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…

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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …