Sunday, October 28, 2012

Life Imitating Art: The Storm and Two Cathedrals

What separates Sandy from the power of the mere Hurricane Irene is its historic convergence of meterological phenomena. From Newsday:

"It's been 69 years since the metropolitan area was hit by a late-season hurricane. Sandy's expected turbulent merger WITH a cold front moving in from the west, AND a southern dip in the jet stream from Canada, will make it a hybrid storm, an even rarer occurrence, experts say."

No West Wing fan can hear that description without thinking of the season two finale "Two Cathedrals," and the tropical storm that had not hit DC in May, out of season, in 100 years, but descended after Mrs. Landingham's funeral and pushed Bartlet to make a decision.

The episode is on many people's list of top 5 episodes in TV history, and Bartlet's confrontation with God in the National Cathedral, partly in Latin, is most often cited. But it is so much more than that, and for me, it's the last 6 minutes that have to do with the storm that put it in the realm of art.

•Like all great works of film, the episode defies time boundaries, meaning  it conveys what seems to be a magical amount of exposition in its 44 minutes. Every stroke is so efficiently and exquisitely planned that the sheer impact of story and emotion and ideas is remarkable.

•The flashbacks to young Jed are beautiful haikus to Jed’s whole relationship with his unloving father and Mrs. Landingham’s “big sister” love and encouragement. They start beautifully integrated into the situation room scene.

•Before he starts speaking in Latin, Barlett lashes out against God killing Mrs. Landingham in the vernacular:

“You're a son of a bitch, You know that? She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? 'You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God', says Graham Greene. I don't know whose ass he was kissing there, 'cus I think You're just vindictive.”

It’s a startling, liberating speech on tv. It’s perfect for the character, it’s perfect for the storyline.

•The funeral itself. Visually moving. Bartlet’s earlier line when Charlie asks him does he need anything, “I need pall bearers” is heart wrenching, in the midst of the MS news breaking

•Then the storm, blowing in Mrs. Landingham's ghost or soul, or just raising the anger in Jed. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” It’s beautifully filmed, beautifully written:

Bartlet: I've got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham. I've never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.

Mrs. Landingham: I've got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn't as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off then you.

•And then comes the finest 6 minutes of one of the finest hours in television: Jed’s walk through the West Wing to the car to go over to the press conference at the State. Dept. to the haunting strains of Dire Straits’s "Brothers in Arms." This music essay within an episode is a tv convention that has been so imitated that it seems trite now, but in 2001 in was still fresh. (Although I must note that Michael Mann scooped Sorkin with BIA by 16 years, in a music essay in Miami Vice's “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” Another exquisite hour of television).

Sorkin’s essay has a twinge of Bartlet as Lear, walking in the rain with no coat or umbrella, yet not in madness but in a baptismal rain cleansing his sin of concealing MS; Jed’s own band of brothers falling in behind him as he walks to the car; a beautifully framed motorcade in the rain; the purposeful walking feet shot; the president’s car passing the Cathedral just as the janitor finds the cigarette butt; and at the press podium, Bartlet being Bartlet.

There's no soundtrack to the real power and potential terror of nature unleashed upon people. I dearly hope everyone remains safe. If the essentials are covered, then Aaron Sorkin and Dire Straits do offer some inspiring, serious rain.