April 6, 2016

It's a jungle out there

HERBERT LOM AS DR. ROGER CORDER, WITH A PAINFULLY YOUNG JOAN COLLINS, IN THE HUMAN JUNGLE
Since I have a contrarian nature that frequently manifests itself in a healthy suspicion of authority (not to mention a dislike of being told what to do), it's probably no surprise that I have an affinity for medical series featuring psychiatrists.* Think about it - the centerpiece of many a story of this type involves debunking the conventional wisdom, disproving the convenient explanation, and redefining the casual slur, tossed off without second thought, that a person "must be crazy." A couple of weeks ago, we looked at one such show, Breaking Point, and this week we go overseas for a second example: the ITV series The Human Jungle, which ran between 1963 and 1965.

*And no, it's not because I feel myself in need of one.

The star of The Human Jungle is Herbert Lom, and if you've only seen him as the anxiety-ridden Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther series of movies, you're going to be in for a surprise. Lom is brilliant as Dr. Roger Corder, projecting an air of confidence bordering on arrogance but with the ability to back it up. He works out of St. Damian's Hospital* in London, but also has an office in his home, where he often sees his patients. He is precise, somewhat quirky, doesn't suffer fools (including patients who don't level with him), appears humorless but in fact has a very dry sense of humor. He is dedicated to the health of his patients and often resembles a detective in his determination to get to the root of their problems, interrogating (I don't think that's too strong a word) family members and others in an effort to find out more about his patient's past life.

*The names aren't spelled the same, and St. Damien (as opposed to St. Damian) had not yet been canonized at the time of the series, but St. Damien was the famous priest who tended to the lepers on Molokai. An interesting parallel, had it been intentional, since people who suffer from mental illness - like lepers - are often outcasts from society.

We know a little more about him than we do the doctors of Breaking Point, but not by much: we are told that he is a widower whose wife died in a car accident, and we know he has a teenage daughter, Jennifer, who displays much of her father's perceptiveness about people and problems - enough that she can occasionally act as a sounding board, but not so much that she intrudes on her father's practice, and though she doubtless has her share of teenage dramas, they never serve as a B story in an episode.* Corder has a young colleague, Jimmy, but aside from their collaborations on cases the mentor/apprentice relationship of other doctor shows seems to be absent; he has a personal assistant, Jane, and a secretary, Nancy, who occasionally become involved in his cases, but there's never even the hint that either one of them play a role in Corder's private life.

*Unlike, say, Castle, but I don't want to point any fingers.

Like Breaking Point, The Human Jungle makes no promises, although the episodes suggest a more definite sense of closure. There is also a difference in personalities; whereas Breaking Point's Drs. Thompson and Raymer demonstrate a quiet patience, letting the patient come to them at his own pace, Dr. Roger Corder is relentless, always probing to find answers, refusing to let anyone take the easy way out. The stories, though, are similar - desperate people, pushed to the edge, in the hands of dedicated professionals determined to see them through their crises.

One episode offers us a young figure skating champion. thought to be lazy because she insists a serious fall has left her unable to skate. but Corder discovers she is actually rebelling against not being allowed the life of a normal teenager, and has convinced herself the fall has left her physically unable to skate. It sounds like a Freudian cliche on paper, but the description neglects the subtle inflections that Corder notices, the glances that the girl gives when answering questions, the offhand remarks by her mother about not letting her attend public school with "normal" girls, the way her father tries to exploit her "injury" in order to sue her skating coach for damages.

In another case, a well-to-do woman is arrested for shoplifting, but while the authorities figure her to be a simple kleptomaniac, Corder discovers that her "devoted" husband turns out to be a martinet, demanding perfection from everyone, including her. Simple enough: another case where the husband is clearly the bad guy, but that's only until we discover the truth behind his perfectionism: as a young man during the war, his negligence caused several of his colleagues to be killed by a gas attack, and ever since he has blamed himself, continually punishing himself for an act so horrid that he feels he does not deserve to be forgiven. And so Corder, who starts out treating the woman, winds up trying to save a man who is utterly defeated and broken.

