The Internet’s all-a-twitter about Steven Soderbergh’s latest project. I’m not talking about his one-man-band Cinemax series The Knick, which incidentally aired its finest episode (“Get the Rope”) yesterday evening. I’m talking about the post on his personal website, Extension765, in which he reworks Steven Spielberg’s iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as an educational tool — draining the color away and removing the sound, adding modern musical cues (like a propulsive track from the Trent Reznor–Atticus Ross score to The Social Network), and asking all who watch to “think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices…”
It’s an interesting peek inside the cinematographically-minded lizard brain, but there’s an unspoken issue here, one which my friend and colleague Gabe Klinger astutely expressed in two posts on Twitter: “So Soderbergh is interested in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s cutting patterns?? Divorcing form from everything else in that film is useless. …I just think with RAIDERS it’s hard to forget about that franchise’s politics.”
Those who know me know that I’m a rabid Spielberg fan, but I do tend to land on the side of those who think Raiders is highly problematic—more machine than movie, and weirdly in thrall to the racist tendencies of the globe-hopping action movie serials it’s updating. I don’t think I’d go as far as to say, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has, that the famous shoot-the-sword-wielding-Arab scene posits an “offhand genocidal message.” (History tells us it was an impromptu decision made on set that day because star Harrison Ford was ill—a mere jest that, for some, demands a jeremiad.) Still, I acknowledge there’s a queasy relationship to ethnicity that bothers me in Raiders, and even more so in the followup, Temple of Doom, though I personally think Spielberg (normally a very sensitive, race-conscious filmmaker) rights the ship with the two less-liked installments, Last Crusade and Crystal Skull, by undercutting Indiana Jones’ white-savior aura every chance he gets.
That’s all subject for another essay. Back to Soderbergh, whose fanatical love of form is, I think, both his great strength and his Achilles’ heel. He has a terrific talent for composing consistently astonishing pictures. But what good is that when the meanings these images conjure—as is more-than-occasionally the case on The Knick—tend to the half-baked, if not nonexistent? If you read last week’s recap, you’ll remember that Soderbergh’s formalism did little to counter my feeling that that episode was severely lacking. Yet I’m certain you could drain the color away, remove the sound, change the musical cues, and claim it, before audiences actual and virtual, as a prime example of coverage, composition and editing. The problem: that’s not all the episode is. We also need to ask what all the, to use Soderbergh’s term, “choices” that were made ultimately beget. That’s the nebulous interpretive space that each viewer must reckon with for him or herself.
Happily, I come here not to pan, but to praise. As if atoning for last week’s dithering, “Get the Rope” is as perfect—in form, function and spirit—as Soderbergh gets. (And all due credit to my usual punching bags, writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, for providing an impeccable blueprint.) The story is simple: Irish beat cop Phinny Sears (Collin Meath) attempts to procure a black woman for Bunky Collier’s whorehouse. Her offended boyfriend stabs Sears, he dies from his wounds, and a race riot erupts. Most of the episode, which runs a breathless 42 minutes, follows all the characters we’ve come to know over the past six installments as they attempt to protect the Knick from racist hooligans and, when that proves futile, to move the sudden influx of dark-skinned patients, who they normally would turn away, to a safer place.
“Get the Rope” is all about our base level of humanity. When push comes to shove do we protect or destroy those who appear different from us? The opening scene beautifully sets up the stakes: In the Knick’s theater, a younger Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) demonstrates, with the help of his mentor J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), how to pinpoint the exact location of the appendix. “No matter what the size or sex of the patient,” Thack says after making his incision on an invalid and pulling the organ out for all to see, “you will always find [it.]” Always—the larger implication of Thack’s words pushing far beyond size and sex.
The sheer euphoria of his revelation lingers, though I think the way Owen plays the scene, Thack is oblivious to the deeper meanings of what he’s demonstrating (a key point). We also learn in this section how Christiansen (and, by extension, Thack) became dependent on cocaine to soldier through the day. It’s thanks to Dr. William Halsted (Michael Cerveris), Christiansen’s colleague, and an actual historical figure (he was one of the founding members of Johns Hopkins, among other accomplishments, and a drug addict for most of his life). If the opening scene is, on one level, about passing along knowledge for society’s benefit, it’s also about how bad habits and dehumanizing perspectives become ingrained and blinker our judgment.
It’s appropriate that the scene is ultimately revealed as one of Thack’s opium den reveries, one that he’s rudely awakened from when den proprietor Ping Wu (Perry Yung) starts choking, requiring an emergency tracheotomy. It’s debatable whether there’s much selflessness in Thack’s actions here; once the impromptu operation is finished, he smirkingly requests a freshly loaded bowl, and you can tell he’s going to milk this good deed for all it’s worth. But the impulsiveness of the moment—the need to think and move quickly—mitigates most of the tensions (racial, social and otherwise) that would normally be in play.
That’s “Get the Rope” in miniature: People who are resolutely set in their prejudices are forced to drop them in order to survive and endure. As a result, they seem more alive, more present, than they have in most of the previous episodes. Plot doesn’t weigh things down; instead we get a steady accumulation of grace notes amid the chaos: Dr. Gallinger’s (Eric Johson) dawning recognition that he’s losing Thack’s favor. Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), cross in hand, waving off rioters with threats of damnation. Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) dragging the Knick’s suddenly horseless ambulance through dusty and dangerous streets. Herman Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) alternately pathetic and touching concern for the safety of his prostitute mistress Junia (Rachel Korine). Cornelia Robertson’s (Juliet Rylance) sheer delight at discovering the fast one Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) has pulled with his underground clinic. (“You did this?!?” she asks gleefully. You can almost picture Soderbergh, grinning ear to ear, asking the same thing of himself while viewing his final cut.)
Thack’s moment of grace comes last: While laboring in the Negro clinic where all the black patients have been moved, he gives away one of his precious vials of cocaine for anesthetic use. There’s hesitation, of course (his racist selfishness is pretty well set in stone), but it’s nice to see the life-giver win out. That base grain of humanity can always be found, even in the worst of us. As the riot winds down (a cleansing rain helps cool the tensions), the episode moves back to soapy narrative matters. But they’re well earned in this case: Cornelia and Algernon consummate the sexual tension that’s been simmering between them since the start of the series. And Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), who lends quick-thinking support to the transient Knick staff throughout, invites Thack to take her virginity (a scene shot in the dreamily elliptical fashion of the great Clooney-Lopez canoodle in Out of Sight). “Will it hurt?” she asks tentatively. “I can make it painless and perfect” he says. (Christ, Owen, make us swoon, why don’t you.)
Thinking ahead, I can see tons of ways in which these developments could wreak havoc on the series. But as cappers to this masterful installment (which I’d put up alongside the best work—like The Limey, Behind the Candelabra, and K Street—that Soderbergh has ever done), they feel just right. I won’t soon forget the giddy expression Nurse Elkins flashes at her befuddled roommate the morning after her amorous idyll. There’s mystery in her look, and madness too—almost as if obsession is taking hold, and she knows, somewhere, deep down inside, that this is as good as it’s ever going to get.