Olive Kitteridge isn’t having any fun at all

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One of the most refreshing and unusual pieces of television I have seen is the strange story of Olive Kitteridge. An HBO mini series based on the Pulitzer winning book by Elizabeth Strout, Olive (Mc Dormand) is an interesting character to be sure. Sharp tongued, incredibly witty, dismissive, self contained, cerebral, self reliant, she is an unpopular and foreboding character in the neighbourhood of Maine, US where she lived her life.

Olive is most likely clinically depressed (her father committed suicide). She is married to a loving kind intelligent humorous man called Henry, works as a maths teacher, is world weary, misanthropic, and deeply irrevocably bored. Henry, though not quite comprehending the full complexity of Olive’s detached, acerbic, cold disassociation from any kind of emotional life, still loves her. It is a complicated love each has for the other, involving much compromise, excessive personal space, denial, and suppressed anger. Both their love for each other also covers over their desires for a more compatible partner, the confession of which occurs under the intensity of a near death experience for both of them. Olive pines for a witty intellectual Jim O Casey (who dies in a car crash), and Henry secretly longs for other, more emotionally available women (a young widow who ends up marrying another man). Perhaps more than anything, aside from the depression she endures, is the fact that Olive never achieved anything that actually fulfilled her. She is more a blocked force than a spent one. Filled with much intellectual energy, and yet afraid to act in a world she has already depressively rejected, Olive hates herself and yet cannot forgive the foregone conclusion of her own failure.

Depressingly, she remains on the periphery of her own life, a person sitting watching her life quietly drift away. She is bored, bored beyond any possibility of feeling anything other than a sense of gathering annoyance with the world and what she perceives to be irrevocably absurd, and behaviour that is vain, selfish and cruel on the part of humanity. Death haunts her – her fathers death, the suicides of friends she tries vainly to save, her own death and her longing for death. Surrounded by the absurdity of death and clouded by depression she seemingly sits close to edge of oblivion while simultaneously scoffing at it. The anger she feels against herself is equally directed at persons, family and those unfortunate enough to cross paths with her. Exacting, angry and jealous – she is nonetheless capable of acts of tremendous compassion. She understands depression,understands that the condition has in many ways shaped her personality. She sees it in the behaviour of other self destructive depressives. She saves many people from ending their own lives, as well as spotting someone accidentally falling into the sea. But nothing, no altruistic act gives her joy or leads her out of the cell of her isolation and frustration. She sees time as the worst enemy. She watches the years pass. She watches one cycle of life ends all too quickly, meaninglessly replaced by another. And Olive feels her own time passing by. She wants some meaningful connection or to do some meaningful action. But she cannot. Whether if a fear of being in the world breeding her depression, or whether it is depression holding her back, it seems she is doomed to forever remain frozen in a kind of amber of unfulfilled desire.

Ultimatelyolive_kitteridge_ssp her own inner void swallows her (it always does) and she reaches the point as an old woman that she wants to kill herself. And yet she cannot. Children playing in the woods interrupt her suicide attempt, and she snaps out of it and has something of an inner breakthrough. She had reached her lowest point and there at that point she discovered a place of self belief she never hitherto known. The world remains utterly incomprehensible, pointless, and yet it is somewhere she is not yet ready to leave. And she watches birds fly off. A wonderful mini series that looks unflinchingly at untreated depression and the ravages of suicide on the lives of others, and a deeply touching examination of an unfulfilled life, Olive Kitteridge is simply a gem – and I haven’t read the novel – yet.

The Queen And I

    The Queen (2006)

Directed by Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings.

