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I Just Watched the Complete Series of Six Feet Under and All I Got was This Lousy Sense of Existential Dread

11 Sep
Six Feet Under starring Rachel Griffiths, Peter Krause, Michael C.Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Justina Machado, Jeremy Sisto and James Cromwell

Six Feet Under: starring Rachel Griffiths, Peter Krause, Michael C.Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Justina Machado, Jeremy Sisto and James Cromwell.

I am not a traditional television binge watcher, but it took me a little over a month to watch all 63 episodes of the 2001-2005 HBO series Six Feet Under, and today, I can say that I am finished with the series.  The show, which follows the Fisher family, a multigenerational clam operating a funeral home in Los Angeles.  The show opens with the death of its patriarch, the mysterious Nathaniel Fisher, whose life remains somewhat of a mystery to his three children Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall) and Claire (Lauren Ambrose).  To me, the show was a bit dated and filled with references to things that no one speaks about now – Sarah McLachlan, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and old cellphones, but if you can move past that bit of weird frozen-in-time feeling, you will make it through the series.

One of the things that I believe makes the series very difficult to watch is the low likability of several of the main characters.  We often see some members of the Fisher family and their surrounding characters acting in very selfish and narrow-minded ways.  Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) is one of the characters who only continued to build in his self-righteous and self-preserving ways.  I will never understand why Rico continued his employ and later partnership with David and Nate – he always seemed ready to fight with nearly everyone.  Rico’s character also provides moral conflict when the supposedly upstanding religious father and husband begins an affair with Sophia, a stripper who apparently gives him the best BJ ever, placing his marriage in jeopardy.  This storyline eventually becomes so stale that there is no way audience can continue to support Rico, and his character essentially becomes tarnished for the remainder of the series.

The major theme of the series of course is death, and each episode of the series begins with a death that demonstrates the delicate nature of life and the possibility that death is always nearby and a very real possibility.  Of course, from the pilot opening with the death of Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), and the final episode of the series imagining the future deaths of the major characters of the show, the series stays true to its theme.  Despite this strength, the series is marred by a parade of selfish, over-bearing characters who are concerned with nothing but themselves.  Perhaps this is the aspect of the show that is truest to life, as learning that most people are selfish by nature is a part of reality.

Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) is a character who never quite gets over the fact that there is little more to life than getting older, working a job that you probably don’t really care for, and having difficulties in personal relationships.  He is consistently selfish in his interactions with his longtime on-again/off-again girlfriend Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), which leads me to believe that Nate is actually the unbalanced person in that relationship, and not the long-suffering Brenda.  A good portion of Nate’s storyline finds him struggling with the idea of death, especially when he learns that he has a medical condition known as AVM, an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in the brain.  This will become important again later in the series.

Brenda, often portrayed as the “crazy one” on the series (alongside her brother), was formerly the subject of a psychology book studying her odd behavior as a child (Charlotte Light and Dark), is thoroughly damaged by her wealthy psychiatrist parents who were openly sexual in front of her and her brother Billy.  Billy Chenowith (Jeremy Sisto) is Brenda’ s bipolar artist brother who has a relationship with Claire early in the series and again once more later on.  Billy, seemingly forever unstable, later confesses to Brenda that he is in love with her – one of the few moments in the series that caused me to audibly gasp out loud.

Out of the more impressive performances in the series, Frances Conroy as Ruth Fisher, the widowed matriarch, is followed on a near-endless series of romantic mishaps and frustrations.  It is interesting to see an older woman struggling to not only reconcile the death of her husband, but to also seek love in unlikely places.  We think that Ruth finds true happiness and love with George Sibley (James Cromwell), but we see how that relationship has its own flaws.  Ruth’s experiences serve as a mirror of reality for viewers, teaching them that although life is ultimately good, it is filled with endless challenges and surprises.  My favorite character on the show is David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), Nate’s initially closeted brother and the heir apparent of the Fisher and Sons funeral home.  This is the most genuine performance on the series, with David confronting nearly every fear and personal problem possible.  His tumultuous relationship with Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) is a major focus of the show, in addition to the couple’s struggles to have a child.  For a television show produced in the early aughts, this is groundbreaking writing and focus on a committed homosexual couple, which was really never seen before.  Michael C. Hall, who later went on to play Dexter Morgan on Showtime’s series about a moral serial killer, is a national treasure as far as I’m concerned.  There is, however, a very long storyline involving an incident in which David was held at gunpoint by a crazed stranger that continues to drag on far too long.

Overall, the series is a great precursor to Alan Ball’s later work, which of course includes another familiar HBO series, True Blood.   The subject matter of Six Feet Under is daring for the time in which it aired, bringing death, humanity, and sexuality to the forefront of paid cable television.  This is one of the original series that established HBO as a powerhouse, as it originally aired on Sundays, following The Sopranos.

