Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

Twin Peaks is a murder mystery masquerading as a small town soap opera, tinged with an undercurrent of supernatural horror, and the occasional surreal dreamscapes that are David Lynch's trademark. Having seen a few of Lynch's films (starting with the inscrutable and unsettling Eraserhead), I went into this series fully expecting to be utterly confused by the end. You see, Lynch productions are things that you experience, not things that you understand. But while this show is quite intricate (normally, the phrase "Byzantine plot" carries with it an air of pretension, but I really think it applies to this show) - justifying its 30 episode run over two seasons, and leaving enough loose ends to have you wishing there was more - the story settles intriguingly into that realm where most of the time it's just beyond you being able to put all the pieces together (so that it's not too easy to predict what's going to happen next), while not being so far outside the realm of reason as to preclude you from getting a sense that there really is a thread of logic running through everything (whether or not you can figure out what that is). I wonder how much this is due to the influence of Mark Frost, who shares the creator credits with David Lynch.

The majority of the series revolves around the central mystery that develops when, in the first episode, a local homecoming queen turns up dead, prompting an FBI investigation headed by one Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), paragon of virtue and kindness, and lover of black coffee and cherry pie ("This must be where pies go when they die."). Paired up with local sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) - you have to check out the donut spreads they get at their local department - Agent Cooper takes to the wild charms of Twin Peaks quickly, endearing the town to the show's audience in the process. But as the layers of the mystery begin to peel back, what at first looks like the tragic slaying of an innocent becomes more complicated, as it's discovered that Laura Palmer was no vestal virgin, and may have been courting the darkness. And beneath Twin Peaks' quaint, small town charm lies a seedy underbelly of drug trafficking and prostitution. But it doesn't end there; vague references to some kind of ancient evil in the woods initiate a slow-burning plot involving supernatural forces.

There's a sort of evil out there.
Something very, very strange in these old woods.

In the meantime, we are introduced to each of the town's inhabitants, as the show explores their increasingly crisscrossing lives, and the investigation into Laura Palmer's death plays out. Many great actors appear, chiefly recognizable (to me) among them including both Grace Zabriskie and Warren Frost (who played Susan's parents on Seinfeld), as well as Don Davis in a role not completely unrelated to his short-term appearance on The X-Files as Scully's father. Even David Duchovny shows up in a few episodes towards the latter part of the series, as a cross-dressing DEA agent. But I'd just as soon link you to the show's full cast list as recollect all of the great actors and performances (Ray Wise' climax as Leland is one of the highlights) that turn up on the show.

The owls are not what they seem.

It's easy to become invested in each of the characters' various struggles - Laura's classmates' amateur investigations into her death, and their myriad love troubles; the local business maven's attempt to buy out the town's log mill - and, barring that, resort to manipulating criminal elements in order to get his way; as well as the town's more and less petty criminals' agendas. Running through it all is the mystery of who among these people was Laura's killer. And when the case is finally closed, the show does an effective job of keeping the viewer invested in what follows, to the point that when the final, not entirely conclusive episode (the most mind-bending television finale I've seen since I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion) finishes, you're still left wanting to know, what happens next?

Fire walk with me.

You get the sense that Twin Peaks is a "spectacle show" - that people hear about it, and watch it just to see for themselves how weird it is. But the truth is, it's very good TV in its own right. It's easily the most accessible of David Lynch's projects that I've seen. There are times when the show approaches soap operatic drama, and even effectively executes humor, but its best moments are those that remind you that you are watching a horror series. And the moments that make it stand out among all other shows - including those that were influenced by it, and those that are compared to it - are those inimitably Lynchian flashes of surreality. Nothing else I've watched is quite like Twin Peaks, and it holds up remarkably well, considering its age. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys horror, drama, or just good, classic TV with talented writers, directors, and actors.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Truman Show (1998)

Spoiler Warning: Nearly two decades old, I feel that the statute of limitations on spoilers for this movie is pretty much up, and this is not a movie that guards its secrets to begin with. Still, this review will contain spoilers, and so if you'd wish to remain perfectly naive as to this movie's premise or conclusion, you probably shouldn't read any further.

It's always nice when a movie you probably should have watched a long time ago, but just never made the effort, turns up on Netflix. The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, relies on a terrific premise - what if we took reality shows to the next level, and constructed an unscripted drama around the life of a star who doesn't realize he's even on TV? It's a great idea, although I think that the movie could have been far more effective as a mind-bending sci-fi, focused on playing with our understanding and expectations of reality. As such, its treatment of the obvious ethical issues involved with such a reality show are fairly superficial, and its criticism of TV audiences is hampered by the film's overall glib tone. I suppose I didn't really appreciate the comedic approach, which distracts from the drama inherent to the premise. I like Jim Carrey well enough as an actor, but I think he does comedy better than drama.

I was actually a bit surprised that, instead of keeping it a "twist" that this unsuspecting man's life is a TV show, they pretty much opened the movie with it. Obviously, that kind of a secret would be hard to keep for long (as anyone who didn't see The Sixth Sense on opening weekend must surely know), and I have a hard time believing anyone sitting down to watch The Truman Show at this late a date wouldn't realize that it's a movie about a staged reality. But that doesn't mean that such an approach wouldn't be worthwhile. In fact, I think it would have made for a stronger movie. Keep the revelation under wraps until the moment that Truman sails into the ocean barrier. Up to that point, the movie would be a psychological study of a man so bored with his normal, everyday life, that he starts questioning his own sanity. Coupled with subtler hints here and there (like the police frequency broadcast, and the stage elevator - but less blatant and more ambiguous), the viewer wouldn't be sure whether the reality he's being presented with is artificial, or if the perspective of the lead is just losing its grip on that reality.

I mean, one of the most powerful scenes, for me, was when Truman started suspecting that something was off, and he was stopping traffic on main street, potentially drunk with the sense of power that comes from believing that the whole world revolves around you. This could have been a fascinating study of solipsism. Until, finally, not just the protagonist's mindspace, but reality itself starts to fall apart around him, and he discovers, in the end, that his fevered conversation with "the creator" in the sky is actually the director of a television show, and that his entire life since he was born has been constructed as a convincing artifice. That would have been a truly brilliant movie. (I wonder if there's a cut of this movie - maybe a fan edit - that removes all of the behind-the-scenes and audience reaction shots. Although I'm not sure how effective it would be, given all the blatant spycam perspectives in use). This is not that movie. Still, it's not a bad way to kill a couple of hours.