The notion of any kind of hereditary monarchy simply incomprehensible to me. It is a system of government so riven with problems as to be potentially catastrophic for a country. This is why the UK have reduced the monarchy to figurehead status. That being the case, the UK remains with a Queen, and Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role in this movie) plays Elizabeth II just after the death of Diana Spenser in 1997, formerly Princess Diana. Diana Spenser is named by Blair as the peoples princess (Tony Blair is played by the creepily brilliant Michael Sheen who also should have gotten an Oscar for his role as the obsequious power hungry worshipful Machiavellian Tony Blair )


Blair, though ostensibly promising to modernise the UK, in many ways sees his path to power along the road of maintaining the status quo. Blair wants power and is intelligent enough and a gifted enough politician to be no socialist revolutionary anti monarchist. He is not long in office and Elizabeth II is wary of him. Diana is dead and she refuses to treat the death as a royal affair despite a very public outpouring of grief and the fact that Blair refers to her as the ‘people’s princess’ – a divisive term to say the least and something that causes a deep division in the Royal household. Elizabeth couldn’t compete with Diana in terms of popularity, or even her capacity to communicate with people. Diana was a girl chosen to be the wife of Charles, who was already deeply in love and in a long term passionate relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Not a recipe for a sound long term arrangement.

Diana Spenser 1961-1997
A portrait of the princess as a young girl

Diana surprised the royals. She was beautiful warm and charismatic and was unafraid to display her many flaws in public. Elizabeth was the polar opposite. She was precise and cerebral, cold and driven by duty. There was a sense that she loathed this person, this Diana, who had invaded their carefully controlled royal cosmos and refused to conform to its mores. In some ways the movie is more about the ghost of Diana Spenser and her effect of Elizabeth II than anything else.

Blair pressurizes the Queen to come down out of the hermetically sealed forty thousand acre estate in Balmoral in Scotland and meet the people in London. The sheer distance between the Royal Family and the lives of the ordinary people becomes apparent as the Queen reads the news day by day, watches the interviews Diana gave after her divorce, unprecedented interviews which broke the code of silence, and sees her own ratings plummet as the tabloids turn on her. She concedes to Blair’s entreaties and returns to Buckingham Palace and meets the people and looks and the swathes of flowers and expressions of regret and she is horrified. It is obvious that many hold her and the machinations of the Royal family household personally responsible for Diana’s death. Which is both interesting, tragic, and at the same time not unusual. A much loved public figure with royal connections dies in a Parisian tunnel with her boyfriend while being chased by rapacious paparazzi. The driver of the vehicle was drunk. Had he not been drunk the crash may not have happened. Anyway when a terrible unforeseen tragedy occurs, such as this one, there is an outpouring of grief and of anger and people look for someone to blame (something I can understand only too well from my own life experience). They blamed the Royal Family and particularly Elizabeth II.

We are tearful....
We are tearful….

The pain of this very public condemnation struck her to the core, but like all leaders and political figures, she summoned the resources necessary to survive, to maintain her distance and her dignity and to keep the Royal Family as a central facet of English life and culture at a time when a Labour Government was in power, a time when there was real talk of abolishing the Royal Family as a historical anachronism. Mirren shows the intelligence and the depth and the coldness of Elizabeth II. Michael Sheen shows Blair as the untrustworthy nasty piece of work he seems by all accounts to be.

All in all this is a great film, an ensemble performance about a truly surreal world, the world of the Royal Family and how deeply dysfunctional they are. I was glad I saw it. I switched on the TV and there it was. How Fortuitous.

Bad Blood

 

Being the strange case of the Shooting Incident of Michael Brown Jnr. (May 20, 1996 – August 9, 2014), by Officer Darren Dean Wilson (b. May 14, 1986),on Canfield Drive Ferguson Missouri, 12.02pm Aug. 9 2014.

