Wednesday, August 9, 2017

La reine est morte: Deceased Artiste Jeanne Moreau

"One of my biggest heroes is Jeanne Moreau. She has perfected all the moves, the high art of smoking a cigarette . . . or walking with a straight skirt. Perfecting those kinds of rhythms are, to me, just as worthy of worship as somebody's playin' a great harmonica." — Patti Smith 

When Louis Malle, the director who pretty much single-handedly jumpstarted her career, cast Jeanne Moreau opposite Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria! (1965), he was creating a comedy team for his half-baked farce comprised of France’s biggest sex symbol and its most talented screen actress. BB was the former and Moreau was, without question, the latter.

Her obits dubbed her an iconic performer of the French New Wave, but she was so much more than that — and in fact worked with only one actual New Wave filmmaker, Truffaut, on two films. Malle, Vadim, and Demy were chronologically of the same generation as the nouvelle vague, but their work hovered outside of the core of that movement, which consisted primarily of the Cahiers “posse” and the “Left Bank” filmmakers (Resnais, Varda, Marker).

Moreau was a stage-trained actress who had been a member of the Comédie-Française. In her early films she played ingénue roles – the film that featured her in that capacity that was best-distributed over here was Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). The two films that introduced her to world cinema — Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (both 1958) — found her delivering multi-faceted performances that are simultaneously distant yet sensual, cunning yet sympathetic, and wise yet susceptible to sudden bouts of emotion and ardor.


Elevator is an excellent thriller with a dynamite score by Miles Davis, but The Lovers created more of a stir because of one scene that caused a theater owner in Ohio to be brought up on obscenity charges for showing it. The scene in question is a beautifully done erotic interval in which Moreau's character and her lover (not her husband, mind you) have a lovely walk through the countryside while Brahms plays, then return to her house.

In the house, she makes sure her son is asleep, then leads her lover back to the bedroom. The two kiss for a while and then it happens – the man pleasures Jeanne, with him leaving the frame (moving, one might note, *down* the lady's body) resulting in her having an orgasm (you see only Moreau's face, until their hands clasp together after she has had the orgasm). So the scene in question that was declared to be pornographic wasn't any old sex scene, it was simulated (read: offscreen!) cunnilingus.

By today's standards the scene is mildly “naughty” and would probably even pass muster on a regular network. By the standards of the time, though, the scene was objectionable (and even, to some minds, “kinky” – yeah, when the lady likes it, it's a kink!). The scene begins in earnest at 1:13:25.


Moreau's talent was such that she was not branded as “That Lovers girl” after the controversy over the film died down. This was a result of her strict work ethic (best reflected today in the career of her La Truite costar, the adventurous and fearless Isabelle Huppert).

She went from one project to the next, looking for challenging roles that weren't copies of what she had already done. As a result, the early Sixties was an incredibly fertile period for her, in which she moved from character to character, creating some of the performances for which she became best known.

Moreau and Truffaut
Foremost among these is Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) — the claim that she was “a 'New Wave' actress” seems to rest primarily on this one role, that of Catherine, who has affairs with both titular characters (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). The film is far from my favorite of the New Wave classics, but the fact that it doesn't end on a happy note is probably what has made it such a memorable work for so many viewers. (Contrary to what Hollywood has always thought, most viewers can retain a tragic ending rather than a happy one.)

Moreau's other starring performance for Truffaut is one that I can return to again and again — her chameleonic turn in The Bride Wore Black (1968) For me, Truffaut was at his absolute best adapting “Serie noire” titles, and with Bride he not only brought to life the wonderful first suspense novel by noir master Cornell Woolrich, he also came up with a better conclusion than Woolrich had in the book.

Moreau is centerstage throughout, and she is a magnificent figure. Like most of Woolrich's protagonists, her character is pretty much a cipher who exists as a function of her need for vengeance — she has sworn to kill the men who shot her husband on their wedding day (the plot of Kill Bill, another “lift and carry” job by Tarantino). As she insinuates herself into the lives of her targets, she is an angel of vengeance who seduces in order to kill. One can't imagine many actresses who could carry off the role (more properly, roles) even half as well.


Closing out her brief association with the New Wave, I come to Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963), a film about gambling that is one of those films that one enjoys while watching but can't quite remember afterward.

The first thing that sticks to the brain pan is the sight of Moreau as a platinum blonde. The other central attraction is the stunning first shot of the film, which consists of a track backward from Moreau.

Otherwise, the film is a solid piece of storytelling about the lure of gambling, but nothing in it quite equals the beauty of Moreau and the genius of this bravura shot. (The scene is nowhere online at the moment, but its opening can seen in this GIF and it is seen briefly in a trailer here.) 


Moreau acted in films in several countries, but her sharpest work was in French cinema. She only worked with Don Luis Bunuel once, but the collaboration was a memorable one, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). It's an incredible vehicle for Jeanne that contains the immortal moment she models boots bought for her by the family patriarch.



One of the great artists at work in both England and France in the Sixties and Seventies was the American expatriate (read: blacklist victim) Joseph Losey. Moreau worked him twice, in Eva (1962) and in a supporting part in La Truite (1982), starring Isabelle Huppert.

Moreau only worked once with Antonioni, but it was on the wonderfully atmospheric La Notte (1961) with Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti. I say only worked with the great filmmaker once because a documentary made by his daughter about the filming of Beyond the Clouds (1995) indicates that Wim Wenders directed the sequence she did in that film with, again, the great Marcello. So, although she is in that Antonioni film from an Antonioni script, she was directed by Wenders.
La Notte
The dedicated work ethic of European performers means that even if they are “A-list” stars they are more than willing to play smaller roles in movies they deem significant (in America A-listers avoid supporting roles, unless they are wise enough to turn “character actor” for a role, as with Connery in The Untouchables). Moreau worked in this capacity for a number of directors, including Funhouse fave Bertrand Blier.  She had a very memorable role in Blier's provocative (and wonderful) Going Places (1974).

