In Treatment is like Warhol, kinda sorta

In many of Andy Warhol's films, which I have heard knowledgeable people refer to as "duration exercises," the camera is still and the shot lasts until the film runs out. Some of these movies are really boring to many viewers. Hoberman said of Empire that it's the rare film that doesn't need to be seen to be appreciated. It's never clear to me whether Warhol intended for his films to be viewed as people usually watch movies in a theater or whether they were meant to be backdrops to parties at the factory or components in multimedia performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But when I watched many Warhol films in the late 1990s, it was in an atmosphere of reverential cinephile attentiveness, in a class on avant-garde cinema and a UW Cinematheque screening series, and one learns from watching such movies in such conditions how to reorient your attention. Part of what is so interesting about Warhol in any medium is how he encourages you to notice yourself as a spectator (whether this was his intention or not). When you're watching half an hour or not much happening in a hotel room with bad lighting and noisy sound, you start to notice all sorts of things about the cinematic image, conditions of the cinematic experience, conventions of performance, etc.

I'm starting to find a similar thing happening with In Treatment (previously), the HBO show that is trying so hard to be dramatic while constraining its expressive potential in a number of ways. Whenever artists adopt rigorous constraints, like shooting a scene in a single shot or avoiding certain harmonic or rhythmic patterns, they are after ways of making a narrow format work for them. Good artists make these constraints into opportunities. I'm not sure the In Treatment crew is rising to this level yet, but the show is giving me the chance to reflect on the possibilities inherent in rejecting certain conventions of audiovisual storytelling.

In particular, In Treatment is helping me pay attention to visual details. In a typical half hour of dramatic television, a character might appear in a number of scenes, each with its own costumes, lighting setups, moods, musical accompaniments. Since each ep of In Treatment is only one scene, it focuses my attention on only one look for each character. In last night's episode (the 6th overall), Laura is attired for her work as a doctor, in a white coat over scrubs and white copolymer rubber clogs. In contrast to her harried and unkempt look in the first episode, she is well made-up and her hair is done right. Her large, perfect teeth gleam when she smiles. By contrast, Paul, the shrink, is in drab dark colors. The lines on his face and the watery hue of his eyes become familiar after so many closeups. Other aspects of the mise en scene call to me. There are a bunch of videotapes on his shelf and I want to crouch closer to the set to read their spines. These are the things that boredom will do to a TV viewer. I am deliberately not making meaning of these details, because I don't think they necessarily convey much aside from their own reality. Maybe after more time they will announce their significance to me. So far, all I get is, she's a doctor, he's her shrink. Oh, and they're in love but professionalism (his) is keeping them apart, so far.

I liked this episode best of all the ones so far because Paul is finally a character rather than a listener. We are starting to care as much about his hopes and fears as we do about the patients'. When he is speaking in an extended metaphor about scuba diving and the bends, and Laura smiles like she already knows what he's going to say but intends to let him finish because she likes to look at him go through his explanation, because she loves him and admires him and feels an affinity with him because they both like to dive, there is a subtlety and complexity to the characterization--we can begin to hope that he will leave his wife for this patient even as we think that might be a terrible idea. It's a soapy storyline, and I hope they really go for it.

Much of the episode was still pretentious, talky, and repetitive. But I'm pretty sure that buried in all the objectionable elements of In Treatment is an interesting show. I'm eager to see the next Laura episode on Monday, at least to see if her teeth will still gleam and if Paul will still look at her in that way that says he can't tell her how he really feels. Despite its experimental or distinctive appeals, that is, I hope it will ultimately succeed as conventional serialized TV drama.

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