Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee).


I.

INTERVIEWER: Is Laura Palmer really dead?

DAVID LYNCH: Ummm. [A thirteen-second pause.] I'm pretty sure.
—Lynch on CBC Radio, 1990

LAURA WAS DEAD, but her problems kept hanging around. It was like they hadn’t buried her deep enough! That is to quote from her best friend’s scream by the grave in the Twin Peaks, Washington cemetery where her body, unwrapped from plastic, had been inhumed six days earlier in 1989. One problem was the body itself, the body of a girl being motive, means, opportunity all at once. Another was the family, where odds are made. As for the rest, they were the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, the only thing worth writing about, and that is to quote William Faulkner accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950.

The men who built Twin Peaks were born about seven years apart into nuclear families. They were eldest children, each with a younger brother and a younger sister, with fathers. David Lynch, raised on tree-lined streets across the Midwest, came to understand cinema as he did small towns, places where, because the horizontal is circumscribed, plots tend to spiral. “Everything, anything that is a thing, comes up from the deepest place,” he says in his guide to transcendental meditation, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006). The mind reels. Meanwhile, Mark Frost, a child of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, learned to write television on the Inner City, U.S.A. drama Hill Street Blues. He is likelier to pair “the deep” with “state,” and to conceive the truth as being “out there.” When the two met it was to write a movie about the death and afterlife of Marilyn Monroe, called Venus Descending, which the studio nixed upon hearing who, in this adaptation, killed her: Senator Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. A bit close to home.

Lynch and Frost decided to write a network television show, and transposed the outline of Venus Descending from Washington, DC to Washington State, the Hollywood Roosevelt to the Roadhouse. Lynch redrew the goddess as Laura Palmer, a prom queen and after-school prostitute who was also, he’d later say, “a sideways self-portrait.” Frost modeled her fate after the unsolved murder, eighty years earlier, of Hazel Irene Drew in the woods around Taborton, New York, where as a child he summered. Here too a killer did not act alone: Lynch devised a spirit named BOB (pronounced “Bob”) who would possess Laura’s father, Leland, to do his worst, complicating the trope of a man just doing what he’s told. “Maybe that’s all Bob is,” wrote Frost for a government man to say. “The evil that men do.” By the second season, the cocreators had received the encoded message that a senator killing a movie star for political reasons was, for the same reasons, inconceivable on screen; a man strangling to death his own daughter upon finding she’d been raped by someone other than himself (for once) was not inconceivable.

Nights before her murder, Laura dreams. She tosses, turns—and turns to see an older girl, blonde, with a bloody mouth, wearing a white dress like a child at First Communion. Annie (Heather Graham) will not be seen in daytime until after Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), on his first trip to Twin Peaks, has “solved” said murder, and she will not be seen looking like this until the night Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), a Federal Bureau apostate, kidnaps her and takes her to the Black Lodge. At the moment, however, she apparently can’t find a piece of paper, and tells Laura to write the following in her diary: “My name is Annie. The Good Dale is in the Lodge, and he can’t leave.”

This is useless information. “It’s like somebody in 1920 saying ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ or something, and then later you see it all,” Lynch told the writer Chris Rodley for the book Lynch on Lynch (1997). John F. Kennedy is shot and dies forty-three years later. Laura Palmer is murdered forty-three years after the birth, in 1946, of David Lynch. No coincidence that prescience and nostalgia take equally as long to develop. Nothing much to see. Unless we are talking not about hindsight but anamorphosis: a technique for making a prima facie distorted, indistinct picture become legible when viewed from a specific angle, or a certain, warped mirror.

The fateful day is one where dawn comes at the end. In Greek myths, the ones I remember, a protagonist crosses the gods. She believes that she is taking fate into her own hands, that she can reverse or avert the dread event, only to make herself answerable for the very same outcome—and then it is fate. Antigone, sentenced to be buried alive, hangs herself in the tomb before the king’s men, on new orders, arrive to free her. Daphne is fleeing Apollo when she falls into a river and cries to the gods, who save her by turning her into a laurel tree, rooted forever, and watch as Apollo cuts off her branches for a wreath. Phaedra’s nurse cures her deadly lovesickness with a revelation that causes her suicide. And that is to say nothing of the men who “accidentally” kill their fathers: Perseus, Theseus, Oedipus.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 17.


A perfect myth is the one where Eurydice dies. Her husband, Orpheus, mourns her in songs so moving that the gods develop sympathy and permit him to retrieve her from the underworld, on one condition: He can’t look at her until they reach the light. Eurydice follows closely, but she is still behind him, in darkness, when he sees the sun and turns around smiling. My favorite reading of the denouement was done by Godard in his eulogy for Hitchcock. “The cinema is Eurydice,” said Godard.

Eurydice says to Orpheus: “Don’t look back.” And Orpheus turns around. Orpheus is the literature that kills Eurydice. And the rest of his life, he makes money by publishing a book on the death of Eurydice.

The second-to-last hour of The Return ends with Cooper in the woods on the night of February 23, 1989. Laura and James fought there. He watches them fighting now. Once Laura looked past James and screamed at what appeared to be nothing. Now when she looks, we see Cooper. Cooper thinks she sees him, and ducks. (It’s unclear that she does, and funny, when you pause on his modest face, to think of him causing a scream.) Later she returns to the woods and this time, seeing the man in a suit, uses her words. She wonders whether she knows him. “We’re going home,” he says, and takes her hand.

A portal is open. We glimpse a Twin Peaks where Laura does not, on February 24, 1989, die. The mill-owner’s husband goes out fishing, and does not find a body. The mistress does her makeup and hums a soft, disquieting tune. If everything were different, what would change? Tonight in a world where her daughter is or is not dead, the woman we know as Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) is drunk and alone, raging at the portrait of Laura, trying to scratch out Laura’s face.

In Don DeLillo’s Libra (1985), a novel about who killed John F. Kennedy, a line goes: “Something in his heart longed for this murder, even though he knew it was a sin.”

Laura follows Cooper out of the woods. He turns to look. She smiles, unsure. There is a sound of wind rising. He turns again. The rising wind. Again. A pause, an insectile scratching, and he turns to look a fourth time. Bad news.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18.


II.

“Moving forward in time, it is important that we learn to distinguish between mysteries and secrets.”
—Major Garland Briggs in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, 2016

THERE IS APPARENTLY such a thing as an “extreme negative force,” says Lynch as Chief Gordon Cole to his right-hand man, Albert (Miguel Ferrer), and his novitiate, Tammy (Chrysta Bell), at the top of The Return’s two-part finale. Cole says that “in olden times” this “entity” had a name, about which there’s been some confusion. Lynch enunciates two syllables, like he’s learning pinyin: Zhǎo + Dēi. Closed captioning has this as Jow-Day, which sounds like an Old Celtic warning. Frost, going off script, has suggested that the entity is a Sumerian demon-goddess, a counterpart to Ba’al, called Joudy. (No such shakti appears in extant myths of Sumer.) Whatever her provenance, her name over the ages, as in a game of Chinese whispers, became Judy. Darkness, gentrified.

Judy was name-dropped at the offices of the Bureau by Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie), returning from Buenos Aires, in 1987. Her nature or presence was discovered by Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) at some point before he disappeared in the early 1990s. The bedevilled Jeffries, who appeared only in Fire Walk with Me, and the divining Briggs, who appeared only in Twin Peaks (1990–91), never met. They continue to polarize the co-creation. Lynch told Variety that what happened in Fire Walk with Me, a Lynch minus Frost production, would be “very important” to The Return. Frost promoted his book, styled as a dossier on the paranormal kept by Briggs, The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016). “I haven’t read it,” said Lynch, when asked to comment on the 368-page tome. Forty minutes into The Return we find the Major dead, his head severed as if it contained his mind, as if Lynch had personally executed him for knowing too much.

