Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Barry Gifford

White Sands, Black Lodge

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Note: This post discusses details of last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

Before the premiere of the third season of Twin Peaks, I occasionally found myself wondering how it could possibly stand out in an entertainment landscape that it had helped to create. After all, we’re living in an era of peak television—it’s right there in the name—and it seemed possible that its “quirkiness,” which now seems like a comically inadequate word, would come across as more of the same. By now, it’s clear that my fears were groundless. Last night’s episode was one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed in any medium, and it confirms that this series is still capable of heady stylistic and conceptual surprises. The first ten minutes are as close as it gets to business as usual, with Dark Cooper ensnared by a surprisingly routine double cross. Then it gets deeply weird, with an extended musical guest performance by Nine Inch Nails and a Kubrickian star gate sequence emerging from the atomic bomb at Trinity, with some atypically good special effects. (David Lynch is usually happier with camera tricks that he seems to have cooked up in his basement.) The rest is alternately bewildering, lovely, horrifying, slow, incomprehensible, and hypnotic, and it just keeps going. Any one element wouldn’t have been totally out of place, but taken together, it’s the longest sequence of its kind in Lynch’s entire body of work, and it aired on Showtime. We aren’t even halfway through this season, but it feels like a hinge moment, the dividing line in which all the ways we thought we were learning how to watch this show literally blew up in our faces. A girl also swallows a giant bug.

Yet if this was possibly the weirdest hour of television I’ve ever seen, it’s also the most conventional episode of the season so far. This observation deeply annoyed my wife when I came up with it last night, but hear me out. Instead of a collection of sketches and dead ends, this was a hugely eventful episode in terms of how it affected its viewers, and it was full of information—weird information, but information nonetheless. Without trying to parse or interpret the images themselves, I feel comfortable in saying that they’re the equivalent of an origin story, however vague the details might be. In the extended scene between the Giant and the new character identified in the closing credits as Señorita Dido, there’s even the implication that the whole series is about restoring balance to the Force, with Laura Palmer’s spirit migrating earthward, decades before her birth, in response to the rise of evil. Even if we end our speculations here, this is more data than we’ve ever been given about the show’s backstory. The very idea of a “mythology” seems uncharacteristically prosaic for a series that has always stubbornly resisted being pinned down, but in its period setting, it feels kind of like one of those episodes of The X-Files in which unexplained events unfold decades ago in the New Mexico desert. (Between Alamogordo and Roswell, that state has come to play a very specific role in the American collective unconscious, and I almost wish that Twin Peaks had gone elsewhere for inspiration.)

In other words, if you’re approaching Twin Peaks as a code or a series of clues, this episode gave you more material than any previous installment. In its particulars, it was as crazy as hell, but its functional role was curiously straightforward. And while it’s always a fool’s game to pick apart the contributions of the show’s creators, the impulse to ground the story in the past feels less like Lynch than like Mark Frost, who published an entire book last year, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, that went over similar ground. (I haven’t read it, but a quick browse reveals that it mentions L. Ron Hubbard and his sojourn with the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, which means that I’ll probably need to take a closer look.) Frost has an odd resume, with a body of work since the show’s initial run that includes conspiracy thrillers, nonfiction books about golf, and the scripts to the first two Fantastic Four movies. He has an unusual interest in the past, but it feels literal-minded in comparison to Lynch, who uses the iconography of previous eras as a backdrop for dreams. Their interplay, like that of Lynch and his other longtime collaborator Barry Gifford, yield results that are strikingly different from what you get when the director is off working on his own. Among other things, their cultural reference points—like The Wizard of Oz in Wild at Heart—are more transparent. And we seem to be reaching a point in the series in which that shape is becoming incrementally more visible.

