Wednesday, November 10, 2010

INCANDESCENT: Blair Underwood and Glynn Turman

I finished the first year of “In Treatment” on DVD last night. Things sort of “tied off” at the end with mixed success. People moved away, decided on divorce, finally “got it,” and so on -- except that the therapist (or actually both of them since he’s also “In Treatment” with another therapist) ended up with a lot of debris to sort, both about themselves and about their relationships with clients. They also had questions about this practice of psychotherapy, using formulas and principles to interpret people’s pain. How much of the “cure,” says Paul, is just “being there” with one’s own attention and, truly, love?

There is a curious pentimento in this program that was brought from Israel and, for the first two years, simply translated. That is, the Israeli culture shows through in subtle ways. For one thing, we are never shown sex. In America people watch shows as though they were porn, submerging in second-hand sensuality. (They loved the "Laura" story line.) For another, there are none of the older desperate trapped and often fat or alcoholic women who end up in therapy because no one -- I mean NO one -- will take them seriously and they are not equipped to find something constructive to do. The therapist’s wife sort of points in that direction, but she is a competent, beautiful, very thin woman who is in sync with her children.

Israelis must take generations very seriously because each of their generations has had an intense challenge to overcome and the solutions for one generation -- let’s say fathers -- are often only a handicap for the next generation -- sons. The holocaust, the founding of new communities, the maintenance of high military alert, the opposition to other competing ethnic/national/religious groups, is hard to duplicate for an American audience, but they found a way, and it was a brilliant opportunity for two actors.

The equivalent to the Israeli experience was American blacks. Not so much the slavery generation, but the Jim Crow lynchings and mutilations in the South after ownership of humans turned to racist hatred and blacks became scapegoats for white failure. The story is simple: an African-American grandfather has a breathing disorder that is noisy. A lynch mob comes to the house but the family is in a prepared hiding place. They will be revealed by noise. The father covers the grandfather’s mouth and nose with his hand to keep him quiet. The invasion lasts too long and when it is safe to remove his hand, the old man has suffocated. But the family is saved.

The old man was gentle, intellectual, kind to everyone. The son is broken-hearted but simply walls in his grief and goes on protecting the family. His own son, “Alex” who comes for help, is just like his grandfather -- same mannerisms, same personality. He is victimized easily, so this father sets out to make him tough and succeeds all too well. Alex, played brilliantly by Blair Underwood, becomes a top-gun hot-shot Navy pilot and accurately bombs a school because he was given wrong information. Dozens of children die. He is devastated but denies it consciously -- instead he runs, runs, runs with his friend until he has a heart attack and nearly dies. He is forced into therapy in order to prove he is mentally fit to fly again.

Bluffing his way back to flying, even though the therapist has major doubts, he crashes his plane in a training mission. Now we meet the family members, including the small boy who is the fourth generation and again, like his father and great-grandfather, quiet and brilliant. His grandfather has been trying to bully “Alex” (Prince is the family name, which is not an accident) into toughening up the grandson in the way he thinks he has succeeded with Alex. Now this anguished man comes to the therapist, trying to understand whether he has somehow killed his son while trying to save him, just as he killed his father, trying to save the family. When does protection become oppression?

This story line is so brilliantly acted that I could feel the hair lifting on the back of my neck. I never paid much attention to Blair Underwood before -- another pretty face -- but here he manages to convey a world lost, a world just over the horizon and perhaps represented by his best friend, a gay physician. Maybe he would naturally have been “gay” (not that gay men can’t be macho military men -- we KNOW that) because in their best versions they let people be themselves. In the story Alex has been living with his gay friend and partner, separated from his wife.

But the revelation is Glynn Turman as “Alex’s” father. In a twenty-minute episode he manages to hit a full range of emotion so convincing, complex and intense that afterwards I went scrambling for his name and previous work. He has done Greek tragedy on the stage, I guess. “The House of Atreus?” (The man who ate his children baked into a pie.) That’s the level he is at here in this therapist’s office. Never out of control, profoundly racked by what life has demanded of him. Far braver than a Navy pilot, and far more guilty than for a bombing error, because this is his own family he has killed. The therapist tries to get him off the hook, but it goes far too deeply into his guts and heart.

All the way through I kept wishing for an American Indian plot like this and actors who are up to it. Sherman Alexie’s jokey tales don’t cut it for me, though I know they are commercially successful. The sentimental prairie horse operas don’t get there either. Jim Welch could come close in print. Maybe white American guilt over the prairie clearances and American Indian anguish over what happened to their great-grandparents is still too deep. Maybe it’s because rez life -- partly because of alcoholism -- is often matriarchal and an equivalent story might have to be a mother who tried her best with bad results.

Clearly, what made this small story in a braided series so brilliant and memorable was that the actors had had so many chances to develop their skills and that the script itself went to the human core of the survival dilemma. I am grateful that it exists. And that Gabriel Byrne is so generous a person as to be on the same screen with these incandescent African-American actors. Not that the Irish don’t have the same bitter story.

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