In Which We Bring Honor To North Texas Psychology


Butter and Toast


creators Paul Attanasio & Phil McGraw

There is a great tradition in the performing arts of gaining or losing muscle for a particular role. De Niro, Clooney and Russell Crowe all put on about fifty pounds to look like a boxer and two CIA agents. What the point was of Phil McGraw finding a handsome actor (Michael Weatherly) to play him and then making him like a slovenly mess wearing those glasses and oversized sweaters, I’ll never know. On Bull, Weatherly looks like he showed up at a Halloween Party dressed as Jonah Hill.

In 1990, McGraw was deep in thought about how he could use his PhD in psychology from the University of North Texas to accomplish his major life goal: making a shit ton of money. Bull is based on those heady years when he started CSI, a jury consulting company. Few of the techniques employed by Dr. Joseph Bull could feasibly have been utilized in 1990, since Dr. Bull’s staff includes a hacker (daughter of the show’s executive producer Paul Attanasio), a stylist hired away from Vogue, and an ex-police officer.

The hacker in question is named Cable McCrory, which should be indicative of the level of realism we are approaching in this depiction of Phil McGraw’s life. Paul Attanasio is most famous for making a lot of money by torpedoing the show House into the ground. I’m genuinely sorry if you liked this show, but it was utter garbage completely carried by Hugh Laurie mugging in every scene and half the plots were identical. Also, it was misogynistic and gross, elements that would probably be a lot more faithful to Phil McGraw’s real life in Texas than this Bull.


There are a few things you should know about Dr. Joseph Bull. During every episode of Bull, someone emphasizes how much pain he carries around with him, like his pathway to this questionably moral profession/manipulation of the integrity of the justice system was straight from an orphanage in the Sudan. I’m unclear on what pain Phil McGraw carries with him, the troubled childhood that caused him to ambush Britney Spears in a hospital room and hold a press conference and regularly humiliate people on television.


Most of focus in Bull concerns the good doctor’s relationship with teenagers. Phil McGraw has always related best to children as subjects, since they are unlikely to question him. Many have never been bullied before, or in so splendid a fashion, and they are a lot more open to his particular brand of babble. McGraw gave up the practice of psychology long ago, if he ever was interested in it at all. He was always more concerned with the application of his training to the field of self-help, which is not only more lucrative, it is filled with charlatans even worse than McGraw himself.


None of this is what makes Bull so wretched. CBS seems to be using the same soft filter on all its dramas, giving the shows a generic, polished look that instead of obscuring the fact they are all shot on similar-looking sets, emphasizes the generic backgrounds and costumes. It is not necessary to have a big budget to make your show appear like it is actually taking place in a locale. I have no clue where Bull occurs: whenever they show local media coverage, an anchor shouts, “The city is captivated tonight by a major trial!” So I guess Bull lives in the city.

Even though Dr. Bull is consistently disrespectful to his clients in order to establish dominance, he abhors anyone else’s lack of common decency. It is as if by being a villain he is the only one fully qualified to identify fellow shitheads. It genuinely seems to make him feel better than other people have less integrity than he does; it may be the only thing he can truly subsist on besides butter and toast.


The genius question that Bull asks potential jurors, the one that gives him a personality baseline for his privacy violations into their lives is this: Where do you get a cold? The intimation is that Dr. Bull himself cannot answer this question, or that he never bothers to get one unless it is professionally helpful for him to be a bit under the weather. Dressed in terrible sweaters and wearing glasses that clearly do not fit his face at all, Bull seems incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Disappoint Our Blind Brother


Like Mute or Deaf, But Without Sight


Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 10.39.31 AM.pngBill (Nick Kroll) really hates his brother Robbie (Adam Scott). When Robbie starts to become interested in a local Jewish woman Rose (Jenny Slate), Bill begins to weigh his many charms in front of her. They go as follows:

1) He can see.

2) He’s Jewish also, and weirdly, his brother is not. How did this happen? Who knows, it’s a mitzvah.

