Ruben Östlund, The Square, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 142 minutes.


FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, a rare consensus emerged at the Cannes Film Festival. If the 2016 edition will be remembered for its farcical jury decisions, this year’s official selection stands a good chance of being barely remembered at all: Rarely does the Cannes competition, world cinema’s most pedigreed showcase, leave so little of a collective impression. In stark contrast to the ceremonial merriment of its seventieth anniversary, which occasioned a star-studded Cannes yearbook photo call and a gala evening of musical numbers (Isabelle Huppert warbling “Happy Birthday”) and speeches about the importance of the festival, the mood on the ground was palpably weary and irritable. Complaining about Cannes is a long-standing journalistic tradition—André Bazin was in 1955 lamenting the “ridiculously narrow” entrances that led to “a terrible crush going in and out”—but this year the grievances were especially loud and sustained. Heightened security measures (metal detectors and airport-level bag searches at the Palais des Festivals, soldiers armed with machine guns patrolling the Croisette) meant jangled nerves, extensive delays, and plenty of time in long lines for frustrated festivalgoers to grumble, ad nauseam and not without justification, that this was the weakest Cannes lineup in memory.

Hats off, though, to Pedro Almodóvar’s jury for anointing a most deserving—and surprising—Palme d’Or winner in Ruben Östlund’s The Square. Whether peeling back the brittle surface of Scandinavian liberal democracy (Play) or prodding the wobbly foundations of the nuclear family (Force Majeure), the forty-three-year-old Östlund is one of the sharpest and funniest satirists working today. The Square revolves around the well-heeled, well-groomed Christian (Claes Bang), a curator at a Stockholm contemporary art museum where the new exhibit (for which the film is titled) is a demarcated four-by-four-meter zone that announces itself as “a sanctuary of trust and caring.” The description proves somewhat at odds with the actual public square where Christian finds himself the victim of a pickpocketing scam that triggers an overzealous response and then a crisis of conscience. An analytical filmmaker with a taste for sociological critique, Östlund is sometimes likened to Michael Haneke (more on him later), but unlike Haneke, who engineers his scenarios like steel traps, Östlund enjoys scenes that play out in unpredictable and surreal ways. His manner of implicating the viewer is less didactic than empathetic, prompting open-ended questions of how one might react in similar situations, which lent The Square a site-specific mise en abyme effect in Cannes. Not least among its pleasures, Östlund’s wry dismantling of ego and privilege among the cultural class held up a mirror to the petty self-regard and herd mentality on routine display at the festival, which can itself resemble an elaborate behavioral experiment.

The Square is a film with plenty on its mind, tweaking art-world pretensions and liberal pieties, exploring the gap between belief and action, contemplating the relationship between the individual and the collective—all over a 140-minute duration that some found excessive. (Distended running times were a problem across the board, likely a factor of rush edits.) The film proceeds in fits and starts, constantly revising and complicating its ideas, veering in tone from jocular to sober and back. All of which made it a refreshing change from the white elephants—the solemnly respectable prestige films with clear intentions and predetermined meanings—that more frequently take festival prizes. Most conspicuous in this category this year were Haneke’s Happy End (the title is ironic) and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (the title is very unironic). Haneke, a two-time Palme d’Or winner who left Cannes empty-handed for the first time since 2003’s Time of the Wolf, is working in a slightly more sardonic register here, but Happy End is otherwise business as usual—in fact, it’s a self-conscious reprise of his greatest hits, training its microscope on an extended bourgeois family in Calais, France, where a refugee crisis is unfolding under their oblivious noses. No less subtle—and winner of the third-place jury prize—Loveless is a handsome, wintry drama about a divorcing couple and their unwanted child that evolves into an allegory of soul-sick modern Russia.

Valeska Grisebach, Western, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 119 minutes.


The Cannes bubble no longer seems willing or able to keep the real world at bay. A striking number of films were billed as being “about Europe,” though, needless to say, some engagements are more meaningful than others. A German woman loses her Turkish husband and child to a neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, a by-the-numbers study of grief and vengeance that won Diane Kruger the best actress prize. Kornél Mundruczó’s slick high-concept fantasy Jupiter’s Moon grants a Syrian refugee superpowers and Christlike status after he’s pumped full of bullets. But the film with the most interesting vantage on the new Europe was also the one that made its geopolitical points most obliquely. Western, the first feature in more than a decade by the talented Valeska Grisebach (Longing), is set among a group of German workers who are toiling on a water facility project in rural Bulgaria. Cast entirely with non-actors, Western is, as the title suggests, a supremely intelligent rethinking of genre conventions, a gripping culture-clash drama attuned to new forms of colonialism.

