The Is It Future or Is It Past Week on TV #23

What the fuck just happened?

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 17-18

Well.

Twin Peaks: The ReturnThe entirety of The Return has been a very divisive piece of television. For all the praise it’s received from certain critics and cinephiles, there are other viewers and reviewers who think it’s a case of Emperor’s New Clothes. The finale — which looks likely to also be the finale to the entire Twin Peaks universe, unless something changes — is all of that in a microcosm, with some hailing it as a perfect capstone on a masterpiece, while others berate it for being inconclusive and overly ambiguous rather than a true ending.

In my view, anyone who expected co-writer/director David Lynch to resolve and explain everything in a clear and concise manner was on a hiding to nothing. Even with the normalising influence of co-writer Mark Frost, it’s been clear throughout the season that this is more of an 18-hour David Lynch film than another season of Twin Peaks as we knew it. That said, I confess I’d hoped for more wrap-up than we got. I never expected every aspect of the series’ complex mythology to be explained — both Lynch and Frost revel in the idea that a bit of mystery is more interesting than a thorough explanation — but what we did get looks an awful lot like a cliffhanger. It’s perfectly possible to finish a story without explaining all of its mysteries, but this feels like a story unfinished.

But let’s not let the closing moments overshadow everything. There was a lot to like in the double-bill finale — and I say “double-bill” rather than “two-part” because Part 17 and Part 18 felt distinctly different from one another. Some have called Part 17 the true ending of The Return and Part 18 the start of something else. If there was another season (or a movie, or whatever) coming, I’d agree with that explanation; but there isn’t, so we have to view it all as part of the one thing.

Coop de grâcePart 17 saw most of the series’ central characters converge on the Twin Peaks Sheriff Station for a showdown with, first, the evil Mr. C, and then BOB, now in the form of a floating ball with a face. In most shows none of this would make a blind bit of sense, but in Twin Peaks it’s what amounts to clarity. Indeed, I’ve even seen some people criticise it for being too pat and obvious. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, right? But anyone who wanted a full-blown reunion between their favourite characters was in for disappointment, because almost as soon as Agent Cooper was back among both his Twin Peaks and FBI friends, he was off again — transported into the past, into the events of Fire Walk with Me, to try to save Laura Palmer. It was an effective use of old footage and new matching bits, and it suggested we may be in for some kind of conclusive end to the main storyline, especially when there were further modified flashbacks to the pilot.

But then there was a cliffhanger and Part 18… well, Part 18 had very different ideas. Even this late in the day — the last 5.5% of the season — Lynch was merrily introducing new mysteries, paying no heed to the dozens already unanswered. At the very beginning of the season, the Giant, aka the Fireman, had told Cooper, “Remember 430, Richard and Linda, two birds with one stone”. Now, we seemed to be finding out what that meant, as Cooper and Diane drove 430 miles to… something… after which they stopped at a motel, slept together, and Cooper woke up to find a note for him but addressed to Richard from Linda. O…kay…

Coop de grâceAs the episode went on, most of it seemingly filled with people driving together in silence, it became increasingly clear that we weren’t going to find out many of the things we’d been wondering about (first among them for many fans: what was going on with Audrey?), nor did it look likely we’d be getting a nice button on the main plot line of the show. That turned out to be the case, with a mysterious final scene that, as I said earlier, felt more like a cliffhanger than an ending. That happened in season two as well, of course, but then back then it wasn’t intended to be the final end — this is. You can see why some fans would be angered by that. Conversely, others revel in the open-ended-ness. Horses for courses, I guess.

Personally, I don’t know that I’d call this belated third season of Twin Peaks an unqualified success. It was certainly an experience, a journey I’m glad to have gone on, and one I expect I’ll undertake again someday — indeed, I feel more like watching it again soonish than I did season two, which I also watched for the first time this year. That said, in part that’s because season three moved at such a unique pace, and ends with so many apparently unanswered questions, that it feels more like it requires a second viewing to make sense of it; to understand it as one singular 18-hour work. And while that remains true, it still didn’t fulfil everything that I hoped it would.