3) He is also able to watch television and not just listen to audiobooks and exercise. (see 1)

4) He is self-deprecating, which is what every woman wants. “What’s wrong with you?” Rose asks him, and Bill is just like, “Everything.”

5) He knows another blind guy who can secure them weed.

6) He is portrayed by Nick Kroll, whose new Broadway show Oh, Hello where he and John Mulaney play old Jews, commands upwards of $80 a ticket.

7) Nick Kroll dated Amy Poehler for two years. What was that like? It was filled with cute moments of affection, bonding moments with Amy’s two boys with ex-husband Will Arnett.

8) Did I mention he was Jewish and he can see?


Now Amy Poehler dates some goofball who walks around in an Upright Citizens Brigade t-shirt. She and Adam Scott were a pretty unbelievable couple on Parks & Recreation. It seemed like he spent a lot of time trying to please her and she was never really quite there for him. Then Nick Kroll stepped in. Keeping fiction and real life straight has never been my strong suit. All I know is that Adam Scott is happily married, and that he is quite shockingly 43 years old.

My Blind Brother continues Scott’s desire to recast himself as a dick in every single independent film he does. In a wonderful movie that Jason Sudeikis ruined last year, Sleeping with Other People, Scott played a disturbing and unfaithful doctor. If he were six inches taller, you get the feeling that Scott would be Richard Gere. But he’s just not. Unfortunately, My Blind Brother finds absolutely nothing redeeming about Scott’s character, I guess so you don’t feel bad that Rose is cheating on him with Nick Kroll.


In one memorable scene, Rose and Bill are having sex on the couch when Robbie walks in full of excitement. He apologizes to both of them for how he has been acting that day, and they slowly put on their clothes. Robbie seems for a moment to catch the scent of sex on the air — how could he not? — but perhaps he prefers to put his suspicions aside. A blind man must make accommodations for the people in his life.

After thinking about it for awhile, My Blind Brother is not very revealing about what it is like to be blind. Despite his lack of sight, Robbie drives a car around in several very dangerous scenes. Somehow he also punches men in the face and knows exactly where Rose’s head is when he wants to kiss it. By the end of the film, you are not entirely sure whether he was blind at any point.


Rose’s friend Francine (Zoe Kazan) naturally sympathizes with the blind character. Rose tries to get her involved with Bill in order to simplify this messy situation. He is wonderful with Francine, and she takes a liking to him as well. Unfortunately, Francine is only part Jewish, and this is not a very prominent part.

My Blind Brother is not very sensitive to the feelings of any of these people. The film features many prolonged segments where Nick Kroll explains to Jenny Slate how deeply in love she is with him and how they are destined to be together. What exactly does this phenomenal pseudo-couple have in common? Nothing really — it’s like this problem where two funny people meet. They think they should be together, because they have such a great time. And why wouldn’t they? They’re both hilarious.


Unfortunately, the quality of jokes you can make in someone’s presence has very little to do with compatibility. My Blind Brother could easily have focused on physical comedy considering the circumstances, but instead director Sophie Goodhart opts for a more mopey, serious vibe. The resulting film is pleasant if a bit slight when it could take on more dramatic weight.

But perhaps that was the right choice: comedians are terrible together. Even the chemistry Slate and Kroll developed during their reality show parodies on Comedy Central’s Kroll Show can’t save the lack of romance here. Watching them rub their bodies against each other is like watching a woman cuddle with her best gay friend.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which The Only People Concerned Know Nothing


Bad People


The Good Place
creator Michael Schur

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-8-49-02-amThere is a moment in NBC’s new sitcom The Good Place where Ted Danson lists a bunch of things which are good and bad, and the numerical positive or negative value he has assigned to each. The first positive thing he shows is “eating a sandwich” and the first negative thing he shows is “buys a trashy magazine.” That is the initial troubling sign that the people behind The Good Place have as little idea what it means to be a good person as the show’s central character, Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

Kristen Bell is undoubtedly a good person, since you would have to be extremely virtuous to marry or even have sex once with Dax Shepard. (His face looks like the protagonist of Ratatouille.) Then she brought joy to so many young people by voicing that girl in Frozen who was absolutely boy crazy until her sexuality was thawed by leaving the chaste castle in which her parents kept her.