Hailed by almost everyone who saw it as a festival highlight, Western screened in the parallel Un Certain Regard section, apparently a victim of the unstated yet plain-as-day Cannes policy to velvet-rope off the main competition exclusively for films with movie stars. If the competition was especially fatiguing this year, it may have been for the prevalence of a particular kind of feel-bad film that conjoins formal stylization with casual sadism, whether in the service of a would-be moral tale like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer or a one-note genre exercise like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

No coincidence that the few bright spots were literal signs of life, works that thrived on a messy vitality. Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, which administered a needed dose of electroshock therapy to the moribund competition in the home stretch, is a crime caper with a committed Robert Pattinson performance, a propulsive Oneohtrix Point Never score, and a nuanced, indeed intersectional, understanding of class and race. Winner of the runner-up Grand Prix, Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats per Minute revisits the urgent early 1990s heyday of ACT UP in Paris; it’s familiar terrain but brought to life with firsthand intimacy and a welcome attentiveness to the everyday labor of activism. Yoking together two New York stories separated by half a century, Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’s characteristically personal and lovingly detailed take on a children’s movie, beautifully inhabits a skewed kid’s-eye perspective (which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his early short Dottie Gets Spanked). It’s also one of Haynes’s most exuberant demonstrations of his core belief that blatant artifice can engender overwhelming emotion.

Robin Campillo, 120 Beats Per Minute, 2017, color, sound, 140 minutes.


Even from its ivory tower, Cannes could not avoid the film industry’s continued hand-wringing and infighting over distribution methods, specifically the ascendance of streaming services. The inclusion of two high-profile Netflix productions—Bong Joon Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—dominated the pre-festival coverage and the opening jury press conference (Almodóvar declared that the Palme should be off-limits to films that will bypass theatrical exhibition, only to later soften his stance). Facing a backlash from French theater owners, the festival decreed, even before the first screening, that starting next year all films competing at Cannes must also screen in French cinemas. The embrace of TV, though new to this festival, was not much of a stretch, given the auteur imprimaturs of Jane Campion (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks: The Return), former Palme d’Or winners and jury presidents, both reveling in the comparative freedom of serial television. In Lynch’s case, the first two hours of The Return, seen on the huge screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, were so singular, so uncompromising, so transporting, that they dwarfed everything else at Cannes.

The festival’s most overt gesture toward the future was Alejandro G. Ińárritu’s Carne y Arena, its first foray into virtual reality. This seven-minute piece, drawn from and simulating the experiences of migrants who made the crossing from Mexico to the US, will soon be on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. The Cannes iteration, limited to one thousand or so visitors, came with an incongruous (though very Cannes-like) veneer of exclusivity. Eligible guests were chauffeured a few picturesque miles down the coast to an airplane hangar: You sign a waiver and wait your turn—partaking of the Perrier and fruit on the snack table, should you wish—before entering, barefoot and one at a time, a dark room covered in sand. Donning an Oculus Rift headset and a backpack, with two technicians by your side, you’re granted the illusion of roaming through the Sonoran Desert, brushing up against the photorealistic avatars of immigrants who have endured the journey. (You move into them and see their beating hearts.) Before long, a helicopter beam blinds you, and border agents arrive, barking orders and pointing their rifles in your face. The widespread (and widely challenged) notion of virtual reality as “empathy machine”—as evident in the proliferation of consciousness-raising, humanitarian-themed VR works—merges here with Ińárritu’s shock-and-awe sensibility to create something at once brutalizing and trivializing, rife with irony and ripe for precisely the kind of satire that won the Palme d’Or. Indeed, the whole thing might have been devised by the well-intentioned, tone-deaf culturati of The Square, an invitation to get under the skins of actual refugees that was also among the most cossetted experiences available in Cannes.

Dennis Lim

The Seventieth Festival de Cannes ran May 17 through 28.

Ernst Lubitsch, Ninotchka, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Ninotchka and Count Leon d'Algout (Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas).


ERNST LUBITSCH WAS BORN in booming Berlin in January 1892 and died much too young in Hollywood, California, in 1947. He was a German Jew of age to have served in one World War and to have been a likely civilian casualty of a second, but by dint of luck and talent he avoided both. While living through the multiple ructions that rocked the European continent in the first half of the twentieth century and the wider world-historical earthquake of these years, he remained almost single-mindedly committed to producing wry, light, sparkling comedies that reflect the values of graciousness and grace. If Lubitsch had a political ethos, it might have been described by a musing which another of the funniest men who ever lived, Evelyn Waugh, gave to his creation Ambrose Silk: “It is a curious thing, he thought, that every creed promises a paradise that will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.”

The creeds in question were, on occasion, addressed in Lubitsch’s films, including two of his best known, playing at Film Forum’s retrospective “The Lubitsch Touch,” which takes its title from the trade paper name for the certain effervescent je ne sais quoi that the director—very much a brand name during his lifetime—brought to each of his films. Ninotchka (1939) stars Greta Garbo as an envoy from the worker’s paradise of the USSR who arrives in capitalist Paris only to be seduced by aristocratic swine Melvyn Douglas and the ready availability of frivolous hats in the city’s department store vitrines—the free market means better millinery, which is all the justification it needs to be deemed superior in Lubitsch’s eyes. In To Be or Not to Be (1942), a troupe of actors in occupied Warsaw, led by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, use the tricks of their trade to infiltrate the high command of the occupying Nazis, a victory for play and imagination against brute force. As for Lubitsch’s post–Great War melodrama The Man I Killed (aka Broken Lullaby, 1932), it is significantly better than its reputation, but also the film in which Lubitsch seems least himself—there isn’t a chafed cuckold or a triple-entendre in sight.

