Short Cuts: WONDER WOMAN

wonder-woman

Back when it hit theaters, the question of whether or not Wonder Woman was good got tangled up with the whether or not it was important: on the film and director Patty Jenkins’s shoulders was placed the cause of whether or not a woman-driven, woman-directed tentpole franchise could “work” at the box office. It is, I think, an unfair expectation to place on any film that’s essentially the same kind of expensive pixel-camp we see a dozen times a summer, and that itself is a kind of double standard. Before the film came out, I saw a post on social media—and it’s telling of our information age that I can’t remember if it was a friend or a meme—that the goal is not for Wonder Woman to come out and be amazing. The goal is for Wonder Woman to come out, suck, and then be followed three weeks later by another femme-centered superhero movie, because that’s the way it works with the boys. That sounds about right to me. It’s strange that building movies on women is still considered a “niche” strategy by so many Hollywood forecasters, especially when Wonder Woman is the second highest grossing film of the year (for the record, the only one currently ahead of it is Beauty and the Beast (2017)).

So if a verdict is what you’re looking for, I can say with absolute certainty that Wonder Woman is totally fine. On a cinematic and dramaturgical level, it’s no worse or better than the average tentpole—more focused than a lot of lesser films, less developed and airtight than the better ones. (Given how Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad were disastrously received last year, that makes it definitely a step in the right direction for the nervous masters of the DC Universe). It’s the sort of adventure high on slo-mo fights and fleshed out by stock characters who shout exposition they couldn’t possibly know so that the audience doesn’t fall behind. It doesn’t really try for any surprising turns until late in the game. And if the idea of an explicitly anti-war action flick that racks up a bloodless bodycount sounds contradictory to you, you’re right.

So I’d say that this is the sort of movie that asks you not to think about it—except it’s more the sort of movie that asks you to think about it in a very certain way. It makes sense that most conversations about the film have had to do with the politics of representation, because that’s the movie’s most distinguishing mark, and it knows it. I don’t just mean having scenes where an attractive woman kicks someone’s ass; that’s hardly uncommon, and most times it’s for the men. I mean that Wonder Woman aspires to match its heroine by differentiating itself with a feminine perspective in a sausage-fest environment. The women have established their bonds of sisterhood, motherhood, etc., before a male character is even introduced, and so many of the scenes of Our Heroine meeting the human race for the first time exist solely to get laughs of recognition at the BS women experience in everything from politics to fashion to a thousand little social interactions. (Like, say, fending off a “friendly” hug from a stranger who’s clearly discomfortingly attracted to you). That insistence of perspective, more than any of DC’s hokum about whether mankind is worth saving, is the catharsis. Women like this geeky stuff, too, goddammit, and for the life of me, I’ll never understand why so many male geeks have bristled at the idea. As long as Hollywood is going to try to turn geekery into gold for the foreseeable future, godspeed.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

Wonder Women is available to rent on iTunes and Amazon. But Diana really dropped the ball on Hitler.

Short Cuts: ALIEN: COVENANT

ALIEN: COVENANT

Presenting Alien: Covenant: in which the DNA of several movies—a literal sequel to Prometheus (2012), a spiritual sequel to Blade Runner (1982), a Planet of Dr. Moreau, and a run-and-gun splatter-fest—mix into a half-formed mutant that bursts from Ridley Scott’s chest and onto screens everywhere. Prometheus had been Scott’s mixed-reception start at giving the monster from Alien (1979) its own origin story, and Alien: Covenant resumes its predecessor’s mythology as well as its ponderous meditations on man, god, and mortality. This is the sort of movie that uses the word “ambulate” when “walk” would have worked just as well. It is also the first Alien movie to succumb to the horror cliche of having people killed during sex, and something of that schizoid nature typifies the film.

The opening act, where another ship of doomed space travelers awaken from their interstellar sleep and respond to a mysterious signal, actually does a fine job of throwing us back into this universe. The characters of Prometheus became semi-infamous in geek culture for being among the dumbest brilliant scientists to ever explore a new planet. The characters of Covenant are better drawn, particularly Billy Crudup’s shaky captain and Katherine Waterston’s solid replacement-Ripley. Then, once the ship lands and the alien appears, those characters hit a wall. It’s a fundamental question that I’m not sure Alien: Covenant has an answer for: is the movie meant to belong to Waterston’s Ripleyesque heroine, or is it Michael Fassbender’s show? Fassbender pulls double duty here, reprising his role as the creepy android David from Prometheus while also playing a “new model” that the colonists bring with them. David, it seems, has been stranded on a distant planet, biding his time and attempting to genetically engineer a “perfect organism.” And as Fassbender takes his place as the Alien backstory’s chief villain and prime motivator, all Covenant‘s humans start to fade, reintroduced only to be eaten.

All of which is to say that Alien: Covenant is a movie distracted from itself, and I can’t tell which half is the distraction. Does the philosophical backstory distract from the basics of an Alien movie—another day, another airlock—or is it the other way around? The speculation about the origin of the species (ours and “its”) is a lot less fun; this is a movie that throws around terms like “faith”, “believe”, and “creator” in a way that implies meaning without actually having much. But then, Scott’s interest in those ideas is the part of the movie that feels most passionate; the action, by contrast, is professional but utterly impersonal.

Each part is intriguing, each part is incomplete. But if this particular sci-fi fan is allowed to be schizoid himself, I must admit I kind of enjoyed sifting through this new material for two hours: rooting for Waterston, marveling at Scott and co.’s visual wizardry, and barreling through the detailed, claustrophobic sets. The lasting question, and the one that addresses why this new film was greeted by so many fans as a non-event, is whether its most basic mission is even desirable. Could an explanation of the creature, even if done right, do any good? I’m reminded of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”, another touchstone of sci-fi horror, whose opening paragraph contains this warning: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should travel far.” Something of that essential Lovecraftian anxiety was ingrained in the original Alien: the sense that the endlessness of space, only just being explored, might contain terrors beyond imagination and comprehension. And I’ll bet you points off the gross that that long, cold stare into the unknown will continue to power Scott’s first masterpiece long after Prometheus and Alien: Covenant start to fade.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

Alien: Covenant is available for rental on iTunes. If you want to see a movie where one Michael Fassbender hits on another Michael Fassbender, this is probably your only chance.

Short Cuts: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

lego-batman-movie

It’s easy to be flippant about any film whose very title is two registered trademarks followed by the word “movie”, but there is a reason The LEGO Batman Movie—a hit with reviewers and moviegoers earlier this year—ended up in my Netflix queue in the first place. In an age of overblown franchise tentpoles, there’s something cheekily appealing about taking the blockbuster maximalism of today and miniaturizing it. A LEGO action sequence is staged and scored like it was Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan, or Marvel, only every explosion results in a rain of miniature plastic blocks. It’s a twist that can make you smile: after all, don’t all action movies, if done right, feel like children at play? At least, that was half the fun of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s witty, highly meta The LEGO Movie, which launched the franchise on an unexpected high note, smuggled in some smily satire, and made its CGI mayhem feel new simply by making it clear that all the epic sagas at multiplexes these days are really just a matter of toys.

LEGO Batman capitalizes on that success, grabbing a hold of the DC universe (and roping in as many other franchise as it can get its hands on) for an adventure whose action feels dreamt up by a kid and whose moral feels insisted upon by a parent. There is, I have to say, not nearly as much cleverness as its predecessor, though not for lack of trying. It starts riff-tracking its own movie before the opening credits have even started. And as it uses pop culture as a sandbox, it quickly aims for the kind of cleverness that can so easily seem obnoxious because it encourages audiences to feel like the screen is smaller than they are. That is, it’s a fun film that panders to our universal geekery; it offers little except pastiche, tribute, and the kind of likable self-parody for kids that’s been writing itself since Shrek.

No harm, no foul—but can’t we do better? The last bona fide Batman movie I saw was The Dark Knight Rises. It was, I think, Christopher Nolan’s weakest film by far, with aspirations towards seriousness that landed in an utter tangle. But LEGO Batman, without the satire and novelty of its LEGO original, took the caped crusader so far in the other direction that I had the opposite reaction: I realized I’d rather watch a talented director like Nolan try to create a new movie myth (even if it risks collapse) than watch 100 minutes of jokes that congratulate us for memorizing the old ones. Spotting references is a good deal different than true media savvy, which is the difference between the hollow pleasure of LEGO Batman and the smartest touches that made The LEGO Movie such a cheery surprise. And if it’s not careful, and as more spin-offs fill the pipeline, that’s the only true risk this franchise is likely to take: the unpleasant moment when being cheeky towards cliches is revealed to be a long-running cliche of its own.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

The LEGO Batman Movie is now on home video. Hand me down the shark repellent.

Short Cuts: THE BIG SICK

the-big-sick

Ah, Judd Apatow. It’s been over a decade since he led a tidy revolution in Hollywood comedy by acknowledging that dirty-joke-mongers have a great deal of vulnerability behind them. For his work as a director, I know some cinephiles who still treasure him, and others who think he got too indulgent and disappeared up his own ass somewhere in Brentwood circa This is 40 (2012). But as a producer, his enduring impact is as an incubator for comics jumping to a kind of creative, personal screen authorship, including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, etc. One could argue that, among performers, comedians are the most willing—even pathologically eager—to share intimate details about themselves to an audience of strangers. So bless them for making movies. And now, with The Big Sick, Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani gets added to the list.

Nanjiani is probably best known as a supporting player on Silicon Valley, where he had the chance to score some laughs but, for the first few seasons, didn’t usually take center stage. Now, The Big Sick is a triumph. Co-written with his wife Emily V. Gordon, the movie is a semi-autobiographical comedy—Kumail plays himself, Zoe Kazan plays “Emily”—about their courtship, which was complicated by the pressures of a traditional Pakistani family and briefly interrupted when a medical emergency sent Emily into a forced coma. “An Awkward True Story”, quoth the posters, and by you now you should know that we live in a time when “awkward” carries positive connotations.

It is one of the most charming comedies of the year. The script succeeds at tackling its themes—the immigrant experience, millennial dating habits in the digital age, how different cultures approach the institution of marriage—with tremendous specificity and without ever losing sight of the chemistry at the core. The scenes of Pakistani-American life challenge the “if a character is X, they must also be Y” rule that shackles so many screen representations. The first thirty minutes between Kumail and Emily make a strong case that my generation might someday produce its own Annie Hall (1977), and that if we do, it’ll be more generous. (In Kazan’s Emily, I recognize the millennial flightiness of my own love life, but she’s too good at spotting people’s bullshit—a genuinely attractive quality for a long-term partner—to be shunted to the corner or labeled a “manic pixie dream girl”).

Director Michael Showalter, of the comedy troupe Stella, keeps the mood gentle and observational, and he balances the tone so that when the medical emergency arrives, the emotional stakes are raised without the movie ever sinking into melodrama. On the contrary, the coma is a chance to add Ray Romano and an always-welcome Holly Hunter into the comic mix as Emily’s parents. It is only in the last act when The Big Sick starts to falter, when it starts to lose its specificity by playing too close to the standard rom-com formula: the communication errors, the initial rejections, the ultimate reunions, etc. It begins to feel, in short, like a movie—and merely one movie among many others. But that might just be another heartwarming way of saying that, when it comes to how America and the Hollywood establishment churn out mass product, newcomers will get a chance.

✬✬✬✬✩

*********

The Big Sick is still playing in a few theaters. See it with an audience while you can.

About Last Night…: Being “The Dreamer” in TWIN PEAKS

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 7.07.43 PM

Mulholland Drive isn’t like Memento, where if you watch it closely enough, you can hope to explain the mystery. There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.

That quote comes from Roger Ebert’s 4-out-of-4-star review of Mulholland Drive back in 2001. Ebert had spent the previous 15 years panning almost every David Lynch film that came along, brutally tearing into Lost Highway (1997), Wild At Heart (1990), and even Blue Velvet (1986) with all the strength of his downward thumb. But with Mulholland Drive, we have an example of a unique and glorious Lynch paradox: the willingness to crown a film a masterpiece while maintaining (as Ebert did over and over in his review) that one simply needn’t and probably can’t understand it.

In my last post about Twin Peaks: The Return, I said that I didn’t envy TV critics who have to get their reviews online so quickly. But I especially don’t envy any critic who owes a publication a David Lynch review on short notice. Ebert’s prognosis was correct: Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece. His analysis was not; the plot of Mulholland Drive can be decoded, and rather nicely. I first saw the film one Saturday night in college, and it was my first experience with Lynch. I started the movie at 11 PM, and got progressively more and more sleep-deprived as the film got more and more surreal. I lay awake until 4 AM thinking about it, and spent much of my Sunday reading theories about it online instead of studying.

I didn’t see Mulholland Drive again for another 10 years, but when I revisited it, it was almost disappointing how much sense it made. Looking at it in retrospect, each of its pieces could be accounted for. Lynch may be a surrealist, and much of his aesthetic choices—a cowboy with no eyebrows, say—can be explained simply by noting the irrational impact they’re supposed to have. But as a storyteller, he’s more like a puzzle-master who’s gotten high on symbolism and spiritual dream logic. In other words, his best work is clearly more than random wanking or a mere “trip”, but a different approach to narrative—one in which objective and subjective events criss-cross and do a waltz.

All of which leads me to my reaction to last night’s hotly anticipated finale of Twin Peaks: The Return, which said the last word not only on this Showtime miniseries but presumably the franchise as a whole. I confess, the viewing experience left me frustrated. Of all the questions and threads the show had set up—what the fuck is up with Audrey? what the fuck is up with the girl and the frog-bug? what the fuck is up with… etc.—the dawning horror of last night’s 2-hour weird-fest wasn’t just that it wasn’t going to answer the questions, but that it wasn’t going to address them at all. And this raises a hard question for cine-fans everywhere.

There are certain directors—Lynch, Kubrick, Godard, etc.—who attain such a reputation for mastery, for everything being deliberate and meaningful no matter how perplexing, that all their work gets viewed through that lens. But isn’t it possible that those directors, like more or less every great director in history, can lose the thread from time to time? That is, for a puzzle-master like Lynch, if he ever crossed the line from cryptic brilliance to utter messiness, how would we know?

One answer may just be our gut reaction to the images on the screen, and even that only takes you so far; as much as it would suck to be prematurely on the bandwagon, it would suck even more to write off a work of art you’re not ready to understand. So after anxiously awaiting last night’s finale, I found myself anxiously awaiting what the hivemind of the internet would make of it. And I have to say, I saw pretty much every possible human emotion expressed somewhere: raves, confusion, ambivalence, disappointment, and a die-hard Peaks fan friend who simply posted an angry, Diane-esque “Fuck you” aimed at David Lynch.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 7.10.29 PM

So what the fuck is going on? Below is a breakdown of one plausible theory. It is by no means complete, and it won’t account for everything, but it’s the theory I like the most. It is also, needless to say, filled with spoilers, so don’t read it unless you know what you’re getting into.

First off, Lynch can make fools of us all. Yesterday, I posted that I thought the new series was heading in the direction of an optimistic finale. I was fractionally right. The optimistic showdown it had been building towards did indeed happen: Special Agent Cooper arrived back in Twin Peaks for a tender reunion, and the evil entity known as Bob was defeated and destroyed.

But almost instantly, you can tell that something is wrong, not just because this “happy ending” happens with 90 minutes still left to go, but because Lynch suddenly stages it with Cooper’s horror-stricken face superimposed over the action. That is, he gives us the triumph and smiles and kisses while framing it with deep unease.

“We live inside a dream,” the floating head of Cooper says. And then the following events occur:

  • Cooper says “I hope I see all of you again” to the cast of the show.
  • Cooper’s goes back in time to prevent Laura—who in Episode 8 was revealed as a symbol of heavenly goodness—from ever being killed. He succeeds in preventing her murder, but then loses her in a dark forest.
  • Cooper and Diane drive out to the middle of nowhere. There is a threshold in the highway, and they know it will change everything if they cross it. They cross it anyway.
  • Day turns to night, and Cooper and Diane arrive at a roadside motel. They say almost nothing to one another.
  • Diane, briefly, sees an image of her own doppelgänger lingering in the darkness. (Is she no longer whole?)
  • The two of them have disturbingly cold, passionless sex, while the Platters’ song from Episode 8 plays in the background.
  • Cooper wakes up the next morning to find that he’s alone. There’s a goodbye letter on the nightstand addressed to “Richard” from “Linda”. (The names “Richard and Linda” previously appeared as an omen from the giant in Episode 1. The giant didn’t give us any context, explanation, or even a verb, but in Lynch-land, that’s the closest we get to a clue).
  • Cooper steps outside. The motel is now completely different.
  • Cooper drives to a diner. He asks for an off-duty waitress’s address.
  • He goes to the waitress’s house. The door is opened by a woman named Carrie Page, who, because she’s played by Cheryl Lee, is the spitting image of an older Laura Palmer.
  • Cooper tells her that he suspects that she is really “a girl named Laura Palmer”. He asks her to come to Twin Peaks with him to see her mother.
  • The two of them drive to Twin Peaks on a long, lonely, eerie journey.
  • They arrive at the Palmer’s house, to find it occupied by a different family who’ve never heard of the Palmers.
  • Cooper asks to himself “What year is this?”. In the distance, you can hear Laura’s mother call her name, and Cheryl Lee suddenly seems overtaken and gives possibly the most terrifying scream in Lynch’s filmography.

So what exactly happened, and what was the threshold that Cooper and Diane crossed? Was it a kind of time warp, or yet another alternate dimension? Or is it possible that, as has been intimated rather directly, the entirety of Twin Peaks has been a dream?

I don’t say this with any hatred for the it-was-all-a-dream trope. In fact, Lynch is one of that trope’s best practitioners, because in the spiritualism of the Lynch universe, what you dream means just as much as what you do in waking life. But he has, of course, played tricks like this before—even if who-shot-J.R.-ing a 25 year franchise would take balls, even for him. Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive feature characters who construct fantasy versions of themselves, only to watch the fantasy come apart. And the way those films yank reality out from under you, or show you not the story but a reflection of the story, never bothered me. In fact, their doppelgänger funhouses strike me as not only daring, but emotionally coherent; for Lynch, “dreams” and “reality” are two rooms you can walk between.

So it’s not unlikely that he’s doing similar metaphysics again here. Consider how different Cooper behaves in this last stretch of the show: he is fatigued, lonely, without the heartwarming pep that defined his character. He accepts his coffee at the diner (his favorite drink!) without any enthusiasm. He never smiles. Look at the way he confronts the violent shit-kickers who harass a waitress: it’s a mixture of moral purpose and vicious tactics. This final incarnation of Coop is played by Kyle MacLachlan, rather brilliantly, as a kind of cross between the impulses of the good Coop and the dourness of his evil doppelgänger.

So has Cooper really been “Richard”, and Diane is “Linda”? Has the world of Twin Peaks, in which he’s a knight in shining armor, been both his fantasy and a way of processing the pleasure and pain he’s seen over his lifetime? In the real world, is Richard a worn-down FBI agent who’s been in a relationship with Linda, who instead of his gal friday (as “Diane” was) is a lover who was slowly drifting away from him? What’s so eerie about this final stretch is how alien the town of Twin Peaks looks when Cooper and this latest version of Laura arrive back in it: the familiar eccentricity is gone, leaving just a town after nightfall in its wake. It is as if we’re seeing Laura’s house and the Double R Diner for the first time. And while that rattling scream raises questions, it suggests most of all that we’re in a world where no permanent resolution to your scars can be found—that the horrors and wonders of “Twin Peaks” will always run under the surface until the end of time.

This would make red herrings out of all the subplots we hoped would be addressed. Or rather, it makes them individual units or thematic coloration instead of larger plot points. Audrey’s terrifying and unspecified awakening at the end of Episode 16 would be a mirror of Richard’s, or her own threshold crossed. The Janey-E plotline would reflect an all-American suburban relief that Richard doesn’t have. The evil frog-bug that crawls into the girl’s mouth after she has her first kiss—and after she listened to the same song Cooper and Diane make passionless love to—would be not a crucial detail of Twin Peaks backstory, but a discrete Lynchian sketch of sex turned sour. Richard’s haunting final question—”What year is this?”—would be the pondering of an old man who no longer recognizes the world. The entire universe of Twin Peaks, with its “Laura Palmers” and “Bobs”, would be a psychic space, not a literal one. And so, last but not least, Richard’s insistence that “Carrie Page” is really “a girl named Laura Palmer” would be symbolic, because “Laura Palmer”—or the concept of “Laura Palmer”—would be an image of young innocence that a dutiful lawman is never able to fully protect from trauma.

All of which is to say that even if fans wanted plot, the answers they got came as themes—and in our new Twin Peaks, it’s much easier to account for the themes and feelings than plot. (Where did Cooper/Richard learn who Carrie Paige was? Is that what Laura whispered to him in the Lodge? Does Carrie sense her alternate identity in the dream world, too? Who knows…for Lynch, dreams could even be shared. Twin Peaks might be a kind of Oz that Carrie and Richard and whoever Audrey is return to when they close their eyes). So my first prediction about Twin Peaks: The Return may have been right after all: we’ll be arguing the shit out of this new series for some time to come.

And for my own part, after feeling cheated and pissed off, I woke up the next day to find myself more and more drawn to these ideas, to the point where they’ve almost completely won me over. I’ve dipped back into Episodes 17 and 18, and suddenly they seem more lucid, or at least more entertaining, because I know the answers we were hoping for won’t come. We were asking the wrong questions.

So argue as we may, the moment I’ll remember most is Cooper in the Twin Peaks sheriff station, saying “I hope I see all of you again.” It could just as easily be a man talking to his fantasies, or Lynch bidding farewell to his own artistic creations—creations that, as Lynch has insisted over the years, seem to spring into his mind from some unknowable source, but that he’s had the luck, fortitude, and skill to put on screen. Bless his madness.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 6.59.09 PM

*******

Twin Peaks: The Return ended last night. The entire 18-hour miniseries is available for streaming.

 

Home Stretch: TWIN PEAKS Arrives at Limbo’s End

twin peaks return 1

I don’t envy the job of a TV critic. In a way, and particularly as serialized television has become the norm, it seems strikingly illogical to have to condemn or recommend a TV show based on its first few episodes, as reviewers often have to do to get a “hot take” online by the premiere. But then, maybe it’s not so illogical at all, because the promise of TV has always been the immediacy of constant engagement—after all, if you’re not engaged after four episodes, why would you care after five? But immediacy is something that Twin Peaks: The Return hasn’t shown much interest in. Slyly, the series has offered several metaphors for itself: a mysterious box in which something may or may not appear; scribbles on paper that inexplicably make sense to a man who looks at them in the right way; and a low beeping tone in a room that moves whenever you try to find its source.

So I have to admit that at least 50% of what’s kept me going during this 18-hour miniseries—the finale of which airs tomorrow—has been pure morbid curiosity at what Showtime would let Lynch get away with. I don’t just mean his trademark grisly surrealism, though there’s certainly been plenty of that, but that the very foundation of TV narrative seemed askew. From working at Hulu, I can tell you that this bizarre approach filters down to how the show has been released. The official episode summaries, currently live on Hulu.com, read like terse, gnomic fortune cookies from another dimension, telling you almost nothing about the content of the episode; they include such gems as “We are like the dreamer”, “This is the chair”, and a helpful one that just says “Don’t die.” And while it may be easy for non-fans to write this off as performance art/trolling/clever marketing, they do make an odd kind of sense once you’ve actually clicked Play. Because clicking Play is the only way you’re meant to find any answers.

When Episode 7 aired back in June, I thought that for the first time, Twin Peaks: The Return had landed roughly within the margin of error for normal TV drama. That is, it moved like clockwork, pushed the plot along, and answered earlier questions while raising more.

Then Episode 8 blew up the internet.

twin-peaks-nuclear-explosion

Episode 8 has already become legendary, and if you’ve been following the series and reading about it online, there’s not much more I can add to the discussion. The episode, which includes an avant-garde sensory trip through an atomic blast, followed by a wordless origin story for evil on Earth, followed by Lynch’s most grotesque and visceral horrors since Eraserhead (1977), has already been treated as its own discrete work of cinema. It’s been written up in film journals, and has inspired a program at one of my favorite New York theaters, the Metrograph. It’s easy to see why—for a moment, it seemed like Stan Brakhage had taken over the airwaves, or that any rule could be broken. It was as radical for TV as the stargate sequence in 2001 must have been on movie screens in 1968. The irony is that right when Twin Peaks seemed like it might be becoming more concrete, it suddenly became scarier and wilder than ever. After Episode 8, I’ve been noticeably more afraid to click Play each Sunday night.

This level of unpredictability has been perhaps the new series’ most definitive asset: any new episode could be (and has been) either a glacial non-event, an invigorating episode of TV drama, or a terrifying house of horrors. That is, it breaks so many rules that you can’t even rely on it to not follow the rules. There have been plenty of times it gives the fans what they want, and even more times when it’s given fans plenty of good reasons to bitch in frustration on social media. It has been problematic in its use of sexual violence. Most of the comic relief isn’t very funny. Some subplots turn out to matter, some don’t, and there’s no way to tell them apart. The main plotline feels like a tangent, while tangents take center stage. And the method has, in the most immediate sense, been difficult to discern.

I mean, how else to describe a series that brings back an iconic TV hero, then spends 13 out of 18 hours having him wandering around comatose without a firm identity or purpose? How else to explain that a circular argument between Sherilyn Fenn and her husband over whether or not to leave the house together is not given simply a single scene (the way most TV storytellers would do it), but a multiple episode arc? How else to account for a seemingly aimless sequence of shovels being spray-painted gold, except to note that if you follow the thread for another 10 weeks, you’ll get a satisfying payoff? The series has an approach to duration that could be described as “Rivette-esque”, but that most people would just describe as “boring”. And like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), another serialized funhouse of wicked conspiracy and cagey arthouse flotsam, its most daring aspect is its use of time.

“Time”, I think, is the key to the new Twin Peaks. This is, by necessity and for a greater good, a very different series than if Twin Peaks had been revived earlier instead of after a 25 year hiatus. That length has infused the show with a melancholy; after all, what is 18 hours in comparison? No attempt is made to ignore the age of the actors. So many episodes have been dedicated to former cast members who passed away before the release, including David Bowie, who never got to film his scenes. And there is an undeniable potency to the idea that so many of the show’s conflicts—unsolved mysteries, unrequited love, unaddressed trauma—have been stuck for a quarter century, unresolved, niggling away, sitting in entropy as they wait for something to shake them loose.

Laura Dern in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

There are scenes almost entirely devoted to old-timers surveying this new world, not the least of which is Lynch himself. He appears on-screen in his old role as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, and you could argue that Lynch’s characters, not Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Cooper, provides the eyes through which we see this world. As much time as Lynch/Cole spends on detective work, the camera also hangs on his weathered face as he looks at both the delights, the riddles, and the fears that have built up in him as enters his seventies.

It’s been noted before—and with Twin Peaks: The Return it deserves to be noted again—that Lynch’s cinema is a strange brew of aesthetic radicalism and a moral urge that could be easily defined as old-fashioned. What can throw off neophyte cinema hipsters about Blue Velvet (1986) or Wild At Heart (1990) is that their optimistic endings aren’t ironic at all: Lynch, with his uncommon skill at evoking pain and trauma, wants peace of mind. His films don’t delight in dredging up the sordid perversity that lies beneath wholesome Americana; they want wholesome Americana, or at least the reassuring dream-space it provided, to live up to its promise.

That promise is not sociopolitical (Lynch is too far removed) but deeply ingrained in the psyche, like Carl Jung meets Norman Rockwell. Lynch’s previous theatrical feature, and the last one we’re likely to get, was Inland Empire (2006). It is his most optimistic film, which can be easy to miss because it’s completely goddamned terrifying. But it stands as not so much a narrative as an act of therapy: a gauntlet through dark, disturbing fears to the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s no coincidence that Lynch is famous for his promotion of Transcendental Meditation, and both Inland Empire and the way The Return is shaking out so far strike me as ways of acknowledging the ugliness that can clutter the human mind, but which must be discarded to find calm, a sense of wholeness, and a way to enjoy being alive. It never fails to make me smile that Lynch’s fantasy is a world where the FBI—a seat of high government authority—doesn’t just solve crimes, but provides spiritual aid, plumbing life’s mysteries and interpreting your dreams.

There is something poetic to this search for completion, because the Twin Peaks franchise itself, much like so many of those weathered faces in The Return, has felt incomplete for so long. The original show had lost its luster by the time it was cancelled. Its “final” cliffhanger from 25 years ago was accepted as something that would never be fully resolved. The follow-up movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) raised as many questions as it answered and failed to satisfy most fans at the time. It was enough of a mess, or a compromise, that its disused footage could be compiled into a semi-canonical film of its own: Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, a 2014 DVD extra that answered a lot of questions that The Return is now building off of. But in 2017, it has been a true experience to watch those pieces come into place in slow-motion, to watch this miniature universe look for peace. Future binge-viewers may get a more cohesive look at it; after all, they’ll have a better idea of what to expect, and they won’t have to be distracted by a week’s worth of reality in between. But watching Lynch slowly tease out the picture seems the proper way to handle this particular odyssey.

Needless to say, I don’t know quite what tomorrow’s finale of The Return will bring. At this point, nothing would surprise me, though I have my suspicions and remain slightly afraid to click Play. I still can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already waist-deep in Lynch’s universe. But as someone who kept watching all summer out of morbid curiosity, I can definitively say that I am genuinely excited for tomorrow. Last week’s episode has energized most of the fans I know and set us up for something potentially magnificent and cathartic. If you haven’t watched it yet, I won’t spoil it. (For what its worth, its plot summary on Hulu is simply “No knock, no doorbell”). But my hope—and this miniseries is shaping up to be not only painful but rousingly hopeful—is that Lynch’s world of Twin Peaks, a world both wonderful and strange, will finally feel whole.

*********

The finale of Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sunday night on Showtime.

Vintage Spielberg Comes Back

Close Encounters 3Close Encounters of the Third Kind lands back in theaters today to celebrate it’s 40th anniversary, and it’s still the best movie ever made about abandoning your duties as a spouse and parent so you can blast off on a space adventure of unspecified purposes. I’ve written an appreciation of the film and its place in Spielberg’s corpus for the MUBI Notebook. Enjoy!