Sunday, May 28, 2017


Music fan or lyrics fan? We humans are a nasty bunch and like seeing people join lines. One of them is saying something like: music is the pure expression of the emotions. The other: the music wouldn't be there if the words weren't, they guide the music. I'm in the first line. I love religious music from the Renaissance. It's often only vocal but the words can never mean much to me because they are (a) religious and (b) usually in Latin. But the music can lift my heart with every play.

The recent hefty four episode beginning of the Twin Peaks reboot has seen the sides drawn up along similar lines. Some want more of the quirky dark of the original series and others, like me, could not be more pleased at the intensity of the new vision. I think there's a way between and I think that it will only come to those who wait.

The common wisdom of the first run of Twin Peaks is that it was a compelling mystery until the killer was outed and then just turned whacky, lost its way and tried, like fruit trees at the end of their lives, to give as much as possible at the last moment. The suits at the network forced the big answer out of Lynch and Frost and the vacuum left in the wake was all quirk and cuteness. Windom Earle wasn't scary enough to darken the froth. There was a lot of plot, more than the first season, but the music had gone soft.

And then came the finale in the red room, both white and black lodges depending on how courageous you felt. The red curtains, zigzag floor pattern were lit a little too high but the events and dialogue gave out a lot of lovely slippery unreality that ended with the worst that could happen. Come back, Dave, all is forgiven. But that was it and the David Lynch, whose name was known after Blue Velvet and had become an adjective after Twin Peaks was, to the best reckoning of the mainstream, as much a one-hit wonder as Men Without Hats.

Now he's back, they're back, it is hap-en-ning ag-gain. A call back from the finale between Cooper and Laura repeats the promise of the return in twenty-five years. A sombre version of the opening credits sequence plays out with the familiar twang of the theme and we're in. Well, we're somewhere. Black and white. The giant gives an aged Cooper a few cryptic pointers. There's a little bit of the old Twin Peaks world but everything has changed. No one comes into the diner yodelling about pie and coffee. Mostly, the Coop, still bad from the finale but gnarled by age and evil, is loose in the land. He enters in a car the way his good self did at the very beginning but it's in a nightscape with an ugly rock remix blasting. The good self is back in the lodge getting schooled in the situation. There's a murder case somewhere else and a dismal room in Manhattan with a glass box surrounded by electronics. We're in deep.

Which is the problem for a fair few on the social media commentariat. We get four hours of this bleakness, these strange settings (even in an infinite starfield in one scene), scary looking beings appearing and disappearing and some industrial strength ugliness. So where are the cute teens, snappy one-liner dialogue between the worldly and corrupt adults and the cosy unease? Where, also, is the story that we are might cling to? Who is the protagonist? Have we waited this long for such a mess of hints of greatest hits and stale whimsy served as fresh?

Well, that's what I've been reading, not seeing on the screen. I enjoyed seeing the brothers Horne again as well as the life at the station. But I LOVED the new lodge sequences, the unnerving new places and soundscapes. Yes, a lot of it seems disjointed and chaotic but I won't have try-hard or cheap surrealism flung at it. Why? Because a very clear arc is forming with two opposing forces in places as dark and nasty as where the original series left off. Did anyone really expect Cooper to get over the state he was in as though it were a head cold? There's a lot of climbing back to do and it has to start in some ugly places. That is actually as true to the original series as we could have hoped, at least initially.

Also, Lynch has done a fair few films since the early nineties and with one exception they have been getting increasingly intense with a lightless Twin Peaks prequel and three tilts at extreme fugue states, ending in his toughest since Eraserhead with Inland Empire. If anything, the pleasanter, familiar moments in the new series seem like the anomalies.

Another aspect I'm enjoying is the sense of the swansong happening here. There are aesthetic nods to everything Lynch has done from his student films to his painting and sculpture. There are even things taken from unproduced projects: the identity confusion in one thread owes a lot to the goofy One Saliva Bubble and there are plenty of glints and ideas from Ronnie Rocket. Lynch has declared that he and cinema are done and that this would be it forever. Like the scenes in the original finale that repeated moments from the pilot we are seeing Lynch stroll around his works and recall moments that are then mixed into the business at hand.