After beginning his career in Europe, Lubitsch came to Hollywood to stay in 1922, though there he would mostly make films with European settings. Among the few notable exceptions are the sublime Heaven Can Wait (1943), set among the Manhattan upper crust who are the nearest thing that America offers to the idle gentry who were his favorite subjects. The ballrooms and bedchambers that Lubitsch was building on the Paramount lot represented a continent that bore little resemblance to the actual thing, even to the point of laying the scene of some of his films in made-up Mitteleuropean countries—Sylvania in The Love Parade (1929) and Marshovia in The Merry Widow (1934), both featuring the teaming of eye-rolling music-hall horndog Maurice Chevalier and demure soprano Jeanette MacDonald. In fact, even when Lubitsch was working in Germany, he displayed a tendency toward fairy-tale settings: The Oyster Princess (1919) takes place amid a fantasia of American largesse replete with a bivalve baron smoking torpedo-size cigars, while The Wild Cat (1921) features an Alpine fortress that looks to have been made of gingerbread. As a young buck, Lubitsch had become infatuated with Budapest, and until the end of his life he retained a taste for acquiring crude Hungarian source materials and polishing them to a high luster, as with The Shop Around the Corner (1940), based on a play by Miklós László, its actions limited to the leather goods shop run by Magyar merchant Mr. Matuschek—among other things, the film may claim to have created the template for the workplace sitcom.

Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 99 minutes. Klara Novak and Alfred Kralik (Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart).


Those unaccustomed to seeing James Stewart express almost painful ardor may be surprised by the eruption of emotion that concludes that marvelous film, though Lubitsch had a knack for drawing the unexpected out of his actors—Garbo’s drunk act in Ninotchka, say, or the combination of suavity and pussycat contentment radiated by Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait. And while Lubitsch’s late works access depths of feeling not found in his fleet farces, the constant throughout his films is sex. Lubitsch was an early innovator in the musical with The Love Parade, which was apt, for he imagines desire as a tune caught in your head—sometimes quite literally.

Sexual longing in Lubitsch is not a harassing, dry-mouthed ordeal; it is delicious, delectable—has any man ever been as delighted at the anguished conundrum of extramarital temptation as Chevalier is singing “Oh that Mitzi” in One Hour with You (1932)? Lubitsch was a connoisseur of the multicourse meal of seduction, and he gives scrupulous attention to the preparation of every dish, from the pleasure of waiting on a woman to be ready for an evening on the town to the surrender of a key with implicit evening visitation privileges to the final goodbye, almost invariably genial—“It was lovely while it lasted” reads the farewell note that Claudette Colbert writes to Chevalier in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), forced by circumstance to give up her man so that he can be with his own adopted social class. The premise was not an unusual one in films of the period—I recently watched, with pleasure, Lewis D. Collins’s Universal production Young Desire (1930), which revolves around a similar dilemma—but Lubitsch’s treatment was anything but the done thing. In the Collins film, the drama is only resolved by the woman’s suicide; in Lubitsch’s more amiable world, Colbert walks out on her own two feet, and not before getting together with her successor, played by Miriam Hopkins, singing a duet number called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” and essentially sitting the clueless gal down and teaching her how to fuck.

Though many of Lubitsch’s films—particularly the Chevalier musicals—are distinguished by a carefree boulevardier’s attitude toward affairs of the heart, Lubitsch was himself often unlucky in love, twice divorced, too monomaniacally fixated on his work to make much of a husband to anyone, and not precisely a dashing man to begin with: short, homely, and inclined to portliness. It was always remarked that he was impeccably dressed, however, as befitted the son of a prosperous men’s clothier, the milieu that he drew upon when making The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch’s father had hoped for the boy to follow him into the family business, but he became enamored of the theater instead, learning his craft by working as an actor under the legendary Max Reinhardt, whose heavily worked-through script annotations and attention to the minutest gestural detail he would imitate throughout his career.

Ernst Lubitsch, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, 1918, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 45 minutes. Ossi and Dr. Kersten (Ossi Oswalda and Kurt Götz).


In his earliest films, Lubitsch was often both director and star, playing variations on the role of Sally, a burlesque Jew and bustling little lecher seen to best advantage in Meyer from Berlin (1919), every bit excellent a showcase for his raucous talent as the same year’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man, which has Ossi Oswalda hitting Berlin in male drag to see how the other half lives. Lubitsch was a gifted farceur from the get-go, but it was as a director of historical spectacle that he became famous in America, thanks to the massive success of Anna Boleyn (1920), released in the States as Deception. Gay deceit would become Lubitsch’s stock in trade in time, with roundelay of infidelities The Marriage Circle (1924) introducing a blithe spirit into Hollywood pictures. Monogamy could be marvelous, of course, but lapses were to be expected and indulged—indeed, could even act as an agent of regeneration.

Lubitsch’s humor only became richer and deeper with time, and he was at the height of his artistic powers when he was felled by the last of a series of cardiac episodes, this one induced by making love on a full stomach. News of his early death was received as a tragedy by his Hollywood contemporaries. His last film, Cluny Brown (1946), a wet raspberry blown at the English class system that paired Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones, the latter an exceptionally comely plumber, ranks among his very finest, though at the time of its release his output had already been slowed by his declining health. This marked the only slackening of the feverish pace he set through his long career, aside from a pause for recalibration in the mid-1930s, a period described by critic Andrew Sarris during which the director was reckoning with “the resurgence of censorship, the delayed realization that breadlines and Continental sophistication didn’t mix and that a wink was no match for a wisecrack, and the pervasive humorlessness of both the left and the right.” All of which sounds rather familiar, and which renders Lubitsch’s serious frivolity a near necessity today. He’s more blissfully irrelevant now than ever.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Lubitsch Touch” runs Friday, June 2, through Thursday, June 15, at Film Forum in New York.

Wild Thing

06.01.17

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 4.


LAWS IN THE WORLD OF DAVID LYNCH are unnatural but do not lead to order, and things disordered lapse into “thingness.” This should be one of Lynch’s favorite words, lent to him in that book by Dennis Lim: “In his own speech—and in the speech patterns of his films, with their gnomic pronouncements and recurring mantras—the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature.” Write down the “academic definition” of “Lynchian,” suggested and sent-up by David Foster Wallace in his notes from the set of Lost Highway, and then I’ll never say “Lynchian” again: “[It] refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Now say the word macabre over and over, silently or aloud to yourself, until the word has lost all definition to become a void, a nothing, a prenatal lump of sound. Now try it with human.

The man who taught us binomial nomenclature, as in Homo + sapiens, divided humanity into four squares, or “races,” extrapolated in a fucked-up way from the “four humors” of more ancient thought. He was a Swedish doctor and botanist who lived in the seventeenth century under the name Linnaeus, and he decided that Americans were Americanus (red, choleric, upright), Europeans were Europeaus (white, sanguine, muscular), Asians were Asiaticus (pale yellow, melancholic, stiff), and Africans were Afer (black, phlegmatic, relaxed). Four, the number of limbs, seasons, and elements, has remained the magic number of inter-human difference, as with the four major archetypes discovered by Carl Jung, and the four dichotomies, combining to make possible sixteen types, in the Myers-Briggs personality test. (Lynch would be, I think, a medium-rare type of person: Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving, known for “revealing [his] beauty and [his] secrets through metaphors and fictional characters,” according to the third website that appeared to me when I googled “INFP.”) But Linné, as he was called after his ennoblement, in a codicil that basically deconstructed his legacy, added two absurd bonus types: ferus for the feral or “wild boys,” and monstorus for the deformed and the freaks found in folk tales. When I learned this, I felt the way Foucault says he felt when he read a Borges fable, a spoof on taxonomy, written as if excerpted from “a certain Chinese encyclopaedia” wherein animals are those “belonging to the Emperor,” or those who are “fabulous,” those who are “stray dogs,” those who “have just broken the water pitcher,” and so on. “In the wonderment of this [fictional] taxonomy,” writes Foucault, so beginning The Order of Things (1966), “the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own.” We don’t have to read Foucault, or even Borges, though, to feel our limits, since they begin with our dreams.

Among the menagerie of pet theories I’ve kept from my childhood, a sentimental favorite is that dreams are just pieces of the day, unprocessed or left on the cutting-room floor, swept up and viewed in a kaleidoscope. Maybe the order is deranged, fragmentary, and synesthetic, but there can be nothing in my dream that wasn’t already in my head. As for dreams being illogical or strange, it’s simply a matter of being free from the unreasonable expectation that life, and the things in it, will make sense. The other day I bought in-ear headphones decorated with little skulls, and found that both headphones were marked R, requiring me to have two right ears. “Weird,” I thought. But in a dream, I would have thought nothing. This is why we say that works by Lynch are dreamlike, because sometimes we don’t know what to think. What, for instance, do we think about the one pale horse who appeared to Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks before Madeleine died, and who appears again as a figure in The Return, once in the Black Lodge and once in Las Vegas as the namesake of the Silver Mustang Casino? Coincidence, dream-symbol, or mere déjŕ vu?

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 4. Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole and Agent Albert Rosenfeld (David Lynch and Miguel Ferrer).


Pale people, we can say with more certainty, are not woke but dreaming. In the funniest bit of Twin Peaks (1990), a lady named Gwen, sister of Lucy, surmises to Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse, who, like his character, is American Indian) that given what they’ve done to his tribe, he must really hate whites. Hawk neither startles nor hesitates. “Some of my best friends are white people,” he says. A decade or two later, this would be an obvious joke. At the time it was perfect, part sincere. Lynch takes the stereotyped stoic American Indian and imbues his silences not with some mystic wisdom but with a down-to-earth amusement that befits a man burdened by history and tasked with protecting innocence in adults. That views on whiteness from elsewhere are entirely determined by the actions, behaviors, and thoughts of white people themselves is a ludicrous, too-common assumption. (It says more about the people who assume it, about their taste for vengeances, their grudges, similar to how what a critic says about a show can say more about the critic than the show, an old truism I haven’t found a reason to contradict.) This isn’t to say that Lynch’s views on nonwhite characters are unproblematic, rather that they are problematic in two senses, both the more current definition (offensive, troubling) and the more original one (merely troublesome), the additive effect being that his non-sense, unlike so much “white nonsense,” is worth thinking about.