Duras and Moreau
She also maintained a friendship with writer Marguerite Duras, with whom she worked in various capacities.

Moreau acted for Duras in Nathalie Granger, 1972, starred in a film that Duras adapted as a screenwriter from a work by Jean Genet (Mademoiselle, 1966), narrated a movie based on her work (The Lover, 1992) and, finally, played her in Cet amour-là (2001).


One of the most talented and prolific French filmmakers working today is Francois Ozon. Some of his films are star-studded (8 Women, In the House); others feature excellent performers who are unknown to the average viewer (Criminal Lovers, Frantz). In 2005, Ozon cast Moreau as a grandmother dealing with her grandson being stricken with cancer in the underrated Time to Leave.


Moreau appeared in a select amount of American movies and international coproductions shot in English. These films ranged from the prestige (Frankenheimer's The Train Kazan's The Last Tycoon) to films that represented little more than a paycheck (Ever After).

Her strongest collaboration with an American filmmaker was with Le Grand Orson. She had prominent roles in all his Sixties features, including the superb Chimes at Midnight (1965) and the never finished The Deep. Years back I saw a German archivist discuss the fact that Orson had indeed shot just about all of his script for The Deep — he just never recorded the dialogue (the film was shot on board a boat, and the ambient sound was useless). Perhaps the single clearest example of Orson shooting himself in the foot, The Deep was a project that Orson shelved, when all he had to do was gather the cast and have them dub in their lines. Such were the complicated and sad ways in which he self-destructed.


Moreau's most interesting legacy and the hardest to trace for American viewers is her work as a film director. Her film Lumiere (1976), in which she starred, hasn't been available since the Eighties (on VHS); it also hasn't played the rep-house circuit since the Reagan era. (I saw it back then, but its plot points and imagery have disappeared from mine own mind.)

She also directed a doc on Lillian Gish (no info on that at all). Her second and last fiction film as a director is tucked away “above ground” on the Internet. (I won't be supplying the URL on here, but it's easily found with the help of a search engine.)

L'Adolescente (1979) is an emotional coming of age story about a 12-year-old girl's eventful summer vacation in 1939, as the world hovered on the brink of war. Moreau doesn’t appear in the film, but she put her imprint on it by narrating the film. Her voice was definitely one of her greatest tools as an actress; it remained her signature — along with her full-lipped, determined visage — as an actress.

The plot follows Marie (Laetitia Chauveau) as she goes with her parents to her grandmother’s house in the provinces for the summer. Marie develops her first crush on the local doctor (Francis Huster), who in turn is in love with her mother (Edith Clever). Marie's crush is conveyed with great sincerity, but her subsequent focus after she is rebuffed by the doctor — to make her parents love each other again — reminds us that she is still a little girl whose world revolves around the adults in her life. 

The star of the film isn’t Chauveau (who does look like a miniature version of the young Moreau), but her grandmother, played by the inimitable Simone Signoret. She is the perfect grandmother — caring and all-knowing, superstitious, old-fashioned, and yet very aware of modern behavior (and thus very discreet).


Signoret never gave a bad performance in her later work, but it’s interesting to consider the comparison to Moreau. While Jeanne remained a romantic lead for long into her middle age (as has Huppert), Signoret became a character person much earlier on.  Both Jeanne and Simone were consummate talents, whose once mellifluous voices were made very raspy by decades of smoking.
****

In closing, some “bonus” clips, starting with a few of Moreau singing. It seemed that every European actress of her era had a side career as a singer, and La Moreau was no exception. Here she is on TV, singing the song from Jules and Jim, “Le tourbillon.”


Years later, Vanessa Paradis performed the song with Moreau on TV:


A nice bit of Sixties kitsch: Though billed as a Scopitone, this 1963 performance seems to have simply been a performance on television.


Moreau singing in Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (1970). Very straightforward and utterly charming.


Jeanne sings in Tony Richardson’s Sailor from Gibraltar (1967):


One of her finest performances in a most extreme motion picture (extreme in its level of passion and obsession) is the starring role in Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966). Patti Smith wrote a frenzied, gonzo paean to the film, it is one of John Waters’ favorites, and it most certainly deserves your attention. Here is a key sequence, without subtitles (although you don’t need them):


Moreau had a smaller role in Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991), but she is the “final destination” in the search undertaken by our hero (William Hurt). Her blindness causes her scientist husband (Max von Sydow) to create a device that can “record” dreams and show them on a little portable device (prefiguring pretty much all of 21st-century portable media).


If, as was rumored in jest, Fassbinder made his final film Querelle (1982) just to see Brad Davis in a French sailor suit, he surely also made the film to see Jeanne Moreau perform a torchy ballad written around an adage by Oscar Wilde.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Forgotten Leading Man: Deceased Artiste John Heard

Home Alone dad dies at 71.” The headlines for John Heard's obits all had the same lede — Americans need a quick identity-check on each celebrity, and the movie/TV series they appeared in that made the most money usually makes the headline for the obit.

We know that, it's nothing new. The really depressing part about Heard's obits is that even the better newspapers (The New York Times, The L.A. Times) used the same headline and barely included a mention of the period between 1977 and '81, when Heard starred in a group of terrific films that were initially box-office flops but quickly became cult movies, playing at repertory houses for those who missed them in their initial release (VCRs existed at this point in time, but cost a lot of money.)

This obit will deal exclusively with this great quartet of films. Some fans would open up the group to include a genre pic like C.H.U.D. (1984) or an “upscale” horror movie like Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People (1982). I'd rather leave those out (along with On the Yard, in a whole other genre) because, as good as Heard was in those, they were very different kinds of films.

