Friday, April 28, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade's 2016 film, Toni Erdmann is like an iceberg -- two-thirds of the essential narrative is submerged and, therefore, invisible to the eye.  I have a sense that the director became enamored with the title character, a person who really doesn't exist even within the frame of the film, and may have lost control of certain aspects of the plot -- it's like Falstaff seizing Shakespeare's imagination in the history plays involving Henry V.  The movie is very long, 165 minutes, and, yet, it feels strangely foreshortened, abbreviated in some ways, with essential integument excised.  The version that premiered in German cinemas last year is probably edited down from an initial cut that was much longer.  Even so, there is a novelistic density of detail and an encyclopedic scope of reference in the 165 minute film that is remarkable.  To understand what seems to have been omitted, of course, it's necessary for me to summarize briefly what Ade shows us.

Winfried Conradi is a retired music teacher, probably in his early seventies.  He apparently lives in Aachen with his old and sick dog.  Conradi's daughter, Ines, is a successful executive with a multi-national oil corporation.  She is single, fantastically hardworking, and estranged from her father -- this estrangement is not dramatic; there is no trauma that has created the distance between daughter and father.  Like the busy younger generation in Ozu's Tokyo Story (a film that Toni Erdmann resembles slightly), Ines is simply too busy to take time for her father.  Furthermore, on first blush, her analytical, no-nonsense personality clashes violently with her father's zany and wildly extroverted, even confrontational, self-presentation.  In fact, and I am indebted to a critic on Roger Ebert's blog for this notion, the acorn has not fallen too far from the tree and Ines turns out to be just aggressively weird and nonconformist as her father.  During a strained visit to Aachen, Conradi senses that Ines is unhappy.  They part on bad terms when he asks her invasive questions about how she perceives the meaning of her life.  When his dog dies, Conradi, goes to Bucharest where Ines is pursuing a contract as a consultant to a Rumanian oil company.  Wearing an unruly "fright" wig and decked-out with protruding "buck" teeth, a sort of Spencer's Gifts gag outfit, Conradi harasses Ines at work, inserting himself into her professional activities.  At various times, he pretends to be Toni Erdmann, a wealthy German émigré and Ines' "life coach"; on other occasions, he acts as an imposter, claiming that he is the German ambassador to Rumania.  Conradi haunts his daughter's business meetings and attends various business-related parties with her -- there is lot of lavish business-entertaining in this film, some of it involving cocaine.  At several gatherings, Conradi playing the role of Erdman says that his daughter is distant and preoccupied by work and that he has had to hire another young woman to impersonate his daughter.  ("She cuts my toenails," Erdmann proudly proclaims and he suggests renting family members to wealthy Germans might be a good industry for the impoverished Rumanians to pursue.) These antics lead to a series of increasingly explosive encounters with his daughter.  Ultimately, Ines, driven to distraction, begins to act erratically herself.  After belting out a Whitney Houston tune at a family party that Erdmann and she have crashed, Ines greets guests at her birthday brunch the next day stark naked.  She claims that the nudity is a "team-building" exercise.  After the disastrous nude brunch, Ines quits her job with the multi-national company exploiting the Rumanian oil fields for work with another big corporation with offices in Singapore.  At the funeral of her grandmother, Ines sees her father once more.  His father expresses his hopes that she will make the best of her life and be happy.  She briefly dons his gag false teeth and wears a bucolic-looking straw hat.  But it's a momentary rapprochement and the film ends with a long shot of Ines standing alone in the back yard of someone's home in Aachen.  Nothing much has changed and she intends to be in Singapore for the next two years.  

This outline doesn't hint at the complexity of the film and its novelistic dimensions.  Among other things, the film addresses very intelligently issues such as European feminism and the "glass ceiling," the Rumanian oil industry and poverty in that nation, infighting among close colleagues in business, painting Easter eggs in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and problems caused  by the EU and the increasing globalization of multi-national corporations.  In particular, about a third of the film is devoted to Ines' intricate scheming with respect to the business enterprises that she serves -- an important aspect of the film is its demonstration (by showing not telling) that Ines is much more competent, ruthless, and brilliant than any of her male counterparts, (although she has a man for a boss) and that she is as aggressive in her world as her father is within his sphere.  (We see Conradi in Aachen leading a choir dressed and made-up as zombies singing a song about death to High School students; when he loses his last piano student, he mournfully says:  "But I bought the piano just for you" before admitting this is "just a joke" and, when an Amazon package is delivered to his house, he calls for his brother, says the man is a mail-bomber, and, then in costume as Toni Erdmann, terrorizes the postal delivery worker.  During most of the Aachen scenes, Conradi wears stark white zombie make-up and has a smear of blood painted around his lips.)  There is so much in the film that it is surprising that, in some ways, we know so little about the characters.  Conradi and Ines have no back-story; we don't know anything about Ines' mother or what her relationship was like with the eccentric Winfried; I'm guessing the funeral at the film's end involves Ines' grandmother and Conradi's mother but this is never clearly established.  We don't really know anything about Conradi's relationship with Ines before the movie begins.  Conradi has an uncanny capability of tracking Ines and appearing wherever she goes -- how does he do that?  A very important scene involves Ines and Erdmann at an Easter party -- I wasn't able to figure out how Erdmann got the invitation to the party and how he managed to find the place.  From time to time, you have the feeling that expository information has ended up on the cutting room floor.  Ade uses no establishing shots -- this leads to momentary confusion:  are we in Aachen or Bucharest?  Conradi's appearances disrupting Ines' business and personal affairs seem increasingly uncanny.  The unheimlich aspect of these interventions is signified by Conradi's make-up as a zombie at the film's beginning and his appearance in the vast and furry body of a Bulgarian kukeri at Ines' naked brunch.  In contrast with the other guests, who are either completely, or almost, nude, Conradi rings the doorbell covered from head to foot in a costume simulating bear fur.  He wears a massive globular head-piece from which protrudes a staff decorated with bells and tassels.  (Kukeri are costumed mummers whose appearance is apotropaic -- they are supposed to ward off evil spirits; their role in folk traditions in the Balkans dates back to Greek times -- it is surmised that they may be representations of Dionysius.)  In an alarming sequence, Conradi can't get the Kukeri helmet off his head and the audience fears that he will suffocate in the hot costume -- it seems to be a warm day and everyone else is lightly dressed.) In his Kukeri costume, Conradi seems more approachable and the irritable Ines actually embraces him when he is dressed as a monster. 

Toni Erdmann belongs to an old and honorable genre of films -- the mismatched buddy or "odd couple" movie.  Initially, the film works with energy generated from the contrast between the apparently laid-back, comical, and mischievous father and his tight-laced, highly disciplined daughter.  But the film is unhurried and its length allows Ade to demonstrate that father and daughter are not that different in their aggressive approach to the world.  As described, the movie seems slightly sentimental, the wacky antics of the old pensioner played for laughs.  But this would be a misperception of the film:  Winfried Conradi's harassment of his daughter is maniacal and obsessive, even, as I have previously observed, uncanny.  There is a distinct sadistic edge to his impersonations and much of what he does seems to be directed toward humiliating and shaming Ines.  If he is acting from love, it is an odd Teutonic sort of love.  Indeed, in his manic impersonations, Winfried Conradi seems just as single-minded and disciplined as his daughter.  What's more, he doesn't seem to be having that much fun -- Conradi is the kind of deadpan joker who says the most outrageous things without providing any evidence that he is joking.  We rarely see him smile except with the prosthetic teeth protruding from his lips.  Ines is equally confrontational and perverse -- we discover this in her peculiar approach to sex.  She has a boyfriend among her colleagues, a little vain fellow, who fancies himself a great ladies' man.  Ines makes him masturbate for her amusement, demanding that he ejaculate on a room service petites four with the promise that she will eat the semen-soaked comestible once he has finished.  And she goes far beyond any of her father's antics in orchestrating the naked brunch, a stunt that she engineers out of annoyance that the zippers on her tight clothing are inaccessible.  (The stunt is also intended to draw attention to the pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace -- by appearing stark naked at the brunch, she draws attention to, and defuses, the sexual undertones in the consulting firm:  in this milieu, women are supposed to dress seductively and be available for flirtations with the customers -- so why not just appear naked?)  There is another sinister element in Ines' conduct -- she's just as nasty, or, even, nastier than the men (when she gets blood on her blouse, she makes her adoring assistant change blouses with her).  But she doesn't seem to get much joy out of coldly dominating others -- for much of the film, she seems profoundly depressed, taking refuge in long naps; Ines literally sleeps through much of the movie.

Toni Erdmann is full of small telling details.  For instance, when Winfried's dog dies, the sick animal, too weak to go inside the house, apparently crawls off to die under a bush.  Winfried is keeping a vigil next to the sick dog and has fallen asleep.  When he awakes the dog is missing and he finds the body a few yards away under the shrubbery.  I have personally seen dogs act in this way and the film is packed with verismo -- realistic details of this kind.  But, at its essence, Toni Erdmann is a kind of half-crazed fairy tale, a film that features the appearance of a furry monster at its climax.  The actors playing Ines and Winfried are on the screen either together or alternatively in every shot in the film and their performances are memorable and could not be bettered.  Although its a long film, Toni Erdmann is never less than compelling and boasts several scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.  It's one of the best pictures of the year. (Hollywood has its claws in this film:  we understand a remake is under way -- Robin Williams would have been ideal in the part of the old man; perhaps, Louis C. K. can play the role.)      

