Talking Movies

October 6, 2011

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

3e earlier this year aired House re-runs from season 3 right up to the season 6 finale. Being concurrent with season 7’s run of awful Thirteen-free episodes it made me think about how Olivia Wilde’s character sums up the evolution of the show…

My jaw dropped, seeing season 3 Cameron again after three years of Thirteen, as I realised just how boring she was. Cameron’s wishy-washy inconsistent moralising and romantic moping appear utterly bland next to Thirteen’s sarcastic brilliant bisexual drug-addicted self-destructive doctor cursed with the early and hellish death sentence of Huntington’s disease. Some of this may be due to the actresses, after all Wilde also set The OC alight with a luminous portrayal of another bisexual hell-raiser, and the show never really recovered from the end of her recurring role as Alex, while Jennifer Morrison has never been that exciting. But it’s also partly because Morrison’s character is emblematic of a different dynamic within the show. Chase had to murder James Earl Jone’s African dictator early in season 6 to torch his marriage with the departing Cameron and properly make the leap from one dynamic in the show to the other.

The dynamic I’m referring to is the change from the original style of cipher characters surrounding the Holmesian House dripping occasional back-story points around plots written for the sake of a damn good medical mystery, to medical mystery plots chosen because of the character angles of strong personalities surrounding House that they allowed to be explored. A prime example of this is the season 6 episode where Thirteen chooses a case because the patient is in an open marriage, and House sabotages the reserved communication between Sam and Wilson to try and force a relationship ending fight even as he and Thirteen gleefully cajole Taub into attempting an open marriage. The original dynamic is last glimpsed in House’s season 4 disappointment at a lucky diagnosis and his obsessive pursuit of the G&T answer, and his enabling of Zeljko Ivanek, his mirror, in season 5 because he needed to know ‘why’…

House has always had a stronger connection with Thirteen than with any of his other doctors. When House drugs her to confirm his hunch that she’s hiding Huntington’s she drugs him right back to do a liver biopsy, a little more sadistically than is medically necessary: “You drugged me” “You drugged me” “Ouch!” “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to say that might pinch a little.” She’s also been granted zinging one-liners every bit as outrageous as House’s. When House claimed of Cuddy, “I kinda hit that last night, so now she’s all on my jock”, Thirteen immediately rejoined, “She looks remarkably good for someone on rufies”. The bond comes from Thirteen’s nihilism and skill. When House fires her for drug-taking then hires her back after she comforted a patient she quickly cracks his motivation, “You wanted to see if I could still make a connection. You’re trying to save me!”

The extremely ill-advised decision to replace Thirteen with Masters, rather than the bizarre car-crash in the season finale, may well be judged the moment where House jumped the shark. Amber Tamblyn’s incredibly irritating one-note doctor who is scrupulously honest to the point of self-destructive and veritably societal-destroying stupidity, a trait even more aggravating than Cameron’s inconsistent moralising, sucked the dramatic life out of every scene she was in. The writers even seemed to admit their mistake with an in-camera apology, or perhaps merely an unconscious admission of guilt, when Masters stuck up for, and enabled the release of, a patient who turned out to be a cannibal serial killer wanted by the FBI. It begged comparison with Thirteen’s diagnosing of psychopathy in a patient who gave her the creeps – as House noted, “Odd that she’s the only one here to have the natural reaction to a predator circling the waters”.

Little wonder that the show seemed to visibly perk up at the end of the season as House drove to a prison early in the morning to welcome back to his team a just released Thirteen. Compliments showered on her included, “You have the best poker face of anyone I’ve ever met”, while she later dispensed to him the stoic wisdom regarding their misery, “We are what we are, and lotteries are stupid”, before, after breaking into his house to check on his depressed state, displaying both the edge and the bracing honesty that bind the two, “Cuddy and Wilson both asked me separately to break in. You’re an idiot.” House has a chance to do something truly remarkable if it can keep running long enough to break our hearts by gradually depicting a slow physical decline for the beloved Thirteen. Here’s hoping it can pretend last year never happened…

House season 8 begins its run on Sky 1 at 10pm tonight.

