Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 97 minutes. Ann and Jeff (Virginia Huston and Robert Mitchum).

THIS YEAR’S NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL pays tribute to actor Robert Mitchum, whose career began in Hollywood’s golden age, weathered the demise of the studio system, and continued with the rise of television and the birth of the miniseries—125 movies in all between 1943 and 1983. Known primarily as the quintessential noir tough guy with the moony countenance in the genre of the 1940s, he was a bit player in many B movies before his breakthrough performance in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1943), the only film to earn him an Oscar nomination. G.I. Joe kicks off the retrospective, followed by a sampling from the ’40s and ’50s with such rarities as Till the End of Time (1946), Blood on the Moon (1948), and Track of the Cat (1954), and some later films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).

Like many of Hollywood’s “naturals,” Mitchum was so comfortable in his own skin that his acting was often invisible: Directors thought he was doing nothing until they saw the rushes. But while some of his best directors and fellow actors admired his professionalism, he was often underappreciated or misunderstood by critics. In his dismissive review of the now-classic noir Out of the Past (1948), for example, James Agee said of its male lead: “When he performs with other men (most memorably in The Story of G. I. Joe), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But . . . in love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency.” Of course, one man’s—or woman’s—languor is another’s allure. Since the twisty plot and twisted psychology of Out of the Past apparently eluded Agee, it’s no surprise he failed to intuit Mitchum’s peculiar mojo—that sleepy listlessness masking an unsettling reserve, discernible in the tension between his direct body language and muted affect. It’s what kept viewers edgy and what many considered his strength.

Mitchum’s homme fatale was distinct, “oddly subversive,” as the more appreciative Andrew Sarris put it. In Out of the Past, he no sooner enters a room charged with tension, when, without breaking his stride, his fist flies out, flooring a mouthy wannabe heavy. The impulse is rote, but behind it is a gut-tested ethos: lightning appraisal of who’s in the way and what they’re made of, triggering decisive action. Life is too short for jerks who occupy an existential vacuum. While the gesture is pure noir, Mitchum lends it a soulful mien. The same keenness laced with self-disgust provokes the deadly finale with femme fatale Jane Greer, and infuses Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), an equally perverse gem, in which the fatal attraction between Mitchum and Jean Simmons drives them into another death machine.

At its best, the Mitchum persona brooked no bullshit—neither a spoiled woman’s temper tantrum nor the overreach of a thug. But under contract at RKO, he frequently landed in inferior films when it was hard to tell who or what was the real target. At one point in the utterly forgettable My Forbidden Past (1951), the temptress played by Ava Gardner threatens to scream when he leaves her on the dance floor. “Go ahead and scream,” he says, with that familiar offhand bluntness, fit for the occasion but perhaps equally directed at the mediocrity of the material. Every verbal barb, raised eyebrow, or hunch of his shoulders read, “Grow up, get real, or get lost.” Sometimes it didn’t work, as in His Kind of Woman (1951), a Howard Hughes train wreck that not even the chemistry between Mitchum and lifelong buddy Jane Russell could save.

Robert Wise, Blood on the Moon, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum).

Key to Mitchum’s mystique was that his impressive physique—a chesty bulk that moved with animal grace, somewhere between sleek panther and imposing stag—framed an enigmatic core. Yet directors said he was anything but detached, that they could actually see him thinking, so attuned to everyone else’s lines that he never missed a beat. To register surprise, his eyebrows lift so high they leave room for another pair, while his cleft chin rhymes so neatly with the dimpled philtrum above his lips as to suggest the sculptured bust of a proud but sulky Roman emperor. There’s nothing flabby about Mitchum. As comfortable with physical heft as he was with a cocksure demeanor, he knew when to play what and when to recede.

Biographers love to paint him as an outsider, citing his teenage rite of riding boxcars, the lifelong marriage that survived affairs, endless drinking bouts, indifference to Hollywood society, and his run-ins with the law. Even his being arrested and jailed following a drug bust only enhanced the romantic legend. Yet, there’s another truth. Thunder Road (1958), a story he wrote about moonshiners outwitting cops, with his son costarring as the brother he discourages from taking after him, borders on autobiography. The unrepentant bad boy knew when to capitalize on the image and when to draw the line. Either way, one senses a more remote, reflective Mitchum, apparently out of reach, but seeking a different kind of attention.

In Raoul Walsh’s Freudian western Pursued (1947), he seems out of his element, an odd mix with such gothic archetypes as Judith Anderson and Dean Jagger. Yet the contrast works. As Jeb Brand, a man haunted by a past he doesn’t understand, he evokes the classic outsider of Greek tragedy. But while the plot’s resolution never quite dissolves the Oedipal tensions aroused, Mitchum’s Brand, like Oedipus, remains steadfast in his search for truth, free from the anger, envy, and thirst for revenge that consumes everyone around him. He’s positively mellow in The Wonderful Country (1959), in which his oversize sombrero reflects his general discomfort fending off the law on one side of the Mexican border and revolutionaries on the other. His performance is charming, but the film was so botched in the final editing that whatever chemistry existed between him and Julie London now comes across as artificial icing on a half-baked cake.

Mitchum’s unique blend of primal energy and spooky intelligence lifted him above many genre actors, not only in noir, but in melodramas, westerns, and war films, but even this was not all he could do. Among his unsung virtues was his ability to let another actor steal a scene. Hence, he could be an upright man doing his job, as in Crossfire (1947) and The Racket (1951), in both of which he’s outweirded by Robert Ryan’s psychobullies. Even in a minor war film like The Enemy Below (1957), his moves as the navy captain who outsmarts a German submarine commander are so unforced you’d never know he was the same guy who could play the sociopath in Cape Fear (1962), not to mention the crazed preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). If the latter ranks as his broadest, showiest performance, it was no doubt egged on by his director, the brilliant Charles Laughton, who knew a thing or two about the deliciousness of pure ham. His only match in that film is the magnificent black-and-white cinematography of Stanley Cortez.

Otto Preminger, Angel Face, 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 91 minutes. Frank Jessup and Diane Tremayne Jessup (Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons).

In his moving performance in The Lusty Men (1952), one of Nicholas Ray’s most beautiful and underrated films, Mitchum plays a has-been rodeo cowboy who ends up risking his life to save his friend, whose wife he has fallen in love with. His scenes with the fiery Susan Hayward are rich with a quiet yearning which his manner accentuates. An unsuspected grace also marks Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison (1957) and The Sundowners (1957), both featuring Deborah Kerr, who reportedly aroused a tenderness in him, prompting John Huston, director of the former, to remark that Mitchum was as good as Brando and Olivier. Some of us would not have thought it needed saying.

After the tough guy, the cowboy, the good cop, the brave soldier, the psychotic, the loser, the movie tycoon, and the cynic, where does an aging movie star go? He’s a terrible role model in Going Home (1971), where he is first seen descending a staircase, having just murdered his wife, who bleeds to death at the feet of their three-year-old son. Even earlier, in Vincente Minnelli’s Southern family melodrama Home from the Hill (1960), he’s a flawed father battling for one son’s manhood against an unforgiving wife while refusing to acknowledge the illegitimate son who saves his life in the first scene. Despite an overly literal screenplay, Mitchum’s character is commanding and sympathetic, his failings as naked as his unfulfilled needs. And, without a trace of irony he gets to deliver the film’s summary sentiment: “All our children deserve better parents.” It’s not the first time one wonders how many lines were inserted in screenplays over the years precisely because Mitchum would be delivering them.

As the title character in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays what may be his most pathetic character—a middle-aged, overweight ex-con trying to keep a wife and three kids off welfare by selling guns to bank robbers and, to avoid another prison sentence, selling his soul by finking to the cops. In his first scene he’s explaining how he got the extra set of knuckles on each hand (a clear nod to the good and evil contest in Night of the Hunter) from the nuns’ rulers and later from fellow thugs. In the last scene, he is shot point-blank in a drunken stupor by one of his “friends.” With nary a close-up to register the moment, he slumps offscreen. Ever the pro, Mitchum plays it straight, replete with self-effacement and dumpy physique—not a plea for sympathy anywhere in sight.

Tony Pipolo

A retrospective of Robert Mitchum films plays September 29 through October 14 as part of the Fifty-Fifth New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Anthony Svatek, .TV, 2017, color, sound, 22 minutes.

NEAR THE END of Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s Filter, screening at this year’s Projections sidebar of the New York Film Festival, a man wonders, “Why am I watching this movie?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves countless times and one we assume programmers of film festivals wrestle with as they decide what merits attention. Given the current political climate, it’s not surprising that many works in this year’s Projections were selected in light of growing concerns about the expanding list of endangered species—not only of the racial, gender, ethnic, and environmental varieties, but democratic values and ethics. The incurably reflexive Filter does not directly address these issues, but it concedes that all experience is perceived through distorting filters and unwittingly demonstrates that ironizing is often part of the problem.

Those who forgo irony in favor of artistic and moral forthrightness are more indispensable than ever. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s riveting Rubber Coated Steel, which won the short-film award at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year, is a prime example of the artist who addresses political and social issues through a vigorous command of form. Born in Jordan, the filmmaker has a remarkable gift for listening—a “private ear” whose expertise not only defines his art but has led to his bearing witness when necessary.

Steel is an audio analysis of a case from May 2014 in which two unarmed Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. The prosecution claimed that the soldiers fired live ammunition immediately after using rubber bullets, to cover their actions and elude investigation; further, they argued that such ruses had been used frequently to murder protesters. But for a few photographs—one which captured a bullet midair—Abu Hamdan uses neither the actual sounds of the event nor newsreels nor reenactments, instead setting the scene in a concrete tunnel-like space in which visual data moves back and forth on ceiling rails while the transcript of the trial appears in subtitles. This suppression of human and mechanical sounds induces an acute attentiveness in which the viewer must discern in blow-ups of sound frequencies the difference between real and rubber bullets. While the facts would appear to establish an open-and-shut case, the movie ends on an ambiguous note. Visitors in the court are asked to provide supporting testimony but no one comes forward; the screen goes black and the judge’s gavel is the last thing we hear. This is a work of audiovisual power that stands out in an atmosphere glutted with all kinds of cacophony.

Peter Burr, Pattern Language, 2017, video, black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.

More personal but no less culturally resonant is Turkish filmmaker Nazli Dincel’s Shape of a Surface, an extraordinary exercise in first-person cinema, filmed in 16 mm. We first hear, and then see, the filmmaker’s sandaled feet via a high-angle shot from her handheld camera as she ascends time-worn rocky steps, pausing at the top to raise the camera and pan across the area, revealing the remains of a Greek amphitheater (the Aphrodisias ruins in western Turkey). No sooner does this register than we hear the salat, one of the daily calls to prayer in the Muslim world. As if to compound the contrast, the filmmaker holds a mirror, alternately confusing or conflating shots of the site with its reflection. With such simple hands-on means, she evokes not only a cultural divide but also the bearing it has on consciousness, perception, and physical existence—in short, questions of identity and place. From the start, the viewer is immersed in a filmic reality inseparable from the physical existence of the filmmaker, forced to accompany her, so to speak, on this personal journey. Questions arise: Are the shots of a bride and groom against these ruins of the ancient Greek city of love intended to mock their reduction to a cheap commercial backdrop? When Dincel cuts from a sculpture of a male nude to a bare chest, is she contrasting the Greek ideal to the real, or is she reflecting an internal struggle with another mirror image, of where she belongs within her conjurations of cultural spaces, past and present?

Peter Burr’s Pattern Language is further testament to the creative potential of computer-generated imagery, a visually stunning series of black-and-white graphics accompanied by a mesmeric sound design. The felicitous way animated human figures are incorporated within geometric grids prompts us to wonder which “species” controls which. A less benign view of our technological future is offered in G. Anthony Svatek’s .TV, a deadly serious but wittily poised prophecy of environmental oblivion. The title is the official domain extension given to Tuvalu, a group of Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. With a land mass totaling only ten square miles, Tuvalu is the world’s fourth-smallest nation and the 189th member of the United Nations. A warning voice from cyberspace, in the future, tells of Tuvalu’s final days, when it sinks into the sea. As it speaks of the “faceless threat eating away at its shore,” we watch alluring images of the island paradise with the bluest of seas and sun-drenched beaches. The acerbic punch line of Svatek’s work, as the voice intones, is that while Tuvalu itself has “vanished”—that is, from the point of view of the future—internet and industry experts declare that the websites of the domain, .TV, are too valuable to be terminated and are therefore protected from the fate of the islands and their inhabitants, assuring us of the ultimate triumph of capitalism.

Other short works deserving attention include: Rosalind Nashashibi’s Vivian’s Garden, a lovely portrait of Swiss Austrian artists Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild living in Guatemala, and arguably the series most lyrical film; Marta Mateus’s Barbs, Wastelands, which owes something to the work of Pedro Costa in its elliptical, enigmatic play with character and narrative; Luis Lopez Carrasco’s Aliens; and the five-film tribute to seasoned filmmaker Barbara Hammer, all of them preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Barbara Hammer, Women I Love, 1976, color, sound, 23 minutes.

The feature-length works this year could not be more diverse. At 143 minutes, Ben Russell’s Good Luck is the longest, at once bluntly conceived and elusive. In the first of its two equal parts, Russell follows Serbian copper miners, filming them at work and engaging in conversation during breaks. The elevator that returns him to ground level seems to go on forever before the film cuts dramatically to another setting: Suriname, a country bordering French Guyana on the northeast coast of South America, where Russell films an illegal band of gold miners. His long takes capture the spatial and temporal dimensions of each site. Time seems suspended in the cramped and dark interiors of the mine, while the open, sunny vistas of the second part lend a languorous air to the workers. In both cases, the ambience exerts a power over these men beyond anything we learn from the dialogue. Russell’s questions are met with clichéd responses—as if, wary of this outsider with the movie camera, the men are reluctant to volunteer too much. Nevertheless, as they’re aware that they work for powers beyond their control, their demeanor speaks volumes.

Vera Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba pushes the boundaries between aesthetics and revulsion even further than the filmmakers’ previous work, Leviathan (2012). Their subject is Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered and ate the body parts of his female lover in Paris in 1981––he was tried in court, declared insane, and eventually released. Now older and feeble, he lives in Tokyo off his infamous history while continuing to disseminate sadomasochistic fantasies through home-drawn comic books. Apparently eschewing moral judgment, the filmmakers pursue an in-your-face style that alternately mesmerizes and repels. For long stretches, we watch restless, claustrophobic close-ups of Sagawa’s face as he muses over the past, an effect that tends to isolate him from the natural surround while daring the camera’s powers to detect hidden signs of what constitute the boundaries of the human. Home movies show him and his brother with their parents in what appears to be a normal childhood. But this impression is belied by the images of sexual and physical abuse and mutilation in the comics that suggest an ongoing condition, which his brother, Jun, for all his complaints, seems to share. While experts in sexual pathology may find this document rich in clinical data, viewers may be of mixed minds, with more than a few making their way toward the exit.

Kevin Jerome Everson, Tonsler Park, 2017, 16 mm, black-and-white, 80 minutes.

Race and human nature are front and center (and raucously mocked) in the must-see restorations of the films of Mike Henderson. Born in Missouri in 1944, Henderson taught drawing, painting, and filmmaking in the Art Department at the University of California, Davis. His 16-mm movies from the 1970s and 1980s, he insisted, were made for himself as a way of coming to terms with his experiences as a black man in America. Home movies or not, the eight presented in Projections radiate a genius and wit that belie their modesty. In Dufus (1970–73), we watch a makeshift “theater” space as different figures emerge from a door marked to designate social stereotypes. Each one enters, does a turn, and exits, accompanied by Henderson’s laconic voice-over mimicking their unspoken thoughts. Hands down, these are the funniest and most biting takes on character and race I’ve seen in a dog’s age.

On a more serious note, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Tonsler Park is a work of great beauty, simplicity, and hope. Everson takes on a public institution, fixes his camera unwaveringly, avoids overt filmic manipulation, and eschews commentary of any kind. While Frederick Wiseman comes to mind, it’s worth noting that he never tackled a polling site on election day, no less one seemingly run entirely by African Americans. The doc opens as a black woman swears in a group of volunteers who will serve as pages at several precincts in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the 2016 presidential election. Some stand at the entrance to guide people; others sit at the tables, check IDs, and otherwise assist voters. The seamless, unruffled manner is reflected in Everson’s long takes, the camera focused patiently on each volunteer performing his or her job efficiently, cordially, and without fuss. If Everson harbors a subtle irony, this white male liberal missed it entirely. What I grasped is a document, the directness and sincerity of which is grounded in every ten-minute take of the welcoming faces and earnest demeanors of the volunteers as voters enter and leave the frame, momentarily blocking our view, in a well-coordinated flow. What we witness, in short, is a white supremacist’s nightmare—aka American democracy in action. Essential to the movie’s impact is that Everson does not belabor the “point.” Tonsler Park is not just a forthright counterpoint to the deluge of violent images and condescending sermonizing offered by mainstream media. It’s an act of artistic and political clout that should run as a permanent installation on museum walls across the country in a continuous loop.

Tony Pipolo

The Projections sidebar runs October 6 through 9 at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Small Wonder


Blake Williams, Prototype, 2017, 3D video, color, sound, 63 minutes.

A SHELTER AWAY from the vast and all-consuming Toronto International Film Festival’s red-carpet parades, the Wavelengths program is TIFF’s home for all things experimental and otherwise undefinable. As of last year, the mandate of Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard had even expanded to include off-site installation works, such as Albert Serra’s multiscreen Singularity.

Such expansions were curtailed in 2017. Wavelengths was slightly smaller this year—as, indeed, was TIFF in toto, part of an across-the-board attempt to rein in a megafestival that had become too big to present a cogent identity. The irony is that in reducing programs uniformly instead of making selective, thoughtful cuts, the TIFF brass made the fest only marginally smaller and no more coherent––it still screened more tennis-themed movies in one edition than any festival has a right to—though Wavelengths, even in a slightly abridged form, retained its curatorial personality as a program that puts its individual films into lively conversation with one another.

If a popular frontrunner emerged from the Wavelengths pack this year it was Texas-born, Toronto-based Blake Williams’s PROTOTYPE, subsequently acquired by Grasshopper Films for US theatrical distribution. Williams has, for some time, been known as a writer and active proponent of stereoscopic filmmaking, and while his previous short ventures into anaglyph 3-D didn’t succeed in making me a convert, his debut feature, shot in the polarized 3-D process, is an accomplishment on another plane. Without anything resembling a narrative, the film sustains its sixty-three-minute runtime by way of various movements composed of stereoscopic images from the catastrophic Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the “stacking” of 3-D screens shot from a 1959 Philco television set, rodeo footage in which the phases of movement have been broken down in the fashion of an Étienne-Jules Marey motion study, and a contemporary beachfront coda done in color video, concluding with a final piece of depth-perception play, an image of a foregrounded concrete stairwell’s horizontal lines meeting those of the waves beyond.

Where PROTOTYPE’s movements flow together, those of Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous are jarring, presumably by design. The film is constructed as a triptych of similarly sized sections—the first is set in an imagination of the colonial past in the filmmaker’s native Algeria; the second follows a wandering commune on Greece’s Kythira island, poised somewhere between the present and a mythic past; and the third is a documentary-style platform for contemporary revolutionists, including a Prosfygika castaway in contemporary Athens. The central part, oblique and distinguished by dynamic figures-in-landscape framings, was easily the most absorbing, though regardless of personal preference it’s hard to imagine a viewer who could value all three drastically different sections equally. Perhaps this confrontation of categories of taste is the point—and Mari is a strong enough filmmaker to convincingly employ and dispense with different styles at will—though a shape-shifter such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, included in the previous year’s Wavelengths, goes deeper in exploring the anxiety of approach. Another film in parts, Ben Russell’s Good Luck, the dregs of the section, is a bifurcated work that begins at a large subterranean copper mine in Bor, Serbia, and then moves to the compare-and-contrast setting of an open-air collective gold-panning operation in Suriname.

Where Russell’s film suggests a wariness toward its subjects that’s equal parts awed and awkward, intimacy occurs effortlessly in Mrs. Fang, the latest from prolific Chinese independent documentarian Wang Bing. A relatively to-the-point offering from a filmmaker best known for more sprawling undertakings such as West of the Tracks (2003), Mrs. Fang’s runtime is determined by its subject, the film being essentially a document of a days-long vigil at the deathbed of a woman in the final stages of dementia: When she ends, it does too. Scenes of the woman’s family speculating on minute changes in her stiffening body language and close-ups in which her staring eyes fill with tears are intercut with nocturnal open-air ones of relations night fishing with an electrified dip net. The sharp back-and-forth lateral movement between human woe and the natural world counterpoises two variations on waiting, and also fits somewhat in the tradition of Tang Dynasty poetry. Watching Wang’s emotional, moral, and pictorial intelligence at work from moment to moment elevates Mrs. Fang above mere morbidity.

Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 177 minutes.

Wang’s movie is in conversation with another film that uses close-ups even more exclusively, Caniba, a portrait of sorts of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man whose butchery of a Dutch woman in Paris in 1981 while they were foreign-exchange students earned him a tribute in the Rolling Stones song “Too Much Blood.” (“You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head / Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece.”) Codirectors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are best known for their 2012 nautical GoPro epic Leviathan, a thrilling film and an unrepeatable stunt, a fact they have happily understood. Here, they’ve adapted an entirely new, pared-down observant style to their sedentary subjects, filling the frame with the aging, mottled flesh of Sagawa, now suffering near-paralysis, and his caretaker brother, letting the focus drift in such a fashion as to make them seem almost incorporeal. Sparse archival footage includes glimpses of the Sagawa brothers’ privileged youths—about as much as the film offers in the way of explaining how Issei escaped serious prison time. Among other things, Caniba is a study in pampered self-satisfaction, the undying compulsion toward sibling rivalry, and the invidious power of audiovisual suggestion—walk-outs abounded at my screening, though much of the worst here is willfully obscured.

Two other films that beg pairing are Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, both unorthodox musicals, though Pinho’s film contains just one old-fashioned production number. Dumont’s movie, based on texts by Charles Peguy, begins with eight-year-old dynamo Lise Leplat Prudhomme as young Joan and follows her into her teenage years, through her divine vision of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her final departure from Lorraine en route to martial glory. Largely limited to the countryside where Joan tends her flock and delivered in song, Jeannette bears a clear debt to Straub and Huillet’s Moses und Aron (1973), though it’s distinguished by a heavy-metal-inflected score by French electronic musician Igorrr. The idea, one supposes, is to draw an analogy between religious ecstasy and the transports of head-banging, though Dumont shows even less affinity for thrash than he does for medieval Christianity. Has there’s ever been a filmmaker so single-mindedly preoccupied with the matter of faith who has so thoroughly failed to evince any reason for that preoccupation beyond fetishization of its more aberrant manifestations? While the formerly somber Dumont’s turn to the wacky since 2014’s miniseries L’il Quinquin has, to some, marked a creative rebirth, to these eyes it’s only made more glaring an essential absence in his work.

There is something more to recommend of The Nothing Factory, set during the lassitude of a labor dispute at an elevator factory outside Lisbon. It at least tosses off a lot of ideas, most regarding labor in a post-work society, during its more than three-hour runtime—though these ideas seem to decorate the film’s surface rather than act as a part of its superstructure. While Pinho’s film practically demands—and has received—consideration as a major work by virtue of its subject matter and daunting length, it works more in passages than as a sustained whole, and I doubt it will have anything like the same longevity in my mind as several short works at Wavelengths. Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux’s little piss-take Division Movement to Vungtau, for example, provided sick laughs in a program not overloaded with humor, a series of iris effects on archival footage of US troops in Vietnam, to which has been added a cast of anthropomorphic CGI fruit capering on the fringes of the image.

Further highlights include Rawane Nassif’s ingeniously framed Turtles Are Always Home, shot among the ersatz Venetian canals of Doha’s “Quanat Quartier,” which finds countless fresh variations on the theme of photographic and architectural illusionism in the course of twelve minutes. Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant, which moves between flower-bedecked fields and the artificial landscape of circuit boards, is a work of hard clarity of intention and thrilling cadence, and there’s something admirable in the setup-punch-line simplicity of Brown and Clear, whose title refers most explicitly to the two flavors of liquor served at a bar in director Kevin Jerome Everson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Finally, there was a Harvard Film Archive restoration of the late Framington, Massachusetts–based filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson’s 1976 Pixillation. I’ve been moved by every Robertson piece I’ve ever seen, and this prismatic, wind-tossed self-portrait was no exception. It’s a model in conveying maximum emotion with a paucity of means, in a program that continues to distinguish itself with diminished resources.

Nick Pinkerton

The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 7 through 17.

Eight Ball


Hal Ashby, 8 Million Ways to Die, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.

IF YOU SAW 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) via the movie equivalent to Downbeat Magazine’s Blindfold Test—sans credits, prior knowledge, or preconceived context—it could seem like a film that had come unstuck in time. Draping itself in the moody trappings of neo-noir action-romance, it boasts minimal action and its romantic pièce de résistance features a drunken failed seduction that culminates with the femme fatale vomiting down the hero’s pants. Its slouching posture suggests an affinity for Robert Altman’s loser-reverie The Long Goodbye (1973), updated with all the cold accoutrements of mid-’80s Hollywood power-tripping: would-be big-shots in louche suits, peroxided women in slinky dresses and puffed-out hair, with ample cocaine to socially lubricate all the aspirational-delusional gears betwixt and between.

Five examples of the movie’s commitment to a candid, non-rote view of the greater LA basin: The long opening helicopter shot under the credits, through uninviting smog and over ugly-beautiful freeways at sunset, touching down on a police raid that takes a shortcut through Beth Israel Cemetery. The precarious Malibu hillside house with a trolley, serving as a private casino/brothel; the PoBoys supermarket in Compton, where dope is stashed in decorative fireplace logs; the proud villain’s new home, in the process of being renovated as an homage to Gaudi (he can’t shut up about it). And the big standoff is in an empty Long Beach warehouse, a scene whose rising absurdity floats through the plot holes and comes out on the other side of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ben Wheatley’s recent Free Fire—a clusterfuck of miscalculations and missed cues instead of a composed or slapstick bloodbath.

The pungent acting of Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette generates a steady pressure against the pop-thriller form: 8 Million Ways to Die’s commercial intentions take a backseat to a lifelike undertow of cruddy, hemmed-in despair and self-abnegating laceration. Breaking down the hoary dynamic of a private cop entangled with an upmarket hooker working her way to madam, the two dive into their parts with the fortitude of long-distance drunks competing in a blackout triathlon. Bridges’s sweaty armpits and demeanor are not some proto-Lebowski window dressing; like the offhand loathing in Arquette’s voice and glare, they’re as lived-in as dirty laundry.

Through Andy Garcia’s fledgling drug kingpin Angel Maldanado, you’d pick up the lineage of Scarface and Miami Vice. (You might not be surprised to learn Oliver Stone wrote the first draft of 8 Million Ways before he tackled Scarface.) The romantic-triangle offense also recalls the stylish modalities of Against All Odds (1983, another Jeff Bridges vehicle). But precisely none of this squares with the movie’s stream of wormy, digressive interludes, weird background activities, and its lowdown sympathy for embittered attitudes, terrible decision-making, and destructive/defensive tendencies. Playing like an extended flashback to the freestyle movies of the ’70s, 8 Million Ways starts to feel less like a crime story than a brutal, thinly veiled Hollywood parable.

Bridges’s and Arquette’s characters could as easily be a luckless bottom-rung screenwriter and a performer struggling to break out of some exploitation-ghetto. Garcia’s sharky dealer has the patter of up-and-coming CAA agent, backstabbing manager, or pushy, raging-ego producer down pat. Wiry and overbearing, pouring the charm on like a bottle of Paco Rabanne, Garcia bridges the voracious attention-snorting of Al Pacino’s Scarface and the high-strung/strung-out manner Michael Imperioli would bring to The Sopranos (1999–2007). Beyond the candied-cocaine window dressing, Maldanado is the distillation of every hard-nosed showbiz hustler—his ethnicity is the only thing separating him from the other ponytailed high rollers in the Industry.

It’s not a huge leap from here to surmise that (a) the director was no run-of-the-mill hack, (b) that he had a major ax to grind with the production’s moneymen, and (c) that pahis shoot was troubled and interfered with from preproduction through to the bitter end. 8 Million Ways to Die could almost be Exhibit A—or patient zero—in the annals of how the auteurs of the ’70s were blindsided in the ’80s by the new deal-making, numbers-crunching players in the industry. No real surprise then that the director turns out to be Hal Ashby, only a few years after the peak of his career (at least commercially) with Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). Or that this will be his final picture: Many people (including Arquette, in an interview on the 8 Million Ways disk) believe that the toll it took is what killed him. (I don’t know whether Hollywood can be directly linked to pancreatic cancer, but I wouldn’t rule it out.)

The sad joke here is how much company Ashby had: The title of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) is readily confused with Ashby’s project, and while Friedkin adapted to the new regime better—more efficiently—than many, he was likewise slipping down the pecking order. By then, Altman was even deeper in movie purgatory (if soon to rebound), Sam Peckinpah was already dead after an even more ignominious last run, Arthur Penn was utterly washed-up, etc. If the post–New Hollywood wave of high-concept, exhaustively engineered features had a byword, it was the prefix “over-”: over-the-top, overbearing, overdetermined.

The conventional wisdom on 8 Million Ways is that it represents Ashby’s ultimate defeat by the System, but by the Southern California light of its antihero paradigm (falling apart in rattrap attire), it sabotages the winners’ blueprint. Riding the quixotic train that ran from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (and their divergent film adaptations by John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Altman) on through to Ross MacDonald, Warren Zevon, and Cutter’s Way right into a brick wall, Ashby’s film is his Big Kiss-Off to the whole rotten business. It cries out for Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty at All” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” on the sound track in place of James Newton Howard’s incongruous synthesized score (every fat, satisfied note of which evokes the exact movie Ashby didn’t make).

Maybe if the execs hadn’t taken the final cut away from Ashby he could have sculpted the footage into something like a beautifully dissociated, bifurcated seesaw between an alcoholic’s grievous miscalculations and his assessment looking back from the sanctuary of Alcoholics Anonymous. As it stands, it’s still a remarkable, appropriately messy slice of spiritual autobiography, seldom less than alive and surprising (how many movie gangsters have kept a full snow cone bar in their trunk?). It makes a “hip” prestige saga like The Player look tidy, soft, and terminally “on message.” There were eight million ways to get high in the ’80s: If certain superstars (or executives) used to have their personal assistants blow coke up their asses with a straw, then Ashby’s film is a fitting memorial to the ones who found themselves on the wrong end of those straws.

Howard Hampton

Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Chantal Akerman, Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping), 1986, color, sound, 96 minutes.

THE ROSTER LIVES UP TO ITS TITLE: “The Whole World Sings: International Musicals.” I wish I could spend a week at the Quad seeing all thirteen features in the series organized by the theater’s programmers in collaboration with Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri. Whether bittersweet, semitragic, joyous, or somewhat deranged, almost every one of these films will lift your spirits as you enter a fall season that looks to be as depressing—I’m not referring only to culture—as this summer was.

Screening in a new digital restoration, Chantal Akerman’s 1986 Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping) is a study in emotional surfeit within a minimalist pop aesthetic. The set is a tiny shopping mall that contains a dress shop, a bar, a hair salon, and the exterior of a movie theater. It’s not clothes, jus d’orange, or movies that are on display, but the people who work there and whose entanglements and desires are, with one exception, shared, celebrated, and mourned in song and dance. The film’s subject is romantic love—found, lost, and desired. Marc Hérouet’s score is bouncy although a bit repetitive, a necessary grounding for Akerman’s wildly associative lyrics, which make me simultaneously laugh and cry from first to last.

The ensemble cast is enchantingly human—better than being great singers or dancers—and Delphine Seyrig, in her last major role, is much more than that. Seyrig plays Mrs. Schwarz, the proprietor—with her husband—of the dress store. Like Jeanne Dielman, the other great character she and Akerman created together in the eponymous film, Mrs. Schwarz suffered in World War II: Specifically, like Akerman’s mother, she is a Holocaust survivor. But unlike Dielman, Mrs. Schwarz has a surpassingly brave, dazzling smile, all the more haunting because of the vulnerability just below the surface.

No one in the gossipy shopping mall knows that the American who rescued Mrs. Schwarz after the war has reappeared. They love each other still, but it’s impossible; their romance would mean the breakup of their marriages. Seyrig can’t really sing, but with her husky, cut-velvet voice she can talk her way through the song that introduces the soliloquy at the heart of Golden Eighties, offered as comfort to the young woman who was just jilted by the Schwarzes’ confused son and, of course, to herself. “Love never means nothing. Love is never lost / All the love and dreams that ever were live on somewhere / That’s the way it must be / If not there will be another horror and this time no one will be spared. But that won’t happen.”

Golden Eighties owes something to Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, just as Umbrellas owes something to Jean Renoir’s 1955 French Cancan. Both are in “The Whole World Sings,” which is heavy on French films and also includes Marc Allegret’s Zouzou (1934), a vehicle for Josephine Baker at the height of her talents; René Clair’s Le Million (1931), made just a year or two after sound came to European cinema, and as comically inventive in its use of this new technology as only Clair, who made avant-garde films in the 1920s, could be; Alain Resnais’s farcical Same Old Song (1997), which opens with the Nazi high command hightailing it out of Paris to the sound of Édith Piaf; and Euzhan Palcy’s Siméon (1992), her follow-up to A Dry White Season (1989), long out of circulation in the US and screening in a new 4K restoration.

Seijun Suzuki, Princess Raccoon, 2005, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

The eclectic inventory continues. Cross-dressing is the comedy springboard for Han Hsiang Li’s The Love Eternal (1963), produced in Hong Kong, and Reinhold Schünzel’s Victor and Victoria (1933). (The latter, a final defiant flourish of Weimar culture, was remade by Blake Edwards in 1982 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews.) A prime example of Egyptian melodrama, Youssef Chahine’s Destiny (1997) is a Palme d’Or winner and less lugubrious than most of the director’s nonmusical films, while Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) is a foundational work of modern Indian cinema and necessary history for Bollywood fans. In a series not lacking in surrealist fantasy, Princess Raccoon (2005), the final film by the wild, shape-shifting Japanese B-movie director Seijun Suzuki, is the most liberatingly unhinged of them all.

The series’s political problem-child might be Marcel Camus’s much-celebrated Black Orpheus (1959). In 2009, a few months after Obama’s inauguration, Peter Bradshaw, a film critic at The Guardian, wrote a piece about Black Orpheus, in which he quotes at length from Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995). Obama recalled that around 1980 he took his mother to a revival of Black Orpheus, which she had gone to when she was sixteen (her first foreign movie), and which she thought was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Obama wrote:

We took a cab to the revival theatre where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The storyline was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during carnival, in Technicolor splendor. Set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie I decided I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus, 1959, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.

Bradshaw goes on to write that although he thought Obama was “too tough” on Black Orpheus,

This passage exposed, more dramatically than anything has in a very long while, the fact that critical perceptions are governed by class, by background and by race. I saw Black Orpheus as a white man, a white liberal. Of course I did. The assumption of progressive good faith on race, and the indulgence of potential condescension or even stereotyping in an old movie is something that a white liberal can afford, and as far as the arts and culture are concerned in the prosperous west, white liberals are in the ascendant. But Barack Obama responded to the film quite differently. He responded with impatience, with scepticism and with pain; he saw no reason for black men and women to be objectified—and now, as the president of the United States, he is the subject, the most important subject in the world.

I must add that when I saw first saw Black Orpheus in the early 1960s, I was thrilled by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Latin dance-beat score, but I was totally creeped out by the exoticizing of people of color. I can’t imagine that my experience of the film will change when I see it this time around at the Quad.

Amy Taubin

“The Whole World Sings” plays through Thursday, September 21, at the Quad in New York.

By the Book


Frederick Wiseman, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 197 minutes.

ONE OF THE MYSTERIES OF Ex Libris: New York Public Library is how a movie consisting almost entirely of people sitting around talking on library grounds manages to feel urgent and invigorating.