Hawk is now deputy chief in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department, and on the third and fourth hours of The Return, playing on Showtime, he grapples with a directive from the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson, may she rest in pines). “There is something missing,” says the Log, by way of the Lady. “Something,” that is, “to do with [his] heritage.” Puzzled and willing to play the game, Hawk unburies the box of case files and calls in Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Brennan (née Moran, played with breathtaking continuity by Kimmy Robertson), who are deputy and secretary, respectively. Lynch and Frost’s scripts are like two-player games of word association, and the word here is clueless. “Your heritage,” says Lucy, slow and tremulous. “You’re . . . Indian?” Her particularly white way of being afraid that just saying a name is calling a name is, in this case, ironically justified. Hawk looks at her slowly. We see what he’s not saying. He says, “Yes.” It’s easy to make Anglo-Saxons, in the presence of a token or tokenized character, seem like the tolerant ones. Here the tolerance is all on Hawk’s side, and though the figure of him remains tokenized, a requisite nod to the precolonial history of town and country, the actor’s intelligence gives him an out-of-body aspect, and he glides above tokenization. When I said last week that almost no humans would seek representation in Lynch’s world, it was an exaggeration, and besides, the opposite is true about actors: Who wouldn’t want to be set loose on screen by this guy?

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 4. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).


The fourth hour of The Return, destined to be an all-time fan favorite, brings us the only child of Andy and Lucy. As Lucy tells it, Cooper wanted the son to be named Marlon Brando, after the legend whose love affair with the American Indian is never forgotten, and at birth the couple compromised and named him Wally, Wally Brando. Boy, does he (Michael Cera) live up to that choice. Showing up unannounced on a motorcycle, clad in a punk-ass black leather jacket, a white-and-navy ringer tee, and an oversize army beret, Wally has transcended the decades to embody at least a quarter-century of boy-teen rebellion. He has roamed the country, he has a strong sense of dharma, and his idiolect is a very fine whine. “From Alexandria, Virginia, to Stockton, California,” he nasally muses, “I think about Lewis, and about his friend Clark, the first Caucasians to see this part of the world.” He enunciates each morpheme in “Caucasian,” such that it rhymes with Abkhazian. Kaw-kay-zee-uhn. Try it. Try not to laugh. Also, Wally informs his parents, in the deposed-royal manner of a fifth-generation middle-class American, that he will permit them to turn his childhood bedroom, which he has not seen in years, into a study. The Brennans respond like listeners of a classic pop radio show who have just been informed they’ve won the keys to a timeshare in South Florida and two vouchers for dinner at P.F. Chang’s.

Wally is right about Lewis and Clark, who were among the first white people to belong in the Kaw-kay-zee-uhn era. Less than a decade before the two stepped all over America, one Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a doctor and anthropologist in Göttingen, Deutschland, elaborated on the work of Carl Linné and reclassified as “varieties” the humans he saw. Unlike his more racist peers and successors, says Nell Irvin Painter in her empathetic, well-limned treatise The History of White People (2010), Blumenbach did not assort humans by race or assign to the races differing, unequal abilities, intelligences, and virtues, unless you count beauty a virtue: He chose, for the “variety” to which he himself would belong, the name “Caucasian,” because he felt that the people of Caucasus, a loose braid of mountains around Georgia, had the most elegant bones in their heads. Painter notes that the “unblemished young woman’s skull” from which he drew this conclusion had resonances with the old white-slave trade, one in which “the figure of the slave is invariably female, always young, emphatically white—sometimes even blonde—and invariably beautiful”––a real Laura Palmer, in other words, one who “usually comes from Georgia or the Caucasus.” An upside to his superficiality was that, having organized peoples by color, he began to see their differences not in squares but on a gradient, the way we’d later see sexuality, or sanity. Nevertheless, it was pure white entitlement. It wasn’t that Blumenbach was given the first choice of skulls, nor that he stole the skulls, exactly, only that he happened to pick out the prettiest skulls; he also liked that all skulls were themselves “white in color, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive color of mankind.”

There is something morbid and wonderful, as well as dastardly, about Blumenbach’s choice. When I said that Lynch appropriates whiteness, rendering it less flesh than guise, a naive costume, I was remembering that more than once he gave white actors “whiteface” with old-fashioned pancake makeup, most memorably in Lost Highway (1997). I was thinking that the whiteness of Twin Peaks was something like a skull mask worn over the face, a skeleton worn over the body on Halloween. Had I spent much time as a teen getting oppressed on the basis of being white and bony, I would perhaps be offended. Today white knuckleheads are always logging on to different websites to fret about oppression that has yet to exist, especially “white genocide,” by which is meant the declining birthrate among descendants of European whites, and which sounds more like white suicide, to which we have been led by our freedoms, like the sexual ones. As a woman of childbearing age and ability, I have been accused by my own youngest brother of being too ambitious, self-absorbed, and vain to further my race by becoming pregnant with another white fetus. Unfortunately, it’s beyond me to care whether so-called Caucasians have plenteous futures. For my people to die in vainness and sterility, aided by pills, would be appropriate, desirable, and not bad. I welcome our fate.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 4. Dougie Jones and Jade (Kyle MacLachlan and Nafessa Williams).


