Friday, November 06, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #94: Twin Peaks: "Pilot" (1990)

Writing about David Lynch's classic and creepy Twin Peaks (1990-1991), critic Terrance Rafferty noted in The New Leader (April 9, 1990, page 86) that the "all-American surrealist takes to television like a parasite to an especially nourishing host."

In more straightforward terms, author Robert J. Thompson noted that Twin Peaks is one of television's "most interesting and compelling aesthetic achievements." (From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television's Second Golden Age, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1996, page 155.)

Indeed, thinking back to the year 1990, I remember a nation utterly captivated by the soap opera. Twin Peaks was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in those days, down to the parodies ("Twin Beaks" on Sesame Street), down to the New York Times best-seller The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, down to the Time Magazine cover story on Lynch, and even the Twin Peaks Access Guide to the Town (which featured a recipe for some damn-fine cherry pie...).

I also recall with great clarity attending parties at college wherein suddenly the word would go out (usually loudly...) that it was time for Twin Peaks, and there would be this mad rush for the nearest TV set. Students huddled before the tube with rapt attention, and as soon as Angelo Badalementi's moody theme song began it grew so quiet you could actually hear a pin drop. That spell was not broken for the entire hour as active viewers sussed out clues, sought revelations, and reveled in the program's quirky symbolism.

Another potent personal memory of Twin Peaks involves the surprising collapse of the phenomenon early in the series' second season. The oft-heard complaint was simply that dedicated viewers had -- because of family or job obligations -- missed a single episode and found themselves utterly lost; unable to keep up with the twists and turns of Mark Frost and David Lynch's bizarre, labyrinthine program. This feeling of missing out, of not keeping up, of being on "the outs" with something popular, actually generated a kind of vicious backlash. When the feature film based on the movie, Fire Walk with Me (1991), was released at a later point, it was (unfairly...) greeted with derisive boos and hisses by critics and fans alike.

The fashionable had turned into the unfashionable, seemingly overnight...

Twin Peaks was the tale of a small, Douglas Fir-lined town in the Pacific-Northwest (population: 51, 201) that suffered a terrible tragedy on February the 24th of 1990. The corpse of beloved high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was discovered - wrapped in plastic -- on the banks of the river near the Packard Saw Mill. The crime was so horrendous, so awful, that it sent the town into a literal tail-spin of suspicion and accusations, and resulted in an FBI investigation led by fastidious agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

As Cooper and town sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) sought answers about the brutal crime, a dark underside was also unearthed. Seventeen year-old Laura Palmer -- the "golden girl" of the local high school -- had been a cocaine user. She had also kept a secret diary of her kinky sexual escapades, and had at least two lovers. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Those memorable characters and intriguing situations are all set up -- ably and artistically -- in the ninety minute pilot episode of Twin Peaks that aired on ABC on April 8, 1990. For purposes of this review, I screened the original TV version of the pilot (rather than the International version) simply because this post is a "flashback" to the series as it aired on American television. And even in 2009 -- almost twenty-years after it originally aired -- the Twin Peaks pilot is mesmerizing; and certainly one of the ten greatest TV pilots of all-time.

Who's The Lady With The Log? We Call Her The Log Lady...

One of the reasons this pilot stands up so well involves Lynch's multi-layered approach to the material. In other words, Twin Peaks is concurrently a "thing" (a melodrama; a soap opera, a serialized TV series) and a parody of that very "thing."

Specifically, melodrama -- literally "a play with music" -- is a drama of heightened emotions that concerns family crises, hardships, and domestic tragedies. In Twin Peaks, Lynch parodies this hot-house, emotionally-unrestrained genre, and in particular, the melodrama as it has existed throughout American television history.

Accordingly, Badalementi's droning, monotonous, ubiquitous (but gorgeous...) musical score serves as the 1990s equivalent of the maudlin organs you might hear supporting a General Hospital or Guiding Light episode of the early 1960s. This exaggerated musical score is integral to the soap opera aura of Twin Peaks, and it constantly lifts the tenor of the pilot from grounded reality to a brand of rarefied, hyper-reality.