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August 5, 2011

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

1981 neo-noir movie Cutter’s Way, recently screened at the IFI (yet again) has been forgotten, and it’s a half-deserved neglect. It’s not a great film, but it does showcase a superb performance from John Heard as the acerbic crippled Vietnam veteran Alexander Cutter. What’s startling is just how familiar his character is…

We first hear about Cutter thru Jeff Bridges’ character Richard Bone mentioning that he needs to buy some more medicines for him. Then we’re visually introduced to Cutter sitting in a bar making fun of people he’s just met, before saying something outrageously racist about one of them, and then compounding the problem when some guys who heard the remark start to circle. Bone gets him out of this, despite Cutter’s best attempts to get Bone dragged into the fight too, by excusing him on account of his leg… Cutter then yells at Bone that he needs more pills, and throws his cane after him, breaking a neon sign. The glorious off-screen shout “That’s going on your tab Cutter” confirms that this is just how Cutter rolls. The resonances with a certain drug-addled anti-social doctor and his drug-sourcing enabling friend don’t jump off the screen at this point, although they’re apparent later. What really puts the House comparison into your mind is when Bone delivers a drunken Cutter home to his long-suffering wife. She’s played by Lisa Eichorn who could well be Jennifer Morrison’s twin sister sent back in time so startling is the resemblance to House’s team-member Allison Cameron. As the film progresses you get the weird sensation that this is what would have happened if that date between House and Cameron at the end of season 1 went well. Cameron has sunk into alcoholic depression as she waits for House to forget about his leg and his misery and just start living again…

Such sentiments are reinforced by Cutter’s memorable arrival home in his car. Drunk as a skunk he first lurches to a halt splayed across the road. He’s not going to park it there, is he? Oh no, he’s going to ram his neighbour’s car, which is in the way, reverse, ram it again, reverse again, and park in his driveway, having destroyed his neighbour’s car in the process of shunting it into the correct driveway. Cutter stomps into his house, and announces he’s been picking up hitchhiker’s and saying how much fun they were, with one qualification; “Never orgy with a monkey, the little f—ers bite”. His wife points out that he has no car insurance, “That would be his problem”, and that his licence has expired, “Car runs just fine without it”, as Cutter changes into his old army jacket to go out and deal with the police the right way by talking about duty, appearing reasonable and apologetic, and getting away with everything because, as he quietly reminds the enraged neighbour (when the cop has left) by holding up his cane, “I’m a cripple”. Later Bone in exasperation at Cutter’s deranged scheme to blackmail a local millionaire they suspect of murder yells about how he doesn’t want another lecture by Cutter on “How you just see the world as it is, a crock of shit. And oh God, don’t start in on your leg…” Needless to say Bone, like Wilson, always ends up embroiled in his friend’s maddest plans despite his objections.

There are of course substantial differences between Alexander Cutter and Gregory House. Cutter is a soldier, not a doctor, and prone to adding physical violence to his cutting rhetoric. Waiting for a procrastinating Bone to make a blackmailing phone call Cutter whips out a hand-gun and shoots the target that Bone has been messing about with on the pier arcade to hurry things along, “Give the man his goddamn doll”. Cutter even strikes his wife when she questions his choice to wallow in misery. There’s even one weirdly prophetic anticipation of House’s recent move away from audience sympathy in this violence. Cutter’s demented hero moment in the closing frames as he rides a horse thru a garden party to crash thru the window of the evil tycoon could almost be the inspiration for the shark-jumping finale of House season 7. The resemblance to Cameron is accidental and hilarious, that to Wilson not overly pronounced but still present, but Cutter’s mixture of logical deductions that pin the crime on the millionaire and his biting remarks and refusal to obey any social contract all seem classically Houseian. So, did David Shore watch Cutter’s Way years before creating House and subconsciously remember aspects of a long-forgotten character, or is this just one of those weird moments where an idea seems to be floating around waiting for someone to use it, like discoveries in physics and astronomy that parallel researchers discovered simultaneously?

Probably the latter, but it sure makes for one hell of an entertaining and oblique way to view Cutter’s Way.

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