Just before 12pm on the 9th of August, a security camera caught Michael Brown (6 feet 4 inches (193 cm)) stealing a box of cigarillos not far from Canfield Drive, Ferguson, Miss., and assaulting and intimidating a shop assistant. The police were called. At 12.01 Officer Wilson saw two males walking up the middle of Canfield Dr. and asked them to get off the middle of the road. These were Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson. Accounts differ as to what Brown said to Wilson. Suffice it to say that Wilson asked Brown to get off the road and Brown refused, citing that they were nearing their destination. Wilson drove on, then reversed right up to Brown and Johnson, realizing Brown matched the description of the Convenience store Cigarillo thief. There then followed a fight, with Wilson still in the car unable to exit it. So Wilson is fighting with Brown who is leaning into the car. Wilson (6 feet 4 inches (193 cm)) is being punched by Brown. Wilson is fighting back and Brown and Wilson are each struggling for Wilsons service weapon (a 40 Caliber Sig 229 [13 rounds, 12 in the magazine, 1 in the chamber]).

Sig Sauer P250 Compact 40 S&W with 13-Round Magazine

Wilson said he feared for his life at this point. Wilson pulls the trigger four times. Two shots go off. One misses. One bullet hits Brown in the arm. Brown and Johnson flee. Johnson hides behind a car. Wilson gives chase to Brown. Accounts differ as to what happens next.  Wilson calls to Brown to stop. Brown turns facing Wilson. Brown moves towards Wilson. Wilson calls to Brown to stop. Brown keeps moving towards Wilson. 10 Shots go off. 6 bullets hit Brown, who is unarmed. The final shot, which penetrated the middle of his skull, kills Michael Brown.

Exactly how far Wilson and Brown are from each other at this point is again open to interpretation. the overall distance travelled from Wilsons cruiser to  where Brown fell dead is 153 feet (45 Metres). Less than 90 seconds pass from the initial altercation to Michael Brown’s death.

Image from Dr. Michael M. Baden

 

The incident sparked enormous public outcry and a huge series of demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, and much public discussion about longstanding accusations about police racial profiling. Peaceful and violent riots ensued in the area. An FBI civil rights investigation is underway.

Witness testimony on any incident is subject to the Rashomon effect. The name, coming from the Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon (1950), is about how a crime is described four different ways by four different witnesses. This is the notion that anyone witnessing any particular incident is subject to bias of one kind or another or an inability to properly see something for what it actually is. The following image is from PBS and asks a list of questions.

(If you have difficulty reading the list below, then right-click it and select ‘open in a new tab’)

Some witnesses say Wilson opened fire as Brown ran away, then shot at him after he turned. (This is unlikely as the shell casings were all found in or about 2963 Canfield Drive.) Some say Brown had his hands raised and the final shots were murder. Dorian Johnson, Browns friend, claims Brown shouted he didn’t have a weapon and for Wilson to stop shooting. A construction worker at a nearby apartment complex disputes the claim that Brown rushed Wilson, saying it wasn’t a ‘bull rush’. Cell phone video obtained by CNN depicts the same construction worker at exactly the time of the incident shouting that “He (Brown) has his fucking hands up!” Others dispute this.

A police officer can use lethal force subduing a subject in the USA under two circumstances (1) To protect their life or the life of another innocent party” — what departments call the “defence-of-life” standard. (2) To prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect’s committed a serious violent felony. (Framework USA Supreme Court decisions laws – 1980 — Tennessee vs. Garner / Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for use of deadly force by police)

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Wilson believed his life was in danger when Brown was punching him and twisting his gun from him. The notion that someone would reach into a police cruiser and start fighting with a policeman for his weapon is somewhat incredible, but possible. Nonetheless Wilson appeared to have suffered minor bruising on his face rather than the savage pummelling a series of blows from a 292 pound (132 kg) well nourished18 year old teenager in the prime of health would have given him. After Brown and Johnson fled, Wilsons life was no longer in danger. Wilson states he felt Brown was going to kill him during Wilsons 156 foot chase of Brown. He claims Brown went for his waistband with his injured right hand as if he were going to draw a gun on him. This is another odd aspect to the story. If Brown had a weapon, why didn’t he draw it after the shooting started right by Wilsons cruiser? If Brown had a gun and saw Wilson was going to use his, why didn’t he draw down on him? (okay not a fair question). Also, why didn’t Wilson give chase in his cruiser if he felt his life was in danger? Why didn’t he (Wilson) wait for backup if he felt his life was in danger?  Why didn’t he try to cut the two Teenagers off using his car in order to save time and increase his response time? When the shooting started, why didn’t he (Wilson) shoot Brown in the legs rather than the more lethal torso or final deadly head shot? Wilson was the trained professional. A few nonlethal legshots would have stopped even the bulk of a Michael Brown. The story doesn’t add up.