Here I want to throw the spotlight on four character studies, although one can also be classified as a “rom-com” and another as a “neo-noir.” All four of these films are worth checking out — whether or not they emotionally affect you the way they did this reviewer, you'll still be impressed by the performances given by the leads. Some of them became much bigger stars in the 35 years since, and others sadly faded away from the spotlight, becoming veteran character people (as Heard did).


A few words of background: Heard was born in Washington, D.C. and was brought up a Catholic, with a Jewish grandfather. This background in the “guilt religions” explains to me the way he perfectly played the lead role in Chilly Scenes of Winter — the sense of longing, suppressed guilt and self-loathing, the neurotic need to regain the past….

He worked onstage a lot in his early years and also played starring parts in more “normal” projects like the PBS telefilm of The Scarlet Letter (1979). His first role in a theatrical film, though, was a starring role as an investigative reporter at a Boston underground newspaper in Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines (1977).
****

French filmmakers made penetrating studies of the disillusionment that set in among Left-wing radicals after the events of May '68, and Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner addressed it directly in his Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). In America, the equivalent was a film like The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) and its big-studio, somewhat soulless, kin, The Big Chill (1983). Between the Lines treats the same material, but at the service of sketching several relationships and how they flourish and flounder in the post-Woodstock, pre-disco/punk Seventies.

The most striking aspect of the film is the ensemble cast of performers who later became famous. Heard and Lindsay Crouse (sporting a curly variation on the short-haired Anne Murray look) are the main romantic couple; Stephen Collins and the much-missed Gwen Welles are the other. Among the other reporters and onlookers are Jeff Goldbum, Jill Eikenberry, Bruno Kirby, Joe Morton, Michael J. Pollard, Marilu Henner, and a last-minute cameo by National Lampoon deity Doug Kenney.

The male characters do have a strident edge, while the women are all in a transitional stage. Heard and Crouse's characters clearly love each other but tend to drive each other crazy. Harry (Heard) is a reporter who used to be politically motivated but who is now producing “night life” pieces for the paper, which clearly reflects the changing face of the Seventies.


****

Ironically the best argument for Heard as a young romantic lead is a film where he spends all his time brooding about a woman who has left him. Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979) is a beautiful depiction of a man's heartache crafted by two women: novelist-scripter Ann Beattie and director Joan Micklin Silver.


I first saw the film back in December 1980 after it had died at the box office under the title Head Over Heels, with a happy ending that Silver and Beattie didn't like. The film was part of an ongoing program at the Cinema Village, in which a double bill of recent box-office flops (all of them worthy of an audience) played every Tuesday. Three of the films spotlighted here were part of that ongoing “festival.”

Seeing the film as a perennially lovesick teen was one thing — the lead character's heartache seemed to me perfectly in keeping with his loss. Viewing the film as a middle-aged man, it feels even sadder and more moving (and his behavior understandably deluded). Charles (Heard) should be moving on, but he isn't because his time with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt) was his ideal vision of a relationship (minus the red flags he noticed but didn't acknowledge, here at 1:44).


Although Charles is our narrator, Laura is also a fully rounded character — her self-loathing and feeling that Charles is idealizing her too much makes her want to leave the relationship. Beattie's best inclusion is the moment where Charles asks her the unanswerable question that we've all thought when meeting someone who's attached to someone else, “Why didn't *I* meet you first?” (here at 3:56)


Silver was finally able to jettison the happy ending in 1982, when the film was re-released as Chilly Scenes of Winter (the title of Beattie's source novel). Being the hopeless sentimentalist I am (in some matters), I thought I'd never see the deleted happy ending again, but then it appeared on YouTube in 2009.


For those who like going “deep” in the pool of Seventies “maverick” cinema, I hereby pass on the fact that the happy ending of Head Over Heels was uncommonly similar to the end of the Dustin Hoffman-Mia Farrow “one night stand” drama, John and Mary (1969), directed by Peter Yates and scripted by John Mortimer, based on a novel by Mervyn Jones.

Both endings have the man searching for his lost love, acknowledging the fact that she's gone, and then coming home to find her making a favorite meal in his kitchen.


**** 

Heart Beat (1980) is a mixed bag. The first fiction film made about the Beat writers, it was loosely based on Carolyn Cassady's first memoir about her dual romances with both Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) and Jack Kerouac (Heard).

The film is only tangentially about the Beat Generation — one gets the impression that writer-director John Byrum was more interested in making a portrait of a threesome and how it affects the male egos involved. In this regard it is very much like Paul Mazursky's Willie and Phil (also 1980), another charming box-office flop that fits in thematically with these films. (Heart Beat features Ray Sharkey as Allen Ginsberg; Sharkey costarred in Willie and Phil, as did Heard's ex-wife Margot Kidder.)

Watching Heart Beat today, one is struck by the ways in which the film is much less about the Beats than it is about the actors playing them. Sissy Spacek narrates — as she did so memorably in Badlands (1973) — and gives Carolyn C. her Texas twang (Cassady was born in Lansing, Mich., and was brought up in Nashville). In contrast to her best-remembered roles from the period, she's hyper-glamorized as Carolyn.

Heard is a great Kerouac, conveying his workaholism amidst the non-stop party his friends seems to be having. Jack is a wounded, stubborn soul, like the other characters Heard played around this time. He is overshadowed by Nolte, who brings Cassady to life perfectly — especially since we now envision the later Nolte, who has had substance abuse problems similar to Cassady's (but has lived a lot longer than Neal, who died at 42).

Byrum has a short filmography (only four films), but I would make a case for Heart Beat and his first film, Inserts (1975), as being far better than their reviews indicated. (I can't make that claim for the Bill Murray Razor's Edge, which Byrum directed in 1984.)

Byrum was sometimes confused in the Seventies with director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), who has had a longer film career. This, of course, brings up the issue of John Heard being confused with the similarly named (but oh, so different) John Hurt, and William Hurt (who was married to Mary Beth Hurt at the time she made Chilly Scenes).
***** 

Chilly Scenes established Heard as an endearing romantic lead, but Cutter's Way (1981) has what is arguably his best performance. He perfectly incarnates Alex Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who has a pirate-like appearance (eye patch, beard, prosthetic leg) but is more clear-minded than his sober best friend, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges). Like Chilly Scenes, the film also benefited from a title change — with no edits in this instance — from its original theatrical release title, Cutter and Bone to Cutter's Way. 

Heard steals all of the scenes that he's in, but the film is another great ensemble piece in which there are three terrific performances — Heard, Bridges, and Lisa Eichorn, as Alex's alcoholic wife Maureen. The direction by Ivan Passer and script by Jeffrey Allan Fiskin (based on Newton Thornburg's novel) are equally compelling, ensuring that Cutter's Way was one of the best neo-noirs to appear during the Reagan era.


It's a “sunny noir” for sure, set in Santa Barbara, Calif. The plot is beautifully structured: Bone, an apathetic (but always horny) boat salesman, witnesses the disposal of a murder victim by a local millionaire. His friend Cutter wants the millionaire to pay (literally) for his actions, so he sets up a blackmail scheme that should lead to the villain’s arrest. Bone pretends to be involved in the scheme, but wants to forget the whole thing – until Maureen (Eichorn) is killed in a rather shady explosion.

Alex moves from wanting the millionaire in prison to wanting to kill him himself. Bone remains uncommitted until the last sequence of the film. Here is Cutter telling Bone that he's a target whether he likes it or not:


Coming right at the beginning of Reagan's presidency and following a period when Americans had lost all faith in leadership thanks to Watergate, Cutter's Way fits neatly in with those Seventies classics, Chinatown (1974) and Robert Aldrich's Hustle (1975), as a film that asks if the wealthy and powerful ever have to pay for their crimes (which always affect the rest of us).

Those films were well-sketched portraits of a “little guy” taking on “the man,” but Cutter's Way brings it all home by making its heroes a Vietnam vet and a guy who evaded the draft (by going to an Ivy League college). They are not lawmen like Jake Gittes or Phil Gaines (Hustle); they are average Americans who spend a good deal of their time intoxicated (Alex and Maureen with liquor; Bone with sex) and trying to tune out the outside world. When the corruption lands right in their backyard, Alex is ready to charge into a confrontation, knowing it could wind up killing him.

By focusing on one character's moral decision, Cutter's Way moves away from standard Hollywood action fare and moves toward the noir world that John Garfield's characters inhabited (Force of Evil, He Ran All the Way). It's an incredibly powerful film and Heard is at the center of it all, giving an indelible performance.


****

Four “bonus” videos. Two from 1985 films in which Heard had a supporting role, a complete 1990 film in which he had a great starring role, and one final interview he did.

The first scene is from the '85 Catholic school comedy Heaven Help Us, in which Heard played the “cool teacher” (they always exist — and they certainly helped me get through the tunnel-visioned aspects of Catholic school). He melts in among the teen boys here (of course, the “teen” leads were all in their 20s and Heard was a youthful-looking 39) and has a good scene with Andrew McCarthy at 19:37:


The main thing that occurs to one while reviewing a career like Heard's is that if a single really great filmmaker had utilized him well after the mid-Eighties (discounting De Palma's casting him in a leading role in Snake Eyes), he might've had a major resurgence – as it was he never, ever stopped working (even while personal problems were landing his name in the tabloids repeatedly), but perhaps hit his late career high-water mark with a role in The Sopranos.

Certainly, Joan Micklin Silver and Ivan Passer are great directors who got the best out of Heard, but the one A-list filmmaker who did use him did it very briefly. That filmmaker was Martin Scorsese, and the film was made during his “waiting to make the Christ movie” period. Heard had a key supporting role (he says the title phrase) as a bartender in After Hours. Here's a bit of his sequence with star Griffin Dunne (who had earlier produced Chilly Scenes):


A film that relates back to Heard’s “golden era” is Mindwalk (1990). It’s an incredibly intelligent film, made by an Austrian director, scripted by his scientist-novelist brother, and shot in a gorgeous French location. That should give an indication of how cerebral the piece is  it involves the chance meeting of a politician (Sam Waterston), his poet friend (Heard), and a physicist (Liv Ullmann), who proceed to discuss (to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams) “life, the universe, and everything.”

It’s an invigorating film that will primarily appeal to readers and eggheads of every stripe. It’s not very cinematic, but the same thing was true of My Night at Maud’s and My Dinner With Andre, two classic “conversation” films. The discussion among the characters ranges from key political and scientific notions, to explorations of simple emotions. It’s not a film that would please the average American viewer, but it’s worth the time of the enlightened moviegoer, and gave Heard an intelligent role in a period when he was already settling into a career of playing “snobby boss” and “average guy” roles.

His character, in fact, has one thing in common with Heard the man: it's mentioned that he's having a custody battle with his ex (as Ullmann's character is noted to have retreated from society to stay in a not-very-populated corner of France, a la her ex-lover/mentor Bergman and his move to Faro Island). Heard's long custody battle for his son with the boy's mother, Melissa Leo, "sidetracked" him from his profession (his phrase, in an interview). It also landed him in the gossip columns, because his very hot temper was demonstrated in public more than once. (Again, I love the artist's work and don't necessarily need to know about his/her private life....)

