Twin Peaks

Twin_Peaks_BluRayIf you plotted the quality of Twin Peaks, you’d come up with a twin-peaked graph: it started brilliantly, and ended well, but dipped somewhat in between. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have been a parody soap opera about the town in which Laura Palmer was murdered, it would have been a weird crime series, following the adventures of David Lynch’s FBI, a bunch of borderline-shamanic all-American good boys investigating the dark forces behind the most terrible crimes. (Which sounds like a cue for The X-Files, a couple of years later.) Certainly, what drives the pilot and early episodes is following Special Agent Dale Cooper (who I like to imagine as Kyle McLachlan’s character from Blue Velvet, grown up) as he uses a combination of acute observation, sharp deduction, dream-clues, intuition and sortilege (naming possible suspects then throwing stones at a bottle, seeing which one hits) to solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder. Most of the parallel plots that were unrelated to the murder — the whole tangle of insurance & blackmail surrounding the burning of the Packard Mill, the mostly unfunny comedy of super-strength Nadine’s regression to her teenage-years — I could have done without.

David-Lynch_MJEBut, I’m a David Lynch fan (though a rare one, in that I like Dune but don’t like Eraserhead), and what made me re-watch the show for the first time since it was on TV wasn’t a desire to revisit the characters or world of Twin Peaks, but a desire to revisit David Lynch and his world. For me, creative as the others can be, the episodes Lynch directed stand out. The question is why. There’s a scene in the final episode (directed by Lynch) that’s nothing but a slow advance down an empty corridor, yet somehow it’s full of brooding tension. Or take another scene, this time at the end of the pilot episode, when Laura’s mother has a vision of a hand retrieving a necklace that’s been buried in the woods. Her sudden panicked reaction makes it seem like some sort of horrendous psychic violation is taking place. What Lynch brings to these scenes isn’t just in the scenes themselves, but the world he creates around them, one in which there’s a constant potential for reality to rip open and reveal something behind it, something full of irrational terror. His world is beset by a constant note of anxiety that adds meaning, or the threat of it, to the most mundane moments. It’s one of Twin Peaks’ most notable characteristics that, though it’s mostly played as a quirky comedy, it contains moments of genuine horror. But it isn’t a horror-comedy as, say, Shaun of the Dead is. Rather, the horror is made all the more horrific by being couched in such light comedy. And what’s different in Lynch’s episodes is that, while others might contain the same quirkiness (Dale Cooper coming face to face with a llama) or directorial inventiveness (a long, slow zoom out of a hole in a wall-tile), none of them catch the uppermost peaks of outright terror or downright strangeness that Lynch does.

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Throughout Lynch’s work, innocence is always coming face-to-face with horror — and, in his best work, not just coming face-to-face with it, but being corrupted by it, and then, crucially, coming through that corruption to a new, more profound and hard-won innocence, a redemption or a rebirth. This type of story is only ever played out lightly, if at all, in the TV series (whose characters, in line with most comedy, don’t really change), but it’s the core of the 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In my view, the TV series is utterly blown away by the film, which is one my favourites, along with Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. (Having just watched it again, after watching the whole run of the TV show, I found I’d enjoyed it more when I watched it standalone, away from the TV series.)

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Lynch’s own view of the relationship between the TV series and the film is perhaps best expressed by the very first shot of Fire Walk With Me, in which a TV set, showing only static, is smashed by a baseball bat. Fire Walk With Me is Twin Peaks freed of its TV fetters. The opening half-hour — a further episode in the adventures of Lynch’s FBI boys, this time Chris Isaak as Special Agent Chester Desmond — is set in an out-of-the-way nowhere-place that’s all the town of Twin Peaks isn’t: its sheriff, unlike donut-noshing Harry S Truman, is utterly unhelpful and actively obstructive to the FBI (a deleted scene shows a fist-fight between him & Chester Desmond), the diner is manned not by former Miss Twin Peaks Norma Jennings, but fag-in-the-mouth cynic Irene, and the main residential area isn’t Twin Peaks’ upper middle-class suburbia but a rundown trailer park. The film still has the TV series’ surrealness and some moments of quirky comedy, but it has darkness in oodles — in nerve-jangling, nail-baiting, razor-laden dollops, until it’s almost too much to take. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen, but one that nevertheless keeps me watching, and leaves me, at the end, feeling I’ve been through a genuine catharsis.