The film is the latest of the institutional studies that Frederick Wiseman has been producing for the half century since Titicut Follies (1967), set in the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. Wiseman’s project is among the most ambitious ever undertaken in nonfiction cinema, a nearly comprehensive chronicling of (mostly) American institutions, and his rigor and intelligence are so understated, so routine, that it’s tempting to take the eighty-seven-year-old filmmaker for granted. Where Ken Burns has been telling the American story through historical/archival means, Wiseman does so as a live witness, always using the same methodology: gain inside access, shoot acres of footage, and then, in the editing booth, give shape to what Wiseman has learned about his subject through the entire observational process. The finished products are often sprawling—Ex Libris is more than three hours long, though, fairly, it flies by—and filled with the sort of organizational minutiae that most other documentarians would trim if they bothered to record them in the first place. Faced with the sort of conference-room shoptalk that makes most people glaze over, Wiseman pricks up his ears. The last person we hear in the film is the British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal, who read a passage from his book The White Road: Journey into an Obsession that might serve as Wiseman’s maxim: “Process is not to be skated over.”

Ex Libris doesn’t skate. The film was shot in and around properties belonging to the New York Public Library system, which services Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. While returning most frequently to the Beaux arts main branch on Bryant Park, he also circulates through the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, a Chinatown branch, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and goes as far afield as Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. Some of the subjects are celebrities speaking at public events: Richard Dawkins, Elvis Costello, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many others are not: patrons at various library functions or rank-and-file staffers giving tours of their individual domains (resources such as the century-old picture collection or the archival print collection).

Ex Libris was shot in fall 2015, its editing completed during a period of political lunacy. This is felt in the final product, as when Costello describes his song “Tramp the Dirt Down” as a response to Margaret Thatcher and “what she let loose in the country,” summarized as “the desire to stamp on your fellow countryman.” What his film offers, by contrast, is a vision of extraordinary warmth and fellow feeling, deeply respectful of the intelligence that it allows its dozens of subjects the opportunity to display. (The lone exception is a US Border Patrol agent seen speaking haltingly at a job fair in the Bronx.) In Wiseman’s latest there is a quiet kind of wonderment—at the variety of modes of human expression, at the volume of the records of that expression. Wiseman has never shied away from critiquing the institutions that he puts under the scrutiny of his deadpan, observational lens, but this is counterbalanced by his clear belief in the potential of the individual—in the course of presenting things as they are, he offers a sense of things as they might be.

The glimmers of Utopia in Ex Libris make the present beleaguered state of the republic keenly felt, but to harp on the movie’s “new, sad relevance in the Age of Trump,” however, would be to ignore the degree to which Wiseman positions the NYPL facilities not only as repositories of world culture but as stages for the continuation of a floating conversation on the promises and pitfalls of American civilization that has been ongoing since 1776. Among the film’s many accomplishments is its ability to reveal the vitality of dusty documents, be it Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut print of a rhinoceros; Love in the Time of Cholera, discussed by a senior reading group through the filter of life experience; or foundational texts of American civic thought. The scene in which a sign-language interpreter for theatrical productions demonstrates her craft by signing two differently pitched readings of the preamble to the US Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most moving screen staging of an American political document since Charles Laughton read the Gettysburg Address in Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

Frederick Wiseman, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 197 minutes.

An extraordinary number of topics are discussed in Ex Libris, but two––slavery and freedom––recur with a regularity that underscores how thoughtfully structured Wiseman’s deceptively ambling movie is. Library trustees listen to a presentation by a representative of the Schomburg Center on research pertaining to Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American female poet, in which the lecturer cites a courteous correspondence to Wheatley from General George Washington. It’s all very touching; though when the wealthy trustees gather for a group photo on the library steps, it’s impossible to ignore that they are overwhelmingly white, while the homeless who drift through the city’s libraries are not. Elsewhere, Coates draws parallels between American slavery and European serfdom. At the Macomb’s Bridge Library way uptown, there is a lively discussion of a McGraw-Hill textbook graphic in which a map of immigration patterns refers to African slaves as “workers.” A lecturer at Greenwich Village’s Jefferson Market Library—one of the most beautiful buildings in New York—disserts on the nineteenth-century writings of social theorist George Fitzhugh, whose Slaves Without Masters expounded the superiority of antebellum Southern life to that of industrial capitalism, before bringing in a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “The free society is not and will not be a failure.”

The sense of the imperative in Lincoln’s statement runs throughout Ex Libris. As Wiseman suggests, the library is an essential bulwark in that mission to maintain and perfect a free society. The film is a celebration of every variety of learning, from the pedagogical to the pleasure of solitary reading. In one lovely scene, we see the recording of an audiobook of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, in which Wiseman briefly cuts away from the voice actor to the sound editor, catching her just as the color of the light reflecting on her face from her desktop computer changes—a literal vision of illumination.

Wiseman’s self-appointed mission to parse the fine print of society has always seemed to me a heroic act, insofar as art can be described as “heroic.” The idea that the world has reached its present state due to the machinations of conspiratorial shadow governments has gained a great deal of traction among Americans of all political inclinations. I have always thought it likely that the truth was more mundane and sadder—that all the information is in plain sight, but that very few want to be bothered with it. Wiseman’s films take on that trouble, and in doing so provide a reminder to vigilance. The least of them are always of interest, and the greatest—in which company Ex Libris belongs—are nothing short of emancipatory.

Nick Pinkerton

Ex Libris: New York Public Library runs Wednesday, September 13, through Tuesday, September 26, at Film Forum in New York.

Tsai Ming-Liang, The River, 1997, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.

TSAI MING-LIANG is one of the great charters of human loneliness. This month’s retrospective at the Kino Arsenal in Berlin allows you to consider Tsai’s cinema in its entirety (excluding his shorts and television features). You can watch the city of Taipei through the final decade of the twentieth century and to the present, as it begins to resemble the scripted expectations of a twenty-first-century metropolis, or the development of his small ensemble of players, notably Lee Kang-sheng, the handsome and mysterious leading man whom Tsai discovered working in a video-game arcade and has cast in every one of his features.

Presiding above all this are Tsai’s consistent motifs. There’s loneliness, sure, but loneliness here is always interwoven with real estate—not a typical theme for an auteur, but Tsai makes it his own by elevating his enclosed spaces, often abandoned or their ownership fraught, to the level of costars. Vive l’amour (1994) tracks the peregrinations of three people who, unbeknownst to one another, are illegally squatting in the same massive two-story luxury apartment in Taipei that the agent can’t manage to sell. The Hole (1998) takes place around a hole drilled into the floor of an apartment that never gets repaired and thus connects the two tenants. Stray Dogs (2013), his most recent feature, focuses on a homeless family in Taipei; the patriarch takes a low-paying day job holding up a sign at an intersection to advertise a new luxury condo development.

Often Tsai’s loneliness is linked to a longing for another place entirely, one that can only be distantly imagined. In What Time Is It There? (2001), a watch salesman falls in love with a young woman who insists on buying his own watch for her move to Paris. He knows he’ll never see her again, and immersed in his fantasy, he changes all his watches to Paris time and spends his days viewing a random French DVD, Truffaut’s 400 Blows. This incessant probing of the notion of place, of home, could only come from someone who, like Tsai, is an outsider by choice (Tsai moved to Taiwan from his native Malaysia when he was in his early twenties to study, and never returned).

Tsai announced himself as a great sensualist in his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), depicting teenage outcasts adrift in a rain-drenched subtropical nightscape. Cockroaches, flooded floors, disapproving parents, petty juvenile criminals making their way through the arcades and night-markets while making their first fumbles toward romance—it’s a quintessential portrait of working-class Taipei, every moment suffused with the constant and uncategorizable lust of urban street life. Carnal life-force surfaces more bluntly in films such as The Wayward Cloud (2005), in which Lee plays a porn actor, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), where a sex tourist unsuccessfully attempts to pick up men during the final screening at a bankrupt cinema. Tsai’s films could be called queer, though they lack the impetus toward an explicit politics; Tsai sensitively intuits that desire is always political, and so it requires little more than to be portrayed. He does not force his characters to articulate their often bizarre, strained relations to one another. Typical Tsai characters couldn’t articulate such thoughts anyway, not because they are dumb, but because they are trapped in a state of profound interiority. Lost in an existential malaise, Tsai’s people can have no real interests; these surroundings they haunt, and that are such a key component of his films, are very nearly produced by the characters from that malaise––externalizations of that distraught interiority.

So often, our experiences with the artists we love are shaped by our first encounter with their work. Mine was Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Here, in the final night of this old Taipei cinema, the film projected on the screen is a Taiwanese kung fu classic, Dragon Inn (1967). Among the tiny audience are two of Dragon Inn’s original actors, Jun Shih and Miao Tien. A woman noisily eats peanuts. A horny Japanese tourist moves from seat to seat, cruising the male patrons, as well as the projectionist, played by the ever-elusive Lee. The projectionist is also sought after by the box-office manager, a crippled woman who has made him a steamed bun as a parting gift; as the film plays, she is seen intermittently limping through the halls and stairways with her wrapped bun, searching, unable to find him. Not much happens. Not much needs to happen. And yet every moment seems necessary. It is this aspect that makes Tsai’s films something more than cinema, more akin to poetry. In the narrowness of these enclosed spaces, the world becomes so much bigger.

Travis Jeppesen

“Anatomy of loneliness — The Films of Tsai Ming-Liang” runs through the month of September at the Kino Arsenal in Berlin.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).

A WORLD WHERE TWIN PEAKS is the center is horrifying and moral because there is, obviously, no God. There’s no sense of God, no shadow or presence. There’s not even a church, astounding for a town with a diner, a roadhouse, a hospital, woods, waterfalls and rivers. There is a church in the unincorporated community of Twin Peaks, California. There are three churches of the Mormon kind by the foot of the Twin Peaks range in Utah. A work so wholly American, American as Underworld, as A Face in the Crowd, and yet not Christian exists nowhere else. But in Twin Peaks, Washington, in lieu of a creator, there is a dreamer, and we don’t know who it is.

The first time around (in 1990–91), we wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, and David Lynch thought knowing would kill the show. Overruled by the network, he lost interest, leaving things to his cocreator, Mark Frost, and the show faltered, collapsed; the show couldn’t go on when the showman had left. This is Lynch’s second chance—to climb the dread heights, as John “Scottie” Ferguson does in Vertigo (1958). It’s Cooper’s chance, too. MacLachlan’s MacLachlanaissance is in doubt, since between the dream-locked Cooper, the absent Dougie, and the evil-incarnate Mr. C, he has yet to play human, a writing choice that begins to seem like an excuse for the actor. He once played a man becoming more than that, the youthful quester Paul Atreides, in Lynch’s ill-fated, fantastic, misunderstanding 1984 adaptation of Dune. Lynch had him imbibe what’s called “the water of life” and, rather than “drink full and descend,” ascend to being a god, whereas in the novel he’s only playing at godhood. (Imagine if Francis Ford Coppola, adapting Heart of Darkness for the cinema, had turned Kurtz into a literal deity and cast Paul Newman. The horror, etc.) Though Lynch retracted his authorship of the film after the studio made sense-destroying edits, it’s unclear that, had he been given the control he wanted, it would have been what we could honestly call great.

When I said the dreamer could be us, it was the simplest and not the best solution; I think the question should be answerable, not answered. “One does not offer an ethics to God,” says Simone de Beauvoir in her Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), and so “far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth, because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements.” (We can add “creative” before license, if we like.) Together, she continues, men bear “the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of [man] himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well.”

And when the show ends, if you can believe it, this Sunday, we’ll want a sense that the dream of the show is not over, even we are not to see, for real this time, another new minute. I pray not, since Twin Peaks: The Eternal Return would be too ungodly. In the picture as it fades there should be a dreamer who is like us, made in our image as gods always are, in my god-averse view, but not us. A Godardian “perfect image,” like I said. Afterimage, maybe. Face without an “I.”

Cooper, a dreamer, cannot be the dreamer. An early episode in the original Twin Peaks was called “Cooper’s Dreams,” not “Cooper’s Dream” (or even “Cooper Dreams”). In episode sixteen of The Return, having put a fork in the socket and in Dougie, the hero awakes from both his medically induced coma and his once-interminable limbo. “You are awake,” says Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel), aka the Man from Another Place. “One hundred per cent,” says Cooper. Dale Cooper. Special Agent Dale Cooper. “Finally,” says Gerard.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel).

What proceeds is as pure and fun an action sequence as any in a Bond movie (and I’ve seen every Bond movie), set—finally!—to the Twin Peaks theme. He’s starving. He’s talking, all determination and cheer. He borrows a gun from his boss (he knows the exact make and model, which says he’s been watching, as in sleep paralysis, from inside Dougie) and tells the Mitchum Brothers to get the private jet ready. “What about the FBI?” says Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray), because the FBI is looking for Mr. Jones. Cooper turns, a familiar turn. “I am the FBI.” He’s suave, driving the white Beemer, another man’s wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), looking at him with lust and adoration. Leaving wife and kid tearful at the casino, he promises, “Dougie . . . I will be back.” (It’ll be a figure named Dougie but, for Janey-E’s sake, more like Cooper, made with a strand of his hair and a “seed” of some kind, conjured by Gerard.)

As for the other one, the bad one, he doesn’t dream ever, permitting the notion that what we see is his dream—but no, Mr. C cannot be the dreamer. Since minute one he’s been too in control. Dreams don’t tend to be plotted, lacking beginnings or endings; they begin in darkness and they’re over when you stop remembering, or wake. He does create—tulpas, like Dougie. He de-creates his son, duh, Richard Horne (Eamon Farr), electrocuting him on a rock, and the son’s disappearance indicates he too was/is a tulpa, or half tulpa. The one man he can’t control is Phillip Jeffries, who reappears at the old convenience store in voice only, and it would be apt for David Bowie to play the dreamer, to have, perhaps, an alter ego named Judy, and therefore to hold the answers to two questions—who’s Judy and who’s the dreamer—in one hand. However, if Judy is to be like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, played by Judy Garland, she should have once been a girl.

Kim Novak is Judy Barton in Vertigo and, as mistress to the rich Mr. Elster, goes blonde and WASPy to impersonate and frame his wife, Madeleine, as a suicide. An early episode of the original Twin Peaks has Laura’s cousin, named Maddy, or Madeleine, after Novak, played (like Laura) by Sheryl Lee, put on a blonde wig to play the dead girl’s ghost. Syllogistically, casting aside, this means Judy is Madeleine and Madeleine is not Laura. Some fans ignore this and think Judy is Laura, pointing to the shot of a monkey saying “Judy,” followed by a shot of dead Laura, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). But Judy has a sister, says Jeffries in the same film, and “part of her” is there in Argentina. Laura does not have a sister, far as we know. (Can a tulpa be considered a sister?)

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn).

Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) had a half-sister, Donna Hayward, played on Twin Peaks by Lara Flynn Boyle and unreturned here. Norma (Peggy Lipton) had a sister, Annie, who was played by Heather Graham, and ditto. I suppose when Cooper asked, “How’s Annie?” the answer could have been, “Chilling in Buenos Aires,” but it’s impossible to think of Norma as a Judy. Joan Chen, writing in character as Josie Packard to David Lynch, asking, in vain, to be on The Return, said that she often thinks of her “twin sister, Judy.” A writer on Fire Walk with Me said ages ago that Judy was, at one point, meant to be Josie’s twin, and at least one fan is convinced that Judy is Josie, while another on the same fansite is convinced, via the Bible and numerology, that Judy is Naido (Nae Yuuki). On the Twin Peaks Reddit, I read that Judy is both Josie’s sis and Naido, but since Nae is very apparently Japanese and Chen is very apparently Chinese, this development would be racist, blind, and dumb. Diane (Laura Dern), we found out in part fourteen, is a half-sister to none other than Janey-E, their lives another soap-operatic double aria in this devil’s puzzle of a magnificent script.

But the Diane we have seen is not the Diane we never knew. She’s already been a double agent, working with the task force on the Blue Rose case and simultaneously texting info to Mr. C, but the latest text reveals she’s a double, a tulpa. Mr. C texts “ALL” preceded by a smiling emoticon, and the smile triggers her, as in literally triggers, weaponizes. Twenty-five years ago, on the night she doesn’t talk about, she tells Gordon, with Albert and Tammy listening, that Cooper showed up at her house. He kissed her, and it didn’t feel like a kiss. He smiled, horribly. He raped her. Dern is incredible: What could be truer than the dreamy, teenage way she says, “He kissed me,” and then, breathiness curling and solidifying into disgust with the processive control of a ballet dancer’s developpé, says, “Something went wrong.”

Cooper was, then, definitively, bad at the time Richard was conceived with Audrey, meaning either that Audrey was a tulpa and tulpas can reproduce, which is unlikely but so are a lot of things before they occur; or that Audrey was raped and the dissociation a rape produces came to stick. Finally, at the roadhouse, at the end of this sixteenth hour, Audrey dances the dance we remember, and we’re ensorcelled into grinning at the sight. But just when she seems like herself, she is interrupted by yet another bar fight over someone’s wife, and stops, runs to Charlie, screams, “Get me out of here,” and poof, appears elsewhere, in a white room, makeupless in a mirror, as in a psych ward. I have already expressed my total disdain for rape—let alone rape by a partner, lover, friend, or acquaintance—as a plot device granting a male protagonist power over the rest of a victim’s life, and I refuse to say more about it as a reason for a girl to go mad.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

The matrilineal nature of madness, more accurate to my paradigm, is supposed in Vertigo and echoed in Twin Peaks. Other fans, in a theory I enjoy, say that the girl who is asleep when the Woodsmen come, into whose mouth the tumescent insect crawls, must be the dreamer; that is to say, some percentage of her never woke up. More than the other female characters, the girl looks like Mädchen Amick, enough so to have been her mother, making Becky (Amanda Seyfried) her granddaughter and analogous to the character of Madeleine Elster, with the insane, suiciding grandmother of lore, in Vertigo. But that’s perhaps my superficial reading and the fans who think the dreamer is Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), the desolated would-be matriarch who alone is the right age to be that girl as a woman if she’s still alive, are onto something more. She’s been nuts as long as we’ve known her. She’s only more so. She has a sister, one we’ve never seen: Beth Ferguson, mother of Maddy, though again if we are following the plot of Vertigo, this would make Maddy the Judy. Maybe I just want Sarah to be the dreamer because she is the character in Twin Peaks I most hope is somehow immortal.

Zabriskie had the greatest scene of the show so far, or so I said, in part twelve; she had a greater one in part fourteen, when Sarah goes drinking alone at an unfamiliar dive bar. Harassed by a man in a TRUCK YOU T-shirt (where’s Richard with Billy’s truck when you need him?) who accuses her of “looking like one of them bulldykes” (he may be excused for not knowing what a bulldyke looks like, there being a total of no lesbians in Twin Peaks), she takes on an attitudinal freeze and hiss, becoming precisely as touchable as nitrous oxide. He says he’ll eat her cunt. She says she’ll eat him. Removing her face like a paper moon from a collage of the galaxy, she emits the voice of a Woodswoman, saying do you really want to fuck with me, and a hand appears, and something bites, so that the next thing anyone sees is him dead on the floor with a missing jugular. A half-second. A return to her human form. Then a scream, which, in Zabriskie’s throat, has wit. I laughed the first, second, third, time I watched it. The bar owner approaches her with suspicion, and she plays helpless, stricken, then drops her voice to a mere chill and says: “Yeah. It’s a mystery.” Her alloy of the deadpan and sangfroid supersedes even that of Diane, and I wonder whether tulpas can have this much self-possession, congenitally; no other tulpa has gone off her head of her own volition.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 14. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie).

Few other options are left for the dreamer’s identity. Gordon Cole (David Lynch), whose name is the last thing Cooper-as-Dougie hears, the final trigger, cannot be it either. You wouldn’t say to the dreamer, as Monica Bellucci does to Gordon Cole, “We are like the dreamer.” If we’re not the dreamer and the characters aren’t like us, who are they like? Do we want to know what we’re like? Maybe it’s someone we’ve never seen. The original, human Diane, the invisible presence the old Cooper was always addressing, perhaps. Or someone we mysteriously can’t see, on the verge of disappearing, an old authority figure in the hospital, sick, someone people are always asking to see and can’t—the actor unavailable, retired. Sheriff Harry S. Truman, that is. Horrible to think we’re just in Truman’s show!

Go back to Vertigo, Lynch’s favorite. I had forgotten whether it ended with a fate—and it did, a punishment for interfering with fate. But the plot is set into motion by cynical people, not “forces.” There is no “strange power” at work. People on The Return die of common causes, like being shot, but not for very good reasons: Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch are riddled to bits by, of all people, an accountant in an act of mutual road rage. Steven (Caleb Landry Jones), in the fourteenth hour, was heard to die by his own handgun, startled, like Judy Barton atop the belltower, erroneously at the approach of a stranger. People also die in what are deemed paranormal or “not natural” ways, and these autopsy-defying deaths seem yet less “senseless,” less amoral than the picayune, indubitable ones. Morality, said de Beauvoir after Kierkegaard, is no more relevant than language is to nature, and is perhaps supranatural; it’s easy to make the slip to supernatural, then to sense good and evil as something no longer above but beyond us, something out there. Lynch is a true believer that some things can’t be explained. Yet Scottie, the detective in Vertigo, believed in the inexplicable for a time, and was institutionalized, and when he solved the case and beat his agoraphobia, almost in one breath, it was because he saw, like Paul in Dune, that “fear is the mind-killer.” I suspect the best reason not to say who killed Laura was that people already knew, only they were afraid to think it.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10
Episodes 11 & 12
Episodes 13, 14, & 15
Episodes 17 & 18 (January 2018)

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.

Screen Time


Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 13.

OVER THE LATEST HOURS of Twin Peaks: The Return, two time lines emerge, one stronger, one fainter, like lines on a pregnancy test. (If my husband is reading this: I’m not pregnant.) Old Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan) comes off a bender with the Mitchum Brothers (James Belushi and Robert Knepper) and the bunny-type girls (Amy Shiels, Giselle DaMier, and Andrea Leal) and swerves into the Lucky 777 Insurance office, horrisonous music, a marching song for manic-depressive clowns, playing behind him. Anthony Sinclair (Tom Sizemore), a double agent at the company, calls his criminal boss, Mr. Todd, to say that the latest attempt on Dougie’s life has failed. Mr. Todd (Patrick Fischler) says Sinclair has one day to finish the job. The clock ticks.

After work, around 6 PM, by the light on the stucco, the cops at the Las Vegas Police Department continue to bungle the case involving Dougie Jones, and Sinclair buys cyanide from a crooked detective (John Savage). Night falls on Sonny Jim carousing around his new gym set, courtesy of the Mitchum Brothers. In the driveway there is a brand-new convertible, ditto. The theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays: I’ve wondered whether this bright, jangly story was lagging a little behind the dark one, whether Dougie really coexists with Agent Dale Cooper, so that eventually we find that his time line ended when Mr. C’s began and we are left, willingly or not, with that bad Coop. The car, a BMW M3 convertible in alpine white, dates to 2014, and the scene was filmed in 2016––presumably it was just the most recent car available, but if this were happening two years before the rest of the show, or if time were zigzagging, it would not be a shocker. (Lynch’s will, at its most self-serving, makes a world where a mere vicissitude of production can seem like a gotcha, any hole in the plot suggestive of a void.)

Two years was how long a certain agent with the Bureau had to be off in Argentina before being hailed, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), as “the long-lost Phillip Jeffries.” Jeffries (David Bowie) appears in Agent Gordon Cole’s (David Lynch) dream in episode fourteen of The Return, in an alternate, black-and-white version of that scene, asking Albert (Miguel Ferrer), “Who do you think that is there?” instead of “Who do you think this is there?” referring to Cooper, a change making the sentence more grammatical but also vicissitudinous, signaling that Cooper is further away than he seems (as that is habitually further away than this). Jeffries seems unsure whether it really has been two years. His accent belongs to a Confederate soldier who defected and joined up with Australian pirates. “We live inside a dream,” he tells Albert, who in the present, getting the replay from Gordon, says he’s beginning to remember (as if the original scene were not really a memory, but a dream he’d shared). Also in Gordon’s dream, making it a wet one, is Monica Bellucci (Monica Bellucci), who shows him his old self and repeats “ancient phrases,” among them: “We are like the dreamer.”

The next morning, Janey-E (Naomi Watts) drives Dougie to work in the new car and says, kissing him, “It’s like all our dreams are coming true.” (Emphasis: like.) Dougie, over coffee and pie with his would-be poisoner, foils the plot by giving him a silent, firm massage, a gesture that would be alien to Dougie and, if witting, is clever and evidences the remaining nature of Coop. After dinner at home, he eats cake and sees Sunset Boulevard on cable and, hearing the name of that minor character for whom Gordon Cole is named, has a thought—a whole one—and crawls across the staticky carpet to stick his fork in a socket. The lights go white. Time’s up. No one’s heard from Sinclair. Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Louboutins assassinates Mr. Todd, who was himself operating under long-distance control, presumably by Jeffries, and tells Hutch (Tim Roth) on the phone to order French fries. When we see them driving out of town it’s 10 PM.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 14. Naido and Andy (Nae and Dana Ashbrook).

So far, easy. The scenes are not all linearly shown, but the times line up in Vegas and in South Dakota, and in Twin Peaks. While Sinclair confesses his sins to Dougie and to his legitimate boss, Deputies Hawk (Michael Horse), Andy (Harry Goaz), and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) go to the place Bobby knows from his dad’s coded message, and at 2:53 in the afternoon, the vortexing hour, each are transported to another place while Naido (Nae), the blinded visage from that other place, lies on the ground. They take her to jail to be safe––a joke if I’ve ever heard one. The next morning, Gordon calls Sheriff Frank Truman to gather up more missing pieces in the Blue Rose case, and Nadine (Wendy Robie) walks miles from home to tell her pure, good husband, Ed (Everett McGill), that he’s free to be with his true love, Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton). “How beautiful is this?” she says. Kierkegaardian, really, to find beauty nowhere but in ethics, to resolve a triangle in the symmetry of goodness returned. When Ed goes to the Double R, Norma’s busy with her franchise-happy boyfriend. “Cup of coffee,” he tells Shelly (Mädchen Amick). “And a cyanide pill,” he says to himself, while at the same time—although we saw it an hour ago—the foiled poisoner is flushing coffee for Dougie down the toilet. Ed’s line is a punch line and a pin in time.

Why are the pieces cohering? For the same reason a magician takes care to explain, step by step, what he is going to do. When you think you know the steps, the sleight of hand becomes a greater surprise. Lynch is always reminding us that we’re supposed to be watching television, calling sudden attention to screens, glass—the gel-blue windshield of a car, the man squeakily cleaning the window outside Gordon Cole’s office, and in the very first episode, the glass box containing the dread apparition. When, in part nine, the coroner at the morgue in South Dakota, played with cool acidity by the comedian Jane Adams, relays the events of the previous two days, or four episodes, Albert asks dryly, “What happens in season two?” When Andy meets the Giant, the Giant unreels before his eyes a montage that might as well begin with Lynch saying, “Previously on Twin Peaks: The Return,” and the Brechtian word for the montage would be Fabel, defined in John J. White’s book on Brecht as “a matter of a play’s parabolic potential, and of plot understood as an aggregate of significant details,” which we could sub for “perfect images” if a Godardian sense is desired.

Lynch and Frost, also reflexively, write arcs that call to the superfan’s conspiratorial instinct. Many guessed, well before the May 21 premiere, that Laura Dern would be Diane Evans, Agent Cooper’s former secretary. Even I guessed that Richard Horne (Eamon Farren) would be Audrey Horne’s (Sherilyn Fenn) son, as Richard tells Mr. C when the two meet at odds. And the bad Cooper, with his black, metallic voice, his all-black leather, makes us think of Darth Vader, so we know Mr. C is the dad. Despite being excited to get what we wanted, even if all we wanted was to be right, it’s easy to be unprepared for the greater excitation, not the whodunit, not even the whydunit, but how it’s done. For example, the delay, the sickening reverb, in that inevitable union of Ed and Norma, set to a live rendition of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” that you’d never have guessed could get more awesome. Or the tension in an arm-wrestling match that we know Mr. C, with his supernatural right arm, and his opponent unaware of it, can’t lose, yet we watch intently as if we’re paying per view. The Log Lady has been dying the whole time, and Catherine E. Coulson, her embodiment, died soon after filming her scenes, but when she phones Hawk and says her log is turning gold, goodbye, it feels unacceptable. These forced cessations of breath and urges to disbelieve––not the chintzy special effects that make Twin Peaks at times look like a student film, or worse, an art student’s film––are cinema magic. Embarrassingly, for me, these sleights inculcate “magical thinking.” Maybe, I think, I should accept the failure to return of the actual, known Cooper, and get used to the idea that there will only be Dougie, then Mr. C, that this world doesn’t deserve such a special agent, and then—voila, he’ll come, the way my period does when I wear white jeans.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 15. Nadine (Wendy Robie).

At night, time starts bending like a spoon. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), drinking at home after her break with reality in the grocery store, watches a boxing match on loop. A boxer comes from behind, lands a punch, and “now it’s a boxing match again,” we hear, like, ten times. Maybe she can’t sleep and changes out of her robe and goes after midnight to the bar, as we see her do in part fourteen, or maybe it’s the next night she goes to the bar, at a more normal, evening hour. I suppose it could also be the night after next; she could be sleepwalking. At the roadhouse, in parts fourteen and fifteen, we see a master of ceremonies (J. R. Starr, the only black man in the house) announcing the acts, where before there was no emcee, suggesting it’s all the same night, but if time in Twin Peaks is the same as in Vegas, it should be two nights; plus, the crowd on the floor changes almost entirely, and so do the people in the booths, or they’re playing musical chairs. James (James Marshall) and his randomly English coworker, Freddie (Jake Wardle, a London kid who was heretofore known exclusively for doing different English accounts on YouTube, and here he appears to be doing them all), talk about going in part fourteen and show up in part fifteen, making it seem like actually it is the same night. James says hi to his crush, Renee (Jessica Szohr), and, long and absurd story short, ends up in jail along with Naido, Deputy Chad Broxford (John Pirruccello), and a drunk who echoes Naido’s chitters and Chad’s expletives, eliciting more chitters, expletives––another loop that may as well be taped.

And Audrey is still arguing with her husband, Charlie (Clark Middleton), about whether to go to the Roadhouse. Having played out over four episodes now, in nearly contiguous scenes up to ten minutes long, the argument is occurring at about one-hundredths of the average speed of life elsewhere. Here’s where we get the wow and flutter of the show, words for its effect on your skin, words originally for the distortion produced by the wobbly of vinyl on a turntable or the dragging of tape in a cassette shell.

Audrey, beginning to be afraid: “I feel like I’m somewhere else, and somebody else . . . I’m not sure who I am but I’m not me.”

Charlie: “This is Existentialism 101.” [That’s true.]

Audrey: “Oh, fuck you. I’m serious.” [That’s funny.] “Who am I supposed to trust but myself? And I don’t even know who I am! So what the fuck am I supposed to do?”

Charlie: “You’re supposed to go to the Roadhouse and see if Billy is there.”

Audrey: “Is it far?”

Charlie: “Come on, Audrey, you know where it is. Are you going to stop playing games or do I have to end your story too?” [Trigger warning for anyone who unfortunately watched HBO’s Westworld.]

Audrey, terrified: “What story is that, Charlie? Is that the story of the little girl who lived down the lane? Is it?”

The 1976 adaptation of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane stars a thirteen-year-old Jodie Foster as Rynn and features, in a nude scene, her older sister as body double—something I bet thrilled Lynch. She has a magician boyfriend, Mario (Scott Jacoby). To her stalking neighbor, soon to become her newest poisonee, she says that her (dead) dad’s name is Gordon (the name of her hamster). Coincidences? At the end, you’re left with the same question you had at the start: Jesus, how old is this girl?

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 13. Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan).

Decades ago, a murder suspect under investigation by Gordon and Albert died from being shot in a hotel room, and her body, before becoming the body, vanished. Her last words were “I’m like the blue rose.” Her shooter, in turn, hanged herself and did leave a body. The two murderesses were identical and not twins. What can this signify? asks Albert of Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), who replies that a blue rose isn’t natural and neither was the dying woman—because murder isn’t natural, or because suicide isn’t? No, because the first dying, vanishing woman was, intuits Tammy, “conjured. What’s the word. A tulpa.” A tulpa being, in different Buddhist mythologies, a body made not from bodies but from a mind, or from a hive of minds, a collective projection. And in Christian mythology, we’re all descended from one tulpa, the word made flesh, for what is a word if not a “thoughtform.”

Foucault, in The Order of Things, writes about the unity of thoughts that cannot be represented in sentences. To his mind’s eye, “the brightness is within the rose.” But a sentence with any logic is a set of “linear propositions” and in a line he “cannot avoid [the brightness] coming either before or after [the rose].” Language, at last, is “to thought and to signs what algebra is to geometry: it replaces the simultaneous comparison of parts (or magnitudes) with an order whose degrees must be traversed one after the other.” And we know how Audrey Horne used to feel about algebra. Lynch does not, however, accept these limits and is more logocentric—that is, speech takes precedence over writing, and, with the major exception of Laura’s diary, text is left to signage and the pictorial. A reader sees the whole line at once, which is why her mind automatically fills in missing words and switches transposed ones; a listener doesn’t parse the sentence until she hears the end, unless the sentence is so cliché, idiomatic, or like her own thoughts that she can finish it, and so “blue” is anything until she hears “rose,” making the before or after irrelevant as far as meaning goes. The less predictable, nondemotic, and unnatural the speech, the more it begs repetition, the more unified its expression can be.

I’ve been rereading the stories of Laura (Riding) Jackson. One that makes me think even more about Lynch is “The Story-Pig,” wherein a totem in the shape of a porker tells stories to the guests of a hotel. A maid named Rose spends her days polishing the Story-Pig, who is silver or gold depending on the angle, and tries to make him brighter and brighter, but there is a limit to his brightness, and she sighs. At dusk she is transformed, with the help of her equally classed lover, Hans, and a pair of red slippers, into a queen. Her subjects are “snobs by day, sentimentalists by night.”

Although the clock ticked round always to the same hour, things themselves were never the same again. [The citizens] only escaped because they were quite old, quite dead. They belonged to the Queen and had no illusions about tomorrow, when they were almost the same but never quite—except the Queen, and she only because she went not from a beginning to an end but from a beginning to a beginning.

They were dead, but they were also alive—exactly because they were dead, having beheld the true rose that is not a flower at all, and because who behold this “shall never die.”

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 15. Big Ed Hurley and Norma Jennings (Everett McGill and Peggy Lipton).

Who is the dreamer? You and I, as the collective, singular viewer—we’re the dreamer, we’re the simplest answer. “We live inside a dream,” says Jeffries. All characters do live in boxes in a larger box. Lynch meditates transcendentally, goes deeper than meaning to find, I suppose, desires we’re left hoping are not his own. “We’re a nation of killers,” says Chantal to Hutch in the van, by way of shrugging off the day’s work. “We [white Americans] killed all the Indians, didn’t we?” said Rynn to Mario, in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: “You Americans are a violent people.” Last week, the actor who plays Mickey, a trailer-park resident, on The Return was arrested in Spokane, Washington, for beating his girlfriend nearly to death with a baseball bat. She’d declined to go to the store to get him a Kool-Aid before going to work at 420 Lingerie. I remembered David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose, reprising his definition of Lynchian:

“A regular domestic murder is not Lynchian. But if the man—if the police come to the scene and see the man standing over the body and the woman—let’s see, the woman’s ’50s bouffant is undisturbed and the man and the cops have this conversation about the fact that the man killed the woman because she persistently refused to buy, say, for instance, JIF peanut butter rather than Skippy, and how very, very important that is, and if the cops found themselves somehow agreeing that there were major differences between the brands and that a wife who didn’t recognize those differences was deficient in her wifely duties, that would be Lynchian—this weird—this weird confluence of very dark, surreal, violent stuff and absolute, almost Norman Rockwell, banal, American stuff.”

Americans are born into a history of violent, systemic crime, and the cover-up is usually banal, and these truths are also, by now, banal. Lynch and Frost wrote the show’s four-hundred-page script in a couple months and started production before it seemed plausible that Trump would win. Lynch as a prophet of the homeland is not a turn I predicted. Then again, any successful near-future prophecy is merely an accurate observation of the present, a palm reader reading the nerves, not the lines.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s previous recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10
Episodes 11 & 12
Episode 16
Episodes 17 & 18 (January 2018)

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.