Briggs may have been named Garland as in Judy Garland, who appeared as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film beloved by Lynch, a few years before he was born. But nomen is not necessarily omen. Lynch uses, across his ouevre, the same names for wildly unlike characters: Betty Briggs and Betty Elms. Frank Booth and Frank Truman. Dorothy Vallens and Dorothy, just Dorothy. Bobby Peru and Bobby Briggs. The denotive power makes meanings, two by two, cancel out. He likes it, too, when characters share names with his favorite people, or vice versa: Laura Palmer takes after Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), but her persona also connotes Laura Dern. Dern is Lula Fortune in a Lynch film, and Lula is the name of Lynch’s latest daughter, four years old. A universe feels familial. Harry, brother of Frank, is the sheriff in a coma, and Harry was Harry Dean Stanton.

Stanton died two weeks after the finale aired, and I rewatched Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, the 2012 documentary in which he plays guitar, muses on the void, tries to avoid talking about his “career.” Lynch comes over and reads him some questions from a printout.

LYNCH
Have you ever been married?

STANTON
No. But I was really close once…

LYNCH
(grinning)
The next question was, how did you meet your wife?

Lynch, like Frost as Cyril Pons, is enjoying his little cameo as a reporter. Where the screenwriter lent indulgence to the hack type, the director treats the business as a not-bad joke.

LYNCH
How would you describe yourself?

STANTON
As nothing. There is no self.

Lynch and Stanton both laugh.

I searched the web for “David Lynch” + “the self.” What appeared was a book on a famous poet, titled Yeats: The Poetics of The Self, by David Lynch. The sole review on Goodreads was ecstatic:

I didn’t know this existed until I googled “Lynch Yeats” a moment ago. After seeing a clear connection between Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and imagery and events in Twin Peaks: The Return, I became convinced that Lynch had read Yeats, but not that he’d written an entire monograph about him! I immediately ordered it and hope that it sheds more light on this fascinating and unexpected connection.

On the internet the past doesn’t die, and “medium” seems a double entendre. Connections constantly disturb. I said in an earlier recap that social media and dreams are on the same plane of reality, and that in Twin Peaks and moreso in The Return, telecommunications and networks are incorporated into a new, almost dreamless surrealism. Lynch and Frost attract message-board freaks who, never getting enough sleep, see clues in lieu of symbols and take inexplicability as a challenge. The number-one search engine suggests that The Poetics of The Self was authored by the famously atheoretical artist, not the minor, dead academic who actually wrote it. This was all very funny until I found myself wondering whether the Yeatsian notion of “negative capability” applies to the work of David Lynch, and only later remembered that the notion is actually Keatsian.

Superstition makes you do crazy things, says Robert Burton in his life’s work, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The Major to Windom Earle, under the influence of truth serum, surrenders the key to the Black Lodge: “There is a time, when Jupiter and Saturn meet, they will receive you.” He must mean the planetary event known as the Great Conjunction, scheduled to occur every eighteen to twenty-one years: the length of a trend cycle, or the time it takes a child to reach maturity. Great Conjunctions are historically mystified. Earle goes around singing: “When Jupiter and Saturn meet, oh what a crop of mummy wheat!” Which is, as it happens, a line from a Yeats poem.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 17. Agent Cooper, Diane Evans, and FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, and David Lynch).


III.

“Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. … No good has come of it.”
— George S. Trow, Within the Context of No-Context (1981)

A TRIPLE CONJUNCTION of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in Libra in 1981. David Lynch, a founding member of The Platters, died and was remembered for singing tenor on “Only You” (1955). David Lynch, the director of Eraserhead (1977), was nominated for his first Academy Award, for The Elephant Man (1980). Seven hours before the ceremony was to begin at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, a twenty-five-year-old man seeking the attention of a nineteen-year-old actress, who would turn out to be a lesbian, shot Ronald Reagan outside a Northwest Washington hotel. The ceremony was postponed for twenty-four hours, and a television set was procured for Reagan’s bedside. He watched the stars watch him give a competent performance as the President: “Film reveals that people everywhere share common dreams and emotions,” said Reagan to the Academy in a message taped two weeks earlier, when he had never been shot. The “theme” of the ceremony was that “film is forever.” Reagan said, “I’ve been trapped in some film forever myself.”

Lynch had voted for Reagan on the grounds of that smile and his “cowboy image.” He believed in an implanted memory of America. Daily for seven years he went to Bob’s Big Boy Diner on Riverside Drive, where he ordered a chocolate milkshake in a silver goblet and wrote ideas on white napkins, a lone communion. The ideas that came quickest were disturbing because he was easily disturbed: One day a man came into the diner and though nothing he did or said was memorable, he gave the director a feeling and the feeling gave us Frank Booth, the most terrific human monster, in Blue Velvet (1986).

His work from the beginning had the antagonism to shared reality of evangelical tracts. He used an unspoken Bible verse as “a key to unlock” the meaning of Eraserhead (1977). He devotes much screen time in The Elephant Man (1980) to the church that Merrick (John Hurt) builds in miniature, working on it daily until the night he says, “it’s finished,” and dies. In Blue Velvet, Sandy (Laura Dern) and Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) sit parked across from a church as she, backtracked by organs, talks about love and the coming robins. Dern told a New York Times reporter that “David is as much a believer in the robins as in Frank Booth.” The robin who appears at the end of the film is fake, a taxidermied marionette, but then so was Reagan.

“You don’t literally believe in angels,” said the interviewer, Mark Cousins, to Lynch on Scene by Scene. Lynch said he did. “No,” said Cousins. “Do you?” “Yeah,” said Lynch. Even the lawless Wild at Heart (1990) had Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Dern) survive hellfires in a pilgrimage to reach the City of Angels, where an embrace reiterates that perfect love casts out fear. Yet nothing could prepare the unbeliever for the overwhelming theodicy of Fire Walk with Me. Heaven, in this reactive prequel, is promised to Laura (Sheryl Lee) and to her friend Ronette (Phoebe Augustine). Laura thinks the angels are leaving her, while the cinematographer, Roy Garcia, knows better and shoots from a high, diametric corner, the angel’s-eye view. (Garcia also, albeit in a deleted scene, provides a clear shot of the church in Twin Peaks, never before seen and since abandoned.) Dimly, we see her death as a choosing. She slips a significant jade ring on her finger, securing her place as the bride of someone like Christ, and goes to the Red Room to meet her angel, who is wearing an angel costume. Luigi Cherubini plays us out.

Any believability, or deceptive coherence, in Fire Walk with Me may be credited to the costume and production designer, Patricia Norris, who had done all Lynch’s films and the Twin Peaks pilot; and to the editor, Mary Sweeney, who had assisted Duwayne Dunham on Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks before taking over for one sublime episode of the show’s second season, “Lonely Souls,” directed by Lynch. Sweeney became his editor for the next decade, his live-in partner for several years, and, for one month in 2006, his third wife. “I never know where the point is when I’ve entered into [his] world,” she told an interviewer in 2007. “It is usually an unremarkable passage, but all of a sudden I just understand.” Audiences were less understanding, and tended to see Fire Walk with Me as a morbid betrayal, a tasteless, sad exploitation, or an interesting mess. Twenty-five years later, we see it all. Sweeney established a narrative structure that now seems definitively Lynch: A mystery is met with dissolution. Between two acts, the stage is rotated, the players and the story change.

Lynch has said that the few years after Fire Walk with Me bombed were the darkest in his life. He no longer went to Bob’s Big Boy, having one day gone into the dumpster and discovered what was really in the milkshakes: “Every ingredient ended in -zine or -ate. There was nothing natural anywhere near that carton.” Artifice, empty trash. No disillusionment like that of a man who believes, until after age forty, that there is milk in the milkshakes. When he returned to theaters with Lost Highway (1997), a schitzy, neo-noirish thriller, the change was clear. There would be nothing further for angels to do in a Lynch film.