Maybe the creators of The Good Place could have just asked Kristen Bell what it means to be good. Everyone in this version of heaven has dedicated their lives to helping others, except for her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Chidi speaks French, although it is translated as English to Eleanor since she does not understand the French language. Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, although evidently he was so terrible at academia that he has to remind himself of the basics by reading Kant.


The idea of training Eleanor to be good is repulsive to Chidi, which I suppose also makes him a sort of bad person. Even though Eleanor is the only white person except for a pair of homosexuals who, somewhat inappropriately, enjoy picking up trash (this was not thought out well), she never makes notice of it. Her soulmate is from Senegal, her next-door neighbors are from different parts of Asia and Europe, and Ted Danson is really the only other genuinely white person there.

The Good Place becomes a weird hymn to white privilege, since Eleanor is transported to these environs without any actual virtue: so it must just be because of her skin color, and maybe her general complexion and appeal. Bell’s handsome looks are no longer childlike, and she has become very expressive and soulful as she matures into her thirties. So far, few of her acting opportunities have utilized this new dimension, and The Good Place mainly writes jokes for her that revolve around her not being able to curse.


Sometimes we flash back to Eleanor’s live in Phoenix, Arizona. You see, Hollywood writers look down on Arizona because it is nearby and thus an easy target. In Phoenix, Eleanor sold a nasal product that was composed of chalk, even though the FDA would never allow such a thing. This makes Eleanor’s real life just as fanciful as her afterlife — it is a clue that you should not think about The Good Place too seriously. Creator Michael Schur emphasizes this when he recently stated in an interview that he started researching religion but gave up because it was too hard and cut into his golf time.

It is not enough that people like Schur not believe in God or any religious concepts: they cannot even be bothered to find out where they come for. Just as valid, they think, is whatever concept for the afterlife that come up with offhand during a pitch meeting. Well, atheists should be allowed their ideas too: what Schur and company have up with is basically hell — an unfunny mess of cliches, jokes stolen from Albert Brooks and physical comedy involving Ted Danson licking the sweat from his armpits. Who would willingly watch such a thing?

The aspect of The Good Place that is most insulting to its viewers is that it has no conception of how racist its ideas even are. The ethnic characters that surround Kristen Bell’s Eleanor have no agency or will of their own: they simply exist to make her feel worse or better as the episode demands. The only time these empty shells ever show the slightest bit of agency is when Tahani (Jameela Jamil) decides that she and her Buddhist husband should try to cheer Ted Danson up. Why would he be sad? Danson has more hair now that he did twenty years ago.

Even Bell is afforded nothing but a basic perplexity. She becomes unsympathetic so quickly — she has no other function except to drink and enjoy her time in this new world. She is essentially uncurious and she avoids love or caring as if it these emotions were anathema to her new existence. She and her neighbors cannot be destroyed or harmed by anything in this new place, and yet they run around screaming when they see a group of giraffes stampeding down their streets. The only thing worse than a bad deed is a bad idea.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Lasted A Whole Lot Longer Than You Did

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


My wife and I have been friends with another couple, who I will call Jean and Greg, for a few years. We all enjoy spending time together. My wife recently told me that Jean has informed her the two are having some problems and Jean met someone else. Jean is unsure whether to leave Greg or cut this other guy out of her life.

After talking to Greg casually about the issue and offering my ear if he wanted it, he opened up to me. It’s obvious he has no idea what is actually going on and only knows what Jean told him. I want to tell Greg the truth, since I am not a very good liar. Also, if he finds out later on that I knew, I fear losing him as a friend.

My wife isn’t going to care what I do either way, and I feel more loyal to Greg in this situation. I know getting involved could mean we lose Jean and Greg as friends, but I think that might be worth the trouble. What should I do?

Max B.


