Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lynch Drops the Bomb (and the Hammer)

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those who winced upon learning, a couple years ago, that David Lynch would be returning to Twin Peaks.  Catch lightning in a bottle once, you don’t do anything as foolhardy as attempt it again, right?

Especially when again is fully twenty-six years later.

I also figured Lynch had to be smart enough to know better than try.
 
So now, then, this corollary admission:

The new Twin Peaks, eight of eighteen episodes in, is pretty dang good.  

True, the Dougie Jones stuff is thin gruel.  (Kyle MacLachlan’s often touching portrayal of a fugue-state Agent Cooper isn’t the problem; Lynch and Frost’s meandering, uninspired vision of suburban and corporate Las Vegas is—a problem only exacerbated by the fact they seem to be using this stuff to spoof Mad Men and Breaking Bad.)

Beyond that, though, the show does indeed recapture a fair amount of the surreal, wondrous-strange magic of the ’90 and ’91 seasons.

And at least some of the new season finds Lynch dropping the hammer, leaving behind that delightful, is-this-for-real? Twin Peaks hokeyness to do what he did in 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2001’s Mulholland Drive: demonstrate he can hang just fine, thanks very much, with the Scorseses, Spielbergs, and Kubricks of this world.

Episode 8, titled “Gotta Light?” by Showtime, is pretty much one big drop-the-hammer moment—a not-uncommon assessment, I know, having taken in a fair bit of the best-hour-of-TV-ever! yowling (this, for instance—or this) that started about two minutes after the episode finished airing.

So what is Episode 8?

For its first twenty minutes, it’s just a particularly tense, taut, strong third-season episode—one featuring the most unnerving (as of that moment, at least) incursion yet of surreal/supernatural forces into the show’s diegetic space.

And a Nine Inch Nails musical interlude, too.  Because why not?

After that, though, the remaining forty minutes—and they work nicely as a standalone short, in case anyone’s intrigued but not familiar with the larger, admittedly complex Twin Peaks universe—are Lynch’s meditation on…

The bomb.

The nuclear bomb.


Now, part of what makes these final forty minutes so remarkable is that there’s precious little in Lynch’s forty year-old oeuvre to suggest a meditation on this particular subject was coming—though the instant this viewer saw the 1945 Trinity test erupt on his own Twin Peaks monitor, he felt in his bones it was right, on some level, that Lynch should finally arrive here.

The other thing that makes these forty minutes remarkable is their pulverizing beauty.  I mean, they’re very possibly the forty most gorgeous minutes Lynch has ever put on screen—stuff to rival the Scorsese of Raging Bull, the Spielberg of Schindler’s List, and (this one’s especially apt) the Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey (wait till you see what’s in that mushroom cloud).

Add to all this the fact that the final twenty of those forty breathtaking minutes (it’s a two-act short, really, twenty minutes per act) are doing great Amurican monster-movie horror….


And…wow.  Right?

This, quick, though, before we turn the corner and acknowledge that Episode 8 may not be flawless, exactly:

It’s mildly befuddling, the amount of that-was-batshit-crazy! blogging and articling that's gone on in the days since Episode 8 aired.

I mean, “Gotta Light?” really isn’t so perplexing.  If anything, it’s an uncommonly coherent Twin Peaks episode—maybe too coherent (though again: flaws soon).

True, a whole lot of that fantastic forty minutes is thickly, aggressively surreal.  But you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to sort out the nightmare we’re watching here.  (It sorts way more neatly than, say, Laura Palmer’s frequently mind-bending Black Lodge appearances.)


Everything at first blush bonkers in this forty-minute, two-act short—the creepy white mother homunculus vomiting up eggs and evil spirits; the shimmering gold mist emitting from our beloved old friend the Giant’s skull; the crackling, flickering “woodsmen” scurrying about that 1940s gas station; the Abraham Lincoln-gone-satanic figure staggering around the nighttime desert, croaking “Gotta light?” at terrified New Mexicans, crushing their skulls in his hands, uttering into a commandeered radio-station mike the terrifying gobbledygook that makes everyone in listening range collapse into slumber; the good-luck penny discovered “heads up” (our 16th POTUS again); the half-frog, half-cicada, all-horrible thing that hatches in the desert, then disappears, God help us, into that beautiful sleeping child’s mouth: it’s all clearly harnessed toward illustrating one pretty-cogent notion:

That the U.S. sure betrayed itself—sure delivered evil unto itself—when it concocted the bomb.   

(If anyone doubts Lynch is taking us to a moral place here, consider what’s playing as his camera goes 2001 star-gating through that mushroom cloud: Krysztof Penderecki’s jarring contemporary-classical piece, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.”)  

So why does it make perfect sense Lynch should finally, after forty years, arrive here, at the bomb?

Because his whole body of work is about the seething, wormy underside of post-World War II American life.
 