Tragedy arrives hard and fast in the Twin Peaks pilot with Pete Martell's (Jack Nance) discovery of Laura Palmer's corpse. Again, this is a terrible turn-of-events, especially for Laura's parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). These fine actors weep and wail, shouting to the Heavens over their grievous loss in the earnest tradition of the soap opera or melodrama.

Yet, Lynch quickly and methodically distances us from that continual and genuine suffering, almost literally turning it comedic in the process. To wit, Sarah learns that Laura is dead while conversing with Leland on the telephone. Leland drops the telephone in shock at the news (reported by Sheriff Truman), but Lynch's camera doesn't follow Leland, as we might expect.

Instead, we suddenly get a close-up of the phone, and the camera pans down and down -- ever-so-slowly -- the long telephone wire, all-the-way to the dangling receiver. Emanating from that receiver are Sarah's tortured cries, still audible even though nobody is listening. But those cries -- now disembodied -- go on and on and on, ad nauseum, and make the moment read as funny, not tragic. Again, this augmentation occurs in tandem with the overblown musical score. The crying has gone on so long, and with such sustained passion that it turns silly, and Lynch informs us that is so by removing the crier from the frame so we're not actually laughing at the person's pain; we're laughing at the over-the-top reaction.

The deadpan, circular dialogue in Twin Peaks likewise adds to the strong sense that the soap opera form is being parodied here. Straight answers are given to straight questions, and yet everything about the interrogatives and their rebuttals are absurd. "Who is the lady with the log?" asks Dale Cooper. "We call her the log lady," replies Sheriff Truman. Tell me, do you glean any important contextual information from that particular back-and-forth?

Again and again, Lynch undercuts the seriousness of the tale to parody the soap opera form. After the discovery of the corpse, he cuts to shots of a blubbering detective at the crime scene, a sobbing idiot named Andy. Again, this isn't typical crime-scene behavior. Later, as Sheriff Truman is about to get the call about Laura's death, his receptionist, Lucy, goes off on a sustained riff about how she is going to transfer that particular call. To that phone. By the lamp. The black one. On the table.

Again, the very serious form of the soap opera is successfully undercut here by Lucy's focus on the picayune. The examples are too numerous to mention just in the pilot alone, but I must admit, I nurture a special affection for a very funny camera set-up in the local high school. Sheriff Truman is just about to arrive to tell the students of the bad news, but before we see him (in the background of the frame), a young high school student inexplicably and robotically moonwalks from his locker (on the right of the frame) to the left side of the screen. It's unmotivated, it's bizarre, and it's funny as hell.

Later in the series, Twin Peaks further satirized soap opera forms in everything from crazy character contrivances (like Laura's lookalike cousin Mattie...) to direct reference to the genre. In the latter case, the characters would often be seen watching a sophomoric soap opera entitled Invitation to Love. With Twin Peaks, Lynch seemed to be telling audiences how silly the form of the melodrama was at the same time that he was enticing the audience with a superlative example of the form.

The Girl in the Plastic Bag

The strange alchemy of Twin Peaks is so compelling because the series is part soap opera, part soap opera parody, and much more too. The show veers into mystery, into horror, and even bizarre police procedural. The pilot changes tenors easily and quickly, and we're often left feeling deeply discomforted by the unconventional shifts.

The death of Laura Palmer is greeted with terrible mourning throughout the first episode (even on the part of the taciturn school principal...) and Lynch seems to be playing on societal stereotypes about young blond women. The victim here is not randomly selected.

On the contrary, Laura Palmer symbolizes something significant. Mid-way through the pilot, Lynch's camera pushes in towards an athletic trophy case...where an iconic portrait of Laura stands -- dead center of the shot. The implication drawn from the photograph's placement in both the frame and the case, of course, is that golden-locked Laura is the ultimate trophy in America of the 1990s.

