A Place Both Wonderful and Strange… TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 2)

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The majority of TV is constantly at the mercy of viewership statistics above all else. Blame the producers, show-runners, focus groups, whoever.  Blame business. Blame the fact that the television industry is called an industry for a reason. Assessing viewership in quantifiable digits reduces the audience’s perception of a show into a binary: watch or don’t watch. It says nothing about the way they feel about a particular episode or whether the people who do watch, no matter how few, are dedicated to the show. This circumstance is most tragic when it affects shows that dare to push the boundaries of the medium. For run-of-the-mill sitcoms and formulaic dramas which follow patterns that are easily accepted and digestible by viewers, statistical performance is predictably good; from the get-go, their audience is automatically delivered on a silver platter. But what about shows like Twin Peaks?

In the first part of this series, I talked about Twin Peaks: Season 1 and its ability to bait-and-switch its audience into falling in love with the surreal characters to the point where the major plot becomes secondary to a charmingly weird examination of small-town Americana. It’s a challenging show, one which mixes genres we never imagined could be mixed, and one which tests our tolerance for television as an art form rather than a form of instantly gratifying entertainment.

Perhaps it was too good to be true.

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The first season, comprised of only seven episodes including the 2-hour pilot, was followed by the show’s much lengthier Season 2, consisting of 22 episodes. Amidst the filming, the expected fallout between creatives and businessmen plagued the production of the show. Lynch’s approach began to test the patience of the showrunners, and his surreal intents which aimed to take his audience on a completely uncharted path of narrative experimentation was completely at odds with the way the accountants, financiers, and executives tend to think of television. To them, bold was bad, audiences were stupid, and anything which might require even an ounce of thought on the part of the show’s viewership meant that it was too ambitious and pretentious. Lynch left to direct his feature film Wild at Heart midway after losing the reigns on the show. With Lynch gone, the show never stood a chance.

While the residual effect of Episode 1 remained for at least half the season, by Episode 15 (once the Palmer murder was seemingly “solved”) it was very clear there was something missing. The show became a standard cop drama, ridding itself of the ambiguity of evil and identifying an obvious enemy in Dale Cooper’s (Kyle McLachlan) former FBI partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Earle is the typical sadist you’d find on any darker episode of Law & Order: SVU; A one-note “mad genius” who uses cliché metaphors like chess pieces to signal clues and taunt detectives and who’s main gripe was blaming Dale Cooper for the murder of his wife Catherine. Cooper was even given a love interest in Special Agent Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) to try to get viewers hooked into the romantic angle of the show.

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Of course, the studios and the producers were going to win the battle in the end. It became a rather embarrassing mark on their decision-making because the dips in ratings for the show occurred at the exact same moments when Lynch’s influence over it waned. The more conventional the show became the more people tuned out. But in classic narcissistic style, the showrunners shifted the blame towards’ Lynch’s initial vision. The producers believed that they tried to “save” Twin Peaks but Lynch had made it so weird that it was too little too late. Twin Peaks was canceled.

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Yet, the original spirit of Twin Peaks lived in Lynch’s two self-directed episodes, which sandwich the season and tie together the timelines of Dale Cooper and the terrifying Killer BOB, a supernatural demon who haunted Laura near the time of her death. This character is one of Lynch’s most ingenious creations and provides an anchor for the show to never get too far away from its horror-fantasy elements as well as a path for Lynch to take once he managed to pull the reigns back into his control in Episode 22. With the show having drained Twin Peaks of its intrigue in Lynch’s absence, Episode 22 of the season brings us back full circle to the Pilot episode of the show in Season 1. The strangeness of the show comes to a summit when Dale Cooper discovers the entrance to a parallel dimension, consisting of two areas called the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. They center themselves as the cause for everything that occurred before, as to say that everything we once believed about the town, it’s people, and Laura’s murder is not even scratching the surface of what is truly going on. It’s a remarkable point in the Twin Peaks saga, and it turns Season 2 from being a lesser entry into an important if less eventful and artful bridge between Season 1, Season 3, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

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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.