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


The best documentaries have two characteristics:  first, they reveal their subjects in an unexpected and surprising light, and, second, they challenge the viewer to form his or her own opinions about the material presented.  A documentary that tells me only what I already know (or think I know) about its topic fails -- if the movie only shows what I could have surmised on my own, then, the film is superfluous.  Similarly, if a documentary is designed to persuade me to a particular point of view and guides me so brutally that I have no recourse but to accept the film's premises and conclusions, then, the movie is a species of propaganda.  As Leni Riefenstahl and Roger Moore have shown us, propaganda can be art -- but it is a debased form of art, more closely related to advertising than anything else.  By these criterion, Sergei Loznitsa's 90 minute documentary Austerlitz is a stunning success.  Unfortunately, the movie's praxis is so rigorous and austerely scientific that the film will have most audiences running for the exits.  This fact, alone, is thought-provoking and deserves careful consideration.

Loznitsa's film consists of approximately 40 shots -- I counted them and reached a total of 32 separate camera placements with the four final shots utilizing a single set-up and, thereby, creating a montage of rather inconspicuous jump-cuts. (I count forty images, because I probably missed several).  The film is shot in austere, but beautiful black and white.  In some instances, the camera uses very deep focus to flatten the image, creating a frieze-like effect -- people moving toward the camera seem not to advance, but rather walk in place.  Some camera set-ups exploit multiple planes of focus -- people in the foreground are blurred while those in the deep and middle distance are in tight focus.  Several striking shots use windows as mirrors - we see people both inside and exterior to buildings; the people inside the building look out through glass on which we see reflected the crowds outside.  In one startling shot, people approaching from the right are first glimpsed in the pane of a half-open door where they seem to be somehow magnified.  Loznitsa's camera placements involving panes of translucent glass sometimes look like similar effects achieved in Tarkovsky films.  In several shots, objects in the background seem to loom close to the people inspecting them -- for instance, one image of two ominous side-by-side ovens is framed by the telephoto lens to make the crematorium seem very close, indeed, looming over the spectators.  Each shot lasts from 90 seconds to three minutes.  The camera does not move.  Only in the last 30 seconds of the film does anyone explicitly acknowledge the presence of the camera recording the crowds of people touring the historical site -- at the very end of the movie, a girl casually waves to Loznitsa''s camera.  The film's sound-recording is similarly complex -- we hear natural sounds (birds, the wind in trees, something that sounds like the hardware on a flag clicking against a flag pole); after about 20 minutes, the sound is recorded so that we can hear what people are saying -- it is a Babel of voices, often with several layers one atop the other:  in one sequence, subtitles tell us what a Spanish tour guide is saying while we hear an English or Australian tour guide speaking simultaneously.  We are naturally drawn to listen to the English commentary while trying to read the subtitles that are about something completely different -- this is disorienting and difficult for the viewer to do. The crowds shown in the images ebb and flow -- sometimes, we see dozens of people crowded together in the frame.  But these crowds also disperse and there are privileged moments when we see one or two people alone in the frame -- everyone else has wondered off.  The alternating congestion in the images and their kenosis or emptying out gives the film an odd rhythm. 

The subject of the film is Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, or more accurately, the tourists visiting the camp.  The film was made on a very hot day in the summer and the light seems to be blinding.  Many of the visitors wear scanty shorts and tee-shirts, often bearing disorienting slogans in English.  The big parade-grounds are blinding and people walk under parasols to keep the sun off their heads.  A lot of the tourists carry bottles of water and drink occasionally.  About half of them have audio guides that they hold to their ears.  Some take photographs with their cameras or selflie-sticks.  (In one scene, an attractive woman poses with her arms casually stretched to both sides directly in front of the gaping black sockets of the crematorium ovens.)  The film begins with a shot of trees moving in the breeze and, behind them, tired tourists sitting on a bench.  Then, there are several shots of the gateway to the camp both from within the fence and outside -- in handsome Bauhaus letters, the gate displays the motto Arbeit macht frei.  The next 30 shots take place at various locations in the camp.  This sequence ends with a long shot, empty of people, of the ovens.  The final four shots are jump-cuts showing the crowds of people exiting the camp, most of them smiling and looking happy.  The last shot shows a large group of people wearing white tee-shirts that read "Travel for Peace" with an image of the globe and a dove.  A girl associated with this group waves merrily to the camera.  (Several people inside the camp seem to have observed the camera but appear to be intimidated by it -- they look and we see concern registered in their eyes but  they don't gesture at Loznitza's photographer.)  Often we see people looking with grave concern at something off-camera, presumably a plaque or some kind of photographic exhibit.  The film is not about what the tourists see and so we are never shown the historical exhibits or written plaques in the camp.  The objective of the film is to show us the tourists, not the camp and, so, with few exceptions, we can't figure out exactly where the visitors are located or what exactly they are seeing.  An exception is near the ovens where so-called Sonderkommando extracted the dead from the gas chambers and fed them into the crematoria.  There is a huge grim statute in that area, a kind of all-male Pieta of emaciated prisoners carrying a dead man on a spread cloth -- it looks something like certain Baroque and renaissance images of Christ's deposition from the cross.  Most of the tourists wear white because of the heat and we see them rendered by the telephoto lens appearing like blithe drifting clouds in front of the huge, grotesque statues -- this shot has a very great formal beauty. 

So what are we to make of this film.  Loznitza provides no voice-over and no overt commentary.  The deck is loaded against the poor tourists:  it's a hot day and to say that they are casually dressed is an understatement and, of course, they guzzle water and, sometimes, even surreptitiously eat food that they have smuggled into the site.  The camp seems huge and it's pretty clear that many of these people are tired, probably a bit numb from walking long distances.  The film would have a very different look if it were shot in bad weather with the tourists wearing coats and parkas or if it were snowing.  The tourists generally seem indifferent to what they are seeing -- but this is no different than what I have seen in crowds of tourists dutifully trudging through the Louvre or Versailles or the Metropolitan Museum.  We have all experienced the notion that some places are "just too much" -- they are too big and overwhelming and, after a while, you just want to tick-off the highlights and get to a decent restaurant.  Most probably, Loznitza's film documents a certain deficiency in the imagination, a defect that is probably necessary if we are to lead reasonably successful lives.  It is not easy to imagine the suffering of another; something in our constitution, our fundamental make-up debars such imagination.  If the people in the film were to truly imagine what was done to the inmates of this camp, they would faint or collapse in helpless sorrow or go mad.  (And it's not just a failure in the imagination of the tourists -- if the testimony of Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl is believed, most of the inmates in these camps couldn't quite imagine what was happening either and those who survived seem to have endured often because they couldn't, or wouldn't, comprehend what was happening around them.)  I have often said this:  if one were sufficiently imaginative to truly grasp with empathy the human suffering occurring in any one square mile of a city, that person would go mad.  And, so, I can't exactly fault the tourists who are put to the test by Loznitza's lens and seem to fail by the rigorous standards that the film implies. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (2017) is a large-scale, globe-trotting production -- the movie was made in Northern Ireland and on-location in the jungles of Columbia.  (The picture was primarily financed through Amazon Studios, a funding source that rhymes with the movie's subject.)  Indigenous tribal people ensconced in a national park in Columbia play an important role in the film and there are elaborate battle scenes (the Battle of the Somme), colorful formal balls, and a spectacular hunt with a hundred dogs and horses performing for helicopters zooming overhead.  It's a period picture, set between 1906 and 1925, and, when the hero goes to London, the film shows us murky streets crowded with extras, steam, fog, soot and picturesque urban filth.  About a half-dozen vintage locomotives roar through the landscape.  It's impressive, as handsome as can be, but, ultimately, the film feels anachronistic -- it's a throw-back to the sort of movie attempted by David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia, intrepid Englishmen braving the hazards of dangerous terrain.  Conscious of the film's atavistic appeal, the director, James  Gray, and his screenwriter bow toward trendy political correctness -- an important theme in the film is the hero's admiration for the tribal people that he encounters and his desire to prove that their forbears were as civilized as the ancient Britons.  But this doesn't change the fact that the film has a very archaic and stiff upper-lip -- in this movie, a man addresses the Royal Geographic Society with the words:  "The jungle is hell... but one quite likes it." 

Percy Fawcett was a household name within living memory.  My father admired his robust and vivid travel books and his disappearance in 1925 resulted in dozens of rescue expeditions continuing for, at least, three decades.  Fawcett is the hero of the film, an explorer who encountered (he claimed) evidence of an advanced civilization in the Amazonian basin.  Fawcett, who was a tireless self-promoter -- an aspect of his life concealed by the film -- made three famous expeditions into the Amazon to seek a chimera that he called "the lost city of Z" (pronounced "zed" in this film).  The Edwardian era was a great age of exploration -- it was the epoch of Shackleton, Byrd, Perry, Amundsen, and other adventurers who filled in the blank spots on the maps.  Fawcett was among these men, a fellow either preternaturally strong and healthy or fantastically lucky -- Amazon exploration killed just about everyone who attempted it, but Fawcett was unscathed; at least until the end, he seemed to flourish in the green hell of the jungle.  The problem that the film faces is that exploration is intrinsically difficult to dramatize -- the great explorers trudge through wasteland, everyone around them dies, and, at last, they either die or return to civilization to begin the cycle again.  Fawcett went to the Amazon three times with similar results:  people die, the natives attack, more people die and Fawcett fails to discover his lost city although he returns with tantalizing artifacts.   The Lost City of Z is a big, prestigious bio-pic and, generally, follows the outline of Fawcett's life.  But it's almost completely static as a drama -- Fawcett's longsuffering wife (whom he dependably impregnates each time he's back in Britain) grieves and rages that her husband is drawn away from her, they argue, the children wish their father would remain at home, and, then, Fawcett returns to the jungle where he suffers exorbitantly with his men who mostly perish from disease, insects, hunger, and exhaustion.  Fawcett takes a vacation from exploration on the Western Front where all his men are killed around him in a frontal assault on German machine guns and where he is gassed with chlorine and almost blinded.  Recovering from his wounds, Fawcett is induced to make a last attempt to discover the lost city, traveling light with his son, into the Bolivian jungle.  He and his son vanish and are never seen again.  Since no one knows what happened to Fawcett, the movie hedges its bets on this point -- Gray stages a phantasmagoria redolent of the ending of Apocalypse Now with innumerable campfires flaring against he black jungle and huge tripods filled with fire.  A fictional twist at the end of the picture suggests that Fawcett discovered the lost city.  I don't want to spoil the film's final shot, but it suffices to say that it is very beautiful, surreal, and strangely moving. (David Grann's source essay and book involve the writer's modern-day venture into the jungles that swallowed-up Percy Fawcett and his "discovery" of what archaeologists have known for a decade -- there was, indeed, an advanced agricultural civilization in Amazonia, but its monuments, largely involving monumental earthworks and canals, are hidden by the jungle.   Grann's book ends with the writer surveying a landscape that he understands to have been intensely manipulated by pre-Columbian human beings: it is right there in plain sight, but you have to know what to see.) 

