Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wild at Heart

Invitation to look

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Note: This post discusses plot elements from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

In order to understand the current run of Twin Peaks, it helps to think back to the most characteristic scene from the finale of the second season, which was also the last episode of the show to air for decades. I’m not talking about Cooper in the Black Lodge, or any of the messy, unresolved melodrama that swirled around the other characters, or even the notorious cliffhanger. I mean the scene at Twin Peaks Savings and Loan that lingers interminably on the figure of Dell Mibbler, an ancient, doddering bank manager whom we haven’t seen before and will never see again, as he crosses the floor, in a single unbroken shot, to get a glass of water for Audrey. Even at the time, when the hope of a third season was still alive, many viewers must have found the sequence agonizingly pointless. Later, when it seemed like this was the last glimpse of these characters that we would ever have, it felt even less explicable. With only so many minutes in any given episode, each one starts to seem precious, especially in a series finale, and this scene took up at least two of them. (Now that we’ve finally gotten another season, I’m not sure how it will play in the future, but I suspect that it will feel like what it must have been intended to be—a precarious, unnecessary, but still pretty funny gag.) Anecdotally speaking, for a lot of viewers, the third season is starting to feel like that bank scene played over and over again. In theory, we have plenty of room for digressions, with eighteen hours of television to fill. But as the tangents and apparent dead ends continue to pile up, like the scene last night in which the camera spends a full minute lovingly recording an employee sweeping up at the Bang Bang Bar, it sometimes feels like we’ve been tricked into watching Dell Mibbler: The Return.

Yet this has been David Lynch’s style from the beginning. Lynch directed only a few hours of the initial run of Twin Peaks, but his work, particularly on the pilot, laid down a template that other writers and directors did their best to follow. And many of the show’s iconic images—the streetlight at the corner where Laura was last seen, the waterfall, the fir trees blowing in the wind—consist of silent shots that are held for slightly longer than the viewer would expect. One of the oddly endearing things about the original series was how such eerie moments were intercut with scenes that, for all their quirkiness, were staged, shot, and edited more or less like any other network drama. The new season hasn’t offered many such respites, which is part of why it still feels like it’s keeping itself at arm’s length from its own history. For better or worse, Lynch doesn’t have to compromise here. (Last night’s episode was perhaps the season’s most plot-heavy installment to date, and it devoted maybe ten minutes to advancing the story.) Instead, Lynch is continuing to educate us, as he’s done erratically throughout his career, on how to slow down and pay attention. Not all of his movies unfold at the same meditative pace: Blue Velvet moves like a thriller, in part because of the circumstances of its editing, and Wild at Heart seems like an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to sustain that level of frantic motion for the film’s entire length. But when we think back to the scenes from his work that we remember most vividly, they tend to be static shots that are held so long that they burn themselves into our imagination. And as movies and television shows become more anxious to keep the viewer’s interest from straying for even a second, Twin Peaks remains an invitation to look and contemplate.

It also invites us to listen, and while much of Lynch’s fascination with stillness comes from his background as a painter, it also emerges from his interest in sound. Lynch is credited as a sound designer on Twin Peaks, as he has been for most of his movies, and the show is suffused with what you might call the standard-issue Lynchian noise—a low, barely perceptible hum of static that occasionally rises to an oceanic roar. (In last night’s episode, Benjamin Horne and the character played by Ashley Judd try vainly to pin down the source of a similar hum at the Great Northern, and while it might eventually lead somewhere, it also feels like a subtle joke at Lynch’s own expense.) The sound is often associated with electronic or recording equipment, like the video cameras that are trained on the glass cube in the season premiere. My favorite instance is in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey stumbles across the tableau of two victims in Dorothy’s apartment, one with his ear cut off, the other still standing with his brains shot out. There’s a hum coming from the shattered television set, and it’s pitched at so low a level that it’s almost subliminal, except to imperceptibly increase our anxiety. You only really become aware of it when it stops, after Jeffrey closes the door behind him and, a little later, when Frank shoots out the television tube. But you can’t hear it at all unless everything else onscreen is deathly quiet. It emerges from stillness, as if it were a form of background noise that surrounds us all the time, but is only audible when the rest of the world fades away. I don’t know whether Lynch’s fascination with this kind of sound effect came out of his interest in stillness or the other way around, and the most plausible explanation is that it all arose from the same place. But you could build a convincing reading of his career around the two meanings of the word “static.”

Taken together, the visual and auditory elements invite us to look on in silence, which may be a reflection of Lynch’s art school background. (I don’t know if Lynch was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, a work of art that obsessed me so much that I wrote an entire novel about it, but they both ask us to stand and contemplate the inexplicable without speaking. And when you see the installation in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I’ve done twice, the memory is inevitably entwined with the low hum of the room’s climate control system.) By extending this state of narrative suspension to the breaking point, Twin Peaks is pushing in a direction that even the most innovative prestige dramas have mostly avoided, and it still fascinates me. The real question is when and how the silence will be broken. Lynch’s great hallmark is his use of juxtaposition, not just of light and dark, which horrified Roger Ebert so much in Blue Velvet, but of silence and sudden, violent action. We’ve already seen hints of this so far in Twin Peaks, particularly in the scenes involving the murderous Ike the Spike, who seems to be playing the same role, at random intervals, that a figure of similarly small stature did at the end of Don’t Look Now. And I have a feeling that the real payoff is yet to come. This might sound like the wishful thinking of a viewer who is waiting for the show’s teasing hints to lead somewhere, but it’s central to Lynch’s method, in which silence and stillness are most effective when framed by noise and movement. The shot of the two bodies in Dorothy’s apartment leads directly into the most dramatically satisfying—and, let it be said, most conventional—climax of Lynch’s career. And remember Dell Mibbler? At the end of the scene, the bank blows up.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

The darkness of future past

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Note: Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of the third season of Twin Peaks.

