Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Cain rose up

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John Lithgow in Raising Cain

I first saw Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain when I was fourteen years old. In a weird way, it amounted to a peak moment of my early adolescence: I was on a school trip to our nation’s capital, sharing a hotel room with my friends from middle school, and we were just tickled to get away with watching an R-rated movie on cable. The fact that we ended up with Raising Cain doesn’t quite compare with the kids on The Simpsons cheering at the chance to see Barton Fink, but it isn’t too far off. I think that we liked it, and while I won’t claim that we understood it, that doesn’t mean much of anything—it’s hard for me to imagine anybody, of any age, entirely understanding this movie, which includes both me and De Palma himself. A few years later, I caught it again on television, and while I can’t say I’ve thought about it much since, I never forgot it. Gradually, I began to catch up on my De Palma, going mostly by whatever movies made Pauline Kael the most ecstatic at the time, which in itself was an education in the gap between a great critic’s pet enthusiasms and what exists on the screen. (In her review of The Fury, Kael wrote: “No Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many ‘classic’ sequences.” I love Kael, but there are at least three things wrong with that sentence.) And ultimately De Palma came to mean a lot to me, as he does to just about anyone who responds to the movies in a certain way.

When I heard about the recut version of Raising Cain—in an interview with John Lithgow on The A.V. Club, no less, in which he was promoting his somewhat different role on The Crown—I was intrigued. And its backstory is particularly interesting. Shortly before the movie was first released, De Palma moved a crucial sequence from the beginning to the middle, eliminating an extended flashback and allowing the film to play more or less chronologically. He came to regret the change, but it was too late to do anything about it. Years later, a freelance director and editor named Peet Gelderblom read about the original cut and decided to restore it, performing a judicious edit on a digital copy. He put it online, where, unbelievably, it was seen by De Palma himself, who not only loved it but asked that it be included as a special feature on the new Blu-ray release. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the true possibilities of fan edits, which have served mostly for competing visions of the ideal version of Star Wars. With modern software, a fan can do for a movie what Walter Murch did for Touch of Evil, restoring it to the director’s original version based on a script or a verbal description. In the case of Raising Cain, this mostly just involved rearranging the pieces in the theatrical cut, but other fans have tackled such challenges as restoring all the deleted scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and there are countless other candidates.

Raising Cain

Yet Raising Cain might be the most instructive case study of all, because simply restoring the original opening to its intended place results in a radical transformation. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s necessary to grant De Palma his usual passes for clunky dialogue and characterization, but if you’re ready to meet it halfway, you’re rewarded with a thriller that twists back on itself like a Möbius strip. De Palma plunders his earlier movies so blatantly that it isn’t clear if he’s somehow paying loving homage to himself—bypassing Hitchcock entirely—or recycling good ideas that he feels like using again. The recut opens with a long mislead that recalls Dressed to Kill, which means that Lithgow barely even appears for the first twenty minutes. You can almost see why De Palma chickened out for the theatrical version: Lithgow’s performance as the meek Carter and his psychotic imaginary brother Cain feels too juicy to withhold. But the logic of the script was destroyed. For a film that tests an audience’s suspension of disbelief in so many other ways, it’s unclear why De Palma thought that a flashback would be too much for the viewer to handle. The theatrical release preserves all the great shock effects that are the movie’s primary reason for existing, but they don’t build to anything, and you’re left with a film that plays like a series of sketches. With the original order restored, it becomes what it was meant to be all along: a great shaggy dog story with a killer punchline.

Raising Cain is gleefully about nothing but itself, and I wouldn’t force anybody to watch it who wasn’t already interested. But the recut also serves as an excellent introduction to its director, just as the older version did for me: when I first encountered it, I doubt I’d seen anything by De Palma, except maybe The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible was still a year away. It’s safe to say that if you like Raising Cain, you’ll like De Palma in general, and if you can’t get past its archness, campiness, and indifference to basic plausibility—well, I can hardly blame you. Watching it again, I was reminded of Blue Velvet, a far greater movie that presents the viewer with a similar test. It has the same mixture of naïveté and incredible technical virtuosity, with scenes that barely seem to have been written alternating with ones that push against the boundaries of the medium itself. You’re never quite sure if the director is in on the gag, and maybe it doesn’t matter. There isn’t much beauty in Raising Cain, and De Palma is a hackier and more mechanical director than Lynch, but both are so strongly visual that the nonsensory aspects of their films, like the obligatory scenes with the cops, seem to wither before our eyes. (It’s an approach that requires a kind of raw, intuitive trust from the cast, and as much as I enjoy what Lithgow does here, he may be too clever and resourceful an actor to really disappear into the role.) Both are rooted, crucially, in Hitchcock, who was equally obsessive, but was careful to never work from his own script. Hitchcock kept his secret self hidden, while De Palma puts it in plain sight. And if it turns out to be nothing at all, that’s probably part of the joke.