A brilliant final shot doesn't equate to a great movie and, ultimately, you have seen everything in The Lost City of Zed before and in better movies.  Herzog's Amazonian movies, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo (and to some extent Cobra Verde) have covered this terrain far more effectively -- indeed, Gray steals a motif from Fitzcarraldo, the opera performance in the jungle.  (He even casts Franco Nero as the world-weary rubber baron, a nod toward the Euro-trash milieu occupied by the redoubtable Klaus Kinski.)  Gray does a reasonably good job with this material -- in fact, by typical Hollywood standards, he has a made a film to rank with some of David Lean's pictures -- but with a few exceptional scenes embedded in material rife with clichés.  That said, I am sucker for this kind of movie and shed a few tears while, nonetheless, convinced that The Lost City of Zed is pretty derivative and, ultimately, dramatically unsuccessful.  A Russian soothsayer appears mysteriously on the Western Front and tells the hero that exploration is "his destiny" -- the scene is staged in subterranean bunker during a heavy bombardment.  At the end of the movie, the ever-patient Mrs. Fawcett quotes Browning:  "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for."  I shed some hot tears for this film, but I'm afraid that you won't. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Daguerreotype (The Secret of the Black Room)

Hitchcock's influence hangs heavily, and uneasily, over Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Daguerrotype, a film made in France where it bears the title La Secrete de Chambre Noir.  Kurosawa specializes in horror films and the picture features two ghosts and a haunted house.  The mansion inhabited by the ghosts is located on property that stands in the way of a real estate development and, for a time, there is a suggestion ala Diabolique or Scooby Doo that the spooks are contrived for ulterior and criminal purposes -- here to terrify the landowner into surrendering fee simple to his title to the developer's goons.  Kurosawa nods in this direction but its a red herring and, in fact, his ghosts are apparently supposed to be the real thing.  The picture is shot with the deliberate pace that we expect in an art-house production and the film is exceptionally handsome and well-acted albeit in a monotonous way.  But it's schlock and, at 135 minutes, at least three-quarters of an hour too long.

A young man, Jean, answers an ad to become a famous photographer's assistant.  The photographer, Stephane, lives in a spooky and decaying manor on the edge of Paris -- he has a hulking butler who looks just like Jean Renoir.  Stephane was once a famous fashion photographer and he uses archaic equipment to take his portraits, daguerreotype photographs with silver emulsion that require exposures, at least, 20 minutes long.  Stephane, who bears a startling resemblance to the comic Louis C. K., has been obsessively photographing his daughter since his wife hanged herself.  Stephane's pictures of his daughter involve exposures as long as 120 minutes and the girl has to be wired into an apparatus to keep her upright -- this device made of stainless steel with many hooks and barbs looks like a medieval instrument of torture and it's terrifying to behold.  Stephane is shown photographing a dead baby resting in a cradle with the grieving parents standing next to the child and the first hour of the film is genuinely creepy -- the ruinous mansion has eerie aura and the apparitions are startling.  There's one terrifying scene in which a ghost materializes, lures Stephane's daughter into the basement and, then, seems to hurl the girl down the stairs when she ascends the steps out of the chambre noir ("the dark room") -- we see the girl climbing the steps; she reaches the top of the frame and the camera lingers on the empty basement.  We expect something scary to happen and are shocked to see the girl crashing down the steps, turning deadly looking somersaults as she falls.  (There's an explanation for this, of sorts:  the mad photographer has been using a powerful muscle relaxant to paralyze his daughter for the long exposures -- this seems to have caused her fall.)  The film accelerates into high gear for a few nightmarish minutes as Jean tries to get the limp girl to the hospital.  Somehow, he loses her body when he crashes the car.  Then, we see the girl emerge out of pitch darkness, apparently somehow resurrected.  The rest of the film involves Jean's efforts to get Stephane to sell the mansion -- there's a lot of drinking and Jean seems to be in cahoots with Marie, Stephane's daughter.  Kurosawa stages some scary apparitions but the film doesn't go anywhere special and, more or less, peters out.  I could have improved this film 100% with a better ending that's implicit in the material but that Kurosawa somehow missed.  We have seen Stephane taking daguerreotype pictures of the dead.  In my version, the mad photographer would use the apparatus for posing his subjects to install his dead daughter in the basement where he would photograph her decomposition.  SPOILER ALERT:  the girl is dead anyhow and the hero merely fantasizes that she is alive (or, perhaps, is realistically copulating with a ghost).  I would set up a reveal where the young lover goes into the basement and finds the rotting corpse of his girlfriend suspended on the posture-apparatus, posing for her father's huge daguerreotype camera. The horror! the horror!   

The Salesman

The Salesman ( 2016) is an Iranian domestic drama, conspicuously impoverished and understated until its explosive final reel.   Directed by the highly lauded Asgar Farhadi, the film was awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture.  The film is difficult for several for reasons.  First, there is the problem of construing a non-European foreign film set in a country that looks modern but that is culturally very different from Europe and the United States.  Simply, and insensitively stated, we can't parse what is pathology common to Iranian society from pathology unique to an individual character.  This is particularly true in a film that is primarily about the role of women and their rights in modern Tehran.  The society's strict gender roles, the separation of the sexes in school, and the country's practice, here shown to be remarkably illogical, of requiring women to wear head scarves as a sign of their subordinate status occludes an understanding that only gradually dawns on the viewer -- the principal male character, Emad, is crazy and a nasty man to boot.  What we initially interpret as a malaise afflicting the society as a whole is exemplified in the protagonist who has, in effect, lost his mind.  Second, Farhadi's hands are tied by the Iranian censors; this is particularly problematic for a film that turns on an attempted rape.  Asfagar makes a witty internal reference to the strictures enforced on his film early in the movie.  A staggeringly incompetent group of Iranian actors, something like a community theater troupe, are rehearsing Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  (The protagonist has a picture of Marilyn Monroe turned sideways on his dresser.)  A woman observes that the censors are requiring three cuts in the script.  So Farhadi stages three provocations in his film.  On two occasions, someone goes into a toilet to urinate.  Another person stands at the door listening to them.  Obviously, Farhadi is not allowed to simulate any sounds relating to excretion.  Nonetheless, we hear a trickle of water on both occasions, only to learn from the next shot, that someone is has turned on a faucet.  It's a risible device and clearly intended as an affront to the censor.  Similarly, a dignified Iranian actress is required to play an American woman of low repute -- she mentions in the play's dialogue that she is half-naked and "has to dress."  One of the actors bursts into laughter during the rehearsal -- the woman is dressed from head-to-toe in an elaborate scarlet dress and, in fact, wearing a big hat with a feather on it.  Iranian censors require women of low repute to wear scarlet dresses, be completely covered, and substitute for their drab headscarf, a flamboyant hat.  This is what the other actor finds so funny much to the outrage of the aggrieved actress who threatens to quit the show.  The third problem that the film poses is that it is very, very slow,  Farhadi is a persnickety director and, unlike many American filmmakers, he dots every "i" and crosses every "t".  The film's plot is carefully established and, then, because Farhadi is an artist, an elaborate system of echoes, resonances, and cross-references is installed.  The film is densely symbolic, but, in the manner of Ibsen -- it is also intensely realistic.  The middle hour of the film is unrelieved tedium, the slowest of slow burns leading to a spectacularly emotional and gripping confrontation at the end.  As an example of Farhadi's plodding, but ultimately effective, labor -- he builds this movie before your eyes brick by brick -- there is a theme involving public humiliation.  If you err in Iran, people call your family, tell your wife, and shame you in front of your children.  The anti-hero, Emad, is a schoolteacher and, when he falls asleep while showing a movie (an universal technique that teachers use around the world to avoid teaching), the students take cell-phone pictures of him snoring.  Emad is outraged when he wakes up, seizes a student's cell-phone, and, then, studies the pictures on the device -- apparently, the kid has downloaded some porn onto his phone.  Emad says:  "I'm going to call your father and let him look at the pictures on your phone."  Then, someone tells him that the boy's father is dead.  At the end of the movie, when Emad confronts the man who attacked his wife, he is not interested in calling the police -- instead, he says that he will call the man's wife, daughter, and future son-in-law (who have been shopping for their wedding) to humiliate him in front of his family.  This is merely one of many examples that might be adduced as to Farhadi's hard work setting up all of the allusions, parallels, and symbols that the film needs for its meanings.  This would not be so painful but for the fact that Farhadi is resolutely humorless -- there's nothing funny in the film.  And, furthermore, he adopts a Dubliner's style of "scrupulous meanness" with respect to his mise-en-scene:  this is one of the ugliest movies ever made.  The characters look shabby and live in hideous ramshackle concrete tenements.  Farhadi shoots the film like an episode of The Office -- he uses a tag-along handheld camera with a slight, but perceptible wobble to follow his characters.  Make no mistake:  Farhadi knows exactly what he wants to show and how he wants to stage the action -- he is master of indirection and de-dramatization in the manner of Abbas Kiastoami.  But the film's sheer ugliness and lack of any kind of cinematic elegance, all of which is intended, make the middle hour of The Salesman a kind of purgatory. 

