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Entries in eleanor morrow (62)

Monday
May222017

In Which We Return To Twin Peaks At Some Point

The following review covers the first two parts of Twin Peaks: The Return.

David Lynch: The Return

by ELEANOR MORROW

Twin Peaks: The Return
creators Mark Frost & David Lynch
Showtime

The burning corpse of Twin Peaks that David Lynch left behind when network executives and his partner Mark Frost tried to fuck with his creation at the end of 1980s has been alight for twenty-five disturbed years. Lynch has examined volume after volume of his dreams and committed them to film since those halcyon days. Some of his efforts, like 2001's Mulholland Drive exceeded his original vision for Twin Peaks; others became a bit overcomplicated for even his most devoted fans, even if the cinematography itself was typically one-of-a-kind.

This Lynch cares about pleasing no one again. It is in his very capable hands that we find Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). The fifty-eight year old performer is remarkably well preserved, which makes thematic sense because he has been in another dimension, the Red Room, for all of this time. His dark doppelganger (Kyle MacLachlan with shoulder-length black hair) is in North Dakota, where two murders have taken place when Twin Peaks: The Return opens.

Two clueless cops find the head of a librarian in her apartment, the eye blasted out of its socket. After turning back the blanket, they find the torso of an obese John Doe mismatched to her pretty head. The local school principal Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard) is the number one suspect, since his prints are found all over the librarian apartment and he knew the victim. In a few relatively straightlaced scenes, Frost and Lynch give us half the pleasure found in the original Twin Peaks: that the show was at its most amusing and poignant when it fundamentally dealt with the mundane.

The other half of Twin Peaks was the wild, spooky melodrama of the Black Lodge, where a demon possessed inhabitants of this Washington town. The moments in Twin Peaks: The Return when Agent Cooper struggles to free himself of his interdimensional confinement are replete with hokey, yet unnerving special effects, and the visuals are at times outright frightening. Lynch takes us to a room in midtown Manhattan where a young man views a glass box. His only job is to see if anything appears in it.

Such a set-up, ominously underscored by Angelo Badalamenti's haunting score, is a metaphor for the open possibilities of Twin Peaks, the town. We return to the familiar residents of the place for good at the end of the second episode. The eternally handsome James Hurley (James Marshall) is still wearing his leather jacket, observing the table where Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) sits with friends. It is in these nostalgic moments where we suddenly realize how grateful we are that this is nothing like the Twin Peaks of decades ago.

So much of the original Twin Peaks was a shocking, amusing send-up of what television had become. Rewatching any of the first run of the show now, it is easily to see how much of the television that followed came out of the feel and style that Lynch developed. The original show still gives off a modern feeling. 

In order to shock us again, Lynch now has the benefit of premium cable standards and practices. Twin Peaks: The Return is frequently gruesome. It turns sexuality into a weird nothingness that fades before the everyday. Its characters are continuously waiting to be astonished by something in their lives, and when that ultimate moment arrives, they do not shy away. Boring people, Lynch insists, are not what they seem. They have their moments.

The original Twin Peaks had one key flaw that makes the show rather difficult to watch at times. That was the performance of Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry Truman. Ontkean was straight out of central casting for all the lame cop shows that Lynch was half-parodying here, but since Twin Peaks exceeded what it was making fun of at nearly every turn, his awkward, stumbling performance just got in the way of Kyle MacLachlan, as Truman is forced to portray a clueless straight man in every scene.

Fortunately, Ontkean smartly gave up acting a number of years ago, probably because he was not very good at it. Replacing him are a bevy of newcomers. Some are Lynch's particular favorites, and some are actors he has admired but never had a chance to work with before. Since the individual scenes of Twin Peaks: The Return have every chance of making very little sense to the audience, the rapid pace of the cameos and casting against type helps turn the show into a bizarre retrospective of Lynch's career in film and television.

By the end of the second episode, Agent Cooper has freed himself from the Red Room, ending up in the glass box. A demon follows close behind, and the show intends to follow Cooper back to the town where his life properly began. The town's waterfall and school look nearly the same; its residents are somewhat aged.

Even amidst all the confusion, David Lynch creates so many new feelings and archetypes to exploit, and Twin Peaks: The Return is more gleeful than anything. His basic theme throughout each iteration of Twin Peaks is the continuous discovery of all the places where human dignity can be found, uncovered, and disbanded. Horror, for Lynch, is a pretext to a more elucidated understanding, and he finds this more easily in a phrase, an aside, or a vision that any commonly understood form of elegy or coda. That is why he never wanted Twin Peaks to solve the murder mystery that propelled it from scene-to-scene: because doing so would only mean a false catharsis. They were all the killers.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

Monday
Apr032017

In Which We Discover Another Subject Worthy Of Our Attention

Nice Men

by ELEANOR MORROW

Laura
dir. Otto Preminger
88 minutes

The scene in Laura that always gets to me has police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) sitting in the house of the titular woman who has been murdered. It is late evening, and he gulps down several glasses of Laura's scotch before passing out in front of a portrait of her. He is awoken several hours later by the front door opening. It is Laura (Gene Tierney), alive! He evinces no shock at this, neither does Laura. A man is waiting for a woman when she comes home. He has read her diary and her letters, and knows more about her than she does herself. At first Laura is upset by this, but then she begins to look at the man who violated her privacy with dreamy eyes.

No one wanted to direct Laura. The project had a rough script and the head of Fox, Daryl Zanuck, was himself overly invested in the project. The title character, Zanuck complained in a memo, should "come into the story like a breath of spring, like something out of this world." It would be difficult to feasibly make the weird milieu, the disturbed sexuality at the heart of the piece work realistically. Zanuck told the film's producer, Otto Preminger, to find Laura a director.

Preminger suggested Lewis Milestone, formerly Leib Milstein. Like himself, Milestone was originally an Eastern European Jew, and he had no intention of working closely with Preminger. "Preminger probably knows what to do with the script," Milestone told Zanuck. "He should direct it; I won't." Preminger moved onto an Armenian-American named Rouben Mamoulian, who needed a job badly.

Preminger hired his own actor to play the antagonist, Waldo Lydecker, and Mamoulian quickly had Otto banned from the set. Otto was unhappy to be out of the loop, but Zanuck was even more displeased with Mamoulian's work. He was furious with Preminger for the choice. "You should have stayed in New York or Vienna where you belong," he informed Preminger. The meeting that followed between the three of them featured Preminger performed entire scenes from Laura which he had committed to memory, to explain how the actors should handle them. Zanuck was impressed, and fired Mamoulian the next day.

As the new director, Preminger restarted Laura's production completely. Otto Preminger was more well-known as a Jewish actor who played a terrific Nazi in many films. Bald and severe-looking, he nevertheless held a lot of appeal for the women of the Los Angeles area, much to his wife's chagrin. Preminger famously had a long affair with Gypsy Rose Lee, but he was only kind in his romantic relationships. As a director, he knew what he wanted and anyone who was in the way would be run the fuck over.

instructing an actor how to do a romantic scene

Vincent Price was a bit miffed – he had gotten along well with Mamoulian. But Preminger convinced Price that his approach to the material was better. As Price recalled to Val Robins, "The New York society depicted in the film are all darling, sweet and charming and clever and bright – on the surface. But underneath they're evil. 'Mamoulian is a nice man, isn't he Vincent?' Otto asked me.' And I said, 'Yes, he is a nice man.' Otto said, 'I'm not, and most of my friends are these type of people.'"

These types of people were the three gay actors who Preminger placed around Laura. As Laura's mentor Waldo Lydecker, Clifton Webb was an effete homosexual who could also vacillate between a softness and a deviant masculinity. (Preminger plucked him from the stage, which you can tell by the way he moves.) Vincent Price's vague sexuality is creepy in all his movies, but here he is particularly amusing as Laura's enormous suitor. Judith Anderson portrayed a lesbian who gave Price's character money.

Gene Tierney was Laura, and the role that would help define her career was not appealing on set. She was angered that Preminger's first choice had been the greatly inferior Jennifer Jones. She grew to respect the director, writing that "unlike certain other directors of that period, he had no insecurity and did not feel obligated to attempt the seduction of his leading ladies." Tierney was gorgeous but also somehow incomplete, traits that the character also embodied.

A performer himself, no director could match Preminger's instruction of an acting style that was both dramatic yet subtle enough for the near-sighted scrutiny of film work. Viewing the unlikeability of its characters up close made Laura such a different experience for audiences. Preminger was also a technical virtuoso. He loved to move the camera around to give his scenes further context and meaning, and his command of how production design should add to the atmosphere without drawing attention to itself is sublime.

Zanuck blanched at the first cut of Preminger's masterpiece, suggesting that they insert a sequence suggesting the third act was all a dream. "What they came up with was just unbelievable," Preminger later said. He was not afraid to challenge his boss, and as time went on Zanuck would depend on Preminger to step in for his directors if a project was not on time or over budget. After a positive response to the cut from critic Walter Winchell, Zanuck seemed to realize he was out of his depth and allowed Preminger to restore the original ending, which explained that Lydecker was the killer.

Watching Laura a second time, I myself began to question whether this is completely true. Detective McPherson is told the long tale of Laura's ascent in the advertising world by Waldo Lydecker. On Tuesdays and Fridays, says, they would stay in, cook, and he would read his newspaper newspaper columns while Laura sat on his lap. This background information, presented as straight truth, is actually unreliable narration. We do not question what we are told since people in general rarely disbelieve bad things they hear about others from their own mouths.

The problem and virtue of flattery is that it is expected to be returned in kind.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


Monday
Mar272017

In Which Dan Stevens Is Your Rumpled Warden For Now

Attack by Wolves

by ELEANOR MORROW

Beauty and the Beast
dir. Bill Condon
118 minutes

Beast (Dan Stevens) looks like a vaguely unkempt man, the sort who sleeps on a couch. He is starved for female company, or any company at all to be completely honest. His bestial qualities are not many, basically he doesn't use utensils or say please. In this reenactment of the 1991 film, the fantastic songs of Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman are supplemented by new music that adds about as much as Emma Watson does to the role of Belle.

Now 26, Watson's girlish charm evaporated quickly. She is now a woman in middle age. "They think I'm strange in the village," Belle informs Dan Stevens, who is looking at her like, is it really kind to compare our two situations? The only odd thing about Belle is that she always wears the same dress. Belle does not seem to understand the reason she is stared at is because of a man: specifically her father (Kevin Kline).

Kline's role is rather thankless. The fact of his poor parenting makes substantially more sense in the Bill Condon version, since while an animated character pissing away her day reading books seems fine and dandy, Emma Watson doing the same is a less enviable life goal. Belle doesn't want to marry Gaston (Luke Evans), which makes sense, since in this version Gaston is a decade her senior and Evans' face implies he has had a hard life.

None of these actors can sing worth a shit outside of the specific ones that Condon has recruited for the purpose. Whoever is doing Watson's vocals is particularly inept, making some of the numbers sound like the sea chantys you might hear from actual reenacters at a local seaport. The visual look of the film also suffers from this pseudo-realist aesthetic. Instead of giving us these characters reimagined in an actual society, the environments look staged and reduced from their original versions.

Stevens is a fine Beast to the extent that he makes voice acting into a character beneath the effects. Watson is particularly awful as Belle – perhaps because she has never actually been anguished or agonized in life, her method of showing any displeasure comes to simply pursing her lips as if she is suffering a mild ulcer. She never really touches Beast or invades his personal space at all. During the sequence where Beast is recovering from an attack by wolves she seems vaguely uncaring towards him, like the main method by which any human being relates to her is one of inconvenience.

Using magic, Beast takes her to Paris, where the power of imagination allows Watson to whine about her mother dying in the city. Thus she does not ever want to return to society. Instead of forcing her to change and adapt to the world, as the lyrics of the film's signature song suggest Beast does, it adapts to her. In Beast's immense library, he tells Belle that she can have it if she wants. What isn't given to her? Given that theme, maybe the choice of Ms. Watson for the role does not seem so strange.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.