Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Hills

The conveyor belt

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For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

Movies as Muzak

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Years ago, when I was writing my first, unpublished novel, I would often play a movie or television show in the background as I wrote. (I also threw out my back from writing on my laptop while seated on my living room couch for hours, but that’s another story.) The novel I was writing was an epic adventure novel set in India, so the movies I chose to watch were usually ones whose spirit I was trying to recapture at various points in the story: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, the Indiana Jones trilogy. And while I don’t know for sure if the trick worked, I’d like to think that the resulting novel was at least somewhat influenced by the films I had playing while I wrote it, in much the same way that I’ll superstitiously read a few pages from an author I admire before starting work for the day, or play a song to set the tone for a scene.

Lately, however, not only have I turned off the television, but I’ve also stopped playing music when I write, at least for the first draft. My reasoning is similar to what the animator Richard Williams, in The Animator’s Survival Kit, says the great Milt Kahl told him, in response to the question of whether he listens to music while he animates: “I’m not smart enough to think of more than one thing at a time!” That’s true for me, too. Just as I no longer listen to music while I’m walking, I find that I work better, or at least more efficiently, in relative silence. I suspect that this puts me in the minority of writers, many of whom seem to have some kind of music playing all the time, but if you haven’t tried it, I recommend that you experiment with turning it off for a day or two to see if your productivity improves. I know that it definitely did for me.

That said, there are times when I’m doing other kinds of more routine work—revision, correspondence, blog maintenance—and want some sort of visual or auditory distraction. In the past, I used to play movies I’d seen before with subtitles on and the sound turned down, but more recently, somewhat to my surprise, I’ve started browsing the options on Netflix Streaming. Needless to say, not every movie or television series fits the bill. It can’t be a movie that I actually want to see, because I won’t be watching it with more than one eye, and it can’t be a show like Arrested Development or Community that demands fairly close viewing. Ideally, it should be something I can safely ignore for minutes on end, but still follow easily whenever I watch it for a second or two, and it should be reasonably soothing, ideally with pretty pictures and pretty people.

A movie like Meet Joe Black, for instance, which I watched last night with my wife while we both had our laptops out, is perfect visual Muzak: it’s gorgeously photographed, with an attractive cast standing around in beautiful sets, and dramatically, it’s delightfully inert. This may not be much of a rave for a three-hour movie that someone spent the equivalent of $130 million to make, but under the right circumstances, it hits the spot. And the ultimate background viewing, I’ve found, is something like The Hills: pretty pictures, pretty people, pretty music, and nothing happens for entire seasons. Viewed with full attention, the result would be maddening, but in the background, with the volume down, it’s oddly soothing, and it lets me get plenty of work done with no fear that I’m missing anything of interest. If that sounds like faint praise, well, it is. But I’ll keep watching it anyway—at least with one eye.

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2012 at 9:39 am

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