FACES IN THE WINDOWS, FROM 1986 AND 1929
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When Netflix granted maverick producer Ryan Murphy carte blanche to make original content, they essentially unleashed his obsession with aesthetic. When approaching his latest Netflix offering, “Ratched,” understanding the Murphy look and feel is key. Officially this is some kind of prequel about Nurse Ratched, the domineering, dark authoritarian in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” made iconic by Louise Fletcher. But dismiss the 1975 movie, or even the original 1962 Ken Kesey novel. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen the movie or read the book. This series has no connection to them aside from the character’s last name. The rest is pure, demented reinvention, sometimes bordering on goofy, but never boring to look at.
In the Murphy universe it all begins with murder. It’s the early ‘50s and a young man named Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) flips out and kills several priests, apparently convinced one was his father. Edmund will surely face execution and is sent to the Lucia State Hospital, located in a picturesque spot in California. It is here where Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives looking for work. Stern and focused, Ratchd nearly intimidates the hospital’s chief doctor, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). Hanover is desperate for funding, practically begging the state governor, George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio). Ratched doesn’t mind the lack of positions, she finds a way to push one nurse out and get her spot. It’s soon evident her real reason for being at the hospital is to get close to Edmund. The killer will soon become the poster child for the hospital’s rehabilitation efforts, which verge from misguided to horrific. Ratched will become a player in it all, even connecting romantically with another character in ways she would have never dreamed.
“Ratched” is not necessarily a creation of Murphy. Some attention has been given to how it began as a spec script by Loyola Marymount University film student Evan Romansky four years ago. Along with Murphy, Michael Douglas, who produced the 1975 movie, is also tapped as a producer here. However there is no denying the real force behind the show. Murphy’s stamp is on every episode. It’s a better entertainment than his “Hollywood” series from earlier this year, a revisionist history of the Hollywood Golden Age. But like that series, “Ratched” works best as a visual experiment than as a story. While it’s a timeless classic, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is not “Star Wars,” so it’s not as if audiences have been dying for a prequel. So Murphey lets loose, making every chapter a mad melodrama with heightened colors, camera angles that are obvious homages to Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, and a music score taken straight out of “Cape Fear” or “Psycho.” Many sequences find Ratched walking down a hall as the lighting turns to a hypnotic green or red. The décor, even of the Lucia State Hospital, is lush and seductive to the eye. Never has a mental institution looked this alluring anywhere else. It could be a spa from hell. There are individual moments that can be enjoyed just for Murphy’s fixation on details, like a seaside meal between Ratched and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), who works for the governor and gets very close to the nurse. Ratched tastes oysters for the first time, and the scene is done in a way where we can almost taste them ourselves.
Typical accoutrements for eating raw oysters include cocktail sauce and mignonette, plus or minus a curious spirit for the uninitiated. The key accompaniment is subtlety. But subtlety is served rarely in the Ryan Murphy extended universe, so when Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) take a seat at an oceanside restaurant and order an oyster plate, the sexual undertones don’t go “under” at all. They’re as low-key as a jackhammer. But that’s okay. The eroticism and flirtation rest on the surface like vinegar in the shell. Gwendolyn is giving her Mildred her first taste of oysters while handholding her through a metaphor for oral pleasure.
This scene is set about halfway through “Ice Pick,” the second episode in the origin story series “Ratched” on Netflix. Like many productions Murphy puts his name on, he serves as an executive producer and developer; the creator is Evan Romansky, taking pages from Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as well as Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation, which is arguably more widely embraced by pop culture than its source material. Regardless, Romansky’s series functions as a “What if?” taking viewers back nearly 20 years to Nurse Ratched’s arrival at Salem State Hospital, back when she was driven by morals and ideals and didn’t approach every patient like a nail. She’s still cunning and ruthless, of course, conniving her way into employment at a mental hospital in Northern California, but she’s also appalled by certain practices seen as state-of-the-art for the times, like hydrotherapy.
