READY PLAYER ONE: Remember When….

 

 

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

One of the mollifying aspects of nostalgia, which has taken a strong grip on American culture of late, especially as we all cope with exponential advancements of technology and the constant bombardment of media from streaming services, is that it provides a recess from the fast-paced media-driven craze of today’s world. It allows us to dive back into a time when everything just seemed quieter. It’s rather ironic then that Ready Player One is so high-octane and exhausting. The movie is a pop-culture junkie’s version of snorting three lines of cocaine. For some, that’s a high. For others, it’s another instantly gratifying entertainment that provides no lasting value. I feel somewhere in between these two extremes.

The film’s most interesting aspect is in its mythologization of James Halliday, the OASIS’s creator. His character essentially mirrors the way nostalgia has evolved in internet culture. It starts off as a fond personal memory of cultural markers which shaped us, especially those “nerds” such as Halliday, as adults.  But once internet culture got a grip of nostalgia it turned into something weird and malformed. Its personal weight started to lessen. It flattened into a 2D stream of a million different “references” whizzing by your eyes with each click. Halliday’s OASIS is filled with his favorite media references when he was a kid, but they’re so vast and they exist in such quantity and velocity within the game that they don’t register as anything other tokens of remembrance. The OASIS, as a virtual reality program, is the physical written and produced manifestation of an “Only 80’s/90’s Kids Will Remember This!” meme that you see re-posted on Twitter every day.

READY PLAYER ONE - Dreamer Trailer (screen grab) CR: Warner Bros. PicturesThe underlying darkness of the film’s social commentary occurs as we, along with the central characters, discover the clues that tie together Halliday’s life. His obsession with his own past, the pop culture remnants of his childhood as well as the devastating regrets he had as a person, descends into unhealthy levels as more is revealed. At the end of the film, after Wade wins the game, Wade Watts is transported to Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where he speaks with him. It’s not enough that the film suggests Halliday was so possessed by a long-gone past that he downloaded his own conscience into his video game (Wade asks, “you’re not a hologram are you?”), but that Halliday also keeps a younger version of himself alongside for company.

The lack of fulfillment in Halliday’s life forced him to retreat to an era where he felt he was his best self, his happiest self, so much so that he kept that version of himself near him at all times. In small doses, these moments of escape provide mental balance and a harmonious re-connection to where we came from. But the further we are dedicated to constantly holding onto what used to be, in pop culture, politics, social ideas, anything, the less we find ourselves dedicated to progress. In the end of the film, Wade decides to change the way the OASIS works. His final statement declares that people need to spend time outside and in the “real world”. This is as deep a cut as Spielberg has possibly ever made on American society.  Spielberg’s ability to elevate the shallow and lazy self-satisfied geekdom of the novel into an actual discussion of nostalgia’s effect on human memory and its toll on us, is what makes him one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

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Beyond Fear… Love: TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 1)

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Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Le passion de Jean d’Arc is considered by many people to be the moment when cinema became a form of art, but it took a while to realize it. There was a much delayed positive academic reaction to the film that was a result of cinema being accepted, several decades later, through serious critique and eventually canonization, as an art worth examining. While cinema has achieved its heightened status over time, television has always been somewhat stuck in a rut. The idiot box, the mindless entertainment unit, where any space not taken up by sports and general news broadcasts, is reserved for cartoons to be watched by children after they’re done with their homework, laugh-track heavy sitcoms to fall asleep to, and background noise to accompany more productive activities. Even the shows which were deemed as culturally significant and of somewhat of higher quality such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, or Seinfeld remained chained to an inescapable structural formula that all of their visual technique and narrative creativity had to abide by.

So, imagine my disbelief upon seeing a show like Twin Peaks. A show that goes so far beyond the pale of what one could have imagined being greenlighted by any network in 1990 let alone a milquetoast broadcaster like ABC. Imagine a show that even close to thirty years after its first episode aired, is more bold, revolutionary, and radically original than anything television has done in that time.

While the mysterious murder of small-town sweetheart Laura Palmer forms the emotional crux of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, much of the show’s first season concentrates heavily on world-building of a quaint town drenched in inconspicuous traditional American aesthetic. The frosted donuts, the sweet cherry pies, the hot cups o’ joe, the diners and roadhouses, the varsity jackets and motorcycles. These are the images that remain with the viewer long after each episode fades to black. Lynch and Frost’s original conception of the show was a sort of bait-and-switch for the audience and the show’s producers. The murder-mystery would be solely for the purpose of hooking the viewership in. The rest would be an examination of the strange and peculiar individuals residing within the town.

