The Unkindest Cut
I didn’t catch up with most new films deemed of interest in 2014. Some that I did see – by Jim Jarmusch, James Gray, Richard Linklater – were underwhelming, even disappointing. I did arrange to catch, and appreciated enormously, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Others I had to wait for, by Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso … 2014 was my Year of the Book – for writing, completing and seeing into the world a long-nurtured project, Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave). Please buy it.
But, these days, I always do manage to fit in some TV series. For research, and for relaxation. Some of these series satisfy me, some amuse me, some just fill the time. It’s a different gear, a different level of intensity for me than cinema. But in 2014 one series really gripped me and surprised me: Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick.
I am not usually a big Soderbergh fan. I find his films maddeningly uneven, one to the next, and too often immediately forgettable. Most of them, in my opinion, do not repay close, repeated viewings – even if, like Quentin Tarantino’s work, they may impress me on a first look. And when I read that he drains the colour from a Spielberg movie in order to study “masterful staging”, or when I take a fearful glimpse at his whimsical re-cut of Michael Cimino’s Heaven's Gate (1980) – then I really wonder what’s going on inside his head.
But Soderbergh’s famous shoot-it-and-run style – with himself operating the camera, under a pseudonym – is, in fact, best suited to television, which demands fast work, and a consistent, overall design. It is as if he expertly lines up the elements and departments – production design, cast, script (here provided chiefly by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler), musical score (Cliff Martinez on sterling duty yet again) – and then lets the mechanism run its course. In cinema (such as Soderbergh’s Che Guevara double-bill of 2008), this sameness can be a monotonous, sepia-toned drag. But on TV, the ground tone can form the basis for both familiarity and surprise as crucial storytelling strategies.
And The Knick is indeed surprising. Soderbergh seizes the potential of long-form TV narrative to bring into the foreground something mostly relegated to the background: social history. And, even more specifically, the social histories of medicine, psychology and surgery. Watching The Knick is like reading the most vivid passages of Michel Foucault’s books Madness and Civilisation (1961) or Birth of the Clinic (1963). At the start of the twentieth century as depicted by Soderbergh, the practical understanding of bodies, minds, illnesses and cures is wildly in flux. All these only dimly understood realities are open to every new theoretical interpretation – as well as every abuse of economic and political power. Meanwhile, people are cut open, experimented upon, and sometimes veritably murdered on the operating table – with a silent audience of spectators grimly looking on, at all times, like today’s Internet lurkers.
Gender and race conflicts and inequities have an important and complex role to play in this panorama. A black doctor, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), is forced to work secretly in the basement on his black patients; his expertise and research is ignored, sidelined, but then exploited by his white colleagues. Even the tiny bit of social upward mobility that Algernon enjoys is enough to alienate him, violently, from many of his neighbours.
The women (of both races) in the series struggle with their subordinate roles – whether as nurses, opium-smoking prostitutes, or (as in the case of Cornelia played by Juliet Rylance) welfare officers. Sexual desires and relations move at a different speed, alas, to what the social grid will allow.
When it enters the realm of sexuality, The Knick moves, calmly, in the zone of everyday grotesquerie. A psychotic, hysterical woman is treated by having all her teeth removed – because surely her “bad juices” are the cause of her problem! Another woman’s face is turned into a gaping hole by syphilis, and her surgical “cure” demands that she walk around with the skin of her arm attached to her nose.
To complicate matters, this latter patient is an ex-lover of the series’ central character, John Thackery (Clive Owen). John, like every recurring figure in the series, is very far from being an instantly sympathetic character. He is driven, addicted, often emotionally cruel. For a time, he reinforces the racism of his institution. The final moments of Season 1 turn upon John – at the beginning of his seeming redemption or clean-up – with a black, almost Fritz Langian irony.
Yet the miracle of this first season is that, by about Episode 6, even the unloveliest, anti-heroic characters – such as the unlikely collaborative pair of ambulance driver Tom (Chris Sullivan) and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) – become battlers whom you are compelled to respect. Compromised people in a compromised world, they do whatever they can to ease everyone’s pain and misery. The future will, no doubt, not be terribly bright in the second season of The Knick – but it will be riveting to watch unfold.
Postscript: The second season in 2015 did indeed turn out to be riveting. Alas, any further instalments were officially cancelled by Cinemax in 2017 – thus adding The Knick to the growing pile of “tele-universes” of recent years left dangling in mid-air. Another unkind cut …
© Adrian Martin November/December 2014