TWIN PEAKS.

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It began with The Elephant Man. I don’t remember when exactly it hit HBO, but it had to be shortly after we had acquired the network in our home, the other two seminal films playing around that time were Jaws (which we had watched countless times in a weird sort of family after-dinner ritual) and The Exorcist (which I was never allowed to watch, but was forced — by myself, unknown to my parents — to secretly listen to at the top of the stairs to our den, the product of this fused with mine own grisly imagination tortured yet enthralled me for the better part of a couple of months).

The Elephant Man at first reminded me of the Hammer films of my earlier youth (more than likely due to the English cast and the sure hand of Freddie Francis’ cinematography), but it bore a much deeper emotional hole in me than any of those films had managed before. The film carefully examined the extents of what constitutes humanity, and in many ways came to the conclusion that we as a race (at least, in the depicted 19th century) were still a good deal away from achieving that goal. I have seen the film several times since, and cry every time I see it. What seemed to move me as much as the aforementioned camera work or even the wonderful actors’ portrayals (which include those of Sir Anthony Hopkins, later Lynch regular Freddie Jones and the late, great John Hurt in the title role) was what Lynch seemed to bring to the table — an otherworldly existentialist vibe, one that turned into a haven when Joseph Merrick asphyxiates trying to sleep “like other people” and in death is reunited with his mother at the film’s conclusion. It gave a film that could’ve been more traditionally portrayed a shimmering soul at its centre as if to belie its murky and backwards surroundings. Needless to say, this David Lynch guy blew me away even as a kid — and the interviews with him all mentioned the film that marked his professional debut: Eraserhead.

At some point, while in high-school, I had finally managed to rent a copy of Eraserhead, which I found had long been lauded as a creepy surreal manifesto of sorts in one or more of the magazines I had devoured over the years (be it Heavy Metal or SPIN, I don’t know), scoring a major coup in my ever-growing list of films that needed to be seen. I remember being transfixed watching it, feeling as if the floor had given way beneath me as I hung deep into some inky, sweaty, shuddering tomb of industrialised anxiety. Also, I may have been high at the time. I loved it.

Far removed from The Elephant Man, this was my true introduction to David Lynch, and his unique, rather broadly archetypical and intuitive style of storytelling. Like Kubrick and Moebius before him (in my experience, at least), he insisted on showing a story instead of merely telling one, but in Lynch’s case he would even forego the more accessible layers of audience participation and break down the matters at hand in more abstract and imaginative ways. He was making it harder for us but in a way that was enthralling to follow onscreen. In the words of Dr. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”, and what a fascinating ride it was.

Meanwhile, Lynch went on to create Dune (which most fans of the book’s author Frank Herbert abhor, but I absolutely love) and Blue Velvet (which I saw while attending college, and praised to my friends as being “truly Lynch”, although the term, for the most part, was lost on them), solidifying him as a go-to source for nebulous high weirdness.

Then, at last (at least for you, Patient Readers), came not only a new font of Lynchian goodness but one that was on television, every week. Yes, I was truly excited when I first heard that Twin Peaks, Lynch’s collaboration with Mark Frost, best known for being one of the head writers of the seminal series Hill Street Blues (not to mention, according to IMDb, the screenwriter of The Believers, one of my fave John Schlesinger potboilers) was coming to TV. It was like a steady diet of manna from heaven.

The resulting series was a phenomenon, which literally dominated popular culture in the early ’90s. It was a careful balance of crime procedural, soap opera, backwoods slice-of-life dramedy and now trademarked surrealism, all overarched by the question that burned at its core — that of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” It was a show that could literally appeal in some way to everyone, and, at least for its first season, it did. However, the network hosting the show, ABC, pressed Lynch and Frost to reveal who, indeed, did kill Laura Palmer (a question they never planned on answering but leaving hanging as part of the atmosphere of the show), and halfway through the series’ second season they finally obliged. It was revealed that Leland Palmer, Laura’s father — who was possessed by the violent “BOB”, an entity from the Black Lodge, an alternate plane of ultimate evil — had sexually assaulted and slain his daughter. Palmer committed suicide in response to his deeds, and the book was closed on that most prominent chapter of Twin Peaks. Or so we thought.

