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The wonders of Twin Peaks

I had never seen “Twin Peaks” until two weeks ago, compelled to purchase the Definitive Gold Box Edition set solely on the strength of customer reviews and the knowledge of its cultural significance. I knew nothing about the plot, beyond the fact that it opens with the murder of a teenage girl and stars Kyle MacLachlan, and had no real idea what to expect (although I am a big fan of David Lynch’s films Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I was not disappointed. “Twin Peaks” is incredibly addictive; it’s as quirky and mind-bending as some of Lynch’s best film work, but there’s a core of relatable human truth, and it effortlessly fuses the high art and cinematography of film with the fast pace of television.

While the quest to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the driving force of the series, there are numerous subplots as well, and such is the wonderful amalgam of thriller, mystery, and soap opera parody that one begins to suspect almost everyone, and wonder how the subplots relate to the bigger storyline. Many ultimately don’t particularly have much to do with the Palmer storyline, but the guessing game is half of the fun. There are far too many memorable scenes and episodes to mention, but the first half of the series (that is, all eight episodes of the first season and the first half of season two) set a high benchmark for television. The episodes are beautiful, funny, scary, and bizarre all at once, and it’s an intoxicating mix. There’s just the right amount of tension, drama, and light relief, and it’s the feel of the show that leaves the lasting impression – the dominant red and wood colouring, the settings (the diner, the log-cabin feel of the Great Northern Hotel, the mill), and of course Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting music that weaves in and out. Each character is developed beautifully, and even the supposedly more minor players have pleasing depth.

Bowing to pressure from the ABC network, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost reveal the identity of the killer midway through season two and afterwards there is a palpable change of feel; it is as if the air is being let out of a tyre. The remaining episodes are of high quality, and more often than not continue to retain the distinctive “Twin Peaks” feel, but some of the stories – James’ flirtation with a mysterious woman when he leaves Twin Peaks, for one – are closer to real soap opera than the sophisticated soap parody of the first half of the series. It’s to the writers’ credit that the characters were developed enough for them to warrant continued viewing, and certain characters – especially Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell – really shine. The unique “Twin Peaks” of the first season returns in the last few episodes, with the episodes feeling tighter, more creative, and intense. The finale is as bizarre and beautiful as one would hope; it leaves a few threads hanging but makes a suitable finish at the same time.

This box set is wonderfully produced – each episode looks fresh and high quality, and the quality of the remastering is especially evident when you watch the non-remastered Log Lady intros before each episode. (There is a curious scene in one late season two episode however, with Audrey Horne and Windom Earle in the library, which appears not to be remastered and stands out.) The extras are often excellent – an almost two-hour ‘Making Of’ documentary series divided into the making of the pilot, the first season, the second season, and the music, and featuring insightful interview snippets with cast and crew. There’s also a fun bar-set interview with Lynch, MacLachlan, Madchen Amick (Shelly), and crew member John Wentworth, a 20-minute documentary about the “Twin Peaks” fan festival, MacLachlan’s monologue and sketch from a 1990 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” extensive photo galleries (including images of all 76 “Twin Peaks” trading cards!), a collection of promo trailers (and an advert for a “Twin Peaks” t-shirt), and a collection of little audio features where Lucy and Andy among others deliver news from the series (totalling 22 minutes.) The extras all add to the magic of the box set.

I would heartily recommend “Twin Peaks” to anyone who is interested in original, creative television. It’s quirky and offbeat in the most imaginative, beautiful way possible, but also possesses familiar, identifiable human values that are so essential in a recurring television show. It’s incredibly well-drawn and well-realised, and even the second half of season two, which appears to have lost much of the tension and intensity of the first season, is pretty sophisticated and enjoyable. I came into “Twin Peaks” effectively ‘blind,’ took a risk on a quite-expensive-looking box set for a show I had never seen and knew very little about, and it’s a decision I do not regret. Usually once I have watched a TV show I have enjoyed, I will put it aside and resolve to watch it again in a few months, maybe a year. With “Twin Peaks,” I already want to go back to the beginning and watch again, such is its unique, seductive, addictive allure. Twenty years on from its original run, “Twin Peaks” remains a high watermark in television.

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Filed under: Art, Culture, Film, Mystery, , , , ,

The joys of horror cinema

I was going to say “lately I’ve been into horror films,” as if trying to tie it in with this Halloween-y time of year, and it’s true that the longer, dark nights and cold, icy weather are perhaps more conducive to fully appreciating the beauty of the horror genre, but really I love these often mysterious, psychological-oriented films all year round – when done well, of course. I’m not talking about cheaply, badly-done slasher movies or sub-par zombie flicks. There are some pillars of the genre that I adore – Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now – but I’ll focus for now on a few that I’ve rewatched recently, or seen for the first time in some cases.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for creepy “possessed child” movies in the ’60s and ’70s, and after Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist came The Omen which had a marketing budget substantially larger than its filming budget, playing up to the “6-6-6” theme (advance screenings were held on June 6, 1976.)