But before fate, nostalgia. Lynch, a shapeshifter who appears as a perfect square of a man, loves to pack and unpack the boxy, obsessive, even maniacal systems of classification (for identity, and thus for derangement) and storage (for pride, and for loss) that line the halls of the past, and to dwell on the backwardness that often now accompanies the nostalgic. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), after a long and stressful journey through consciousness, lands on earth in his body; his mind, and his shoes, are left on the plane. Worse, there are more than two Coopers, for lack of a better term. One, the real bad one, Mr. C, has failed to show up for his scheduled return to the Black Lodge, and is alive in a prison cell. Sent in his place is another one, a licentious and chintzy-looking real-estate agent named Dougie Jones, whose mortal coil is compressed into a tiny golden nugget, leaving only a significant jade ring. Yet the person of Dougie remains, husband to a stressed-out, underweight woman named Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and father to the eight-year-old Sonny Jim Jones (Pierce Gagnon).

We meet Mr. Jones on an exurban tract-housing project in a development named Rancho Rosa, the two Rs recalling the Double R Diner of yore, in a beige-carpeted bedroom where light falls through the slats like on the set of a black-and-white noir; the shot, however, looks like a recent photograph by Torbjřrn Rřdland. He’s in the arms of an extremely pretty prostitute named Jade (Nafessa Williams), posed like the Venus Anadyomene, her black skin all bared. What she brings is such stomach-dropping eroticism that I have no clue whether I’m meant to be shocked. I can only suggest that, in the moment, MacLachlan has never looked more like the kind of Caucasian who needs a pocket calculator to tally his Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish heritage. Jade, another tolerant professional of color, emerges from her post-work shower to find that Dougie, prostrate on the carpet, has been replaced by Coop. She’s at a loss to ascertain where her client got “that suit . . . and that haircut,” but assumes by his abandonment of most functions that he’s had a stroke and drops him off at the Silver Mustang Casino, saying, “Call for help.”

Long scenes transpire in which Cooper may as well be an alien. Like the brother from another planet in the 1984 John Sayles film by that name, he has an unexplained power over things that plug into the wall, and simply by pointing at the slot machines, he wins twenty-nine jackpots. Like the invading body snatchers in both the 1956 Don Siegel film and the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake, he seems fated, despite this life-changing fortune, to end up a pod person. It is to the bright, clean, well-appointed life of the Joneses that he returns. We can’t keep up, but neither can he. Unable to speak except to repeat what’s literally just been said to him, he lights up for the first time at the breakfast table in the spacious eat-in kitchen. “Here’s your coffee,” says Janey-E, handing him a mug that says, in block letters, THIS IS DOUGIE’S COFFEE. “Coffee!” he gasps. Watching this the first time I sighed with relief, thinking it was all a bad joke about not being yourself before that first cup of coffee in the morning. Alas—he takes one sip and, like a goddamn baby, spits it out.

Excerpt from Twin Peaks, 1991

By now I can see that it might be annoying to watch anyone, even Kyle MacLachlan, perform some enormous difficulty in being a straight, cissexual, employed, married, (relatively) able-bodied, blah blah blah white male. The more you dwell on it, the more perverse is the truth that white men discovered alienation. Better to think about white men’s greatest invention, other than Venetian blinds, lipstick in a tube, and the guillotine, and that is: romance. The beautiful scam! I’m obsessed. There is no more individuating force than romantic love, as I have said a thousand times or, at the very least, once. This is why we see on daytime soap operas decades-long plots revolving around the supposition that two identical white women, played by literally the same actress, are opposites on the inside. Lynch, in his soap-loving bones, is as romantic and Romantic as Blumenbach was. He’s a Double R romantic, we could say.

Case, point: Remember Denise, the top federal agent and trans woman with every reason to be proud, played with sly aplomb by David Duchovny? There was scant discourse on gender to greet her appearance in 1990, and there is discourse galore awaiting her reappearance now, yet the show needs no change. Anyone who self-actualizes and looks better doing it is fine and has always been fine by Lynch. “When you became Denise,” says Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, who is Lynch himself, “I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.” Unhelped by his hearing aid, Cole shouts this as he does most things, but here in a meter that edges on iambic, doubling the line’s sudden wham. Lynch in director mode can be less than present, relinquishing control to the aleatory and straying so far off the beat that the beat is a memory, so that when he does match a line to the pulse, it’s shockingly great.

Later, Cole and Agent Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer), fresh from a visit to the imprisoned Mr. C., who is pretending to be an undercover Cooper, are standing outside. “Blue rose,” says Rosenfeld. “Blue rose,” as we know, is Cole’s code term for especially tricky and transmundane cases. The term first appeared in the literal, as a poly-silk corsage on a woman’s red dress in Fire Walk with Me, and no one could say what it meant, like how the proto-Romantic German poet Novalis, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s 2014 novelization of his life, The Blue Flower, knows only that it’s all he needs to know. “It doesn’t get any bluer,” says Cole. It really doesn’t. The anomalous, gelid blue that douses the frame doesn’t come from the sky behind the men, rather from the tinted window of the Lincoln Town Car, a tint known as Gasser, after a breed of 1970s muscle car, but to me recalling Gass, William Gass, and his On Being Blue (1975). Hell, he says in the book, has gas-blue flames, and on earth everything empty is blue, but so are human interiors. These connections weren’t planned for me, but sparked. Lynch does it again: a blue tuned to a frequency that cracks the protective glass between what you’re seeing and you.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Church Folk

05.30.17

Claudio Giovannesi, Fiore, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 109 minutes.


