Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Darkness, Future, Past: The Final Mysteries of TWIN PEAKS-THE RETURN


Don Draper: Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” (MAD MEN-Episode 13-“The Wheel”)

Don: Utopia.
 Rachel: Maybe. They taught us at Barnard about that word, 'utopia'. The Greeks had two meaning for it: 'eu-topos', meaning the good place, and 'u-topos' meaning the place that cannot be.” (MAD MEN-Episode 6-“Babylon”)

“A wise man once told me that mystery is the most essential ingredient of life, for the following reason: mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are…providing meaning in the face of a remorseless, indifferent universe.” (Mark Frost/THE SECRET HISTORY OF TWIN PEAKS)

“Diane, it struck me again earlier this morning, there are two things that continue to trouble me. And I'm speaking now not only as an agent of the Bureau but also as a human being. What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?” (FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper-TWIN PEAKS-Episode 1)

In retrospect, Lucas never had a chance.

When I was ten years old, in 1987, the concept of on demand viewing generally meant wheedling my way into seeing a certain show at a certain time on the main tv in our living room (not the small, black and white one in the kitchen.) Sure, there was the occasional VHS tape we rented from Curtis Mathis (along with the VCR that we rented…permanent home residence of such an advanced piece of technology wouldn’t be achieved for another year). But past that, I watched what was on when it was on. Yes, dear younger readers, I had to conform my schedule to the whims of the programmers from on high in the palaces of the great cathode ray empire.

And then there was Viewer’s Choice. Back then, we had the option of two, count ‘em TWO, pay per view channels from which to choose the occasional film or professional wrestling event. The system was antiquated and loopy even by 1987 standards: viewers were allowed a two minute preview of the content before being charged the amount of a full rental. This allowed for all sorts of gaming the system if you could time things just right (especially for some of the racier, late night adult fare).

Perhaps my favorite part of these channels was the free previews they ran in between each showtime. In the spring of 1987, I became quite enamored of the preview for the Corey Haim teen nerd drama LUCAS. If you’ve never seen this little slice of Americana, it’s a fairly entertaining tale of Haim’s titular hyper-intelligent mega-geek, who, one bucolic summer, falls hard for Kerrie Green’s gorgeous redhead tennis player, only to discover (one high school begins in the fall) that the rigid class structures of the teen biosphere dictate that she hook up with rugged football star Cappie (a pre-PLATOON Charlie Sheen.) There’s angst aplenty, culminating in Lucas’s ill-fated time on the football team, but everything turns out okay in the end. As a hyper-intelligent geek kid with a thing for redheads myself, this sort of schmaltzy fare was like catnip.

But there was another preview on Viewer’s Choice that tantalized me even more, one for another slice of Americana that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch for quite some time. A tale of another young man, an outsider in his own way, who becomes drawn into a dark, alluring world just beyond the edge of the night. He too falls hard for the gorgeous girl down the street, but he also falls hard for the profoundly damaged girl from quite a few streets over, the one who’s seeming paramour is a man who manically huffs from an oxygen mask.

The dreamer I was supposed to be might have loved the reaffirming charms of LUCAS. But the dreamer who I was, and who I would become, knew that within BLUE VELVET lay the dark romance that I truly longed to pursue. Maybe those covert viewings of late night erotic fare were more of a tip off than I knew.

However, as supportive and nurturing of my artistic interests my parents were, there was no chance that I would be allowed to watch BLUE VELVET anytime soon. Or even bring up the possibility (I had yet to connect David Lynch as also being the director of THE ELEPHANT MAN, a film which absolutely petrified me as a child.) And so my maiden voyage into the edges of transgressive dreamscape wouldn’t come until the spring of 1990, when TWIN PEAKS debuted as the ABC Movie of the week.

I still vividly remember coming home from school one April afternoon and reading the newest issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (then in its infancy, still striving to bridge the gap between highbrow and middlebrow), its cover adorned with an image of David Lynch, the headline proclaiming PEAKS as “The Year’s Best Show!” The feature article painted a portrait of a wild televisual experiment, an unprecedented leap into the cinematic that no other creators had achieved, let alone attempted. Such siren songs only come around a few times in the life of a young person, and when I sat down to absorb the two hour pilot a week later, I was stunned, enchanted, romanced. Being the youngest child of parents who were some forty years older than me had bestowed upon me formative years equally split between the charms of the modern and the melancholic pull of culture from many decades hence, so the world that Lynch and Mark Frost presented in this show, one seemingly co-existing in the past and present, really struck a nerve.