So what is The Salesman about?  Broadly speaking, the film explores sexism in Tehran.  The mechanism for this analysis is a rape, or attempted rape, inflicted upon the hero's wife, Rana.  Emad and Rana live in a horrible concrete office block that threatens to collapse one night.  It is not clear whether the building is collapsing from its own weight or being undermined -- one shot shows a front-end loader digging at the foundation of the building.  What is clear is that building will function as a symbol for the failing marriage between Rana and Emad -- the windows in the apartment shatter and we see their bedroom with two huge fissures over the marital bed.  Emad is a high school teacher and he is acting the role of the old salesman in Miller's play.  Rana performs the part of his wife in that theater work.  Babak, another actor in the play, is a local landlord and he has an apartment that is vacant -- the previous tenant is reputed to have been a prostitute.  Rana and Emad move into the apartment.  The previous tenant's property is locked in a room and there are sinister overtones about the manner in which she left the place.  Babak is evasive about her and refuses to call to demand that she remove her furniture, including a child's bike, from the premises.  (Instead, the furniture is put outdoors under a kind of awning where it is ruined by the rain.)  Just before Rana takes a shower, she buzzes open the security door, expecting it to be her husband -- instead, it is a man who either rapes, or attempts to rape, her.  (The man also leaves money for her on the mantle.)  Everyone assumes that Rana is somehow complicit in the rape -- after all, she buzzed the man into the apartment -- and given this pervasive attitude of blaming the victim, it is not surprising that Rana doesn't ask for police help.  (This part of the film is very hard to construe:  Emad never really asks Rana what happened and she doesn't tell him -- this peculiarity is, perhaps, an artifact of censorship, but, also, turns out to be evidence of Emad's madness.  Emad doesn't really care exactly what happened to his wife -- he is more concerned with avenging to damage to his masculine pride.)  It takes a while for the light to dawn on us:  Emad thinks he is the victim, feels that he is the person who has been wronged, and sets out to solve the crime himself and inflict retribution on the wrongdoer.  We discover that Emad is, in effect, crazed when he prohibits eating pasta that was inadvertently bought with the money left by the assailant -- it is as if the food, itself, is tainted by the assault.  Ultimately, Emad lures the perpetrator to the collapsing building where there is a confrontation involving all the principals in the film.  This sequence is stunning and represents the pay-off for all of the elaborate scene-setting comprising the first ninety minutes of the film.  At the climax, fundamental questions are posed about revenge, mercy, and justice -- the question is raised as who was really wronged in the assault.  Emad thinks that he has been the person primarily injured, a conviction that the casually sexist society around him also maintains.  Babak, it turns out, has been sexually harassing the prostitute and, probably, she paid her rent with her body.  Everyone assumes that prostitutes can be raped without recompense and that, in fact, this doesn't even constitute a crime.  Since rape is a crime for which the woman always primarily at fault, it doesn't really pay to investigate such things or even talk much about them.  Finally, the film draws complex, elliptical, but satisfying connections to Miller's play.  The sexual transgression in the play that was hidden and destroys Biff Loman, Willie's favorite son, is played-out in the relationship between the would-be rapist and his own family.  And, it seems, that, perhaps, the characters have inadvertently learned something from Miller's play -- the calamity that befalls the characters in The Death of a Salesman seems, perhaps, avoided in Farhadi's film.  This is a demanding film and, rather unattractive for most of its screen-time,  but it deserves to be seen. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Light Sleeper

Johnny LaTour, played by Willem Dafoe in Paul Schrader's 1991 Light Sleeper, is the kind of drug dealer who keeps a diary inflected with Kierkegaard, avoids the white powder himself, and urges his more abject customers into treatment, recommending that they enroll at Hazelden in Minnesota.  He has a soft spot for an ex-wife that he spots one evening in a photogenic rainstorm on the deliriously photogenic streets of Manhattan.  He is sentimental, kindhearted, a man who claims good intentions while carelessly destroying those around him.  He doesn't know how to use a gun and dowses himself liberally in cologne purchased duty-free at the airport -- presumably, to hide the stench of mortality.  In short, LaTour is a chimera, a creature that exists only in Paul Schrader's imagination and, of course, a surrogate for the director himself.  Light Sleeper is an entertaining example of self-plagiarism or, perhaps, even self-parody, although I think Schrader is too relentlessly earnest for the latter -- it's a collage of themes and scenes from other Schrader scripts, a mash-up of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Hard Core, and most obviously, American Gigolo with a little bit of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ thrown in for a good measure:  the gaunt Dafoe sprawls on a floor arms outstretched and naked, crucified for Ed Lachmann's camera.  All of this stuff is pretty good in the original and not bad when repeated; Schrader reminds me a little of Handel recycling his greatest hits one after another. 

The film's plot is simple enough, a reprise of American Gigolo.  Dafoe is a prosperous, initially amoral, drug dealer or "DD" as he calls himself.  He hustles around Manhattan in a limousine, seated in Byronic and lonely splendor, on-call as a cocaine delivery boy for various long-term clients.  All transactions are cash and the film luxuriates in filming stacks of hundred dollar bills.  Drugs, it seems, are even more profitable than sex was for Richard Gere.  Like Gere's gigolo, Dafoe's character works for a woman, a no-nonsense entrepreneur played by the very pretty and effective Susan Sarandon.  Sarandon is the mother figure in a perverse family with two siblings, Dafoe's Johnny LaTour and a homosexual man that she blithely calls a "fag" -- he apparently services the gay clients in the Manhattan demi monde.  Schrader's imagination was formed by old Westerns and the film has a slight flavor of John Ford -- Sarandon's mother-hen drug dealer yearns to go straight and, in fact, there is a sense in which she is looking for one big score on which launch her putative cosmetics business.  She's like the aging shootist who yearns to hang up her six-gun.  (There is also some talk of the closing of glamorous Old West -- here symbolized by the incursion of crack cocaine into the drug business; presumably, this means African American influence on this frontier; however this racist subtext is never explored)  Johnny meets his ex-wife, a former junkie who is now straight. This woman has come to New York to attend at the death bed of her mother.  When she sees Dafoe with her comatose mother, her heart, previously closed to Dafoe, melts.  There is an elaborate sex scene filmed in Lachmann's best Rainer Werner Fassbinder style:  lurid colors, a huge backdrop of Vermeer's "Lacemaker" behind the bed, vast bouquets of flower shot through heavily tinted filters, complex compositions involving mirrors -- it's ravishing and looks like The Bitter  Tears of Petra von Kant.  (In general Lachmann's photography is a master class in neo-Noir moodiness -- look into the corners of the rooms:  they are exquisite still lives worthy of Chardin.)  Dafoe's ex-wife realizes that the drug dealer is toxic to her and renounces him.  This doesn't stop her from becoming sexually involved with one of Dafoe's Euro-Trash clients, a man named Tice, who serves as the film's villain.  (Tice is like a Germanic version of Andy Warhol; he banally adjudicates bad experiences with exhausted ejaculation:  "What a nightmare!")  When LaTour encounters his strung-out girlfriend in Tice's penthouse, she is mortified and pitches herself off the parapet of the apartment. LaTour is enraged, acquires a gun, and goes forth to seek revenge. 

This is all pretty ludicrous but brilliantly filmed.  Schrader and Lachmann are prone to dissolves:  Dafoe's brooding features melt into dark city streets highlighted with neon -- he is a creature of the night and the city is within him as he is within the city.  (It is impossible to imagine him near a tree let alone in some environment outside of Manhattan.)  The film's morality is obtuse -- Schrader wants us to admire LaTour's dogged romanticism, his pursuit of his ex-wife, and his Old West resolve to strap on his gun and do what a man's gotta do at the climax.  But the guy is a low-life drug dealer and, ultimately, it's problematic that Schrader asks us to identify with this character.  Dafoe does a good job, although sometimes his skull-like face seems to morph into Christopher Walken.  He is shot as a pale, wormy figure, conspicuously flabby in the upper arms and with a hacksaw grin of bad, yellow teeth.  But, of course, he's endearing and we are supposed to like him.  Sarandon is excellent.  At the end, she wholly debunks the film's climactic gunfight, yet another version of Travis Bickel slaughtering the bad guys at the end of Taxi Driver.  When a couple of thugs draw guns and points them at her, she screams a couple of obscenities, walks up to the nonplussed hoodlums and simply slaps the firearms out of their hands.  "No one draws a gun on me," she shouts.  Then, she goes out into the hall, screams "fire" and triggers all the alarms.  This is the best thing in the movie and I wish that Schrader had not felt the need to have his goons re-arm themselves so that Willem Dafoe can laboriously blow them into perdition.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Here is a bit of stage-craft devised by Peter Brook with Marie-Helene Estienne in his play Battlefield.  A statuesque African woman wearing a simple robe stands with her back to the audience.  Two men hold a scarlet fabric, about the size of a bed sheet, up to veil her from the audience.  When the men lower the red cloth screening her, the woman has turned to face the audience.  It's a minimalist effect, but curiously jarring -- as if the mere fact of turning around to face the audience is a magic trick, a variety of sleight-of-hand.  The men, then, drape the cloth over the woman's shoulders.  The woman is Mother Ganga, the Ganges River, and she has seen her waters swallow the corpses of innumerable dead.  She speaks a few lines about the cosmic battle in which these warriors perished and, then, says:  "Now I must mourn my dead."  With a swift gesture, she lifts the cloth up to cover her face and, then, emits two high-pitched shrieks of inconsolable grief.  The screams are unexpected and the audience levitates collectively, literally startled out of their seats.  There are many things to notice about this sequence of gestures, words, and sounds.  First, the actress is from Rwanda and there is, perhaps, something personal in her cries of grief -- both personal and impersonal in the sense that the woman gives voice to not only her own sorrow, but the sorrow of all mothers who have lost children in pointless conflicts.  Second, the effect's power arises from the clash between the most raw and potent subject matter and a highly formal, dignified, even stately form of presentation.  Finally, Peter Brook's stage technique is so advanced, so carefully designed, that he can reinvigorate with an ancient power the theater's most fundamental gesture, the moment when an actor turns to face the audience to speak. 

Battlefield is a late work, highly stylized and simplified to the bare bones, frighteningly direct and emotionally opaque -- the feelings represented in the play are signified by minimalist gestures and seem to come to us from a great distance.  Brook is 92 and, as in many late works, he doesn't waste time getting to his points -- there isn't much time remaining.  There is no circumlocution and no unnecessary clutter -- the play proceeds according to its laws efficiently and with as little fuss as possible.  If this kind of theater speaks to you, you will be powerfully moved, indeed, almost moved to speechlessness, my reaction to this theater-piece.  If Brook's austere and highly abstract staging seems too little too late, then, the play will bore you.  Some audiences, I have learned from reviews, are rapt.  Others snore.  The work is a small pendant to Brook's magnum opus, his Mahabharata staged in the mid-eighties by a Parisian theater company at an abandoned quarry in Avignon, a nine-hour spectacle that famously began at dusk and ended at dawn.  Battlefield is a sort of appendix to the play, an account of the aftermath of the colossal battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the conflict that ends their world but is the inception of our history, as Brook proclaimed "the universal poetic history of the human race."  Battlefield begins with the survivors of the apocalyptic war wandering the abbattoir where 18 million have perished, many massacred by weapons of mass destruction harnessing the power of the sun.   The blind King Dritarashtra, the last of the Kauravas, has lost all 100 of his sons in the final battle.  He encounters the victorious, Yudishtira, the sole survivor the five Pandava brothers.  Battlefield recounts their encounter and, then, chronicles the education of Yudishtira, the new King who must reinstitute the Dharma, here translated as "Justice," in the ruined world.  The 70 minute play shows us how Yudishtira is taught the Dharma and the way forward forged by the few, shattered survivors.

I'm unsure how much of this is new to this play and how much of the text is borrowed from Jean-Claude Carriere's original text for the nine-hour production of the Mahabharata, the source for the parables and anecdotes that comprise Battlefield.  (Carriere is the French surrealist who wrote six of Bunuel's late movies and other renowned film scripts including the screenplay for Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)  I have a book with some of the script from the original production of the Mahabharata and can recognize that, at least, one episode from Battlefield is lifted verbatim from the earlier play -- although I'm sure the staging is radically different.  The play concerns Yudishtira's getting of wisdom and, in fact, ends with someone whispering to him the transcendental truth, presumably the wisdom of the Dharma to him.  (Of course, there is a distinct suspicion that what is whispered in his ear is only the entirety of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit scripture and compendium of all knowledge reputedly 15 times the length of the Bible.)  Brook uses four actors, three men and one woman, who play many roles, most of them animals or supernatural beings -- the characters have to play the parts of a mongoose, pigeon, falcon, a worm and a snake.  The actors, three of them African (or of African descent) and one white, move with great and deliberate gravity across an empty stage -- it's strewn with some broken wood and there are three clumps of bamboo posts at the back of the space.  A Japanese master musician, Toshi Tsuchitori, plays a drum -- it's probably worth the price of admission to see him perform.  Tsuchitori gets symphonic effects from his drum and his work punctuates the show and, in fact, provides its symbolic denouement.  He sits on a chair about eight feet from the actors:  sometimes, his drum sounds percussive, like rifle shots -- other times, he simulates the patter of feline paws on the jungle floor, the rustle of a forest fire, the rhythmic movement of men and women walking over the earth.  At the show's end, he drums so rapidly that his hands become a pale lotus-shaped blur of motion. 

Brook begins the play at the pitch where almost all other theater ends.   The world has been destroyed.  The devastated survivors search for meaning amidst the mountains of corpses being torn into pieces by "carnivorous creatures."  One expects that the play will chronicle the rapprochement between the last of Kauravas, the blind King, and Yudishtra, the sole survivor of the Pandavas.  The encounter between the two men occurs within the first six or seven minutes of the play and, with shocking suddenness, the two enemies are reconciled.  The blind King says that he has lost all 100 of his sons and so he declares his enemy, the man instrumental in the destruction of his family, to be his son.  This gesture of reconciliation drains any suspense from the play -- within the first ten minutes, the conflict is resolved.  This is an extraordinarily bold development but one, I think, that is fundamentally true.  After all the Mahabharata is the story of a single family, the Bharatas.  The Pandavas and their adversaries are all related -- indeed, they are cousins.  The truth proclaimed by the ancient scripture (as in the Old Testament) is that all men are related, all members of the same human family, and that all violence, which is inevitable in human affairs, is fratricidal, a gruesome war between people who blood-relatives -- all wars are civil.  Brook and the ancient scripture understand that it doesn't take much to get people to murder one another -- in Serbia and Croatia, in Rwanda, people who had lived as friends and neighbors could be induced to slaughter one another by a few words whispered on the radio.  Bloodthirstiness is an aspect of human nature.  But so is friendship and cooperation and the startling simplicity and alacrity of the reconciliation between the warring Kings recognizes this aspect of human nature as well.  As soon as I stop trying to kill my brother, I am likely to express my love for him. 

After the kings are reconciled, Yudishtra must be educated to be a noble and just ruler.  Various interlocutors tell him animal parables.  A snake defends himself against the charge of murder -- it was my nature, the snake proclaims, and, furthermore, who is so wise as to know the real cause of any event.  The snake speaks very persuasively, but, of course, the actor forces us to recall that it is, after all, a snake speaking and there is a level of guile and malice in the creature's sophistry.  A pigeon is attacked by a falcon.  The king protects the pigeon by hacking off his own flesh and placing it on a scale to balance the weight of the fearful, little bird.  Miraculously, the pigeon weighs more than the King's entire flesh and the just ruler disincarnates himself, reducing his body to a skeleton to protect the bird.  A worm tries to creep across a road as a chariot approaches.  The interlocutor tells the worm that there's no reason that he should hasten -- after all, you are only a worm, the lowliest of creatures.  But the worm protests that he loves his life as well and wants to go on living, up to the very moment when the chariot squashes him.  A mongoose tells the king to give all of his worldly possessions to the poor -- the mongoose has hurled himself into a fire where gold is melting hoping to gild himself in the molten metal.  The king distributes his garments to the people in the first row of the theater -- "are you poor, sir?" the actor asks an audience member.  "I don't know," the audience member says.  "You're sitting in the first row of the theater," the actor tells the man.  "Take it from me, you're poor."  The survivors of the massacre wander through the woods and, finally, perish by walking into the flames.  The king meets a skeletal figure of mendicant Dharma in the woods and takes that doctrine into himself.  At the end of the play, the king has wandered 18 years seeking the truth and found only a boy grinning at him under a banyan tree.  The boy opens his mouth and invites the king to enter and the ruler finds within his belly another world complete with forests, people, cities, and starry firmament.  The ruler wanders in the belly of the boy for another 18 years and still can't discover the truth.  The boy vomits out the King.  "Did you find the truth?"  "No," the king says sadly.  "Why did you give up so soon?" the boy says.  He grins at the king again and, then, whispers into his ear.  While whispering the drummer plays his solo and the play ends.  Each of these episodes is acted with simple authority.  We see the different animals, the supernatural creatures, the representations of nature such as the mourning Mother Ganga.  As the old King and his niece (he has lost 100 sons; she mourns her first-born) walk toward the flames of the forest fire, they see their dead emerge as pillars of white froth on the surface of the Ganges River.  Someone remarks that the earth has been destroyed many times before and that it will be destroyed now and always in the future as well. A king, we are told, must perish in battle or go into the forest alone to die.

The acting in the show is uniformly powerful, understated and dignified, Brechtian in the sense that everything is directed toward presenting as effectively as possible fables that have a didactic meaning.  The three African actors appear to us as representatives of an archaic, immemorially ancient world -- their dark faces seem to be the masks of the primordial human beings, the guise in which the first people appeared, half divine, with the ichor of the gods in their veins. The woman is very handsome:  she is either a teenage Madonna or 800 years old. The grinning boy under the banyan tree at the end of the play seems like a messenger from the gods -- no one has ever grinned with such fiendish joy.  The white actor in the play has an Irish accent and his face is also rigid and mask-like for much of the play -- he is a huge man with a voice like a cannonade and, playing the blind King, he is a mixture of Oedipus Rex and Zeus, at once immensely powerful and completely helpless.  The play is staged as a series of spectacular tableaux, the characters draped in shawls or scarves, barefoot on a stage that is the color of clay. 

I saw Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie Theater (McGuire Proscenium) on April 15, 2017.  There was a standing ovation.  At the end of the play, the boy whispers the truth of the Dharma to the King and the drummer plays for a couple minutes and, then, there is profound silence, no one moves, the audience is spellbound (or asleep), and the play's end is signaled by the house-lights gradually being brightened.  In the deep and highly charged silence at the end of the work, someone's cell-phone rang -- the ring-tone was melodic, perhaps, from the Beach Boys: "I wish they all could be California girls." 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Twin Peaks (Season 2)

The second season of David Lynch's notorious TV melodrama, Twin Peaks ends with the resolution of most of the mysteries involving the death of Laura Palmer -- this end point concludes the eighth episode of series 2.  This is the 17th episode of the program as a whole and, apparently, there are 13 more parts to the original Twin Peaks on tap on Netflix.  (A third season premieres in May starring many of the actors who appeared in the initial outing a quarter century ago.)  By reputation, the remaining 13 episodes aired in 1991 and 1992 embody a significant decline in the show's quality -- a program already profoundly mannered becomes, it is alleged, even more stylistically perverse.   Merely baroque flourishes become mannerist in the show's decadence.  Since I recall nothing about Twin Peaks' swan-song and alleged decine, I will have to make final assessments after watching the show's final 13 parts.  I do have some faint recollection that even after the series imploded, Lynch continued to toy with its premises and ventured a film prequel, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk with Me, a movie universally derided by critics but that I recall admiring with sufficient enthusiasm to debate with skeptical friends. 

