Thursday, April 30, 2015

Serial Fiction and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

(This is something I’d started working on in 2013 and then abandoned, for whatever reason. It’s still incomplete and disjointed but in discussing the relative merits of Iron Man 3 today I remembered this piece. I’m posting it now because I think some of the points raised are valid enough to maybe spark conversation. This is parenthood, ladies and gentlemen: posting think pieces on movies that are two years old.)  
One of the major complaints I’ve read about Star Trek Into Darkness has to do with the way in which Kirk sacrifices himself, dies, and is then revived with a compound created from Khan's genetically enhanced/magical blood. That complaint, along with a subsequent viewing of Iron Man 3, got me thinking about serialized fiction and the lies that we willingly tell ourselves in order to experience that fiction. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little about the eerie similarities between Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness – specifically the ways in which both films use what is essentially the same trope/shortcut/narrative trick yet managed to generate wildly different audience reactions.  

…Because the thing of it is, the ending of Iron Man 3 does EXACTLY what the ending of Into Darkness does: it "kills" a main character (though not the main character) only to revive her minutes later courtesy of "magic" juice, with the film telegraphing the fact that it’s going to do this in advance. There’s absolutely no other reason to kidnap Potts and give her the Extremis formula other than to place her character in seeming jeopardy while also giving the film a way out of the jeopardy it’s created (twice over, actually – see below).

The similarities don’t stop there. At the end of Into Darkness Starfleet arguably has the means to eradicate death (under certain, limited circumstances), but the film doesn’t address the massive ramifications of that fact at all. This ticked some folks off, but what’s again interesting is this: At the end of Iron Man 3 technology exists which will also enable near-immortality/invulnerability, but the film doesn't address this development in the slightest. Many of the same people irritated by Into Darkness’ conclusion seem not to have even noticed this, let alone found it contrived/unsatisfying/a pus-stuffed boil on the face of cinema. Nor did they seem to be bothered by the fact that capable, lovable Pepper Potts is transformed into a potentially unstable super soldier/veritable killing machine using experimental and dangerous bio-technology and is then “fixed” by Stark. …somehow. We don’t actually know how, because we’re not shown or even told how she’s fixed. We’re just told, via voiceover, that she was. End of story. Yay?
Where was the outcry over this maneuver from the folks who thought Star Trek’s use of the same thing was, like, totally heinous?[1] Where are the demands that Marvel should have held off on reviving Potts until the next movie, so that at least the death has some shred of actual impact before being reversed? There wasn’t one, as far as I can tell. And to my addled brain, that says something interesting about the lies that we tell ourselves when we watch serial fiction and the ways in which our own past fandom can defeat present experience.
When you or I sit down to enjoy any serialized fiction we implicitly agree to certain unspoken rules. Chief among them is this: We agree to pretend that the characters are in real, mortal danger. We agree to this despite knowing logically that at no point in time are those characters in true mortal peril – they can’t be. So long as the Star Trek and Iron Man franchises remain profitable, neither Kirk nor Spock nor Tony nor Pepper is ever likely to die in the final, no-backsies sense of the word. You know it and I know it. We may not want to admit it, but it's largely true. There have been some exceptions to this rule over the years[2], but they are exceptions that prove the rule. In popular serialized fiction the lie that we consistently, constantly tell ourselves is that these characters will ultimately fail and die. They don’t. And even when they do, their deaths are inevitably triumphs and their resurrections almost always preordained.
Sure, some of these films may feint toward irrevocable death, or prolong the uncertainty longer than expected (as when the makers of the original Trek films waited until Star Trek 3: the Search for Spock, to resurrect everyone’s favorite Vulcan) and sometimes the lie is reverse-engineered (as when Abrams and Co. revived Kirk as a younger, alternate-universe version of himself, effectively bringing the character back from the dead). But unless and until someone fictional comes along who far outstrips the profitability and likability of an existing serialized fictional character, that character will essentially be immortal – and every instance of danger that such a character has ever experienced and will ever experience is a lie that we are knowingly and willingly complicit in.
We do this all the time as consumers of serialized fiction, and we’ve been doing it for an awfully long time. Heck, even Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes plunge from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, only to have him cheat death and live to sleuth another day. Superman “died” fighting Doomsday, and was then turned into four different lesser versions of himself before resurrecting shortly thereafter via I don’t even pretend to know what.
Immortality is the default state for characters in popular serial fiction and at some point every fan comes to realize this on some level or another. We can talk about how this is a problem, but that doesn't change the popularity of the characters or the demand to see more of them. Complaining about serial fiction’s issues will not make serial fiction go away. So it seems to me that we have two choices, once we've realized that fact: (1) we can get annoyed with this to the point where the form of serialized fiction itself becomes unbearable (a fine choice if that’s your bag – it’s why some folks are so regularly irritated by the “Big Shocking Deaths” promoted by major comic book companies), or (2) we can accept the contrivance the way we accept, say, the similarly convenient lie that the hero in a given action movie isn't going to save the day/get the girl/whathaveyou in favor of what matters more when it comes to storytelling (see below). Tony Stark spends most of Iron Man 3 seriously outnumbered and dangerously outgunned, but all of that melts away by the film’s climax, which sees Tony leaping and cavorting about in mid-air from flying suit of armor to flying suit of armor in open defiance of any sort of mortal danger or previously crippling psychic trauma because it’s time for him to win the day, basically.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, either consciously or sub-. It’s an obvious fact, but the obviousness of that fact doesn’t make it any less compelling to think about. Have you ever really thought about this, and about what it means?
I’d like to suggest that, in part, it means when someone complains about Kirk’s “death” being meaningless they likely aren’t actually complaining about that at all. That complaint is more likely symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction with a film, expressed by selecting an example that, were it part of another film that the viewer liked more on the whole, would apparently not bother them one lil’ iota. 
Part of what’s interesting about both Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and Abrams’ Into Darkness is that both filmmakers seem quite aware of the narrative “magic” they’re deploying. And while Shane Black might be more overt in nodding to that awareness, Abrams’ own awareness is there as well, coded into the ways in which the movie plays with pre-existing expectations. It’s as if, knowing that they’re riffing on events from Wrath of Khan, and knowing that a portion of the audience knows they’re playing those riffs, Abrams and Co. want the audience to momentarily believe that their Star Trek 3 will focus around the quest to revive Kirk. For a few enjoyable minutes as I watched the film my mind wandered into exactly that space. But instead of ending Into Darkness with an open question, Abrams and Co. shake their figurative heads and playfully say “Nahhhh. We were only fooling you.” The same goes for Black’s approach which, if anything, is even more dismissive of any potential emotional impact. And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that they both made the right decision. 