That retro-modernism was also a huge part of the massive popularity of the show’s first season. Using the archetypical structure of a whodunit as a skeleton (right down to the dead prom queen), Lynch and Frost somehow pulled off the trick of expanding BLUE VELVET’s darkness on the edge of town motif into a more restrictive format, while also trafficking in an erotically charged sense of fetishism that had never been touched on in mainstream television, a fetishism of the everyday. Saddle shoes, donuts and coffee, linoleum floors, diner culture, wood: they all carried the same enticement and allure. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s axiom about giving yourself a gift each day served as mission statement for such powerful appreciation of the mundane, a split diopter statement both zen and perverse. But after all, who is Cooper but BLUE VELVET’s Jeffrey Beaumont all polished and grown up. Laura Dern’s Sandy famously tells Jeffrey “I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert”, and while his moral fiber is the strongest in the PEAKS universe, much of Coop’s strength (and appeal to the viewer) derives from his balancing between fascination and perversion.

And with the retro-modernism that so enraptured many of TWIN PEAKS’s fans came a profound sense of melancholia. The characters in this town felt emotions, expressed emotions like few others had before. Sarah Palmer’s grief after Laura’s death is a primal, animalistic wail. Leland Palmer becomes a barely functioning shell as he tries to come to terms with his daughter’s death (an emotional state that becomes even more painful in retrospect when he’s revealed as her killer, possessed by the seemingly ancient evil in the woods known only as Killer Bob.) Even beyond the Laura Palmer murder, the town of Twin Peaks is one that has maintained a more deliberate pace of life, refusing to believe that the corruption of the modern world could infiltrate its borders, ultimately suffering from the code of silence it has subconsciously imposed, one that has allowed for drug dealers, a brothel-owning millionaire hotelier, a scheming widow, and murderous, molesting father to thrive. As the tagline for 1992’s TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME states “In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent.” But they were all pining after a life and a past that they hoped to reclaim.

That melancholia extended to the fans of the show after the second season proved to be its last. For twenty-five years, PEAKS devotees pined after a continuation of the story, some sort of resolution for the cliffhanger ending that saw Agent Cooper trapped in the mythical Black Lodge, his evil doppleganger left to roam free in the material world. Despite some serious mis-steps in Season 2 (many derived from the extended absence of Lynch and Frost from the day to day showrunning), enough of the series’ original pull remained to keep fans hooked, and the expansion of the overarching themes into the metaphysical opened up endless possibilities for where the narrative was really going. All those dreams of showdowns between Good Cooper and Evil Cooper, of what really was in the Black and White Lodges, made for some powerful fantasy scenarios in the ensuing years.

This is partly why I’ve been so hesitant to write about TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN. In many ways, I subscribe to the Simonian theory of television analysis, that judging many modern shows on an episodic level ignores the grand intentions of their main narrative arcs, setting up a false standard in which each house must be pure enthrallment. When Lynch and Frost stated that the new PEAKS would essentially be an eighteen hour film broken down into parts, it reaffirmed that theory in my viewing of the show. But I also wanted to studiously avoid the fan fiction tendencies that tend to overwhelm the followers of such enterprises in our current media environment. After a few episodes, I realized that I would probably have very little idea of what would happen the next week, so my best bet was to surrender to the hypnotic cadence of each hour, to heed Hunter S. Thompson’s eternal advice to buy the ticket, take the ride.

Now that the full eighteen hour saga is complete, it’s become readily apparent that Lynch and Frost were also thinking of the deep sense of melancholia and nostalgia that so pervaded such an ambitious project. For TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN now appears as a sprawling, deeply moving rumination on the very nature of aging, of time, of the inevitable compulsion to gaze back into the abyss of the past with a yearning to reclaim that which is lost. Of course, you know what they say about gazing into the abyss…

Several critics have pointed out how the nature of aging is embedded in the very presence of so many of the original cast, most of whom are shot without any diffusion or makeup that would conceal the toll of the intervening years. Having these people play characters who have seldom shifted from their 1990 lives adds yet another layer to the time’s inexorable power. Big Ed is still running the gas farm, still pining after Norma. Shelly is still working behind the counter at the RR Diner, still getting mixed up with sleazy bad boys. Hawk, Andy, and Lucy are still manning the station at the Sheriff’s Department. And for every Bobby Briggs, who reforms his delinquent ways and fulfills the promise of his father, there’s a James Hurley, stuck in a dead end job as a security guard at the Great Northern Hotel.

It’s also not just a matter of character stasis that drives the narrative; there’s a deep sense of complete annihilation of fan expectations throughout. And so Dale Cooper must be reborn as the childlike Dougie Jones, wandering through the bulk of the series in a collection of comic misadventures tinged with melancholic emotion (that wonderful extended scene of him staring at the statue at night outside of his insurance company comes to mind.) New characters are introduced (Shelly’s daughter Becky and her wastoid husband Steven, the enigmatic drug kingpin Red) but only briefly touched upon, often in manners most frustrating. Audrey Horne, the sex bomb sensation of the show’s original run, only shows up late in the proceedings, figuratively trapped in a frustrating sequence of confrontations with a mysterious man, ultimately literally trapped in…an asylum? A netherworld? Her own mind? That answer has yet to be given…and might never be.        

Which leads us around to the final two hours of the narrative, and that final scene. The much-lauded eighth episode of the season (which surely ranks as one of the great surrealistic leaps in the history of the medium) aside, much of this TWIN PEAKS took great pleasure in the meandering, the absurdist, the hint of darkness and of plot forces about to cohere. The return of Dale Cooper to what seems to be his old self locks some of that meandering narrative into an acceleration toward resolution. And so when confronted with the presence of the mortally wounded Mr. C in the sheriff’s station, the good Cooper is able to muster the disparate forces which have been gathering for several episodes to (possibly) defeat the concentrated evil of Killer Bob that has been gestating within his doppleganger.

And in the traditional narrative sense, this is where matters would come to a close. Cooper and the gang would sit down for a cup of coffee and catch up on what’s been going on in his absence. Yet this is a different Cooper, a man who wandered for 25 of our years in the ether of another trans-dimensional plane, acquiring knowledge that we only see hints of in the final few hours. When he turns to the assembled supporting characters after Bob has been defeated, the determination in his demeanor is both reassuring and eerily reminiscent of that which he assumed before entering the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2. Dale Cooper has always been in possession of a questing intellect and spirit, the living embodiment of the love of mysteries that Lynch so treasures. It’s no mistake that his first scene of TWIN PEAKS’s original regular, post-pilot run (quoted at the beginning of this essay) established Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy brothers, the greatest boomer nostalgia mysteries, as his deepest preoccupations, cultural riddles that might never fully be solved, but which can be longed for in a Gatsby-like reverie. 

The Cooper of THE RETURN has carried this searching impulse beyond this vale, and something has changed within him as a result. When in a beguiling, enigmatic moment, his face is superimposed over the action, stating “We live inside a dream” in slow motion before he bids his friends and associates a farewell, it begs the obvious question: who is the dreamer? And what is the dream? The answer to his overriding intent is similarly stunning: a voyage into the past to correct prevent the death of Laura Palmer. Even though his old nemesis Windom Earle is never mentioned in this season, this is still the Cooper who lived with the sometimes crippling regret over his role in the death of Earle’s wife Caroline, a regret that possibly led to his entrapment within the Black Lodge all those years ago. To see him attempt to rewrite Laura Palmer’s history is a moving set of circumstances, yet also one tinged with the cataclysmic.

How much of this is to be taken literally, as Cooper repeating his own history of trying to atone for the past, and how much as Lynch and Frost commenting on the dangers of traversing our memories in search of resolution that does not and cannot exist? And what of the eerie love scene between Cooper and Diane, a passage that recalls similar sequences in LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, in which characters reach climaxes of ecstatic connection only to be driven apart by forces beyond their control (and in which characters are, intentionally or not, playing roles)? In the show’s haunting final scene, Cooper finds Laura alive, in a different guise, and yet his attempt to reunite her with her mother Sarah (who is apparently possessed by….what?) is met with someone else residing in casa de Palmer. The ensuing references to the names Tremond and Chalfont are a sharp callback to the ill-fated investigation of Chester Desmond in FIRE WALK WITH ME. The role of Alice Tremond being played by the real life owner of the Palmer house almost turns Cooper and Laura into yet more Twin Peaks tourists.