It is possibly, but not likely, than you know everything about the life that Jean and Greg had. We often make the mistake of thinking we know what is going on in a relationship, but it is very, very easy to mistake the symptom for a cause.

I had a friend whose girlfriend was frequently quite mean to him in public. Many people commented about how she acted, but it turned out that my “friend” was actually quite disgusting to her in private. Did this justify her behavior? Absolutely.

It is also completely in the realm of possibility that Greg knows about this other guy, but he is hiding it from you to save face. Or maybe it is not just of any concern to him, since he knows that the real problems in his relationship aren’t going to be solved by eliminating a rival.

Even if you tell Greg the truth, he is probably going to hate you for it. If you really want to retain him as a friend, lie and tell him you knew nothing about it when the time comes.


I have been with my girlfriend Nancy for the past four years. We have shared a lot together, and helped each other through so much, and I truly love and respect her as my partner and a human being.

Nancy was married before so it’s not something she has a great deal of interest in at this time. We do live together and share expenses. She recently broached the concept of having children. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I did not want to have kids if we were not going to get married. Then I wasn’t even sure if I wanted that.

I don’t know if my doubts about the relationship now are just because Nancy’s idea about children made me think of things in a new light, or perhaps I am just getting commitment jitters. I don’t know how to interpret what I am going through. I love Nancy, but I also don’t like the idea of never being with anyone else.

Armin P.

Dear Armin,

You realized that having children with Nancy means that it would be very difficult to bail out of the relationship later on.

If you wanted all these things with her, you would know it. You would be building a crib and convincing her to marry you. There is no woman who is in that kind of love who would really resist marriage if it were put to her in a correct way. It was a happy thing for you that she was not super-pushy about the future, since you did not actually envision a future with her.

Four years is a long time, but it could be a lot worse. Nancy could have adopted a whole legion of children, stopped doing whatever it was to your butt you enjoyed so much a decade ago, filed for divorce, and found out about your affair with Marion Cotillard.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which We Thought Ingmar Bergman Could Be Something More


Revenge Picture


Mrs. Vogler desires the truth. She has looked for it everywhere, and sometimes she seems to have found something to hold onto, something lasting, but then suddenly the ground has given way under her feet. The truth had dissolved and disappeared or had, in the worst case, turned into a lie.

My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to her faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocities with a kind of greed – a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images, images that turn my art into a bag of tricks.

Ingmar Bergman’s notebooks

the-movieriemnirerI can’t think of Persona without remembering the numerous defenses Roger Ebert made of it.  

Revisiting the film in 2001, Ebert opens his review with “Shakespeare used six words to pose the essential human choice: To be, or not to be?” It is the kind of “common-man” bullshit Bergman specifically ignored, the kind of lazy writing he is making fun of in Persona.

Dumbly, Ebert follows up this banner lede by admitting, “Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it,” and then spends the rest of the essay proving he still does not understand it at all. Persona lacked the kind of subtlety Ebert’s brand of criticism rarely picked up on anyway.


Persona is an insolent work, written in the days that followed Ingmar Bergman’s recovery from exhaustion and pneumonia developed while he directed the largest theater in Sweden. It will always be the most sardonic of his films, sketched out as it was at a time of high stress and possible decombustion.

Bergman wrote to himself before embarking on the project:

I will attempt to keep the following commands:

Breakfast at half past seven with the other patients.

Thereafter immediately get up and take a morning walk.

No newspapers or magazines during the aforementioned time.

No contact with the theater.

Refuse to receive letters, telegrams, or telephone calls.

Visits to home allowed during the evening.

I feel that the final battle is fast approaching. I must not postpone it further. I must arrive at some form of clarity. Otherwise Bergman will definitely go to hell.

He was cracking, and Persona‘s disjointed opening gives evidence of that.

Bergman’s journal reconstructs the film’s opening sequence from a childhood memory he had:

I imagine a white, washed-out strip of film. It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself.) Gradually the precise word I’m looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That’s Alma’s face. Mrs. Volger’s face.

Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullman) is a famous actress who has a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) taking care of her. Volger takes a vow of silence. Bergman remarks in his journal that “So she has been an actress one may give her that? Then she fell silent. Nothing remarkable about that.” The empathy Ingmar extends to her is really for himself. When Mrs. Volger is presented a picture of her son, she tears it up, staring for hours at the atrocities of the war in Vietnam she sees on television.


There is a disease of overempathy that allows some of us to become easily affected by events we read in the news or see on television. Elisabet is afflicted by this as surely as her creator. Even before the internet and bbs there was still the tendency to get drawn into the suffering of others, that anguish that exists outside of us and for that reason is unchangeable. In the face of this Ingmar had become mute so why not mute a woman, you know, as a kind of revenge?

The performance was a star-making one for Ullman. The feat of carrying an entire movie just from reaction shots had only been achieved once before, in the work of Akira Kurosawa. Ullman’s face never moves when we stare directly at it; given the task of playing a mute, every small moment in her representation seems like either an instruction or an exaltation.


Elisabet is a fallen angel and demon incarnate in herself, but at the edge’s of Ullmann’s performance, Persona feels rather thin. The production itself was troubled from the beginning. On set Bergman shot more takes than he ever had, almost to the point of compulsion; nor was he ever more difficult with his cast. Persona did not concern itself with his own external awareness, only his inner doubts. That he had them and was capable of acknowledging them would always be his unforgivable sin.

During one particular scene in the film, the two women exchange personalities. Alma spends the rest of the film imbued with Elisabet Volger’s dissatisfaction and anger, while Volger stands in repose. Eventually they are merely two sides of the same person. The images of the director and DP on Persona scouting locations provide an offscreen male corollary to the events of the film. See here:


Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist tried to focus on the unattractive side of each actresses’ face, so when you showed them half-illuminated in shadowy light, they would look something not of themselves. Or as the banal Ebert put it, “The two actresses look somewhat similar.” With this kind of feedback, it’s no wonder Bergman repeated this trick in every single one of the films that followed. It never fails to achieve its distinguishing effect of unsettling confusion.

Ebert’s defenses of the man who fooled him more than once continued after the aging director allowed him access for a long profile. Even when the director himself began to shit all over his past works, Ebert held firm.

The worst part of Persona is actually the scene where we see both faces; because of the dullness of the monologue Bibi Andersson delivers, and the self-indulgence of the shot.


Bergman explained where this came from to Ebert:

The most beautiful of all is that you’re close to the human face, which is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera. On TV a few days ago, I saw a little of Antonioni’s new picture, The Passenger. And you know, I am an admirer of Antonioni, I’ve learned so much from him, but I was struck by the moment they cut from his film to a closeup of Antonioni himself, for the interview. As he was sitting there, here was his face, so normal, so beautiful and so human – and I didn’t hear a word of what he was saying, because I was looking so closely at his face, at his eyes. The ten minutes he was on the screen were more fascinating than any of his, or my, work.

If Bergman is telling the truth, he is indicting himself. If he is lying, then the emperor has no clothes. It is the kind of no-win situation Persona explores as a binary theme that has been imitated in so many pictures since.

At one point Alma discovers Elisabet’s view of her in a letter she intercepts. In that bit of correspondence, Elisabet marvels that Alma’s convictions are so totally unrelated to her actions. It is no wonder Bergman felt disoriented as a filmmaker around this time.

Yet it is even worse for the critic, who is permitted no ambiguity in his judgments. Bergman describes the situation of the artist in Volger/Alma there is always some outstanding question of seriousness, an overwrought scene can be ascribed to a joke or reference. No one ever had to ask, after reading an Ebert review, did you like the movie? The proper question was rhetorical, and ancient. Must all life be a chorus of good or bad? Have you not thought it might be something more?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.


In Which We Naturally Appreciate The Effort


A Woman On Her Own Time


Bridget Jones’ Baby
dir. Sharon Maguire
123 minutes

Bridget Jones makes something of a scene at the funeral of her old boss, Daniel Cleaver (an MIA Hugh Grant). Hugh Grant felt he was too good to involve himself in Bridget Jones’ Baby, although it is unclear what he found so unpalatable about the project. There are not so many movies about the plight of a 43 year old single woman, although Renee Zellweger is actually 47.