For me, Rosemary’s Baby is far and away the most superior of the three films (which aren’t related in story or personnel, anyway) but The Omen has its moments. The decapitation scene is marvellous, as is the oddly joyful surprise death of Damien’s initial nanny. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are great in their roles, and Billie Whitelaw threatens to the steal the show as the supremely unsettling Mrs Baylock. It’s hard to criticise Harvey Stephens since he was barely five at the time of filming, but I didn’t find Damien particularly convincing.

As with The Exorcist, the moments of sheer horror are quite few and far between and the bulk of the film is taken up with far-flung visits to try and get to the bottom of, in this case, the effect Damien has on those around him. It’s a good film but it’s not a cinematic masterpiece. Certainly, all horror fans should watch it.

Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen, or Hour of the Wolf, is an altogether more different and subtly unsettling prospect; it possesses a number of Bergman trademarks (direct address to the camera, atmospheric Swedish village setting) but has a strange, somewhat disturbing psychological bent all its own.

The film seems to be a musing on the perceived madness of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) but, by the end, the viewer is left wondering just who is mad or beset by demons, and indeed whether the demons are imaginary or real. To compound the sense of disturbance and dislocation, various strange surrealist moments are injected into the film, lending it an off-kilter, experimental feel.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and Ingrid Thulin is almost unrecognisable here as the temptress Veronica Vogler compared to her comparatively dowdy schoolteacher in the earlier Winter Light. Bergman often worked with the same actors but they all give wonderfully diverse performances.

Various haunting moments stand out, including the episode between von Sydow and the young boy on the rocks, the passionate argument between von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as his wife Alma in the forest, the creepy soiree at the castle, and Naima Wifstrand as the “Old Lady with Hat,” who provides one of the film’s most memorable and quietly horrific moments.

It’s a strange, atmospheric 84 minutes and the sort of film that rewards repeated viewing.

The same can be said of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. More a slow-burning, subtle psychological study than a fully-fledged horror, The Innocents is wonderfully understated and quietly creepy as it unfolds. It’s a mostly very faithful adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, which is just as mysterious and suggestive (especially of the relationship between the “deceased” Quint and Miss Jessel and the children Miles and Flora), and the team working on the film did a great job in capturing the essence of the mystery of the story.

We’re never quite sure whether Quint or Miss Jessel are dead or alive, or whether governess Miss Giddens (unnamed in the book) (Deborah Kerr) is hallucinating; part of the beauty of Kerr’s performance is that the viewer identifies with her calmness, her goodness, her rationality – which makes the questions that arise at the end of the film even more unsettling.

Megs Jenkins as the kindly Mrs. Grose is the glue that keeps the film together, and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin give excellent performances as the young children – two of the best child actors you could hope to see on screen.

It’s a film that is especially memorable for its haunting black-and-white cinematography, gorgeous setting, and chilling soundtrack, where the sound of chirruping birds suddenly cuts in and out. One of the finest in the psychological/mystery genre.

Four decades later, the novella was revived and taken as a reference point for a different adaptation, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. It’s a brilliantly atmospheric, austere, unsettling haunted house mystery, with Nicole Kidman giving one of her best performances. It’s beautifully shot and gets the level of creepiness just right to be an effective film in the mystery/horror/thriller style.

Altogether different is zombie movie Night of the Living Dead. On a first viewing, it impresses with its grainy black-and-white cinematography, level of intensity, and almost documentary style quality. It’s perhaps a little too long, and after the gripping opening sequence, where Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave, only to be chased away by a zombie, it doesn’t quite maintain that level of engagement – but it’s quite probably one that would improve upon a second viewing.

Then there are a couple of classics that merge horror with the teen movie. Halloween is an iconic horror that deserves all the praise, and you can trace a plethora of similar horror/slasher films (yes, Scream) back to here. A lot of it is actually set in the daytime and it makes for iconic viewing. The perpetrator Michael Myers is creepy throughout, and the murder methods inventive (and scary.) There are numerous memorable scenes, from the telephone cord killing to John Michael Graham’s uncurling toes as the life drains away. It maintains the intensity and the hour and a half flies by. One of the most important classics of the genre.