The film seems to be tilted in favor of Ullmann's character (no surprise when it's based on a work by a scientist), but Waterston gets to discuss how her theories need to be implemented in politics. The film ends, though, with the artist speaking out: Heard's character, who hasn't had all that much to say, recites a poem by Pablo Neruda, and while noting that he loves both Waterston and Ullmann (and, presumably, their ideas), he hasn't found any answers for life's dilemmas.




As a final offering, I found this final interview with the man himself on Illeana Douglas' visual podcast “I Blame Dennis Hopper.” The interview, which is very lively and very thorough, was posted just three days before Heard's death.

In it Douglas gets him to discuss the films I've discussed here. Interestingly, the only one he had a problem with was Heart Beat, because he noted that John Byrum wanted him to play Jack Kerouac in a more upbeat way (which he noted was not the way Kerouac's writing depicts him). This single hour of Heard chatting is a much more fitting epitaph than calling him “the Home Alone dad.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Twin Peaks: a Starter Kit (part 3 of three)

In the last installment of this piece, I will be moving up to the present, by exploring Lynch's prequel film and the new Showtime series. The “spoiler alert” for the skittish appears below – I'm assuming that readers have had a good chance to see FWWM while it's been available for the last 25 years. 

First, the film: Opinions are pretty sharply divided over Lynch’s "prequel" theatrical feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Critics loathed it when it came out and now revisionists have embraced it as a masterpiece, perhaps Lynch’s best work.

I am somewhere in the middle, as I admire some sequences in it and feel that even the most uneven Lynch film is better than most filmmakers’ entire output. But for me the film is disjointed in its construction and oddly jarring when seen in any kind of tandem with the original TP series.

Two wonderful re-evaluations of the film make a very good argument that it is a “lost classic” in Lynch's filmography – the first was by Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog #16, and the other was by John Thorne in The Essential Wrapped in Plastic. Their wonderful insights into the film make one want to revisit it again – only I have now seen the film a few times and each time I appreciate its craft more, but still can't connect to it emotionally.

Here are the two problems with the picture that I can't overcome: its narrative structure is flat-out bizarre, and the sadism implicit in some of the scenes is disturbingly confrontational. The more you read about it, the more you realize it's one of Lynch's most ambitious works (outside of Dune, which wasn't his own material), but it's the ambition that ends up sinking it in certain aspects – the “smaller” worlds of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and the disjunction-with-no-references nature of an underrated masterwork like Inland Empire are more vivid and “relivable” than this particular slice of Pacific Northwest pathology.

First, the structure of the film. It unfolds in three “acts”: first, the investigation of the Theresa Banks murder (the first victim of BOB in this incarnation, months before Laura Palmer); second, Agent Cooper's investigation into what happened to agent Chet Desmond, who disappeared while investigating the Banks case; and lastly, the final week in the life of Laura Palmer.

The first is the element that throws off most viewers and came into being because one of the most-loved Twin Peaks stars couldn't decide whether to be in the film or not. It was already established in the TP series and Scott Frost’s tie-in novel The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper (see part one in this series here) that Agent Cooper investigated the Banks murder. Kyle MacLachlan initially refused to be in Fire Walk with Me, thus making it important for David Lynch to rewrite the TP “canon” and insert another agent, Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) in the continuity. (Mark Frost completely divorced himself from the project, not wanting to do a prequel to the TV series.)


Lynch welcomed the opportunity to rewrite TP “history” since he enjoys thinking on his feet as a filmmaker. “… What [Kyle] did worked out just fine… there’s no such thing as a problem, there are only solutions, and you just go forward.” [Thorne, p. 319] The only problem is that, once this whole “other agent really examined the Banks case” notion was formulated, Kyle MacLachlan wanted back in to the production.

Thus, there's a bizarre instant “disappearance” of Agent Desmond and the long-awaited “return” of Agent Cooper a short while into the film. The only problem is that Cooper is investigating Desmond's disappearance as much as the Banks murder – and that none of this other stuff with Desmond was ever mentioned before (in events that took place later!). In fact, that becomes a big problem with FWWML: Certain things occur in this prequel that would've *had* to have been mentioned in “later” times (read: the TP series continuity) because it would be just too strange if they weren't.

Sheryl Lee, Lynch, Moira Kelly
Cooper had mentioned the Banks case to Sheriff Truman, but never the agent who disappeared (of course). Another glaring problem is the involvement of Donna Hayward in the narrative – with Moira Kelly in the role, since Lara Flynn Boyle disappeared from the ranks of the Peak cast after the second season ended (our only clue as to what might've happened there is stray gossip from Sherilyn Fenn in an Internet interview: Boyle had dated Kyle MacLachlan while the show was shooting, and then they broke up).

Repeatedly in the series (and in Jennifer Lynch's Secret Diary tie-in book) it is mentioned that Donna never knew about Laura's “other side.” In FWWM, though, she is present while Laura is seducing some truckers (while topless) and she herself nearly succumbs to being raped by them after being drugged (Laura pulls the guy off her). Did Donna somehow *forget* that she saw all this by the time the events of the series take place? Incongruities make perfect sense in a totally original disjunctive Lynch work like Inland Empire or a “dream life” creation like Mulholland Drive, but FWWM does connect to an earlier creation, and turns some of its plot elements upside down because certain things seemed right in this context.


The other element that predominates in the film is a sadistic streak that ran through Lynch's work in the Nineties. Certainly, Blue Velvet had a large amount of sadism, but it was referred to in the plot (one of the most complained-about aspects of the film when it came out was that Dorothy enjoys Frank's hitting her in sexual situations, and she asks Jeffrey to do the same). Brutal violence also appears in his two later masterworks, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. In those context, there doesn't seem to be the jubilance (read: cool rock “thrash” guitar chords and kinetic editing) that accompanies the violence in Wild at Heart (1990). 