“True monsters are made, not born,” reads Netflix’s logline for the show. If that thesis held up as one episode fades into the next, “Ratched” might have better cogency, though even if the writing betrays the basic conceit, the narrative still hums along nicely. What actually hobbles “Ratched” is the Russian nesting doll effect of structuring a prequel around the chief antagonist in a movie based on a book. Characters like Nurse Ratched don’t require explanation. In fact, they can’t be explained at all. They exist solely to provide a wall for protagonists to collide with. Sometimes inhumanity’s roots demand excavation. Most times they’re best left rooted in the dirt.
What’s especially frustrating about Romansky’s enterprise is that “Nurse Ratched” could have done just fine on its own merit divorced from pre-existing intellectual property; as a kinky thriller about a haunted and unstable medical professional who sabotages her peers, bumps off the occasional patient, and disposes of the bodies, all while struggling with her late-stage sexual awakening and a dose of wartime trauma, the show works and handily outclasses Murphy’s other 2020 projects, “Hollywood” and “The Politician.” Think of “Nurse Ratched” as a confluence where the movies of Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock pool together with genre plots about evil nurses, buttressed by the excess that defines Murphy’s brand. The resultant mixture proves satisfying by the end of the pilot’s opening sequence, where Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) brutally kills a quartet of clergymen with throat slashes, dozens of stab wounds, and one head smash.
Sounds like the start of a new season of “American Horror Story,” except the scares are replaced by the sense of watching strangers undress through their upstairs window. The naughtiness that partially, but substantially drives “Nurse Ratched”s plot feels like a release, even when Romansky and his writing team—comprising Murphy, naturally, as well as his usual cohort Ian Brennan and Jennifer Salt—pause it for genre-mandated bloodletting and squeamish discomforts, ranging from LSD-fueled delimbings to cranial lobotomies performed at the business end of an ice pick (in case Episode 2’s title doesn’t immediately give away the game.) In “American Horror Story,” images like that would be the showcase. Here, it’s more like a set of bookends to prop up complicated bedroom roleplay, Mildred’s sexual self-denial, and her mission to get herself as close to Tolleson as possible. Turns out they’re related, the “how” being revealed in, again, “Ice Pick,” one of the series’ fundamental chapters.
Listed alphabetically, The Untouchables entry on the Journal's master list reads:
This David Mamet written and Brian De Palma directed 1987 picture probably also deserves Mt. Rushmore Chicago movie status. There are not many that can check all the boxes it hits.
It was almost entirely filmed here and has pivotal/famous scenes in some of the city's most iconic locations, it was a critical/commercial success, and it piles on the je ne sais quoi of Chicago attitude with the quotes to match.
In fact, The Untouchables gave us maybe the most-used/well-known movie quote in the history of Chicago. When Sean Connery, who won an Oscar for his role, is talking to Kevin Costner playing infamous lawman, Eliot Ness, famously describes increasing violence in order to bring down Al Capone's empire:
"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"
Brian De Palma directs this movie about kids with occult powers who go to a special Lincoln Park school and fight a government plot.
And then today, Piper De Palma posted the pic below on her Instagram. Let's follow the zoom around the room, so to speak: Brian De Palma, flanked by Susan Lehman and Piper, sits at twelve o'clock; then going clockwise, Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, David Koepp, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jake Paltrow, Jay Cocks, and, in the center, Wes Anderson. A legendary line-up, indeed.
(Thanks to Adam Zanzie, via a Nick Newman tweet.)
What modern American director: a) Went to Columbia for college to study "math, physics, and Russian"; b) Directed the feature screen debut of one Robert De Niro in 1965; c) Was present immediately after composer extraordinaire Bernard Herrmann, having just completed recording the score for "Taxi Driver," went back to his hotel and promptly died; d) Directed Orson Welles in his first big studio picture, at the tender age of 32; e) Helped cast "Star Wars"; f) Was best buds with fellow burgeoning auteurs Marty Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg after arriving in L.A. in the late '60s; and g) Went on to make no fewer than at least a half-dozen (by my unofficial count) truly extraordinary pictures?
