Skip to main content

I know, because I am the Original Angel.

The OA
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Unreliable narrators can be tiresome, particularly when some bright spark(s) decide to stretch the device over eight episodes of a TV show. With a Shutter Island or Life of Pi (or Usual Suspects) there’s an end in sight, and your mileage for their content may vary based on how satisfying/over-familiar/tiresome the “It was all a dream, possibly/definitely” conceit is. Too often, they come across as a cop-out on the part of the writer, sucking the audience into a shaggy dog story that professes to have a commanding subtext but is actually led by its “twist”; rote writing and structuring are disguised as revelation, and it becomes all about that. The ambiguity becomes the point, whereas before the story at least (may have) had a number of different ideas to boast; it wags the shaggy dog and is symptomatic of the writer, having put away childish things, being unable to embrace metaphor without calling it metaphor outright. So it is with The OA.


For its devisers, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, this approach may border on an obsession, not dissimilar to M Night Shyamalan’s fixation on third act plot twists, one that comes across as simultaneously superficial and patronising, as if there are lessons to be imparted that they – the ones who see – can convey, regarding susceptibility to others impressing their paradigms upon us, or simply our own inability, on a daily basis, to be sure of what we know to be true. Which makes it ironic that Marling, as one of those seemingly with a mission to instruct, casts herself as one with a mission to instruct, the cult leader with a fistful of devoted adherents.


I’m suspect my problems with The OA would be less pronounced had I not previously experinced their 2011 film Sound of My Voice; indeed, I initially resisted giving the series a look for that reason, as the premise gave me an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I quite liked Sound of My Voice, but its desire to withhold was only intriguing up to a point. As such, I felt like I knew what The OA was going to be going in, on the basis that they had a track record in being wilfully elusive and ambiguous (in Sound of My Voice, Marling plays a cult leader professing to hail from the future); essentially, they’re doing exactly the same thing here, with just enough uncertainty that you can get 40+ pages of IMDB comments running the gamut from adoration, to indignation, to trying to pin down just what it’s all about (which is only worthwhile if you leave the show actually invested in what you’ve just watched, and which anyway is a hiding to nothing; this is not Lost, although some of its aspects are indebted to that show).


One of those comments reference “deepism” as a malady suffered by Marling and Batmanglij, a phrase I hadn’t come across before, but which does feel like it has some bearing on The OA. There’s an essential banality to their repeated “message”, regarding the fallacy of faith in an intangible force, of the portrait of those who are caught up in such beliefs as people with holes in lives; something missing, damaged, leading to a need to believe in something more than themselves (the rationalisation for anyone who embraces anything outré, that excludes them from being ascribed “normal” behaviour). This is less-than-profound-but-struts-that-way posturing is why the show has been garlanded with the kind of empty-headed applause The Slate gives – “The OA is less a story about a myth than it is a story of how myth is made, and our collective, almost primordial need to tell stories that bring us together, bind us, and give us meaning. The OA suggests the sublime exists not in some ethereal realm, but rather in the people around us”: now, that’s deepism.


Of course, Marling and Batmangli have succeeded in igniting exactly the impulse they attempt to critique in “followers” of the show. On one level, The OA feels like a rebuke of the Damon Lindelof school of storytelling, where exactly the type of mysteries he shows to be “real” through deliciously gripping twists and turns of plotting (the conclusions are something else, but you can’t have everything) are shown to be anything but. On another, the show is utilising exactly Lindelof’s approach to inflate nothing (or something very slim) into something – focussing on a different member of the Five each episode is the very technique that kept Lost moving through limited plot progression, and which hampered its first few seasons (but it’s worth emphasising that the series had a far more impressive grasp on character; most of those in The OA get short shrift).


So yes, The OA leaves it to you the viewer to decide if Prairie is telling the truth or spinning a yarn (one that she may believe), and as such the takeaway may be contrasting stimulation or ambivalence (or enragement). Marling actually went there and said “our interpretation is less important than the audience’s”. Yes, she said that. Ten out of ten for unbridled pseudishness. For me, it leads to a boy who cried wolf scenario. I’m unmoved by the prospect of a second season; they don’t need to bait that hook because I’m not swallowing (I’ll gladly eat humble pie if they turn the show into something tangibly gripping beyond its most evident theme, but I’d suggest that ship has sailed and, indeed, had no cargo in the first place).