Lost Highway found Lynch indulging in these moments but beginning to tone it down – by Mulholland Drive, it became one smaller aspect of the whole. One of his most shocking violent moments wasn't in a feature, though – it was the brutal beating and killing of Maddie Ferguson by Leland Palmer in the “big reveal” second-season episode of Twin Peaks, where we learn that Leland killed his daughter.

The scene was intended to be shocking and horrible, but even given that, it was, and is, still incredibly brutal for network TV, mostly due to the way that Lynch added to its duration by slowing down the action and the voices (in order to create a truly horrifying nightmare sequence). Maddie was a character who was barely there to begin with (she was supposedly created to give Sheryl Lee a presence on the show, since Laura was dead throughout and only seen in the context of flashbacks). Thus, she is innocence personified – not that Laura is “guilty,” but she indeed has a bad girl side and was self-destructive for several months before her death. (She sees death as the only way out of her waking nightmare in The Secret Diary.)

The killing of Maddie was a landmark in TV violence and it also remains one of the most memorable and disturbing scenes in the whole series. It was indeed echoed in Wild at Heart, which has at its start a scene where Sailor (Nicolas Cage) kills a man by smashing his head against stairs over and over again. Lynch's attitude at this point was to amplify the violence, perhaps to underscore the “nightmare” aspect, or more simply to show the underside of human behavior. Whatever the case was, this same sadism shows up in Fire Walk With Me, and is another reason the film is a hard one to watch over and over.

We know how Laura died from the series – seeing Leland commit the murder is something else entirely. Her life in her final week is a downward spiral that is unabashedly tragic, therefore the “redemption” offered her at the end (an angel in the Red Room) is touching and too little, too soon – it can't erase the memory of the humiliation she's gone through.


The steady stream of misery that is Laura's life in the film is offset by the FWWM outtake collection edited into a feature called The Missing Pieces. Here, we see many of the scenes with the original TV cast members that were cut to focus the film entirely on Laura – oh, and the Theresa Banks murder, and Cooper's investigation into Chet Desmond's disappearance.

One can easily imagine the loss of the whole first “two acts” of the film in favor of the footage that was scrapped, which contains the characters viewers loved from the original series – but that would leave out Agent Cooper entirely, and since MacLachlan was the star of the series, it was a natural that there be an FBI story in the film (and instead of the one that would solidly connected the Banks murder to that of Laura, we instead get more FBI-related mysteries; only in the Lynch universe can such a button-down group be plagued by so many paranormal experiences).


The Missing Pieces package (found on the 9- and 10-disc Blu-ray releases of the show) lends some levity to the proceedings, and also offers us an earlier look at some of the characters' dilemmas (Big Ed and Norma's romance, for instance). It would've made the film more sympathetic, but it also would've thrown the focus off of Laura's tragic existence.

As it stands, as Thorne outlines in the essays in his book (some of which are exhaustive to the point of reader exhaustion), Lynch took on too many tasks with FWWM: depicting the Banks murder investigation; outlining Cooper's entry into this world; revisiting the TP characters viewers loved; and showing Laura's descent and final “transfiguration.” The fact that the film couldn't be five hours long (the length of the original rough cut) was a problem from the start – it was a theatrical feature and needed to be a reasonable length (and, as it stands, it still feels too long).


It's an incredibly ambitious work, for which Lynch does deserve credit. The oddest element he added, and kept through each phase of the project, is a moment where Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) appears, covered in blood, to Laura, telling her that Cooper is stuck in the Black Lodge. This is a moment intended to “close the loop” with the end of the series (keep in mind that both Mark Frost and MacLachlan had wanted the feature film to pick up where the series left off – which the Showtime season isn't even doing, since it's taking place 25 years later).

The fact that Laura has never, ever met Cooper is not supposed to be a problem – she has appeared to him in the Red Room, and there was always a presumed psychic connection between them (although, when one party is dead, there's not that strong a psychic connection, so it made sense to include it in a prequel, and it made little sense in the series).

The original series counterbalanced its nightmare sequences with the “normal” characters (whom I mentioned in the second part of this piece). FWWM leaves us entirely (once the oddly-structured first two acts end) in the nightmare, and it's not a very enjoyable place to be.

Theresa Banks and Leland Palmer

It has been emphasized that Lynch treated FWWM as a “free-form” experiment (co-scripter Robert Engels used that phrase to sum up Lynch’s approach; Thorne, p. 324.), which created hurdles for many viewers, myself included. It's been suggested by critics who revere the film that one has to separate it entirely from the series for the film to truly work – this requires, of course, that you have to forget all that you've seen before about the Palmer family, Donna, Bobby, James, and of course the bizarro characters (Mike, BOB, the little Man From Another Place).

Most of the action in the Showtime season takes place outside of the titular town – one of the oddest things about FWWM on first viewing was that it contained many scenes set outside Twin Peaks, whereas the original ABC series *never* left the town (even locations in other nearby towns, like One-Eyed Jacks, were depicted as a being a short drive from Twin Peaks).
*****

[Note: Spoilers ahead – Skip down to the “bonus videos” segment. I am not skittish about “spoilers,” but if you are one of those “I can't know anything about it! Don't say anything!” I can only say two things: Skip to the videos, and also, Why are you on the Internet?]


And now we have completely new Twin Peaks episodes but, in true Lynchian fashion, they were not exactly what was expected. As I write this, nine hour-long episodes have aired – we are in the exact middle of the series – and what we've seen so far is truly amazing.

The season thus far has been an inventory of Lynch's approaches from his preceding 10 features and numerous shorts, not forgetting the many videos he made for his website and the preceding episodes of the original Twin Peaks series. So far we've seen:

– thriller sequences
psychodrama
– sci-fi/fantasy elements thrust into a real-world setting
– kinkiness (not too much of this, but I get the uncanny feeling that more will be in store)
– deadpan comedy (also abrasive comedy, and Lynch's fave, the comedy of repetition)
– pure, undistilled surrealism
– and dreams and nightmares. Lots of sequences that only make sense if you think of them as dreams or nightmares.