The most controversial aspect strangely enough isn’t the shooting but the subsequent Grand Jury which after many tense near announcements and agonized waiting on the part of the public and the Brown family, finally gave its announcement not indict Wilson. After so much testimony not to indict on any charge from second degree murder to the lesser charge of excessive use of force is very strange. it sparked further outcry and more public demonstrations. A Grand Jury  usually meets for about a day or so to decide whether or not the main suspect involved in the shooting (Officer Wilson in this case) has any case to answer. Usually police officers or specialists involved in the investigation are called as witnesses. The defendant usually is not asked to testify, and the prosecutor (Robert Mc Cullouch in this case) usually provides a range of charges that the grand jury needs to indict.

In this instance none of this happened. As the joke goes, a grand jury would indict a turkey for Christmas. This particular grand jury met for 25 days over three months.  Wilson testified for four hours, and over forty witnesses were called, and they bizarrely decided not to go to trial. Then the court documents were released by Mc Cullouch after the grand jury decided not to indict. Usually the evidence is kept secret for a possible trial. Mc Cullouch’s functional definition of a Grand Jury, being to determine probable cause to indict, seems contradict itself. It seems to have gone further than that and drifted into a trial itself.  The job of a Grand Jury is to enquire into the foundation a charge is made, not to analyse and look into a defendants exculpatory evidence. Finally (as far as memory serves) in the USA the last date figures are available for Grand Juries is 2010. In 2010 there were 16,000 Grand Juries. Of those only 11 decided not to indict the accused, which puts the Wilson Grand Jury into some kind of perspective.

Darren Wilson is resigning from the police force. It is unlikely he could continue to be a police officer in the area after the events of August 9th 2014. Ferguson Police Dept. will conduct an internal investigation to see if Wilson’s conduct was in line with policy, according to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.  Finally the National Bar Association is questioning how the Grand Jury, considering the evidence before them, could reach the conclusion that Darren Wilson should not be indicted and tried for the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Me too. From firearm charges to the use of excessive force to the degrees of manslaughter charges, there appears to be so many questions unanswered, so many reasons why this should have gone to trial. Whatever ones political leanings, the facts have a tendency to speak louder than ones emotional bias. That Officer Wilson is not at the very least given the opportunity to answer charges in a fair trial will lead to more bad blood and more racial tensions in this strange and tragic case, that is representative of an underlying problem of racial profiling in the USA. The Wilson-Brown case has all the appearance of a damage limitation exercise. I shudder to think what will happen if another youth is killed in a similar way.

There’s something terribly wrong with Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is a television show that has won basically every award worth winning and every accolade worth giving and been subject to the most minute scrutiny by television critics, writers, psychologists, addiction experts, and dramatists ever since the show first aired back in 2008. It has more than simply caused a sensation. It is actually regarded as probably one of the greatest shows ever to air on television.Its premise is beyond horrible. It charts the demise of its main character, Walter White, an overqualified and deeply frustrated high school chemistry teacher, into one of the kingpins of the Crystal Meth drug distribution networks around Albuquerque New Mexico, home of the vicious brutal cartels that supply the USA. Walter White aka ‘Heisenberg’ is what’s known as a ‘cook’. In other words he turns his skills as an exceptionally gifted chemist into making the finest Crystal Meth either a pusher or a user can buy.

