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Deconstructing a Hero

Dirty Harry (1971) is a compelling neo-noir thriller about San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who is increasingly forced to choose between liberal legal norms and bringing a sadistic serial killer known as Scorpio to justice. Once Harry kills Scorpio, the movie ends with him throwing away his badge, symbolizing a momentous decision. When justice and law conflict, Harry chooses justice.

This is what makes Harry “dirty.” Harry Callahan is not corrupt. He is not willing to dirty his hands with illegality for selfish and petty reasons. But he will go outside the law to secure the higher good. The various events of the movie’s plot beautifully reveal elements of Harry’s character, so that his final choice makes sense.

Dirty Harry belongs in the category of first-rate crime thrillers like The French Connection, L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., and Drive.

Director Don Siegel frames Dirty Harry with sweeping Bay Area vistas. Then the camera dives into the action and draws the viewer with it. The script is tightly written and the story swift-paced. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz fusion score marries perfectly with the action and heightens the emotional impact. This being a gritty crime thriller set in swinging San Francisco, there are some racy elements: violence, cussing, nudity, homosexual couples, etc. But Siegel avoids outright obscenity. It is easy to overlook the artfulness of Dirty Harry because the story is so captivating.

The best way to appreciate Dirty Harry is to compare it to its four terrible sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).

Dirty Harry was decried as “fascist” for making a hero of a vigilante cop who was also characterized as a racist, although the movie pulled its punches on this particular matter by making Harry an equal opportunity hater and partnering him with one Chico Gonzalez. But Dirty Harry was also a huge hit, especially among white men. This dictated two things. First, there would be sequels because there would be money in them. Second, the sequels would subvert everything that Leftists found “problematic” about Harry Callahan.

This would dictate that the sequels could not build on the evolution of Harry’s character in the original movie, because that was the biggest problem of all. So instead, they just reduced Dirty Harry to a formula and repeated it four times. Each Dirty Harry sequel required: Clint Eastwood, a big gun, some shootouts with hoodlums, some California degeneracy, a clever line he repeats from time to time, and a jazz fusion score, preferably by Lalo Schifrin.

Since Harry is racist and presumably sexist, they have to pair him with a non-white or female partner. Since Dirty Harry was very much a guy movie, they also tarted up the sequels with some romance.

Since the formulaic repetition of tropes without any character development gets boring fast, these movies feel hollow and meaningless. Thus the filmmakers punched them up with fist-fights and car chases and made the sex and violence extra lurid. Dirty Harry had dashes of Playboy. The sequels in the sleazy Seventies were pure Hustler.

The first sequel, Magnum Force, is the worst. With a script by the allegedly “based” John Milius, Magnum Force is less a sequel than a hard reboot of Dirty Harry. At the end of Dirty Harry, Callahan looks like he is quitting the police force and going rogue. In Magnum Force, Callahan is back on the force as if nothing has happened. Moreover, as a large number of criminals start getting gunned down, Callahan suspects that the culprit is actually a rogue cop gone vigilante. Our new Squeaky-Clean Harry is determined to bring him to justice.

It turns out that the culprits are four good-looking white motorcycle cops played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven. Of course the “real” Harry Callahan would have been mentoring young men like this, not trying to arrest them. But instead Harry has a black partner, complete with ’fro, named Early. Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention.

It turns out that the young vigilantes are mentored by Lt. Neil Briggs, played by Hal Holbrook, a pencil-necked prig who spends a lot of time chewing out Callahan for being trigger-happy. When Briggs finally reveals himself to Callahan, our Squeaky-Clean Harry argues (1) that vigilantism is a slippery slope that will lead to shooting people over parking tickets, which is absurd, and (2) that the system may be broken, but it is the only one we’ve got, and we can’t let go of it, which is Republican. At this point, Milius has completely destroyed the hero of Dirty Harry. And it was premeditated.

It would take a free-standing essay to detail all the ways Magnum Force is lame, tasteless, and subversive. But life is too short for that, so here are a few highlights.

Magnum Force was directed by Ted Post. I didn’t need to visit Wikipedia to know that he made his career in television. Despite being shot on location in and around America’s most scenic city, Magnum Force looks and feels like television: scrunched shots, dull camera work, sclerotic pacing. Not even Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score—the only first-rate thing about this movie—can breathe life into Post’s directing.

The acting is all TV-grade as well. The only thing that would keep this movie off TV is its extremely lurid treatment of sex and violence.

In good dramatic conflict, the outcome is determined by the characters of the antagonists. Action is revelatory of character. Events have a deeper meaning. But during the climactic battle with the vigilantes in Magnum Force, one of them . . . dies in an accident.

The allegedly clever line that Harry repeats is, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which is a far cry from, “Do you feel lucky?” and completes Milius’ transformation of the hero of Dirty Harry into a smug old fart.

Three years later, Dirty Harry returns in The Enforcer. A mostly white group of hippy criminals has stolen military weapons and explosives from what is apparently a private warehouse guarded by a single geezer. They style themselves People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and try to extort money from the city by planting bombs and kidnapping the mayor.

Harry is paired with a female rookie (Tyne Daly), because the mayor wants to court feminists and good press. She tries hard to be a good cop. She also tries to seduce Harry. But her lack of experience gets her killed while rescuing the mayor. Thus The Enforcer actually amounts to a powerful critique of affirmative action and the political flakes who push it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

The Enforcer is directed by James Fargo, who like Ted Post captures the Bay Area’s spectacular scenery, as well as lurid sex and bloody violence, with all the cinematic sweep and dynamism of an episode of The Golden Girls. Harry’s pursuit of the criminals takes him to a whorehouse and onto the set of a porno movie. The killings are extra bloody and lurid. There are plenty of chases to a very routine jazz fusion score by Jerry Fielding.

 

Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, is a classic of Right-wing cinema. Dirty Harry was hugely popular with moviegoers, spawning four sequels and a whole genre of films about tough cops whose hands are tied by the system and are forced to go outside the law in order to protect the public.

Dirty Harry articulated the growing reaction to the racial unrest, hippy degeneracy, and liberal mush of the 1960s, which led to skyrocketing crime in American cities and white flight to the suburbs. Liberalism holds that society can be ruled by impersonal laws, not men. Thus any film giving a favorable view of vigilantism—in which laws break down and individuals take justice into their own hands—is anti-liberal.

Dirty Harry was seen as a reactionary film at the time. Paul Newman declined the title role because he thought it too Right-wing. Feminists protested outside the Academy Awards with a banner reading “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig.” Thus I found it surprising that Dirty Harry was viewed favorably by leading critics, most of whom were liberals and Leftists, and has since been included in many “Best” lists, including the New York Times’ top 1000, Empire magazine’s top 500, Total Film’s top 100, and TV Guide’s and Vanity Fair’s top 50.

I can’t include Dirty Harry in any of my best lists, but it is still a remarkably good film, with compelling lead characters, a gripping plot, and a tight script. Filmed on locations in and around San Francisco, with creepily effective music by Lalo Schifrin, Dirty Harry captures the beginning of the long, seedy cultural hangover of the ’60s, imbuing it, if not with a glamour, at least with a gloss, bad haircuts and all. Clint Eastwood as Harry Callanan and Andy Robinson as the loathsome villain Scorpio give excellent, compelling performances.