Despite a love interest for Special Agent Dale Cooper (the wonderful longtime Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan, who had starred in Dune and Blue Velvet), the series’ main character, and a new antagonist known as Windom Earle (not to mention a transexual FBI agent portrayed by David Duchovny, who would later rise to prominence as the very male Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files two years later), Twin Peaks faced a slow inexorable death soon after its second season. It ended with Cooper being trapped in Red Room between the White and Black Lodges, his evil doppelganger sent out with BOB into the world to wreak havoc whilst he remained a prisoner. The final episode included a mysterious message, with the lost spirit of Laura Palmer telling him that “I will see you again in twenty-five years”.

Indeed, some twenty-six years later (the excess time being drug out by negotiations between Lynch and Showtime, the premium network hosting the new season) Twin Peaks has returned. The network blessed us with four hour-long episodes on demand Sunday, and I for one ate them up like glittering candy. With the series being on premium cable, and Lynch firmly in control, one would expect that this Twin Peaks would be a considerably more unruly beast that the original — and they’d be right on the money. Aside from mentions here and there of returning characters (and some replacements, like Robert Forster as Sheriff Harry Truman’s brother Frank), the first four episodes mainly concern themselves with Dale Cooper’s eventual return from beyond, and the reign of terror created by his doppelganger (mentioned as “Mr. C.” by a backwoods crony at the beginning of the first episode). Each hour is filled with vignettes from a number of places outside the usual mountainous treelines, such as New York, South Dakota and Las Vegas, and no, not much of anything has even begun to be sewn together. I love it and eagerly await more to come next month.

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American Gods.

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We all make choices in life, whether they be about important issues, such as whether or not to stay in school (I left after my first year of college — idiot), or trivial ones, like going with either Arby’s or Horsey Sauce on my Beef N’ Cheddar (I typically do Horsey, though sometimes both). Somewhat middling on the above-given scale is picking what authors to read, and while I’ve followed several over the years, I’ve never delved into the work of Neil Gaiman.

I first heard of Gaiman’s Sandman series in the ’90s and even the involvement of my all-time favorite illustrator wasn’t enough to get me into it:

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Afterward, his name popped up several times amid films I had either seen or planned to see, such as Robert Zemeckis’ uncanny valley take on Beowulf, or Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline, based on Gaiman’s original book. You’d think all of the above would be enough to cement me as a prospective Gaiman fan, but — due more to sheer laziness than any prejudice — I just never picked any of his stuff up.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years later, and I am beginning to have misgivings. American Gods, the new series on Starz based on Gaiman’s 2001 novel, has me by its talons from the get-go. Equal parts mythologically rich and batshit crazy, I cannot wait to see what happens next.

To those unfamiliar, American Gods is Gaiman’s tale of those immigrant faiths that were thrust onto the New World over its history. The resultant icons of these faiths, the aforementioned gods, find themselves trapped between the dwindling devotion of passing generations and the rising cults of desire, such as technology. Chief among these ancient deities is Mr. Wednesday, known to most who are up on their Elder Edda as Wotan or Odin, lord of the Æsir. With such kingly realms apparently out of reach, and in desperate straits with his current environs, he does what he knows best, and prepares to go to war.

Thrown headlong into this imminent conflict is one Shadow Moon, a recent parolee who finds his life outside institutional walls to be nothing less than a catastrophe, making him a ready mark for Wednesday’s ensuing campaign. A new and surreal landscape is thus opened up to him, one filled with the former and budding rulers of the multiverse now reverted to masquerading amid the common mortals, desperate to garner whatever power and influence they can.

At the helm of the new series, along with Gaiman himself as executive producer, are Bryan Fuller, who formerly ran the magnificent (albeit short-lived) NBC series Hannibal, and Michael Green, who helped write the screenplay for the equally magnificent James Mangold film Logan (as well as credits for the upcoming Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049, both of which will surely be mentioned here soon). Needless to say, this is a series with an embarrassment of talent, which not only has a clear assessment of the subject matter, but the collective cojones to deliver it to an eager audience. Count me among the eager, I am already counting the days until episode two.

Westworld (Cont.)

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Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s take on Westworld has wrapped its first season, and it was glorious. Possibly the headiest and heated first season for any television show, it took great pains to create a meticulously detailed world, only to have it set for utter destruction by the end of its run. Mind you, I may be spoilering a bit here (but no more than I need to), so if you have yet to see the show you may not want to read any further (but you just might).