That’s why I’m slightly wary of what comes next, as much as I loved what I saw here. I don’t want Twin Peaks to become a crossword puzzle, or to have a coherent mythology that can be picked apart online. It was always most fascinating when it hinted at the existence of a pattern that lay behind the surface of the series, and even the viewer’s own life—a dream world, overheard in the soundtrack, that grows more elusive the older we get, and then revisits us in old age. At its best, it was a show that seemed knew something that we didn’t. If anything, it may have just shown us too much, although that depends on what happens next. The episode ends without returning us to the present, but I’d be very happy if, when it picks up next week, we moved on without referring to any of it, as if it were an extended footnote or appendix that didn’t need to be read to appreciate the text. It’s information for the audience, not the characters, and the nice thing about this revival is that it allows for the kind of massive structural digression that wouldn’t have been feasible twenty-five years ago. (Some of the least successful scenes in the original run of Twin Peaks involve Cooper and Sheriff Truman speculating about the true nature of the Black Lodge. The fact that we just got so much backstory in visual form hopefully removes the need to spell it out in the dialogue. And I only wish that The X-Files had taken the same approach.) It was brilliant and unforgettable. And I hope that we never have to talk about it again.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2017 at 8:54 am

“It’s a strange world”: Blue Velvet at 25

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The release of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in a sparkling new Blu-ray, is my personal movie event of the year. In particular, the rediscovery of fifty minutes of deleted scenes feels like stumbling across a lost storehouse of images from my own dreams, like the vault door opening in Inception. I haven’t seen the new scenes yet—my copy is still in the hands of Amazon Prime—but I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a video release with so much anticipation. In its current form, Blue Velvet is as perfect and inevitable as any American film, and there are few other works of art I’ve internalized so completely. To find out that the characters were doing countless other things in the meantime, and that the footage still exists, is more exciting, at least to this viewer, than any other comparable rediscovery. Even if we found a full version of The Magnificent Ambersons tomorrow, it would have nothing on this.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, this movie and I go back a long way. I was lucky enough—if that’s the right word—to see Blue Velvet for the first time long before the appropriate age, on a videotape I snuck out of my parents’ movie collection. At that point, I was in my early teens, and while I already knew that movies were going to be a central part of my life, I still didn’t know enough to understand that I was watching something unusual. Blue Velvet hardly seemed routine—it took me several tries to get past the first forty minutes—but its strangeness felt weirdly natural: this, I thought to myself, is the kind of movie that grownups watch. It wasn’t until years later, after I’d seen a lot of other films, that I realized that one of my first big movie experiences was so far off the mean. In its innocence and cruelty, its pulp excitement and advanced artistry, Blue Velvet is like nothing before or since. And my sense of the possibilities of storytelling was permanently shaped by that first, accidental encounter.

At this point, I’ve seen Blue Velvet so many times that its strangeness has faded once more, and even its most outré moments seem familiar: when Dennis Hopper wipes that lipstick smear from Kyle MacLachlan’s face with a scrap of blue velvet, it seems as central to the history of movies as, say, Bogart and Bergman at the airport. Yet even after all this time, there are aspects of the film that remain a mystery. How serious is Lynch, anyway? When Laura Dern describes her dream of the robins, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score swells with the church organ in the background—or when, much later, Dern breaks down in her living room, her face growing red with sobs—it feels like an invitation to laughter, but I suspect that Lynch would disagree. Later, with the help of Barry Gifford, he would dabble in irony with Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, but in Blue Velvet, we’re getting Lynch in his purest form, and I don’t think he’s anything but sincere. He, too, believes that the robins will come.

But the most disorienting experience of all, if you’ve ever managed to forget this movie’s astonishing ambiguity, to watch it with an audience. I’ve seen it on the big screen maybe three or four times, and without fail, I’m unnerved by the laughter around me. This isn’t a moral reaction, but an aesthetic one: I want to be immersed in the dream, and part of that immersion involves taking Lynch’s emotional beats at face value. Even at the time of its first release, Gerald L’Ecuyer of Interview noted: “The amazing thing about watching the film is that some people in the audience are laughing while others are telling them to be quiet because they think it’s all deadly serious.” And that hasn’t changed. After my most recent viewing, at a midnight show at the glorious Landmark Sunshine in New York, I overheard a testy exchange between two audience members, one of whom had been laughing throughout the entire movie. When the other viewer implied that the laughter had seemed a little disrespectful, the first replied, with apparent sincerity, “But it’s my favorite movie of all time.”

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

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