It’s the final line of the series (Cooper’s blank “What year is this?”) that lends the scene its primal power, his slightly stooped gait and the attendant electrical buzzing (which has always indicated a connection to the netherworld of the Lodges) indicating that his intent is to give this just one…more…try. Laura’s shriek upon hearing her Sarah’s ghostly voice from the morning after he death, a scream that douses the lights on the house and the show itself seems to offer a definitive statement about the possibility of making this all right again. Notice also the scene that plays under the credits, a replay of the replay of Laura whispering in Cooper's ear. In Episode 2 of the original series, Cooper's aging face was graced by a sense of delight and curiosity as she told him the secret that would eventually unlock the case. But in this version, his face carries with it a look of concern, almost of terror. What are those words that cause him such consternation?

This ending also refuses to resolve the show in a way that, to use a popular modern parlance, sticks the landing. But TWIN PEAKS has never really been about symmetric plot resolution. For decades, fans clamored for the possibilities inherent in a PEAKS on cable tv, unfettered by the strictures of network television. They might have forgotten that some of their most cherished aspects of the show were derived from those network strictures. And they might have ignored the progression of David Lynch’s artistic muse in the ensuing years. 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE (which might end up being his final theatrical feature) looks more and more like a proper template for this new series, a twisting narrative and mood pieces about Hollywood, artifice, doom, and transformation.

Lynch has always been very forthright about his love for creating a mood over that of a perfectly formed narrative, a sensibility deeply rooted in his background as an expressionist painter. In TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, he explored this sense of mood to its fullest, even to the end. Some mysteries were solved, but there will always be new mysteries to take their place. Living vicariously through Dale Cooper requires one to be open to the outer reaches of existence, even if that territory is one laden with an infinite night. Taking the ride with David Lynch requires a similar sense of true adventure, with all the risk that comes with it.

Ultimately, I struggle to come to terms with TWIN PEAKS in the confines of a single essay. My immediate reaction after Episode 18 was “But…but there has to be more!” And maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t. But the mysteries remain. And the mysteries are what drive us forward. Because in the end, there’s no going back.   

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

To a New World of Gods and Monsters: Betwixt Heaven and Hell with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN


Midway upon the journey of his life, Bruce Wayne finds himself within a forest dark, a liminal state born from his own tortured psyche, a fantastical future inferno of a broken civilization teeming with quasi-Fascist guards and swarming with winged mercenaries. And at the center of it all stands his greatest fear, the Kryptonian god among men driven mad with his own power, the straightforward path long lost.  The matter of how much of this vision exists as a dream and how much as a prophecy from the future (or a Poe-esque dream within a dream) remains of some debate. But the scene itself, bracing and bleak, serves as a microcosm of the film from which it ushers forth. For Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mere fan fic slugfest, but an operatic fever dream. It’s also a fitting expression of where we stand in this era of peak comic book (or maybe peak superhero would be more accurate.) And a perfect sequel to a film that doesn’t exist.

I’ve written before in this electronic hub about the star-crossed career of Zack Snyder. Suffice to say, he remains a fascinating, frustrating figure in the cinematic world. In the pantheon of music video directors gone Hollywood, he’s never had the obsessive focus on detail and procedure that makes David Fincher such a transcendent talent. Fincher’s films are psychological halls of mirrors hidden inside alluring puzzle boxes, Hitchcockian exercises in pop art as Trojan Horse. Snyder’s aspirations have always been more mythological and archetypical, grand and bombastic, sometimes to a fault. The visually stunning world of 300 is a thing of dark beauty, but what he does with that world too often never extends beyond abject male chest-thumping and war porn tendencies. Granted, the same could be said about Frank Miller’s source material. It all becomes serious to the point of self-parody; far more enjoyable was the Snyder-produced prequel 300: Rise of an Empire, which coupled that same visual scheme with a hearty embrace of the pulpy sword and sandal roots from whence it came, ably abetted by a delirious turn by Eva Green as the villainess with golden tongue (“You fight much harder than you fuck” she intones in one memorable scene.) I quite enjoyed his stab at adapting Alan Moore’s Watchmen, even as its stylistic nods to the book’s musings on the power of nostalgia were sometimes undercut by a slavish devotion to replicating beats from the source material. And Sucker Punch remains a wildly misunderstood work, a hallucinatory, pointed critique of the male gaze under the guise of the thrillers that so perpetuate that gaze.