Do we really want the next Star Trek flick to spend its time on searching for a way to bring Kirk back to life, or for Iron Man 4 to be subtitled "The Search For Potts"? Not I. I don't need Stark to travel the world on behalf of Pepper Potts, and I don't need Abrams and co. to spend half of a movie inventing a way to bring Kirk back to life. I'd much rather they just got on with doing cool stuff in with superheroes/in space. That's reductive, obviously, but true.

What matters when these sorts of characters are "killed," or so I’d argue, is that the character is in some way changed in an interesting way for having flown this mortal coil and/or that other characters are changed in interesting ways as a result - that there's meaning to the death other than the actual death itself, which is why (I think) so many "deaths" come across as lazy or hackneyed. Not because the character revives, but because their "death" didn't mean anything else to the larger story being told. Take, for instance, Kirk and Pepper.

Kirk dies in a moment of self-sacrifice, and by dying and then being revived both he and his crew learn something. Kirk learns the value of humility, and the truth of that whole "the needs of the many" rigamarole. The crew learns the lengths to which their captain will go for them. Kirk's death arguably serves a narrative function larger than momentary shock. What do Pepper and the Iron Man 3 audience learn? What purpose does her momentary death serve in terms of the larger story being told? I’d argue that the answer is “nothing, actually.” Neither Pepper nor Tony nor the rest of the cast are changed by that death, and our understanding of those characters as an audience isn't really changed either. You could argue that Tony comes to truly appreciate her as a result of seeing her die, but I’d argue that he’s come to appreciate her before that moment – when he goes to rescue her. You could argue that we learn just how kick-ass Pepper is, and while I’d agree that she is indeed kick-ass, I’d also argue that we knew that already. We’ve seen her deal with Tony, with Obadiah, with Killian, and we’ve seen that she’s a capable, strong woman. Does making her a Power Ranger for a few minutes, and then immediately stripping her of those abilities, add to our knowledge of who she is? Does it enhance or deepen the story in any real way?