But arguably even better is Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which brings horror to the teen genre as it tracks the trials and tribulations of its titular ‘heroine,’ the maligned and victimised Carrie White.

Most of the “horror” derives from Carrie’s telekinesis, the power to move objects through sheer force of mind, and initially it seems like something of an undeveloped sub-plot – but the film’s denouement could not be achieved without this strange feature.

But the core of the film is based around Carrie’s relationship with her fellow high school students and her overzealous, fanatical mother, played to absolute perfection by Piper Laurie. The majority of the film’s creepy, unsettling quality revolves around Laurie’s portrayal of Margaret White and the White home, which is like a Christian shrine. It’s a claustrophobic world Carrie inhabits, but schoolteacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) leaps to her defence and is one of the few “nice” characters in the film.

Buckley, Laurie, and Sissy Spacek as Carrie give memorable performances, as do the other cast of high school students. While Carrie ostensibly weds the horror and teen movie genres, it’s also really quite remarkably sad, with only the redemptive resolution keeping the viewer from descending into a deep melancholy over the treatment of Carrie. It all adds up to an engrossing film that bears repeated viewing.

And I haven’t stopped there. I’m still going through my horror collection and discovering new favourites, and when you surrender to it, horror does not have to be gimmicky or cheesy. Most of the films listed above bear that out.

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Film of the Day: “Winter Light” (Nattvardsgästerna)

I first became aware of Bergman’s 1962 film Winter Light not so long ago, maybe only a year or so. I was channel-flicking and came upon a lengthy monologue, delivered in Swedish by Ingrid Thulin, as schoolteacher Märta Lundberg, and found it incredibly gripping. Not just the articulate and incisive translated subtitles, but also Thulin’s bare face, direct address, and strong conveyance of emotion. The monologue lasts for seven or eight minutes and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was a hefty way through the film so I opted not to continue but instead to make a mental note and watch it again when I could.

Finally, it was repeated on television again only a couple of weeks ago, mid-morning, and I watched it from beginning to end. I found it just as engrossing and beautiful and strange as that monologue which captivated me months beforehand. It’s incredibly subtle, to the point where you wonder at times why it has such a strong reputation. But it’s one of those films that lingers in the memory and, once it’s over, you feel you’ve witnessed something quietly special. While watching, it seems somewhat slight, but it’s had quite a big effect on me.

It’s a bleak, desolate film featuring ruminations on death, religion, love, and depression, but never in a cliched way and never so stilted as to try to force such weighty themes into the script. It looks unremittingly beautiful and stark, and the performances are understated and played straight. It’s not a light, airy film. It’s pretty easy to follow when you’re watching it, but there’s no light relief and very little, if any, humour – all contributing to its desolate, lonely mood.

There are a number of iconic scenes but the one that still stands out is the aforementioned lengthy direct-address by Ingrid Thulin as Märta, as she reads out her heartfelt letter to Tomas, the Pastor of the Swedish rural village. His later no-holds-barred verbal attack on Märta is shocking and incredibly sad all at once, and another memorable moment from a thoroughly memorable film.

At 81 minutes, Winter Light is not a difficult mountain to climb but don’t expect it to leave you unmoved. It’s a subtle masterpiece. As Ingmar Bergman’s wife told him, “yes, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s a dreary masterpiece.” A back-handed compliment maybe, but really an honest one. Ingmar Bergman succeeds in making the dreary and the desolate extremely beautiful.

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Film of the Day: “Sunset Boulevard”

Two of cinema’s most biting and witty examinations of the Hollywood system arrived within months of each other in 1950. August saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve following in October. Both were multiple Oscar nominees, but in the event All About Eve won Best Picture (and is probably my favourite of the two.) It has been argued that Sunset Boulevard was snubbed because its acerbic look at the film world was even closer to the bone than All About Eve‘s more theatre-based witticisms.

There has been much written about Sunset Boulevard and its importance, but I will voice some of my favourite aspects of the film. It’s an exercise in art imitating reality, for a start, and entertainingly so. In the film, Norma Desmond is the ageing, 50-year-old ex-silent film star who lives in a decrepit 1920s mansion on Sunset Boulevard with a dead pet monkey and a failed director as a butler and general dogsbody. In real life, Gloria Swanson was a 50-year-old ex-silent film star, and Erich von Stroheim (Max) was a famed director of the silent film era. In the film, Cecil B. DeMille – as himself – directed Norma in some of her best-known pictures. In real life, Cecil B. DeMille really did direct Gloria Swanson in some of her best-known silent films. All of this cross-referencing and real-life cameos lend Sunset Boulevard not just a healthy feeling of being an in-joke at the expense of Hollywood’s brutal system of creating and then destroying its stars, but also a real authenticity and power.