Right, well, as you may have already guessed, the correct answer is Brian De Palma, a filmmakers' sort of filmmaker, not just because of his many homages to past masters, including Eisenstein, and, of course, his beloved Hitchcock, but also because he had his own vision and worked very hard to make the movies he wanted to make, usually at the expense of the castigating suits who funded his pictures.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's documentary dispenses with all but the essentials: De Palma sits in a chair and methodically works his way through his rather extraordinary career, from his earliest days, making films as part of a workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, to his biggest hits -- including "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Scarface," "The Untouchables," "Mission: Impossible" -- to his worst box office misses -- "The Fury," "Wise Guys," "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "Mission to Mars," among them. Through it all, he's open and honest as to the work he's proud of, and what he sees as a failure, as well as actors with which he worked (loved De Niro, Tom Cruise, Sissy Spacek; detested Cliff Robertson, found Welles stunningly unprofessional). What's more, representing the most venerated and decorated generation of American filmmakers in history -- one, it must be restated, given vastly more studio carte blanche in the early '70s than at any other point in Hollywood's existence -- he speaks of the problems he sees with modern studio films, finds the use of CGI both sort of thrilling, and ultimately bland (correctly pointing out the directors mainly have to pack off the footage and let the effects team figure out what happens in those many, many cliched battle scenes). But he's also almost eerily optimistic, in a way that gives you a better understanding of a director who has produced a kind of schizophrenic filmography of extreme highs and bitter lows. How a man took on massive disappointment, and heavy studio beef, over and over, and keeps picking himself up and coming back to try again.
"From early masterworks such as Phantom of the Paradise to the overlooked and incendiary Domino, De Palma is gifted at crafting moments that don’t just linger, they burrow. Whether it’s a mind-bending split diopter, a startlingly vibrant color palette, or an assaultive act of violence, his films are unforgettable. This made selecting only ten shots a near-impossible task. One could select one-hundred shots from any given De Palma film and it still wouldn’t be a complete catalog of his skill. But the following ten shots are the ones that immediately come to mind when thinking about what makes De Palma the director he is."
I'll leave it to you to go to Film School Rejects to discover which shots she has chosen (with gifs included), and what she has to say about them... but, well, when you read the first one here, I think you'll see that you're in for a treat:
Hi, Mom! (1970)
The Shot: A woman tests out her new camera by locating Robert De Niro‘s Jon Robin in her field of vision and zooming in on him.
The Obsession: One of De Palma’s signature components is voyeurism. In Hi, Mom!, a film very much about both active and passive forms of looking and observation, this moment highlights an intrinsic curiosity that is found across De Palma’s filmography. While aspiring pornographer Jon looks at his own equipment, this woman turns her attention to him in order to test out the zoom feature. She decides to zoom in on a stranger across the room. She remarks that he becomes blurrier the closer she zooms in, while the focus eventually adjusts as Jon turns his own camera on her.
It’s a rather insignificant moment, one that has very little bearing on the film’s narrative, but it captures some of the most prominent themes in the film. Here, the camera is a novelty, and the prospect of using it to capture footage of a stranger is a bit of lighthearted fun to the female patron, while to Jon it is a tool for invasive voyeurism. There’s a duality to the tool, one that contradicts and complicates any attempt to classify an inherent quality of the camera.
There are also contractions in its very mechanism. As the woman remarks, the closer she gets to Jon, the more the image becomes blurry. While she remains on the other side of the room, she gets a sense of proximity but loses clarity. This shot is also a remarkable comment on the impulses of both De Palma and his characters — when anyone has a camera in hand, they can’t help but aim it at another person. Sure, De Palma is a voyeur. Who isn’t?