In traditional folklore, fairies and other spirits of the forest are universally drawn to blond-haired women, and if you've watched all of Twin Peaks, that's a subtle clue about the nature of this particular crime. But there's more than that going on too. Blond hair is often considered part and parcel of the "essential female" in our culture, and hair color is "entangled not only with the concepts of femininity and beauty, but also with intimations of mortality in a youth-oriented society," according to author Anthony Synnott in The Body Social, Self & Society (page 109).

Sometimes, blondes are also stereotypically associated with loose morals or promiscuity, and as a character, Laura seems to encompass every aspect of the Blond Mystique.. She's highly-desirable (a trophy) in terms of male sexual ownership of her. She's a symbol of life, vitality and the future in the youth culture, and she's also derided (the Madonna/Whore Complex...) because of her overtly sexual nature in what appears a conservative (but ultimately corrupt...) adult society. I find fascinating the many ways this pilot contextualizes and re-contextualizes Laura: as loving daughter (to her parents), as romantic fantasy (to James), as best friend (to Donna Hayward), as crime victim (to the investigators), as innocent school girl (to the principal and others), and even as kindly tutor/ teacher (to the Horne 's son). But, at least in the pilot, it is impossible to say that we "know" Laura. That's part of Twin Peaks' great appeal: that Laura is different things to different people and the audience can only guess at the "real" Palmer.

By making a golden-haired, "All-American" beauty the victim of a terrible crime, Lynch is granted an opening to study a lot of things about society. How men view women; how women view other women; how society glorifies and then destroys women, and female beauty, even. It's the same delicate dance Lynch waltzed in Blue Velvet (1984), a film that in many ways a prototype for Twin Peaks. He likes to gaze at the underneath; at the meaning behind symbols we take for granted on a conscious level.

A "Pretty Simple Town:" The Evil That Lurks in the Woods

One of the most important symbols in Twin Peaks is the dense forest that surrounds the town. In literature -- as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne -- the forest has often been considered a place of evil.

Hawthorne wrote powerfully (in Young Goodman Brown, for instance...) that the American forests were inhabited by things both inhuman and devilish. His books were built around that belief; just as Twin Peaks is also built around them. Over the course of the series, we learn about the forest's Black Lodge and the inhabitants within: dwarves, giants and sadistic murderers. But the Forest also reflects a very human evil.

Consider this description of the forest (from Symbolism.org): the forest is a "place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foliage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun's power and as a symbol of the earth...Since the female principle is identified with the unconsciousness in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconsciousness. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in childrens' tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconsciousness, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure reason."

The woods have proven a dangerous place to fictional characters in works such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Blair Witch Project (1999), and, yes, Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer doesn't survive her night in the woods...a night of unconscious unbound. Rona, another resident of the town, also emerges bloody and beaten from the forest, and the pilot provides us a stunning shot of the girl "coming home," crossing a rusted bridge -- white-capped mountains and forest behind her in the distance -- as she returns to civilization. Depending on interpretation, the forest in Twin Peaks is either the realm where the Human Id goes wild and murder results; or the place where the human psyche is possessed by external spirits and specters of tremendous madness. But either way, the pilot begins to establish the symbolism of the forest as an important catalyst for series events. Between scenes, we see wind rustling through the trees, with a strange, sinister quality. Later we see traffic lights shining red -- warning us not to go any further (into the woods?) -- blowing in the wind at night. The forest represents an invisible malevolence, ever-present but virtually ignored.

On one level, Twin Peaks is about a girl who went astray (morally?) in the woods (adulthood?), and paid the ultimate price. It's a metaphor for life traps like drug use and exploitive sex. But Twin Peaks is no Afterschool Special. It is so weird, so spiky, so dark and demented that it encourages many interpretations, That's why the series dwells in the memory, in the imagination, even in the subconscious.