Discovering he has only two years to live with incurable lung cancer, stage 3A, which means it has moved to the lymph nodes, White turns to drug manufacture to ventilate his rage and frustration at his mediocre lot in life. He is 50, frustrated and underachieving in life. He has a surprise new baby on the way and has a son whom he loves deeply with Cerebral Palsy. White earns $46k  p.a. in his teaching job. He also has to supplement his income working at a car wash, run by Bogdon, a deeply unpleasant bullying boss.

As if things cant get worse, we have the question of Walters personality. Walt is not a wise humble balanced guy who, discovering his illness, realizes that despite the fact he is going to die that he has a loving wife and family. He is a bitter frustrated resentful man. He has wasted his mind. Moreover he feels cheated by his best friend, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Decades before he and his friend Eliot Schwartz were once in a small chemical start up company called Gray Matter. Gretchen was Walt’s Girlfriend, but she left him for Eliot. Walt, devastated, sold his share in the company that he had contributed so brilliantly to for a pittance – $5k. (To get an idea of how brilliant Walter White is,on his wall approximately 5 minutes into Episode 1, Season 1, we see Walter White is a recipient of the Nobel prize). Twenty years later Eliot and Gretchen are married, and Gray Matter is worth $2 billion. Much of that had to do with Walters contributions and breakthroughs. White is bitterly resentful of this and checks how Gray matter is doing each week in the news business sections.

He refuses Eliot Schwartz’s offer of payment for chemotherapy and, along with a former high school pupil of his, the delinquent very unreliable addicted child of respectable middle class parents, Jesse Pinkman, begins to cook Meth. Soon because of his extraordinary talents as a chemist, he begins to make the finest Crystal Meth either the local DEA or indeed the local mehthead population has ever seen. Walter is also a gifted and ruthless businessman, dispatching opposition and killing those who threaten him with skill, and a cold remorselessness that grows increasingly disturbing as one watches. This of course is not the story of some everyman. Walter White is no everyman. He is brilliant, egotistical, ruthless, logical, and a killer right down to the soles of his shoes. And he makes the finest meth in New Mexico. Thought his might be an attempt to describe the capacities we all might have in us to be evil, and perhaps if we had Walt’s ego and abilities, had had been slighted and disappointed in life as Walter White had been, perhaps, just perhaps we might find ourselves in not dissimilar circumstances. For the most part though Breaking Bad is so far fetched to be surreal, and yet its surreality lends itself to the fascination of the story of the high school teacher who goes to the dark side. The sheer alien territory of the New Mexico landscapes also helps, the endless stretches of desert, the murderous drug gangs decimating one another for the easy hyper profits available for drugs that because they have been prohibited have become the purview of criminals. This, along with a slow steady build-up to one of the most anticipated and horrifying endings to a series ever, lends one to ask the question what is this show about?

Money? Well, in a word, no. Walter makes vast sums of money. But he enjoys the power and the challenge of eluding detection more than money. Breaking Bad is not about morality either. Its about amorality. Its about the lunacy of prohibition that has never worked and will never work. Its about vast sums of money, unbelievable amounts, that bring power into the hands of very very bad people. Its about the thin patina of civilization and conventionality that covers over our human capacity for greed, murder and revenge. It is a vicious satire of capitalism and market economy gone mad. Everyone is destroyed by Walter Whites monumental desire for power and revenge and in many ways he is part of another economy, the drug economy, with its supply chains and its accountants and economists and entrepreneurs. The problem with Walter is that he disrupts everything. He inevitably finds a way to completely wreck every well crafted operation he finds himself in because he is driven by this desire to get to the top. Planes Fall from the Sky. Children are poisoned. Lovers are allowed to choke to death. Prisoners are executed in their cells. Drug Bosses get their heads blown half off. He doesn’t care. After all he is going to be dead soon. All Walt wants is the ultimate revenge. He wants to be king. As Walter says to Skyler his wife: “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”

What is horrifying is not the carnage that goes on in the drug world. We are used to that. What’s horrible and funny and fascinating about Breaking Bad is how Walter White, apparently the nicest of men, could be so much worse than any of them.