Snyder’s folly in crafting Man of Steel was in confusing the very nature of Superman with his successors in the four-color domain. There’s too much of Spider-Man’s “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” injected into the story; that tack resonated so deeply with Peter Parker because he was an ordinary, maladjusted human being endowed with extraordinary abilities (the Marvel template in a nutshell.) Superman’s dilemma has always been more “Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown,” the crisis of a god descended to Earth to live among us. Even in his more light-hearted, Technicolor adventures, he’s been forced to balance his near-omnipotent nature with his deep connection to we flawed mortals. And where Spider-Man’s public reputation has fluctuated throughout the years, the Big Blue Boy Scout has been the guiding beacon of light for a troubled world. Foregrounding his existential crisis turned Man of Steel into a slog, the sense of wonder so inherent to any portrayal of the character submerged beneath a darkness that was tonally all wrong. The emotionally shattering climax of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman (in which the only person Superman can’t save from Lex Luthor’s plot is Lois Lane) holds such power only because it’s been preceded by two hours of Clark Kent and his flip side striving to be the unironic voice of hope in an increasingly cynical world. Man of Steel goes all brooding Kal-El from the start, which constantly dampens the aspirational mythology at the heart of the character.

Which is what makes Batman V. Superman the perfect sequel to the mythical Man of Steel that could have been. In an increasingly corporatized filmmaking environment, Snyder is one of the dwindling few directors who has been able to inject some sense of personal vision into the now de rigeur world-building imperative that threatens to drown the pure enjoyment of any individual comic book film (and sometimes any tentpole feature, period.) Juggling the dictates of shepherding a $250 million picture for immediate success, while laying the groundwork for multiple spinoffs and a larger team-up project can be daunting for even the most seasoned professional (see Joss Whedon post-Age of Ultron meat grinder.) Post-Avengers, it became readily apparent that Warner Brothers’ Superman reboot displayed their intentions of kicking off a multi-tiered DC heroes initiative, one which would carry a darker, more world-weary tone than the brighter, snappier Marvel Cinematic Universe. So as a stand-alone film, Batman V. Superman works marvelously as the purest expression of that alternative reality, a rejoinder to the lightness that its predecessor should have possessed. It’s an effect that can be disorienting at times, but it also shouldn’t discount the power of this chapter of the story on its own terms.  

As has been noted by other critics, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the superhero film has occurred in the wake of 9/11, deep in an age in which an act of mass trauma has seemingly evoked a grand desire for Manichean morality plays writ large on the cultural canvas. Those who read this sustained resurgence of super-powered cinema as an inherently infantile turn ignore some of the thornier aspects which have slowly emerged in the genre (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s rebuke of Big Data and government surveillance, the way in which Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe addresses civil liberties and the anger of the 99%, etc.) And yet, the manner in which the superhero tale has saturated our collective consciousness can’t be discounted. Decades of that influence through the less reputable realm of the comic book (and the occasional successful film adaptation, usually followed by rapidly diminishing returns) now being legitimized as the mass mythology of our times creates a baseline in the psychosphere with often profound implications. As Michael Chabon notes in the A+E documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, the rich irony of golden age heroes fighting the Axis laid in the inherently Fascist nature of the four-color ubermench: might makes right. It’s easy to sneer at the legacy of the Reagan-era empty action blockbusters, but the modern superhero film isn’t that far away from that genre (which itself was a response to the national trauma of the Vietnam fiasco.)

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns plunged headlong into those Fascist implications when it bowed in 1986, and even though it’s been a heavy influence on the Batman films ever since, this is the fullest realization of the moral and ethical ambiguity of the character that he explored. When you think about it, the casting of Ben Affleck as the Bat is quite the ballsy move. Amidst Hollywood’s obsession with youth, pursuing a middle-aged, broken Dark Knight is far from the easiest sell. Sure, Tony Stark might be a similar middle-aged playboy with a bum ticker, but Robert Downey’s youthful mien obscures the wear and tear on the character. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is allowed to be physically and psychologically beaten down by decades of this Sisyphean struggle, a borderline alcoholic obsessed with constant escalation of his war against the darkness that plagues his city (ably abetted by a terrific, wry Jeremy Irons as Alfred). It’s here, again, that BVS serves as fascinating sequel to the non-existent Man of Steel, as Snyder and company place Metropolis directly across the bay from Gotham City, the shining modern spin on New York just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the old New York, the noir New York. Superman wants to believe that he can serve as ultimate protector against villainy of all stripes, but Batman always advocates that mankind’s worst instincts will continue to metastasize forever, a belief strengthened by the darkness with which Gotham seemingly infects Metropolis in this story. And if the evil of man won’t quit, then what to say of the evil of what lies beyond man, what might descend from the outer reaches of the heavens (as Lex Luthor theorizes in connection with the Paradise Lost-inspired painting that hangs in his mansion.)