If you want energetic plotting you should remind yourself of the restless narrative threads of the second season of the original series which became all plot without point. Or you could revisit the alien conspiracy arc of the X-Files which stoushed any slight answer with louder questions. Or the entire run of Lost. You might want to remind yourself that one season of Breaking Bad kept inserting images of stuffed toys in a swimming pool which went unexplained until the final episode. You might recall that the great Mad Men more than once ended its seasons on notes so down they felt like second-last scenes. Remember the finale of the Sopranos? I mean the very very last minute or so. The golden age of television which followed Twin Peaks (and contributed to its birth and character) changed the game to include a lot of variety of approach. Still want fun quirk and stories? Take a look at Fargo or Mozart in the Jungle. They do both as a matter of course and are really, really good at them. This Twin Peaks isn't like that because it can't be ... yet.

But what about all that weird imagery, all that cod surrealism? Isn't that just a big wanky time waste? Not to me but I don't think of it that way. I also don't think of David Lynch movies as weird. First, when I see the eyeless woman in the purple room who tries with pathetic grunts to prevent Cooper from opening a door I see someone who is frightened. The scene is arrestingly strange but has a clear internal logic. As with all the more intense Lynch stuff, if you think it's alienating or baffling, clock the emotion and follow that (there is always clear emotion in a Lynch scene, overblown or not but always); it will pretty much always take you somewhere. A viewing of Inland Empire might be too big an ask but try a few scenes of it with this in mind and leave off trying to interpret symbolism and see how you get on with it that way (it might well still seem like crap but nothing's for everyone).

Second, I see scenes like that and want to walk around in them. Lynch's style is, for me at least, powerfully imaginative. When I saw the red room sequence in the advanced pilot for the original series (released on VHS rental here in 1990), as much as I enjoyed the loopy dialogue or noirish atmosphere of the main body I wanted as much of the series to come to be set in that curtained place where people say things backwards and origami birds fly past as shadows through the curtains. When the show turned out to be as conventional as it was I got into it but felt let down. And then when it went goofy it lost me. The music faded and the words bred like insects. Then the finale happened and things got back to where I wanted. And then it ended. Now it's back and where I wanted it to be, heavy on imagination with some pleasant call backs.

You want plot and the spirit of the old show? I think you'll get both. We have a tale that has drawn battle lines in the first few scenes and developed them already. The character interaction in the perceptibly real world is plausible and the look and feel of the world beyond life and death (as the finale was later titled for broadcast) plays by rules we can follow if we note how events affect their inhabitants. I believe that it's clear that these forces (the manifestations of Cooper and whatever else is in there) will converge and will most probably face off in the town of Twin Peaks. We have only seen the stirring in the murk where we had left off and there is still most of the series to come. Meantime, I have all the music I can eat.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: NERUDA

1948 and the government of Chile is cracking down on a very active left. Prominent communist senator and renowned poet Pablo Neruda is targeted as a high profile threat. He flees the city with his wife, detective Oscar Peluchonneau in pursuit. This reads like a decent enough thriller with some added spice from the historical basis. But this is a film by Pablo Larrain and we've been here before.

His No, an account of the Chilean referendum that brought Pinochet's regime to an end was a fraught blend of menace and the day to day. The more recent Jackie used a familiar historical story to pose questions about the public face with a clever literalism. Neruda gives us a popular figure, showing both his heroic persona and private hedonism, a bourgeois communist who revels in his stardom while hoping that his vanity doesn't obscure his political commitment. This tension is admired by his pursuer (an intense Gael Garcia Bernal) who uses his fascination with Neruda as a spur in the chase.

I say chase but the action is very deliberately kept at a low priority. We are not following a hunt but examining both hunter and hunted as players. Oscar is self conscious. While we see much of Neruda in his various roles from public orator to private sensualist it is the policeman's voice that guides us. Oscar's narration is the first voice we hear in the film and his voiceover is the constant in a constantly shifting visual field. He describes his actions as a novelist might (a good detective does this or a clever detective thinks this) and we think of him as having the same vanity as his quarry until the possibility that he is only quoting the Neruda paperback that he carries constantly. The pursuit itself is a fiction no more intended to serve as biography than Jackie. We're here to watch the game and think about what it is to play a starring role in public life and if we as its pursuers might not aspire to something more impressive than a supporting character.

Larrain makes a lot of use of a strange technique whereby a single dialogue is given a number of settings uninterrupted. One moment Oscar is talking to Neruda's mistress on the terrace of her mountain villa but an answering line is delivered across a dining table. The next might be back on the terrace or in the street. While Larrain offers this blatantly he suggests little as to why. I had the feeling that it was akin to how individually art-directed our recollections of encounters and conversations can be, where we stand within them (momentously silhouetted by a window or warmly lit by oil lamps in an Andean tent) as leads, supports, or just extras. It is given gently and perhaps it or something like it is necessitated by the suppression of the chase narrative. If nothing else we are confronted with its reminder of the fiction of what we are seeing.

I watch Larrain's political biographies and I think of how much I prefer them to the Oliver Stone approach of locker-room home truths and pushed reconstructions. Stone slaps us with his verity, giving us no time to question it (well, we did ask him to do that when we bought the ticket). Larrain assumes we know something of the story he tells (or at least its nature as in the detective story in Neruda) and asks us in to chat about the things he has found while telling it. Watching this film I thought of The Conformist and from before it Alphaville and how much I have missed such a blend of art and politics. Don't be fooled by the trailer that wants you to think of it as a high cal thriller. It's much better than that.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Review: GET OUT

A young couple prepare to spend the weekend at her parents' house in the country. He, Chris, is troubled as he suspects she, Rose, has not told them that he's black. She assures him that they will be fine and, reluctantly, he goes along with it. They head off in her car and hit a deer along the way. After an uncomfortable encounter with a local cop who pays more attention that he should to Chris they arrive at the family seat and experience a series of awkward dad-meets-boyfriend moments blended with the kind of soft-faced patronising racism that only the one percent can perform in the belief that its undetectable.

Where we started as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner but we are very swiftly transported to the soil from which grew Rosemary's Baby or the Stepford Wives as the local gentry gather to prod, condescend to and frankly evaluate the newcomer. If his encounters with the African American domestic staff have come off as unnerving his meeting with the sole black guest at a garden party is solidly eerie. The mounting alienation and measured discomfort are not about to abate at any time soon. What has he got himself into?

This sci-horror fable of race relations is candid about its ancestry, eschewing contemporary irony in favour of a direct linear ride through a grim moral landscape. While I at first baulked at the literal orchestral music cues with their menacing strings and brass it soon became apparent that they were fitting very snugly in with the scheme and I was able to relax and let it take me where it would. While there are no Shyamalanian twists or thunderous revelations in the third act Get Out uses its relatively simple path to immerse us in its concentrated abstraction of the experience of the outsider and the disturbing lack of social progress it witnesses.

As the film is so doggedly single-tracked and big-themed the care in the casting must rate more highly than the writing. Londoner Daniel Kaluuya brings a brooding malcontent restrained by social skill. When he breaks it is in tight step with the narrative and avoids clunky foreshadowing. The rapport between him and Allison Williams as the central couple has a breezy and intimidating fleetness. When she must change her demeanour towards the final act its ice is weighty for the contrast. Caleb Landry Jones brings the same baby Brad Dourif tenterhooked edge he brought to Antiviral. Bradley Whitford maintains a suave but barely veiled hostility throughout as Rose's father. And then there's Catherine Keener, genuinely scary as she presents a maternal face that contains a pair of contemptuous eyes. So, good cast, good idea with a firm helm: does it work?

Because of the intentional one-note execution the mood of this film can take a little acclimatisation. I can easily imagine some folk judging it to be hollow, wanting more of a balance after the onslaught of genteel hostility that envelopes Chris, more of a turn to the tables. But I don't think that's on the agenda here. If we want our experience of this failed acculturation is it not better to take that imbalance from the experience? If the big music scoring and obvious genre tropes leave us in no doubt as to the purpose of the film might that not also work to give us pause to consider its motivation? This is an angry film. How wonderful, then, to find that anger served with such effortless skill. Sometimes we just need to feel the discomfort and if this film tells us repeatedly that we're allowed to .....