It’s an oft-noted feature of works like Blue Velvet and both the old and new Twin Peaks series that it’s tough to tell when, exactly, they’re set: the 1950s?  The ’80s?  The twenty-first century?  Whatever the exact—or maybe shifting—time frame, we’re always in post-war America, land of white-picket-fenced houses, blue-jeaned and motorcycle-jacketed bad boys, Main Street hardware stores, land-line phones with spiral cords, lead-sled muscle cars, linoleum-countered roadside diners, etc.

And post-war America begins, of course, with the bomb.

If there’s a seething, creeping, mostly-concealed evil lurking in post-war America—an evil forever threatening to let the content of our nightmares rupture forth into our friendly bobby-socks-and-apple-pie waking lives—it’s got to have something to do with the bomb.

It’s got to somehow originate with the bomb.

And when the aforementioned beautiful sleeping child, fresh from the most adorably chaste first kiss you’ve ever seen, opens her mouth to let that nightmare bug fresh from the nuclear-bomb-blasted sands up the road from her family’s Craftsman house crawl down her throat, the message couldn’t be clearer: 

The bomb is the truly hellish evil all Cold War-American children swallowed.


A coincidence, maybe, the beautiful sleeping child swallows the nuclear-mutant bug right after her first date with her counterpart, upright and handsome post-war American boy?

Sorry.  No.

Soon enough, no doubt, these two will start a family—maybe-possibly Laura Palmer’s own.

And we know, we Twin Peaks watchers, what trouble family is in Lynch’s universe.  Right?

It’s a good place to get serial-raped and murdered, your middle-class American post-war nuclear family.  It's the cultural institution, in Lynch's imagination, bearing the brunt of the terrible karmic toll for the great American sin of the bomb. 

So there’s what Twin Peaks has to do with Hiroshima.

Anyway…I’m not here, again, to accuse “Gotta Light?” of being a perfect work of art.

Here’s the problem:

It’s not a freestanding short film.

Its final forty minutes contain tie-ins—both clear and probable—to larger Twin Peaks narrative strands.

For instance: that scary face peering out at us from within the creepy white mother homunculus’s vomit stream isn’t just some anonymous evil spirit.


No.  That’s Bob.

And it would appear we’ve just witnessed the birth of Bob. (Funny: "Bob" is an acronym of "birth of bob."  And it's one wee letter off from "bomb," too.  Hmm.)

Bob comes from the creepy white mother homunculus’s vomit.

And the creepy white mother homunculus ("the Experiment," she's called in the closing credits) comes from the bomb.

I wasn’t sure what so bothered me about this until I saw Margaret Lyons’ question to herself in her own post-Episode-8 New York Times article: “does Bob, a supernatural manifestation of evil, really need an origin story?”

Exactly.

Who knows where Bob comes from?

He’s an owl.  He’s the wind in the Douglas Firs.  He’s your own father.  

There had been, up to now, no explaining his insane malice.  It just appeared, implacable and irrational.  And if Bob just appeared in the Palmer household, he could just as easily show up behind your couch, be at the foot of your bed.


I’m not sure I like Lynch’s letting me in—even if it’s in dream terms—on Bob’s backstory.  The dude’s way scarier when he’s baffling.

And if I don’t need to know how Bob came to be, I sure don’t need to know how Laura Palmer came to be. Yet "Gotta Light?" seems to want to reveal this to us, too: her soul springs straight from the skull of our beloved old friend the Giant—a guy we’re having to start to suspect might be, like, God or something.

Laura is created as a direct counterbalance, it seems, to the evil of Bob, newly born in the flames of the Trinity test.

Meh, I say.

I don’t particularly want to understand how the Giant, Mike, the Man from Another Place, the Evolution of the Arm, Bob, and the version of Laura Palmer haunting the Black Lodge operate.  These supernatural figures' logic—their “rationality”—has always been delightfully opaque and alien; I’d hate to think we’re entering a phase of Twin Peaks in which Lynch starts over-explaining his universe’s otherworldly metaphysics to us, starts revealing too much of what goes on behind the red curtain. 

I don’t ever want to know why garmonbozia (human pain and suffering) must take the form, in the Black Lodge, of creamed corn.


I just know it makes sense on some ineffable level that it should.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Bowling Green Massacre Was More Important than You Think

In three different interviews between January 29th and Feb. 2nd, the last with heavyweight Chris Matthews, Kellyanne Conway asserted that the Bowling Green Massacre led President Obama, back in 2011, to institute tough new restrictions on Iraqi immigration to the U.S.

Just to note it—because we’ve entered a historical moment in which such things actually need noting—there was no such event, in 2011 or any other year, as the Bowling Green Massacre.

There’s also a zero-percent chance Kellyanne Conway didn’t know this—not, at least, by her second and third mentions of the event.

Now, the non-existence of the Bowling Green Massacre got some news play last week, for sure.

But not enough.

Because here’s what I think really happened between January 29th and February 2nd:

The Trump administration, with Kellyanne Conway as its instrument, made its boldest foray yet into the willful, deliberate warping of the fabric of reality.

And what the administration is doing now, rest assured, is watching the alt-right blogosphere and news circuit to see just how big a segment of the U.S. ogre population does, in fact, will itself, in the coming days, weeks, and months, to believe in the Bowling Green Massacre of 2011.

Do photos and videos of the event and its aftermath start materializing online?

Do news stories seemingly from 2011 about the event start appearing in the darker corners of breitbart.com?

Do now-declassified government documents suggesting an Obama administration cover-up of the Massacre start getting passed around via patriots’ email accounts?

If/when these things do happen (and for all this commentator knows, they’re happening already), the new administration will know it has real, real power over a goodly portion of the U.S. populace.

I’m sure not the first to say it. But I do want, for a fleeting moment, to be the latest:

We’re entering Orwellian terrain.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

U.S. Cities and the Long, Slow Divorce

We know, of course, that politically liberal Americans have for some time now been concentrating themselves in the nation’s big cities.

My bold prediction:

This trend accelerates.

As it does, the most progressive American cities—New York, Portland, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle—will start providing their own residents social services of the type citizens of most wealthy nations have long enjoyed: free health clinics, free daycare and preschool, free public higher education, free or radically subsidized housing for the elderly, etc.

Enabled in no small measure by Republican provincialism (states’ rights and all that, right?), big cities will keep raising their own minimum wages. They’ll reduce their own carbon emissions and foster development of renewable energy sources. They’ll shelter and protect undocumented immigrant workers fleeing poverty or seeking asylum. They’ll decriminalize drug use. They’ll treat addiction medically. They’ll resume the effort to equalize and integrate public schools. They’ll expand rights of and legal protections for women and LGBTQ residents. They’ll work to eradicate poverty in all their communities.

How will New York, Portland, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle afford all this?

As an increasingly permanently conservatized federal government keeps ratcheting down taxes on super-wealthy citizens, American cities will steadily ratchet up taxes on their own super-wealthy residents.

Most of whom—brace yourselves—will be fine with it.

And so the long, slow divorce will proceed. Those who want Bernie Sanders-style socialism will get themselves to Philly, or Oakland, or Pittsburgh.

Those who want to keep pursuing Trumpist liberty—the stuff that’s already concentrated the nation’s wealth into alarmingly few hands, changed the weather, shortened the average American’s lifespan, and rendered college a pipe dream for the working class (hey: you probably didn’t want your kid brainwashed by liberals anyway)—will simply stay put. And keep voting as they already do.

In not many years’ time, we’ll see that very few indeed of the world’s tired, poor, and huddled still dream of making it to America.

They may, however, dream of making it to Chicago. Or L.A. Or Boston.

And if the blessing of a redeye flight means they never have to see, even, the strange Mad Max world beyond those city-states’ borders...all the better.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nope

“When they go low,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention last summer, “we go high.”

It was a fairly electrifying moment—one in which Democrats felt the thrill of near-certain victory.  Because Mrs. Obama was really reminding us, of course, that America never rewards meanness, bluster, ignorance, bigotry, pettiness, bullying—lowness—of the sort our now-victorious opponent is still schooling us tiresomely in day after day.
 
Not with a prize like the presidency, at least.

Sure, we’ve had some warty presidents in recent decades.  But they didn’t display their full plumage before winning the White House, and they paid steep prices (think of the shamings Nixon and Clinton endured) once they’d shown us, as they say, who they really were.

Everything’s different now.  On Friday we install in our highest office a disgusting, patently unworthy individual, someone who vaulted to political prominence selling Bircher-style bigotry even uglier than that for which we long ago dispatched doltish Barry Goldwater.

I’m not especially fearful of this individual.  We’ve borne prominent—even powerful—blowhards and bigots and buffoons in American public life before.  What does make me shudder is knowing tens of millions of people around me voted, not many weeks ago, for meanness, for bullying, for anti- intellectualism, for bigotry and racism.  (Sorry, but anyone who thinks that birth-certificate freak-out a few years back was anything but naked racism is self-deluding.) 

These are the qualities a great many Americans now want in a leader.  And I’ve never before lived in an America that rooted for the bully.  That hoisted up the buffoon.  That would gleefully cheer Apollo Creed (if only he were white) as he beat that lowlife Rocky Balboa to death.

Any powerful country that revels in meanness—that’s done with thoughtfulness, restraint, mercy, love for strangers—is flirting with its own demise.  And maybe that’s what scares me most about so many of the president-elect’s supporters: they seem somehow to crave the end.

Me, I don’t want the American experiment to be over.  So I’m glad, on one level, that Friday will see an eminently peaceful transfer of power of the sort the U.S. is justly famous for.  And I’m glad the U.S. will have, right on schedule, a new president.

But I won’t.