The biggest mind-blower was the fact that the show, from the first episode, was running in three different concurrent timelines. This was not revealed immediately but was slyly hinted at in details presented onscreen. The casual viewer will be dissuaded by clever editing and writing, but even this was done for a sincere reason — to invest ourselves in the characters, and their motivations. Had we known for certain what we were watching in a more linear manner would have simply made things terse and wanting, the given method truly involved the viewer as an active participant, should the many reddit threads and youtube videos prove to be self-evident.

Secondly, the character arcs were genuinely satisfying. There were relatively few of them who didn’t go through a considerable metamorphosis, albeit some had begun a passage that will probably continue into the next season. This includes humans as well as the aforementioned android “hosts”, with the overall effect being a balancing of the board, so to speak — and an open wake for things to come.

Lastly, I want to point out the magnificent performances of the cast. Jeffrey Wright is simply amazing. I cannot go on enough about what an incredible actor he is, able to take the most subtle and transient emotions his character(s — SPOILERS) surmount and ingest throughout this telling season. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, but he really has been given a role worthy of his finesse with Westworld. Evan Rachel Wood is a revelation. The entire show impinges on her character, and she carries the weight with an even stride. Her performance is effortless and evocative, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next. Thandie Newton is an absolute delight, and Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris do their usual brilliant takes on their given characters. I’ll have to admit that my favorite character is Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s Armistice — she is so goddamn foxy, missing an arm or not (SPOILERS) — and I hope to see more of her in the upcoming season.

Westworld.

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Way back in 1973, science fiction author Michael Crichton (who had already had cinematic success with Robert Wise’s adaptation of his novel The Andromeda Strain) apparently finagled enough leeway in Hollywood to create a film that he would both write and direct — Westworld.

While not the greatest of films, Westworld had a number of fascinating concepts — many of which Crichton would carry over some twenty years later to his novel (and screenplay) Jurassic Park. Both were based on visions of far-flung amusement parks, places filled with a number of random elements which would end up subjugating their visitors. As Jurassic Park had dinosaurs that “found a way” to mate, mutate and rise against their surroundings, Westworld had android “hosts” that interacted with guests, with some of them becoming independent of their programmed scripts, much to the regret of their human victims.

Again, the film (while a huge fave of mine, ever since I saw it on TV on the CBS Late Night Movie as a kid) was only enough of a success to warrant a dismal sequel, Futureworld (which Crichton had nothing to do with), in 1976, it died a quiet death in the shadow of the Jurassic franchise (which is still ongoing, with the upcoming Jurassic World II). Leave it to Jonathan Nolan, best known for co-writing such amazing films as the Dark Knight series, The Prestige and the source of the film Memento with his brother, director Christopher Nolan, to find a new path in Crichton’s pre-Jurassic footsteps.

Along with co-author Lisa Joy, and fellow producer J. J. Abrams, Nolan has brought a much darker take on Crichton’s concepts. Given our greater understanding of such things as computer programs and Massively Multiplayer Online games (which Westworld is the ultimate iteration of — *SPOILER* in particular Ed Harris’ “Man in Black” could be seen as the ultimate “griefer”), Nolan runs with the given status of Crichton’s original and proceeds to warp and wend it to many new and fascinating ways. The echoes of Blade Runner and Moore and Eick’s brilliant take on Battlestar Galactica are informed here as well, with many new potential insights hinted at from the first episode. This new Westworld is gonna be a barnstormer (and I’m not only referring to what Harris does with Evan Rachel Wood), hopefully for seasons to come.

Night Flight, or Late-Night Guerrilla Culture.

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From the Do You Remember When? Dept.: Let’s rewind the clock all the way back to 1981. Long before the Internet had pervaded our collective consciousness, the prime focus of the 20th century culture had been television — and by the ’80s, it had evolved a considerable step further with the advent of cable television. Instead of three network channels and whatever blurry UHF offerings could be received by the ongoing ornate direction of antennae on your television set (please refer to this entry for a little more background), cable offered a brand new vista of multiple channels from across the nation, as well as premium channels (such as Home Box Office and Showtime) which actually allowed you to watch unedited movies in your home. That alone blew my then thirteen-year-old mind. I couldn’t wait for the little HBO booklet to arrive in the mail every month, and preview what features would be showing on the channel (which included such succulent offerings as the Cronenberg classics Scanners and The Brood, as well as Phantasm and the Satanic bitch godmother of them all, The Exorcist — which I snuck and listened to before I was allowed to watch; I was almost relieved when I finally got to see it and it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I had imagined). My entire family must’ve watched Jaws at least ten or twelve times as a group (usually on Sunday nights, after dinner), and honestly never tired of it.

Mind you, we only had cable on two sets in the house at that time, the family set in the den, and my parents’ in their bedroom. This meant that many a late Friday or Saturday night I would stealthily slide down the stairs into a waiting pool of wanton excess, usually fueled by whatever snacks I had foraged from the kitchen pantry on the way. After ABC’s Fridays and NBC’s Saturday Night Live had closed their doors for the night, I would find myself scouring premium channels for some bit of delicious charnel, and would often end up with something amazing like Patrick (1978) or the wonderfully whacked-out The Manitou (which I eventually shared with my mom, it has since become one of our favorite bad movies). It was on one of those off nights when the premium channels were less giving that I finally discovered what quickly became my weekend addiction — USA Network’s Night Flight.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, MTV began broadcasting the same year, and sure, the advent of music videos was a huge thing. But back then, that was all they did — and often played the same videos over and over. And it wasn’t like I didn’t rabidly watch during the day. What Night Flight did every Friday and Saturday night was show music videos exploring some theme or another (they would “Take Off” to a given topic, often including interview segments and film clips), often involving a greater variety of musical genres than even MTV did in its heyday (read: early to mid 1980s; once they started all that “reality show” crap in the 90s it was all downhill). Night Flight would take things even further with concert films featuring Genesis and Yes, or features like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage), which either tickled me pink or blew my fragile mind. Throw in the likes of the Church of the Sub-Genius’ video barrages (segmented as a series on Night Flight titled Love That BOB) and all kinds of Cold War era footage, and one had a sumptuous feast on the menu every weekend. To relate the two in terms of the other only prominent venues of the time, MTV was to Night Flight what the ’80s era Rolling Stone was to SPIN magazine, or maybe even Heavy Metal.

Each “episode” of Night Flight would consist of a four-hour block of programming which was repeated immediately after, this coming in handy if one had been out with friends before relocating to someone’s or one’s own home in time to see the second airing. Of course, VCRs often came to the rescue (and still do, in the case of a lot of existing Night Flight footage still available online) in such cases. The show was a mainstay of my own weekly viewing habits until 1988. After that, the already tired programming of MTV had managed to outstay the more innovative and explorative show. Sigh.

Today, as mentioned above, Night Flight still exists to a small extent on the internet, just search for it on YouTube and a number of clips can be found. Albeit it may be underwhelming in light of what can currently be covered otherwise via the information superhighway (or a lot of its ideas were copied or adopted by other cable programming in later years, such as Comedy Central or Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim), for its time it was an exciting jaunt into the netherworld of media, a glide across the dark underbelly of social consciousness, or a — a Night Flight.

 

 

Rick Baker: Monster Maker.

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Three days ago (Thursday, the 28th), Rick Baker announced his retirement. If there ever was an “end to an era” moment in the realm of fantastic cinema, this was one of them. I just found out yesterday, seeing as how Thursday I was out seeing the new Mad Max movie (OMG go see it, BTW. Don’t really want to blog about it since most reviews out there currently are spot-on) and have been back to work since. But this to me is like the steam engine bowing its head to internal combustion. “First of all,” says the man himself, “the CG stuff definitely took away the animatronics part of what I do. It’s also starting to take away the makeup part. The time is right, I am 64 years old, and the business is crazy right now. I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out. I would consider designing and consulting on something, but I don’t think I will have a huge working studio anymore.” Just as his mentor Dick Smith passed earlier last year (July 30th, at the age of 92), I’m sure Baker noted a change in the technological wind. Insert heavy sigh here.

Rick Baker started out like most of his generation, raised on Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, along with the likes of John Landis (who Baker would later collaborate with on Schlock and An American Werewolf In London), Dan O’Bannon (AlienReturn of the Living Dead), Joe Dante (PiranhaThe HowlingGremlins), not to mention a little guy from Georgia who caught the monster bug from his cousin Eddie and has been a rabid fan ever since. A book published by the magazine, Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, sent the young Baker (not to mention future protege Rob Bottin and current The Walking Dead producer and director Greg Nicotero) off and running. At the tender age of 10, “Rick Baker Monster-Maker (a title he has lovingly embraced ever since)” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

At age 18 Baker would later write a letter to Smith about his own work (photographs included), and their initial long-distance conversation would lead to Baker assisting Smith on The Exorcist, the film that would forever change the conceptions of cinematic horror. Before then Baker had worked on the forgettable Octaman and Landis’ Schlock, one of my all-time faves:

After winning accolades for his work on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (with future Aliens and Jurassic Park maestro Stan Winston) and King Kong (1976, with Carlo Rimbaldi), not to mention a journeyman stint on a little flick about a galaxy far, far away:

Baker would reunite with Landis to break new ground in the fields of animatronic and prosthetic effects (and win the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup) with An American Werewolf In London:

From there he would create such myriad effects as the “living” television sets in David Cronenberg’s surreal media barrage Videodrome:

And a host of creepy monsters (including those portrayed by Jackson himself) suitable for Landis’ video (read: film short) for Michael Jackson’s landmark pop hit Thriller (Baker guest stars as the zombie opening the mausoleum door after the first graveyard shot):

Baker would best be known for his love of great apes, gorillas in particular. Beginning properly with Schlock, he initially sought out any work involving them, such as King Kong (where he would get to portray the eighth wonder himself) and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), where he starred as Sydney the Gorilla. It was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) which would allow Baker and his crew to begin thinking outside the boundaries of the traditional ape suit. Harry and the Hendersons (1987) would further the advances of Baker’s animatronic puppetry, but with 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, Michael Apted’s biopic about Dian Fossey’s time with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Baker’s creations truly stepped forward as supporting characters in a story. Along with the remake of my personal fave “ape amok” flick  Mighty Joe Young (1998) and amazing prosthetic work in Tim Burton’s otherwise misguided remake of Planet of the Apes (2001) Baker’s position as the definitive simian progenitor in current cinematic history has been founded.

Baker was also best known towards the latter end of his career for his relationship with comedian Eddie Murphy, beginning with the John Landis film (and my personal favorite Murphy film) Coming to America (1988):

With the Men in Black movies, Hellboy and, ultimately the Wolfman remake (where his makeup effects were the only highlight, and a tribute to the late, great Jack Pierce), Baker saw his role in modern film effects shrinking. While computer animation has given us such wonders as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the truly amazing simian characters of the current Apes film series (thanks due in no small part to actors like Andy Serkis), the involvement of practical effects is now an afterthought, at best. While no less an artistic endeavor, the digital realization of creatures, while certainly expanded in scope and variety, has been removed from the immediate realm of experience. While technology continues to be developed to emulate realism (such as WETA Digital’s Tissue system and Manuka rendering engine), the days of practical artistry in special effects are seeing their last days.

Baker, ever the polite gentleman, bids this all with a tip of his hat and a bow. While I’m sure his influence, whether personal or inspirational, will continue to be a part of the coming era, he has now taken a seat from the active stage. To paraphrase Stephen King, gone are the days where you could be assured the monster would have a zipper down its back.

 

 

Robin Williams (1951-2014).

Along with everyone else in the world, I was shocked to hear about Robin Williams’ death last night. Shocked, but not surprised. Williams had fought depression — which for many is a condition, not an illness — for the majority of his adult life. It is perhaps because of that condition that he also was one of the greatest comedic talents known, a man possessed who raged against fear and personal doubt with before unimagined heights of manic genius. Comedians who ranked as contemporaries, such as Steve Martin and John Belushi, were like the Jimmy Pages and Eric Claptons of comedy — but Williams was Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, wrenching every last note and primal sound out of his instrument before setting it aflame. He among a generation of voices fashioned a new age of comedic commentary, one that was daringly political, surreal and disturbingly intimate.

I won’t go into detail about his career, other than to say many of his roles onscreen showed what the man behind the mania was like — a sensitive, poetic soul with a chillingly dark edge. Like the greatest of actors, one had an understanding when seeing him take on certain aspects of character that he knew them all too well. Most others were simply frail containers set up to fall away and let him fly free, like some sort of berserker warrior who is set into the fray of battle.

Those moments showed what Williams did best — furiously improvise and embody the most abstract of concepts in a way that made them both immediately familiar and hilariously obvious. The greatest of comedians are those who manage to reveal the human condition for what it is — a series of blunders and happenstance punctuated with fleeting moments of genius and beauty. That exposed truth is what makes us laugh, even if we never realized it before. And Robin Williams, a Joycean whirling dervish of a man, did that more than most.