No one involved with Bridget Jones’ Baby has ever heard of the Bechdel test. Maybe it didn’t make its way to England? All Bridget and her friend talk about is men and how much her life would be better if a penis was everpresent in it, I guess for Bridget to address by name in her diary. I don’t know anyone over the age of 30 who keeps a diary who isn’t a war criminal.


Bridget falls in some slop and is hauled out by Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). The real story should be how Patrick Dempsey with his sketchy beard now looks like a member of ISIS. He has lost almost all of his previous appeal, while Renee Zellweger is a perfectly reasonable facsimile of the woman she was twenty years ago. Bridget starts wearing these weird oversized glasses when she goes out with guys, it makes her look like she is cosplaying as a librarian.

It is a wonderful thing to know you can fall in love at any age. Despite being a somewhat high powered news producer by now, Bridget makes a lot of inappropriate jokes still, and a surprising amount of them are about Hitler. When she goes camping at a music festival with her news anchor and friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani), she ends up sleeping with Dempsey after accidentally wandering into his tent. His penis feels like porcelain soldered onto a metal frame.


Dempsey seems to be doing some kind of weird accent, but it is unclear what exactly he is going for. Bridget gets on top of him within thirty minutes of knowing him. It is nice to be with someone who has a similar frame for all of her historical references, and it turns out that Qwant is some kind of incredibly wealthy inventor of a romantic algorithm. Someone intelligent would be good for her, since Bridget does not even seem to know that the term MILF is incredibly offensive.

Bridget’s other friend Sharon (Sally Phillips) actually has children, and Bridget sort of ignores them most of the time, like they are completely incidental to her experience. She talks about putting Dempsey’s metal cock in her mouth with her friend, only to disguise it from the kids they call the mechanical item a “puppet.” Children in England are very naive at first.


When Bridget attends a lovely christening, she poses for pictures with Mark (Colin Firth). The photographer instructs Mark “to give her a kiss” — he means the baby Bridget is holding, but Mark completely misunderstands and gives Bridget this super-intimate soft pressing of his lips to the side of her head. At the ensuing party Bridget gets absolutely wasted while wearing plastic wings on her back to make her look like an angel.

Mark’s reaction to Bridget’s behavior is somewhat puzzling. He sees her dancing and feels joy that Bridget is happy, but somewhat serious disappointment that he didn’t consummate the relationship at an earlier time. There is really no context in which “Let’s Get It On” is appropriate at a christening. During a quiet moment at the party, Mark checks the tag on Bridget’s dress, which I did not even know was a move.


The sexual intercourse that follows sets up the main premise of Bridget Jones’ Baby, which is that Bridget has no idea who the father of her child is, and has no earthly way of finding out. Medical science simply hasn’t advanced that far. The sex itself is brief but romantic, and the only weird part is that it is contrasted with the rest of the party involving small children and how much fun everyone there is also having.

Bridget leaves a note for Mark, like he is expecting that the fuck he just accomplished off this christening was going to lead to marriage. If Colin Firth wanted to be married, rest assured he would be married. “We could come up with a hundred reasons why we never made it,” she writes to Mark, “but I always found that you were never there, and I was mostly alone.”

Bridget tells Jack Qwant that he might be the father of her child in a terrific scene where he looks like he is about to strike her in the face. Bridget Jones’ Baby could seriously have been a far more entertaining movie if it depicted how men actually behave when they are told they are going to be a father. (My own father actually killed a farmhand when he found this out.) Instead it is just mostly awkward, with each man growing to accept and understand his life is about to be completely ruined.