In the process, we've moved forward from the original narrative. It's been noted in various places that we are 25 years on from the events in the original series, but we've also been treated to flashbacks, and some Net-splainers have felt that the “present” in the show is taking place in two or three different time frames.

Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn)
We've also gotten a giant cast of characters that has, so far, happened to include, in supporting roles, the original TP roster. This is in line with the fact mentioned above – namely, that this new show has barely taken place in the town. (All of these items are subject to change, but as of ep. no. 9 that's where we stand).

It's been fascinating seeing the original cast members again. They have all aged gracefully – well, maybe not Harry Goaz, but he's being made up to look very odd as “Deputy Andy.” The only completely nonsensical item in all of this: Sheryl Lee of course looks terrific at her present age, but it is weird that Laura Palmer has aged in the fantasy scenes (esp. given that she's been dead since 1989).

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for TP (at least this one) is the news that neither Windom Earle nor Annie Blackburn will be in this season – Kenneth Welsh (75 years old, but he will be seen in three new movies and two new TV episodes this year!) and Heather Graham (whose part was considered seminal in the original series conclusion, and FWWM) are not in the IMBD cast listing for the new season.

So far, the only downside of the current season is what fans are calling “The Dougie Show.” In these segments we follow a brain-damaged version of the “good Cooper” as he inhabits the body of a Vegas insurance man. The premise is simple: Coop-as-Dougie repeats the last word of every sentence said to him, and is an innocent guy who happens upon brilliant solutions to problems (a la Chauncey Gardiner in Being There and Dustin Hoffman's “Rain Man” character). These sequences are pretty endless, and I've wondered as I've watched them if they will get better on second viewing (as some of the “middling” Lynch films have).

I've noted several times in these pieces that Lynch loves the comedy of repetition. The Dougie scenes are the perfect illustration of this (making the “old, doddering men” in the second season of Twin Peaks seem like Jerry Lewis by comparison). This particular fondness of Lynch's does tap in to his feelings about how he works at a slower speed as a director (although, as his viewers know, some of his scenes contain brisk and sudden violence – and slapstick!).

“…Most directors like things to move a hair faster than I like. But that’s not a conscious choice on my part. It’s just that if it goes too fast, something is missing. In order to slow it down you have to start talking about why it has to be this or that way, where it goes and how it feels: interior thinking. If you start in the interior, your moves will slow down. Once an actor tunes into that they will automatically do it correctly.” [Lynch on Lynch, p. 227] 

The “evil Cooper” is a much more interesting character than lame-brained Dougie. In these sequences it appears as if Cooper has been possessed by BOB, but Lynch has said that  BOB is “with” Cooper, not inside of him. [Thorne, p. 245]

As I noted previously, one of the most interesting things about Twin Peaks for movie buffs is its overt references to film noir. One of these is the fact that characters smoke (especially the hard-bitten men and the “femme fatales” females). Lynch continues to draw on these archetypes from classic Hollywood movies. In a recent article on Indiewire he was publicly chastised for perpetuating anti-Asian stereotypes, because Diane (Laura Dern) wears a silk dressing gown and has Asian artifacts in her apartment (since white people who collect that kind of thing are all clearly racist).

The writer apparently wasn't aware of this trend in film noir and the fact that Lynch (and possibly Frost, and other creating the show) is probably well-aware of Sternberg and his own “Asianophile” tendencies. Also, one must remember at all times – these are fictional characters, and people who don't exist can basically be doing anything and it doesn't mean the author endorses their behavior.

A classic "slow scene" -- a guy sweeps for several minutes.
The above-mentioned “slowed down” factor has made for the best scenes thus far in the series. These usually involve an intrigue, as when, in the seventh episode, Gordon Cole and Albert bring Diane (the character to whom Cooper’s tapes were addressed in the original series – and the dreaded “Orientalist” according to the p.c. police!) to see the evil Cooper in jail. The best juxtaposition that has happened thus far was that the plot-centric seventh episode was followed by the truly free-form avant-garde mini-movie that was the eighth episode.

Tens of thousands of words have already appeared online about this episode, and it truly is a landmark in terms of television. A premium cable channel gives a noted filmmaker money to go back and “reboot” his critical and popular success from 25 years earlier, and he uses a portion of the budget to make a non-linear episode that draws on the history of avant-garde film while offering up a slew of memorable images, odd and unsettling sounds, and bizarre mind-fucks.


It was interesting to see the people who enjoyed the episode compare it to the work of Terrence Malick (who is friends with Lynch through the AFI, and their mutual long-time friend Jack Fisk) and Kubrick (whom Lynch often cites as one of his favorite filmmakers, along with Fellini and Billy Wilder). Lynch has admitted his debt to Kubrick in more than one interview, but when Kubrick was releasing the turning point for commercial cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968, Lynch had already been a painter for several years, and had made his first two shorts. By 1970, he made The Grandmother, and he then spent most of the Seventies making Eraserhead, which brought avant-garde cinema to the midnight-movies world of cult cinema.

Lynch began as an avant-garde artist and has remained one as a painter, a lithographer, a photographer, and a sculptor. His films have had plots, but he has injected as much non-linearity as he could – with the eighth episode of the new Twin Peaks, he went for broke and concocted a mini-movie that has “narrative events” (the “births” of BOB and Laura, the invasion of the Woodsman from Hell) but is mostly in the realm of Eraserhead: an upsetting and sometimes openly disturbing series of images that occasionally proves to be absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful in its forlorn-ness.