I’ve already spent several hours reading articles trying to make sense of it all. I expect, in the years to come, I’ll be reading more. I guess whether it is a masterpiece or it is the Emperor’s New Season, that shows its power as a work of art.

You've been Lynched

Next month… after a busy summer, I intend to put this TV column back in its place: monthly.

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Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^

Blue Velvet (1986)

2014 #35
David Lynch | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Blue VelvetBefore he brought the disquieting underbelly of small-town America to television audiences with Twin Peaks — and revolutionised the medium in the process — auteur David Lynch subjected cinemagoers to its perversions in this 1986 cult masterpiece, the first cohesive expression of concepts, themes and motifs (and cast members) that would inform the rest of his career.

Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, home from college to visit his hospitalised father when he discovers a severed human ear in a field (as you do) and, unable to resist playing private eye, gets drawn into a bizarre web that includes a burgeoning romance with Laura Dern’s high school student, a twisted sexual relationship with Isabella Rosselini’s trapped nightclub singer, and, most famously, Dennis Hopper, whose character and performance invites descriptors like “creepy” and “perverted” but transcends such notions to the point of their obsolescence.

There’s a mystery plot to tie things together, but it’s not really Lynch’s point: by the end, things that would be The Big Twist in other movies are almost glossed over; present because they’re needed for clarity, but not what Lynch wants to focus on. The film is heavy with symbolism, although for once you don’t need to be a genius to spot the major signifiers: it opens with a shot of a lovely suburban lawn, but moves closer until underneath it we see a swarming nest of nasty bugs. I was always led to believe Blue Velvet was about the secrets lurking behind small-town America’s white picket fences, and parts like that opener suggest such a reading.

Lynchian love triangleBut… is it, really? The white-picket-fence-dwellers are pretty clean; it’s the people inhabiting the scuzzy apartment blocks and industrial estates nearby who are the problem. Those characters are as corrupt and degenerate as their abodes might lead those with regular prejudices to suspect. It’s a less subversive point of view, and I don’t think it’s what Lynch was actually going for. Anyway, the entirety of his moviemaking technique is so outré that you can’t help but find the whole twisted nonetheless.

Exposing the (sometimes-)reality behind the perfect veneer of American suburbia was not something all audiences at the time were prepared to embrace, though a couple of decades or so of emulation — not to mention the odd news story exposing reality — have led such a perspective to be less controversial. Yet the extreme ways Lynch employs to depict this nastiness mean the film hasn’t lost any of its impact. Back in 2001, critic Philip French wrote that “the film is wearing well and has attained a classic status without becoming respectable or losing its sense of danger.” Another 13 years on and I think that quote is still on the money. Blue Velvet is a film that features on respectable “Best Ever” lists (it’s in the top 100 of Sight & Sound’s latest, for instance, tied with Blade Runner (amongst others)), but is still quite shocking to watch. It’s not so much that it’s sexually or violently graphic — though, in places, it is a little — but the mood and feeling Lynch evokes is so darn unsettling and weird.

Each to their own“It’s not a movie for everybody,” Lynch himself said (to Chris Rodley for the book Lynch on Lynch). “Some people really dug it. Others thought it was disgusting and sick. And of course it is, but it has two sides. The power of good and the power of darkness.” He’s not wrong. Despite the acceptance of it in some mainstream circles (arguably, you don’t get much more “mainstream” than the Best Director Oscar nomination Lynch received), Blue Velvet remains the very definition of a cult film: some will (and do) love it unreservedly; some will (and do) hate it with a passion; and some, like me, will look it and kind of go, “…hm.” The more I read about it, though, the more I warm to what Lynch was tilting at. Given time, and inevitable (though, knowing me, a long time coming) re-views, I can only see my appreciation growing.

4 out of 5

Blue Velvet was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

The Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and the Missing Pieces Blu-ray box set is a surefire contender for “release of the year” even before it is released — which is tomorrow, Tuesday 29th July, pretty much worldwide.