Ah yes...the young Mr. Luthor, a brilliant revisionist turn by Jesse Eisenberg. For decades now, the DC Universe Luthor has been the most threatening figure imaginable: an often reputable businessman and politician. Transplanting that concept to 2016, what better interpretation is there than the boy genius tech billionaires that drive so much of the economy and zeitgeist (and the actor who famously portrayed one of them.) That messianic, technovangelist drive which powers the Schmidts and Brins and Zuckerbergs of the world is super-charged here in a Luthor set on channeling some greater understanding of what lies beyond, an imperative that eventually transforms him into a mad prophet of impending galactic doom, the man who has seen the face of God in his exploration of General Zod’s Kryptonian ship. His creation of Doomsday from the dead husk of Zod veers him into the realm of Dr. Frankenstein, and there’s more than a bit of Colin Clive’s mania at knowing what it’s like to be God in Luthor’s psychotic passion. Eisenberg is often criticized for playing variations on the same near-autistic character, but he’s easily the standout performance in this epic film, the crazed genius counterpart to Batman’s hyper-clinical obsession and Superman’s idealism. He also commits the timeless, primal sin which bedeviled Frankenstein and so many other characters of myth: he pisses off the gods. Heroes like Batman might hold the upper hand against humanity, but the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman will always have their ability to guard that thin veil between earthly malfeasance and the ill will of that which is greater than mere mortals. Luthor’s transgression of that veil sets in motion an intergalactic power that threatens to rain down from afar. Apocalypse now is his credo. Some have questioned Luthor’s motivation in all this, but in the genre’s pure metaphorical state he allows us a glimpse back at our own tech and business titans, driven on by the fervent belief that greater knowledge and technological progress will always benefit mankind. Until it doesn’t.

So much of all this discussion plays out as a series of archetypical impressions…which is fitting for a film that does the same in its fevered dream logic. The reality of corporate dictates overstuffs BVS with a few plot beats too many, and oftentimes the action seems to be moving at such a breakneck speed that the audience doesn’t get the chance to pause and contemplate what has just happened. But in the grand scheme of yet another version of these characters (okay, maybe not as much with the historically underserved Wonder Woman….but still), it’s all very much in keeping with our collective consciousness. This film plays as the product of that superhero-saturated culture, one in which we know these figures so well that they become subliminal flashes against our mental landscape, in which we need little further introduction to their origins but can dive deep into another version of their existence. If cinema is indeed a collective dream in which we participate, then Batman V. Superman nakedly acknowledges that status. Call it disjointed spectacle if you will, but there’s more going on here than a fractured series of scenes. In the end, we’re all Batman, caught up in that hyper-real vision of what could be, beguiled by the possibilities of everything that we know so well flipped on its head, bewildered by what might come forth from Heaven and Hell (and from which direction) now that gods have visited our world.      

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy: THE HATEFUL EIGHT's 70MM Dreams

It all starts with the wind, the ever-present white noise humming behind all that takes place. Or maybe it starts with the ambient rattle of the stagecoach, which, paired with the steady vibrations of the vehicle itself, seem to promise a gradual descent into sleep for at least one of the wayward travelers housed within. Or maybe it really all starts with the pulsating orchestral thrum of Ennio Morricone’s main titles, all horror film menace and military march precision, the perfect doomsday sturm und drang for that lone stagecoach on its way to a rendezvous with bloodshed and slaughter. All of them forming the persistent, haunting aural landscape that allows for no escape from the brutality of the land, of the people, of the country.

That wind raged through the air on the day that my cohorts and I ventured forth across the barren winter landscape of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois on our pilgrimage to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Situated, as we were, in Columbus over the long Christmas week, we had the option of visiting a multiplex in suburban Cleveland to see Quentin Tarantino’s newest cinematic brainchild in its original format, our only viable in-state option at the time. But it made sense to venture forth across the frozen tundra for this filmic experience, to brave the elements and the passage of time in order to pay tribute to the communal art of the filmgoing experience, to see a 70mm presentation in a theater which we knew had a track record of flexing its large format screening chops.