Seventeen episodes of Twin Peaks is about 15 hours of television and, certainly, represents enough investment in the program to draw some general conclusions.  Although Twin Peaks was, more or less, sui generis at the time that it first aired, I now have some basis for comparison with later works, chief among them Raul Ruiz' Mysteries of Lisbon, a Portuguese TV show that was redacted to a five hour film and shown briefly in this country.  Both Twin Peaks and Mysteries of Lisbon are essentially 19th century popular fiction adapted for television -- the plots are complex with innumerable vividly delineated and eccentric characters:  people thought to be dead reappear in disguise and there are bizarre coincidences, obsessional vendettas, and obscure genealogies -- characters turn out to be related in unexpected ways and amour fou with other varieties of madness is ubiquitous.  Ultimately, Twin Peaks is rooted in Victorian and pre-Victorian novels -- it is like Middlemarch on hallucinogens and the more lurid parts of Dickens mixed with more than a little Dostoevski.  As is characteristic, the second year's episodes exaggerate and, even, caricature people and situations established with more tact in the 1990 series.  The show has not yet developed new narratives and, so, it must be content with amplifying points made previously.  This is particularly clear in that series two of Twin Peaks (through the 17th episode) not only solves Laura Palmer's murder, the mystery motivating the show's plot, but, also, restages her death in a particularly grievous and alarming way.  Lynch and his co-writer Frost can't quite figure out a way to mature the narrative beyond its Poe-like obsession with the death of a beautiful, pale, young woman and so the show simply posits a Laura Palmer look-alike, another luscious gamine adolescent girl played by the same actress -- she is supposed to be Laura's cousin -- and similarly slaughtered for our delectation, this time in a bloody scene staged in relentless close-ups.  The effect is disheartening -- Lynch and Frost seem to suggest that girls like Laura Palmer, free-spirited and sexually adventurous, must necessarily be sacrificed at the altar of their father's lust and cruelty.  Lynch's work, most notably Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, often features a conspiracy of teenage amateur detectives working with the gee-whiz fervor of the Hardy Boys to solve a sinister adult mystery.   But the stakes are always shockingly high -- the Boy Scout heroes are working against horrific villains who think nothing of torturing teenage girls to death.  The weird mismatch between the can-do optimism and fervor of the amateur sleuths and their vicious adversaries is part of the kinky appeal of Lynch's plots.  Thus, there is an inevitable misdirection in Lynch's narrative.  The audience expects a Hardy Boys plot and denouement and is ill-prepared for the psychopathic mayhem actually on display -- things become very grim and serious with lightning rapidity.  I have made this point before but it bears repeating:  People remember Twin Peaks as a quirky comedy with droll, eccentric characters.  The whimsy, however, is tangential to Lynch's true purposes which are unseemly and perverse.  In the sixth episode of the Twin Peaks season two, Lynch achieves the dramatic high point in the Laura Palmer narrative -- unlike other episodes Lynch directs a script written by his partner, Mark Frost, so we confront the unvarnished products of Lynch's imagination.  We discover that Laura Palmer's father, the avuncular grief-stricken Leland is inhabited by a feral, long-haired monster who howls and rages like a wolf.  When Leland looks in the mirror, he sees this monster, a spirit named Bob, instead of his own face.  Leland Palmer has already raped and tortured to death his own daughter.  In the sixth episode of Season Two, he beats to death Laura's Doppelgaenger, her cousin from Missoula.  This part of the narrative appeals to Lynch and he pulls out all the stops, filming the last third of the episode with white-hot ferocity.  Agent Cooper had gone to the Roadhouse tavern with Sheriff Harry S. Truman.  A pale woman appears on a red stage and sings a torch song that is so voluptuously lugubrious it seems that she can scarcely keep her eyes open.  At Leland Palmer's house, all hell has broken out.  Lynch films the interiors of the house, an ordinary suburban dwelling, from a perspective about two inches off the carpet, tracking along the floor with ominous The Shining-style camera movements -- the moving camera and the doleful music make the chairs and tables in the house look sinister mesas and buttes in a blasted desert.  Leland Palmer's wife, for some reason unknown to us, is crawling across the floor like a worm, dragging herself by her arms -- we can't see her hindquarters and have the disconcerting sense that the woman has been ripped in half.  The show cuts back to the Roadhouse where the female singer has drifted into a trance.  Hank Worden is sitting at the bar.  He's the tall, skinny, bald-headed man who played side-kick to John Wayne in about a dozen movies, most famously acting the part of Mose Harper in The Searchers.  We have seen him before as "The World's Most Decrepit Room Service Waiter", a deranged fellow who forced milk and cookies on Agent Cooper as he lay bleeding to death on the floor of his room at "The Great Northern".  We're astonished to see this man, the actor Hank Worden, still alive -- he seemed to be immemorially ancient in The Searchers in the mid-fifties.  Hank Worden gestures to Cooper and we see that he is very tall and improbably emaciated -- he has been filmed to emphasize his gauntness throughout the show.  Worden is a kind of giant and, immediately, Lynch cuts to the stage where the musicians in their doleful trance vanish -- another gaunt and haggard-looking giant appears on stage and says in huge and eerie close-up "It's happening again"; he has an accent that we can't quite place.  Lynch then cuts to Leland Palmer's house where Bob is shrieking and gnashing his teeth.  Palmer/Bob savagely punches the girl who looks like his daughter in the face and there is blood everywhere.  Palmer's wife continues her implacable creeping like a worm in the carpet.  An exterior shot shows a well-lit suburban house with the most horrible screams emerging from it.  This is genuinely terrifying -- each appearance of the leering, sparkly eyed Bob is shocking.  As with the scene in which Agent Cooper was shot, the room service waiter, merely giving him a thumb's up and setting his milk and cookies on the night-stand, no one does anything to rescue the doomed girl -- the show has slipped into one of its periodic moments of paralysis.  Leland Palmer/Bob beats the girl to death and the episode ends.  This is alarming stuff and the conviction with which Lynch stages the murder is unseemly and disturbing. 

At this juncture, a few general observations about Lynch's themes and technique can be made.  As with Hawthorne, Lynch locates the Power of Darkness or evil in the primordial forests.  There is something lurking in the woods.  "The owls are not what they seem."  The owl represents relentless predation and Lynch suggests that his murderer is a kind of predatory animal in human form -- Bob howls but doesn't seem able to speak.  It a characteristic of Lynch's strange atavism, his "arrested development", that his vision of evil is essentially pre-adolescent -- evil is associated with adult sex, an enigmatic subject, and has something to do with monsters.  Mutilated or malformed people are couriers of the gods -- as in Mayan mythology, Lynch's dwarves and haggard giants, his one-armed man, and the other grotesques that haunt his films are seers, cousins to the hermaphroditic Tiresias.  In his world, bikers and juvenile delinquents pursue jailbait bobby-soxers -- again, Lynch's sexual impulses seem trapped in some version of fifties exploitation cinema.  Two modes of paralysis exist:  people mutter banal truisms with a flat-line affect, conversation is limited to clichés that everyone speaks but not one seems to believe.  In the Roadhouse, while Palmer is murdering the girl, the characters seem becalmed, drinking their beer and eating peanuts.  At key moments, the sense of urgency simply drains out of the characters and is replaced by a dreamlike torpor.  The other mode of paralysis is musical -- music induces trance states; people croon with their eyes closed on stages draped with placental-colored red velvet.  Angelo Badalamenti's score suggests different modes of ecstasy, all of which are soporific and numbing -- music enters a person and they close their eyes, dance slowly, infected, it seems, by some kind of insidious virus.  At the end of the Laura Palmer plot arc, an argument occurs in a sunny forest.  Is  evil an invasive force that possesses us from outside, something come to roost in our psyches from the dark woods?  Or is evil merely an embodiment as it were of all the conscious decisions that we have made, a sort of Frankenstein monster constructed of all of our misdeeds, and, now, confronting us with as simulacra of life?  Or, finally, is there an intrinsically evil aspect of each man or woman, a shadow personality, that can emerge and oust the ordinarily lawful and decent persona from control over events?  These are three distinct interpretations as to the interaction between Bob and Leland Palmer.  Lynch is very literal-minded:  opposing evil is a stolid and dutiful FBI agent, Harry S. Truman, the embodiment of small-town rectitude, Albert, an FBI agents who invokes science as the solution of human problems, Hawk, a Native-American lawman expert in his understanding of the woods and their darkness, and, finally, a military man engaged in shadowy and top-secret transactions in the defense of the nation.  These five men represent the powers arrayed against the darkness, each possessing his own instruments and expertise, and each presenting a certain stereotypical virtue.  It is reassuring to see all of these men together on screen at the end of the Laura Palmer plot, an envoi as it were to the viewer, suggesting that all will be well.  But the final image is a great owl flying from the light -- a tunnel representing the Bardo that the Buddhist Cooper repeatedly references -- toward the camera.  Since owls symbolize the predatory aspect of nature, an inescapable element in the dark woods, it is by no means clear who will gain the upper hand in the end.                                