It’s possible (though unlikely - maybe I'll find out tomorrow when I finally get to watch Age of Ultron) that the answer to those questions is “yes.” After all, we have no idea how Stark “fixed” her. For all we know, he merely regulated Extremis so that she’s not in danger of exploding, but still retains her new T-1000 superpowers. That’s a big change to the status quo if so, and would indicate that Pepper can now join in on all the derring-do if Iron Man 4 ever rolls around. But the implication, as it stands, is that Stark “fixed” her by removing Extremis/rendering it inert/otherwise de-powering Pepper. Off-screen. Without explanation. 
...All of which is said to spark, perhaps, some thought and dialogue on serialized fiction and the lies that we tell ourselves. I want to know what you think about this, and why. Have you seen both films? Did either or both of the “deaths” I’ve talked about here bother you? If so, why? If not, why? How do you deal with the inevitable near-immortality of serialized fictional heroes? I’m genuinely curious to hear your answers, and so leave the floor to you.  

[1] Don’t even get me started on the “Abrams included a gratuitous shot of a woman in a bra and is therefore regressive” thing that circulated for awhile. Did you notice that Iron Man 3’s entire plot depends on Maya Hansen feeling so jilted over a one-night stand that she becomes complicit in both a terrorist campaign and knowing experimentation on human subjects to often deadly and disastrous effect? Or that Pepper Potts spends the last portion of the film in a bra because, like, her shirt got burned off, man? 

[2] A few years ago it could have been labeled “The Bucky Exception,” after the one comic book character who was considered un-revivable for decades and decades, except that he’s not dead anymore either. So.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Preview The Introduction to "Speaking Backward: Exploring the Themes & Mythology of Twin Peaks"

Later this year I'll be publishing a book on Twin Peaks. Entitled "Speaking Backward," the book examines the themes and mythology of the show, episode by episode. It is, I hope, an entertaining read for fans of the show as well as a handy guide for those who are just discovering the world of Twin Peaks for the first time.

Today, in honor of the show's 25th anniversary, I'm posting a sneak preview of the draft introduction to Speaking Backward. I hope it's enjoyed, and I hope that you'll consider plunking down a few nickels for a copy when it's finally unveiled. I encourage you to leave comments, constructive criticism, and recipes for pie in the comments below. 

Welcome to Twin Peaks: An Introduction

When Twin Peaks first appeared on the ABC television network back in the Ancient Year Of 1990 it became an instantaneous cultural phenomenon. If you were alive, sentient, and within range of a water cooler/school locker the question “Who killed Laura Palmer” was, for a brief moment in time, largely inescapable. Co-creator David Lynch graced the cover of Time magazine; Actor Kyle MacLachlan hosted Saturday Night Live for the first and last time in his career; T-shirts bearing Laura Palmer’s face, the phrase “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and/or the visage of lead character Special Agent Dale Cooper sold like hotcakes; There were several spin-off books, including The Autobiography of Agent Dale Cooper: My Life and Tapes, and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.

None of this was business as usual.

Twin Peaks entered a prime time network television landscape that had carefully and rigorously defined audience expectation over decades, and swiftly proceeded to gleefully subvert and destroy those expectations. Long-standing television conventions were twisted and changed, made unfamiliar and strange. No one at that time had ever seen anything quite like it and no one’s seen anything like it since, although it’s served to inspire a host of subsequent creative types in all areas of the arts from television to film to music and on and on anon. Oddball/cult/genre shows sprouted in its wake with programs like The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Carnivale, and Lost (to name just a very few) all owing obvious debts to Co-creators David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s weirdo-epic about a small town struggling against and/or succumbing to the primal, animalistic call of capital-E Evil.

The first season of Twin Peaks – just nine gorgeously strange hours in all – is unassailable “Great Television.” Some of that Greatness is historic in terms of the show’s place in time and culture, and in the ways in which the show has continued to reverberate with cult audiences around the world decades after its cancellation. Some of that Greatness is artistic, in terms of what co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were able to achieve on a major American television network, and in the ways it has subsequently influenced other artists and creators.

The second season of Twin Peaks is…well….problematic. It begins well, builds to a genuinely shocking revelation, and then just sort of slowly lies down in the middle of the figurative road and stays there for awhile muttering to itself before rousing once more over the course of a couple hours for what remains perhaps the most unconventional, bewildering, artistically inspired and just-plain-gonzo finale ever to grace a television screen. 