Harry Callahan is another one of Eastwood’s taciturn Aryan heroes, a physically imposing and highly capable alpha male who becomes a protector of public order. Like most of Eastwood’s classics, the world of Dirty Harry is divided into sheep, the wolves who prey on them, and the sheepdogs who protect the flock, to borrow a scheme from American Sniper. However, despite their opposed roles, wolves and sheepdogs have more in common with each other than they do with sheep, and the flock starts bleating nervously when the dogs bare their fangs at the wolves.

Harry Callahan is 40ish. (Eastwood was 41 in 1971.) He is an Inspector for the San Francisco Police Department, a position of responsibility that requires intelligence. He is contemptuous of college boys, so he probably came up through the ranks. He is a widower. His wife was killed by a drunk driver. He does not appear to have children. His work is his life now. He probably also harbors a death wish, or at least an indifference to his own interests, which makes him more effective at doing his duties. Because Harry is more driven than other cops, he prefers to work alone. Partners tend to slow him down and get wounded or killed.

Callahan is called “Dirty” Harry because people trust him to do dirty jobs. He gets “the shit end of the stick.” Dirty work means actually confronting criminals. Sometimes you get dirt and blood on your hands. Sometimes you have to go outside the law to enforce the law. The clean jobs are reserved for the city government and police brass, whose biggest worries are lint and bad press. Their jobs are to demand results from their underlings then second-guess their every move. Dirty Harry is a populist hero because he is the stoic, competent white Atlas who carries the system on his shoulders but is also treated as deplorable and disposable by the elites.

Harry is also supposed to be a dirty because he is a hater: “Harry hates everybody: Limeys, micks, hebes, dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks.” To which Harry adds for the benefit of his new Mexican-American partner Chico Gonzalez (this movie is not exactly subtle), “Especially Spics.” Dirty Harry didn’t just pioneer the loose cannon cop genre, it also established the convention of pairing these white alpha males with non-white sidekicks. But a white alpha male mentoring another white man as a guardian of society would make Don Siegel hallucinate the sound marching feet. However, if Harry hates honkies, he can’t be a white racist. And if his name is Callahan, that makes him a self-hating Mick. In truth, Harry is merely what today we call politically incorrect.

Harry has more than just a touch of sadism, which is brought out in the movie’s most quoted scene. During his lunch break, Harry foils an armed bank robbery by three blacks, killing two with his .44 Magnum and wounding the third, whom he taunts:

I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you, punk?

When Harry repeats the same taunt almost word-for-word at the end of the movie, the effect is chilling. You glimpse a bitter, sadistic side of his character. You wonder how many times he has done this. He enjoys killing scum. Hence his preference for pistols that can decapitate and rifles that can stop elephants.

The plot of Dirty Harry is a standard neo-noir police thriller. Harry’s quarry is a serial killer, Scorpio (based on the Zodiac killer). Scorpio was so effectively brought to life by Andy Robinson that the actor received death-threats and had to change his phone number.

Scorpio is a Dostoyevskyian criminal Untermensch. He’s physically weak, unmasculine, and cowardly, palpably seething with resentment. He screams like a pig, blubbers like a child, and develops a severe limp after Harry stabs then shoots him in the leg.

Scorpio is attracted to weak victims: a young woman in a swimming pool, a couple of homosexuals, a ten-year-old black child, a Catholic priest, a teenage girl, an old man, a bus full of schoolchildren, a little boy fishing. He prefers to kill like a coward, shooting two victims with a sniper rifle, burying another alive.

Two scenes are especially repulsive. Scorpio has kidnapped, raped, and buried a teenage girl alive. She is running out of air. Harry tracks him to his lair and doesn’t wait for a warrant. He just kicks in the door. Pursuing Scorpio out onto the field of Kezar Stadium, Harry brings him down with a .44 shot to the leg, then stamps on the wound, demanding to know the girl’s location while Scorpio shrieks “I have rights. I have rights.” If you have any doubt about where a person falls of the F scale, just show him this scene.

Of course Scorpio is released because Harry didn’t follow proper procedure. His defense was that a girl was dying, so there really wasn’t time for a warrant and a genteel interrogation. But that doesn’t matter to the Jewish DA and the Berkeley Law Professor he consults. Scorpio had rights. Harry violated them. So all of society must be punished. When healthy people watch this scene, their blood boils.

Harry, of course, won’t let this drop. He begins to shadow Scorpio in his spare time, hoping to prevent him from killing again. Scorpio is repulsive with his long hair, gimp, and fruity hippy clothes, including a grotesque peace sign belt buckle. As he wanders around parks and playgrounds looking at small children, your blood will run cold.

 

David Lynch’s second feature film, The Elephant Man (1980), is one of his finest works. In many ways, The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most conventional “Hollywood” film. (Dune too is a “Hollywood” film, but a failed one.) The cast of The Elephant Man is quite distinguished, including John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, and Anne Bancroft. The film was produced by Mel Brooks, who left his name off so that people would not expect a comedy.

The Elephant Man was a commercial success and a critical hit. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also prompted the Academy to create a new award for makeup the next year. The Elephant Man won the British Academy Film Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Hurt), and Production Design, as well as the French César Award for Best Foreign Film. It is routinely included in critics’ “best” lists.

Although The Elephant Man is about a hideously deformed sideshow freak, Lynch’s treatment is sentimental and compassionate, not lurid and exploitative. Indeed, The Elephant Man is wholesome, heartwarming, and quite explicitly Christian, which is surprising given that Lynch, being a longtime devotee of Transcendental Meditation, is more Hindu than Christian.

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Yet The Elephant Man is unmistakably the work of the director of Eraserhead. It is exquisitely shot in black and white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who later worked on The Straight Story. The Elephant Man also features Lynch’s trademark surreal montages, low-tech special effects, and meticulous sound design, created with his longtime collaborator Alan Splet. Like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man treats technology as an almost demonic force and depicts urban life as hellish and alienating. Finally, the grotesque subject matter and sentimental manner of treating it are also quite Lynchian.

The story of The Elephant Man can be summarized quite briefly. Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film) was born in England in 1862. By the age of five, he began developing abnormally and became shockingly deformed, probably due to Proteus Syndrome. Merrick’s skull became massively enlarged and distorted. His right arm became enlarged and useless, but his other arm was normal. His spine was alarmingly twisted, affecting his gait. His body was covered with wart-like growths. He also had difficulty breathing. His head was so massive that he had to sleep sitting up. If he slept normally, he would have been asphyxiated.

Unable to work, Merrick began to exhibit himself as a sideshow freak, which provided a precarious living due to police bans and dishonest carnies. In 1883, a surgeon named Frederick Treves discovered Merrick and exhibited him at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London. Merrick and Treves developed a friendship. Merrick’s plight became a cause célèbre of British high society. Championed by Queen Victoria herself, Merrick was given a permanent home at London Hospital, where he died at the age of twenty-seven. Lynch’s film takes some liberties with the story but conveys the essence.

The opening montage of The Elephant Man is pure Eraserhead. Like the opening of Eraserhead, it is an allegory of a monstrous birth. We begin with the eyes of a woman in a Victorian photograph. Later we learn this is John Merrick’s mother. We hear an ominous mechanical humming. Then we see elephants, the mother’s face overlaid. The elephants freeze then approach. We hear their lowing and trumpeting. We see a woman thrown to the ground and writhing in slow motion terror, to increasingly distorted sounds. (In Lost Highway, Lynch films the transformation of Fred Madison into Pete Dayton in a similar way.) Then we see white smoke rising against a dark backdrop. A baby cries. The sequence is based on the side-show origin myth of the Elephant Man, premised on the idea that a child’s development can be shaped by maternal experiences.

Next we see a Victorian circus. The camera focuses on a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat. This is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves. Although Treves looks like the embodiment of Victorian propriety, he enters the sideshow through an exit door marked No Admittance. This transgressive gesture is repeated a few seconds later. We catch glimpses of standard freaks, such as a bearded lady. Then we meet a horrified woman being comforted by a gentleman. Treves plunges into the darkness from which they emerged.

Treves’ destination is the Elephant Man exhibit. When arrives, however, the curtain is closed. The police are shutting the exhibit down for being degrading and “monstrous.” The “proprietor,” Mr. Bytes, is a fictional composite of the carneys with whom the real Merrick worked. Brilliantly played by Freddie Jones—who was Thufir Hawat in Dune and had a cameo in Wild at Heart—Bytes is a seedy drunkard and sadist.

Treves is determined to see the Elephant Man and eventually tracks Bytes down for a private showing. In Blue Velvet, Sandy is not sure if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert. Likewise, in The Elephant Man, we are led to wonder if Treves is a doctor or a pervert. Bytes has Treves pegged as a pervert—a fellow pervert—and leeringly intimates that they share a common secret. Later Bytes speaks to Treves practically like a pimp: “I move in the proper circles, for this type of thing . . . In fact, anything at all, if you take my meaning.”

But when Treves finally sees the Elephant Man, he does not view him with a doctor’s objective curiosity, or a pervert’s salacious leer. His face registers utter shock. Then a solitary tear appears in his eye.

Treves is still, however, a man of science—and a man of some ambition. Thus he arranges to exhibit Merrick to the Pathological Society of London.

Later, after Merrick has been severely beaten by Bytes, Treves admits him to the London Hospital. Initially, he is placed in an isolation ward near the clock tower, Lynch’s gentle homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

At this point, we are thirty minutes into the film and still have not yet seen Merrick’s face. Lynch handles this slow reveal masterfully, and once we see Merrick, it takes a while before we see him up close. By taking his time, not only does Lynch build suspense, but he also fully humanizes the character before revealing the full horror of his appearance. Also, it should be noted that Hurt’s Elephant Man costume and makeup are not as grotesque as the real Joseph Merrick.

Up to this point, Merrick has said nothing either. Treves has assumed he is an imbecile. But this is not true. Eventually, he gets Merrick to speak.

Merrick’s presence is opposed by Francis Carr Gomm—the Governor of the hospital warmly portrayed by Sir John Gielgud—on the grounds that the hospital does not admit incurables. Nevertheless, Carr Gomm wishes to meet Merrick, and Treves believes that if the interview goes well, Merrick might be allowed to stay. But the conversation is quite awkward, and when Merrick repeats the same phrases in contexts where they make no sense, Carr Gomm thinks he is an imbecile who has been coached.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood, Movies 

I am inaugurating a series on Classics of Right-Wing Cinema with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. For the purposes of this series, what makes a film “Right-wing” is its subject matter, its message, or simply how it resonates with people on the Right, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent. Please feel free to nominate films for this series in the comments below.

It began with Dylann Roof. Since then, the Molotov cocktail of autism, inceldom (involuntary celibacy), gallantry, vengeance, and mass murder has exploded with such regularity that I keep dusting off a boilerplate article to condemn it whenever the perpetrators are connected with White Nationalism. But even with Roof’s case, I felt that I had seen this all before. Then I remembered where: Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver is Martin Scorsese’s breakout film and remains one of his greatest achievements, alongside Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York. Taxi Driver is an unforgettable portrait of Travis Bickle, an alienated loner in an urban hellscape who decides to die in a hail of bullets and thus seeks out opportunities to dispense vigilante justice. Despite his best efforts, however, Travis accidentally survives and is hailed as a hero for rescuing a child prostitute from a pimp.

Any movie involving vigilantism is inherently anti-liberal, which makes it objectively Right-wing, regardless of the vigilante’s or the director’s intentions. Liberalism is the idea that we can be governed by laws, not men. Vigilantism takes place when the legal system breaks down and citizens feel the need to take action themselves. But Taxi Driver is even more Right-wing today because this is the age of the Alt-Right and incel spree killer.

Taxi Driver fuses urban grittiness and emotional power with daring avant-garde cinematic techniques. Even though it was made on a shoestring budget, everything about this film is first-rate: the script by Paul Schrader (who went on to write and direct Mishima); the performances, especially Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute; the cinematography of Michael Chapman; and the lyrical but also menacing musical score by Bernard Herrmann (his last, before dying of a heart-attack, aged sixty-four).

Taxi Driver was a commercial and critical success. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1976, as well as many other nominations and awards. Taxi Driver is also regularly featured on critics’ “best” lists.

So who is Travis Bickle? Travis Bickle is a twenty-six-year-old honorably discharged Marine from someplace where they wear cowboy clothes. He has drifted away from home and family to New York City at its low-point in the sleazy seventies: corrupt, crime-ridden, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and swarming with rats, junkies, pimps, hookers, and other vermin. Taxi Driver was shot during the heatwave of 1975. You can practically feel it. There was a sanitation strike. You can practically smell it.

Travis suffers from insomnia. And we know from Fight Club how crazy lack of sleep can make you. His insomnia might have something to do with his diet of junk food and steady consumption of alcohol from paper bags and flasks. He also pops pills from prescription bottles. We don’t know if they are uppers, downers, or anti-psychotics.

To while away his sleepless nights, Travis has been hanging out at porn theaters and all-night diners, but at the beginning of the film, he takes a job driving a cab. He is looking for long, exhausting, draining hours, so he can finally sleep.

Travis is also desperately lonely: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. . . . I’m God’s lonely man.” He tries to connect with his fellow cabbies. But, being on the night-shift, they are almost as weird and asocial as he is.

One day, Travis becomes infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine, who is running in his party’s presidential primary. (His party is not stated, but he’s clearly supposed to be a Democrat.) Betsy is beautiful. Travis believes she is lonely too. After watching her for a while, he walks into the office and asks her on a date. Betsy accepts. Travis is strange, but he’s not bad-looking and has an off-kilter charisma.

Travis blows it on their second date, however, when he takes her to a pornographic movie. It is painfully awkward. After that, he is reduced to increasingly desperate stalking behavior. He is convinced that Betsy needs saving from her lonely, hellish existence, and he becomes increasingly indignant that she does not want to be saved.

The choice to take Betsy to a dirty movie makes it abundantly clear that Travis has issues. It is not socially appropriate.

Travis spends too much time alone. He broods and ruminates. He tells Wizard, one of his fellow drivers played by Peter Boyle, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Travis does not, however, come off as delusional. Instead, he is angry at the sleaze and injustice that surround him: “All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” He becomes increasingly vengeful. He starts thinking that maybe he will be that rain, a hard rain.

One wonders, though, why Travis continues to subject himself to this world. Not every city is as dystopian as New York. He could also focus on better neighborhoods and better fares. But he doesn’t. The truth is that Travis is a glutton for punishment. He has a masochistic, self-defeating personality.

Travis does not fantasize about making the world a better place for himself. He doesn’t feel he has a future. Instead, he fantasizes about dying honorably. He is what I call an “honorable defeatist.” He feels doomed to failure, so to salvage some sense of agency and worth, he wants to take control of the process and destroy himself over a matter of principle.

When I first saw Taxi Driver, I assumed Travis suffered from post-traumatic stress from his time in the Marines. Perhaps he saw action in Vietnam. But there is no mention of serving in Vietnam. There are no flashbacks. Also, Travis lies to his parents and then to Iris, saying he is doing secret work for the government. Maybe he was lying about the Marines too.

Today, I look at Travis and see someone on the autism spectrum who is also an incel. He does not present as a schizophrenic, like John Hinckley, Jr., who was inspired by Taxi Driver to shoot President Reagan, or like mass shooters Jared Loughner and James Holmes. Instead, he seems a lot like Dylann Roof, Patrick Crusius, Brenton Tarrant, and John Earnest: all ideologically motivated honorable defeatists.

 

Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) is one of his finest works. Fanny and Alexander runs 312 minutes—more than five hours. Bergman cut it down to a 188-minute version for theatrical release. The full version was shown as a miniseries on Swedish television but was also released in theaters, making it one of the longest theatrical films in history.

Fanny and Alexander was Bergman’s most popular film. It was also highly praised by critics, winning four Academy awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, and three Guldbagge Awards from the Swedish Film Institute, including Best Film.

Bergmann originally intended Fanny and Alexander to be his cinematic swan song, thus he made it a summation of his life and work. The story is semi-autobiographical and reprises many of the themes explored in his other films. The end is a life-affirming benediction, a triumph over darkness.

Fanny and Alexander feels like an adaptation of one of those sprawling nineteenth-century novels that you’ve never read, but it was entirely Bergman’s work. The film is set in Uppsala, Sweden in 1907–1909. It depicts haute bourgeois life at the very peak of European civilization before the explosion of the Great War.

This is the story of the fabulously wealthy Ekdahl family, headed by the widowed grandmother Helena, a former actress. Helena speaks about how she loved to act, but her greatest happiness was playing the role of a mother, a role she continues to play as she looks out for her three grown sons, their wives, and a growing brood of grandchildren. The Ekdahls are a very close family. They live in vast and sumptuous apartments occupying two floors of the same building, as well as sharing a Swedish country house and a retreat in Provence.

The film begins and ends with lavish celebrations—a Christmas and a christening—that illustrate the customs, manners, and fashions of the time as well as the Ekdahls’ unconventional ethos. These sequences are visually dazzling, captured in blazing color. It is pure decorator porn from a director usually associated with austere settings captured in stark black and white.

The prologue and first act take place on the day before Christmas and Christmas morning of 1907. First, the family attends (and some of them act in) a Christmas pageant at a theater they own. Then there is Christmas dinner—which in Sweden takes place on Christmas Eve—followed the next morning by the family setting off in horse-drawn sleighs for an early Christmas service at the cathedral.

The Christmas sequence introduces most of the major characters and a host of minor ones, all beautifully realized. Helena presides benignly over the festivities but fears the passage of time is carrying her from her beautiful life into the “dirty life” of decrepitude and death.

Helena has three sons. The eldest, Oscar, is a sickly, quiet, and introverted actor and the manager of the family theater who is married to the tall and radiant blonde, Emilie, also an actress, who is the mother of their two children, Fanny and Alexander Carl, the middle son, is a professor. He is a mediocrity and a depressive. He’s also a tactless boor, drunkard, and gambler in an unhappy and childless marriage with a German woman, Lydia, whom he abuses. The youngest son, Gustav Adolf, is an ebullient restauranter married to Alma, the mother of his three children who good-naturedly encourages him in his extra-marital affairs.

Alexander is a wide-eyed boy of ten with a vivid imagination. Although he might not be imagining things when he sees ghosts. Fanny is his shy and quiet eight-year-old sister. Maj is their nursemaid and the object of Gustav Adolf’s current adulterous designs. Isak Jacobi, a Jewish antique dealer and moneylender, is an old family friend and former lover of Helena.

The Ekdahls are all highly intelligent and sensitive. With the exception of Carl, they have exquisite manners and tastes. But although they are pillars of the community and uphold most of the social forms, they are also quite unconventional.

When Gustav Adolf puts on a Christmas reception for the cast and crew of the family theater, he tells the waiters in his restaurant to not display the slightest snobbery. When the family sits down to Christmas dinner, they eat in the kitchen sharing a huge table with the family servants—which makes some of the older servants uncomfortable. These gestures are attempts at aristocratic magnanimity, which seeks to lessen the pains of social hierarchy to those on the lower rungs.

Then there is the matter of extra-marital affairs. Helena, Emilie, and Gustav Adolf are all philanderers, all apparently with the knowledge and the approval—or at least the acquiescence—of their spouses. Helena, Emilie, and Oscar are all theater people, so perhaps such bohemian morals come with the territory. It is, however, rather unrealistic to suggest that the Ekdahls never get burned while playing with the heart’s fire. Helena is also something of a feminist, dismissing Strindberg as “that nasty misogynist.”

Finally, the close friendship with Isak Jacobi strikes me as unconventional for the time. He is literally at every family function. Yes, they live close to one another. Yes, Isak and the Ekdahls are both in business. Isak’s nephew Aron is even in the theater business as a puppet maker. But would this really be enough to overcome the religious and social divides?

The first version of the script—which is very different from the final film—may throw some light on the connection, for Helena Ekdahl’s maiden name is given as Mandelbaum, a very Jewish name. This throws light on an odd conversation at the very beginning of the movie, when Helena’s maid Ester remarks on how odd it is that they have celebrated 43 Christmases together. Of course it would be odd if Helena had been born a Jew.

Ester, too, is a very Jewish name, but Ester worked as a Christian missionary in China, and, in the first version of the script is said to have warned Alexander that Isak kidnaps gentile children and drinks their blood.

However, if Bergman’s original intent was to make Helena Jewish, it seems unfulfilled, since there’s nothing particularly Jewish about how Helena is portrayed by the acclaimed Swedish actress Gunn Wållgren.

If any single word describes the Ekdahls, it is “pagan.” Although their Christmas celebrations are bookended by a nativity pageant and a church service, everything between is pure pagan revelry and carousing, without a wink of sleep.

Although the Ekdahls are fully aware of the dark and tragic dimensions of life, they flee those terrors by building up the ramparts of what both Oscar and Gustav Adolf call the “little world,” the hermetic microcosm, one of the first touches of the esoteric and paranormal that appear throughout film.

When Oscar makes a speech in the theater, he uses “little world” to refer to the theater. When Gustav Adolf uses the phrase at the end of the movie, the meaning is more expansive. The “little world” is the artificial world of beauty and culture that the Ekdahls inhabit with such zest. It is the human realm of meaning that we build to protect ourselves from the chaos and terrors of nature. The theater is thus a microcosm of the microcosm.

On this reading, the theater is not just a symbol and site for fakery, loose morals, and cultural decadence. On a deeper level, the theater is a symbol of the creation of culture in the first place.

The Ekdahls do not lack a feeling for the holy, but when Emilie describes her conception of God, it is a force that lies beyond good and evil and manifests itself in an infinite array of masks. Thus the world-whole in all of its manifestations, good and evil, is sacred. This is an essentially pagan conception of divinity.

 

Since my pre-review based on the first trailer of Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated and much-postponed Dune got a good discussion going, I decided to do the same with the equally-hyped, equally-postponed Bond movie No Time to Die.

Everybody has a time to die, including James Bond. Bond has cheated death countless times, but this time his number may be up. If so, the death certificate will list COVID-19.

No Time to Die, the twenty-fifth Bond film from Eon productions, stars Daniel Craig in his fifth and final outing as Bond. No Time to Die was supposed to have been directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) who was to share script-writing duty with his Trainspotting collaborator John Hodge. I thought this was a fantastic team. But they left the film because of creative differences.

Boyle was replaced by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the half-white, half-Japanese American director of the first season of True Detective. The script is by Fukunaga with Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was brought in to add wokeness, which does not bode well.

The cast brings back Christoph Walz, Ralph Fiennes, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and Naomi Harris to reprise their roles from past films. Rami Malek plays the villain Safin, which is an inspired bit of casting.

But there are bad portents in the music department. Fukunaga associate Dan Romer left while scoring the film over creative differences and was replaced by Hans Zimmer, who has done a large number of undistinguished but workmanlike scores. Billie Eilish’s theme song is one of the worst Bond songs ever, and there’s stiff competition. These lapses of taste alone do not bode well for the film.

No Time to Die was filmed from April to October 2019 in Italy, Jamaica, Norway, the UK, and the Faroe Islands at the cost of $250 million. The release was scheduled for April 2020 but because of COVID-19 was postponed twice, first to November of 2020, then to April 2021.

That’s a very long time to wait to recoup such a huge investment, and if further delays are necessary, the financial burdens will only mount. This could very well be the first straight-to-video Bond movie, which financially would be a very far cry from the box office receipts of Skyfall ($1.111 billion) and Spectre ($879.6 million).

A commercial flop won’t necessarily kill the Bond franchise, but it could put it on extended hiatus, as well as dry up potential talent and funding. It might be the final straw for Eon Productions, led by half-siblings Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, who might just pull a George Lucas and sell the franchise to one of the studio conglomerates. We know how well that worked out for Star Wars, which Disney ruined with cynical, formulaic remakes and obnoxious ultra-Left propaganda.

Of course, Eon Productions has its own history of cynical remakes and Leftist propaganda, and, judging from the two trailers for No Time to Die, and other publicity materials, Bond’s death certificate may list political correctness as a co-morbidity.

In July of 2019, the world learned from alleged “leaks” and “inside sources” that No Time to Die would feature a black, female 007 played by Lashana Lynch. This was simply a cheap, calculated, and dishonest publicity stunt designed to mislead readers who initially thought that the character of James Bond had been turned into a black woman played by Lashana Lynch (no relation). But the merest glance below the headlines indicates that, no, Bond is still a white man, but at the beginning of No Time to Die, Bond has retired from MI6 so his number 007 had been assigned to a black woman.

If Eon wants to generate even more buzz about this film, perhaps they will reveal that Bond’s office has been reassigned to a gay Chinaman and his parking space has been reassigned to a crippled lesbian.

This kind of cynical and dishonest publicity has been a feature of the Bond franchise for decades. For instance, it is often claimed that the new Bond girl will be a strong, independent woman—unlike all the rest. Of course, every Bond girl from the start has been strong and independent. The Bond franchise is also notorious for sex and race replacement, casting Judy Dench as M who dressed down Pierce Brosnan’s Bond as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” Eon has also blacked up the recurring characters of Felix Leiter and Miss Moneypenny, and every few years, they float the rumor that a black male James Bond is in the offing.

Hilariously enough, though, Lashana Lynch made the rounds in the media taking the farce with deadly seriousness. She pretended that having the number 007 is a great achievement for someone black and female (and trans, by the look of her), as if her character were more than just an empty collection of PC “firsts” which she was qualified to play for reasons other than being a black trans woman. Lynch vows, moreover, to play the role authentically, the comic potential of which was explored in countless racist “Ms. Bond” memes.

This pushback was completely predictable, for Eon’s stunt was not just calculated to mislead but also to offend. White people are increasingly sick of the Great Replacement, both on the silver screen and in the real world. So Eon basically dared racist web wags to go after Lashana Lynch.

They were probably hoping to replicate the troll storm that greeted another black trans woman, Lesie Jones, when she was cast in the 2016 SJW remake of Ghostbusters, a campaign that led to Milo Yiannopoulos being permanently banned from Twitter. This was, of course, great publicity for Ghostbusters, since it promoted black, feminist, and SJW solidarity against evil racists and anti-feminists. It wasn’t enough to prevent Ghostbusters from bombing, however.

If Eon’s publicity agents are worth their salt, they were trying to provoke the same reaction. Who knows, maybe they created the prototypes for the Ms. Bond memes.

Since No Time to Die did not appear in November due to the second wave of COVID-19, Eon has decided to generate a little buzz by trotting out the Lashana Lynch stunt again, this time focusing on how bravely she endured the pushback from “toxic” and “racist” Bond fans who were scandalized by the idea of her having Bond’s old number. She even had to take a break from social media for a whole week, poor dear. Of course, not one in a hundred people is dumb enough to care about Bond’s number. What offended them was the tiresomeness of the Great Replacement, the fraudulence of this particular stunt, the emptiness of Lynch’s historic “achievement,” and how seriously she seemed to be taking it.

The whole thing smacks of desperation. Is this the best case they can make for this film?

Now let’s look at the trailers and see what they reveal.

The first trailer was released December 4, 2019.

Lashana Lynch is disturbingly prominent. She’s dark black, sweaty-looking, ugly, arrogant, and threatens to shoot Bond. In all fairness, though, she’s not nearly as scary-looking as Grace Jones. When Bond returns to MI6 headquarters, his name is not recognized by the black fellow at the desk. Then we see Bond flanked by Lynch’s 007 and Miss Moneypenny, both black. “The world’s moved on,” says Lynch is a voiceover, and that means the Great Replacement. It is that disgustingly blatant. And the reaction of many white normies has been visceral rejection.

 

Withnail & I (1987) is a masterpiece of British dark-comic satire written and directed by actor, novelist, and screenwriter Bruce Robinson, who went on to write and direct How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), another strong film in a similar vein. His career seems to have petered out, though, after a couple of flops, Jennifer 8 (1992) and The Rum Diary (2011).

Richard E. Grant made his film debut playing Withnail. (He was also the lead in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.) Paul McGann played Marwood, the “I” in the title. Richard Griffiths played Withnail’s uncle Monty. Ralph Brown played the drug-dealer/stoner Danny. The film also has lovely original music by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth and makes memorable use of a couple of songs by Jimi Hendrix.

Withnail & I was tastefully produced on a modest budget and became a commercial and critical success, routinely included in various critics’ “best of” lists, launching both Robinson’s and Grant’s careers, and influencing many other writers and directors. But don’t let that discourage you: Withnail & I is genuinely good.

Withnail & I takes place in London and the Lake Country of northern England in September of 1969. Withnail and Marwood are two drunken, drug-addicted, unemployed actors living in a filthy and freezing apartment in London’s Camden Town.

The movie opens as they are coming down from a sixty-hour speed trip. Marwood puts a kettle on the stove, then forgets about it, wandering off to a greasy spoon for some breakfast. But he is too paranoid and frazzled to function, so he retreats home, where he bickers with Withnail, then ends up spooning coffee from a bowl as Withnail rants about the cold, his career, and his need for a drink. In desperation, Withnail downs lighter fluid then vomits on Marwood’s shoes. Then they go out to a pub, where they order gin and ciders. This is still morning, mind you. Yes, alcoholism and drug addiction “aren’t funny,” but Withnail and Marwood are totally hilarious.

Marwood really needs a break, a reset. Like many city people, he has a romantic image of the countryside but little experience of it. He persuades Withnail to ask his rich uncle Monty for the key to his cottage in the Lake Country. So Withnail and Marwood go off to Monty’s luxurious house in Chelsea for drinks and dinner.

Monty, brilliantly played by Richard Griffiths, is a hugely fat, middle-aged eccentric. (He decorates with potted vegetables rather than flowers, flowers being “the tarts of the vegetable kingdom.”) Educated at Eton and Oxford, he is an upper middle-class aesthete, gourmand, and homosexual. After an enormous amount of alcohol and a couple of whispered confidences, Withnail extracts the key from Monty.

When Withnail and Marwood arrive at Monty’s cottage, it is not what they expected: no electricity, no running water, no fridge full of food. Withnail is perpetually drunk and helpless, always whining and complaining. But Marwood rises to the occasion. He proves to be down-to-earth, capable, and responsible, securing food and firewood.

As they wander the green hills to lovely pastoral music and encounter a gallery of colorful rural types—a farmer, a poacher, an old drunk—you sense something awakening in Marwood. Withnail, however, remains entirely self-absorbed, wrapped up in his insecurities, ambitions, and the quest for his next drink. “We want the finest wines known to humanity,” he shouts in the Penrith tearoom. “We want them here, and we want them now!”

After a couple days, uncle Monty shows up in his majestic Rolls Royce, heaped with hampers full of gourmet food and wine. Withnail rejoices at the food and especially the wine. But Marwood finds it an extremely uncomfortable experience, for Monty has somehow gotten the idea that Marwood is sexually interested in him. (It is never made clear if Marwood and Withnail are homosexuals or not.)

After an excruciatingly embarrassing attempt at seduction, the truth comes out. Withnail told Monty that Marwood was a closeted homosexual, a “toilet trader” no less. He also apparently led Monty to believe that there was mutual interest. Why? Simply to secure the cottage for a week. It is a cruel, irresponsible trick on both Marwood and Monty. Monty, however, is not a bad man. He has a sense of shame, which is deeply stirred.

Monty is an unmarried man past middle age at a crossroads faced by straight and gay alike: Does he pursue people young enough to be his children, inevitably playing and looking the fool, or does he magnanimously retire from the scene and instead devote himself to fostering the happiness of the next generation? He chooses the latter.

The next morning, Monty is gone, leaving an exquisitely sensitive note of apology. Withnail, being a sociopath, is unmoved by Monty’s plight but delighted that he left his supply of food and drink. Marwood, however, is outraged, both for Monty and for himself.

Marwood insists on rushing back to London. He has been offered a part in a play in Manchester. He ends up with the lead. When they return home, they find their drug dealer, Danny, and a “huge spade” named Presuming Ed squatting in their apartment. The contrast to the countryside could not be more striking. It is a revolting situation.

As Danny rolls a huge joint and passes it around, he discourses hilariously about the historical moment:

If you are holding onto a rising balloon you are presented with a difficult political decision—let go while you’ve still got the chance or hold onto the rope and continue getting higher. That’s politics man. We are at the end of an age. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s. It is ninety-one days to the end of the decade, and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.

When they find an eviction notice, Marwood freaks out while Withnail can’t stop laughing. Clearly this living arrangement has no future.

The next morning, Marwood is packing up his stuff. His hippy shag has been replaced with a short haircut. He looks handsome, well-groomed, healthy, and purposeful. Withnail is his typical shambling wreck of a self. It’s morning, so naturally, he wants to get drunk. Given a choice between a drink and catching his train—a drink or his future—Marwood chooses life.

Withnail walks with him to the station through Regent’s Park in the rain, drinking, until Marwood tells him that he will miss him but not to follow him to the station. This is where their ways must part. Withnail then drunkenly launches into Hamlet’s soliloquy on “What a piece of work is man” to an audience of wolves in the zoo. The end.

Withnail & I comes off as a somewhat random sequence of amusing events. I have left out quite a few of them, so if you haven’t seen it, there will be plenty of surprises. However, the movie hangs together as a story because the events reveal the characters of Withnail and Marwood (as well as Monty), and their characters ultimately determine their destinies.

Both Withnail and Marwood are drunkards, addicts, and actors. But even though you do not see them, you know that they will have very different fates.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Britain, Comedy, Movies 

David Lynch’s 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is his prequel to the Twin Peaks series, which ran on ABC from 1990 to 1991. Fire Walk with Me was a flop with critics and moviegoers, except in Japan. This is unjust, because Fire Walk with Me is a very fine movie. I won’t say it is Lynch’s best work. That praise belongs to Blue Velvet alone. But the music to Fire Walk with Me is composer Angelo Badalamenti’s best work ever.

Like many Lynch fans, I was slow to warm to Fire Walk with Me. I never thought it was a bad movie, just an unpleasant one. I missed it in theaters when it was released in 1992 and saw it only on VHS. I bought the DVD, but I don’t think I ever watched it. Then I bought the Blu-ray, which I never watched until after I finally saw the film on the big screen in a film festival. Then it hit me: Fire Walk with Me belongs in a special category of films like Vertigo and Grave of the Fireflies: dark films that are so well-done that it is hard to enjoy them.

I have trouble ranking David Lynch’s work. Blue Velvet is easy to place at the top, Inland Empire at the bottom. But between them, there are only two categories: the mixed, including Dune, Lynch’s Twin Peaks episodes, and Twin Peaks: The Return—and the excellent, which includes everything else Lynch did, including the Twin Peaks pilot and Fire Walk with Me.

There are several reasons why Fire Walk with Me flopped.

First, it wasn’t as light as Twin Peaks. It lacked the quirky characters and offbeat humor of the series. Kyle MacLaughlin and Peggy Lipton both felt this way about the film. So did the critics. So did the viewers. There are two reasons for this effect, one deliberate, one accidental.

The first thirty-three minutes of Fire Walk with Me are set a year before the Twin Peaks pilot in the town of Deer Meadow. Then the movie jumps ahead one year to the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life.

Lynch conceived Deer Meadow as the anti-Twin Peaks: the people are ugly and unfriendly, the town is cheap and seedy, and the coffee sucks. Hap’s Diner is no RR: the manager is old and unpleasant, the waitress is old and unsavory, and there aren’t any specials. The sheriff, his deputy, and his receptionist are polar opposites of their lovable equivalents in Twin Peaks.

FBI agent Chet Desmond is dispatched to Deer Meadow to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks. Chris Isaak is excellent as Desmond. He is a wholesome-looking, all-American type like MacLaughlin’s Dale Cooper. But Desmond is smug and condescending to his assistant, Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and metes out brutal but well-deserved violence to the sheriff (in a deleted scene) and his deputy. (Stanley, however, is a nice guy, which is a pleasant inversion of Cooper’s assistant, Albert Rosenfeld.)

I found the whole sequence extremely droll, especially Harry Dean Stanton as Carl Rodd and Sandra Kinder as Irene the waitress (best line: “It’s what you call a freak accident.”). But apparently others found it off-putting.

Once the setting switched to Twin Peaks, Lynch filmed a number of scenes with favorite characters from the series: Ed and Norma, Lucy and Andy, Truman and Hawk, Pete Martell and Josie, etc. But he had to drop them due to the running time. (The extended and deleted scenes are available on the Blu-ray releases.)

This brings us to the second reason Fire Walk with Me failed. Once Lynch dropped the light moments from the final cut, naturally what remained was quite dark. The series worked because the darkness cast by the murder of Laura Palmer was offset by the lighter characters and subplots. When the Palmer murder was solved, the series became silly and flopped. Fire Walk with Me suffers from the opposite malady: unremitting darkness.

Not only did Lynch drop the lighter elements of the series, he also put on screen what existed only in the backstory of the series: incest, rape, and finally the murder of Laura Palmer. Fire Walk with Me really belongs in the genre of horror, both supernatural and psychological horror, undiluted with the camp elements of slasher flicks. It was just hard for a lot of people to take. This is the view of Al Stroebel, who played the One-Armed Man. People were not prepared for the darkness.

Another reason for the poor reception of Fire Walk with Me is the Christian religiosity of the film. Laura Palmer speaks of being abandoned by a guardian angel, falling through endless space, and bursting into fire. In her bedroom, there is an illustration of children with a guardian angel. Laura looks on in horror as the angel disappears from the picture.

In the terrifying scene in the train car where Laura is murdered, Ronette Pulaski prays: “Father, if I die now, please see me. Don’t look at me. I’m so dirty. I’m not ready. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Then Ronette has a vision of an angel. Then her bonds become severed. The One-Armed Man bangs on the door of the train car to get in. Ronette tries to escape, is knocked unconscious, and falls from the train. But she survives.

When Laura is murdered we hear Cherubini’s Requiem. At the very end, Laura and Dale Cooper are in the red room/Black Lodge. Laura is seated. Cooper stands near her protectively, with a benign expression. Then Laura has a vision of an angel, a different angel than the one seen by Ronette. Laura cries but then through her tears begins to smile and laugh. It is a moment of catharsis, of redemption. Laura has died, but her soul was saved from the possession that turned her father into a monster. Again we hear Cherubini’s sublime music. The End.

Most movie critics are allergic to this sort of stuff. It may explain the boos and hisses when the film was screened in Cannes. (Robert Engel, the co-author of the script, denies it happened.)

A fourth element that some found off-putting is the relentless hermeticism of the movie: the blue rose, the mysterious ring, the room above the convenience store, the Red Room, the One-Armed Man, the Little Man from Far Away, Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont and her grandson, the Formica table, Judy, the monkey face, the disappearance of Chet Desmond and brief reappearance of Philip Jeffries (David Bowie), and, of course, the creamed corn. I find it fascinating and plan one day to tie it all together in a commentary, but for a lot of moviegoers, it was a bit much.

Finally, anyone who watched the series knew what was coming in the movie. People who don’t like spoilers couldn’t really look beyond that fact.

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But now that you know what you are getting into, I urge you to give Fire Walk with Me a chance. Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie, and Sheryl Lee give outstanding performances.

Three sequences are especially riveting.

First, there is Laura Palmer’s dream induced by the mysterious picture given to her by Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont. Lynch is one of cinema’s supreme masters of the dream sequence: more than half of Mulholland Drive is a dying woman’s dream. In Mulholland Drive, Lynch brilliantly constructs a wish-fulfillment dream that collapses in on itself, ultimately because reality is very different. In Fire Walk with Me, the dream’s logic is less psychological than metaphysical. It is revelatory. Laura is remembering and collating experiences, but there is something more: a message from outside her consciousness entirely. The false waking (Laura dreams she has awakened) is particularly effective.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood, Movies 

I feel like I grew up in Twin Peaks, the fictional Washington logging town that gave its name to David Lynch’s iconic TV series, which aired on ABC from the spring of 1990 to the spring of 1991. Twin Peaks has one of the best pilots in television history, which was followed by an abbreviated first season of seven episodes. A second season of twenty-two episodes was produced before the series was canceled.

Twin Peaks was a surprise smash hit and developed a fervent cult following. But few people seemed to really understand it at the time. Coastal urbanites thought Lynch was mocking wholesome hicks, when, in truth, in the character of Albert Rosenfeld—an arrogant Jewish urbanite from back East—he was mocking them.

Since its cancellation, Twin Peaks has receded behind a haze of nostalgia for cherry pie, damned fine coffee, cool jazz, and swaying pines, to the extent that few people seem to remember how painfully bad the series became not even halfway through its second and final season. When ABC axed the series, Lynch returned to direct the last episode, a 50-minute “fuck you” to the network, the critics, and unfortunately the fans as well.

Twin Peaks will always be David Lynch’s baby—and we know from Eraserhead how perilous parenthood can be. Although Lynch co-created Twin Peaks with Mark Frost and was one of fourteen directors who worked on the pilot and twenty-nine episodes, Twin Peaks is recognizably Lynch’s vision. This becomes clear when one compares it to the movies that came immediately before and after it: Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), projects where Lynch had complete creative control.

I read Twin Peaks as a sequel to Blue Velvet. Both are set in quaint, overwhelmingly white logging towns: Lumberton, North Carolina and Twin Peaks, Washington. Both towns are brimming with quirky Americana, much of it with an anachronistic 1950s flavor. The lead characters in both movies are played by Kyle MacLaughlin: Blue Velvet’s callow college-boy Jeffrey Beaumont and Twin Peaks’ FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.

Both stories are set in motion by a shocking crime that reveals evil forces beneath the idyllic surface of small-town life. Both movies involve (metaphorical and real) descents into the underworld, in which the hero encounters evil and vanquishes it—although not completely in Twin Peaks.

Both stories give prominent and positive roles to law enforcement in fighting evil: in Blue Velvet, the Lumberton police, in Twin Peaks the local sheriff’s office, plus the FBI, the US Airforce, and a secret society called the Book House Boys, who go outside the law when justice requires.

Both stories also involve young amateur sleuths: Jeffrey and Sandy in Blue Velvet, Donna Hayward, James Hurley, Madeleine Ferguson, and Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks.

In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey is mentored by Detective Williams, and after his successes as an amateur detective, it would be quite logical for him to go into law enforcement once he learned of the dark side of life and what is necessary to preserve order and goodness. Thus it is tempting to view FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper as what Jeffrey Beaumont might have become just a few years later.

Both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks have elements of the supernatural. In Blue Velvet, this is merely hinted at with the surging electricity that accompanies Frank Booth’s death. In Twin Peaks, it is quite explicit: killer Bob is a possessing demon. In both stories, evil is strongly connected to sexual desire and drugs, both highly addictive pleasures. (Caffeine and sugar are the addictions of the wholesome characters, while smoking straddles the line. It’s only a bit naughty.) In both stories, dreams are also prophetic, very much so in Twin Peaks. Finally, both stories make a great deal of mysteries and secrets: mostly criminal and sexual, but also supernatural.

Kyle MacLaughlin was not the only Blue Velvet cast member to appear in Twin Peaks. Jack Nance and Frances Bay also had roles, although in all fairness, Lynch liked working with them. (Nance also had roles in Eraserhead, Dune, Wild at Heart, and Fire Walk with Me; Bay was in Wild at Heart and Fire Walk with Me.) More significantly, Isabella Rosselini was originally going to play Joan Chen’s role of Josie Packard. (Her name was originally to be Giovanna Packard.)

Composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise first worked with Lynch on Blue Velvet and then went on to define the sound of Twin Peaks. It was their best work.

Many of Blue Velvet’s staff and crew also worked on Twin Peaks, but the only one who had a creative impact on Twin Peaks was video editor Duwayne Dunham, who also directed three episodes.

Lynch remains bitter to this day about his lack of final cut control on Dune. So why was he willing to take his ideas to network television? He had creative control of the pilot, but if the series were picked up, he could hardly have expected to control its subsequent development.

I think the connection with Blue Velvet throws some light on this. Lynch made Blue Velvet exactly as he wanted it. He made the Twin Peaks pilot exactly as he wanted it. Thus he could risk letting others make their mark, knowing that any subsequent developments could not change the originals.

What’s so great about Twin Peaks?

First, there is a compelling story that arcs through the pilot and the first sixteen episodes: discovering who killed Laura Palmer.

Second, this serious story is counter-balanced by warm-hearted Americana, quirky side characters, and some genuine hilarity: Audrey Horne’s cherry stem stunt, Mr. Tojamura, Leland Palmer calling out “Begin the Beguine,” any scene with David Patrick Kelly as Jerry Horne or Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Jacoby, and the fact that practically everyone smokes, even in the hospital.

Third, there are a lot of interesting, well-drawn characters, some of them horrible, some of them quite likeable. My favorites are Kyle MacLaughlin as Dale Cooper, Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Truman, Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings, Jack Nance as Pete Martell, Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell, Dana Sahbrook as Bobby Briggs, Don Davis as Major Garland Briggs, Warren Frost (father of Mark Frost) as Doc Hayward, and Catherine Coulson as the Log Lady.

Fourth, there is a great-looking cast, including Lara Flynn Boyle, Mädchen Amick, Sherilynn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Dana Ashbrook, Gary Hershberger, Kyle MacLaughlin, Michael Ontkean, and Billy Zane.

Fifth, there is some excellent acting, especially by Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) and Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer). Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Briggs is also surprisingly good, something I appreciated only on a recent viewing.

Finally, there is the series’ metaphysical depth. For Lynch, good and evil are not merely social or merely human. They are metaphysical forces. This is what the urbanites and Leftists cannot understand about Lynch: he is a fundamentally religious and conservative filmmaker with a strong populist bent.

What went wrong?

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood 

If movies can have previews, why can’t movie critics release “pre-reviews”? I ask because September 9th was the release date of the first trailer for the first half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune is one of the most-anticipated movies of 2020. Trailers can build up a lot of excitement for a film, but they are immediately forgotten when the movie actually appears. Yet due to COVID-19, there is a real chance that more people will see the movie’s trailer online than will see the actual film in theaters when it is released in December, and it may take months before the film is released on video and streaming services. Until that time, this and any subsequent trailers will eclipse the film itself.

Hence this little experiment. I want to prereview Dune based on the first trailer, plus other information gleaned from interviews and promotional materials. When (and if) you see the film, you can judge my prereview for prescience.

Any Dune adaptation is highly significant, because the novel is one of the great works of twentieth-century popular fiction, straddling both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. First published in 1965, Dune inspired legions of fans. Herbert wrote five sequels, and after his death his son Brian Herbert, together with Kevin J. Anderson, wrote more than a dozen Dune universe books, none of which I have read.

This movie is also significant because Dune has already inspired a series of screen adaptations. The first was by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which was highly influential even though it was never filmed. David Lynch’s 1984 Dune belongs in the category of great flawed films. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel did a four-and-a-half-hour, three-part Dune miniseries, which I thought was pretty bad, although its sequel, the Children of Dune miniseries (2003) is surprisingly good.

Dune also inspired screen homages and rip offs, most notably the vast Star Wars “franchise”—which is what the movie industry calls a “mythos.”

Beyond that, a Dune adaptation is politically important because, as I have argued in “Archaeofuturist Fiction: Frank Herbert’s Dune,” , Herbert’s vision is deeply reactionary, anti-modernist, and anti-liberal—and for quite compelling reasons.

Based on his movies Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve is a highly talented director of both science fiction and action films. Thus he was a good choice to direct Dune. But will Dune be a good movie? Will it be better than the Lynch or the Sci-Fi Channel’s versions? (Yes, the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation was inferior to Lynch, but it included plot elements omitted by Lynch but not by Villeneuve, so it is reasonable to compare the two.) Will Villeneuve’s film bear any relation to Jodorowsky’s Dune? This three minute, five second trailer contains many clues.

Perhaps the chief flaw of Lynch’s Dune are the clunky special effects. The Sci-Fi Channel version’s effects also look cheap. Based on the trailer and Villeneuve’s other science fiction efforts, this adaptation beats the rivals easily in this department. But this is largely due to advances in technology. The big question is whether Villeneuve’s use of the new technology be tasteful or vulgar. Based on the trailer, I can’t yet decide. Aside from the sandworms, most of the effects in the trailer are static images that give one a sense of the design of vessels. But the test of effects is how well they move.

Another flaw of Lynch’s Dune was a lack of grand landscape photography, especially on the watery world of Caladan and the desert planet of Arrakis. Lynch mostly used models without much context. Fortunately, the trailer shows us glimpses of dramatic vistas on both planets. Another flaw of Lynch’s Arrakis is that many of the scenes, even in the desert, are dark, gloomy, and ugly. Deserts are beautiful places, but you’d never know that from the Lynch film. Unfortunately, based on the new trailer, Villeneuve’s Arrakis is almost as dark and ugly as Lynch’s.

Villeneuve’s movie dramatizes the first half of the Dune novel. The setting is more than 20,000 years in the future. Mankind has colonized the entire galaxy. No other intelligent life forms have been found. Because of the great distances between planets and the high cost of space travel, the political order is feudal. Noble houses (Dukes, Counts, Barons) rule entire planets, all of them subordinated to the Padishah Emperor on far-off Kaitain.

In addition to the noble houses, the other major powers are secretive initiatic societies dedicated to the development of human capacities.

The Spacing Guild has developed higher mathematics and prescience to traverse space.

The Bene Tleilax brotherhood, who are Sufis, has developed mnemonics and to create “mentats” (human computers, because artificial intelligence is religiously prohibited), yogic superpowers that allow them to shift shapes, and genetic engineering techniques.

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood has developed skills in martial arts (the Weirding Way), memory sharing, hyper-observation and abductive reasoning, seduction and sex, religious and political deception, and eugenics.

Nobody knows what their ultimate goal is, but their proximal goal—which they are nearing—is breeding a superman, the Kwisatz Haderach (shortener of the way), a Janus-like figure who will be able to access all of his ancestors’ memories as well as presciently peer into the future.

The most valuable resource in the universe is the so-called spice mélange, harvested from the sands of Arrakis, also known as Dune. The spice extends life but also expands the mind, thus it is used by the Guild, Tleilaxu, and Bene Gesserit in all their schemes to transcend the human condition.

The plot of Dune centers on the struggle of two noble houses, the Atreides and the Harkonnen, for control of Arrakis. But this is no normal aristocratic feud, because the most precious resource in the universe is at stake, and one of the players, Paul Atreides, the fourteen-year-old heir to Arrakis, may well be the Kwisatz Haderach the sisterhood has been searching for.

In the trailer the two primary characters are Paul Atreides, (played by Timothée Chalamet) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), who has come to test Paul’s powers on the eve of the Atreides’ departure to take control of Arrakis. Their scene and bits of dialogue from it are intercut with flashes of events to come as the Atreides are attacked on Arrakis by the Harkonnen. Paul and his mother are forced to flee to the desert, where they take refuge with the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis.

I wasn’t thrilled when I heard that Chalamet was cast as Paul. He does not look as good as Lynch’s Kyle MacLachlan or the Sci-Fi Channel’s Alec Newman. He looks too delicate for the action sequences. But it is difficult to find an actor who can pass for a teenager and handle the role. Judging from the trailer, however, Chalamet has some steel in him. He will probably do the character credit.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
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