Laboring to understand the world that Lynch builds, especially in his films, is an arduous, and many times fruitless task. He doesn’t do us any favors here either, but the inclusion of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, assigned as the lead on Laura Palmer’s murder case, gives us a cipher to discover the world of Twin Peaks. We learn about the town just as he does, and his occasional tape-recording of interactions and observations as messages to an unknown person named “Diane” is a rope Lynch throws to us every once in a while so we can find our way out of the narrative abyss. But there are no easy answers, and the tension consistently builds without letting any real clues lead to tangible results. The conversations are circular, repetitive, the characters frustrating in their non-sequiturs and cryptic non-answers, and the town as a whole, lightly vibrating with a mystic energy that is only hinted at in the first season through a few terrifying images.

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The strangeness of the show’s aesthetic, however offputting it may be, is never there for the sake of it. Unlike Lynch’s more unrestrained projects Inland Empire and Lost Highway, Twin Peaks’ surrealism is still tied to a narrative. Lynch, a master of toying with audience expectations, strings many future moments back to events that at first seem disturbing in their jarring shifts in tone. One of the most memorable is the Log Lady, who’s on-screen introduction is one of the funniest moments in the show (Agent Cooper asks Sherrif Truman “who’s that lady with the log”… Truman plainly responds “oh, that’s the Log Lady”). It’s not until later that we start to really witness her importance to Cooper’s investigation and the meaning of her vague and puzzling stories. Cooper himself encounters weird dreams, of a short dancing man, Laura Palmer herself, an empty room backdropped by a red curtain, and a terrifying psycho with long gray hair who comes and goes in nightmares around the town.

The show’s distinct mix of soap opera melodrama and abject horror is what sets it apart from almost anything else on mainstream television. It’s an unconventional and un-subtle style that Lynch first used to full effect in his 1986 landmark thriller Blue Velvet and then made a signature in much of his later works like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. The outlandish love-triangles between high school students and awkward comedic hijinks highlight the less savory parts of what constitutes TV culture in the U.S. but they’re juxtaposed next to some of the most artistically radical directorial choices, creating a vision of hokey Americana seen through a trippy post-modern lens. It allows the show to play as an art piece as much as a gripping mystery.

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Twin Peaks merits as a work of art lies in the way it transforms images and innovates structurally. There are so many visual techniques utilized in the show (the crossfades, intercutting, obscured shadows, blurred images, sharp zooms) that were, at the time, considered highly inappropriate outside of indie cinema halls. The pushing of the boundaries was also not eased into. Lynch unleashed the cinematic tricks he cut his teeth with straight from the Pilot episode (later titled Northwest Passage), which is the single greatest episode of TV I’ve ever seen. The ending sequence of the Pilot, a terrifying nightmare of disjointed images and sounds that Laura’s mother experiences, is in itself probably the most radical TV has ever been up until that point (and arguably up until today, even). Two hours long, the episode can be considered a TV Movie, and a work of cinematic art that was much respected by audiences and provided damning evidence that network executives had heavily underestimated their viewership’s openness to experimentation and challenging material. They didn’t take the hint though.

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The episode is also a brilliant foreshadowing of how much more complex and intricate Lynch attempts to build the mythos of Laura Palmer, and her existence in Twin Peaks. The character serves as a direct opposite figure to Dale Cooper in the first season, and while Dale’s discovery of the town is our guiding spirit to the same, his investigation into who Laura Palmer really was is Lynch’s own journey to discover his character. Lynch sets up Laura as an all-American Homecoming queen, a winner of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, trophy girlfriend of the star football player at her high school, from a good family. Even the ending credits of the show scroll on a framed picture of Laura, hair glowing, eyes bright, immortalized. The following episodes, after the Pilot, systematically knocker her down notch by notch. That she was far from angelic in her last moments and instead was ultimately taken by an obsession with the demonic. She recites strange messages like “fire walk with me” and “do you want to get to know Bob?” The nightmare her mother experiences at the end of the Pilot might be connected to something.

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The first season, only 7 episodes, builds a town that includes all of Lynch’s favorite themes. Backstabbing and conniving soap opera melodrama with a twist at every turn. Teenagers in intimate conversations over their world which has suddenly become unpredictable and dangerous. Incredible evil caused by men who seek nothing but the destruction of others for their own selfish gains. Love. Fear. Lynch decried the trend of movies and TV being completely straightforward and understandable. He believed that works of visual art should be comprised purely of feeling, and those feelings should illicit something inside the viewer. His beliefs of what the visual medium should be guided the creation of the most brilliant television show in American history. A show both a representation as much as a reflection of us as people. Every moment of Season 1 carries us through pure feeling. It’s a surreal dream, anomalous to everything that existed before it. For the first time, television became art. But we are just now realizing it.

BRIGSBY BEAR and the nostalgia of one.

 

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Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)

 

Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.

The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.

I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.