Friday, November 28, 2008


My recent movies seem to be falling into a theme, or maybe a set of interlocked themes: big/little power relationships, power that comes from status, and what happens when big loses status and slides to little. The movies are “Callas Forever,” “Country Life” (an Australian interpretation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and an episode of the Inspector Lynley series, “If Wishes Were Horses.” I’ll work through them backwards.

But first, we have a major social conviction that relationships should be equal, not just under the law or in terms of citizenship but as person-to-person, especially in intimate relationships. And yet I can hardly think of any relationships around me that are truly equal. Besides that, we seem to have major problems with the professional classes, who are supposed to be bigger than the rest of us in terms of power and knowledge. I mean doctors, lawyers, ministers and other roles that are meant to award power to people who will use it for good, who will be restrained by their peers (who ARE equal-to-equal), and who make a clear “profession” that this is their intention. Dr. Nuland, who writes powerfully about doctors, suggests that today’s doctors are seriously undermined by the loss of their association with religiously endorsed moral requirements such as compassion and freedom from corruption. Those of us who loved “The Infinite Mind” on NPR have been sickened (iatrogenically) by Dr. Fred Goodwin’s recent exposure as accepting a million dollar payment from a manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. No need to point out the many, many other convictions of high officials for low behavior.

(The rest of this is riddled with what calls “spoilers.”)

The premise of the Inspector Lynley series of BBC mysteries is that the Inspector himself is high class, highly educated, handsome, and well-aware of it, which means he is also arrogant, high-handed, smirking, and sometimes blind to ordinary humans. His sidekick, a tiny but intense woman (I always think of Sharon Butala), is lower-class, inclined to ignore procedure, pig-headed, and far more open to the run of ordinary humans. The idea is that though these two are unequal in rank and background, their inequalities mesh to create a synergy that solves mysteries. The idea is a powerful one, but it appears to be quite a challenge to script writers.

In “If Wishes Were Horses” another superior being (a forensic psychologist or “profiler” -- a handsome white man, of course) is murdered. A serial bonker, it turns out that he has even taken a turn with Lynley’s wife far in the past. Said wife is also a “profiler” who seems not have had a very good insight into this murder victim when she was his student. There’s a second murder and then a third, if you count the loss of a fetus in a car accident. Possibly a fourth if you count the alert little sergeant who throws herself into the line of fire to protect a murderer while Lynley stands by, looking noble. That’s the closing, so we don’t know whether she survives.

The general rule with BBC scripts is that the perp is the least-likely possibility and so she is: a beautiful female doctor who wants power over the docile wife of the dead man. (Also, not incidentally, his estate which includes a rather fabulous stone house with huge window/doors in the front.) The dead man is an abuser and a likely candidate for killer is his bitter but cheerfully realistic first wife, who is no longer docile. She has learned from her afflictions and anyway, she’s Irish. She’ll take a beating only up to a point -- then she wants compensation. (The actress also played the long-suffering wife of “Cracker,” who is still my fav BBC forensic psycher.) And she gets her reward since the second wife (but possibly thousandth boinkee) has been found out in her over-liberal acceptance of “comfort” from the beautiful lesbian doctor. There are a lot of smart comments all through this episode about people patronizing, underestimating, disregarding, and disbelieving -- but also about the people who accept such treatment. The neediness seems to be part of the problem.

“Country Life” revolves around two powerful men: the Sam Elliot character who is also a doctor, and Voysey, the uncle who has been a popular reviewer in England, now just returned with his new and elegant wife. It’s another of the post-war chaos times (1919) with everyone trying to preserve their status and prospects while realizing that the rules have been very much changed. The girl who would previously have been idle is now a true working partner of the ranch, the man who was previously respected is now a has-been and the woman who threw in her lot with him in hopes of safety is now going over the cliff with him. To her credit, she sticks with the bargain. The uncle who runs the ranch despairs, but in fact is supporting everyone else, which he now begins to realize. The doctor ruefully rides on his way, his integrity a bit compromised but his compassion intact. What’s interesting is that on reflection it is the tough old cook, played by Googie Withers, who has the real power. She sees it all and sets the schedule as well as the table.

“Callas Forever” is a reincarnation of a Diva, the near-definition of a powerful person. But she doesn’t guard her power-source, her voice, and when it goes, she loses everything including Onassis. Jeremy Irons has a scheme for restoring her reputation by dubbing her previously glorious voice onto new film footage, notably “Carmen.” Since this movie is made by Zefferelli, who knew Callas, it is gorgeous and knowing. This group of show-biz people might seem careless and corrupt in their relationships, and yet they stand by each other and preserve their equality. Callas, in the end, decides the project is an unworthy deception and cancels. (In real life she died not long afterwards.)

Artistic community can be quite vicious, but at its best it’s more than community: it’s family. Maybe because they work so directly with human psychic qualities, artist friends seem a better wager than business friends -- unless they are too mixed together, which often happens. The business parasites who profit from artists are the most corrupt and in our contemporary culture, they are predatory.

Unequal relationships have their roots in the parent-child relationship. I am not alone in beginning to think that American affluent society has betrayed their children by trying to make them “equal” to the parents when the children have neither the means nor the motivation. Instead they become monsters of narcissism in their efforts to find boundaries. But the “low class” has also been pressed so hard to survive that they simply abandon their children, leaving them with a constant craving for some major figure to embrace them. When women were always “little,” they were vulnerable to power figures, but now it is the children who struggle, so needy that they will substitute gangs for family.

I agree with Dr. Nuland that the remedy might be a new “religion” that is powerful enough to urge integrity and compassion on our society. But I reject the idea of going back to the too-many-times reconstructed Middle Eastern Abramic patterns. The best I can imagine is a cross between Obama-calm and Dalai Lama-compassion, but circumstances may be changing so drastically that something entirely new is forming. I hope it hurries. As I age, I become smaller, more at the mercy of doctors.

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