Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Lynch

“But some things can’t be undone…”

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"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

Our struggle, part two

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William B. Davis on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “My Struggle II.”

“The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in The New Yorker. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.” That’s true of movies, television, and other forms of art, too, and it’s particularly powerful when it happens in your early teens. If you want to change somebody’s life forever, just find him when he’s thirteen—and give him a book. I’ve increasingly come to recognize that two-thirds of my inner life was shaped by half a dozen objects that I happened to encounter, almost by accident, during a window of time that opened up when I was twelve and closed about two years later. They included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a movie and a television series by David Lynch, and a pair of novels by Umberto Eco. Take any of these props away, and the whole edifice comes crashing down, or at least reassembles itself into a drastically different form. And of all the nudges I received that put me on the course I’m on today, few have been more dramatic than that of The X-Files, which premiered as I was entering the eighth grade and left a mark, or a scar like that of a smallpox vaccination, that I can still see now.

I’m writing this because I’ve realized that a young person encountering The X-Files today for the first time at age thirteen, as I did, wouldn’t even have been born when the original finale aired. It’s likely, then, that there’s a version of me being exposed to this premise and these characters courtesy of the show’s revival who has never seen the series in any other form. And I honestly have no idea what that kid must be thinking right now. Aside from a miracle of an episode from Darin Morgan, the reboot has been an undeniable letdown even for longtime fans, but to new viewers, it must seem totally inexplicable. It’s easy to picture someone watching this week’s finale—which is devoid of thrills, suspense, or even basic clarity—and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my favorite television series, or at least the one that had the greatest impact on what I’ve ended up doing with my life, was so uneven that I don’t need to watch the majority of its episodes ever again. But to someone who hasn’t made that mental adjustment, or isn’t familiar with the heights the show could reach on those rare occasions when it was firing on all cylinders, the revival raises the question of why anyone was clamoring for its return in the first place. If I were watching it with someone who had never seen it before, and who knew how much I loved it, I’d be utterly humiliated.

Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

I don’t think anyone, aside perhaps from Chris Carter, believes that this season gained many new fans. But that isn’t the real loss. The X-Files, for all its flaws, was a show that could change lives. I’ve written here before of the Scully effect that led young women to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement—which would be completely incomprehensible to someone who knows Scully only from her reappearance here. (Gillian Anderson does what she can, as always, but she still sounds as if she’s reading the opening narration to “My Struggle II” at gunpoint. And when she sequences her own genome in what feels like record time, I just wanted her to say that she was sending it to Theranos.) The reboot isn’t likely to spark anyone’s curiosity about anything, aside from the question of why so many people cared. And while it’s a tall order to ask a television show to change lives, it isn’t so unreasonable when you consider how it once pulled it off. The X-Files entered my life and never left it because it was clever, competent, and atmospheric; it featured a pair of attractive leads whom I’d be happy to follow anywhere; and its premise pointed toward a world of possible stories, however little of it was fulfilled in practice. It changed me because it came along at the right time and it did what it was supposed to do. The reboot didn’t even manage that. If anything, it made me retroactively question my own good taste.

I won’t bother picking apart “My Struggle II” in detail, since the episode did a fine job of undermining itself, and there are plenty of postmortems available elsewhere. But I’ve got to point out the fundamental narrative miscalculation of keeping Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode, which is indefensible, even if it was the result of a scheduling issue. Even at the revival’s low points, the chemistry between the leads was enough to keep us watching, and removing it only highlights how sloppy the rest really was. It doesn’t help that Scully is paired instead with Lauren Ambrose, giving a misdirected interpretation of a character who isn’t that far removed from Scully herself in the show’s early seasons—which just reminds us of how much Anderson brought to that part. The episode falls to pieces as you watch it, packing a contagion storyline that could have filled an entire season into less than fifty minutes, reducing Joel McHale’s right-wing pundit, who was such a promising character on paper, to a device for delivering exposition. (Since the episode ends on a cliffhanger anyway, it could have just moved it to earlier in the story, ending on the outbreak, which would have given it some breathing room. Not that I think it would have mattered.) As the revival slunk to its whimper of a close, my wife said that I’d been smart to keep my expectations low, but as it turns out, they weren’t low enough. If the series comes back, I’ll still watch it, in yet another triumph of hope over experience. Keeping up my hopes will be a struggle. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

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February 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Years ago, after watching the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I became more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie was editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes were extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, was one I’d been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.

Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.

Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.

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May 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

Mad Men and the test of time

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the end, all television shows—if they run for long enough, and whether they like it or not—are secretly about time. What sets Mad Men apart is that it understood this from the beginning, despite the fact that its early days were so fraught with uncertainty. Reading the fascinating oral history recently published by The Hollywood Reporter, I was struck by what a gamble it all was: AMC was so desperate to get into the game of prestige television that it financed the pilot out of its own pocket, shopping it around later in hopes of finding a studio that would partner with it on the actual series. Few, if anyone, had any illusions about the show’s chances, as Elizabeth Moss recalls: “I remember standing on the rooftop of Silver Cup Studios with Matt [Weiner] and we just looked at each other: ‘Well, that was really great.’ We had no idea if it was going to go any further than that.” Yet from the very first scene, it was obvious that this was a show about change, both historical and personal, told in a deliberate, incremental fashion. It demanded an internal timeline of ten years, spanning the full decade of the sixties, to tell the story it deserved. And the fact that it succeeded is a permanent miracle of a medium that so often seems designed to frustrate viewers and creators alike.

What’s even more remarkable is that the show survived its entire run on its own terms. We don’t yet know how the series will end, but whatever form it takes, it will be the conclusion that Weiner wanted, not spun out of compromise and the vagaries of ratings and contracts. There were no major cast changes or shakeups, aside from the ones that the narrative itself imposed: we never saw Jon Hamm announce on Instagram, as Nina Dobrev did yesterday for The Vampire Diaries, that he had decided reluctantly to move on. There were some close calls: according to Weiner, the negotiations with the network after the fourth season were so tense that he called up Aaron Sorkin for insight on how to live with his removal from a show he’d created. (Sorkin’s advice: “Don’t ever watch it.”) Preserving that level of independence requires a certain steely reserve, and we glimpse it in the stories of how Weiner refused to relax Hamm’s shooting schedule to free him up to star in Gone Girl. But the result, at least so far, has been the most rigorously organized long game in the history of television, and even a flameout toward the end won’t minimize that accomplishment. Throughout it all, Weiner has treated time like a member of his writing staff, and he’s no more inclined to let it slip out of his control than he is with anyone else.

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And time’s hand can be felt throughout the first episode of the final season. Don Draper looks much the same as always: he’s as unchanging, in his way, as Forrest Gump, even as tectonic shifts are taking place below the surface. But the signs of age are visible everywhere else, and not just in Roger Sterling’s mustache. Part of it is makeup and costuming, along with the natural passage of the years since the pilot was shot, and rather than denying the latter, as so many shows might do, Mad Men embraces it. Its impact is there even as the show briefly withholds its strongest card: the growth before our eyes of Kiernan Shipka from a six-year-old girl in the background to practically the show’s second lead, with traces in her features of her fictional parents as haunting as those in Boyhood. The fact that Shipka turned out to be such an arresting presence is another example of the unpredictable factors that shape all television series: the fate of Bobby Draper, who barely registers, is a window onto a lesser version of the show in which Don’s children were both nonentities. But every character carries a history on his or her face, with Ken Cosgrove’s eyepatch serving as a hint for us to look more closely at everybody else. (Given the show’s love of dream sequences that can’t be distinguished from reality, I’m waiting for it to tip us off to a fantasy by showing us Ken with his patch over the other eye.)

As it happened, I watched the premiere of Mad Men only a few days after David Lynch announced on Twitter that he would not be directing the reboot of Twin Peaks, throwing the show’s revival on Showtime into doubt. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see the series return in some form, with or without him: evidently all of the scripts by Lynch and Mark Frost have been delivered, so the result will at least partially reflect its creators’ intentions. And the prospect of the show returning after twenty-five years, as it once promised, is so deeply, formally satisfying that I still want to see it, even if it isn’t quite what we wanted. (If nothing else, the contrast between how Kyle MacLachlan looks today and how he was depicted on the show as an older man reminds us of how much less interesting makeup can be compared to the real work of a quarter of a century.) Maybe, after a couple of decades, we’ll see Weiner return for another shot, but I doubt it. Few of the characters on Mad Men have ended up quite where they wanted or expected, but the series around them has accomplished everything it set out to do, and with the rise of the Netflix and miniseries models, it may be our last chance to see a show pull it off so beautifully from one week and year to the next. Time is the most fickle collaborator of all, far more than any network. And the fact that Weiner and his team have harnessed it so capably may stand as their most lasting achievement.

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April 7, 2015 at 10:02 am

Loving the alien

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Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files

A few months ago, I opened a post here by saying: “I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that no other piece of pop culture news could have caused me as much happiness as the announcement of a continuation of Twin Peaks.” Since then, I’ve tried to keep my anticipation at a manageable level—after all, we still have over a year to go—but every now and then, I’ll read an update that reminds me that, yes, this is really happening. Kyle MacLachlan has been confirmed to return; so have Sheryl Lee, Dana Ashbrook, and maybe Sherilyn Fenn; and David Nevins, the president of Showtime, has said that David Lynch and Mark Frost have been “very specific in promising closure.” Yet Twin Peaks was both a procedural, which teases us with the possibility of closure, and a dream, which is predicated on denying it. The timing of its cancellation was an accident, but it always seemed oddly appropriate that it ended without any resolution, like a dream interrupted on waking. The prospect of closure is all well and good, but it isn’t the reason that I’ll be tuning in again: it’s more of a convenient pretext for the revival of a show that was more about the journey than the destination.

Over the weekend, we also saw the release of a startling report revealing that Fox is thinking seriously about a reboot of The X-Files, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their leading roles. This particular development is much less further along than it is on the Twin Peaks side; at this point, talks have focused primarily on the logistics of getting Duchovny, Anderson, and creator Chris Carter together in one room at the same time. (Although I have a hunch that Carter’s schedule is relatively clear these days.) But I find myself surprisingly ambivalent about the news, despite the fact that The X-Files played such an enormous role in my life as a writer and viewer. There’s the fact, for instance, that Twin Peaks went out on a relative high, with a fantastic pair of final episodes and a flawed but mesmerizing movie, while The X-Files endured a long decline and a second film that most of us would prefer to forget. One show has unfinished business; the other had nine seasons and countless ancillary spinoffs to work through every story it could possibly have wanted to tell. And while the thought of seeing these two characters in action again carries an undeniable charge, it’s hard to tell what really remains to be said.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

There’s a sense, of course, that the world has changed in ways that could point a revived series in interesting directions. As critics have often pointed out, the original run of The X-Files gained much of its appeal from its mood of isolation: Mulder and Scully had cell phones and rudimentary access to the Internet, but countless episodes began with the image of a long drive to a town in the middle of nowhere, a vision of an America that consisted of many balkanized pockets of weirdness. I don’t necessarily want to see a story that begins with Mulder following up a tip on Twitter—although it’s hard to imagine the show not doing something along those lines—but there’s no question that our current cultural landscape demands new kinds of storytelling. The X-Files was always a show about information and its interpretation, omission, or distortion. It rarely had to deal with its overabundance. And there’s a version of the series that could get a lot of narrative mileage from the problems that confront contemporary paranoids and skeptics alike. The amount of conceptual noise in our lives limits the certainty of the readings that we can impose, unless we’re ruthlessly selective; it’s no longer a question of wanting to believe, but of deciding what we want to believe in.