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Chase (1946)

"Disassociated" is the word that best describes Arthur Ripley's "poverty row" thriller, The Chase.  Ineptly shot and edited as well as poorly acted, the film has a peculiar structure and casts a sinister light on America in the wake of World War Two -- the wounds went deep, apparently, deeper than anyone was willing to admit.  On two occasions, the film imagines a peculiar instrument in operation.  The villain owns a limousine that has a speed control in its back seat; this means that the bad guy can control the speed from his position in the rear of the vehicle overriding the driver's ability to brake or use the gas to accelerate.  (This device is used by the bad guy on two occasions to force his unwilling chauffeur steering the car to race a thundering locomotive to an intersection.)  This mechanical attribute of the villain's car, an innovation that is, at once, wholly unnecessary and dangerous, signal the film's weirdly disassociative logic -- impulse (acceleration) is divided from the instinct that steers or guides.  In effect, at the very outset of the era of film noir, Ripley and his writer Philip Yordan imagine a sociopathic division between the conscious steering mind (the ego) and the deadly urges of the id.  This division is mirrored on various levels in The Chase.  The villain in the film is divided into two characters, a sadistic well-dressed thug named Eddy Roman and the languid, almost somnolent Gino played by the great Peter Lorre.  Lorre slinks around with a cigarette drooping from his lower lip.  His role, it seems, is to sneer at the other characters -- for instance, he greets the hero, the earnest dim-witted ex-GI, Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) by calling him a "silly, law-abiding jerk".  Roman has a wife, but she is, of course, wholly superfluous in light of the omnipresent Gino.  In fact, Roman's blonde trophy wife exists only as an object of Gino's derision and as a punching bag for her vicious husband.  (Roman has a mastiff and feeds his competitors to his dog.)  Roman and Gino are inseparable and the film posits them as a kind of couple, not exactly husband and wife, but, like the accelerator and the steering wheel, a compound of prudent cynicism (represented by Lorre's world-weariness) and sadistic impulsiveness.  And, indeed, at the film's climax, Roman is powering the car that Lorre drives into a fatal collision with the speeding locomotive -- a bizarre trope for suicide but by a byzantine means. 

I've already revealed the movie's fiery climax, a mini-apocalypse shot with a toy car, a miniature set, and a toy locomotive engine.  (This is an aspect of the film's surreal dream-logic -- the climactic crash doesn't look real, but nothing in this film seems exactly right and so this doesn't bother the viewer.)  There's no way to discuss the movie without a spoiler of the most brutal kind and, so, if you intend to watch this picture (something I think unlikely) and want your narrative surprises unrevealed, stop reading here. 

A modern audience is probably not good at reading the post-War clues.  In the opening scene, the hero hungrily looks through a window at Black chef cooking eggs and bacon.  The hero wears a suit and, so, of course, we think of him as well-to-do and stylish.  But, I suppose, his suit is supposed to be threadbare and ill-fitting and, in fact, Robert Cummings, who provides a stilted, clumsy performance, is a kind a homeless war veteran, the kind of person we see stalking the streets of big cities and mumbling to himself.  Apparently severely shell-shocked, the hero gobbles some kind of anti-psychotic medication and has been released much too early from treatment at a nearby military base.  Outside the café, Chuck picks up a billfold dropped on the street, treats himself to breakfast using the money in the wallet, and, then, returns both billfold and money to its owner, the vicious Eddie Roman, even presenting the bad guy with a receipt for his humble breakfast.  Chuck has established himself as a man of unimpeachable virtue and rectitude except that he immediately concocts a plot to rescue Roman's battered wife from the villain, planning to elope with her from Miami where the action takes place to Havana, Cuba.  Chuck's virtue, apparently, doesn't include loyalty to his benefactor. (The film's surreal edge begins to become palpable when we see Roman's blonde wife, all dressed in white, standing at the edge of a wildly turbulent and, obviously, rear-projected sea.  The film's "poverty row" deficits, in this case, read as surrealistic dream-images.)  In Havana, things go wildly wrong and this is where the film becomes crazily inventive.  The action simply slows to a halt.  People bicker about going somewhere but can't seem to leave a seedy tavern called La Habana -- although they have to catch a boat to South America, neither the hero nor Roman's wife seem in any hurry to go anywhere.  They sit around drinking and mooning into one another's eyes and, then, someone throws a dagger into the woman, killing her.  The police appear and engage in a long, pointless interrogation of the hero -- all the evidence that he thinks exists to show that he is not the killer can't be found or eludes his grip.  The action shifts to a Chinese curio shop stuffed with impassive Buddhas and dark shadows.  Some more people are killed and, then, just as the hero is about to die, the action shifts to his seedy apartment in Miami.  The escape to the chiaroscuro of Havana was just a fever-dream.  Chuck goes to see his military psychiatrist, a suave officer, who incongruously suggests that they visit lavish nightclub for a drink, a strange form of psychotherapy. Chuck knows that he has forgotten something but can't remember what it is -- it turns out that he has forgotten that this is the night, he is going spring Mrs. Roman from her coop.  Upon finding the tickets to Havana in his coat pocket, Chuck picks up Roman's wife and takes her to seaport.  But mist has rolled into the harbor and, once again, the narrative screeches to a halt, totally becalmed.  Nothing advances.  Roman and Geno rush to the harbor, traversing a part of dusty and mountainous southern California apparently immediately contiguous to Dade County and Miami.  But they don't make it to the seaport courtesy of the speeding locomotive and, in fact, probably never really wanted to get there since it's obvious that Roman and Geno were made for each other and that the woman is just a distraction.  Sailing from Miami, the hero and Mrs. Roman end up at the same sinister La Habana nightclub with the same sinister hack driver muttering in incomprehensible Spanish and, perhaps, the nightmare is merely beginning again. 

This all sounds like delirious fun but it isn't.  The movie is so gracelessly edited and so poorly acted that it drags at 86 minutes.  Nonetheless, the film is so crammed with subtexts and subtexts of subtexts that it induces a sort of retrospective interpretive hysteria in the viewer:  what is the meaning of the strange porthole shots in which the side of the ship becomes becomes dark from top to bottom?  Why does Roman live in a house chockfull of statues of all kinds?  And so on.  The movie is fun to think about and it is a pleasure to write this note, but, curiously, it's not very entertaining while you are watching it -- "staggeringly inept" as a film, one viewer told me.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

99 River Street

We don't for a minute believe in any of the shenanigans displayed in Phil Karlson's 1953 film noir, 99 River Street -- it's all formula:  stereotypical characters snarling at one other across the breadth and width of a dark and rainy city.  But the film, implausible as it might be, is cleverly designed, enlivened by narrative surprises, and gloriously acted.  99 River Street reminds us that film, on one level, is a waking dream and that part of the pleasure in watching movies like this is the unreality itself, the fact that the hero's suffering and the sneering evil that he encounters is all part of an abstract pattern, a kind of sinister arabesque in which leering faces peer out at us from within a labyrinthine pattern that both amuses and appalls.

Playing out more or less in real time, 99 River Street follows the misfortunes of a washed-up boxer, unhappily married to a blonde bombshell ("a former show girl", the hero helpfully reminds her), hacking to earn a living.  The protagonist drives a "Radio Cab" and his dispatcher, formerly his trainer and, now, his boss, is situated at the center of the intrigue, a sort of clearing house for the narrative -- the dispatcher, in fact, is played like a variant on the loyal sidekick perfected by Walter Brennan; he literally drives the plot by dispatching the hero's cab to the locations required bythe film's plot.   The story is too complicated to reprise in detail and, in fact, like many films of this type contains riddles -- for instance, how does the thug beaten up by the ex-boxer and, then, carefully locked in a closet escape to later menace the hero later on the waterfront?  Probably, there was an explanation buried in all the velvety shadows and menacing threats, but I didn't hear it.  The former boxer, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) discovers that his wife is unfaithful.  He doesn't know that her lover is a member of a gang that has stolen $50,000 worth of diamonds, the criminals nonplussed by the fact that their weary, cynical fence (brilliantly played by Jay Adler) refuses to buy the purloined gems.  The crooks murder Driscoll's errant wife and stuff her corpse in the hero's cab, planning to pin a variety of misdeeds on the former pugilist.  The cops are after him anyway after a brawl in which Driscoll assaulted about a half-dozen men working as partners to produce a Broadway murder mystery.  (Driscoll maybe isn't as loyal to his show girl wife as he claims -- another woman, Linda James, played by  Evelyn Keyes, lures him to a theater on Broadway with the claim that she has murdered a man who tried to rape her on the so-called "casting couch".  In fact, she is merely acting a part, demonstrating her chops as a thespian to the show's putative director and his associates -- they are hiding in the wings to watch her deceive the poor sap of a cab-driver.  He is, in fact, completely hoodwinked, his naivety in this regard matching his misunderstanding of his cheating wife -- he is persuaded he can save the marriage if he gets her drunk, feeds her candy, and begets a child on her.  But his is not a propitious night to delude the poor hack and he lashes out, beating everyone in sight. Thus, the fact that the cops are after him.)  Characters careen around New York City knocking one another unconscious and engaging in fistfights.  Ultimately, everyone gathers on the pier at 99 River Street in Jersey City for a big showdown.  By this point, the actress has apologized to the disgruntled cabbie, love is in the air, and after some more beatings and car crashes everything turns out for the best.  The two signature scenes in the film are about acting -- in the first sequence, the wannabe Broadway actress deceives the cabbie with her bravura turn of phony hysteria; this is brilliantly done -- Keyes demonstrates that she is acting a woman who is acting, without any particular competence, a part (it's meta-acting) and she is spectacularly over-the-top.  Later, in the dockside dive, Keyes has to pretend to be drunk and horny to delay a bad guy from escaping with a stolen passport on a tramp steamer.  She dances by herself, incidentally seduces a bar-fly, and, then, suggests a sado-masochistic liaison with the villain, keeping him in the bar long enough to implement the big battle at the end.  Keyes' overt instances of acting, her guilefulness, are poised against the pug's inability to act -- he can't restrain himself and doesn't conceal his hurt feeling:  when he gets mad, he simply solves things with his fists.  The boxer's dull belligerence is a counterweight to the florid acting by the leading lady -- she contrives fake emotions to get out of trouble; the boxer just stolidly broods until he explodes and beats everyone around him to pulp.  The film is beautifully shot, with elegant moving camera in some cases, and vivid statuesque framing -- in one case, the beautiful show-girl is shot stretching her body upward, clad in a skin-tight dress, as she strains for something on a stepladder; in other shot, Karlson shows the show girl's lover framed by the woman's gams, right between her thighs, as she rearranges the backseam on her stockings.  As I have suggested, the film's thematic impulse is to highlight acting and the movie is filled with ultra-expressive close-ups.  Whenever Karlson cuts to a close-up, he has someone contort their lip or smile in a smarmy manner or arch an eyebrow -- people's faces in Karlson's close-up are baroque theaters for extravagant grimaces and yearning looks.  The opening boxing scene, which turns out to be a TV rebroadcast of Driscoll's last fight, was heavily mined by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull and its very effective.  The fact that the scene doesn't occur in the past, but the film's present, as a TV broadcast, highlights Karlson's commitment to real time -- what happens in this movie happens across the course of a single evening, from about 10:00 pm until just before dawn in this city of dreadful night. 