The characters are a lot less one-dimensional than they appear on first viewing, with Max so much more than Norma’s general assistant; his unabashed love for and devotion to Norma is genuinely touching. The revelation that he was once her husband adds a weird frisson to proceedings. William Holden as Joe Gillis, too, is much more than a jobbing scriptwriter, as his strange relationship with Norma, which traverses the personal/professional boundaries, attests. Norma herself is also quite a developed, rich character, more than the initial view at the boggled-eyed mad-lady villain would suggest. I found Gloria Swanson’s performance overbearingly camp and over-acted until I realised that, as a silent film star, Norma really would have used her eyes and hand gestures for such dramatic effect.

The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s a pretty quotable film. The atmosphere is a mix of camp melodrama and stylish noir, and despite an arguable sag in the middle, it’s quite tightly structured and executed.

Six decades later, Sunset Boulevard is still a film that hits home today. Harsh, funny, witty, and occasionally heartbreaking, it rightfully earns its classic status.

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Film of the Day: “Citizen Kane”

On my first viewing, I found Citizen Kane enjoyable but somewhat dull in parts. On a second viewing, it won me over and didn’t bore me in the slightest. Tight and focused, imaginative and inventive, it’s a film that impresses with the beauty of its shots and innovative techniques.

Today it’s easy to forget quite how innovative parts of Citizen Kane were, but even 70 years later one can still ascertain that it’s a superior film of the era. The story is relatively simple – a young child’s parents come into money and he is sent away to avoid his abusive father. He gradually becomes the all-powerful Charles Foster Kane, newspaper tycoon. The rest of the film details his descent into materialism and corruption, and subsequent downfall. The mystery of “Rosebud” is present throughout, and is revealed subtly (and somewhat devastatingly) at the film’s climax. Kane wasn’t, it turns out, quite as materialistic and unfeeling as was thought.

The performances are strong (and Dorothy Comingore’s meltdown over a bad review is pretty hilarious), and the make-up strikingly believable – Orson Welles, here as a 25-year-old, doubles up convicingly as the aged tycoon, in self-imposed exile at his private mountain mansion Xanadu.

My advice for those who found Citizen Kane dull or unimpressive on first viewing would be to watch it again; it’s a striking piece of work and a significant film in cinema history – as well as being an entertaining story.

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Film of the Day: “The Tenant”

I’m a big fan of Roman Polanski’s films, and the most recent one I had the pleasure to see was The Tenant, his curious suspense horror based on Roland Topor’s 1964 novel of the same name. It’s also the final part in Polanski’s loose trilogy of “apartment films” – that is, based in or around mysterious apartments, after 1965’s Repulsion and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, which I would wager is the finest horror film of all time.

The Tenant is similar in mood and feel to Rosemary’s Baby, but it is somewhat darker and arguably even more psychologically chilling. Beautifully shot and framed, it’s set in a Parisian apartment block and, in a rare move, Polanski takes on the role of actor as well as director. His performance as the quiet, outwardly respectable bachelor Trelkovsky is subtly shaded and understated, and he appears to find his feet as an actor as the film progresses. Trelkovsky rents an apartment in which the previous owner, Simone Choule, jumped to her eventual death in a suicide bid.

Afterwards, he meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and they engage in a flirtatious friendship; the other characters are Trelkovsky’s loud friends and the strange apartment-dwellers, including Shelley Winters as the unfriendly concierge, and Jo Van Fleet as the creepy Madame Dioz. Melvyn Douglas also puts in a fine turn as owner Monsieur Zy.

Gradually, Trelkovsky, bombarded with pleas from his neighbours to keep the noise down at night – even though he is not making any, slips into a frightful hinterland between sanity and madness; we’re never quite sure whether the people in the apartment are really out to get him, or whether he is slowly descending into insanity. In this sense, the film strongly recalls Rosemary’s Baby.

Polanski’s drag turn, dressing up as the fabled Simone with a wig, make-up, painted nails, and high heels, is disconcerting and uncomfortable and conveys the mood of unease perfectly. By the film’s end, we’re not sure whether Trelkovsky was driven by desire to “catch his neighbours out,” or whether his transvestitism is an innate part of his own personality. It’s these moments of uncertainty and lack of concrete answers that leave the viewer feeling they’ve been on something of a weird alt-rollercoaster. It also encourages repeated viewing.

The Tenant is a disquieting, imaginative film that deserves a bigger audience than it seems to have reached; there are numerous haunting sequences, from the tooth in the wall, to the mummified lady in the opposite toilet, to the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the apartment block is as much a character in the film as any of the actors, and Polanski gives a stirring, involving performance as actor as well as director.