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In it, Lynch raises Laura Palmer from being the clichéd beautiful murder victim of a serial killer to sort of a scapegoat, a victim of the disconnect between the town of Twin Peaks’ cosy surface and its dark underside. Caught between having to play the homecoming queen and dealing with the horror of abuse by the demonic Bob (whose supernatural nature can be taken as her own refusal to see who’s really abusing her — though this is a position undermined by the less ambiguous TV series), what sense of self she has grows thinner and thinner, till she has to say to her best friend: ‘Your Laura has disappeared. It’s just me now.’ It’s a drama that can only be resolved by switching from the normal reality of Twin Peaks (all cherry pie and damned fine coffee) to the weird, dreamlike otherworld of the Red Room, where the White Lodge and the Black Lodge are battling for her soul. Or are they working together for her redemption? It’s characteristic that Fire Walk With Me has less of the good-versus-evil, White Lodge-versus-Black Lodge feel to it: Red Room, White Lodge, Black Lodge — the alchemical significance of the colours Laura passes through is perhaps the key here, not the sort of duality the TV show was setting up.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I remember seeing Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock on TV, probably when I was about 11 or 12. It must have been my first experience of a film that didn’t provide a proper solution to its mysteries, and my response was to be quietly devastated. Those beautiful, evanescent girls, all golden-lit and white-gowned, climbing into the penetralia of Hanging Rock like a reverse version of Edward Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs (of which he wrote, “I have drawn so many toes lately that when I shut my eyes I see a perfect shower of them”) — never to return. Nor to have their disappearance even explained. But that’s the thing I most love about the film now, its refusal to explain what happened, its keeping faith with the mystery. Because, Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t so much about the disappearance of the girls and their teacher into a million-year-old maze of volcanic rock, but the devastating effect this has on those who remain.

Picnic At Hanging Rock

The film starts with a vision of intensely Romantic adolescence: the girls of Appleyard College swapping poetic Valentines, then setting out, white-gloved and straw-hatted, for Hanging Rock. (They’re told that, as the day is hot, they may remove their gloves, but only after they’ve passed through the nearby town, as though the sight of so many nubile female fingers might set the working classes into a frenzy.) There, in the midst of a mid-day swooze, four girls set out to explore the rock. Everything assumes an unreal, almost ritual air. Moany Edith cries, “Where in the world are they going? Without their shoes?”, and the answer is, of course, that they aren’t going anywhere in the world, they’re going out of it, and the fact they’re not wearing shoes is like one of those odd bits of folklore about the dead, such as that their heads are on back to front, or they cast no shadows. The girls engage in a bit of dreamy philosophising:

“A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”

and:

“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.”

Then… they disappear. There are some odd, UFO-like details that emerge, such as the fact that their teacher, Miss McCraw, was last seen without her skirt, and that the recovered girl Irma was without her corset. (The doctor who examines both Irma and moany Edith is always sure to point out that the girls, apart from a few scratches and sunstroke, are “quite intact”.) This loss of garments seems to be more about shocking the proprieties of the ultra-conventional upper-middle classes than providing any clue to what really happened to the girls.

Picnic At Hanging Rock... Without their shoes

There are three levels of reality in Picnic at Hanging Rock — or, two of reality, one of unreality. There’s the “reality” of those upper-middle classes, which mostly consists of an education in deportment and senior needlework, the attendance of overdressed garden parties, and sitting dully under the shadow of Hanging Rock, looking at nothing, feeling nothing. Faced with the incomprehensibility of mystery, this level of “reality” shakes its head and retreats behind the wings of an overstuffed chair, to read about it in a newspaper. (Squeaky Miss Lumley, who teaches at the girls’ college, finds it almost frightening that someone should do such a strange thing as sit on the stairs in the dark, so it’s no wonder she can’t face the idea that some of her charges might have disappeared altogether.) Then there’s the grounded reality of the working classes, the servants and local townspeople. Theirs is a much more human reality, all about the simple pleasures, and the simple un-romantic love of two servants in Appleyard College catching a spare moment to jump into bed together. Faced with mystery, they resort to lurid theories and melodrama — kidnappings and Jack the Ripper style murders. (Only the old gardener knows the right way to face this kind of situation: “There’s some questions got answers, and some haven’t.”) Finally, there’s the unreality of the evanescent — the adolescent girls wrapped up in their poetry and idle philosophising, evaporating in the heat of the Australian sun before they have to face the reality of their looming adult lives. (The exception to this, of course, is the scientific-minded Miss McCraw, with her “masculine intellect”. Why she disappears is a mystery about this particular mystery.)

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Michael Fitzhubert (played by Dominic Guard, who also voiced Pippin in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings), though part of the self-blinded upper classes, finds one of the girls — Irma — but only after searching obsessively enough in the outback heat that he falls into a fever. It’s as if he has to pass from reality into unreality to fetch her. (“I’d give my head to really know what happened up there,” the doctor says, after examining the concussed Irma, and it’s probably the price he’d have to pay — though it would be the loss of his rational, sane mind, not his actual head.)

The original theatrical release featured a brief, failed romance between Fitzhubert and the rescued Irma, later excised in Weir’s director’s cut. It’s a pity, because Fitzhubert’s inability to fall in love with Irma, and his continued obsession with the absent “Botticelli angel” Miranda, is all part of the devastating effect the mystery has — you get the feeling that this young man will never get over the disappearance of a girl he only ever glimpsed once, crossing a stream in a beam of sunlight, and will in fact be unable to love any real woman. She didn’t just take herself from this world, she took his soul, too.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those rare films that sustains a ghostly, fantastical air without any resort to the supernatural. For me, it fits perfectly alongside films such as The Spirit of the Beehive, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as being set in the liminal zone between outright fantasy and interior psychology — “a Dream within a Dream”, as it says (quoting Poe) at the start of the film.

