Friday, April 09, 2010

Twin Peaks Turns 20

This week, David Lynch's groundbreaking ABC series Twin Peaks (1990 - 1991) turns twenty. As someone who watched the series when it was first broadcast, I find it almost impossible to believe so much time has passed. I remember that era like it was yesterday.

One great way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an inititative that changed the face of dramatic television forever is to head on over to J.D.'s great blog, RADIATOR HEAVEN, where the author and film scholar is presenting "Twin Peaks Tribute Week." There, you can see some of the author's favorite images from the series and read his excellent retrospective of Lynch's program.

Also, to honor the series and its place in pop culture, here's a snippet from my review/flashback of Twin Peaks' pilot episode.

"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."

And finally, my review of the derided (but I think brilliant and captivating) Twin Peaks feature film, 1992's Fire Walk with Me:

"David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. We seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever."

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Theme Song of the Week: Princes of the Universe

CULT TV BLOGGING: V: "Pound of Flesh"

Well, I suspect this is going to be my final episode review of the new V series, unless it unexpectedly takes a dramatic upswing in quality.

I'll keep watching for a while longer, but I just don't know that I need to devote space on the blog here to a TV series that is pitched so bloody low. And, I don't see any point in slamming someone else's hard work every single week and wallowing in negativity. I'd rather write about TV shows and movies I actually do like.

But okay, for the record, "Pound of Flesh" involves, primarily, the development of the Fifth Column. Turns out that these renegade Visitors are mysteriously developing human emotions and more than that, learning to reject Anna's narcotic "bliss." Upset, Anna devises a test (using herself as a baseline) in which she can test the Vs for human emotions. Those that fail the test get skinned.

Meanwhile, Ryan needs phosphorous for his pregnant human girlfriend, and dovetails that personal necessity with a mission to embed a message of resistance ("John May Lives!") in Anna's live, global announcement of the new "Live Aboard" program. In an another subplot. Erica takes her son, Tyler, to go live with his father...Krycek! Actually, it's Nicholas Lea, looking like he hasn't aged a day since The X-Files last aired.

I tried hard to pay attention to all the narrative details of "Pound of Flesh" but I was constantly distracted and rendered aghast by the terrible green-screening and digital sets of the mother ship corridors and chambers. I mean, judging by this episode, V doesn't actually feature any standing sets for the Visitors' headquarters. I was mesmerized as Ryan boarded the Mother ship and obvious matte-lines surrounded him for minute after minute. At the very least, I suppose this approach saves money, but visually it's dreadful.

Last week I noted that Erica was beginning to annoy me, and this week I have to say the same for Ryan. Ryan (Morris Chestnut) is supposed to be one tough reptile. I mean, he's been living among the human race in secret for years, even developing a steady relationship with a human female. He must be one hell of an infiltrator, right? Well, not according to "Pound of Flesh," during which -- both times at the Visitor checkpoint; boarding and leaving the Mother ship -- he is recognized by Vs as appearing out-of-place. Go back and watch those scenes: for some reason Chestnut plays it like he's on the verge of chewing his fingernails off. He looks totally suspicious and out-of-place, when, as a long-standing undercover agent, he should be cool as a cucumber. It's an odd acting choice, and makes no sense given the character's history under "deep cover."

Then there's Georgie, who impulsively decides, because Ryan has been on the mother ship for a few hours, to mount a bloody rescue. So he boards the ship, stabs a Visitor in the back, and promptly gets apprehended by the Vs. Now, this opens up whole worlds of problems. First, and again, V plays the Resistance fighters as impulsive nutcases who threaten the very movement by their irrationality and quick-action. Does Georgie think, for a minute, that the Visitors won't be able to probe his mind, or torture him for information about his fellow rebels?

I shouldn't be too hard on Georgie. Given Ryan's inexplicably twitchy behavior on the Mother ship -- in what should have been an easy mission for a deep-cover agent -- I guess Georgie really did need to do some rescuing. But now, everyone needs to go back aboard the Mother ship to rescue him. D'oh!

I also have some difficulty with the utter lameness of the embedded message that sabotages Anna. "John May lives?" To the human masses, that mean absolutely nada. Other embedded messages that would have been more effective: "The Vs are lying." "The Vs are Reptiles." "Don't Trust Them!" or even "Anna is a Socialist." The Resistance members said it themselves: they had this one opportunity to surprise Anna and send a message to the people of the world. They chose to direct their message only at The Fifth Column Members (the only people who know who the heck John May is). But, it seems to me, if they had sent a message like one of the ones I suggested above, the Fifth Column would still know something was up, and the sound-byte would have had the added benefit of also arousing human suspicions.

But again, I have found that I can't watch V with an engaged mind, because nothing about the series stands up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. Last week, in the comments section here, we all noted the show seemed geared toward ten year-olds. But I think that assessment is too generous by four or five years.

Sayonara, Anna...enjoy your invasion.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Highlander (1986)

A visually-dazzling cinematic example of Joseph Campbell's mono myth, "the Heroic Journey," Russell Mulcahy's 1986 fantasy Highlander spawned three movie sequels, a popular TV series, and a generation of devoted fans.

Yet today, what remains most memorable about this fast-moving, epic adventure is that it derives tremendous energy from its historical context; from both the prevailing "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s and the connected fin-de-siecle movement, which a careful viewer can also detect in other genre pieces of the age.

In short, Mulcahy's film proposes the idea of a secret society living amongst us, so-called "princes of the universe" (according to the amazing soundtrack lyrics by Queen) who -- for good or evil -- will proves the"rulers" of us all.

Highlander stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, an apparently normal Scottish man living in 1536 when he learns, simply, that he cannot be killed so long as his head remains lodged atop his neck. He is immortal.

Some years later, after Connor has been banished from his clan for being "in league with the devil," the bewildered immortal finds love with an innocent maiden named Heather (Beatie Edney). His peaceful sanctuary is soon shattered by the arrival of a mentor named Ramirez (Sean Connery), who explains to him the ways of the world. The so-called "Highlander" (MacLeod) is one of a small band of immortals fated to clash in an upcoming competition called "The Gathering." Because there "can be only one," the last surviving immortal will be given a great gift after decapitating his final competitor. When "the Gathering" will actually occur is anyone's best guess; and the exact nature of the "gift" is also undetermined.

Across the centuries, Connor adopts new identities so as not to arouse the suspicion of society at-large, occasionally battling other immortals and, upon their decapitation, absorbing their energy. Among the immortals is a Russian devil called "The Kurgan" (Clancy Brown), a giant brute also known as "The Black Knight" and rumored to be the strongest of all immortals. If The Kurgan should claim the prize at the conclusion of the Gathering, mankind will suffer for all eternity under his dominion.

In 1985 New York City, Connor (under the alias Russell Nash) is apprehended by the police at Madison Square Garden, after a decapitated body is discovered there. A lovely police investigator -- and expert in ancient metallurgy -- Brenda J. Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), begins to suspect that there is more to Connor than meets the eye. And finally, the Gathering looms...

An Irresistible Pull to a Faraway Land, Or Tonight You Sleep in Hell: New York as The Battleground of the Apocalypse

"The Gathering" of Highlander occurs in The Big Apple of 1985, smack dab in the Death Metal movement in rock music, and the punk aesthetic and resurgence in popular fashion.

In terms of the latter, think combat boots, studded belts, mohawk hair-cuts, and body art (or self-mutilation?) in the shape of tattoos and piercings.

In terms of the former, middle-class American parents worried about their troubled 1980s teens listening to Death Metal music and gleaning Satanic messages out of it (consider the suicide of two teens in 1985 after purportedly hearing subliminal Satanic messages in a Judas Priest album played backwards...)

What was the source of the tremendous nihilism and cynicism in the American culture that gave rise to this particular branch of pop-culture? Well, even people in authority apparently felt that the end of the world was nigh. America in the early span of the 1980s was enmeshed in a deep economic recession, locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our elected government saw Armageddon around every corner.

On the campaign trail in 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan had noted (to televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker) that ours "might be the generation" that sees the Biblical Judgment Day. His belief was reinforced in a People Magazine interview in December 1983 when the Gipper noted that the eighties were "the first time in history" that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true. Even President Reagan's appointed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, didn't believe the world was going to last. On February 5, 981, he said that America's natural resources didn't necessarily have to be safeguarded by government because he did not know "how many more future generations" could be counted on before "the Lord Returns."

Again, these were elected government officials making claims about the pending end of the world. So throw in TV movies such as The Day After (1984), Reagan's joke about bombing Russia in "five minutes" and it is no wonder that America's pop culture (especially genre films) became virtually-obsessed with the End of Life as We Know it. It wasn't the Millennium yet, but the year 1999 wasn't that far away either, and many people wondered if humanity was going to make it to the next century. As a culture, we obsessed on death, on the end of civilization, on self-destruction.

Highlander deals with the idea of an apocalypse rendered personal. Two warriors clash, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The Kurgan, remember, hails from Reagan's "Evil Empire," Russia, and battles the West, as represented by Connor. The Highlander may not be American by birth, but he's close enough, and he certainly shares our values (-- even rescuing an endangered Jewish child from evil Nazis, during one scene set in World War II.)

Moreover, the Kurgan has embraced the "death" culture he sees around him in New York City of 1985, reveling in contemporary music, black leather, and other forms of the day. A wound on his neck is highlighted by a ring of metallic clothes-pins, an affectation to make ugliness not merely noticeable, but perhaps even beautiful, at least in the 1980s configuration of that concept.

Outside the 1980s configuration, and in direct opposition to the Kurgan, Connor is a man not of the 1980s. As a man of a different age, a man of wisdom who has lived a dozen life-times, he is associated not with popular fads or trends of the times, but, in fact, with art itself; with a kind of timeless quality. In one seamless scene transition, we see Connor's face dissolve into the face of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, a signifier that this protagonist represents what is best -- and lasting -- in human nature.

As "The Gathering" nears, the human race has reached a point of decay and self-destruction. It was primitive and superstitious when Connor's clan banished him from home in 1536, but the New York of 1985 as depicted in the film is positively "one step beyond," to quote a police detective (John Polito). It's a culture that has, literally, embraced death. Graffiti dots almost every wall and surface you'll see in the film (from the parking garage in Madison Square Garden to the avenue where the Kurgan ambushes Connor and Brenda, pictured-above), and punks and armed survivalists seem to roam the streets by night.

Look closely at the film, and you'll see that Mulcahy adopts a low-angle perspective for many important sequences too. Oftentimes, a low-angle viewpoint makes a figure in frame seem menacing or over sized (and indeed, we often see the Kurgan in this fashion). However, low-angles can achieve something else too. They render visible the ceilings above characters, essentially "boxing" characters into their worlds . This is also a technique David Fincher utilized heavily in Alien 3 (1992) as well, showing us the limit of the sky, so-to-speak, generating claustrophobia.

In Highlander, we get low-angle views of decaying police station interiors, over-stuffed hospitals, parking garages, and more. The idea is that the characters in the drama are literally "boxed in" by urban blight; by a rotting infrastructure that is no longer being updated, tended to, or fortified. And, indeed, that was a hallmark of Reagan's 1980s era too: his "shining city" was actually falling apart (especially after a 40% cut in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during his second term.)

In the rain-swept back-alleys, fluorescent subterranean parking decks and sleazy motels of Highlander, the battle for mankind's future is being waged, almost unnoticed by the affluent "ruling class." The Gathering (and a new dawn) can't come a moment to soon.

It's important to note that Highlander isn't the only film of this vintage to suggest that the displaced, the disenfranchised will fight against forces of darkness in these anonymous places, unnoticed by society at large. Consider Kyle Reese of The Terminator (1984), hiding out in motels, wandering dark alleys, battling an over-sized nemesis to protect mankind's very future. Like Connor MacLeod, Kyle Reese is a 1980s-styled knight, his suit of armor, a trench-coat. Other films, such as John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) also put the future on the line in out-of-the-way, unseen places, with the homeless, the street people involved in the war in some important capacity. The same director's They Live (1988) covers some of the same territory as well.

Why did this idea have so much currency in mid-1980s science fiction and fantasy cinema? I've written about it here before, but perhaps it was because the ranks of the homeless grew so dramatically in the 1980s. There were 35 million more homeless in 1983 than when Reagan took office in 1981, for example. And the gap between the rich and the poor widened to its greatest level since the Great Depression under Reagan's "new federalism." And by 1984, 13 million American children lived below the poverty line.

More simply, perhaps the battle for the future often fell to outsiders in 1980s genre films because Americans had lost faith in once-respected institutions, and felt that those who were materially-wealthy (yuppies) were not going to be the ones to champion a change in the status quo. That job would fall on the disenfranchised, those with a stake in change. Those above ground (in Madison Square Garden, for instance, to get back to Highlander) were too busy being distracted by bread & circuses, by the fake combat of entertainment such as professional wrestling.

But a close viewing of Highlander reveals that it is indeed a film about a cycle coming to an end. The outcome of the Gathering stops mankind's long slide into self-destruction, and starts a new day. It is no accident that the final scene of the film finds Connor in a pastoral, natural setting...far from the city where the last battle was fought. Or that Connor's gift is that he can gaze into the minds of "leaders" and see "what they are thinking." That the Gathering has given him the capacity to forge a new world peace between warring countries. Since Connor has won the "prize," he will save humanity from itself; from the destruction the world feared was coming within this "last generation."

Why Does The Sun Come Up? The Heroic Journey in Highlander

Writing about the human experience, Joseph Campbell identified several aspects of the hero's journey, a mono-myth found in virtually all cultures.