My biggest criticism of the series is perhaps not a valid criticism at all, but I truly was annoyed by several characters on a regular basis.  The biggest offender of this was the character of Nate Fisher, Jr., who is also the protagonist of the series.  In his relationship with Brenda, I found him to be insufferably selfish, and when he later marries Lisa out of obligation (i.e., pregnancy), he becomes even more unbearably obnoxious.  I suppose the goal of Nate’s character was to show us that life really does not have to be something amazing that we imagine in our heads – it can simply be what we have, and our obligation is to enjoy it as best we can.  Nate’s narcissistic worldview that he was worth more than being a funeral director and worth more than being with Brenda was hard to watch.  If you make it to season five, some of Nate’s actions will leave you very upset, including a fateful scene in which Nate crosses the line.

If you can bear the thought of watching a show with the primary theme of death, Six Feet Under is worth watching.  However, be prepared to wallow in thoughts of death and dying for far too long during your day.  This series successfully explores the classic question of existentialism: what does it all mean?

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Going Clear and the Obvious Narcissism of L. Ron Hubbard

4 Apr

Tom Cruise Scientology Cover Photo

I just finished the new HBO documentary Going Clear, and all I can say is: my, oh my.  This terrifying documentary exposes more about Scientology than I ever knew.  What is most clear to me is that Scientology, as a whole, is a product of narcissistic abuse.  If I were to hypothesize anything about its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, it’s that he most likely qualified as someone suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder of the cerebral variety.  Hubbard, who started as a pulp fiction writer, eventually wrote Dianetics, which would become the basis of Scientology and an exploration of what Hubbard called “the modern science of mental health”.  This man made the presumption that his book could overturn centuries of development in the arena of mental health.  When that did not happen, he invented his own religion.

In the last year or so I have been in deep research mode of Narcissistic personality disorder.  The reason for this is because I was in a romantic relationship with someone who I very much believe to be a narcissist.  Within the first few minutes of this documentary, we hear excerpts of letters written about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology by his second wife, Sara Northrup.  Sara asserted that she only married Hubbard because he had threatened suicide.  This is a very common manipulation tactic for narcissists to use in order to get their way.  She also detailed an account about how Hubbard awoke her from her sleep because she had been smiling, setting him off into a rage because he took it to mean she was thinking about another man.  After they had a daughter, Hubbard took the little girl with him and called Sara to tell her that he had chopped their daughter into tiny pieces and thrown her into a river.  It doesn’t get much more abusive than that.

Going Clear also touches on how the church’s two most famous members – John Travolta and Tom Cruise, became so involved with Scientology.  John Travolta was extremely young when he became involved, and he linked his success in acting with his involvement in Scientology.  The use of “auditing” also becomes very important in the case of Travolta, as it appears that the Church of Scientology threatens members with the release of their deepest secrets collected in such sessions.  Obviously the Church of Scientology has something pretty big on Travolta that keeps him there.

Scientology’s biggest star and supporter is Tom Cruise.  Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman is a major focal point of his story in Scientology.  The documentary mentions that Nicole Kidman’s father was a prominent psychologist in Australia, which David Miscavige, the head of the Church of Scientology, viewed as a threat.  Any psychologist or mental health professional, or any person associated with a mental health professional is deemed to be a “suppressive person” by Scientology.  Scientologists therefore aim to “disconnect” from these suppressive people, of course at almost any cost. Nicole, therefore, was deemed a suppressive person, and her divorce from Cruise was apparently orchestrated by the Church of Scientology.  I have heard further rumors that Cruise’s marriage to Katie Holmes was staged and under contract, but the documentary goes no further than discussing an arranged relationship between Cruise and an actress named Nazanin Boniadi.  There were also rumors that one of the reasons why Holmes divorced Cruise was her fear of their daughter Suri becoming involved in Scientology.  Going Clear also notes that Cruise was not really involved in Scientology during his marriage to Kidman, but in recent years, he has been the absolute most treasured asset of the Church.  Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars of all time, if not the biggest, and Scientology depends on him in many ways.

Going Clear is a truly terrifying look at how Scientology is essentially the result of an egomaniac’s own desire to control others.  This documentary is one of the first looks at some of the extreme abuses allegedly committed by David Miscavige and the Church of Scientology.  Perhaps what is most revealing about the Church of Scientology is its financial value (over one billion dollars) and its real estate investment prowess.  I have driven by the Church of Scientology on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and it is a menacing sight.  A few people I know have gone inside to take the prerequisite personality tests “as a joke”.  After watching Going Clear, I can say with certainty that there is nothing funny about Scientology and its abuses of its members.

The Master & Other Things That Make Middle America Uncomfortable

28 Sep

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.

After reading various inadequate reviews of PT Anderson’s The Master, my urge to comment on what I believe is one of the most subtly brilliant films of the year is more pressing than ever.  When I saw the film last night, several people in the theater proclaimed that The Master was in fact “the worst movie” they had ever seen.  Let us keep in mind that I saw this film at a Cinemark chain theater in suburban Colorado Springs. When I saw PT Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it was in a room full of aspiring filmmakers and writers at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  These are extremely different environments for watching film, and I suppose my privilege is showing when I say that watching a film at NYU’s premiere arts school is much preferred over sharing a room with baby boomers whose biggest concern is living long enough to be able to collect their Social Security benefits.  My mother, bless her sweet soul, said she “should have seen the new Viola Davis movie about the teachers.” Sorry mother, but not every movie is about feeling good, nor should it be.