That said, this is the first thing that would occur to any smart writer or producer. What I’d like to propose, if only as a thought experiment, is something a little more fundamental. One of the curious aspects of The X-Files was how diligently it resisted any kind of overarching pattern. It had its monsters of the week and its ongoing conspiracy arc, and there was never attempt to reconcile the two: it was a world large enough to accommodate lake monsters, werewolves, ghosts, pyrokinetics, telepaths, and miscellaneous boogiemen, and Mulder and Scully’s experience of any one anomaly never affected the way they approached any other. For an ongoing series, that was a shrewd narrative choice; trying to explain each week’s casefile in terms of the ones that came before would have severely restricted the kinds of stories the show could tell. But as long as we’re talking about closure—or a limited run, which amounts to much the same thing—I’d love to see a version of The X-Files in which the strangeness accumulated, rather than being dispersed from one episode to the next. It would be a show, in short, with a memory. I don’t know how that would look or feel. But at a time when we’re all working to deal with the contradictions that information and its persistence creates, it would be fascinating to see it honestly confront, even for ten episodes, what it meant to both explore the unknown and remember it.

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January 19, 2015 at 10:15 am

Meanwhile on Twin Peaks

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Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that no other piece of pop culture news could have caused me as much happiness as the announcement of a continuation of Twin Peaks. What’s more, the shape it seems to be taking—a self-contained run of nine episodes on Showtime, with each installment directed by David Lynch—feels like the perfect form the show should have assumed all along, having suffered so much from narrative exhaustion and creative distraction near the end of its run. To say I’m excited is the understatement of the year, but I’m also doing my best to calibrate my expectations. Twin Peaks, at least for me, was always more about a mood and an idea than the experience of watching the show from week to week: after the passage of so many years, I think of it less as a series of episodes than a collection of scenes and images, all scored to the music of Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. It’s easy to forget how often it could feel routine or strained. But even Fire Walk With Me provided me with moments that have become a permanent part of my inner life, and if the new series can achieve even a fraction of this, I can only be grateful.

What’s less certain is where Twin Peaks fits into the contemporary television landscape that it shaped so profoundly. In a way, the show is still ahead of its time, and nothing on network television since has looked or felt much like it. Cable, though, is a different story, and shows like Mad Men have quietly internalized and refined many of its lessons, even if few seem as willing to take them so far, or able to grasp what made the original series so special. Twin Peaks was always easy to satirize: shows from The Simpsons to Psych to Scooby-Doo have all taken a shot at parody or homage, and the series itself seemed to awkwardly plagiarize its own history in its latter half. (It has more than a little in common with the fourth season of Community, a similarly well-intentioned effort that knew the words but not the music.) With both Lynch and Mark Frost returning, I’m hopeful that we’ll see less fan service and more of an intense effort to imagine what these stories would look like today. As Frost said to the New York Times: “There was always a sense that we were slightly handcuffed by the network restrictions of the time and place. Obviously, all that will be gone. We’re really free to do and go wherever we see fit.”

Twin Peaks

Of course, freedom carries risks of its own. I’ve noted before that Blue Velvet—my favorite American movie of all time—is in many ways Lynch’s most conventional film: strip away the surrealist trappings, and you’re left with a perfectly effective thriller, with extended sequences of suspense as good as anything since Hitchcock. It’s also clear that its focus and discipline were a product of severe constraints, particularly in its contractually mandated runtime of two hours. Lynch hit the mark exactly, with an enormous assist from editor Duwayne Dunham, and there’s no question that the movie benefited from its restrictions: the recently released deleted scenes are extraordinary, but I wouldn’t want to see any of them restored. Twin Peaks was equally indebted to the limitations imposed by network television. Its procedural and whodunit elements may look increasingly perfunctory as time goes on, but they kept viewers watching, and the limits on sex and violence allowed the show’s darker elements to exist within a quirky but harmonious whole. (You only need to watch the second half of Fire Walk With Me to see how these elements play, or don’t, when the balance is disrupted.)

It’s obviously impossible to predict what a duo like Lynch and Frost will do next, or how they’ll approach the remarkable opportunity that Showtime has presented. In my dreams, though, what I’d really like to see is a season that utilizes its newfound freedom while honoring the tone that its earlier incarnation established—which was largely the product of the handcuffs that Frost seems happy to lose. What made Twin Peaks special was that it was about a place that had something in common with network television itself, a town of superficial normality and charm that concealed monstrous depths. The Lumberton of Blue Velvet isn’t far removed from The Donna Reed Show, and the Twin Peaks that existed for two short seasons had those contrasts built into its own fabric, in a time slot that forced it into a kind of continuity with the history of television before and since. Maintaining that sort of mood on a cable channel where all constraints are voluntary will require a discipline that Lynch, in particular, hasn’t always shown, however wonderful the results can be. The return of Twin Peaks is the kind of miracle, on the level of a Beatles reunion, that real life rarely affords. But if there’s one thing Lynch has taught us, it’s that the result will always be different from what we expect.

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October 7, 2014 at 10:06 am

“Well, that’s just your opinion, man…”

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Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Is there any work by an artist you love that is highly regarded and you know you should at least like, but you just can’t?”

I’ve spoken here before about the completist’s dilemma, or the sense that with so much content available at the click of a button—especially on television—it’s no longer enough to be a casual fan. It’s impossible to say that you like Community based on having seen a handful of episodes: you’re expected to have worked your way through all five seasons, even the gas-leak year, and have strong opinions about the relative worth of both installments of “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” There’s a similar process at work when it comes to the artists you admire. I’ve always had qualms about saying that I’m a fan of an author, director, or musician if I haven’t delved deep into his or her entire catalog, and I’m quietly racked by guilt over any omissions. Am I really a David Bowie fan if I’ve never listened to Low? How can I say anything interesting at all about Thomas Pynchon if I’ve never been able to get through anything beyond Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49? And if most of the songs I’ve internalized by The Smiths, or even New Order, come from their greatest hits collections, do I have any business ranking them among my favorite bands of all time?

At the very least, when it comes to the major works of someone you like, it’s assumed that you’ll adore all the established masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine a Radiohead fan who didn’t care for OK Computer or The Bends—although I’m sure they exist—or a Kubrick enthusiast who can’t sit through Dr. Strangelove. Still, there are glaring exceptions here, too. I don’t know of any directors better than the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever rewatch The Tales of Hoffmann, which filmmakers as different as Martin Scorsese and George Romero have ranked among their favorites—it just strikes me as a collection of the Archers’ worst indulgences, with only occasional flashes of the greatness of their best movies. David Lynch is about as central to my own inner life as any artist can be, but I can’t stand Wild at Heart. And while I think of David Fincher as one of the four or five most gifted directors currently at work, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Fight Club might be the one I like least, partly because of how it squanders so much undeniable talent. (To be fair, I haven’t revisited it in ten years or so, but I don’t expect that my opinion has changed.)

David Mamet

But perhaps that’s the mark of an interesting artist. An author or filmmaker whose works you love without qualification may be a genius, but it’s also possible that he or she sticks too consistently to what has worked in the past. I like just about everything I’ve seen by David Mamet, for example—yes, even Redbelt—but there’s a sense in which he tends to rely on the same handful of brilliant tricks, with punchy dialogue, pointedly flat performances, and an evenness of tone and conception that can make even his best movies seem like filmed exercises. Compared to a director like Lars von Trier, who takes insane chances with every picture, or even Curtis Hanson, whose search for new material often leads him into unpromising places, Mamet can seem a little staid. Over time, I’d rather hitch my wagon to a storyteller whose choices can’t be predicted in advance, even if the result is a dead end as often as it becomes a revelation. I don’t necessarily know what the hell Steven Soderbergh is thinking with half the movies he makes, but there’s no denying that the result has been one of the most interesting careers of the last half century.

And even when an artist you respect is operating within his or her comfort zone, it’s possible to be left cold by the result. I love Joel and Ethan Coen: Inside Llewyn Davis was one of my favorite movies from last year, and just last night I rewatched all of Fargo, intending to just leave it on in the background while I did a few things around the house, only to end up sucked in by the story yet again. Yet I’ve never quite been able to get into The Big Lebowski, despite years of trying. It literally works fine on paper: the screenplay is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever read. In execution, though, it all strikes me as mannered and overdetermined, the furthest thing imaginable from the spirit of the Dude. (Watching it alongside The Long Goodbye, one of its obvious inspirations, only underlines the difference between real spontaneity and its obsessively crafted simulation.) Aside from The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’m happy to watch again any night, I’m not sure the Coens are really made for pure comedy: their funniest moments emerge from the bleak clockwork of noir, a genre in which the helplessness of the characters within the plot is part of the joke. The Big Lebowski is fine, on its own terms, but I know they can do a lot better—and that’s what makes me a fan.

I love you, you’re perfect, now change

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David Lynch

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What creator just can’t put out work fast enough for you?”

Over the past few days, I’ve been revisiting David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman, one of the weirdest and most unappreciated books of the last decade. On its release, it was widely panned by reviewers and readers alike—it current boasts a pathetic two stars on Amazon—but it’s actually a fascinating work, assuming that you can manage to rid yourself of the notion that it’s a book about Kidman at all. It’s really more about Thomson, or, more accurately, about a deliberately unsettling Charles Kinbote figure who happens to share Thomson’s name, as well as a meditation on how we relate to movies and movie stars. Hence the numerous digressions, the sometimes unsettling fantasies, and Thomson’s habit of imagining roles for Kidman that she couldn’t possibly have played. He also practices a form of counterfactual criticism in which he critiques a movie by inventing an altogether different story that he would have liked to see instead. The book includes extended, elaborate pitches for alternate versions of To Die For and Malice, as well as a take on Eyes Wide Shut in which every female role would be played by Kidman herself. The result is both fascinating and deeply annoying. Even when coming from our most interesting film critic, saying that the only way to fix a movie would be to have the filmmakers go back in time and do another story entirely isn’t particularly helpful.

Yet I’m convinced that Thomson, a very intelligent man who has written novels of his own, is perfectly aware of this, and that his book is really a veiled commentary on how we try to retroactively transmute works of art—and their creators—into the forms that we’d prefer. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film or television show with an engaging supporting character and saying: “I wish the story were about this guy!” Similarly, a movie will often suggest promising detours and directions that sadly aren’t taken, and it’s easy after the fact to observe, for instance, that Argo would have been a more interesting movie if it had probed more deeply into the relationship between reality and cinematic fantasy. Of course, this willfully ignores how works of art, both good and bad, are made. If a writer simply proceeded according to a rational plan, or had the ability to look at his work objectively when he was finished, it might be possible to scrap years of work to tease out the implications of one subordinate thread. In practice, it isn’t that simple. No matter how good the plan is, artists often find themselves proceeding by intuition, groping in the dark, and the story they end up with is both one they’ve chosen and one that was thrust upon them. And this doesn’t even take into account the contingencies and compromises that time, budget, or commercial considerations impose on any work in the real world.

Thomas Harris

Which is all just to say that a solution that may seem obvious to us when we’re watching a story in the comfort of our own living rooms may be anything but obvious to an artist in the weeds. (The reaction to the finale of How I Met Your Mother is only the most recent example of the gap between the creator’s intentions and the audience’s feelings about how the story should have gone.) Yet we still often feel, as fans, that we know better, and this applies to the overall shape of an artist’s career as much as anything else. We want George R.R. Martin to focus on A Song of Ice and Fire instead of wasting his time on Wild Cards, or for Thomas Harris to get off Hannibal Lecter already and give us the great thriller we just know he could write. A long silence or a random side project seems like an affront, or an abdication. Really, though, we have no idea of the real reason. A writer may not be like J.D. Salinger, who evidently wrote every day and locked the manuscripts up in his safe, but what looks like a break is often filled with immense invisible activity: failed attempts, abortive deals, creative dead ends, promising byways, or the general messiness of life. And just as a story is shaped by factors that may never even occur to us as we smugly point out how it should have been, so an artist’s life—which is a work in progress in itself—has a logic that can’t be seen from the outside.

Take David Lynch. For much of the late eighties and early nineties, he occupied a cultural position that no one has managed to fill since. While remaining as prickly, surreal, and inexplicable as ever, he delivered a television series that became a national obsession, lent his name to an entire subcategory of storytelling, and appeared on the cover of Time. His influence has been enormous—you can see it on shows as different as Hannibal and Mad Men—and he still has countless fans. (Years ago, when I tried to attend his reading of Catching the Big Fish at the landmark Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was turned away because the store was full, which hasn’t happened to me before or since.) But it’s been eight years since his last movie, which in itself reflected a plunge into even greater interiority, freed by digital video and unencumbered by studio constraints. Do I want him to make another movie? Obviously. Would I want it to be more like Blue Velvet than Inland Empire? Yes. But I’m also aware that all the things I love about Lynch are inseparable from the man himself, and that his work has always emerged from unexpected and unpromising places. This still doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about the next turn his career could take, or wondering what Inland Empire would have been if it were an hour shorter. It’s a fun parlor game. But we shouldn’t confuse it with playing the game for real.

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2014 at 9:56 am

The kindest cut

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Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Has an ‘uncensored’ version of a familiar entertainment ever scandalized you?”

Earlier this year, there was a brief online furor over a report that Martin Scorsese had cut a few minutes of footage from The Wolf of Wall Street to get its rating down from an NC-17 to an R. Looking back, the initial response seems overblown—if there’s one thing that Wolf doesn’t need, it’s more graphic sex—but it’s easy to understand the reaction. Scorsese is both our most acclaimed living filmmaker and something like a national treasure, and he should presumably be allowed to release his movie in whatever form he sees fit. In the past, Scorsese’s struggles with the ratings board have resulted in some genuine losses: the original bloodbath that concludes Taxi Driver was desaturated in postproduction to avoid an X rating, and although the version we have plays just fine, I still wish we could see the vivid colors that the cinematographer Michael Chapman wistfully describes. Yet there’s also a part of me that believes that there’s a place for a system that requires filmmakers to pull ever so slightly back from their original intentions. Like it or not, less is often more, and sometimes it takes an arbitrary, borderline annoying set of cultural watchdogs to enforce that discipline, even at the cost of a frame or two.

This isn’t meant as a defense of the MPAA rating system, which is badly damaged: it ignores violence but panics at the slightest hint of sex, and it permanently destroyed our chances of a viable cinema for adults in the United States by its bungled rollout of the NC-17 rating. (As Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, it was a mistake to simply substitute the NC-17 for the X, which only transferred the existing stigma to a new category: the real solution would have been to insert a new A rating between X and R, allowing for adult content that fell short of outright pornography. Unfortunately, the revised system was allowed to stand, and there isn’t much of an incentive in this country for anyone to make a change.) But I’d also argue that the ratings have their place, within limits.  We often end up with a more interesting cinema when directors are forced to work around the restrictions, pushing them to the extent of permissibility, than if they’re simply given a free pass. It wasn’t what the ratings board had in mind, but just as the Hays Code indirectly shaped the conventions of noir, you could argue that American movies have benefited from their puritanical streak—not in the blandness of the mainstream, but at the edges, where smart, subversive filmmakers skewed the rules in ways the censors never intended.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

And it’s often the most imaginative and formally inexhaustible directors who benefit the most from such shackles. I’d rather watch Psycho again than Frenzy, and you can make a strong case that David Lynch—who at his best is the most interesting director of my lifetime—works better under constraints. I’ve written elsewhere of how Lynch was contractually obligated to produce a cut of Blue Velvet that was under two hours, which he and editor Duwayne Dunham delivered down to the minute. The result is nothing less than my favorite American movie, and although it lost close to an hour of footage in the process, the sacrifice was a crucial one: the deleted scenes featured on the recent Blu-ray release are fascinating, often wonderful, but including them would have left us with a movie that most of us would have been glad to watch once, like Inland Empire, rather than one I’ve wanted to experience again and again. Since then, Lynch has moved on, and his most recent work, shot on digital video without any eye to commercial appeal, seems designed to avoid any constraints whatsoever. And he’s earned the right. But I don’t know if he’ll ever make another movie like Blue Velvet.

Lynch also clearly benefited from the thematic constraints enforced by television. Twin Peaks gained much of its power from the fact that it had to operate within broadcast standards, and it was endlessly evocative precisely because it left so much to implication. (The difference between the original series and Fire Walk With Me is that between the intensity of restraint and its opposite.) Much the same is true of Mulholland Dr., the first two acts of which were originally a television pilot. And Wild at Heart, at least to my eyes, was actively improved by its television cut. When I first saw it, back when it was a real event for me to catch a movie like this on a broadcast channel, I loved it—it was sweet, sinister, colorful, and charged with perverse romance. A few years later, when I caught a screening of the full version at the late and lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, I was surprised to discover how much less I enjoyed it: it was uglier, more indulgent, and ultimately less true to its own conception. This is all very subjective, of course, but I still believe that the television cut retained most of what I love about Lynch while paring away the worst of his excesses. In its existing form, it feels ever more like a footnote, while the television cut is a minor masterpiece that I’d love to see again now. I only wish that I’d taped it.

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Tomorrow, believe it or not, marks the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night; I’m not even sure I watched the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment I remember seeing on its original broadcast, and later, I continued to tune in, although only sporadically at first. In its early days, I had some issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Mulder or Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I eventually learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show. What it does mean is that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at just the point in my life when I was ready to be profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, and the more I age, the more this starts to seem like the pivotal year of my creative development. Take that year away, or replace it with a different set of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered the work of Umberto Eco and Douglas Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; and it marked my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted for me, while others haven’t, but they’ve all played a part in shaping who I am, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored those of the intellectuals and authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world filled with aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force all of these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained stubbornly, incongruously unexplained: the same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their own lives after the alien invasion occurred. The show, remarkably, never tried to convert us to anything. It didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this oddly indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the vagaries of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans—or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, or should be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) With every episode changing the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, and a defensive skepticism was as healthy an attitude as any. If the show premiered again today, I have a feeling that much of this quality would be lost: there would be greater pressure to establish a mythology up front, or to tell overarching stories that required thirteen episodes to completely unfold. The X-Files did go this way eventually, alas, but not until after a haphazard, remarkably rich initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might try in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how deeply the result has influenced my own fiction, and why I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

Why hobbits need to be short

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Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s never easy to adapt a beloved novel for the screen. On the one hand, you have a book that has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest works of speculative fiction of all time, with a devoted fanbase and an enormous invented backstory spread across many novels and appendices. On the other, you have a genius director who moved on from his early, bizarre, low-budget features to a triumphant mainstream success with multiple Oscar nominations, but whose skills as a storyteller have sometimes been less reliable than his unquestioned visual talents. The result, after a protracted development process clouded by rights issues, financial difficulties, and the departure of the previous director, is an overlong movie with too many characters that fails to capture the qualities that drew people to this story in the first place. By trying to appease fans of the book while also drawing in new audiences, it ends up neither here nor there. While it’s cinematically striking, and has its defenders, it leaves critics mostly cold, with few of the awards or accolades that greeted its director’s earlier work. And that’s why David Lynch had so much trouble with Dune.

But it’s what Lynch did next that is especially instructive. After Dune‘s financial failure, he found himself working on his fourth movie under far greater constraints, with a tiny budget and a contractual runtime of no more than 120 minutes. The initial cut ran close to three hours, but eventually, with the help of editor Duwayne Dunham, he got it down to the necessary length, although it meant losing a lot of wonderful material along the way. And what we got was Blue Velvet, which isn’t just Lynch’s best film, but my favorite American movie of all time. I recently had the chance to watch all of the deleted scenes as part of the movie’s release on Blu-ray, and it’s clear that if Lynch had been allowed to retain whatever footage he wanted—as he clearly does these days—the result would have been a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, important, but ultimately a film that I wouldn’t need to see more than once. The moral, surprisingly enough, is that even a director like Lynch, a genuine artist who has earned the right to pursue his visions wherever they happen to take him, can benefit from the need, imposed by a studio, to cut his work far beyond the level where he might have been comfortable.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Obviously, the case of Peter Jackson is rather different. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an enormous international success, and did as much as anything to prove that audiences will still sit happily through a movie of more than three hours if the storytelling is compelling enough. As a result, Jackson was able to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as long as he liked, which is precisely the problem. The Hobbit isn’t a bad movie, exactly; after an interminable first hour, it picks up considerably in the second half, and there are still moments I’m grateful to have experienced on the big screen. Yet I can’t help feeling that if Jackson had felt obliged, either contractually or artistically, to bring it in at under two hours, it would have been vastly improved. This would have required some hard choices, but even at a glance, there are entire sequences here that never should have made it past a rough cut. As it stands, we’re left with a meandering movie that trades largely on our affection for the previous trilogy—its actors, its locations, its music. And if this had been the first installment of a series, it’s hard to imagine it making much of an impression on anyone. Indeed, it might have justified all our worst fears about a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien.

And the really strange thing is that Jackson has no excuse. For one thing, it isn’t the first time he’s done this: I loved King Kong, but I still feel that it would have been rightly seen as a game changer on the level of Avatar if he’d cut it by even twenty minutes. And unlike David Lynch and Blue Velvet, whose deleted scenes remained unseen for decades before being miraculously rediscovered, Jackson knows that even if has to cut a sequence he loves, he has an audience of millions that will gladly purchase the full extended edition within a year of the movie’s release. But it takes a strong artistic will to accept such constraints if they aren’t being imposed from the outside, and to acknowledge that sometimes an arbitrary limit is exactly what you need to force yourself to make those difficult choices. (My own novels are contractually required to come in somewhere around 100,000 words, and although I’ve had to cut them to the bone to get there, they’ve been tremendously improved by the process, to the point where I intend to impose the same limit on everything I ever write.) The Hobbit has two more installments to go, and I hope Jackson takes the somewhat underwhelming critical and commercial response to the first chapter to heart. Because an unwillingness to edit your work is a hard hobbit to break.

Crossing the digital divide

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On Saturday, my wife and I went to the Siskel Center in Chicago to see the engaging new documentary Side by Side, which focuses on the recent shift toward digital filmmaking and its implications for movies as a whole. Despite some soporific narration by producer and interviewer Keanu Reeves—who is not a man who should ever be allowed to do voiceover—this is a smart, interesting film that treats us to a dazzling range of perspectives, many of them from artists I’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog: David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, George Lucas, Stephen Soderbergh, Lars Von Trier, and the indispensable Walter Murch, not to mention Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Michael Ballhaus, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowskis, and many more. And while the interviewees come down on various sides of the digital issue—Rodriguez is probably the most unapologetic defender, Nolan the greatest skeptic—there’s one clear message: digital filmmaking is here to stay, and movies will never be the same.

If there’s one thread that runs through the entire movie, it’s the tradeoffs that come when you trade an expensive, cumbersome, highly challenging medium for something considerably cheaper and easier. At first glance, the benefits are enormous: you can run the camera for as long as you like for next to nothing, allowing you to capture more material, and the relatively small size of digital cameras lets you bring them places and achieve effects that might have been impossible before. Digital photography allows for greater control over technical details like color correction; makes editing far less difficult, at least on a practical level; and offers access to advanced tools to filmmakers with limited budgets. Yet there are tradeoffs as well. Film is still capable of visual glories that digital can’t match, and it’s curious that a movie that features Nolan and his genius cinematographer Wally Pfister lacks a single mention of IMAX. (Despite the multiplicity of voices here, I would have loved to have heard from Brad Bird, who because famous working in an exclusively digital medium but still chose IMAX to film much of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.)