Throughout the essays that have gradually, sometime meanderingly weaved their way toward this final literary destination, I’ve focused so much on the vitality that Tarantino’s films bring to a jaded, spectacle-deprived modern audience. How their profane, bombastic, panache can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, preferably with a crowded house of like-minded enthusiasts (or people who just enjoy a good night out at the movies.) The Hateful Eight is the ne plus ultra of this stylistic verve, filmed in a format that hasn’t been used since the ‘60s, ensuring that any theater wishing to screen it in said format would have to shell out the time and scratch to retrofit their 35mm projector for the cause. A dead format being used to revive a dying format. Let the exorcism begin.

Or maybe, as Jim Morrison once invoked, the ceremony is about to begin. In being tailor made for the theatrical setting, Tarantino’s films have served as a stern rebuke to the much-promised democratization of media that modern technology’s siren song has offered forth. The widescreen tv, the tablet, the phone: all information portals that have allowed us to permanently embed cinematic memories and experiences into the immediate fiber of our beings, yet also the vessels that have transported so many of those memories and experiences into the dreaded, debased realm of “content.” Lawrence of Arabia becomes just another distraction from work, or part of a multi-screen experience. Blue Velvet is an oddball story flashing across your palm in broad daylight, not a terrifying experience that you’re forced to give yourself over to in the dark, like Jeffrey Beaumont on Frank Booth’s nocturnal thrill ride. None of the ceremonial imperative that was once an integral part of the moviegoing experience remains.

But all the accoutrements associated with the 70mm Hateful Eight screenings, the programs, the overture and intermission, the limited seating (only one screen per venue), the pure thrill of being told that this was a rarity…these all work to summon once again what lies at the heart of the classic cinematic experience: the shared sense of partaking in something that is literally bigger than ourselves. Godard might have famously noted that cinema is truth 24 frames per second, but it’s also dreaming at that frame rate, a mass hallucination into which we willingly enter. If cinema is a church to some, and religious ecstasy has often been proven to be a temporary fantasy…well, connect the dots. Our voyage on that frigid winter’s day served as the perfect backdrop for The Hateful Eight because it transformed a mere film screening into a two day commitment to eventually sitting with 500 other movie maniacs, communing with the unexpected (I studiously avoided plot details beforehand), encased in a room together in defiance to the elements, much like the titular bandits and lawmen.

If we sought to tap into that dream state that cinema at its best invokes, then the 70mm format held the promise of providing the deepest representation of that state. Digital cinema can serve as a mighty evangelist for those living where film is no longer readily available, but it also remains a simulacrum, a series of 1’s and 0’s being thrown onto a screen playacting the part of the image. In a world where veracity is in question like no time before, 70mm (or even 35mm) is a tactile summoning of the purity of the image, light literally being forced through a physical strip of celluloid, film grain a constant, ever-changing, luminescent dance. I’ve heard stories of stories of Hateful Eight audience members swearing off film screenings afterward due to the inherent mild bob and weave that can crop up in the image. But that’s part and parcel of the aforementioned purity: the knowledge that what we are watching is a living element, re-animated from a dormant state by mechanical gears and electric illumination.

Having seen it twice in 70mm (a local venue eventually screened it in that format) and once in its slightly reduced DCP presentation, I can attest that while the digital version is engaging, the original film version is absorbing, enthralling. In digital, DP Robert Richardson’s lush use of color and his signature hot spotlight effects feel slightly pale, but on film they’re warm, vibrant, hypnotic. Morricone’s score can be cranked up as much as you want in digital, but it doesn’t approximate the full power and majesty it possesses when being read directly off an analog film source. Even the second time, with an audience that was maybe a tenth the size of my maiden voyage, the tactile nature of film being projected was a thrilling sensory experience.

All of this discussion of truth in presentation for a film that is premised on the fine art of lying and performance. For once again, we’re in Tarantinoland, in which the storyteller is king, and in which the tale being spun holds more power than any firearm or axe. What’s new here is how QT portrays this liar’s paradise, or, more accurately, where he chooses to portray it. This is the third straight period piece he’s directed, and it’s not hard to believe that it’s been a conscious choice predicated on allowing his legion of talkers to match wits without the modern equalizers of cell phones and the internet. But even though they’re obsessed with language, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained carry with them the allure of mobility, the movement from one physical space to another. Those two films might feel slightly alien to our contemporary sensibilities, but The Hateful Eight’s daring gambit is to craft an environment that might be even more alien: a single room in which people are essentially trapped and forced to deal with each other. Remove the classic locked room mystery nature of the plot and you have a societal microcosm which can feel completely befuddling to a modern audience trained to annihilate even the hint of boredom by retreating to their devices when things get slow. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a societal microcosm wherein the only escape is interior in nature. It can be a discomfiting viewing proposition: a few friends have felt like the film takes forever to get to its point. I would argue that that is the point, the experience of this motley crew of refugees navigating their way through the minefield of deception an often circuitous, frustrating, comedic, human endeavor.

And just as Scherazade prolonged her life with a tale well told, lying proves to be a survival mechanism for these characters. What might be less obvious is the larger world in which Tarantino situates them. Much of The Hateful Eight feels like a spiritual cousin to Django Unchained, which served as a hopeful alternate historical stab at the destruction of slavery. This film surveys a post-Civil War society in which unity and brotherhood compose the grand communal mythos, but in which the hard reality is composed of back-stabbing and naked self-interest. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) might not have physical enslavement to worry about, but he’s a slave nonetheless to society’s rampant racism and the legacy of supposed cowardice that earned him exile from the military. Fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is about as close to traditional moral authority as the film gets, but he’s so hardened by the nature of his work as to be more hollowed out mercenary than heroic figure. Daisy Domergue (a show-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh) seems for quite a bit to be the victim of a deeply ingrained misogyny before revealing herself to be the most devious character in the whole film. Among the lead eight characters, only Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) ultimately proves to be exactly who he presents himself as. The fact that he’s a dumbass good ol’ boy still in thrall to the philosophy of the renegade Confederate army that his father led tells you a lot about the moral landscape of the film. To be a liar is to be suave, intelligent, urbane, cunning. The chessboard at the center of the Haberdashery (a lie in and of itself) is the most apt metaphor: to paraphrase that old axiom about gender relations, all of these characters are playing chess while Chris is stuck in a checkers world.

But it’s his checkers mentality that ultimately serves as what comes closest to passing for redemption in this story. Goggins really commits to the relative unlikeability of the role, playing Mannix in such broad fashion as to seem almost cartoonish at times. It proves to be a canny choice, throwing the audience’s admiration toward the more restrained, scheming charisma of the other characters, only for their self-interest to backfire as they’re systematically murdered in a daisy chain of violence. Ultimately, it’s Mannix’s basic morality that ends the cycle of bloodshed. The chess player would take Daisy’s offer of easy bounty money for her escape and Marquis’s murder, but Chris decides to live up to his new role as Red Rock sheriff at least once by doing the right thing.

Maybe, even above the omnipresent wind, and Morricone score, and rampant lying, it all comes back to that infamous Lincoln letter that Marquis Warren uses to disarm so many white folk. In a desolate moral landscape defined by the hyper-libertarian code, the ghost of Lincoln still hangs over the proceedings as the one possible unifying force, so much so that when Warren reveals the letter’s false nature, John Ruth is (for probably the only time in the film) genuinely hurt (just as he was genuinely touched to read it.) In one sense, that letter is representative of the big lie that society has bought into, the one that says we can actually live together and transcend matters of race and class. In another, it’s a symbol of the myths that we need to believe to continue on. Take the final shot of the film, in which a dying Chris reads it aloud for the first time. Even though he knows of its falsity, those inspiring, forged words serve as a temporary balm for his pain, mirrored in the visual of his passing away in tandem with the black man that he was raised to hate. After finishing it, he tosses it to the side, and the audience is left to wonder how much power he takes from it and how much he’s dismissing it as a temporary salve.

It’s such a powerful tableau that it can be easy to ignore the other figure in the shot: the now-hanged Daisy, dangling from the rafters on the left side of the frame. Her presence recalls the film’s extended opening credits shot, in which a wooden statue of a crucified Christ is also prominently featured on the left side of the frame. From the beginning, the audience is being told of the agony and suffering that are to come, while also being given a visual hint of the secret martyr at the center of the story, the slavery-battling president shot down before his time. It can be tempting to read that final scene as confirmation that, yeah, maybe we can all just get along. But nobody gets out of this tale alive, and the enduring bracketing images of the narrative are of two of the most agonizing forms of death. Hope might be society’s necessary illusion, but it’s a much more nihilistic philosophy that dominates this tale. Which, perhaps, makes it even more of a contemporary story than it would appear to be, a fitting parable for an era in which, at times, we seem to have made negligible progress toward the unity that Lincoln strove for. Just like that wind that persistently howls outside the Haberdashery, there’s ultimately no escape from the inhumanity that has dominated mankind’s existence from the beginning.