Twin Peaks as a whole wields a potent combination of wry irony and bone-deep sincerity that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely successful. Its strange mixture of eccentricity and normalcy, of artificial-seeming behavior and raw, real emotion, of parody and melodrama, of quirky character piece and horror show, defines Twin Peaks from the start and marks it out as a singular creation. This is a place where florid clich├ęs and uncomfortably organic passions, sincerity and irony, kindness and violence abide so closely together that it becomes difficult to identify where one ends and the other begins. Which is, I think, very much a point (though not the point).

For this particular viewer much of Twin Peaks’ cumulative power lies in its unblinking fascination with Evil. In its best moments the show offers a startlingly-clear view through grimy, warping glass at what feels and sounds and seems to be pretty much Evil Incarnate. It doesn’t have this effect on everyone (it’s far too idiosyncratic for that), but for some of you Twin Peaks is going to burrow under your skin and slither there. It’s going to creep you out, man. Lynch doesn't screw with everyone's head the way that he screws so very, very effortlessly with mine. Some folks find his films to be empty exercises in surrealism and juxtaposed banality that don't land their punches. If you're among that crowd then you're probably going to hate this book.

Much as I recognize and will write about the potential for, and existence of, overinflated, underwhelming melodrama and of style without substance in Twin Peaks, overall (with frankly frightening regularity) Lynch's vision works the psyche over thoroughly. His way of portraying the emergence of Evil into a mundane world has the power to genuinely disturb. Lynch conjures the shivers that precede the urge to flee like few others. That he can manage this feat, not through elaborate special effects or through copious gore, but through the careful deployment of sound, extreme lighting and ordinary objects, is nothing short of astonishing. Lynch and his Peaks compatriots touch, somehow, on the best/worst sort of fear there is: the uneasy prickle, the chill at the back of your neck you get walking a hallway in your home late at night; that sense that someone or something is THERE with you, present in some awful, inexplicable, invisible sense.

Why is it that Lynch’s films in general (and Twin Peaks in particular) are capable of doing this to us? Setting aside the technical aspects involved – the ways in which sound, light and performance are deployed – what is it about the subject matter involved here that manages to so thoroughly disarm and distress? David Foster Wallace, writing on Lynch and his films for Premiere Magazine, articulated an answer to this question that cuts straight to the heart of the matter:

Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed….they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person….Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are – at least potentially – everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”[1]

Wallace submits in his (terrific) essay that all of Lynch’s films focus on Evil, and that this focus comes without the comforting narrative fiction of clear “moral victory.” As in Lynch’s films overall, so also in Twin Peaks. When people do terrible things on this show there are sometimes consequences but there are sometimes no consequences at all. Lynch and Frost don’t introduce Evil into Twin Peaks so that “Good” can vanquish it. They introduce Evil as fact, as uncaring force of nature; a storm to (maybe) survive but not to vanquish – not really, not ever.

Don’t get me wrong, Twin Peaks has plenty of quirky comedy and purple melodrama. It’s loaded with wry, oddball touches that you might find similar to dry-as-sand comedies like Waiting For Guffman. It is by no means a non-stop horror show, but the horrors it offers are profoundly disquieting and may linger with you long after you’ve turned off the television.

Part of what makes Lynch’s overall body of work so compelling/frustrating lies in the way in which it resists concrete interpretation. As an artist, Lynch consciously chooses not to explain himself[2], inviting the audience to explain for itself, which brings me, finally, to the subject of the book you’re currently holding in your grubby little hands.

This book and all of its contents represent one man’s interpretation of, and analysis of, Twin Peaks. It is not nor does it purport to be a definitive text. However, for all of Twin Peaks’ inarguable, wonderful strangeness the show is doggedly dedicated to exploring certain themes that appear near and dear to its dark, deranged heart. There are a number of genuinely interesting ideas being batted about throughout the running time of this show, and they are ideas that are worth discussing and exploring and chewing over with the sort of relish that Benjamin Horne reserves for Brie and Butter sandwiches. This book exists in order to provoke fodder for said-discussions/explorations/displays of rampant, figurative mastication. Within these pages you will find ruminations on David Lynch’s obsession with twins and the subconscious, on seeking truth and on the unknowable mysteries, on ideas of “Goodness” and “Evil,” on voyeurism and secrets, on faith and purpose and the possible futility of Love in a world that seems designed to crush the decency within and seed corruption in its stead.