Because, more than the manner in which it resolves itself (or doesn’t), I’m not hugely sold on the storytelling. There’s some very good acting in the show – Phyllis Smith, Alice Krige, Patrick Gibson, Emory Cohen – but Marling’s drippy moonbeam performance wears thin quickly. It’s a leap I never really made to believe the Five would willingly choose to go and listen to Prairie tell a tall story every night, most likely because of this, but maybe also because its insufficiently motivated, smacking of the kind of thing that only happens in a story, along with where it all leads, to the unwittingly hilarious conceit of foiling a high school gunman (a cheap device if ever there was one) through the power of interpretive dance. In fact, it’s all so unlikely, maybe this too is a tale told by an unreliable narrator.


Ah yes, the interpretative dance. A term I’m using principally because it’s instantly what I recognised it as, but also because Batmanglij objects to it so much, believing it rude to the art form; I’m a proud vulgarian, in that case. He expects more from “serious people”. Really? You need to get a grip, Zal. Such a response certainly explains why his creative projects are so earnestly po-faced. I know the climax is supposed to be powerfully stirring (again, the execution, right down to the surging, euphoric music, is very Lindelof), but if falls on its face, plunging headlong into the realm of farcical.


And that’s not mentioning other unlikely turns of plot, such as Hap leaving Prairie at the side of the road when he has no real idea what effect her loss will have on the experiment (of course, the answer, if it’s in her head, is that the narrative demands it, just like the answer, if it is in some respect true, is that the contrived convenience of the box full of books derives from Riz Ahmed planting them there for someone who goes looking under beds to find). And then there’s the fact that the show is desperately lacking a sense of humour that might soften the blow of its concerted self-importance.


The idea of researching NDEs as Hap does is so extravagantly Frankensteinian, it would likely have benefited from a less naturalistic telling, but as it is, the only part that really held sway was Jason Isaacs’ confrontation with a similarly mad professor-ish associate; Marling’s reductive analysis of the NDE experience (“They draw something that often exists in our unconscious mind and brings it to the surface”) suggests she isn’t really fascinated with the phenomenon per se, particularly since the whole thing is but a conceit (to enable “a reflection on trauma and recovery”, as Vulture puts it, and to which she readily agrees), meaning the aspects of the premise with the most potential become the most disappointing in execution. Give me Flatliners any day (well, probably not the forthcoming remake).


Oh, and I have no idea why The OA keeps getting compared to Stranger Things, other than that people had no frame of reference and both were made by Netflix. It may as well be compared to The Crown. After all, both are either made by people or feature characters with an unassailable sense of self-importance.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. I finished watching this today. It was a struggle in a lot of places, far too full of its own importance. The dance routine parts just made me laugh, I'm afraid, and the faux-profundity left me cold. In the end, I couldn't work out what part we were meant to believe and which parts we weren't (and which resulting plot holes that meant thinking about), and sadly I didn't really care either. Some of the supporting performances were good, I'd have liked to spend more time with those characters than the 'Angel' (ffs).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, "far too full of its own importance" about sums it up.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere.

Trailers Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers’ broader comedies tend to get a mixed response from critics, who prefer their blacker, more caustic affairs (A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis). Probably only Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have been unreservedly clutched to bosoms, so it remains to be seen how Hail, Caesar! fares. The trailer shows it off as big, bold, goofy, shamelessly cheerful and – something that always goes down well with awards ceremonies – down with taking affectionate swipes at Tinseltown. Seeing as how the unabashedly cartoonish The Grand Budapest Hotel swung a host of Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins), I wouldn’t put anything out of the question. Also, as O Brother proved, punctuation marks in titles are a guarantee of acclaim.

I’m an easy sell for Coens fare, though. Burn After Reading is very funny, particularly John Malkovich’s endlessly expressive swearing. Intolerable Cruelty makes me laugh a lot, particularly Clooney’s double t…

Thank you for your co-operation.

Robocop (1987)
Robocop is one of a select group of action movies I watched far too many times during my teenage years. One can over-indulge in the good things, and pallor can be lost through over-familiarity. It’s certainly the case that Paul Verhoeven’s US breakthrough wears its limited resources on its battered metal-plated chest and, in its “Director’s Cut” form at least, occasionally over-indulges his enthusiastic lack of restraint. Yet its shortcomings are minor ones. It remains stylistically impressive and thematically as a sharp as a whistle. This year’s remake may have megabucks and slickness on its side but there is no vision, either in the writing or direction. The lack of focus kills any chance of longevity. Verhoeven knows exactly the film he’s making, moulded to fit his idiosyncratic foibles. It might not be his best executed, but in terms of substance, as he recognises, it is assuredly his best US movie. Alas, given the way he’s been unceremoniously ditched by Hollywood, i…