The Master opens with a stunning shot of an ocean’s blue-white tide, stirred by the engines of a World War II naval ship, the USS Missouri.  Freddie Quell, an emaciated, decidedly creepy-looking Joaquin Phoenix, is aboard the ship, at one point laying in a crooked Christ-like repose on the bow. Quell, we learn right away, is a severe alcoholic and a sexual deviant of sorts. In one of the opening scenes, Quell climbs atop a nude woman molded from the sands of whatever Pacific beach he and his fellow seamen camp out on, thrusting excitedly, much too excitedly for the amusement of his peers.

When Quell gets discharged from the Navy as the war ends, his mental state is evaluated by a Naval officer.  The officer shows Quell a series of Rorschach ink blots, with Quell’s descriptive answers consisting of “a pussy, a cock going into a pussy,” and a “cock upside down”. Something is wrong with this guy. Perhaps we should already know that, considering he drained the chemicals out of a warhead to get drunk.

When Quell returns to civilian life, he gets a shit job as a photographer in a department store, forced to experience the happiness of others through a lens. One day, he loses it, and gets in a fight with a male customer who says the picture is for his wife.  Quell, perhaps feeling tinges of jealousy due to his lack of real intimacy with a woman, attacks the man and runs away, embarking on a journey that will bring him to the mercy of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of The Cause. Stumbling onto a party yacht carrying Dodd and his family on the eve of the wedding of his young daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), Quell imbibes amongst the group until he blacks out, not recalling that he inquired of Lancaster whether any work was available.  What happens next is the beginning of an odd tale of love and commitment, acted out between two very different men.  Dodd, subjecting Freddie to his introductory methods of questioning known as Processing, asks Quell a series of questions, often repeating them until he elicits the response he wants. It is at this point that we learn some deep dark secrets about Quell, although they are not exactly shocking.

It should be remarked that at this time in the film, it is 1950.  The way that year is repeated throughout the film by various characters, though especially by Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). 1950 is a hallmark year in movements for self-improvement.  In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard published his work Dianetics, which would lead to the establishment of Scientology as a formal religious movement. The parallels between Dodd and Hubbard are not glaringly obvious, and although The Master is called “PT Anderson’s Scientology film,” the movie does not insult Scientology nor make any overt comments on it.  However, Dodd and Hubbard can both be seen as charismatic, elusive individuals. As the film unfolds, we see Dodd questioned by several supporting characters, perhaps mirroring Hubbard’s experience as being deemed a charlatan in his formative years.  Hubbard, initially a writer of serial pulp fiction articles, was once quoted as saying, “writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”

Dodd, perhaps taking a page from Hubbard, promotes The Cause as a method of self-improvement for man, a way of separating oneself from animals.  Dodd refers to Quell as an animal at several points in the film, further indicating the connection of Phoenix’s character as an id. Dodd, quite naturally, acts as the super-ego attempting to control the wild Quell.

Another interesting item of note is PT Anderson’s choice of casting redheads in the three main female roles – Adams, Childers, and Madisen Beaty, playing Doris, the inappropriately-aged love interest of Phoenix – are all pale redheads. However, in spite of the presence of these women, the real love story is between Freddie and Dodd. Both men form a dependence on one another, although the connection seems stronger for Dodd.

The Master is a veritable example of acting at its best and its worst. Not only do I feel Joaquin Phoenix deserves one of those little gold men we call Oscar, but I also feel it’s clear that his performance in The Master is one almost specially crafted for that express purpose. There is always something irritating about those films that arrive every fall and feature period costumes and people staring intensely at one another; almost in an attempt to make staring a requirement for winning acting awards.

The deep symbolism of The Master is too much to comment on in its entirety, but it is important to note that many critics do not adequately explore the symbolic and metaphoric meaning behind films today. Instead, they often pander to audiences who may find films completely enigmatic.  One critic, Lisa Kennedy  of The Denver Post, actually wrote in her review ‘Why are these women naked, you may find yourself asking.” Really? Are people asking this or do critics simply not give enough credit to filmgoers today? The scene Ms. Kennedy references has Quell envisioning the women at a party scene entirely naked, including Amy Adams, the pregnant wife of Lancaster Dodd.  This scene further solidifies Quell’s unshakeable status as representative of the id which Dodd so greatly despises. Quell, ever the animal, views this party as little more than an opportunity to get laid.

Perhaps the most-asked question about The Master is whether or not the film is about Scientology. Yes, and no. The many hints made by Seymour’s character toward a cult-like religion birthed from a book are quite enough, but they never cross the line into specificity.  To continue discussing the finer points of PT Anderson’s The Master would be a pointless exercise. Anyone who can find the motive to see the film in the first place is likely inclined toward dramatic, complicated films. However, if you find yourself walking out of the theater while saying “This is the worst movie I have ever seen!”, Dredd 3D will likely be playing a few screens down.