Most of Corder's cases fall along these lines, and in this vein, perhaps my favorite story is one that actually is not the series' best, but it gives us perhaps the best look at Corder's techniques. An aging stage actress comes under Corder's care after being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. She professes to be sick and tired of the stage and wants to get away from it all, but at the same time she calls reporters to give them her story from inside the hospital, and she bristles at her director's suggestion (at Corder's prompting) that another actress, the woman for whom her husband left her, be cast in her role.

Corder gives her the rough truth: there is little he can do for her, because this is simply the way she is. She will always have this performance anxiety, but it is a vital part of her makeup; she needs it in order to give life to her acting. He can give her pills to help with the anxiety, but she will never be able to walk away from the stage, and it is up to her to come to terms with the side effects, if you will, of her career. She can walk away from the stage, but if she does so she will be desperately unhappy. At one point during their sessions she makes a perceptive comment. "You frighten me," she tells Corder, "because you have all the answers."

Come opening night the fears have struck again, and she's retreated to the bottle. Even after Corder has sobered her up, she tells him she can't do it: she can't remember her lines, she can't face the public. "I've already used all my tricks," an apparently exasperated Corder tells her, and then drops a bomb, telling her how it had been his idea, not her directors, that she be replaced. Enraged, she strides out onto the stage as if to prove to Corder that she can still deliver the goods. Corder, it turns out, was not out of tricks after all; he knew telling her this would provoke the expected response, probably the only thing that would get her beyond the roadblocks she kept setting for herself. He knows it is a gamble and doesn't take it without considerable thought, but in the end he judges the risk to be worth it to save his patient.

What I like is that this story works on so many levels. We may see Corder as cold and calculating, but at the same time we understand his dedication to treating his patient. That patient tells him he has all the answers, but in reality his tactics are a calculated gamble and he knows it. However, he also knows that acting is this woman's life, by her own choice, and the anxiety which it causes, unpleasant as it is, is part of that process. To remove it will be akin to performing a lobotomy on her personality - she simply would not be the same.

It is this last that highlights not only why The Human Jungle is good, it demonstrates vividly the paradox that so many people forget is an essential part of life, that to be fully human means taking risks, with no guarantee of their success, and that life without some type of pain, some measure of sacrifice, isn't really living at all. Without the valleys of life, there can be no peaks; without the pain that comes from failure, there is no way to measure the intense joy that comes from . success, and the satisfaction of accomplishment. In Shakespeare's immortal words, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" This is what it means to be human.

When Bishop Sheen's Life is Worth Living left the air, it removed the humanity from television. With the disappearance of programs like The Human Jungle, it removes the mind from television. Without the opportunity to probe the interior life, we are left with characters, not people, who are essentially nothing more than robots, puppets that exist only as plot devices to satisfy the whims of their creators. They operate on the fuel of pure emotion, without intellect or reason, without humanity.

The tragedy of this is that art is the most creative of human pursuits, and you'd think in our current eagerness to replace God with man, we'd leap at the chance to usurp from Him the final, crowning achievement: the creation of life from nothingness. Instead, we seem content to ask only for easy answers, rather than demanding, as do Roger Corder and his psychiatric colleagues, that we look under the surface, searching for the humanity that can only be found by navigating the human jungle.

4 comments:

  1. And there is also an inability to leave ends untidy, which is such a major life skill that nobody can live without it.
    Strangely I didn't take to this show at all, to the extent that I didn't blog about it because I felt it was clearly of some quality but I wouldn't have anything constructive to say about it.
    Funny really, it should have been exactly the kind of thing I love. In fact with my psychological radar going I wouldn't mind betting you are an INFJ on the Myers Briggs type indicator,with your love of truth mixed with a contrary streak!

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    1. Somewhere in the deep recesses of a personnel file in an HR department of a company I used to work for, the Myers Briggs report on me can be found. I think I'd be afraid to see what it has to say!

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  2. I've never seen this show, but it sounds like up my alley. First, I always enjoy Herbert Lom (who even made a good PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). Second, I'm a fan of British shows of this time period. Typically, the acting is always above-average, plus you never know what former or future star you're going to see. Finally, the groovy theme is by John Barry!

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    1. Really, you can't ask for much more than that, can you? Catch a few episodes on YouTube - Lom has the same quirkiness that he does in the Pink Panther movies, but it's channeled in a much different direction.

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And now for something completely different.