While the “go for broke” aspect of the episode was very impressive, it was also fascinating to see series television meet up with real cinema, as it has done in only a few cases (Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz comes to mind). The much-repeated refrain these days is that we're in “another Golden Age of Television” when the best-written and best-acted TV shows are “doing what cinema used to do” or “what literature used to do” for previous generations.


Thus, a top-notch show – pick your favorite from the usual suspects (The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, et al) is hailed as cinema. But these shows, as good as they are, are simply really excellent TV (nothing to sneer at, since excellent TV can be, and has been, wonderful art). It's not cinema, though – because there is nothing inventive or intelligent about the visual style, there is no mise en scene (the astoundingly beautiful production design in “Mad Men” was not a visual style, it was sublime production design).

Lynch came along and did get real cinema into series television, and numerous lunkheads then publicly complained, “I'm confused – what does this have to do with Twin Peaks?” Well, the “Eraserhead episode” (as I've taken to calling it) did have ties to the narrative of the original TP, but it also linked to the beginning of Lynch's filmography. The fans that watched and were confused and annoyed were no doubt looking for “Lynchian surrealism,” but of the Red Room sort (“look, isn't that dancing dwarf cute?”).

That initial TP dream sequence was indeed radical TV for ABC in April 1990, but the eighth episode of this new “season” of the show was radical TV for any network in any time span. (Along with things like the trippy, pre-psychedelia visual experiments concocted by Ernie Kovacs, and a handful of the greatest programming on PBS in the early Seventies.)

This week's show, the ninth episode, offered another jarring juxtaposition by jumping back into all the plotlines with a vengeance. In one hour we leapt from thread to thread, with some new “presents” for viewers. This season certainly is a little gift-box for viewers who value quality; it also represents Lynch and Frost successfully making the full-length, very long project that FWWM could've been, if premium cable nets had wanted Lynch/Frost to work for them back in the early Nineties.

Among our new little treats: new performers (Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh); bonding between two characters that no one with any sense dislikes (Diane and Cole); and finally something substantial for the old cast members to do (Major Briggs' “message” for his son and his fellow lawmen). While the “Eraserhead episode" had distinctly “Lynchian” qualities, this show seemed to be more the brainchild of Mark Frost, as it included a number of plot threads and worked in a very intriguing paranormal plotline.
*****

It is most definitely good to be living in a period when David Lynch is still coming up with new things to frustrate, annoy, and mindfuck a percentage of the populace. The idea that nine more, totally new, hours of this stuff is waiting to be slowly doled out is pretty damned special.

And what is the single best aspect of all of Lynch's work, linking him to the great filmmakers and artists of the past? His sincerity. As has been noted by his colleagues in interview after interview, documentary after documentary, he honestly believes in the world he depicts onscreen. 

He embraces the Norman Rockwell-esque American Fifties, while also acknowledging the brutally violent underside of the American character. Nothing is “hidden” or ironic in his work (even his deadpan sense of humor, which often seems to have been put in place to mock his own style). Whatever you can say for or against his work, it is genuine, it is American, and it is very, very, wonderfully strange.

“There are things about painting that are true for everything in life. That’s the way painting is. Music is also one of those things. There are things that can’t be said with words. And that’s sort of what painting is all about. And that’s what filmmaking, to me, is mostly about. There are words and there are stories, but there are things that can be said with film that you can’t say with words. It’s just the beautiful language of cinema.” [Lynch on Lynch, pp. 26-27]
*****

And now for the last batch of “bonus videos”….

First a great profile of Lynch by Jonathan Ross from the series For One Week Only. It’s an excellent “101” for newcomers and a time capsule for the diehard fan.


Another little peephole into what it was like when the show exploded in its first season: Sherilyn Fenn and Michael Ontkean on the MTV Awards:


A pure oddity: the complete video (missing sound in some sequences) of the soap opera watched by the citizens of Twin Peaks, “Invitation to Love.” I believe this is more of a Frost creation than one by Lynch:


When Lynch discovered the Internet and started making short videos for his davidlynch.com website, he used to greet subscribers with a daily weather report. Below is a sample item. For the real deal check out this one.


One of the best known Net-only creations was his series “Rabbits,” a “Twilight Zone” blending of “The Honeymooners,” furries, and deadpan humor. Dig that brilliant audience track!


“Out Yonder” was another Net-only series Lynch did for a bit. It features David and his son Austin Lynch as two yokels who are confused by most things and are fond of one particular phrase:


The single funniest thing Lynch produced in my opinion is the web cartoon series “Dumbland.” It’s incredibly childish, mean-spirited, sadistic, insane, warped, and seems like a reaction to the meaner side of TV cartoon shows like “Beavis and Butthead” and “Family Guy.” I’m very glad the poster in this case put up Italian-subtitled versions of these (unneeded by English speakers, but even funnier). This is my favorite installment, where the phrase “Get the stick! Get the stick!” gets quite a workout:


Lynch has directed many music videos. Here’s a good one for Nine Inch Nails, “Came Back Haunted.” Any video that has to warn viewers with epilepsy that they should not watch is bound to be an intense viewing experience:


Although my favorite track from Lynch as a musician is his spoken word slice of weirdness “Strange and Unproductive Thinking,” this is the full-length video for another of his explorations of the weird impulses in young America, “Crazy Clown Time”:


Lynch has continued to work in a number of media as an artist. Here’s a very short video he did for an exhibition of his photos in Paris:



And lastly, an amazing minute of film. Lynch took part in the film Lumiere and Company, in which a host of filmmakers (from Theo Angelopoulos to Zhang Yimou) were given an original Lumiere camera and asked to make a film. The only stipulations were: no sound, no edits, one minute in length (that’s all the film the camera could carry), and no more than three takes.

Lynch came up with a short inspired by Melies and Feuillade called “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed”: