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.

The New Jodorowsky – A look at THE DANCE OF REALITY and POESÍA SIN FIN (ENDLESS POETRY)

 

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Poesia sin fin (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2017)

 

Some background:

[I first discovered Alejandro Jodorowsky while getting a bit deep into the dark parts of the film-web which discussed weird and disturbing movies, ranging from benign-strange like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to just completely batshit what-the-fuck-did-I-watch strange like E Elias Merhige’s Begotten. Jodorowsky falls somewhere smack in the middle of that, and completely by surprise to me, it was an artistic sweet-spot.

I came to admire his passionate wonder and other-worldly vision when I watched his greatest masterpiece The Holy Mountain. I was further sold after watching the good-but-overrated El Topo and the lyrical and most emotionally mature of his films, Santa Sangre. Even his lesser work, a mainstream Hollywood film starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, The Rainbow Thief, is a film I conclude is only not-great because Hollywood producers handcuffed Jodorowsky from expressing his true vision. None of these films are easy to digest at first glance. Jodorowsky is a filmmaker who’s films do absolutely everything in excess. Their philosophy is haywire, their violence is vulgar, their sexuality is uncomfortable, and their love is heart wrenching.

But there is a purpose behind everything. Much of what made Jodorowsky such a cult icon is that he created a cinematic universe all his own, guided by his own divisive ideas of life and art and shared it, bare naked, unfiltered, and uncensored for all to see.]

 

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The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

 

Now, with his latest two films, he bares for us all, his childhood, and his path to becoming the filmmaker he is today.

This “new” Alejandro Jodorowsky, the one risen from the ashes after his 23-year hiatus following the commercial and critical disaster that was The Rainbow Thief, is someone I still have to get readjusted to. From an ideological standpoint, not much has changed. Jodorowsky is who he is. But from an artistic standpoint, there is something plastic-like about both The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin (Endless Poetry), the first two films of his 5-film cycle recounting his childhood and adolescence. Jodorowsky’s aesthetic doesn’t really hold up in the 1080p high definition world. What was endearing about his early-to-mid films was that their ambiguous sense and time and place was augmented by the graininess of the celluloid. That authenticity is gone in this movie, which plays more like a glossy stage-show. Throughout these two films, there are embedded vignettes where the characters will expand on a theories or ideas, and asides where a present-day-Jodorowsky will break the fourth wall and prophesize to us and his past self simultaneously.

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Much of this sort of symbolism is a little too straightfoward. Jodorowsky’s imagination is not as bold as it once was, even though the violence and sex throughout the films are just as provocative and weird. Especially with The Dance of Reality, it was clear to me that there wasn’t much of an interesting story going on here. Sure, Chile’s tumultuous political backdrop amidst Pinoche’s rise is noteworthy as is Jodorowsky’s father’s abusive attitude and a not-quite-obvious-but-still-uncomfortable Oedipus Complex between the young Alejandro and his very large-bosomed mother, who sings all of her lines as parts of an aria. Though, in regards of his self-discovery, hardly anything illumniating comes about. The young Alejandro has vague conversations with a pan-religious monk, tatooed with all sorts of symbols, reminiscent of The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain. These conversations don’t seem to move the needle much with whatever Jodorowsky is trying to say and many of them are repetitive.

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In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view. Much of the film still struggles to bind interesting scenes together, and a good portion of the film is decked with filler material, this time explicitly sexual rather than philosophical, but there are clear ideas being sprouted unlike in Dance of Reality.

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Poesía sin fin comes into it’s own when it starts examining the two things which truly drive Jodorowsky’s art… poetry and the neglect and abuse of his father.

The best scene of a rather messy film is when Jodorowsky and his real-life poet-buddy Enrico Lihn discuss the idea of “poetry in action”, spontaneously compelling them to travel through the town in a literal straight line, with no deviation; if there is a car in the way they climb and walk over the car, if there is a house in the way, they knock on the door and ask permission to walk through the house, even climbing over the bed in the master bedroom. There is no actual need for this rigidity and it is rather inconvenient for the duo and moreso for everyone around them, but it encapsulates the eccentricity of Jodorowsky within a single sequence. It highlights his own view of art as an expression of unwavering, dedicated movement rather than mere theory and discourse. This idea is present in all of his previous films, as most of his characters go on rigorous and tortuous journeys of self-understanding and artistic enlightenment.

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Likewise, the most emotionally charged sequences in the film occur near the beginning where the still young Alejandro is forced by his father to savagely beat a poor couple and strip them naked in front of a crowd as a sign of power, and near the end, when he finally confronts his father’s savagery with some of his own, taking joy in the fact that his parents’ house has burned down rendering them homeless and poor. It is a bit uncompromising, perhaps an immoral mark of Jodorowsky’s character, but it’s the first time in this 5-film cycle we’re seeing Jodorowsky express deep feeling and understanding of who he is in relation to his disturbed past.

It’s quite clear Jodorowsky’s obsession with himself and his continued deeper discovery of cinema is still just as rich as it was at the beginning of his career, and if not necessarily works of great storytelling, The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin are still pure Jodorowsky and for his fans that should be more than enough.

 

 

Manifesto

 

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Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2017)

 

Advancement of technology in film is a constant, and thus, the horizons of its boundaries as an art are also ever expanding. For the first time in my life, I really had to contend with whether a single screen theater was limiting for a motion picture. Julian Rosefeltd’s film, or more appropriately, cinematic art piece, Manifesto is a movie which was exhibited in two different forms, both vastly changing the structure and therefore the perception of the piece as “cinema”. It was first released in the Australian Center for the Moving Image in a gallery setting which showcases Cate Blanchette, playing 13 different roles, on different screens throughout the room and reciting 13 different manifestos on the idea of “art” itself. As you walk deeper, the voices of her different characters start to create a conversation or argument, or as Jane Howard put it in The Daily Review, “an unspoken stand-off”. This is an experience, a three-dimensional space which takes the 2-D cinematic image and echoes it to and from us in multiple directions. It’s a cinematic piece you literally walk through, experience as you are in motion in real time, in the real world.

Suffice to say, this is not how I personally experienced this film, and it brought about limitations and complications which again, made it clear that a single-screen theater was inadequate in showcasing the new horizons of what artists can do with the film medium. Manifesto, the 90-minute popcorn motion picture, is not much more than a long-string cut-and-paste rant. Out of the 13 different sermons you sit through, the only one which made any sense in the traditional theater setting was the news broadcast because, well, by its definition it is to be watched motionless in a single sitting. Rosefeltd’s writing is clearly passionate and clearly demonstrates a deep understanding of art history and it’s underlying philosophies, all of which are masterfully recited by Blanchette who, in many cases hams it up (perhaps the nature of the piece is to be satirical of art), but also manages to embody the writing in her movements and her biggest asset as an actress, her eyes.

 

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Australian Center for the Moving Image opening showcase of Manifesto.

 

It was clear, however, that I was watching something that begged to be limitless, not constrained in a traditional movie theater and demanded its viewers to not be sitting on their asses munching on popcorn for 90 minutes. It perplexes me why Rosefeldt would want his film to be shown in this setting after two highly-touted exhibits in Australia and Berlin which captured the essence of the project’s ambition: to create a cinema which architecturally invades us through all its forms, visual, audial, and as interaction with the viewer. If the gallery exhibit was like riding a rollercoaster in an amusement park, the theater screening which I sat through was more like someone reading me the entire pamphlet or brochure for Six Flags. Maybe this was the point. By showing the project in both areas, Rosefeldt can illuminate the limitations of the theater complex itself. If film is to enter a new horizon as and artistic medium, then Rosefeldt is claiming its current home of the movie theater is not sufficient.