The trouble in Lost Highway starts with videotapes sent anonymously to the home of Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette), filmed nightly in the bedroom where they sleep off desires, unfulfilled. Fred appears on the last of the tapes to murder Renee. On death row, he undergoes either a psychotic break or metempsychosis and emerges from his cell as Pete (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic whose crimes are minor and who is set free to live with his parents. Pete stays out of trouble until the day he meets a porn star named Alice (Arquette), who looks like Renee in a blonde wig or is Renee through a looking glass. Arquette’s interpretation: “It’s about a man trying to recreate a relationship with the woman he loves so that it ends up better.” (...Spoiler alert.) Fred says, about the business of video: “I like to remember things the way I remember them. Not necessarily how they happened.” He speaks for the auteur, who appeared to regret making his process seem easy, a matter of drinking too much coffee, getting a bad night’s sleep, and recording his dreams. Lynch told the Village Voice that was not “about dreams” at all.

Remembering one’s self is a difficulty. His structural opus Mulholland Drive, starring Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, is an extraordinary conflict of memories, told in twisted ternary form. Each woman’s version of the story starts with the other woman in the backseat of a limousine, saying the line: “What are we doing? We don’t stop here.” These are the first and third acts, separated by a second where the stories line up and it’s love, the two falling silent—of course, at a nightclub called Silencio. Rebekah Del Rio sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, a language the blonde does not understand and the brunette in a blonde wig does, and the two, holding hands, perform an accompaniment in tears. “Crying often takes the place of speech,” says Dennis Lim in his great book on Lynch. “A language of the body, it insists that words are not enough.” The lovers exaggerate what they do not have to say, that the beginning is the end. Hereafter they will remember things differently.

Betty’s story stars herself as a natural, promising actress, uncorrupted as a Canadian can be. She finds a perfect object for a coup de foudre: a woman who has lost her memory and her identification, both in a limousine accident on Mulholland Drive, and who names herself Rita, after Hayworth. Betty connotes Grable, Hayworth’s rival. She watches auditions for The Sylvia North Story and knows she could outdo Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George, who like Watts is blonde and Australian), but when the director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), turns by chance to see her and is enraptured, she flees like it’s midnight. Adam sighs and pretends to choose Camilla: “This is the girl,” he tells the shadowy producers, who likewise pretend. Betty, a victim in her own narrative, is hindered by a conspiratorial system and driven by pure, requited, yet ultimately self-destructive love. She finds a mysterious blue key and gives it to Rita. She starts losing the plot.

In Rita’s story she is Camilla, and Camilla (like Harring, like Del Rio) is a Mexican-American femme fatale. No accidents here: She is chosen by an older director to be Sylvia North in the fateful biopic, and by the young one, Adam, to star in a cult film and be his girlfriend. Betty, barely a rival, becomes “a friend” in the euphemistic parlance of backstage lesbianism, and when she gets out of the limo to join Adam and Camilla at a dinner, she plays third wheel. Betty is not even Betty. She’s Diane in the daytime in a wifebeater, the dark roots showing in her hair, strung out and desperate, getting her nom de guerre off a waitress’s nametag. This story ends with Diane alone, dying—a probable suicide. Rita’s fairy-tale ending (“Camilla and I... are going to be…,” says Adam, but then the scene falls apart) is no match for a Carmenesque gesture. But because her story is an on-the-record version of events, a tale told anecdotally, less as narrative and not as romance, it is seen as “realer” or “truer.” Most reviewers of Mulholland Drive think the mystery was in fact a dream, the love story a delusion, on the part of Diane, and take Rita’s real name to be Camilla.

But there is no Camilla. “The girl is still missing,” say the producers. “Camilla is still missing,” says Don Antonio, the Pantalone, in Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1953), a romantic comedy about the Columbine in a commedia dell’arte troupe, played by Camilla (Anna Magnani), and her three simultaneous lovers. Unhappy after losing all three, she wants to quit acting. The Pantalone, played by a man named Don Antonio says she might as well quit living:

Your only way to find happiness is on any stage … during those two little hours when you become another person, your true self.

Or, in another translation of the speech, said by Truffaut to be Renoir’s artistic statement:

You will find your happiness only on stage each night for the two hours in which you ply your craft as an actress, that is, when you forget yourself. Through the characters that you will incarnate, you will perhaps find the real Camilla.

In Mulholland Drive, Camilla is metonymic with “the girl,” the girl metonymic with the part. Whoever is Camilla is the it-girl, the director’s girlfriend, the girl of the hour, and anyone could be her in theory, only one at a time. When the two women go to the address listed under Diane Selwyn, Betty is confident it will turn out to be Rita’s place. They arrive to find that a neighbor and Diane have swapped apartments, and to see a corpse on the bed, also changeable, brunette and then blonde. The agonistic she-said she-said is presented in a vertiginous feat of editing, as quick and sure-handed as the riffle shuffle of a blackjack dealer.

Lynch decided to self-edit his next film. He authorized (and, at times, appeared to co-author) an unknown director’s documentary, Lynch: One (2007), in which he says at one point that creativity flows best amid personal happiness and at another point that he is so depressed he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In the late fall of 2016, the executor of William Faulkner’s estate told the Los Angeles Times that he was looking for someone to make a “David Lynch-style movie” of a Faulkner story, about three deteriorating generations of a Nebraskan family in a sick, lightless Hollywood, “Golden Land” (1935). Unfortunately, this is a fine description of Inland Empire (2006), released two weeks later.

I was willing to watch Inland Empire once. What I remember: shrieking, a danse macabre, a tale told in hideous Polish, conflations of the torturous and the pornographic, colors as if palm oil sludge had been smeared on the optical flat, and altogether a psychoactive morass. Despite starring the extraordinary Dern as a dithery, fey actress-or-whore, the narrative was clearly, too clearly, unreeled from the mind of a man who was having trouble thinking. I have also seen it described—in a four-star review—as “the Atlas Shrugged of narrative avant-garde films.” The penultimate scene is a farce of literal homelessness on the Hollywood strip.

Parts seventeen and eighteen of the “eighteen-part limited series” that is Twin Peaks: The Return are stories about going home again. (A return to form matches content, thanks to superb editing by Duwayne Dunham.) The last hour begins with a new model Cooper, a tulpa to replace and improve upon Dougie, arriving chez Jones. “Dougie!” says Janey-E (Naomi Watts). “Dad!” says Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon). “Home,” says Dougie. The word triggers a near-verbatim replay of the fatal scene: Cooper in the woods, turning to look at Laura. Laura’s scream. There is one second’s difference, a shot moving in from over his shoulder, spliced into the long moment after she vanishes, before we see his eyes. This is all it takes to put us at the scene.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Janey-E, Dougie, and Sonny Jim (Naomi Watts, Kyle MacLachlan, and Pierce Gagnon).


IV.

“Dark, menacing themes are like bass notes; they prepare us for the high beautiful strings.”
—Lynch (again) on CBC Radio, 1990

FAULKNER’S HOLLYWOOD COLONIZES MY MIND. In “Golden Land,” a story he wrote while under contract with MGM in the 1930s, a Hollywood agent wakes up to tabloid stories about a sort of proto-”sex tape” starring his twenty-year-old daughter, a prodigal and aspiring starlet. Ashamed, he wants to grab her, say: “Can’t you understand that you don’t get into the pictures just by changing your name? And that you don’t even stay there when you get in? That you can’t even stay there by being female?” Instead he picks up the phone and sells to those tabloids the sickening details of her life, and the next day the headlines will be worse, and he won’t see his daughter. Neither will he spare some of the cash for his mother, who needs thirteen dollars for a train ride home to Nebraska. The old woman looks out the window onto a “cemetery dramatic as a stage set,” and thinks, horrifyingly, that she will live forever.

