Twin Peaks: Paradise Lost

Cosmic spoilers below.

The original Twin Peaks was martyred. The first season had been a cultural sensation and a ratings hit. These successes seemed to indicate that, after forty years of suckling on pap from the boob tube, the public was ready to come home to something more challenging. But then network executives compelled the show’s creators, Mark Frost and David Lynch, to reveal who killed Laura Palmer; the Nielsens slid; the time slot shifted; and ABC pulled the plug. Lynch was in the wilderness for few years, but leaned back into his film career, and enjoyed acclaim in a medium that was better suited to his avant-gardism. The series he’d co-created, however, died for the sin of corporate philistinism. Commerce got in the way of art; a venal industry robbed the people of the nourishment they craved. But there’d be no legend if the show had died in vain. Instead, the golden age of television grew like flowers out of Laura Palmer’s grave. Twin Peaks begat The X-Files which begat Breaking Bad. A quarter-century later, art can declare victory.

That’s the legend, at least.

“What year is this?” is the last thing that Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) says in Twin Peaks: The Return. The lights in the house that once belonged to the Palmer family are abruptly snuffed out; a woman who may or may not be the rescued Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) hears that name echo and screams; and the whole universe judders back into unreality. In effect, Frost and Lynch have rejected martyrdom.

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A Ghost Story

The proliferation of streaming services and prestige TV may have the old business models shaking in their boots, but these chilling trends have fringe benefits. Namely, movies, in mysadly limitedexperience, are getting weirder. I have bellyached at length about the lobotomy of “weird” on the global-market scale, where weird is just a synonym for novelty. But there’s a flip-side: indies that don’t compete with a world that drains our attention spans, but create new experiences to contemplate it.

Case in point: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Maybe it’s because I just saw Stalker (1979), but this film reminded me of Tarkovsky not just in its long, long takes, but in the muddy delta its streams of consciousness form. The glue between the ideas is pure intuition, so the movie reads like a collation of thoughts and feelings: a tone poem rather than a statement. And where Tarkovsky made his movies dense, both visually and verbally, Texas makes this one plain and lucent. The director, who lives in Dallas, has delivered something that’s tonally in between The Tree of Life (set in Houston) and Boyhood (set in Austin). Even its bouts of pretension seem homey.

The wisp of a plot is an inversion of the traditional ghost story: in this telling, the dead person is haunted. After moving into an unprepossessing ranch house with Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck gets into a car accident and makes her a widow. (I’m guessing here; their marital status is undefined.) Sporting the sheet that covered him at the morgue, he watches his beloved grieve and eventually move onfrom their home, if not from him. He stays behind, as marooned from his past as he is moored to it.

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The Little Hours

The two best things in The Little Hours, among many, many good ones, are Aubrey Plaza’s provocations and Dave Franco’s reactions. The latter plays a peasant who flees his manor after being caught in a tryst with its horny chatelaine. He takes refuge at a convent, where he quenches the thirst of its repressed residents. Cloaked in her habit, Plaza has the enigmatic glare of a Madonnaseething at a distance. The second she’s wrested from a moment of reflection, she becomes fiercely present and goes medieval. If Franco resembles a work of art, it’s because he’s ripped like the cover of a paperback. He has the four-pack of a Fabio and eyes that are equal parts amused and bemused by the attention that endowment brings.

Taking off from a 14th-century farce by Boccaccio, Jeff Baena’s direction and Quyen Tran’s photography stick to the period, continuously refreshing the joke: the dialogue and performances are profanely contemporary. The director’s screenplay eschews slang and modern references, so the central anachronism is the premise itself: that nuns in a convent would have all the itches and urges of bunkmates at a summer camp, their superiors no closer to God than a counselor-in-training. Blasphemy is just an ancestor of teen angst; torture a detention; and fornication a broken curfew.

If the movie itself is blasphemous, it is because it assumes that those who were drawn to the monastic life weren’t all saints; many weren’t drawn at all, but pulled in like workers consigned to middle management. (Alison Brie plays a preppy nun who’s stranded in celibacy because her dadPaul Reiser in a nifty cameobribes the Church with donations. Later on, Fred Armisen shows up as the frazzled bureaucrat who accepts the kickbacks.) But that is the extent of the clerical satire. Mostly, it’s carnal mischiefthe kind of vibe that used to be called “naughty” by people who don’t get out muchwith a pace that rolls like the Tuscan pastures, and leisurely performances from comedic actors at the top of their game.

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Uninformed Oscar Opinions: 2017

Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, the best two of the paltry five Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, are twin lamentations: the first, bleakly cold, white, and northern; the second, sensuously warm, black, and southern. Both deal with coastal inhabitants that hardly qualify as “élite.” Despite the settinga haven for old money on the North Shore of Massachusettsthe Chandler family in Manchester by the Sea has the sweat stains of the white working class we’re hearing so much about these days; they’re as straight and white as Chiron, from South Florida, is gay and black. And though the Atlantic has thematic significance to both, one imagines that these sets of characters would be two ships in the night, never passing nor considering one another, save for at Oscar time. That is to say, these Americans would have no rapport with one another except with a screen as mediator, and that says as much about the simultaneous importance and irrelevance of the Academy Awards in these parlous times as anything else does.

I’m even less qualified than usual to make sweeping judgments this cycle. Given the load of symbolic bricks weighted to the decision, I’m as curious as anyone to see what title is pulled from the envelope. Picking La La Land would, in any other year, be the neutral, inoffensive choiceit’s a shiny lollipop of a movie that will get just as many musicals green-lighted as The Artist churned out silent pictures. And yet, in Trumpistan, honoring such a white-telephone movie would seem very Vichy indeed. Manchester might be dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Casey Affleck, but if voters can forgive Mel Gibson, whose fall was far more public (and whose entry, Hacksaw Ridge, is pleasantly old-fashioned but not nearly as remarkable), who knows? Is Moonlight toowelp“intersectional”? (Few films pair an artist’s eyes with a social worker’s mentality as fluidly as it does, even if the sociology crowds out the dramaturgy from time to time.) Would a nod in that direction be taken to mean that Hollywood is standing up to social-progress whiplash or confirming that it’s “out of touch” with “regular Americans” (mediaspeak for folks like the Chandlers)?

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The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.

Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and wellto the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.

Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.

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Embrace of the Serpent

The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.

At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong moviesincluding Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of Godare conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beachedVietnam in the first example and the Andes in the secondthe narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.

The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.

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45 Years

A few years ago, a spate of critically-acclaimed prestige pictures like No Country for Old Men were scrapping from simple, grisly horror films like Halloween. The difference was the objective. Whereas slashers aimed for the gut, these “psychological thrillers” aimed for the head. The problem is that their aim was way off. A man chasing you with a knife doesn’t give you much to think about; it’s why he’s chasing you that does (though it’s probably not worth dwelling on unless you can take a breather).

If you shovel it out from under its pretensions, No Country is effective in a campfire-story sort of way, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has its anthropological merits. But these movies’ overwhelming acclaim could, in large measure, be attributed to intellectual pettifogging—Black Swan had me gagging on its existential feathers. (Risible though it was, I can’t hold the film responsible for the grotesque review it wrenched out of me.)

In short, the essential sham of the horror-chic cycle was that it tried to claim depth by wallowing in the ineffable: Chigurh was a monster born of our suspicion that human life is meaningless. He killed people because … the universe. Depending on your perspective, No Country is the statement on the human condition or a cop-out that sidesteps anything so frivolous as character motivation or a serious view of life from the ground. The thing is, thrilling is easy—it’s the psychological part that’s hard.

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