Still, as the movie demonstrates, resolution and image quality for digital video is advancing at an exponential rate, and within the next ten years or so, it’s possible that we won’t notice the difference between digital photography and even the highest-resolution images available on film. Even then, however, something vital threatens to be lost. As Greta Gerwig, of all people, points out, when there’s real film running through the camera, everyone on set takes the moment very seriously, an intensity that tends to be diminished when video is cheap. The end of constraints comes at the cost of a certain kind of serendipity: as Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia, reveals, the greatest cut in the history of movies was originally meant as a dissolve, but was discovered by accident in the editing room. And as both David Lynch and producer Lorenzo DiBonaventure note, the increased availability of digital filmmaking doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see a greater number of good movies. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true, as digital technology lowers the barriers to entry for artists who may not be ready to release movies in the first place—the cinematic equivalent of Kindle publishing.

The answer, clearly, is that we need to continue to impose constraints even as we’re liberated by new technology. That sense of intensity that Gerwig mentions is something that directors can still create, but only if they consciously choose to do so. As I’ve argued before, with a nod to Walter Murch, it’s important to find analog moments in a digital world, by intentionally slowing down the process, using pen and paper, and embracing randomness and restriction whenever possible. Most of all, we need to find time to render, to acknowledge that even when digital technology cuts the production schedule in half, there’s still a necessary period in which works of art must be given time to ripen. David Lynch says he’s done with film, and he’s earned the right to make movies in any way he likes. But when I look at Inland Empire, I see an extraordinary movie that could have been far greater—and central to my own life—if, like Blue Velvet, it had been cut from three hours down to two. Digital technology makes it possible to avoid these hard choices. But that doesn’t mean we should.

Lessons from Great TV #5: Twin Peaks

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Serialized drama, by its very nature, has to strike a difficult balance between climax and continuity. When you follow the same characters over the course of one or more seasons, you want the story to change and develop enough to give the audience a sense of movement and urgency, while keeping the essential elements of the show sufficiently consistent so that viewers want to come back week after week. Soap operas have perfected the art of seeming to advance while really staying in the same place for years, but primetime shows have often had trouble doing the same thing, so it’s no surprise that Twin Peaks, one of the earliest attempts to tell an ambitious serialized story on network television, fell apart in its second season. No series has ever had a stronger start—its pilot episode, directed by David Lynch, is still the best I’ve ever seen—but once it resolved its central mystery, the murder of Laura Palmer, it grew increasingly muddled and aimless. And just as the show began to recover its footing, it was canceled, leaving audiences with what is widely considered to be one of the most frustrating unresolved cliffhangers in television history.

Yet in many ways, the unplanned conclusion of Twin Peaks is more satisfying than any conventional ending possibly could have been. The last two episodes, “Miss Twin Peaks” and “Beyond Life and Death,” originally aired together on June 10, 1991, and in retrospect, they represent two alternative approaches to the problem of the series finale. “Miss Twin Peaks” is crammed with plot and action, converging on a big set piece—a kidnapping at a beauty pageant—that would have been more than enough climax for most conventional shows. Twin Peaks has something more on its mind, however, and “Beyond Life and Death,” the finale’s second hour, is tantalizingly slow and strange. Watching it, we know that this is the last chance we’ll ever have to spend time with these characters—not counting Fire Walk With Me—so there’s something delightfully perverse in Lynch’s insistence, for instance, on filming the agonizingly slow walk of an ancient bank manager across the floor in real time. It concludes with one of the most striking sequences ever broadcast on any network, as Agent Cooper finally enters the mysterious Black Lodge, and if you’ve never seen what happens to him there, you owe it to yourself to do so now. And while I wish there had been more to the story, perhaps it was best for this astonishing show to leave us with an ending that simply allowed us to wonder, or dream, what happened next.

On Monday: “Curse the man who discovered helium! Curse Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen!”

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2012 at 9:40 am

So what happened to John Carter?

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In recent years, the fawning New Yorker profile has become the Hollywood equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover—a harbinger of bad times to come. It isn’t hard to figure out why: both are awarded to subjects who have just reached the top of their game, which often foreshadows a humbling crash. Tony Gilroy was awarded a profile after the success of Michael Clayton, only to follow it up with the underwhelming Duplicity. For Steve Carrell, it was Dinner with Schmucks. For Anna Faris, it was What’s Your Number? And for John Lasseter, revealingly, it was Cars 2. The latest casualty is Andrew Stanton, whose profile, which I discussed in detail last year, now seems laden with irony, as well as an optimism that reads in retrospect as whistling in the dark. “Among all the top talent here,” a Pixar executive is quoted as saying, “Andrew is the one who has a genius for story structure.” And whatever redeeming qualities John Carter may have, story structure isn’t one of them. (The fact that Stanton claims to have closely studied the truly awful screenplay for Ryan’s Daughter now feels like an early warning sign.)

If nothing else, the making of John Carter will provide ample material for a great case study, hopefully along the lines of Julie Salamon’s classic The Devil’s Candy. There are really two failures here, one of marketing, another of storytelling, and even the story behind the film’s teaser trailer is fascinating. According to Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner, a series of lost battles and miscommunications led to the release of a few enigmatic images devoid of action and scored, in the manner of an Internet fan video, with Peter Gabriel’s dark cover of “My Body is a Cage.” And while there’s more to the story than this—I actually found the trailer quite evocative, and negative responses to early marketing materials certainly didn’t hurt Avatar—it’s clear that this was one of the most poorly marketed tentpole movies in a long time. It began with the inexplicable decision to change the title from John Carter of Mars, on the assumption that women are turned off by science fiction, while making no attempt to lure in female viewers with the movie’s love story or central heroine, or even to explain who John Carter is. This is what happens when a four-quadrant marketing campaign goes wrong: when you try to please everybody, you please no one.