Even after all these years, Twin Peaks is a great mystery waiting to be re-opened and re-visited. And the punch line -- "the sequence of staccato images where we finally discovered who killed Laura Palmer " (Cult Times, October 1996, page 53) -- is one of the most terrifying scenes you'll find in television history. Like life itself, the series was wild, and weird; inexplicably absurd...and, at some moments, paralyzing. Lynch lulls you into complacency with the belief that his show is a put-on, a stab at soap operas, but then he hits you with his trademark whammies (like our final, alarming visit with Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge).

This "simple little town" is as as strange and surreal a place as mainstream TV has ever taken us, an often-dark reminder that "fate and coincidence figure largely in our lives."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

CULT TV REVIEW: V: "Pilot" (2009)

Turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

During the Bush years (2000-2008), a right-wing science fiction TV series from the late-1970s, Battlestar Galactica, was re-imagined as a liberal enterprise that commented on the bungling of the Iraq War and critiqued our government following the 9/11 attacks.

Individual episodes of the new Galactica series involved illegal torture, a West/Middle East-type religious-type schism and other trademarks of the 21st century's turbulent first decade.

Last night, a leftist science fiction TV series from the late 1980s -- and one that took dead aim at the Reagan Era -- was re-imagined as a paranoid, right-wing, anti-Obama production.

Yep, the evil aliens of the re-imagined V arrive on Earth offering three things: "hope," "change" and "universal health care." These reptilian invaders apparently don't appreciate "fair and balanced" news broadcasts, either.

Heightening the parallel to our President, these conquering aliens "spread the word" of their good deeds by "tagging" locations across the globe with one valedictory alphabet letter. No, not the ubiquitous "O" of 2008's Obamamania, but rather the "V" of the Visitors. The pilot episode culminates with a warning against seeking "saviors" anywhere but in a Christian Heaven; another thinly-veiled barb at our Muslim, Socialist Commander-in-Chief.

So basically, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here has been transformed into The Glenn Beck Show.

If you read my blog with any regularity you know I'm unabashedly, proudly liberal, but you also know, I hope, that I don't always tow the party line. I was not the world's biggest fan of the new Battlestar Galactica, for instance, because I felt that even though it matched my ideological and political bent, it was lacking in imagination, crushingly obvious, and it became the tiresome equivalent of Clue in Outer Space. (The fifth and final Cylon was Colonel Mustard on the Galactica...). I think my opinion was ultimately vindicated by the dopey, disappointing way the series ended (basically an insulting wave of a magic wand that said "God Moves in Mysterious Ways.")

Thus far, I feel the same way about the re-imagined V as I did about BSG starting out, but only in this case I get the added bonus of disliking the show's politics too. Not because I believe Obama is above criticism (and I've already criticized him here on the blog for not pursuing a torture investigation...) but because it has only been eleven months since he took office and he hasn't actually done anything yet to merit the high level of hatred and wacky rhetoric we see coming from Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck and the Tea Baggers.

I mean, have we found the FEMA Camps yet
? Are our children being forced into re-education camps and someone forgot to tell me? Hell, our taxes haven't even gone up...

At least when the new BSG took on the Bush Years, Bush had been in office for awhile and had actually done something egregiously stupid like, I don't know...invading the wrong country. Obama hasn't had that kind of Senior Moment yet, so the new V feels like a wacky pre-emptive strike from Sarah Palin. It's not responding to anything substantive in the culture...just hysteria and fear; the very fear and hysteria that NY-23 rejected last night.

Leaving aside the politics, the new V doesn't work for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it fails to engage the emotions; the heart. There's no build-up to the arrival of the alien ships, and therefore no suspense in the delivering of Anna's (Morena Baccarin's) message.