Not unlike Star Wars, Highlander fits that template perfectly. For instance, Campbell wrote about the "call to adventure" and the "refusal of the call," and we see that dynamic played out dramatically in this Mulcahy film. Connor refuses to believe that he is special (an immortal), and must be booted out of his life, out of his routine, for his journey to begin. More so, when Ramirez trains him, Connor still refuses to join the battle. He is in love with Heather, and would rather build a life with her than fight the Kurgan and join the immortals. Connor does not join the battle in earnest until after Heather passes away. Only then is the call heeded.

Campbell also identified "supernatural aid" as the device by which a fledgling hero learns of his role in a great, important struggle, and trains for the fight or quest. In simple terms, Sean Connery's Ramirez is Connor's Obi-Wan Kenobi equivalent, the wise elder who reveals to him the "rules" of being a hero. For example, Connor learns from Ramirez there is no fighting permitted on Holy Ground. He also learns of the "Quickening," a feeling of being at one with nature and other life-forms (and a key to the nature of the prize at the end of the quest). And, as in all such heroic stories, the mentor must sacrifice his life so that the hero steps forward; so that the hero grows up and becomes, well, the hero.

Campbell's "road of trials" is also depicted in Highlander's narrative. Connor fights Nazis, rescues children, decapitates enemies and keeps his real nature hidden from mankind at large as he prepares to fight for Campbell's "ultimate boon" -- the very purpose of the hero's quest. The Gathering is the source of that ultimate boon, gifting Connor with the power to heal the world, to bring it back from the precipice of destruction.

Finally, Connor emerges from the Gathering as "the Master of Two Worlds" (he has conquered his personal demons, and is now fully human, able to have children; plus he will use his gift to forge peace as a world leader). And also, free of the "Gathering" Connor experiences (at least until the unnecessary sequel...) Campbell's "Freedom to Live," to be his own man. His life need no longer be consumed with violence and death. With Brenda, we are led to believe, he will live a life of "love," a life of growing old; a life with children.

By mirroring the Campbell-style heroic journey, Highlander presents the audience a classic champion; one who is not concerned with petty, material things, but who takes the long-view of history. Connor has known the loss of a loved one, and the loss of entire Ages of Mankind, and is thus not concerned with the distractions of the moment. By making him a classic hero in the mold of Campbell, Highlander makes the immortal indeed feel "timeless," and bigger than the small thinking of the 1980s.

More Than One Short Moment: The Visuals of Highlander

Beyond its context, beyond its heroic structure, Highlander succeeds on the basis of its canny, artistic visuals. Late in the film, for instance, there's a wonderfully-staged shot during which The Kurgan -- the Specter of Destruction -- stands behind Connor and Brenda, unnoticed, as they converse. (See photo on the left...).

The Kurgan here is literally a shadow of death, a silhouette, stalking them (and all mankind). This is a perfect choice of visualization for the Beast: he's our own shadow of self-destruction, peering over our shoulders, threatening, if he should be victorious, to plunge us into his brand of perpetual darkness.

I've written here as well about the depiction of New York as a kind of hell on Earth in Highlander, but it's more than just the ubiquitous graffiti. It's the fact that steam seems to belch and hiss from the Earth at every opportunity; that signs of industry (like the neon SILVERCUP sign) dwarf the characters and suggest a de-personalized world; and that fluorescent lights cast a deathly, ghoulish pallor the players in the drama. Everyone walking these streets seems a ghost.

I appreciate too Mulcahy's conceit that every moment in the "now" sparks a memory from within Connor of his long past. A flashing red police siren gives way to a crimson sunset on the eve of his long-ago funeral in Scotland, for example. Or look at the early transition in the film during which we move from the Hades-like underworld of the present day Madison Square Garden parking garage -- up through the soil of the Earth itself -- into the sunshine, natural vista of Scotland in 1536. It's a return to nature, but also a return to Connor's age of innocence and naivete about the way the world works.

Even when the visuals aren't this artistically-rendered, they're still pretty damned memorable. Consider the breakaway castle walls during the explosive duel between The Kurgan and Ramirez, or the epic-nature of the scenes in which Connor and Ramirez cross steel blades atop mountaintops. And the final battle is both gorgeous and wonderfully minimalist. The Kurgan and Connor battle in an empty warehouse of vast proportions, the light from the cityscape outside behind them, pouring through an entire wall of windows. Mulcahy's camera has so much room to navigate here that he can pull back, race forward, and pan back and forth as if he's still ensconced on some natural vista. It's gorgeous camera-work, exciting choreography, and, in many ways, the film's moment of highest impact.

Highlander endures for all the reasons enumerated here. Watching it today, it does not seem to have aged, at least in terms of technique and efficiency in story-telling. There are some missteps in the film, particularly in a police investigation subplot that goes nowhere and brings little of importance to the narrative. But the overall impact of the film is still strong.

As for the sequels? Well, there should have been only one Highlander.