Love in the Time of Heroin: Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK

 

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The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

 

Since it started streaming on Netflix, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park has been seeing a sort of resurgence among movie fans and cinephiles. Centering on the lives of two heroin addicts in love near New York City’s proverbial “Needle Park”, the film navigates the maddening desperation and hopeless attachment of this couple to showcase a grim underbelly of addiction in America.

Despite sounding a bit like the exploitative “poverty porn” you’d see on a TV primetime news special, the film deals with its subjects, and its audience, in a respectful and unsensational manner, highlighting humanity over depravity. It doesn’t manufacture grim atmospheres nor does it play up the debauchery of its subjects to exploitative ends. Rather, the film’s characters resonate with us as charismatic, congenial but also incredibly flawed and frustrating people who succumb to the worst of vices and eventually trap themselves in a cycle they can’t break out of. Both Bobby and Helen, despite having their relationship hinge on their dependency to heroin, do things normal couples would do: eat sandwiches in the park, talk about their life ambitions, get jealous, and stick up for each other.

That it’s bubbling up from the depths now to be discovered by a Netflix-streaming generation is rather fortuitous. While many of us may think we understand heroin addiction as an obvious social problem, the breadth of our knowledge is limited solely to the depiction of junkies as depraved and scary individuals. The academics among us will throw around data like the increased opioid overdose rates among teens and what percentage of those are heroin induced. Even those of us who empathize with the idea that an addict is someone who needs help, not punishment, can’t say much about the day to day experience of an addict beyond stealing money and getting a fix.

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The Panic in Needle Park shouldn’t be treated as some ‘be all say all’ of the junkie demographic (it is a work of narrative fiction after all, even if it presents its subjects unfiltered) but it does serve as one of Hollywood’s single most responsible documentations of the slow and painful collapse caused by addiction. That it filters itself through a love story, as we see the co-dependency that heroin entraps both of them in forcing them to drag each other down, makes it all the more devastating. Addiction within the film is not solely in the context of drugs, but also love and money. Helen’s dependency on Bobby for emotional comfort is reciprocated equally as Bobby begins to depend on Helen for his scores. His need for money turns their supposed loving relationship into a pimp-prostitute business contract. He continues to get jealous every time Helen sleeps with someone for money even though their desperation makes it a necessity. Despite the abuse and the perversion by which their relationship is defined, Helen can never seem to leave Bobby. Their arguments and fights and bouts of domestic violence are always outweighed by the knowledge that they are each other’s sole meal ticket to money and heroin.

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The central mutual self-destruction of two people who love each other makes The Panic in Needle Park easy pray to becoming a sappy sob-story which manipulates our emotions and draws out the tears. Schatzberg and his screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne however, create incredibly multi-faceted characters who’s likability and unlikeability at different points throughout the film keep us empathetic but aware that we are not so far removed from them. There are things in our life, be it people, substances, or places, we keep going back to despite them being terrible for us. Attachment is a powerful thing. So is dependency. Addiction is a culmination of both and magnified ten-fold. In the end of the film, the whimpering and forced sadness we would normally feel in a “traditional” melodramatic Hollywood treatment of drug addicts is instead a practical understanding of Bobby and Helen’s plight, and if maybe not quite expected, an appreciation for them as humans.

A note on the acting: The movie’s claim to fame is that it is “Al Pacino’s debut role”, which is a false statement, though the film is the first role in which Pacino is the lead actor. Opposite him (Bobby) is the ethereal Kitty Winn (Helen), whose film career unfortunately only spanned six films (including The Exorcist) within one decade, after which she inexplicably retired from acting. If her performance in Panic in Needle Park, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971, is any indication, we missed out on an actress who could’ve been at least as great as Ellen Burstyn or Sissy Spacek, her young 70’s indie contemporaries.

A Ghost Story

 

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

 

When considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, there’s a good chance someone brought up mainly on mainstream Hollywood cinema will not have the patience for it and will desperately start staring at the theater exit and checking the time on their cellphones within the first half-hour thinking “fuck… I should’ve just watched War for the Planet of the Apes again.”