Twin Peaks also contains one of the most intriguing and completely-singular “mythologies” that I’ve ever encountered. If you’re unfamiliar with that term as it’s used here allow me a brief moment of explanation. The “mythology” of a fictional narrative may refer to the hidden architecture of its mysteries which a fiction parcels out to its viewers over time. Frost, Lynch and their writing cohorts concocted an overarching mythology for Twin Peaks that is deeply, deeply weird and somehow deeply compelling. That mythology is more interpretable and more cohesive than the show’s willful obscurity might suggest. In these pages you will find plausible explanations for some of the show’s more esoteric ideas, suggestions on how the disparate mythological elements of Twin Peaks “add up” to a cohesive whole, and explorations into the real-world myths, legends and ideas which may have inspired the show’s ambitious/crazy hodge-podge of backwoods mysticism, science fiction, Eastern philosophy, and legend.

Each chapter of Speaking Backward focuses on one episode in the series and attempts to dissect the themes and mythology present in each hour of the show. In addition to the main body of each chapter, you’ll also find sections devoted to “Pieces of Peaks” (commentary or observation on episode happenings that don’t really directly relate to the themes or mythology, but which are worth noting and/or celebrating and/or relentlessly mocking), as well as “Trivial Trivia” (bits and bobs of interesting/enlightening/stupefying information about the actors, the production, and the impact of Twin Peaks). I highly recommend that you watch each episode of the show prior to reading the corresponding chapter in this book. Without the context that the show itself provides, much of the writing that follows will likely read in a manner similar to the half-crazed scrawls of a monkey on acid[3]. This might sound appealing to you, but the monkey in question will assure you that it is not[4]. Care has been taken to make this book friendly to those of you who have not watched Twin Peaks before. You can safely read along as you watch, one episode to one chapter at a time, without fearing any real “spoilers” regarding future events. Those of you who have seen the show before will hopefully find that this same care has been taken to nonetheless illuminate aspects of the show’s themes and mythology.

…You’ll also discover a fair amount of irreverence in these pages. While it is my intent to honor the creative effort and artistic skill that went into the crafting of Twin Peaks, it is undeniable that the show as a whole has some serious rough patches. There are elements/sections of Twin Peaks that simply do not work. At all[5]. Rather than ignore this I’ve embraced it. While this book is primarily concerned with teasing out the thematic and mythological strands of the narrative, it’s also concerned with enjoying and honestly critiquing a show that is seriously weird, and seriously all-over-the-place.

If this is your first time among the wind-tossed Douglas Firs: welcome. If you’re returning to this town for another trip on Lynch’s Scary-Go-‘Round: welcome to you as well. We’re going to have a lot of fun exploring this weird world together.

Now, how should you watch Twin Peaks? Whether you’re entering these woods for the first time or making a return trip allow me to offer some unsolicited advice: Turn all the lights off (leaving one on is acceptable – it is also appropriately “Lynchian”). Make sure your television’s volume is up. If you have a fancy speaker system use it. David Lynch deploys sound like few Directors, and to my experience that sound – sometimes haunting, sometimes sensual, sometimes baffling – is a large part of what makes much of Twin Peaks so timelessly arresting.

To say that Twin Peaks is a weird show is to make something of a massive, laughable understatement. Characters often voice stilted, bizarre thoughts, or behave crazily and melodramatically, in ways that are both soap opera-esque and a grotesque reflection of that genre. Things happen without rational explanation. There is a Log Lady.

Don’t fight the weird; roll with it if you’re able. I think you’ll find that it becomes kind of intoxicating in ways that are both lovely and disturbing. You’re entering David Lynch’s head here, with only co-creator Mark Frost and a shaken-looking Standards and Practices lawyer as your tour guides. While that’s some cause for alarm it’s also cause for celebration. Twin Peaks is one strange town, but its woods are lovely, dark and deep.

Give yourself permission to lose yourself in them.

[1] Excerpted solely for critical purposes from “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace, available in the essay collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” You should purchase it immediately. The entire article on Lynch is fascinating. 
[2] As Martha Nochimson notes in The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart In Hollywood, “…Lynch explained that, when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn’t know, intellectually, what he is doing.”
[3] It may read that way regardless.
[4] Right after he mutters “Judy.”
[5] If the name “Evelyn Marsh” doesn’t already strike fear and loathing into your heart, rest assured that it soon will.