The voice of love

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Industrial Symphony No. 1

At some point, everyone owns a copy of The Album. The title or the artist might differ, but its impact on the listener is the same: it’s simply the album that alerts you to the fact that it can be worth devoting every last piece of your inner life to music, rather than treating it as a source of background noise or diversion. It’s the first album that leaves a mark on your soul. Usually, it makes an appearance as you’re entering your teens, which means that there’s as much random chance involved here as in any of the other cultural influences that dig in their claws at that age. You don’t have a lot of control over what it will be. Maybe it begins with a song on the radio, or a cover that catches your eye at a record store, or a stab of familiarity that comes from a passing moment of exposure: in your early teens, you’re likely to love something just because you recognize it. Whatever it is, unlike every other album you’ve ever heard, it doesn’t let you go. It gets into your dreams. You draw pictures of the cover art and pick out a few notes from it on every piano. And it shapes you in ways that you can’t fully articulate. The specific album is different for everyone, or so it seems, although logic suggests that it’s probably the same for a lot of teenagers at any given time. And I think you can draw a pretty clear line between those for whom The Album involved them deeply in the culture of their era, and those who wound up estranged from it. I’d be a different person—and maybe a better one—if mine had been something like Nevermind. But it wasn’t. It was the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, followed by Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night.

If I’d been born a few years earlier, this might not have been an issue, but I happened to get seriously into Twin Peaks, or at least its score, long after the series itself had peaked as a cultural phenomenon. The finale had aired two full years ago, and it had been followed shortly thereafter, with what seems today like startling speed, by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After that, it mostly disappeared. There wasn’t even a chance for me to belatedly get into the show itself. I’d watched a few episodes back when they first aired, including the pilot and the horrifying scene in which the identity of Laura’s killer is finally revealed. As far as I can remember, the premiere was later released on video, but nothing else, and I had to get by with a few grainy episodes that my parents had recorded. It wasn’t until many years later that the first box set became available, allowing me to fully experience a show that I ultimately ended up loving, but which was far more uneven—and often routine—than its reputation had led me to believe. But it didn’t really matter. Twin Peaks was just a television show, admittedly an exceptional one, but the score by Angelo Badalamenti was something else: a vision of a world that was complete and unlimited in itself. I’d have trouble expressing exactly what it represents, except that it has something to do with the places where a gorgeous nightmare impinges on the everyday. In Blue Velvet, which I still think is David Lynch’s greatest achievement, Jeffrey expresses it as simply as possible: “It’s a strange world.” But you can hear it more clearly in “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” which Badalamenti composed in response to Lynch’s instructions:

Start it off foreboding, like you’re in a dark wood, and then segue into something beautiful to reflect the trouble of a beautiful teenage girl. Then, once you’ve got that, go back and do something that’s sad and go back into that sad, foreboding darkness.

Soundtrack from Twin Peaks

If all forms of art, as Water Pater puts it, aspire to the condition of music, then it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks aspired to the condition of its own soundtrack. Badalamenti’s score did everything that the series itself often struggled to accomplish, and there were times when I felt that the music was the primary work, with the show as a kind of visual adjunct. (I still feel that way, on some level, about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The movie means a lot to me, but I don’t have a lot of interest in rewatching it, while I know every note of the soundtrack by heart, even though I haven’t listened to it in years.) And even if I grant that a soundtrack is never really complete in itself, the Twin Peaks score pointed invisibly toward an even more intriguing artifact. It included three tracks—“The Nightingale,” “Into the Night,” and “Falling”—sung by Julee Cruise, with music by Badalamenti and lyrics by Lynch, who had earlier written her song “Mysteries of Love” for Blue Velvet. I loved them, obviously, and I can still remember the moment when a close reading of the liner notes clued me into the fact that there was an entire album by Cruise, Floating Into the Night, that I could actually own. (In fact, there were two. As it happened, my brainstorm occurred only a few months after the release of The Voice of Love, a much less coherent sophomore album that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.) Listening to it for the first time, I felt like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who once saw a fragment of an undiscovered country, and now found himself confronted with all of it at once. The next few years of my life were hugely eventful, as they are for every teenager: I read, did, and thought about a lot of things, some of which are paying off only now. But whatever else I was doing, I was probably listening to Floating Into the Night.

So when I heard that the Twin Peaks soundtrack was coming out today in a deluxe new vinyl release, I felt mixed feelings at the news. (Of course, I’m going to buy a copy, and so should you.) The plain fact is that toward the end of my teens, I put Badalamenti and Cruise away, and I haven’t listened to them much since. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t give them a lifetime’s worth of listening in the meantime. I became obsessed with Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, the curious performance piece by Lynch in which Cruise floats on wires high above the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Much later, I saw Cruise perform, rather awkwardly, in person. I tracked down her other collaborations and guest appearances—including the excellent “If I Survive” with Hybrid—and even bought her third album, The Art of Being a Girl, which I liked a lot. Somehow I never got around to buying the next one, though, and long before I graduated from college, Cruise and Badalamenti had ceased to play a role in my life. And I regret this. I still think that Floating Into the Night is a perfect album, although it wasn’t until years later, when I heard Cruise’s real, hilariously brassy voice, that I realized the extent to which I’d fallen in love with an ironic simulation. There are still moments when I believe, with complete seriousness, that I’d be a better person today if I’d kept listening to this music: half of my life has been spent trying to live up to the values of my early adolescence, and I might have had an easier job of integrating all of my past selves if they shared a common soundtrack. Whenever I play it now, it feels like a part of me that has been locked away, ageless and untouched, in the Black Lodge. But life has a way of coming full circle. As Laura says to Cooper: “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years.” And it feels sometimes as if she were talking to me.

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.

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2014 at 10:06 am

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

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