It’s now the “post-Weinstein era,” so-called as if the worst could not be imagined before this fall, when stories of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes against women finally broke. That the women are in the movies is significant: Actresses embody in more gendered and sexed ways than we represent ourselves, making us younger and smaller, more appealing. The abuses they are “opening up” about now do not linger because sexual abuses are per se injurious, but because such abuses are insults to bodily integrity, added to the injury that is the sustained depression of the young, the girlish woman’s ego and therefore unbearable. Men acting as men respect ego, not flesh. Fathers know this, yet would rather see daughters become unconscious victims than knowing whores—a classic dichotomy. No movie star in America is about to reveal she slept with that monster for her career’s sake, even though her statement would be no less true of the feminine condition (or rather, as one careful ingenue put it, the “inhumane economic system”) than the statements we do hear, premised on helplessness and a prelapsarian nature.

Weinstein’s record has everything we need in a myth: the fair vestal beauty of nymphs, the ugly power of gods, and hubris. He was such a big man. No wonder so many women are imagining the man who hurt them, whatever his actual stature, as “my Weinstein,” or choosing this time to say “me too.” A triumph of “female storytelling” in a formal sense, the news cycle has taken on the tones and the atmosphere of women’s pictures, featuring sweet and vengeful heroines with powdered cheeks and waterproof mascara; even when the stories sound exaggerated or too banal to excite, only snobs and assholes get bored. Everyone I know is riveted by this daytime soap opera with its internecine plotlines about dick-wielding patriarchs who—almost!—got away with it forever. I read in a report from the Cinema del Festa di Rome that a woman at a press conference asked a certain famous straight white male director whether he feared being implicated in what the Italians continue to call “sex scandals,” and David Lynch replied: “Stay tuned.”

Lynch could have said more, and I would still have to wonder about him as a man, about whether he has done the things that men do in his films. I admit to being succored by stupid questions, like the ones he was asked a long time ago on CBC Midday. Unable to suss out why anyone would make a film as disturbing as the one he was promoting, Blue Velvet (1986), the host, whose name was Valerie, had to ask: “Do you think you’re a genius, or a really sick person?” Lynch smiled like he was flirting with a lady police officer. “Well, Valerie,” he said. “I don’t know.” She had to laugh.

That Lynch didn’t know was never a worse alibi than it was in the case of Blue Velvet, a movie based on his own personal wish to spy on a girl from inside her closet, as Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) does on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, who made the girl more of a woman). Jane Shattuc wrote that the progressive spiritual and physical disease of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), and his commensurate, worsening violence against Dorothy, constituted “postmodern misogyny.” Pauline Kael liked it: “His fantasies may come from his unconscious, but he recognizes them for what they are, and he’s tickled by them.” Lynch, attentive to the provoked, did more interviews than usual with female journalists: “There are some women that you want to hit because you’re getting a feeling from them that they want it, or maybe they upset you in a certain way,” he explained to Lizzie Borden in the Village Voice. Does this sound like what a genius would say?

It’s easy, though it isn’t nice, to imagine that one day a former assistant tells a story about Lynch like the one Diane (or, Diane’s tulpa) tells about Cooper (or, Mr. C) in part sixteen of The Return. The rape plot is common, but here a woman’s account stands in place of seeing what happens, which is rare. Fans would have to find the story believable. Lynch’s ouevre would seem immediately like a shell game in which the object was the reality of what he showed. Flashbacks would be recast as foreshadowing, found in extant reportage: Lynch laughs at the rape scene in Blue Velvet. Lynch, directing a one-minute ad for Clearblue, has the actress take one of the pregnancy tests and switches it with that of a pregnant crew member. (“You bastard!” she yells when he says “Cut.”) Lynch gets frustrated with Watts on the set of Mulholland Drive and jokes, or is it a joke, that “Naomi’s gonna get a spanking.”

It’s harder to imagine that the feeling between this director and his female stars is anything less than love. Rossellini and he are friends, and she continues to speak of him as a genius, even a god. Dern is his neighbor, and she has said that “working with him is home and family.” At this year’s Comic Con, Watts appeared on a panel with nine other cast members of The Return, and talked more like a cult member:

I still get a little star-struck around David because he’s so unique. He’s like another world you want to be a part of, and you just want to please him in everything you do. [Laughing.] That sounds weird. On set! … He creates such an incredibly imaginative world and it’s so original and you just want to join that world at whatever cost.

The “post-Weinstein” discourse has isolated certain costs that the young and the feminine have paid unhappily to participate in the arts and the worlds of men. As a corollary, the category of genius is being problematized as more people who aren’t men become eligible. It’s very annoying, the notion that possessing genius is irrelevant to how people should behave, and that involvement in a masterwork, versus in a work that’s forgettable, promises no extra benefit. Genius is no alibi, but neither is it a myth; it is a spirit that comes into the room. Later, you can only say that you had to be there.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).


“Sometimes the network can give too much respect to an artist,” said the producer Tony Krantz in the New Yorker’s profile of Lynch in 1999, explaining why the planned televised version of Mulholland Drive wouldn’t pan out. Lynch had cast Harring and Watts on instinct, after long looks and talks in lieu of auditions, giving the network no time to complain: “They think the actresses are fantastic-looking, fine talents,” said Krantz, “but they’re a little old.” Harring was thirty-four, Watts thirty-one. Consider the unterrific result had that sexism prevailed. Lynch demands enough respect to share with his actors and actresses, to him irreplaceable.

In September at the second annual Spa-Con in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Sheryl Lee and Sherilynn Fenn dueted on a panel to promote The Return. Lynch once said that in the town of Twin Peaks there were two people he really loved: Audrey Horne, a character written to fit Fenn, and Laura, who became a co-creation with Lee in Fire Walk with Me. Laura’s vivification from body to ageless figure was the dreamiest career arc for a girl. Audrey was unluckier, and Fenn told the audience that when she read the first draft of her storyline, twenty-seven years later, she “cried and shook” and fought with Lynch to change it:

I can’t tell you what it was, but I can tell you what my job is, which is to illuminate the human struggle—my human struggle. I have to stay open, and, even just as a woman in the world, to keep trying to grow, and… that stuff was like, ahhhh, like seriously?

Everyone clapped. They could guess what stuff. Fenn’s reaction to the original provided the material for a rewrite, or at least that would explain the numbing length of her scenes with Charlie and her erratic, reactive, at times contemptuous performance; that, in turn, explains the cathexis when she gives in and reprises Audrey’s dance. Cinema, even on television, has to show what filmmaking essentially is: collaborative, a clash of projections. (Auteurs, by the way, are not always directors. I have always seen Annie Hall as a Diane Keaton movie; if it were a Woody Allen movie, it would be called Anhedonia. But Keaton can’t really direct, as seen when she tried her hand in an episode of Twin Peaks.)

The process is allegory in the finale’s faked denouement, when, at the top of the penultimate hour, over a dozen incompatible characters stand in for figures on a film set. Mr. C, Cooper’s bad double, is a veritable svengali and a shark, arriving first at the Twin Peaks Sheriff Department. The Mitchum Brothers with their hard-won goodwill are the producers, giving Agent Cooper a ride. Andy and Bobby and James must be the hardworking crew. Lucy is the script girl, getting the warning call from Cooper and going straight into the boss’s office to shoot Mr. C before he shoots the Sheriff, who represents, say, the production manager. (She delivers the punchline: “Andy! I understand cell phones now!”) Candie and the bunnies bringing sandwiches on a tray are craft services, while Freddie with the green glove is the stuntman, tasked with defeating evil in the orbular form of Bob. Cooper directs, but his directions are supererogatory urgings-on and the action lacks spirit. Then divine inspiration arrives, how else but in a trembling breast: Naido, despite being played by the Japanese-American actress Nae Yūki, dissolves into the real Diane (Dern), now with a maraschino-cherry wig, à la Marjorie Cameron in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). The movie is reshot before our eyes.

