Those Crazy Bates’

Commentary on Bates Motel which airs on A & E Monday at 10:00 pm

Freddie Highmore as Norman and Vera Farmiga as Norma

About half way into season two of A&E’s ultra noir series Bates Motel I realized just how good it was. Season one might have had some minor problems: a ham-handed Jere Burns as the mysterious bad guy, Jake Abernathy and a plot line that went nowhere. But season two, although it has strayed somewhat, seems more focused on the relationship between Norman and his mother, Norma Louise. As Norma, Vera Farmiga is unmatched by the rest of the cast. She inhabits the role of overbearing mom with a delightfully neurotic turn, one moment alluring the next shrewish. Freddie Highmore, who plays Norman, is, at first blush, a bit over the top, but when studied more carefully his portrayal is revealed to be carefully calibrated. After all, it is Norman Bates, perhaps the most camp psychotic in Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. Their increasingly dysfunctional bond is methodically revealed episode by episode.

Things I like to look for throughout the series are the homages to Hitchcock’s Psycho. In the first season we visit the familiar swamp where in the movie a car is exhumed. You can hardly enjoy the view from the top of the stairs at the Bates house without being reminded of good old Detective Arbogast’s ghastly fall. We are treated to a few views of the motel room’s showers, though the best was when the police chief– the permanently eye-lined Nestor Carbonell late of Lost– asks Norman to help him fix a curtain rod. And then of course there is the creepy basement, the setting for the film’s climax, where we can find young Norman toiling away at his new hobby: taxidermy.

Bates Motel’s writer’s have gotten very creative with the cast of supporting characters: Surprise! Norman has a brother…sort of (Dylan turns out to be almost the polar opposite of his disturbed sibling); and an uncle, but not for too long. It turns out Norman is quite the chick magnet as well, though mainstay love interest, the buoyant Emma Decody (played wanly by the talented Brit, Olivia Cooke), who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis and must cart around an oxygen tank wherever she goes, can’t quite seem to catch his eye; but hey that’s probably a good thing. There are loads of nefarious characters populating the sleepy town of White Pine Bay, Oregon too. In fact they seem like the majority. Drug gangs, corrupt militia, abusive alcoholic fathers, you name it.

This season’s finale promises some intense reckoning. Norman, throughout, has been experiencing blackouts, episodes of rage brought on mostly by the guilt caused by Norma Louise’s protective obsession with him. Of late, he has been slowly discovering shards of these deeply buried treasures. Once he finally realizes what he has done, the disposition of his unconscious mind, I have a feeling good old Mother will be the one in his cross hairs.

Those Crazy Bates’

Art as Coping Mechanism

Cast of Cat Ballou

Terry Gross, one of my favorite interviewers, on her NPR radio show, Fresh Air, spoke with Bryan Cranston about, among many other subjects, his early personal life. At one point in the interview, Terry asked “What are your favorite TV shows or movies; the ones that had the most influence on you in your formative years?” “Cat Ballou with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin” he answered, but knowing that the film sounded like an odd choice, he added “and that’s because it’s very personal”.  He then told a story of a time in his life, when he was about twelve years old, during which his parents were not getting along, right before their break-up. At the time his father was running a bar/coffee shop on Ventura Blvd in Tarzana, CA which was failing. Right next door was the Corbin Movie Theater where they were playing Cat Ballou. So, to escape the tension between his parents, Bryan and his brother spent a lot of time at the theater. They saw the movie so many times in fact, they were able to memorize the entire script. When they’d returned home, their parents would still be fighting, so the boys would retreat to their room and play out the entire movie line by line, scene by scene. Obviously, it  was a stressful period for both Bryan and his brother, but they coped with the psychic pain by immersing themselves in this movie. “We were escaping an emotional crisis by reinventing…art” Cranston revealed.

This is just one example of how the consumption of art can be used as an escape mechanism; almost like a drug. I have always found comfort in certain music during difficult periods of my life as have many, I imagine. If this is accurate it should follow that museums are full of despondent characters searching for a path away from their inner strife to find that happy place. Creating art is in itself a therapeutic process which can absorb one entirely and buffer all the woe rushing in from the external world. I suspect that either way, whether you consume or create the art, there is that point where one can become dangerously insular. Children (or adults for that matter) may become obsessed with video games to the detriment of their social life. Artists may isolate themselves, getting lost in some intricate design process (whether it be writing, sculpting, painting, architecture, etc…). But for the most part that does not occur all too frequently; the benefits of consuming or creating art far outweigh any destructive effects.

Seven Generations
Seven Generations: scrap metal sculpture by Frederick Franck

Near our home in Warwick, New York there is a magnificent outdoor sculpture garden and museum called, Pacem in Terris. It exists on and around the grounds of sculptor Frederick Franck’s residence. Franck’s sculpture, drawings, and writings, are placed in a peaceful, natural setting along the Wawayanda River and Falls. The site should be viewed as a single work of art. It incorporates the native flora, minerals, geography, and even makes use of the sun through shadow, so the experience changes with the passing of time. There is a flow to the work that is calming, and the experience can alter one’s mood for the better. It is as they say on the website “an oasis of solitude…” I recommend a visit if you are passing through or live in the area. As Bryan Cranston intimated to Terry Gross: Art is like a drug, it helps you to cope with the pitfalls of everyday life. I’m sure he finds much gratitude in the fact that he and his brother found Cat Ballou instead of Heisenberg Blue Sky out on Ventura Boulevard that day.

Art as Coping Mechanism