Worse, a resistance group (already formed, apparently to save the show's dull-as-dishwater characters the trouble of starting from scratch...), already knows that the Visitors are reptilian, which means we don't even get a good jolt moment out of the revelation here. True, fans of the original series know that the Visitors are reptilian aliens, so the surprise is ruined anyway. But that doesn't mean the new show shouldn't attempt to mine a little drama over the fact that LIZARD NAZIS ARE TAKING OVER OUR PLANET!!!! Why remake V if you aren't going to make it a little bit scary?

And -- come on! -- no gerbils were even harmed during the pilot episode of the new V. I'll never forget watching the original mini-series back in 1983, and mid-way through the show Diana's jawbone unexpectedly elongated and she swallowed that poor rodent whole. My heart practically beat through my throat for the rest of the show. The next day at school, it was all anybody was talking about. Did you see that?!

Again, you can't pull the same surprise twice, but it would have been nice if V had attempted to thrill in us in some little way; if it had turned expectations upside down, or staged a really wicked, macabre moment about the alien nature. Here, even the revelation of the green lizard skin is almost a throw-away; with no real impact.

The teleplay was pretty weak. On at least two occasions, protests against the Visitors are mentioned. What are people protesting? Why are they protesting? The episode never tells us. Is it because they are illegal immigrants, spreading leprosy? In the original mini-series, the scientists protested the Visitors because scientific evidence proved that the aliens were hiding things about their technology, about their biology. The Visitors then scapegoated the scientists, equating them with terrorists.

But in the new show...there's just "protests." Like almost everything else in the show, this feels like a throwaway plot device that we're supposed to forget about in five minutes anyway. Another example of inconsistent writing: the aliens arrive and pulp a U.S. military plane (we see the pilot land on the street, dead...), but moments later the people of the Big Apple (who just witnessed his death) are cheering because the Visitors "say" they come in peace. Huh?

If all this isn't bad enough, we get a little Twilight-lite in a subplot involving a horny teen kid and a hot Visitor "peace ambassador." Again, the original V involved a complex (and worthwhile plot) about a teenage girl who befriended and ultimately slept with a Visitor soldier. But there, the relationship functioned as a component of an Anne Frank allegory about a scientist's family seeking a place to hide; about collaboration and resistance. Here the teen angle plays like just a ratings grab with CW pin-ups.

So the new V is bad politics and bad drama. If I have to I'll live with the bad politics, but I'd like to see the show get smarter and scarier. The world has been invaded by evil aliens...and I wish the new V made me care just a little bit about that fact.

Monday, November 02, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Snake Eyes (1998)

After reviewing two very "heavy" Brian De Palma classics in recent weeks, Scarface (1983) and Redacted (2007), it's a bit of a relief to gaze back at this piece today: a sinuous, mind-blowing action-thriller from the decade of big action films: Snake Eyes (1998).

Of course, because this is De Palma's oeuvre we're discussing, Snake Eyes isn't mere mindless, breezy action. On the contrary, this intricate thriller is virtually brimming with just the kind of sizzling, trenchant imagery and social commentary De Palma has long conditioned his audiences to expect.

Specifically, Snake Eyes is the story of a "slick," morally questionable and charismatic protagonist, Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro (Nic Cage). He's on the take, and exhibits personal/political aspirations to become mayor of New Jersey's "sin city".

While on the job (and hustling...) at a soon-to-be-scuttled boxing colosseum, Rick must unexpectedly contend with a high-profile homicide (the murder of a government official...) during a televised prize fight. Suddenly, Rick finds himself thrust into the spotlight: first championed as a hero of the people and then quickly derided and spit out by the Millennium-era Media's ubiquitous "spin." Ultimately (as the movie ends...), he goes to jail...

One day a hero, the next day a louse? Now ask yourself -- thinking in terms of the 1990s -- what famous figure does that sound like?

The Rules of Spin: Santoro, The Media and The Truth

Give yourself three points if you thought immediately of our 42nd President, William Jefferson Clinton.