At some point in Bridget’s journey you realize that this entire time — her entire life — she has never actually communicated honestly with any of these men. This brings up about a important question of why she doesn’t ever do that, which I suppose is because she doesn’t trust them. It isn’t an issue that springs from the relationship with her father, Bridget Jones’ Baby makes absolutely clear, so it must simply be the function of the men she enjoys being with. They are the sorts of fellows who would never want to write any of her story — they would prefer she do that on her own time.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Have Always Been An Extremely Wealthy Orphan

How Did You Survive?


The Handmaiden
dir. Chan-wook Park
144 minutes

Things start to become complicated for Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) when she is giving the mistress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) she serves as a maid a bath. In order to pacify her patron during the slow process of cleaning her body, she offers Lady Hideko a lollipop. Hideko complains of a tooth in her mouth, and in the minutes-long scene that follows, Sook-Hee inserts her thumb in and out of Hideko’s jaw to smooth the sharp tooth with a scraper.

Legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park is known for intersections like these — those which could be played for laughs, but instead fall into a grey area where they become absorbing as actual moments. In his masterpiece Oldboy there is a scene where the protagonist eats a live octopus that is similarly wild without becoming amusing. There are many humorous moments in his adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, but the core relationship between a woman and her servant is never treated with anything but the utmost seriousness.

Chan-wook Park decided to make a Hollywood film with 2013’s Stoker. Written by Wentworth Miller, the resulting picture was about as silly as his South Korean noirs, and watching international actors in his familiar style was great fun. Sadly the movie, which starred Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska among others, never achieved nearly the audience it should have.

The Handmaiden gives Park a more heady eroticism to work around. He is the master of how audio cues alarm and excite us, and watching two pert Korean women share a bed becomes a cacophony of swells, sucking, and other substantial sounds. Sook-Hee’s job to is convince Lady Hideko to marry a fellow con-artist so that he can commit her to an insane asylum and the two can make off with all their money.

Naturally, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love. The art direction by frequent collaborator Ryu Seong-hie frames every scene of The Handmaiden perfectly. Despite being shot mainly on one Japanese estate like Stoker, even interiors retain their complicated composition without becoming overly busy. Sook-Hee meets with her collaborator under spare branches that frame an endless walking path. As in most of Park’s work, the aesthetic composition of someone’s surroundings tends to reflect whatever inner struggle dogs them.

The two con-artists and their mark spend the summer in a Japanese bungalow far above a lush jungle. As Count Fujiwara, Jung-Woo Ha is the Korean Peter Sellers — completely serious in one moment and mugging for Sook-Hee the next. Park turns even the slow pace of a novel meant to ape a Victorian one into a plot that spins forward so quickly we feel like the mark ourselves.

Oldboy was a Korean film based on a popular Japanese manga about a drunk who is imprisoned for fifteen years in a private prison without knowing why. Spike Lee remade the film with Josh Brolin for some reason and it was a tremendous bomb. Lee’s remake was stylistically very fun, but perhaps too dedicated to Park’s original to truly feel like its own story. In both versions of the tale, the best part occurs during the main character’s imprisonment, when he feels hatred as well as an absurd wonder for his own unexpected plight.

There is a long sequence in The Handmaiden explaining the elaborate backstory of Lady Hideko that feels much like this. As a young girl, Hideko is made to serve her uncle, who is a character sort of akin to Count Rugen in The Princess Bride. Hideko’s aunt and carer hangs herself from a cherry blossom tree, and even in a lavish house, Hideko feels much like Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. Park cycles through a litany of familiar Japanese imagery to identify the various sexual proclivities which comprise a corrupting element. This culminates in an unforgettable scene where Hideko is entangled with a wooden dummy while suspended in the air. She is the focus of a general, universal desire. “I could perish happily knowing that I tasted you,” Sook-hee admits to her at one point before scissoring.

The Handmaiden is, however, missing the discursiveness that Oldboy embraced at times: the sense that one subject might relate to each other more by association than it ever could directly. Instead it is tightly wrapped around itself, repeating scenes and moments from different perspectives until we understand them in a completely new way each time. This approach gives The Handmaiden the deepening qualities of the best fiction, and gives the story a texture it never achieved in any other form. The truth comes undone like a tightly woven braid.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.