summer day, its serenity punctured every so often by moments of unsettling tension.

        It’s not just the unhurried pacing or the tone, calibrated to a tricky but riveting balance between meditative and disquieting, that reminded me of The Leftovers, another premium cable show that debuted this year. It’s the way they both bury deep into their characters’ psyches, lingering in the most secretive, troubled spaces and allowing that darkness to seep out and color the world around them. Though the similarities might not continue beyond The Affair’s first episode, from what I’ve seen, both shows seem intent on wrenching their characters out of their sedate, comfortable lives and hurtling them toward an undefined yet inevitable doom.

        The Leftover’s apocalypse is a literal one. Thrown into a collective existential crisis after the sudden, random disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, the residents of a suburban New York town must grapple with broken families, the rise of strange cults as old belief systems are shattered and new ones take hold, and the fact that, despite all common sense and the desires of many, life insists on moving on almost as if nothing had ever happened. By contrast, the concerns of The Affair are much more down-to-earth and mundane. Noah Solloway (played by the reliably good Dominic West) lives in a spacious New York City brownstone courtesy of his snobby but filthy rich father-in-law, is contentedly married (his wife is played by Maura Tierney, so you know she’s lovely) with four children, and has recently published his first book while still enjoying his day job as a public school teacher. As Noah himself admits, it’s an idyllic existence, one so often promised to everyone by politicians, Hollywood and advertisers but that few people could ever hope to achieve. Yet, all it takes is one chance encounter with a pretty waitress named Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson, a revelation) for him to consider throwing it all away. This premise has been done countless times before, and without a talented and, let’s be honest, attractive cast and such ambitious writing and direction, the prospect of spending every week watching privileged people being unhappy with their privilege would’ve sounded insufferable (counterargument: Mad Men).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Perfection, Deconstructed in Gone Girl



         This is what marriage is supposed to look like. A man and a woman in their late 20s/early 30s – whiteness and physical compatibility optional but definitely preferred – meet, fall in love, date for a couple of years and get hitched in an elegant, classy ceremony. They move into a nice, big house with a manicured, grassy lawn and quiet, pleasant neighbors and eventually a cute kid or two comes along to complete the picture. Aside from the children, this is what Nick and Amy Dunne have. Sure, they’ve run into some money problems, and a cancerous parent forced them out of their chic New York City life and into Middle-of-Nowhere, Missouri, but they’ve still got her trust fund and, more importantly, each other. Isn’t that all anyone needs, after all? They have what everyone wants, and it’s just about perfect – until it isn’t. With a script adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own gleefully twisted, blisteringly caustic novel, David Fincher’s Gone Girl methodically chips away at manufactured ideals of justice, happiness and love to reveal the toxic, inconvenient reality underneath all the everything’s great! smiles. This, the movie says, is what marriage really is.

        Though it tones down a lot of the more explicit and scathing gender politics of its source material, Fincher’s film nonetheless feeds off of the same desire to critique both the institution of heterosexual marriage and the ease with which the media shapes (and can be used to shape) the truth. In fact, here, there is no truth, at least not a singular one and certainly not one that really matters; as another recent movie that explored the materiality of fiction said, people believe what they want to believe. So, Nick continues to believe that he’s a decent person at heart, despite all evidence to the contrary, and Amy believes she’s justified in framing him for the wrongs he’s done to her and for all he represents – for his laziness, apathy, entitlement and overt and repressed misogyny. The police, media and public believe, first, in the infuriating but predictable story of a frustrated, temperamental, cheating man who killed his wife and, later, in the comforting but equally cliché story of a traumatized, victimized woman who just wants to live in peace and to repair her strained relationship with her husband.