The reason I say this is because that was precisely my reaction during the first half hour of this movie. Yes, me. The person who considers both Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, two of cinema’s directors notorious for the length and ‘slowness’ of their cinema, to be among the best storytellers film history has to offer. I sat through Tarr’s 6-hour long Satantango, a film which is comprised of merely 100 or so shots each with minimal dialogue and completely in black and white, as well as Diaz’s 7.5 hour long From What is Before, similar in style and composition to Tarr’s film and neither of them seemed even close to as long or frustrating as the first half of A Ghost Story.

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So what exactly happened here?

The film revolves around the death of a significant other. Two people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are in a loving but emotionally rocky relationship in a house which C is very attached to. After C dies in a tragic car crash he becomes a ghost and starts to wander around the house, mute and unable to physically interact with the mortal world, while M greives in increasingly depressing silence. Lowery films all of this with comatose static shots which linger for lengthy intervals with minimal dialogue and sound. Some of them are effective, such as the sequences of M packing up her life and finally moving out of the house that C loved so much, while others are unintentionally funny in their preposterousness.

One of the most silliest moments in the film is a sequence in which M sees a pie that her neighbor left her as a “sorry for you loss” condelence and then out of a fit of silent rage, begins to consume the entire pie. This event occurs in the frame of a single static shot with M crouched on the kitchen floor stabbing at the pie repeatedly with her fork, stuffing large chunks into her mouth and chewing with a lot of jaw-aching effort. It goes on for so long and with such a mechanical monotony that I could feel everyone else in the theater telecommunicating with me, the same exact message: “Are we really going to be sitting here watching this girl binge eat an entire fucking pie?!?”(She ends up stopping four bites shy and vomits it all out in the toilet across the hall)

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What augments the utter banality of the film’s first half is that Lowery’s deliberately slow style here is completely let down by the setting he’s working with. Unlike similarly quiet and paced films such as Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, Lowery is restricted to the interiors of a rather unremarkable house and its even less remarkable surroundings. The communal farm in Satantango had such a heavy air of depravity that every scene, even if it lasted for long durations and shot in black and white, was rife with detail and texture and a sense of doom. Foxcatcher had the benefit of the DuPont estate being remarkably picturesque as well as haunting in its stillness, beautifully complimenting the deliberate pace of Miller’s style. A Ghost Story takes place in the suburban neighborhood in a house that has almost nothing going for it in its current state post-C’s death.

Luckily, the house doesn’t stay this way, as M eventually moves. Before she does however, she sticks an anonymous note in the cracks of the wall of the house. Lowery plants this seed to keep tying us, and C’s Ghost, back to the relationship he was tragically ripped from. It is gimmicky, but it’s the first hint of intrigue in a rather painfully bad start.

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The second half thankfully moves a lot faster, but it doesn’t get that much more interesting.

As we enter the post-M era of C’s Ghost’s time floating around the house, the film departs from physical reactions of loss and death, into a much more philosophical territory… for better and worse. The changes in tenants, buildings, and landscape of the property elicits a rapid passage of time that leaves C’s Ghost further battered and lost in the memory of the house he has now become a part of. The several instances where C’s Ghost scratches the wall to retrieve the anonymous note remains really the only thing that keeps us caring for his character. There is some serious emotional heft in these scenes and the best parts of the film are those which ties us back to C and M’s relationships, the good and the dysfunctional. Everything else, remains childish.

Another giggle-worthy event is when C’s Ghost peeks at another ghost in a neighboring house and having a vague conversation about “waiting for something”. Is… comic relief? Is Lowery doing this to poke fun, give us a breather from the ghosts and loss, and love? Or is this guy being straight-faced and actually believes this to be good philosophical storytelling?

Perhaps the best description of A Ghost Story’s attempt at profundity is the scene when a group of 20-somethings occupy the house and throw a party. In the kitchen, four of them have gathered around, a bit buzzed, talking lightly about the meaning of “life”. One of them, a bearded hipster one would wager, goes on an incredibly verbose pseudo-intellectual rant which aims to make so many badly concieved points, that it makes none. The critic blurb I see most often connected to this movie describes it as “cosmic”, but its journey to discern our ideas of memory, death, and time sputter out before getting off the ground.