In 1998, Bill Clinton had recently won re-election to the White House, but was dealing not only with an ascendant Republican Party in Congress, but the "new" 24-hours-a-day cable TV news cycle that introduced Fox News, Laura Ingraham, Anne Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and other prominent right-wing commentators eager to take him down.

But even given this dedicated cabal of Clinton-haters, the President was arguably his own worst enemy at times. By 1998, Clinton was mired down in questionable money-raising schemes from the presidential bid; specifically the raising of soft money and the "selling" of the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder (a practice continued by his successor, George W. Bush, incidentally). Even if Clinton hadn't broken any laws in his quest to retain the Presidency, he certainly skirted them, and the questionable fundraising policies of Clinton came back to injure Al Gore politically (think: Buddhist Temples and "no controlling legal authority").

But more importantly, by 1996 the average American was witnessing the protean stage of a corporate news media that had abdicated a responsibility to the truth. Instead of reporting facts, news programs now featured a representative from each political "side" arguing talking points and promoting partisan spin. Spin, of course, is the cherry-picking of data, the manipulation of facts and the pushing of, essentially, propaganda. The Clinton-Dole election was one of the first salvos in the new"spin"/"sound-byte" sweepstakes. Or as I call it, short attention span political theater.

All of this context finds unexpected voice in in 1998's Snake Eyes. In this labyrinthine film, the truth is difficult to discern, and spin is everything. For example, in the film's first shot, a news-reporter (on-camera) is actually asked to "spin" an approaching hurricane(!) so an not to jeopardize the audience for the prize fight. The word has come down from HQ that it isn't a hurricane at all (despite the physical evidence)...it's...a tropical storm.

Then, after the assassination of Secretary of Defense, Rick's best friend, Navy man Kevin Dunne (who was in charge of security at the event...) worries that he will be blamed for the Secretary's death. Why? He was "out of position" during the assassination. Santoro, however, attempts to spin the event so that Dunne (Gary Sinise) comes out a hero.

"It isn't lying," according to the Santoro Manifesto: "You just tell them what you did right and leave out the rest," he tells Dunne. This parsing of the truth very much fits in with Clinton's grand jury testimony of the year 1999 (in the Monica Lewinsky affair...) wherein the President suggested his answers were meant to be "truthful, but not particularly helpful."

Santoro is a man who plays all the angles -- to his benefit -- but who, during the course of Snake Eyes undergoes an interesting journey. He ultimately comes to point of clarity about who he is, and what he stands for. Ironically, it becomes the task of a champion spinner to discern...the unfiltered truth. He emerges from the film bloodied and bruised and loved by few (again, not unlike Clinton), but at least he knows where he stands.


Here Comes the Pain: The Zero Gravity Flying Eye Sees All

So, in a world of pervasive spin, how do you discern the unfiltered truth? Simple answer: go to the video tape.

In Snake Eyes, De Palma orchestrates a non-stop Roshomon-esque onslaught of opposing point-of-views and flashbacks. It's so much information (and mis-information), in fact, it becomes dizzying. Some audiences and some critics weren't able to keep up with the director and his narrative.

To wit: we get Kevin Dunne's "patriotic" story of the murder (a fabric of lies). We get the perspective of a dedicated government informant and whistle-blower named Julia, played by Carla Gugino, and even the tale of the assassination as re-counted by a prize fighter, Lincoln Tyler, who threw the fight to settle his gambling debts (and unwittingly served a darker agenda in the process).

Each one of these characters, even the noble whistle-blower is vested in their perspective (proving, in classic De Palma fashion, the essential unreliability of human memory), and therefore unreliable. On several occasions, Santoro must resort to an impartial third person observer to ferret out the truth: a video camera; or rather LIVE video camera footage that captured the murderous, tricky events as they occurred.

In the first circumstance, an instant replay of footage during the boxing match reveals that Tyler threw the fight to his opponent, Ruiz. We see with our own eyes (from a high angle) as Ruiz's knock-out punch fails to connect....just seconds before the Secretary of Defense is murdered. This clue, this piece of "unspun" truth leads Santoro to a deeper revelation: someone wanted Tyler to throw the fight at a certain moment, and there were at least five people involved (and, as Santoro aptly recognizes, "five people makes a conspiracy").

Later, Santoro again utilizes live, real-time video footage to track down the missing, frightened informant (who was also targeted for assassination...), going from floor-to-floor of the colosseum/casino complex; searching for her while a friend keeps an eye on the surveillance cameras. This tracking-by-camera permits Santoro to save the informant from the conspiracy, and add sher knowledge/perspective to his own.

And finally -- and most importantly -- Santoro discovers the "Zero Gravity Flying Eye," a "new" camera that was not known to the members of the conspiracy when the scheme was hatched. This gadget captures the real culprit on tape, and exposes him to Santoro. Again, raw, un-manipulated videotape (or footage) holds the key to resolving the crime. Importantly, the film's villain also lives and dies by the sword of the "public" eye/camera. After presiding over a press conference packed with lies and manipulation, Dunne is eventually exposed by live news footage, in the process of trying to kill Santoro. It's an act you can't spin.

The camera is clearly a double-edged sword in Snake Eyes. If people know they are on camera; they are spinners, Snake Eyes seems to assert. If not, the camera can, perhaps, "capture" the truth. Underneath all these video images (lies and truth), De Palma does something else tricky: he girds Snake Eyes with iconic symbols of America; or of America gone wrong. These representations niclude a giant American flag in the colosseum (shades of Blow Out [1981]). Old Glory presides over the assassination of a patriot without protest or stain. Later, a patriotic "Millennium Globe" rolls off its perch, indicating also that something is off-kilter here. And most importantly, we keep seeing (over and over...) a dollar bill stained with blood...literally blood-money. Here, the American dollar is the thing that leads our characters astray...and away from morality.

Snake Eyes, a film noir set against the backdrop of incessant rain, is another De Palma venture in which form strongly reflects content. As described above, the truth is difficult to discern, and motivations are difficult, even impossible, to read. Accordingly De Palma provides us split screens at crucial moments in the narrative, fracturing the "truth" with double perspectives (much like the right/left dividing screens we see displayed on programs like Hardball or Hannity).

Furthermore, De Palma charts Santoro's morally ambiguous position in this dizzying world of spin with winding, careening, darting, long-shots (particularly the famous, eight minute shot which opens the film). We watch Santoro navigate a location that is, visually, a maze, and that locale is a perfect reflection of his situation and of American politics in the 1990s (and even today). There's no way out; the maze is a trap for everyone in it. The film ultimately asks a very relevant and difficult moral question too. Who is worse? The sleazy guy on the take in matters of money, or the outwardly "respectable" patriotic man who lies about matters of life and death and murders innocent people to benefit from war profiteering?

Snake Eyes underwent a tumultuous editing process in the lead up to release. In particular, a scene involving a tidal wave striking the casino (and nearly drowning Santoro) was entirely deleted from the final cut, a fact which makes the movie's final act seem a little anti-climactic to some. But this shake-up hardly matters because Snake Eyes, especially in that first act, remains an example of exhilirating filmmaking. Critic Nathan Rubin wrote: "The first hour or so of Snake Eyes...are as good as anything De Palma has done. That hour exhibits a joy in the possibilities of film not seen since Paul Thomas Anderson's similarly masterful Boogie Nights."

Writing for The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted, with some insight, that Snake Eyes, "becomes a hyperventilating inquiry into the limits of friendship and loyalty and what constitutes character."

What constitutes character? In so many ways, that fascinating question is the real story of the Clinton Era and the American 1990s (as well as Bush's time in office afterwards; the Republican "answer" to that query).

And as usual, De Palma was ahead of his time in asking it.