Thrilling to see the work of geniuses and of really sick people, who sometimes live under one name. Instructive, at the very least, to suffer the cruelty and the misery shared in a Lars Von Trier film, or the moral angst in one by Elia Kazan. I watch and rewatch films by Roman Polanski involving tortures for women, particularly Repulsion (1965) and Tess (1979), to see how bad things can get without getting bored. I am for the best possible representations of badness. I want to see the work of a man who raped a thirteen-year-old girl in Gstaad in 1973 and the work of a man who, three years earlier, was in London when he heard that his wife, twenty-six years old, and their baby, twenty days from being born, had been brutally murdered by female teenagers. I am depressed by both the title and the subtitle of Samantha Geimer’s memoir, The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski (2013), characterizing her as an unknown cast in a production that has been stalled for decades. Film, the medium most conducive to realizing fears, is expressly durational. What it promises in fancy script: The End.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Diane Evans and Agent Dale Cooper (Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan).


V.

“She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look.”
—Nabokov, on the subject of Lolita, in Playboy, 1964

COOPER AND DIANE drive in a 1963 Lincoln for 430 miles, and stop. “This is the place,” says Cooper. It’s a road in what looks like the desert outside my house, which is in California. He gets out to feel the hum of the power lines, the only live thing in sight, on his skin. Diane stays in the car.

“Electricity,” enunciated at length like “silencio” at the end of Mulholland Drive, is a buzzword and a curse on The Return. “Electricity is humming,” says the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson). “You hear it in the mountains and rivers. You see it dance among the seas and stars and glowing around the moon, but in these days the glow is dying.” When she passes her log turns to gold, a great conductor. Tulpas sprout from gold kernels. Evil sputters out against a rubber glove. Flowing like tears and for as many reasons, electricity charges that love, more than a word, is still not enough. Its salient use: to restart the heart after a failure. But even then.

They cross. They go to a motel. Diane sees her new tulpa loitering while Cooper goes in to get a room. How sublunary it is all of a sudden, another middle-aged man having sex with his ex-secretary somewhere out of the way. An anticlimax is set to the sound of The Platters singing “My Prayer,” a song we first heard at the end of episode eight. Diane looks to the ceiling in agony and not like she’s praying. She puts her hands over the face of Cooper, either because he looks like his double, Mr. C, who raped her, or because she sees the same loss of a love story we see and does not want to cry.

Judy Berman writes, in a piece wonderfully titled “Tears of a Crazy Clown,” that although sentimentality “can be used to the same emotionally manipulative ends as sadism,” it can also “deepen our engagement… and replace unmitigated bleakness with ambiguity.” Sentimental to me is when Cooper, as Dougie, stands imitating a big bronze statue of a cowboy in a corporate plaza, unable to break the pose, as the sun goes down. Sentimental to Berman is when Cooper shuffles off Dougie and fully awakes, saying triumphantly: “I am the FBI.” (I found that emotional to the brink of propagandistic.) Hence her reading of the original Twin Peaks as more bathetic and The Return as warmer, sincere: “The difference… is that, the second time around, Dale Cooper is fighting for the soul of a town worth saving.”

Cooper was sitting at the Roadhouse when Leland Palmer was choking the life out of Maddie, so that the Giant had to come on stage, interrupting a Julee Cruise show, to tell him. He was standing at the back of the room, staring without moving, when Windom Earle kidnapped Annie, his girlfriend, off the stage at the Miss Twin Peaks Pageant. When the Major disappeared in the woods, Cooper, the only potential witness, was in the bushes taking a leak. He is now the only one sent through time. Too late it is obvious that he has never, not once, saved the day.

He wakes to find Diane gone, split—no longer Diane. He puzzles silently over a goodbye note addressed to “Richard,” signed “Linda.” Some time ago, on his last day in the Black Lodge, Cooper was told by the Giant to “remember Richard and Linda,” but he didn’t write it down and now it seems he’s forgotten.

He checks his watch. Driving, he sees a diner named Judy’s.

“There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence,” says a detective in Lost Highway (1997).

Inside the diner are three guys harassing a waitress. Cooper disables them, takes away their guns, and then, in a gesture as automatic as it is unheard-of, drops each pistol like a chicken wing into the deep fryer. His efficacy perplexes, startles since we just learned to see his inaction as essential. Colors fade from his character. The waitress says yes, there is another waitress, who’s been off for three days. He gets the address and goes.

Richard Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, says the devil is everywhere God is. Nobody better imitates Christ.

There’s a picture of a cowboy by the door.

There’s his car, changed from a 1963 to a 2003 Lincoln Town Car, like one we’ve seen Mr. C driving, waiting outside.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee).


VI.

LOLITA
What do you know—the same old car.

HUMBERT
One last word. Are you quite, quite sure that—well, not tomorrow of course, and not after-tomorrow, but some day, any day—you’ll not come to live with me? I’ll create a God and thank Him with piercing cries, if you give me that small hope.

LOLITA smiles, shakes her head in smiling negation.

HUMBERT
It would have made all the difference.

—Nabokov’s screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1963)

CARRIE PAGE (SHERYL LEE) LIVES in a rented bungalow in Odessa, Texas. The decor is spare to nonexistent. The smells are Pine-Sol, Bounce dryer sheets, something wafting up from the concrete, the mustiness inside a jar of old, dried thyme, and the rotten-banana fume of drugstore nail-polish. She wears a dirty blonde, iron-curled bob that looks inspired by photos of Miranda Lambert, three years ago, in People. Her jeans are “heritage blue” and bootcut, size twenty-nine. Her jewelry is “antique silver.” She’s a waitress. Her entire circumstance has the air of a great find at the thrift store. You would say: Oh, is that a new life? She would reply, with a self-conscious shrug: It’s new to me. She looks like a woman who used to be a girl named Laura Palmer.

Now, if a woman doesn’t know she’s Laura Palmer, I’m not sure why you would tell her. Only a certain governmant man is bent on delivering the news. Carrie, wearing an upside-down horseshoe necklace (a deterministic touch) with a ditsy-floral georgette blouse, answers the knock and talks to Agent Cooper (MacLachlan) through a screen door. She says without seeming to prevaricate that she doesn’t know what he means, has never heard of Laura, or the Palmers, or the town of Twin Peaks. Normally, she says, she would tell someone like him to get lost.

Supposing Carrie is Laura: What’s changed? Men are still beating down her door. One is sitting in the living room with a bullet through his forehead, like a deer she ran over on the road or an abusive boyfriend who got what he deserved. “I do have to get out of Dodge,” she says, without further explanation, to Cooper. They get in the car.

The scene feels akin to the near-end of Kubrick’s Lolita (1963). Embarrassed hopes. Faded, weathered ideals. The moment, terrifying for both the narrator and a young female reader, when it’s clear that the victim is no different from a thousand other girls. A possibility: Carrie is Laura to the degree that Dolores Haze was ever Lolita. Lolita, hard to picture in the novel, has been metaphorized as America herself in her youth, innocence, vulgarity; and, of course, her vaunted ivory whiteness.

At New York magazine, in an essay on David Lynch and race, the critic Frank Guan says that “cinema is a world where flesh is made image and force” and “figures, whatever else they may be, have to be who they appear to be.” Believing the second part would make Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) a confusing film and Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) a dissatisfying one, but if anyone could believe it it’s Lynch, who often casts on the strength of an actor’s headshot, choosing faces with character. His preference for white faces on the poster may be, per Guan, “the most normal thing about him.” What is normal on today’s screens, however, is to see white leads set against a more “realistically” diverse milieu, whereas here we get casino scenes that look like postcards from Fremont in the 1950s. Lynch’s casting appears especially strange on television, where demographics matter: “These beautiful Nielsen families are in the driver’s seat,” he said to Entertainment Weekly in 1990. Twenty-seven years later, over two hundred credited actors make The Return one of the two whitest critically acclaimed scripted series set in present-day America and airing this past year (the other is season three of Fargo).