The new Kino-Lorber blue-ray DVD of 99 River Street has a bonus track featuring audio commentary by Eddie Mueller.  Mueller's work is exceptionally witty and informative.  He speaks knowledgably in a jazzy underworld lingo and this audio track is a film noir work of art in itself.   It's worth the cost of the DVD in itself.     

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Twin Peaks (1st season)

A lot of water has gone over the falls since David Lynch's Twin Peaks aired on network TV beginning in April 1990.  I was a fan of Lynch's work then and recall watching the show faithfully during the two seasons that it aired.  The serial is now rebroadcast on Netflix as a promotion for a new series starring many of the same actors who made the show famous in 1990 -- Twin Peaks rebooted is scheduled for release on Netflix in May 2017.  The original show made its viewers feel hip and "in the know" -- we were part of a secret society attuned to Lynch's trademark oddity.  Although I admired the show, and was one of the few Lynch fans who appreciated the director's weird pendant to the TV program, the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, I didn't really remember anything about the show except its curious atmosphere of lazy dread and lust, the lavishly beautiful leading ladies in the program, the Pacific Northwest scenery (waterfalls, lakes brimming with cold, black water, and haunted woods), and, of course, Angelo Baldamenti's remarkably effective musical score.  My life was complicated in those days and I watched most episodes at the house of my girlfriend (now my wife). Much of Lynch's scenario was so peculiar that it became unmoored in my imagination -- in a room with scarlet curtains a dwarf was dancing and someone spoke backwards.  But what did it mean?  No one knew. 

The first season of Twin Peaks consists of eight episodes.  The first program, the so-called Pilot (to use the nomenclature of the time) was broadcast as a two-hour show -- it now appears as a program about an hour and thirty-five minutes long on Netflix (Cable doesn't broadcast the commercials added to the show to fit the program's initial two-hour time-slot.  An alert viewer, however, can see where the commercials were inserted into the show and the way that the narrative was, in fact, structured to create minor narrative frissons to keep the audience interested over the advertising breaks spaced at 15 minute intervals.)  The seven subsequent episodes of Twin Peaks first season are about 40 to 43 minutes long.  As everyone knows, Twin Peaks involves an effort by an FBI agent working with town authorities to solve the torture-murder of Laura Palmer, an 18-year old girl who was the village's Homecoming Queen.  The show is strangely claustrophobic, relying upon formulaic shots of the locations between the action shuttles -- we see the Sheriff's department, Horne's Department Store, a roadhouse in the country, the Great Northern a rustic-style lodge located on the brink of an ominous-looking waterfall, and One-Eyed Jacks, a Canadian brothel with red velvet walls and curtains.  The cast is large and there are many subplots -- most of the marriages depicted involve adulterous liaisons and the characters scheme to harm one another:  an abused wife plans to kill her brutal truckdriving husband; a sensitive young biker admits to an affair with Laura Palmer but, then, falls in love with the dead girl's cousin (reprising Vertigo for the teenage set); the owner of the Great Northern schemes to transform a local forest, Ghostwood, into a golf course courting first Norwegian and, then, Icelandic investors; the girls at the perfume counter in the downtown department store double as whores in the Canadian brothel; a mill-owner's beautiful Asian widow conspires to burn down the timber factory to keep the enterprise from falling into the hands of her deceased husband's sister, and so on.  This is all mildly engaging, although there are longuers over the course of the 8 hours of the first season.  Until the last episode of Season One, a show that seems to have been filmed on different (and inferior) locations and that is so rushed as to be incoherent -- this was to be the season finale -- the pace is andante, dreamy, with many luscious dissolves and fades:  a woman's face, for instance, gradually becomes trees whipping in an enigmatic gale; landscapes melt into one another and, at the bottom of the geography, as it were, we see the great waterfall throwing ribbons of white lace into a deep pit; the top of Lynch's geography, it's summit, of course, is the icy crest of the Twin Peaks, a domain of glacial snow that we see from time to time, typically glimpsed towering above huge trucks carrying bundles of tree-sized logs precariously chained together.  The interiors are all loving detailed and crammed with kitsch -- for instance, there are faux-Haida designs at the Great Northern and a mural showing men wrestling with an immense log.  The color scheme of the movie is based upon the colors that the visitor encounters immediately upon landing in Seattle's airport -- everything is a kind of enameled cherry-red, the tint of fine redwood that has been polished to the glaze of a ballroom floor. 

Everyone remembers Twin Peaks as being cheeky and glib, a kind of kitschy melodrama that engaged you intensely while you were simultaneously laughing at it.  (The show even features a double of itself, a daytime soap opera that everyone is always watching, also involving much adultery and violence.)  In fact, people's recollection of the show as a ludicrously plotted dark comedy, an exercise in heterosexual camp, doesn't account for half of the program.  In fact, Twin Peaks is often very cruel and harrowing -- Lynch doesn't shy away from the consequences inflicted on the community and Laura Palmer's family by the young woman's murder.  There are many close-ups of faces ravaged by grief and people go insane from sorrow.  For every campy scene, there is an episode of unmitigated horror and grief.  Pauline Kael remarked upon Lynch that he uses "the blackest blacks of any filmmaker" -- she was referring to the visual texture of Lynch's early films, but, of course, the comment is also morally and metaphysically acute.  In a Lynch film, dark opposes light -- Lynch's heros and heroines are all drawn from a severely limited lexicon of characters:  his good folk are well-meaning, if stupid, bourgeoisie, obsessive cops, and tormented teenagers who league together to try to solve terrible crimes.  His villains are monsters of unmitigated horror -- lustful, sadistic, feral.  Lynch's cinema-world poises his virtuous characters, who all speak in the most vapid and banal clichés, against an abyss of foul and immeasurable darkness.  There is something deeply unseemly about Lynch's obvious interest in 1950's teenage girls -- he seems to demonstrate a kind of severely retarded sexuality:  the man never got over High School prom queens and bad boy bikers -- his films are immured in a kind of juvenile delinquent morality and imagery borrowed from Rebel without a Cause or old Mamie Van Doren pictures.  The center of Twin Peaks revolves around the allegation that a small town's high school cheerleaders would also gladly engage in sado-masochistic sexual sessions at a local brothel.  Lynch's sex is always complicated by severe sadism -- a bird has been trained, for instance, to peck holes into Laura Palmer's back and shoulders and thighs.  This nightmare of sadism is shown in prurient detail and one shudders to think how Lynch will portray the world of Twin Peaks in the upcoming Netflix series unhampered by the polite conventions and standards of network TV.   For Lynch's erotic sensibility to function, he seems to need fantastically beautiful young actresses -- these young actresses represents figures of compromised purity defiled voluptuously by Lynch's reptilian monsters.  The lurid brew of sex and violence that Lynch contrives occurs in the context of a world in which FBI men rely upon prophetic dreams to solve crimes and use techniques of detection based on Tibetan Zen archery.  Lynch's surrogate in the film is Agent Cooper, played memorably by the inhumanly calm and repressed Kyle McLaughlin.  In one scene, the supernaturally beautiful Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn) climbs naked into Agent Cooper's bed at the Great Northern -- the hotel is rigged up with spyholes opening into all of the private suites and she has kept Cooper under surveillance.  Audrey's complexion is like the finest cream and she uses all her feminine wiles in an attempt to seduce Agent Cooper.  Cooper lectures her on morality and, then, tells her to get dressed so that they go down to the hotel's restaurant for "a couple of milk shakes" -- it's the ultimate confrontation between Lynch's lust and his sense that banal clichés about duty and honor are the only thing that keep us from succumbing to our intrinsic desire to rape and torture to death young girls. 

The most remarkable aspect of Twin Peaks, of course, is Angelo Baldamenti's intensely lyrical sound track.  The principal theme, comprised of about two bass chords and a couple of higher notes is a thing of profound, abstract beauty, a kind of droopy deliquescent masterpiece that perfectly fits the rotting kitsch elements of the plot.  But Baldamenti manages to create from this seven or eight note theme all sorts of other things -- there is a kind of sinister finger-clicking jazz that characterizes the films many bad boys and bad girls, a rapturous love-theme, and, finally, Laura's theme, a melancholy ode to the dead girl.  All of this is constructed from the show's main title music.  The fact that the emotionally complex score all seems to originate in one set of very limited musical materials contributes to the hermetically sealed and claustrophobic emotional environment embodied by the series.  It is impossible to imagine Twin Peaks without this powerfully effective score and it is surely one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded.