14 March, 2008

It is happening, again ... It is happening, again

“Brilliant. Heh heh heh. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
- Homer watches Twin Peaks, "The Simpsons", Lisa’s Sax, (season 9 episode 3)

So here’s the thing.

I’m currently on a Twin Peaks rewatch, taking it nice and slowly (one episode a week – a nice easy pace that really allows you to digest and contemplate each episode – unlike my first viewing of the show where I compelled to race through the entire TV show plus movie in about 2 ½ weeks).

Anyway, this week brought me to Episode 16, the ninth episode of the second season. Two episodes ago, we discovered the killer's identity when the character commits another, this time on-screen, murder of such shocking and disturbing brutality that it is chilling just thinking about it. And this week, Cooper catches Laura Palmer’s killer, who is for the first time confronted with what they have done, in a powerful scene both moving and disturbing (and quite possibly the finest moments in the show). And it occurred to me that this is probably the ideal point to talk about Twin Peaks, because I’m still excited by it. It’s still a great show, still entrances and moves me, and so now is a good point to talk about it, because starting in the next episode, the show gets really bad. And while it does improve towards the end, and the final episode is so great that you really find yourself wanting to see the third season that never happened, if I were to post when I finish the show, the memory of the middle 7 or 8 episodes would temper my writing. And a show like Twin Peaks deserves to be written about in excitement

I can imagine quite a few of my friends wouldn’t be familiar with the show, so for those of you: Twin Peaks was a TV series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The first season (a very short season, only a pilot episode and 7 other episodes) aired in early 1990, and it was huge. There was colossal buzz around the show. And deservedly so – I think it’s safe to say that the first season of Twin Peaks is some of the greatest television ever made, existing as a perfect flawless work of art. And then the second season...

Actually, I should explain what the show was. The show opened with the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer, a beautiful 17-year-old homecoming queen, now found naked and wrapped in plastic. And this established the first key element of the show – a murder mystery revolving around the question “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Kyle MacLachlan played the FBI agent Dale Cooper, assigned to the case, who on his arrival finds himself charmed by this sweet little town on the Canadian border. This was the second element – a quirky small-town comedy, in which people are eccentric, fish are found in coffee percolators, and surprisingly strong one-eyed women become obsessed with developing silent drape runners.

But by the end of the pilot episode, we’ve already discovered that the beautiful sweet virginal Laura Palmer was in fact a drug-addicted nymphomaic. And Laura Palmer stands as a representation of the town of Twin Peaks as a whole – just as Laura seemed pure and innocent but clearly wasn’t, so the town of Twin Peaks seems quirky and funny on the surface, but has an entirely hidden side to it. Part of that comes from the show’s strong melodrama element (while you could describe it as a soap opera, I personally think it definitely has the feel of a 1950s era melodrama), where everyone is having affairs - Bobby is angry that his girlfriend Laura was secretly seeing James, even though James is himself sleeping with waitress Shelly who is married to the abusive Leo, who is ... you get the idea. If they're not doing that, they're engaged in some complicated scheme of some kind. The show continues an idea that Lynch explored in his film Blue Velvet, exploring the darkness that lies under the shining surface of small-town America.

But there was a fourth element to the show – a dark element that pushed the show into the realm of supernatural horror. We first encounter this in the final scene of Episode 2, a nightmarish dream sequence in which Agent Cooper encounters a a poetry-reciting one-armed man named MIKE, the dirty-looking Killer BOB threatening to kill again, and a mysterious Red Room with a Laura Palmer-doppelgänger and a backward-talking dwarf making strange cryptic statements. And as we explore the supernatural realm further, meeting other residents of this world, the Giant, Mrs Tremont and her grandson, we find ourselves frequently but briefly visiting this terrifying world. (When I first watched the show, I usually watched it right before going to bed, and the scene in episode 9, where BOB walked through the lounge, climbed over the sofa, and reached out for Maddy - watching that scene at midnight doesn't help you sleep. Probably the most scared any TV show or movie has ever made me.)

And here is the great thing about Twin Peaks - these disparate elements should not work together. They don't fit, they can't fit, in one show. And yet they do. I think a lot of that comes from David Lynch - the show feels a lot more like one of his films than it does an episode of Hill Street Blues, and throughout his career, Lynch has managed to handle horror, drama, comedy, comprehension and incomprehension, in a delicate balancing act. And that is what makes the first season of the show so perfect - the show was just starting out, and Lynch still had a strong handle on the show, helping to ensure that, even in episodes he didn't direct, it all works. The result is a a first season that works incredibly, never putting a step wrong. The viewer is presented with this perfectly-realised world, filled with intriguing mysteries, fascinating characters, and incredible food, from damn fine coffe and cherry pie to a baguette with brie and butter. It's a scary world, never quite safe to enter, but there is something compelling that kepps drawing you in. Man, I love the first season.

The problem was, when it came to the second season, a number of problems arose. I think the main problem in season 2 arose because of the network executives. ABC had let the first season be made relatively free from interference, but this wasn't true for the second season. The most damaging bit of interference was the requirement that Lynch and Frost reveal the identity of the killer - the show could have survived if it wasn't for that. People kept asking that the killer be identified, so ABC forced this to be revealed. But without time to put all the groundwork (this was a mystery intended to run for a few seasons, remember), it just feels like they just played Eeney Meeney Miney Moe and picked a killer at random. Plus, the mystery was the hook, the thing to grab the viewers and keep them watching the show. Without it, the show lost interest to a lot of people. In the David Lynch-written Log Lady Introduction to this episode, this point was summarised succintly

"So now the sadness comes--the revelation. There is a depression after an answer is given. It was almost fun not knowing."

(Are you listening, everyone that wants Lost to hurry up with the answers?)

And so, without that mystery hook, people left the show. It didn't help that Lynch having directed three of the first seven episodes of the season, left to direct Wild At Heart. Without Lynch to control the balance, it veered wildly off-course. The show felt like it was trying to emulate what had made Twin Peaks so distinctive, but there was nothing organic about it. It was pretending to be quirky or weird for the sake of it. The comedy became too broad (an amnesiac Nadine goes to high school), the supernatural just becomes weird (the drawer pull, anyone? And yes, I get the connection with the wood and the Log Lady, but still...), and the soap opera just became bad (James and his femme fatale). Meanwhile, without the hook of the Laura Palmer mystery, the showmakers feel like they were scrambling for a good six or eight episodes, trying to work out "where to now"? It's really only after the drawer pull episode (episode 23) that the show starts to get on track - Windom Earle has been introduced by this point, and the show makers started to use the supernatural element to tie the show together, and provide the show with a direction to move towards. By the time Lynch returned, to direct the final episode, it was pretty much on course again, and episode 29 reminds us of why we love the show so much, and why it really is sad that the show never survivied for a third season.

Lynch made the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, which people seem to rather inexplicably hate as not being like the show. I don't understand that, since to me it feels like Twin Peaks. I get the impression these are people that liked Twin Peaks for the comedy, but failed to appreciate what it was really about. The comedy wasn't the point of the show, the comedy was there to make the show watchable. It was an incredibly dark show, and the comedy was necessary to make it easier for the audience to handle. (I once read something someone once wrote about watching all of Twin Peaks in one weekend, skipping all the comedy parts, and the writer said he was depressed for a week afterward.) But in a film that is explicitly about a girl who will be brutally murdered at the end, and how every event in her final week led up to that, there's no room for a light comedy bit from Andy and Lucy. It doesn't fit.

So why do I keep returning to Twin Peaks, when it is as flawed as it is. Partly because it is a rewarding experience - the first season is perfect, and a lot of the second season is very good, occasionally great. And it is worth sitting through the dire parts to reach the great parts.

But partly, I just love the sense of excitement. When you watch Twin Peaks, you get a sense of adventure, of invention, of new ground being broken. You get the impression Lynch looked at the television landscape, and decided he was going to reinvent television. And he did it. He made a show that entirely changed how we view television. Today, television is cinematic, has incredible power, and actually functions as the most incredible means of storytelling we have. And that is something that Twin Peaks really started. (David Chase supposedly described The Sopranos as "Twin Peaks in New Jersey", which I think really illustrates the influence the show has.) There is a sense when watching Twin Peaks that the medium of television itself is being changed forever. There is something radical and exciting about the show. And I love it.

06 March, 2008

Cheeseburger, anyone?

So here's the thing.