(The film Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, who was married to the artist Daryl Lindsay, who was brother to the artist & writer Norman Lindsay, who featured in the 1994 film Sirens.)

The Big Sleep

BigSleepPenguinI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yes, but what about mad families? What about psychotic serial killer families? Tolstoy didn’t think of that one, did he? Ever since reading about Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly in Harvey Fenton & David Flint’s Ten Years of Terror (an encyclopaedic look at 70s British horror which introduced me to many films I’d never heard of, and some I realised I ought to be glad I hadn’t) in 2001, I’ve been dying to see it, but aside from rumours that Redemption held the rights (there were obviously too many Nazi-nuns-in-bondage films to release first), there was no hint of it coming out on DVD. Then I did one of those wildly hopeful Amazon searches last week and found it had just been released. Watching it last night, I was amazed it’d taken so long, as it’s just the sort of warped filmic fare to appeal to cinephiles, particularly cult cinephiles. I’d go so far as to say that watching it was as bizarre and rewarding an experience as my first viewing of The Wicker Man, where, once I’d got over the shock of people singing, I realised this was one of the most distinctive and subtle of horror films, of precisely the sort that transcends the genre and becomes so much more than merely horrific. MNS&G might not have the awe-inspiring power of that final scene of The Wicker Man, but in a slightly whackier way it is just as distinctive, just as not-quite-horror-though-it-is, and though it couldn’t exactly be described as subtle (it’s as subtle as an eight-year-olds’ jelly-throwing contest), neither is it as over-the-top as you might expect. It’s also as distinctively British a film as they come, in a Mad Dogs and Englishmen kind of way.

Based on a 1966 play, “Happy Family”, by Maisie Mosco (who is more well-known for her multi-generational family saga about Jewish immigrants living in Manchester, Almonds and Raisins (1979), Scattered Seed (1980) and Children’s Children (1981)), MNS&G‘s action takes place almost exclusively in a rotting, rambling Victwardian pile of a house, inhabited by a family whose members are only ever known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. Sonny and Girly, obviously in their late teens, dress and act as clichés of the sort of naughty-but-loveable children that only ever existed in nostalgic fiction. But their gleeful gameplaying and chanting of horrid nursery rhymes is a thin mask for a family-wide psychosis. The children go outside the house’s extensive grounds to gather “New Friends” — mostly drunks from the park (though, as the film begins, we’re told Mumsy is fed up with drunks from the park, so the children make a fateful decision to gather a slightly higher class of inebriate) — whom they forcibly involve in their twisted, childish games, where the most important rule is “Play the Game”. New Friends who don’t play the game suffer the consequences, by having the darker side of nursery rhymes literalised — as in the “Humpty Dumpty Game”, which of course ends with someone falling from a great height, and not being able to be put back together again. But their newest New Friend proves to be more up to the mark, and once he’s learned to adjust to the madness of the situation, he begins to play games of his own, manipulating the subtle undercurrent of sexual jealousy that lurks beneath the family’s rule-entrenched power structure. With, as they might say, grisly consequences.

Though, not as grisly as you’d think. For a film slap bang in the middle of a British horror boom (and directed by Freddie Francis, the man responsible for Hammer’s The Evil of Frankenstein, and Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors — though he was also cinematographer on David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and Straight Story), there’s remarkably little explicit horror. The goriest the film gets is a pricked thumb (hastily kissed better), though there is a corpse in a bed, not to mention the very brief glimpse of a (non-gory) severed hand. So much more is implied than shown, which may be why the film hasn’t dated. MNS&G shows its real power in a scene near the end, in the kitchen, where the viewer will already have realised that the big pot boiling away on the stove contains something that outdoes Fatal Attraction 17 years before Fatal Attraction. You never actually get to see what’s in the pot, but the cutting between its lifted lid and the horror on people’s faces is enough to make you think you have.

The film’s strength really lies in the mix between its characters’ schizoid gameplaying and the darker, messier psychology ready to break through that thin but overbright surface. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly are always telling their New Friends that theirs is a happy family — but the fact they insist on this so much, and that “happy families need rules”, immediately gives it the lie.

So what is MNS&G about? It’s possible to enjoy it just for its weird mix of mad glee and nursery-rhyme darkness, but I think it has a power that goes beyond that. It’s of course about family. The thing about the MNS&G ménage is that, although it is sociopathic, psychopathic, not to say outright murderous, it works. It works not because of or in spite of its madness, but because the family have agreed to share a madness. And that may be the thing that transcends Tolstoy’s theory of happy and unhappy families: all families, to work as families, must be a shared form of madness — benign, in the case of happy families, less benign in the case of unhappy ones — but you know they work because the family stays together. That’s, in the end, what makes them a family.

MNS&G was released in the US as Girly, a title which, while it obviously makes the most of the film’s most striking visual asset (ahem):

…does miss the point a bit about this being, after all, a family film. Though not, obviously, a film for all the family.