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017,still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 17. Naido (Nae Yūki)


Caucasity this inbred is backwards, perverse—and telelogical. “The crises that force his pale-faced leads to reveal their true nature are subtly and indelibly linked to the violence and discrimination that created and sustains their power, or in other words, whiteness,” as Guan goes on to say. (Or perhaps, as I said in an early recap: “Lynch appropriates whiteness, rendering it less flesh than guise, naïve costume … like a skull mask worn over the face, a skeleton worn over the body on Halloween.”) Several nonwhite actors pass as white, most importantly the late Frank Silva (who in real life was Native American) as Killer Bob, a.k.a. “the evil that men do.” When nonwhite characters enter they seldom speak, unsettling the score: Charlyne Yi responds to brutality by crawling on all fours through a moshpit. Ime Etuk, one of the show’s assistant directors, cameos as an impassive bodyguard to Balthazar Getty’s Red. In Twin Peaks and The Return, as in Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, the thugs and lowlifes and sex-slavers are always white.

Yet so are all the enslaved. We return to the undying leitmotif of what used to be called “white slavery,” that is to say the prostitution of white girls like the two “fifteen-year-old, straight-A whores” reported missing, never mentioned again, at the end of part seven. The only two black girls on the series are also call girls, but happier ones. There was Jade (Nafessa Williams) in part three of The Return, seen by the critic Niela Orr as “a black symbol in a white world, meant to communicate a vague if deep truth.” There was Jenny (Lisa Ann Cabasa) in episode six of Twin Peaks, a perfume-counter girl at Horne’s whose recruitment for a brothel leads Audrey, Horne’s daughter, into trouble. Jenny and Jade are both naturals. The unsubtlety could pose as an art-historical communiqué, something pointed about black women being born nudes, but even as meta-representation, writes Orr, this would be more like “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Lynch has made his pure, unhappy victims shiningly white, played by his favorite actresses, fair-haired. (The exception is Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy in Blue Velvet. Originally, he wanted to cast Helen Mirren.) They are threatened by brunettes. They are led down rabbit holes by darker beauties, racialized or differently raced. Their existential journeys require a transracial phase, as if Lynch clings to the suburban legend that by digging a tunnel in your own backyard, you will end up in China; and the East Asian or “Eurasian” actresses who play these mesmeric alternates have to channel a pallor. (Joan Chen is another exception, partly because her character, Josie, was written by Lynch for Rossellini.) Some perceptual ambiguity results. Like, are we seeing the same women with the same troubles over and over, or the same man’s trouble seeing different women?

Emerging over the course of The Return is “a gradual transition from the depiction of women as victims of violence to figures who have actively been locked in … a battle with female forces on both sides,” as Hanh Nguyen writes at Indiewire. Naido (Nae Yūki) and Diane combine as another albescent dream of goodness in The Return. Sarah Palmer reminds us that her middle name is Judy (or rather, Judith). Laura used to be so shining, with a cool nacreous glamour about her face under autopsy lights and a shadeless incandescence on videotape, but as Carrie she appears on digital with a low, low contrast, hovering over tenebrous. What dignifies her continued existence is looking mortal.

The evil that (white) men do does not become simply the evil that (white) women can do too. The root of evil is not per se whiteness, which hardly existed in “olden times” (the term Lynch, as Cole, uses to mean “ancient,” and to suggest himself as immortal, a legend beyond time and place, somehow capable of nostalgia for the dark ages). Skin privilege here is not the crime, it’s the cover-up. As Kierkegaard said in his last note on Schelling’s lectures, in Berlin in the spring of 1843, which he had been so excited to attend and was now finding tiresome,

Orpheus is a representative of time past. … Homer’s power consists precisely in the power with which he excludes the past. In that always lies the power to suppress the past. Homer is beautiful youth. Homer belongs to the time in which the Hellenic people isolate themselves from the universally human, so that they are really not even a people.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 18. Carrie Page and Agent Dale Cooper (Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan).


Carrie begins, in the passenger seat, to tremble and finally to speak. What she says is like a sophomoric contemporary poem, but moving.

I tried to keep a clean house,
keep everything organized.
It’s a long way

In those days, I was too young
to know any better.

Cooper and Carrie arrive at the family home. No Palmers live there, despite appearances. Another aging blonde, unfamiliar, childless, answers the door and gives her name as Mrs. Alice Tremond. Before that the owner was a Mrs. Chalfont. These surnames should be known to Cooper, having an esoteric significance in his long-ago investigations, but they don’t seem to ring a bell. The door closes. Cooper, back on the empty street, looks both ways in distress. He wants to know what year it is. Carrie doesn’t want to know anything. A pause. Then, from somewhere dark inside the house, the voice of Sarah Palmer: Laaaauuuuura. And Carrie’s scream.

The last image is a familiar still. Laura, up in the Red Room, whispers the name of her killer into Cooper’s ear, or that’s what she whispered once. Whenever the image recurs as it eternally does, like the same card pulled from a reshuffled deck, she seems to be whispering a different name, or anything, really. “Birds also sing in the winter.” “I have cocaine.” What matters is the delight on her face, and the fact we can’t hear. What makes an image cinematic? A certain ratio. A difference between dark and light. The definite impression of silence, except maybe for the sounds of air. Finally, a sense that time has passed, too much.

Whether Twin Peaks: The Return is a television show or a film is a question that occupies critics and gives way to instant longeurs. The show has ended repeatedly. First, Lynch tossed the script and directed the season two finale, taking it from premature to unexpected, ending with an antagonizing question mark. Then he directed a prequel that ended most satisfyingly, with the ascension, the red velvet curtains. That vision is now revised twice, with screams we can’t hear one more time. The finale’s conclusive. Three periods. Like an ellipsis. To continue would be cruel, if not impossible.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10
Episodes 11 & 12
Episodes 13, 14, & 15
Episode 16

The entirety of Twin Peaks: The Return plays Friday, Jan. 5 through Sunday, Jan. 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Michelangelo Antonioni during the shooting of Chung Kuo, China in 1972. Courtesy photographic Archive of Rai Teche.


MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI ARRIVED IN CHINA IN MAY OF 1972, about seven hundred years after Marco Polo and a few months after Richard Milhous Nixon. The People’s Republic of China, established in 1949, was then coming out of more than a decade-long period of almost total diplomatic estrangement, the thaw overseen by premier Zhou Enlai with the permission of the sick, senescent, and increasingly erratic Mao Zedong after the official close of the morally and materially catastrophic Cultural Revolution. During the preceding period of isolation precious few images of China had been seen abroad, and so the opportunity being afforded to Antonioni was a unique one. He was then fifty-nine years old, and one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet.

Traveling with his sound recordist, Giorgio Pallotta, his assistant director (and later wife), Enrica Fico, his cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, and a lightweight 16-mm Eclair NPR camera, Antonioni set off on an itinerary that took the group from Beijing in the northeast, through rural Linxian (present-day Linzhou) in Henan Province and the Yangtze River cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, before finally ending in Shanghai. The footage yield of their trip, some 30,000 meters, was edited into three parts, each over an hour long. The first stays in Beijing and its precincts, including visits to the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven and an excursion to the Great Wall. The second begins in inland Linzhou and moves back towards the east coast. The third part lands in a Shanghai that is both familiar and not: The historic buildings of the Bund are in place looking quite like they did in 1935, but the mega-skyscrapers have not yet begun to rise across the Huangpu River. All three episodes were aired on Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Italy’s state-owned television station, who were also then underwriting Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of austere historical films, works that stand among the least-seen major productions by a famous director. Antonioni’s Chung Kuo—Cina (China) (1972) is another such film.

The capstone of the Museum of Modern Art’s complete Antonioni retrospective has been a weeklong stand of Chung Kuo—Cina, consisting of six separate marathon screenings of an untrammeled 35mm print. I don’t know how this should be possible of a movie shot with available light on Super 16, but the finished film looks Italian, all soft pastels straight from a quattrocento fresco. Said Fico of her late husband in a 2013 interview, “He was fascinated by Maoist clothes, their blue colors and worn out textures; he zoomed in on the clothes to discover their elegant, yet dusty, colors.”

Antonioni had been brought to admire the miraculous monuments of the People’s Republic, but his attention to the Great Leap Forward–era engineering marvel of the Red Flag Canal or the newly open Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in the second episode are dutiful at best—here as throughout he can’t seem to hide the fact that the feats of Chinese engineering that he most reveres are hundreds if not thousands of years old, as when the narration, written by Andrea Barbato and read by the director, rhapsodizes over the “remarkable beauty” of the canal-gridded Suzhou. More than anything, Antonioni is interested in the prosaic life of the Chinese people, the unstructured quotidian activities unfolding on the worn fringes of his highly structured tour. The film’s perspective is decidedly, even defiantly, fixed as that of an outsider, mutely meeting and holding the curious gazes of passers-by, one after another. The Chinese dialogue isn’t subtitled, and all information is filtered through Barbato’s commentary, which summarizes the line fed to the visitors by officials, as well as offering Antonioni’s party’s own unofficial observations when veering off the appointed course to, say, visit a farmer’s market to find some small piece of the old individual entrepreneurial spirit surviving in the form of bartering. In eschewing interviews, Chung Kuo—Cina differs markedly from Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens’s 763-minute China-shot documentary behemoth How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976), but the reason for Antonioni’s tactic is clear. He trusts the testimony of the camera-eye to tell him something that no vetted and overseen interview will. Barbato later provides a final disclaimer, drawn from a Chinese proverb: “You can depict a tiger’s skin, but not his bones. You can depict people’s faces, but not their hearts.”

Antonioni was able to wrangle such a coveted invite, one imagines, not only because of his international prestige, but because he had a reputation as a man of the left. He’d begun his career as a documentarian with an eye for the downtrodden proletariat, turning out reportages on Po River fishermen and the street sweepers of Rome. His fame, however, rest on a series of startlingly original fiction films which applied a sui generis visual language to narratives of anxiety, anomie, and, in the words of Alberto Moravia, “nameless, formless anguish,” mostly (but not exclusively) set among the upper-middle classes of contemporary industrial society, in which the camera’s role was independent of and at times seemingly antagonistic to the characters, positioning them not as commanding the center of the image but as furniture, as debris. His first arthouse blockbusters were made in his native Italy, but come the time that Antonioni was getting his ticket punched for China, he’d already been shooting films abroad for several years—Blow-Up (1966) in Swinging London, then, in counterculture California, Zabriskie Point (1970), a film that concludes with the mass demolition of western consumer goods and conveniences. Given such evidence of the filmmaker’s appetite for destruction, a country still in the tremors of the rip-it-up Cultural Revolution might have expected in Antonioni a simpatico artist.

Whatever officials had hoped that Antonioni would deliver, Chung Kuo—Cina wasn’t it. When the movie was completed, an outraged patriotic Chinese people rose as one to condemn it, nevermind the fact that few if any of its critics had seen it. (In this regard, our current day trailer-reviewing cultural commentary is not so far removed from that of the Cultural Revolution.) The trouble may have started with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress with a vicious vested interest in casting herself as cultural commissar, then very much wearing the pants in the administration. The movie was denounced in the People’s Daily. Luo Jinbiao, an attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Rome who’d helped to arrange for Antonioni’s trip, was consigned to self-criticism in a study group. Reports have been made of a popular song circulated in primary schools in the mid-1970s, its title translated as “Let’s Make Antonioni Mad.”

The most potentially provocative aspect of Chung Kuo—Cina are overlooked in the contemporary PRC criticisms available in English—this being its insistent return to the theme of theater. Each episode ends with a performance: The first with an orchestra of smiling marionettes, the second a field day at a Nanjing kindergarten, the third with a troupe of Shanghai acrobats plying their trade. Individually these might be taken as tourist curios; collectively, they suggest a judgement on the society being observed, a new society engaged in performing the role of “new society.” When combining this with a commentary that avers to the chartered, Potemkin village quality of the tour, it’s difficult not to have a sense that Antonioni is telling us something here.

Michelangelo Antonioni, Chung Kuo – Cina, 1972, color, sound, 135 minutes.


Instead, in the Feb. 22, 1974 edition of Peking Review, an English-language news magazine that since 1958 has operated as an official house organ of the PRC for the non-Sinophone world, various writers seem preoccupied with the idea that Antonioni has made the country look too shabby. One criticizes the photography of Tiananmen: “The film was taken on a bright sunny day in May. Nevertheless, the Square is shown in dim and dreary colors. The grand Square is presented in a disorderly fashion as if it were a market place of noisy confusion.”

Fang Chun-sheng, identified as an employee of Peking No. 3 Cotton Mill, complains “At one study meeting, we workers expressed our militant will to ‘spin cloth for the revolution’ and ‘to contribute to the world revolution.’ Antonioni said that the talks were ‘repetitive and monotonous,’ and ‘not a true discussion.’… In the mind of this reactionary, speaking of revolution is ‘monotonous.’ Does this mean that only talking about making money is not ‘monotonous’?”

The study meeting in question, a mild and placid affair, draws comparative contrast to the campus convocation that opens Zabriskie Point, a student strike meeting where participants bark to be heard over one another and over the pulsing Pink Floyd on the soundtrack. Antonioni’s films in the industrial west are defined by the lassitude of what he called “dead time,” but also marked by violent explosions of noise—the persecutorial cacophony of the Rome stock exchange in L’Eclisse (1962), the industrial clamor of The Red Desert (1964), or the Yardbirds interlude in Blow-up. Chung Kuo—Cina is quiet even by Antonioni’s standards, marked by a slackness that seems by turns both serene and unnatural.

The images that Antonioni captures aren’t willfully uglified, as regime critics claimed, though they might’ve seemed that way, absent instructive, exhorting narration. Antonioni’s commentary is calm, uninflected, and the soundtrack is ambient musique concrète. Each episode begins with fanfare, the same song—“Wo ai Beijing Tiananmen,” performed by the Beijing Railway Worker’s Children’s Choir—before going quiet, and for the most part staying that way. The exceptions are the performance sections, such as the regimental marching and chanting of the kindergarteners who, you may contemplate in passing, would have been in their early twenties during 1989’s Tiananmen Square Massacre. Like most imaginations of heaven, the ideal of a worker’s paradise provided for Antonioni and his crew is both restive and rather etiolated. At times, the silence is deafening.

Nick Pinkerton

Chung Kuo—Cina is being screened Friday, January 5 and Saturday, January 6 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Anna Zamecka, Communion, 2016, color, sound, 72 minutes.


DOCUMENTARIES AND MOVIES that trouble the line between fiction and nonfiction have become increasingly present at film festivals. And as was true of the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s, which embraced everything from psychodramas and diary films to lyric flights and reflections on the medium, no one word or phrase encompasses the varieties of nonfiction cinema. Yet the strongest entries in both nonfiction and the avant-garde at this year’s First Look series overshadow the few narrative films included.

Some might consider docudrama the best word to describe Pawel Lozinski’s You Have No Idea How Much I Love You. Produced by the Polish Film Institute, the work traces a number of therapy sessions in which a mother and daughter struggle to improve their ability to communicate. But while a “real” professor guides the progress of the women, the latter are played by actresses who, far from enacting a preexistent case study, free associate, using their own life experiences. The result is riveting from start to finish—but much less docu- than drama. Is our empathy with mother and daughter any different from that induced by good performances in an overt fiction film? Do we learn from the restrictive format what genuine therapy can do? Or are we so oversaturated with the former and too cynical to trust the latter to care about the difference?