That was a depressing (and depressingly incoherent) post. So, to lighten things up, I'll put up a link to something that amused me recently.

A German company is making what they call a "Cheeseburger in a can". It's apparently intended for people who want to eat a cheeseburger while out camping. You boil the can, open it, and tip the cheeseburger out.

And it seems it may be the most revolting food product ever made. The staff at the AV Club, as part of a continuing "Taste Test" series tried one of these things and posted their thoughts, complete with photos and videos, here. It's very funny, but every time I think about the cheeseburger-in-a-can itself, I just feel ill.

Musings on a documentary I saw last night...

So here's the thing.

I watched a documentary last night, one that had aired Saturday night at midnight. It was a documentary about Jonestown, which obviously I had heard of, but I didn't know much about it. Basically I knew it was a cult that built up around some guy called Jim Jones, they built some kind of settlement, and that everyone ended up drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. And that was all I knew about the story - I didn't know where Jones came from, how he built this following, what caused him to do what he did. I mean, until last night I had always assumed the Jonestown settlement was in the US, not Central America.

But that is just an extraordinary story. 900 people killed themselves that day, 900. And as easy as it is to throw around numbers like that, when you actually are confronted by the images of what that means, words cannot describe it. They showed aerial photos where you couldn't see the grass for all the bodies just lying all around. And when you think these people forced their children to drink, and chose to drink it themselves, just because someone told them to, it's just chilling and disturbing.

I don't really know why I'm writing this - it's probably just a way to try and process what I learned. I've just had those images stuck in my head all day. And you see these people the day before the death, and people just seem so happy and bright and cheerful, and you realise that 24 hours later they would be voluntarily killing themselves because someone told them it was the only choice? How does that happen? One thing it does drive home is just how controllable the human mind is. I think we all hear about these types of events and we all think how terrible it is and there's something in the back of our heads that says "I'm smarter than that, I wouldn't fall for it" but you never actually know. Because, 900 people, that's a lot of people, and I guarantee you most of them would have assumed they were too smart to kill themselves just because someone tells them to. But they weren't. And it happens al the time, in every sphere of human interaction - religion, politics, relationship - we are just too damned willing to turn off our minds and follow our emotion. And often things may be fine, they may work out well in particular circumstances, you may not be following a Jim Jones, you may be inspired by a genuinely great person, but that kind of uncritical unthinking behavior has got to at least present the risk. In Jonestown, there was this one woman who actually challenged Jim Jones on the day of the deaths, Christine Miller, questioning whether mass murder and suicide was actually necessary. And people were actually shouting her down, criticising her for being afraid to die, and in the end even she chose to take the poison. How do you do that? How do you silence the one person that is making sense? How can you ignore your mind when it has got to be telling you this is a bad thing. Yet 900 people did just that. And I'm not immune, and there have been times in my life when I've ignored what my mind is saying because I've been caught up in an emotional reaction to situations, and I thank God that the worst consequence to come out of these is the embarrassment I feel right now as I think about them.

I'm not sure I'm really making any coherent point here, I'm not entirely certain what my point is. I guess the main thing that has come out of thinking about this is just that it hit home that as humans we're all stupid, we're all easy to manipulate, and even if we like to pretend we're too smart to fall for such manipulations, in the end, we're not.

Anyway, that just a fairly incoherent summary of what I've been thinking about today, and I know it's not that original, but there it is.

...Cherry Pie

So here's the thing.

I'm looking at the New Zealand Herald site, and I see a headline I have to click, just to find out what they're talking about: "Desperate Housewives: The Musical?". Turns out Mark Cherry is threatening to go to Broadway when the show finishes to develop a DH musical. So, pretty much what the headline suggests.

But the interesting thing is the quote from Kyle McLachlan, who plays Bree's wife and (rather crucially) previously played FBI Agent Dale Cooper on the perfect-but-flawed Twin Peaks. McLachlan is quoted as saying "You never know. It could happen. Never say never right? There is more chance of that than seeing me in a 'Twin Peaks' musical."

And yet, after reading that quote, I can't help thinking how great a Twin Peaks musical would be. Firstly, you've got a big advantage, at least in the supporting cast - both Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblin have some musical experience, having had major roles in the West Side Story film. And the show already comes with a few ready-made musical numbers - obviously you've got to have Leland's big song-and-dance numbers, a number or two at the Roadhouse, and the James-Maddy-Donna trio "Just You and I".

The opening song, "Wrapped In Plastic" could serve as an introduction to the characters, as each person gets the news of Laura's murder and reflects on how they knew and viewed Laura. You could get quite a heartbreaking number out of "(Tell Harry) I Didn't Cry". The jazz-scored Red Room scene will leave everyone singing the catchy chorus "That gum you like is going to / Come back in style". Cooper's introductory number, a love song to the joys of coffee and cherry pie called "Damn Fine...", gets reshaped later into the show into an song of unrequited love for Cooper by surprising-virgin Audrey. Sadly, I don't think there will be enough time for Lucy's lighter comedic "Phone Line Tangle" number. If the production was budget-conscious, the Harold Smith scene could recycle props from last year's production of Little Shop Of Horrors, while the Nazi-pigeons from The Producers could be reworked as Waldo the Mynah Bird. A Sweeney Todd song style could work for some of the more horrific numbers like "Catch you with my death bag" or "Where's Annie?", although there are limits - I think staging Laura Palmer's murder as a dance number might be in bad taste. I also thought seriously about giving the Log Lady's Log a number, but I think that would be silly and not in the spirit of the show.

Obviously it needs to be fleshed out a bit, but the more I think about it, the more I realise a Twin Peaks musical really could be quite great. There is definitely potential there.

04 March, 2008

Let's Party! Or Part-ay! Or Part-to-the-E! Break It Down!

So here's the thing.

This just amused me. I'm loading a CD onto iTunes, and while ejecting the CD I accidentally hit the Party Shuffle tab. This causes the software to create a "party mix" from the songs I have loaded onto my iPod. How does this sound for a soundtrack to a great party?

  • Vivaldi - Concerto for 2 violins, strings & continuo in A minor, I: Allegro, performed by Nigel Kennedy with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • He Was My Brother, Simon and Garfunkel
  • I'm Coming To Get You, from the Doctor Who soundtrack
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service, performed by the Propellerheads on the Shaken And Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project album (This is an album from 10 years ago, where David Arnold worked with a bunch of artists to record modern versions of classic Bond songs and themes. Apparently John Barry liked the album, and his recommendation led to Arnold scoring the last four Bond films, as well as the new one. I'm a big fan of the original OHMSS theme, but quite enjoy the Propellerheads take, which I think is one of the more successful tracks)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water, again by Simon and Garfunkel
  • Listen to Your Heart, from the soundtrack to the "Young Frankenstein" Broadway musical (I really must load The Producers onto my iPod.)
  • Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto In E Minor, Op. 64 - 1. Andante Molto Appasionato, again performed by Nigel Kennedy, but this time with the English Chamber Orchestra (incidentally, the 3rd movement of this concerto is one of my favourite pieces of music, just astonishes me every time I hear it. Why couldn't it have been the 3rd movement the Party Shuffle randomly found, that's much more of a party piece)
  • Bootstrap's Bootstraps, from the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl soundtrack
  • Birth of a Penguin/Opening Titles, from the Batman Returns soundtrack (love this piece, with my favourite version of the Danny Elfman Batman theme)
  • Love Theme From Twin Peaks - guess what soundtrack this is from (I might actually do a blog post sometime about Twin Peaks)
  • Hoist The Colours, from the Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End soundtrack (that was a great opening scene)
  • Can't Turn You Loose, from the Blues Brothers 2000 soundtrack (the movie was awful in so many ways, but the soundtrack was pretty good)
  • The Dreams Of Trees, from The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers soundtrack (this is the complete 3-disc version of the Two Towers soundtrack)
  • I'm getting sick of Nigel Kennedy. This one is Summer in G minor, III: Presto
  • The End, from the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack (possibly Danny Elfman's best work)
  • The Streets, from the Vertigo soundtrack (I love Bernard Herrmann's work, particularly with Hitchcock and Vertigo is my favourite movie).

It's an interesting list. I only have two Nigel Kennedy albums loaded, but he appears three times. We also have two songs from the same Best of Simon and Garfunkel album, two tracks from the Pirates of the Caribbean films but no tracks from any of the six Star Wars films (or any other John Williams).