Much of the film is charmingly quirky (see the often glaring French-English dubbing), but at its heart is a dark exploration of obsession, paranoia, isolation, and sexual voyeurism. It’s a film that’s weird and beautiful and chilling all at once. Don’t expect it to give you any firm answers.

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Film of the Day: “Apocalypse Now”

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Or, more specifically, the Redux version.

The definitive Vietnam film, perhaps. Much has been made of Apocalypse Now‘s fraught production – sets destroyed by weather, Francis Ford Coppola’s indecision over how to to edit and end the film, the hushed-up heart attack suffered by Martin Sheen, the overweight, underprepared, overpaid legend that was Marlon Brando arriving for a month’s on-location filming in September 1976.

But the end result is such a stunning achievement visually; criticism of Apocalypse Now seems to be that it’s intellectually lightweight and a fatuous exercise in self-indulgence. The Redux version won’t convert the self-indulgent argument, as it stretches close to the three-hour mark, but the significant addition of the French plantation episode only adds to the historical and social context. And, anyway, intellectually lightweight? Not really. This isn’t some ropey rom-com. It feels honest and gritty and real; it captures a certain spirit that’s often hard to capture on film without regressing into sloppy sentimentality or calculated point-making. Indeed, the plot of the film – Martin Sheen’s US Army captain Willard’s mission to find and assassinate the supposedly corrupt and insane Colonel Kurtz (Brando) is really only the vehicle for sequence after sequence, shot after shot, of some genuinely haunting, beautiful, bleak, and hilarious moments.

It’s an epic in the best sense; it doesn’t get tired or outstay its welcome. It’s an experience. It’s a feast. Everyone should try it at some point.

Oh, and how good is the opening scene? Never was The Doors’ “The End” utilised so appropriately

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Film of the Day: “Pulp Fiction”

Pulp Fiction (1994)

It seems that I’d seen a number of Quentin Tarantino films before I got to see this, regarded culturally as perhaps the peak of Tarantino’s vision. Certainly, it’s his most famous work. But is it the best?

There’s a case for a number of his films; I’d venture that Reservoir Dogs acts almost like a “trial run” for Pulp Fiction; the Kill Bill films wow with their patchwork of anime and kung fu violence; and there’s even a case for Inglourious Basterds, not only for its relatively subversive political commentary but also for Tarantino’s move into a more personal, dare I say intellectual, sphere. (Brad Pitt’s accent remains woeful, though.)

But with Pulp Fiction, there seems to be such a smooth, imaginative, inventive fusion of Tarantino’s trademarks. The out-of-sequence chronology, the stylised shots (Mia inexplicably and unexpectedly actually producing a square with her fingers), the well-timed crime scenes. Gratuitous violence is a charge often levelled at Tarantino’s work, but I would suggest that viewers who bemoan his “over-use” of violence are missing the point. Yes, there’s violence, but why focus on that when the violence is, more often than not, central and plausible, and also when the rest of the film’s elements are so strong?

What about the dialogue, for instance? I’ve always been a lover of great dialogue in film, and whereas a film like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) reads like a stage script, Pulp Fiction feels more naturally funny and quirky and real. There are a great many scenes where the dialogue is particularly winning – the diner scene with Uma Thurman and John Travolta, or the sequence near the beginning of the film where Samuel L. Jackson and Travolta have a surprisingly involving debate about the merits and drawbacks of giving a foot massage. The various vignettes ultimately add up to a film that works both as “chapters” and as a whole story; for the whole story feel, maybe repeated viewing is in order. There’s no denying that Tarantino’s liberal manipulation of chronology can be disconcerting for a first-time viewer; but even when you’re well-versed in Tarantino, trademarks like this don’t seem to become old. Certainly, with this film, it all adds to that feeling of arty experimentation. But where “arty experimentation” can sometimes be read as a term to send one screaming for the hills, here it’s more than welcome. (I, for the record, am not against arty experimentation or self-indulgence; if you don’t indulge a little, how do you keep away from unoriginal mediocrity?)

I’ll finish with another point about Tarantino’s films that I love: his use of music. Not only does Tarantino have great taste, but his song choices really seem to bring the scene to life. A scene like the one where Mia is waiting for Vincent Vega. And in another wonderful move, what starts out as joyous and carefree and full of hope and life ends with Mia in dire straits from a drugs overdose.

It’s 17 years this year since Tarantino filmed Pulp Fiction, and it’s rightly regarded as a modern classic. If you’ve not seen it, you must. It’s one where that “classic” tag rings true.

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