More candid about its pedigree, but no less artfully contrived, Anna Zamecka’s debut feature Communion, also from Poland, is an affecting portrait of the Kaczanowskis, a working-class family whose daughter Ola, age fourteen, is burdened not only with filling in for an absent, depressed mother but with helping her autistic brother, Nikodem, learn the catechism in preparation for his First Communion, while negotiating with her father to eke out a private life. Given the natural rapport between sister and brother, it’s no surprise the film has won many awards for best documentary. Yet while there is no diminishing the conviction of the siblings’ exchanges, we might wonder how much the presence of a camera and a director affected their “performances.”

A more in-your-face presence triggers hostile reactions in Hendrick Dusollier’s Last Days in Shibati, a brief but touching account of the demolition of a neighborhood in Chongqing, China. Though at first unwelcome, Dusollier becomes a familiar presence as he follows inhabitants in six-month intervals, from the quarter’s alleyways to new dwellings the city has provided. Less interested in politics than people, Dusollier tells us little about the socioeconomic circumstances behind the demolition or the housing prospects. But the people are memorable: An old woman who created a fantasy space within the quarter from the debris she collected is later seen adapting this passion to her new life. A young boy who once guided the filmmaker to the edge of Shibati overlooking the “Moonlight City” is last seen gazing out a window of his new apartment from the reverse angle, toward the flattened terrain beyond, which was his to roam just a year earlier.

Marie Voigner, Tinselwood, 2017, color, sound, 82 minutes.


Equally vivid but more self-effacing is Marie Voignier’s Tinselwood, shot in and around the village of Moulandou in the Republic of the Congo. No narration shapes what we see: a series of distinct, seemingly unrelated activities performed by the inhabitants—trappers, loggers, sand miners, cacao planters, gold prospectors, shopkeepers, and sorcerers—forming a mosaic of a community, which, despite its apparent isolation, is sitting on yet-to-be-exploited resources of gold and diamonds. The camera’s patient focus on physical activity has a vibrancy that no amount of expository dialogue or narration could match.

If I find Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement the gem of the lot, it is because it uses every resource of the cinema. An intimate memoir as well as a moving social document, it is also a work of great audiovisual power and lyricism. We watch the daily routine of Syrian construction workers commandeered to rebuild Beirut from bombed-out ruins as a voice-over recalls the boyhood memories of the filmmaker, whose father is also among them. Exiled for weeks and months, living in rough conditions in the unfinished buildings, the men are not only subjected to curfews but have nightmares about imminent bombings and the horrific details of rescue operations, like the one we see of children buried alive. The film’s force comes from its occasional conflating of events: One sequence stresses the perverse interdependence of destruction and construction—as bursts of shells from an invading tank are crosscut with the erection of new buildings at a speed that mocks logic and anyone’s ability to comprehend the raging insanity of history. Eschewing interaction among the men, Kalthoum shows them alone at rest, eyes ever vigilant, counteracted by dazzling shots of individual workers set against and above the vastness of the city, an image that evokes the heroic montage of Eisenstein and its celebration of the worker while reflecting the general indifference to their lives induced by an increasing capitalism. As the title hints, the very element central to what they do is mixed with blood and sweat.

The family in the Portuguese drama Colo, directed by Teresa Villaverde, is in a desperate socioeconomic state. From the movie’s first shot of daughter Marta and her boyfriend, Jaoa, in a tear-filled parting embrace, it’s all downhill. Father is out of work and mother’s overtime is not enough to pay the electric bill. Each parent is often clueless of the whereabouts of the other, but certain of his or her return since there is nowhere else to go. Suicide is a constant option. In the final scene, Marta seeks shelter from a stranger who owns a one-room hut, while the camera, assuming an authorial perspective avoided throughout, moves toward and away from the structure as if uncertain there is anything more to say. All performances are strong, especially that of Alice Albergaria Borges as Marta.

Against the complexity of these works, both Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian period piece Vazante (The Surge) and Mouly Surya’s revenge saga Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, an Indonesian/French/Malaysian/Thai production, are one-dimensional. The former, though strikingly shot, sheds no new light on colonial racism, and the latter shamelessly depends on such stereotypes as the gang rapist, the callous cop, and the brutish husband. More compelling are Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting—which gathers Palestinian men to reenact their detainments or imprisonments in Israeli prisons—and a number of shorter works, including two by Canadian artist Daniel Cockburn, whose witty lecture, subtitled “How Not to Watch a Movie,” is accompanied by The Argument, a crafty, astutely edited take on the long-married.

First Look has always done justice to the avant-garde. In addition to its opening-night feature, Blake Williams’s 3-D puzzler Prototype, it includes Ken Jacobs’s Shelley Duvall is Olive Oyl, his latest foray into bending minds, time, and space, as well as three new works by James Benning. You won’t find a quieter, more contemplative work than Benning’s Readers, composed of five long takes of people facing, though seemingly unengaged with, the camera, each sitting more or less in one position for nearly thirty minutes and reading a book. Like most of Benning’s work, the reverie of the viewer is as much a component as what is on the screen. Each reader is as distinct as the book being read, an excerpt from which is provided on the black screens that serve as intervals. We are led to appreciate the state we occupy when we read—a lone activity that could seem intruded upon here but does not, and in which, though slight shifts of posture and attention are detectable, all the excitement and engagement of the mind remains private.

James Benning, Readers, 2017, color, sound, 108 minutes.


Benning’s other two movies—the simply conceived, beautifully shot, aptly titled Measuring Change and the no less striking L. Cohen—are altogether different. Increasingly, his long takes, whether they last fifteen minutes, an hour, or more, seem like the compromises an artist makes with the unfathomable reach of his vision. They are as much humble efforts as acts of hubris, recognizing limits while evoking futures none of us will ever know. “Measuring change” is one way to describe what Benning, now age seventy-five, has been doing for decades, although actually perceptible changes in his works are more likely to occur in the viewer’s attention span, perceptual apparatus, and body posture than in anything on the screen.

Watching the singular image of Spiral Jetty—the subject of Benning’s camera in Measuring Change, filmed on December 28, 2015, at 8:57 AM and 3:12 PM—is another occasion in which one can muse on the ultimate Benning movie, where a camera or some comparable recording machine of the future is left running until the end of human history. While its measure of change might be incontestable, no one alive now or then could experience it as such, any more than one could encompass the accuracy of Borges’s map, the proportions of which would have to be as large as the territory it purports to cover. Instead, like the tiny human visitors to Spiral Jetty we perceive at a great distance moving in from the left, following the jetty’s curvature to the center, and exiting, the engagement of our consciousness seems pitifully small, evanescent, and irrelevant, a mere blip from the perspective of eternity. Beautiful and sobering, Measuring Change is a meditative masterwork.

Jacobs, at eighty-four, could not be less like Benning, yet his work over the past decades also aspires toward a condition beyond the constrictions of time and space, entertaining, as it has, the possibility of defying entombment and revivifying the past, as he did in The Guests (2015). In the new work, Jacobs freezes the present, not in static images but through his own brand of push-me/pull-me seizures, amplifying an object’s organic surge in space while retarding its progress to the next moment in time. As my eyes follow or appear to follow a movement, or an apparent movement, of the camera or of the object before it, I “see” what, in fact, is not happening, another illusion—delusion, actually—a phenomenon defying the laws of cinema, not to mention physics. While my eyes, and the mechanism that determines how I process the data before me, lead me to believe that a figure is moving in space, now closer, now farther away, it is, in fact, doing none of the above. Is Jacobs measuring change or willfully denying the implacable march of time that all movies since 1895 both register and obliterate?

First Look runs January 5 through 15 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.