So anyway I'm having a party next Saturday night, this is what is going to be playing. Please RSVP. And yes, there will be dancing.

03 March, 2008

Broken-hearted Hoover-fixer sucker guy

So here’s the thing.

I went to the movies in the weekend, to finally see Once. I’d heard good things about it, had it down as a film to see, but when I heard the song Falling Slowly performed at the Oscars (and winning Best Song), I fell in love with the song and the film became an immediate must-see. (For those of you that haven’t heard of the film, and don’t remember the song from the Oscars, Markéta Irglová (the girl in the film) was the person Jon Stewart brought back on stage after they were played off.)

So I sit down in the cinema – it was playing on one of the small screens at the back of the Paramount – and was immediately disappointed to discover that we were watching what appeared to be a projected DVD. It wasn't exactly difficult to work out – as I sat down, they were still adjusting the projector settings, trying to get the picture to fill the 1.85:1 screen, and you could see them cycling through the Video, S-Video, and YPbPr settings. They couldn’t fix the problem, so we ended up watching a film that didn’t fill the screen, with black around three of the four edges. A real disappointment, since I did pay full price for the screening, and was getting a second-rate presentation.

But once the screening started, I pretty much forgot all this and was just entranced by the extraordinary film I was watching. The opening moment, where “the guy” (almost all the characters are unnamed) has his busking money stolen and chases the heroin addict thief down the streets was a laugh-out-loud opening that was not at all what I had expected for what I had assumed was a small love story. But it pretty much set the scene for a film that was determined to defy everything you expected.

The story: Musician guy living in Dublin meets flower-selling musician girl from the Czech Republic. A relationship slowly develops, they collaborate creatively, and things develop from there.

Here’s the thing that astonished me: I went to the film expecting a love story. A romance. And it is ... kind of. I think. But it is the single most understated romance I have ever seen. There is no great declaration of love, and the film even barely acknowledges it as a romance. (There are only three lines that I can think of that even suggest that the relationship may be more than a friendship – a rather unfortunate invitation at the end of the first “date”, a half-joking line about “hanky panky”, and one line presented in unsubtitled- and uninterpreted-Czech where I think she said something about her feelings for him, although there are many other things she may have said.) As Glen Hansard (the guy) has commented, the pair don’t even hold hands in the film. The fact, is, the love story is played out at such a heartbreakingly low level that the film could easily be interpreted as about a pure non-romantic friendship. Or even just a creative collaborative partnership, where each person is inspired to greater art through the other’s creative contribution.

And perhaps that’s the film’s strength. It’s not just about a love story. It’s about music, about the act of creating music, and about what music inspires in us. The characters don’t express themselves in dialogue, they express themselves through music. And the passion just fills every song in the film. Everything they need to say is expressed in the music, in the lyrics, in the very act of creating their art. There’s a brilliant moment early in the film where the guy shows the girl a song he’s just written, Falling Slowly. And it’s a moment we’ve all seen a million times before – the act of creating a new work of art, where the artist is so confident, seems to already know the song so well it’s as know he’s performed it a million times, so the song comes out perfect. Compare that to the scene here. It’s a song he’s already written, but only recently, so he doesn’t know it well. So he’s teaching it to her, but still looking at his notes to remember what words, what notes come next, while still nervously watching the girl to see what she thinks of the song. It’s so small, so awkward and uncertain. And she slowly picks up the (very simple, yet perfect) song and starts to join in, and it was so simple and wonderful and one of the most beautiful sequences I have seen in a long time.

I think the main comment I would make about the film is that I walked out of the film, straight into the nearest music store I could find, and bought the CD. No browsing around for a few week, trying to find the best price before forking out the cash. I could definitely have got the soundtrack for less (I could have saved $10 if I went through Amazon) but that wasn’t important. I just had to have the CD, right now. I wanted to listen to it, experience those emotions again. And the songs are just as wonderful when separated from the film.

I could talk on for page after page about the film, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that all the critics that proclaimed it one of the best films of the year ... weren’t all that wrong. It’s difficult to compare to some of the other great films we’ve had last year, the higher-profile films like No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood, because they are so wildly different. But I have definitely found a film that should have knocked Atonement off the Best Picture nominee list. It really is an astonishing film, and I can't wait to add this one to my collection.