And the same holds true of the movie itself. While the story itself is fairly clear, and Stanton and his writers keep us reasonably grounded in the planet’s complex mythology, we’re never given any reason to care. Attempts to engage us with the central characters fall curiously flat: to convey that Princess Dejah is smart and resourceful, for example, the film shows her inventing the Barsoomian equivalent of nuclear power, evidently in her spare time. John Carter himself is a cipher. And while some of these problems might have been solved by miraculous casting, the blame lands squarely on Stanton’s shoulders. Stanton clearly loves John Carter, but forgets to persuade us to love him as well. What John Carter needed, more than anything else, was a dose of the rather stark detachment that I saw in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, as directed by Stanton’s former Pixar colleague Brad Bird. Bird clearly had no personal investment in the franchise, except to make the best movie he possibly could. John Carter, by contrast, falls apart on its director’s passion and good intentions, as well as a creative philosophy that evidently works in animation, but not live action. As Stanton says of Pixar:

We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

Which only makes us wonder what might have happened if John Carter had been granted a fourth year.

Stanton should take heart, however. If there’s one movie that John Carter calls to mind, it’s Dune, another financial and critical catastrophe that was doomed—as much as I love it—by fidelity to its source material. (In fact, if you take Roger Ebert’s original review of Dune, which came out in 1985, and replace the relevant proper names, you end up with something remarkably close to a review of John Carter: “Actors stand around in ridiculous costumes, mouthing dialogue with little or no context.”) Yet its director not only recovered, but followed it up with my favorite movie ever made in America. Failure, if it results in another chance, can be the opposite of the New Yorker curse. And while Stanton may not be David Lynch, he’s not without talent: the movie’s design is often impressive, especially its alien effects, and it displays occasional flashes of wit and humor that remind us of what Stanton can do. John Carter may go on record as the most expensive learning experience in history, and while this may be cold comfort to Disney shareholders, it’s not bad for the rest of us, as long as Stanton gets his second chance. Hopefully far away from the New Yorker.

Written by nevalalee

March 15, 2012 at 10:31 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Having just watched the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the recent Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I’m more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie is editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes are extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, is one I’ve been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empirefascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.

Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.

Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2011 at 10:10 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

The Monster of Art

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Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.

Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.

And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

Me and David Lynch

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Yesterday was the 65th birthday of David Lynch, a director and artist whose influence on my own life is hard to exaggerate. There was a time, growing up, when I wanted to be David Lynch. And while my own writing has taken me in a markedly different direction, I sometimes regret the fact that I haven’t tried harder to live up to Lynch’s standards. He’s as singular an artist as they come, but his career still stands as as a challenge and inspiration for those of us who insist, despite his example, on moving in less peculiar circles.

The film at the center of Lynch’s work, and of my own imagination, is Blue Velvet, which I think is simply the greatest of all American movies—”as American as Casablanca,” as David Thomson says. I could write an essay or more on any aspect of Blue Velvet’s production—the performances, the cinematography, the sound, the incredible score by Angelo Badalamenti—but for the moment, I’m going to focus on just one element: the story. Because, strange to say, as far out as Blue Velvet is in other respects, on a narrative level, it’s Lynch’s most conventional movie, which has a great deal to do with its success.

Strip away the hallucinatory flourishes, and Blue Velvet is basically a thriller, the most ravishing of Technicolor noirs. It’s really the only film in which Lynch has displayed any interest in the actual creation of suspense—rather than in its forms alone—and you can sense his innocent delight in playing the audience like a piano. (The two major scenes in Dorothy Valens’s apartment, the first near the beginning, the second at the end, are still the most dazzling sequences of their kind I’ve ever seen.) And the fact that Lynch’s ultimate dreamscape is built on a solid foundation of genre is a lesson to artists everywhere. The result is a film that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies: amusement, excitement, dread, horror, sentimentality, and, finally, a kind of transcendent joy.

That same range of emotion is also the hallmark of Lynch’s second great achievement: Twin Peaks. When the show premiered on April 8, 1990, I wasn’t even ten years old, but, thanks mostly to my parents, I watched it anyway. Ever since, it has occupied a curiously prominent place in my subconscious. And the strangest thing is that my conception of the show encompasses the pilot, the finale, perhaps five or six other episodes, and the soundtrack, especially the songs sung by Julee Cruise. The rest I can take or leave. But what remains is a kind of invisible force that has left me looking forever for strangeness in small towns and poetry in a cup of coffee. In Twin Peaks, as in all of Lynch’s best work, beauty, humor, and horror live side by side, and they’re often all aspects of the same thing.

This conviction, which sometimes comes off as mysterious even to Lynch himself, is what sets him apart from all other American directors. On a superficial level, the style of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet is staggeringly easy to imitate, or parody, and Lynch has certainly had his share of followers. Few, if any, have managed to share his fundamental certainty that the strangeness and romance of life are inseparable. If his movies are weird, that’s because their urgent sense of beauty can be expressed in no other way. That’s why his example is so humbling, especially for a writer, like me, who finds it hard to move beyond reason, while Lynch, the great naif and Eagle Scout, is off reinventing movies.

Judging from his most recent work, or the lack thereof, David Lynch is no longer especially interested in being a movie director in any conventional sense. Which is wonderful for him, but it’s also our loss, and a permanent one. For an eyeblink, Lynch was at the center of our culture—on October 1, 1990, he was on the cover of Time magazine. Compared to that, how can the last twenty years feel like anything but a retreat?

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

Quote of the Day

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…If you know that you’ve got to be somewhere in half an hour, there’s no way you can achieve [a work of art]. So the art life means a freedom to have time for the good things to happen. There’s not always a lot of time for other things.

—David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2011 at 7:48 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2011 at 7:55 am

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