“Is it future, or is it past?” Mike, the one-armed man, asks Cooper in the Black Lodge. During the premiere of the belated third season of Twin Peaks, there are times when it seems to be both at once. We often seem to be in familiar territory, and the twinge of recognition that it provokes has a way of alerting us to aspects of the original that we may have overlooked. When two new characters, played appealingly—and altogether too briefly—by Ben Rosenfield and Madeline Zima, engage in an oddly uninflected conversation, it’s a reminder of the appealingly flat tone that David Lynch likes to elicit from his actors, who sometimes seem to be reading their lines phonetically, like the kids in a Peanuts cartoon. It isn’t bad or amateurish acting, but an indication that even the performers aren’t entirely sure what they’re doing there. In recent years, accomplished imitators from Fargo to Legion have drawn on Lynch’s style, but they’re fully conscious of it, and we’re aware of the technical trickery of such players as Ewan McGregor or Dan Stevens. In Lynch’s best works, there’s never a sense that anyone involved is standing above or apart from the material. (The major exceptions are Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, who disrupt the proceedings with their own brand of strangeness, and, eerily, Robert Blake in Lost Highway.) The show’s original cast included a few artful performers, notably Ray Wise and the late Miguel Ferrer, but most of the actors were endearingly unaffected. They were innocents. And innocence is a quality that we haven’t seen on television in a long time.

Yet it doesn’t take long to realize that some things have also changed. There’s the heightened level of sex and gore, which reflects the same kind of liberation from the standards of network television that made parts of Fire Walk With Me so difficult to watch. (I’d be tempted to observe that its violence against women is airing at a moment in which such scenes are likely to be intensely scrutinized, if it weren’t for the fact that Lynch has been making people uncomfortable in that regard for over thirty years.) The show is also premiering in an era in which every aspect of it will inevitably be picked apart in real time on social media, which strikes me as a diminished way of experiencing it. Its initial run obviously prompted plenty of theorizing around the nation’s water coolers, but if there’s anything that Twin Peaks has taught us, it’s that the clues are not what they seem. Lynch is a director who starts with a handful of intuitive images that are potent in themselves—an empty glass cube, a severed head, a talking tree. You could call them dreamlike, or the fruits of the unconscious, or the products, to use a slightly dated term, of the right hemisphere of the brain. Later on, the left hemisphere, which is widely but misleadingly associated with Lynch’s collaborator Mark Frost, circles back and tries to impose meaning on those symbols, but these readings are never entirely convincing. Decades ago, when the show tried to turn Cooper’s dream of the Black Lodge into a rebus for the killer’s identity, you could sense that it was straining. There isn’t always a deeper answer to be found, aside from the power of those pictures, which should be deep enough in itself.

As a result, I expect to avoid reading most reviews or analysis, at least until the season is over. Elements that seem inexplicable now may or may not pay off, but the series deserves the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t to say that what we’ve seen so far has been perfect: Twin Peaks, whatever else it may have been, was never a flawless show. Kyle MacLachlan has been as important to my inner life as any actor, but I’m not sure whether he has the range to convincingly portray Dark Cooper. He’s peerless when it comes to serving as the director’s surrogate, or a guileless ego wandering through the wilderness of the id, but he isn’t Dennis Hopper, and much of this material might have been better left to implication. Similarly, the new sequences in the Black Lodge are striking—and I’ve been waiting for them for what feels like my entire life—but they’re also allowed to run for too long. Those original scenes were so memorable that it’s easy to forget that they accounted for maybe twenty minutes, stretched across two seasons, and that imagination filled in the rest. (A screenshot of Cooper seated with the Man from Another Place was the desktop image on my computer for most of college.) If anything, the show seems almost too eager to give us more of Cooper in those iconic surroundings, and half as much would have gone a long way. In the finale of the second season, when Cooper stepped through those red curtains at last, it felt like the culmination of everything that the series had promised. Now it feels like a set where we have to linger for a while longer before the real story can begin. It’s exactly what the Man from Another Place once called it: the waiting room.

Lynch and Frost seem to be reveling in the breathing space and creative freedom that eighteen full hours on Showtime can afford, and they’ve certainly earned that right. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, Twin Peaks may have benefited from the constraints that a broadcast network imposed, just as Wild at Heart strikes me as one of the few films to have been notably improved by being edited for television. When Lynch made Blue Velvet, he and editor Duwayne Dunham, who is also editing the new season, were forced to cut the original version to the bone to meet their contractually mandated runtime, and the result was the best American movie I’ve ever seen. Lynch’s most memorable work has been forced to work within similar limitations, and I’m curious to see how it turns out when most of those barriers are removed. (I still haven’t seen any of the hours of additional footage that were recently released from Fire Walk With Me, but I wish now that I’d taken the trouble to seek them out. The prospect of viewing those lost scenes is less exciting, now that we’re being given the equivalent of a sequel that will be allowed to run for as long as it likes.) In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. When I look back at the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, I’m startled to realize how little of it I remember: it comes to about three hours of unforgettable images, mostly from the episodes directed by Lynch. If the first two episodes of the new run are any indication, it’s likely to at least double that number, which makes it a good deal by any standard. Twin Peaks played a pivotal role in my own past. And I still can’t entirely believe that it’s going to be part of my future, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2017 at 10:32 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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

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