IT’S A PLEASURE TO REPORT that at least half of this year’s selections in the Open Roads series of New Italian cinema would make any film festival worth attending.

Edoardo De Angelis’s Indivisible is a flashy opening feature, with its tale of twin teenage girls physically joined at the hip, but it also underlines the powerful forces of church and family that remain critical elements in Italian movies. Both themes are as inextricably bound in this film as the twins themselves (played by Angela and Marianna Fontana), whose condition is exploited by a father who parades them around Naples to sing in public and by the local priest who refuses to endorse the surgery that would give them independent lives because it would deprive his parishioners of a cheap source of inspiration.

An altogether different and more compelling take on church and family is Federica Di Giacomo’s mesmerizing documentary Liberami, one of the juicier morsels in this year’s lineup. The driving idea is that the Father of Lies—aka Lucifer—has gone viral. Endnotes inform us that we are in a global crisis: In Spain, the archdiocese of Madrid is short on exorcists, while the United States has more of them than ever, and in Italy the situation is so acute that Milan and Rome have emergency hotlines. (The devil, it seems, can be talked out of his mischief by cell phone.) Liberami is a cross between Living Theater and a Neorealist, if sardonic, romp through horror-movie conventions—but don’t expect The Exorcist (1971). No elevated beds, revolving heads, or spewing bile bedeck the film. The afflicted Sicilian souls who flock to Father Cataldo whenever they sense imminent take-over provide enough acting out—screaming obscenities, rolling eyes to the back of the head, and convulsing on the floor—to suggest that their behavior is more about the urge to purge forbidden desires and suppressed rage than it is about demonic possession. We know more today about autism and the mental conditions that once seemed alien, so even Father Cataldo recognizes that those who keep showing up claiming possession have psychological disorders or are in desperate need for attention. (No doubt, the presence of cameras did little to quell their fervor.) Nevertheless, he sympathizes as he bestows soothing, forgiving comfort on these “victims.” One young lady, aware of the fine line between natural drives and supernatural forces, refuses to surrender certain aspects of her “possession.” And we understand when a young man, enraged by his girlfriend’s taunts, complains that unless he rolls around the floor he’s not getting the help he needs. As fascinating as it is compassionate, the film avoids cheap shots and condescension in its effort to shed light on a grossly misunderstood phenomenon.

Though less blatant and more slickly attired, the devil’s work is more nefarious in Roberto Andň’s The Confessions, a moral allegory about global capitalism and corporate greed. The action, set in a luxurious German hotel, concerns the plans of eight international bankers and economists, each a minister of the world’s superpowers, gathered at a summit meeting by their leader Daniel Roche (Daniel Auteuil), whose suicide throws a wrench into the affair. They suspect that Roberto Sallus, a strange priest, has something to do with it, since he was invited by Roche and was the last to speak to him. Sallus’s vow of silence, however, prevents him from revealing the man’s final confession, perpetuating the mystery. As played by the charming Toni Servillo, whose ability to project serene detachment is especially effective, Sallus carries the moral force that hovers over the summit and sustains the film’s air of metaphysical something-or-other, but the secrecy that binds him also lets the movie off the hook, allowing its moral agenda to remain both vague and predictable—a denouement further compounded by the inexplicable turn in the behavior of a large hound and a last-minute hint that Sallus may be something other than mere mortal.

Federica Di Giacomo, Deliver Us (Liberami), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes.


Far more earthbound, Fiore is a sober look at teenagers whose lives seem forever shadowed by prospects of imprisonment. The film provides neither easy answers to the social problems that led them there nor sentimental speculations about a brighter future. Though every character and actor strikes a credible note—prison guards, visiting parents, and the adolescents themselves, the film is driven by Daphne, played by winning newcomer Daphne Scoccia. A tarnished angel whose face registers every emotion, confused and real, and every desperate but futile hope, Daphne veers from hotheaded impulses to promises to rein them in with a sulky conviction both palpable and pathetic. But Scoccia, whose face the camera loves, never sinks to cloying appeals for sympathy. We cringe at her hardness when she robs people at knifepoint, but when she delivers a cynical goodbye to Josh (Josciua Algeri), the young convict she’s fallen in love with, we note that she sees through more illusions than any young person should have to. Director Claudio Giovannesi, who cowrote the screenplay, allows neither attention-grabbing camerawork nor sermonizing to undermine the extraordinary natural appeal and unnerving veracity of his female lead. She bears watching.

Seasoned auteurs Marco Bellocchio and Gianni Amelio are represented by fine new work. The latter’s Tenderness, set in Naples, is a moving character study of Lorenzo (Renato Carpentieri), a tough-skinned former lawyer recovering from a recent illness. As we learn from the opening scene, involving his daughter and an immigrant trying to make his case, knowledge of the “other” seems to be a running motif and lies behind the event that disrupts the film’s initial composure. When Lorenzo’s friendship with the couple next door and their two children is cut short by tragedy, he is forced to confront his estranged relationship with his own children. More telling of the film’s dark, melancholy mood is the title of the prize-winning novel on which it is based, _The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Moreno. Yet nothing prepares us for the genuine shock of the film’s key episode, which proves how little we know about the inner torments that drive people to act against their own well-being.

Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, based on Massimo Gramellini’s best-selling autobiographical novel, is a compelling study of the lifelong effects of a troubling symbiotic relationship between a depressed mother and her son. Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea) has been lied to for forty years about his mother’s suicide when he was nine. Juggling a confused myth about her, he alternates between unhealthy idealization and anger, suffers panic attacks, and has problems with women. The film’s shifts between past and present embody the sense that, while Massimo’s career as a journalist moves from one event and place to another, his psychological reality is frozen in time. Attuned, as always, to personal and social pathology, Bellocchio captures the abandonment any child feels when his mother leaves inexplicably, forcing him to conclude that he was at fault. But the director adds an astute touch in the final sequence—and especially the final shot—that has even greater impact than the novel, brilliantly fusing the love and terror of a child’s dependency on a disturbed mother while empathically telegraphing the mother’s despair.

The daily grind of a working-class family is the focus of Daniele Vicari’s Sun, Heart, Love, a sober, touching, ultimately tragic tale. But where classic Italian cinema would focus on the husband’s plight, here, Eli (Isabella Ragonese), the breadwinner, is our barometer. Despite a predawn two-hour bus ride to Rome, where she’s on her feet all day at a busy café before the ride home to her husband and children, she maintains a cheerful spirit, ignoring even serious health issues. Her friend and foil is the sexually confused Vale, whose erotic performances at a nightclub are tinged by her barely suppressed masochism and deep unhappiness. Vicari’s convincing humanism and unflashy style make the concluding scene, in which these contrasting portraits of contemporary Italian women are unexpectedly crosscut, nothing less than heartbreaking.

Tony Pipolo

“Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” runs June 1–7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Fig Leaves

05.26.17

Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes. Rebecca and Enid (Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch).


AMONG THE NEARLY EXTINCT COMMUNITY of classic jazz purists, my uncle was relatively well known. Working under John Hammond at Columbia Records in the early 1960s, he produced the seminal reissue LP King of the Delta Blues (1961), a compilation of ’30s recordings by Robert Johnson that, along with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) was a Rosetta Stone of the ’60s folk revival. His real love, however, was jazz, specifically early jazz—original Dixieland through the big-band swing era of the ’30s and early ’40s. He thought that bebop—the frenetic, highly improvisatory, small-band style of jazz pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-’40s—killed the entire genre.

He was deadly serious about this, and he was not alone; such curmudgeonly, golden-age puritans were known as “moldy figs” in midcentury articles and discussions about modern jazz. On one of the few occasions that I met my uncle, I happened to be taking a jazz history class in college and, being vaguely aware of his prejudices, wanted to test their limits. Offering what I and many others consider to be the gateway drug of modern, post-bop jazz, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959)—a mellow, midtempo, conventionally beautiful and rather anodyne set—my uncle pulled a sour-milk grimace and blurted out, “Chinese music!”

Today, there are few moldy figs in the original jazz purist sense of the term, though an analogous pejorative, “rockist,” has taken hold in the past decade or so. A handful are still schlepping around, crates of dusty 78s in tow. Film director Terry Zwigoff is one, as is his friend and the subject of his best film (and one of the greatest documentaries about an artist), Robert “R.” Crumb, the cranky godhead of underground comics. Marked by an obsessive urge to collect old records and acquire arcane knowledge, along with a singular inability to relate to contemporary consumer culture and participate in the cheery, transactional Human Resources mode of modern social interaction, moldy figs—unpopular even in their era—have never been more out of fashion.

This is largely due to the internet, which has radically devalued the act of collecting, both in terms of objects (i.e., hard copies of bygone cultural artifacts) and specialized knowledge (connoisseurship, once admired and celebrated, has devolved into “knowing stuff makes you a snob,” as a friend of mine puts it). The low to nonexistent esteem granted to expertise, nostalgia, and obscurantism in twenty-first-century America makes the moldy fig an almost impossible figure, certainly an unwanted one. They are not welcome in a social-media environment where everyone is “connected” by means of “likes,” children are counseled to start developing their “brands” as soon as they leave the nursery, and predictably fraudulent vanity bonfires like the Fyre Festival actually attract large numbers of overpaying marks.

I mention this because, in addition to being a moldy fig himself, Zwigoff, as a director, is the preeminent living chronicler of moldy figs trapped in the modern world. Beginning with Louie Bluie (1985), an hour-long documentary about prewar ragtime mandolin and fiddle player Howard Armstrong, veteran of string bands and medicine shows still operating in a Reaganite America that has little time for eccentric, folksy relics like himself; peaking with Crumb (1994), in which the cartoonist’s famously bilious antipathy to modern life is revealed to be relatively normal and socially acceptable compared with the shut-in isolation of his two brothers, extraordinarily alienated bedsitters plagued by mental illness; and cresting with Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006), two narrative film collaborations with comic artist Daniel Clowes, a GenX moldy fig of sorts, Zwigoff’s films can be boiled down to a line Crumb once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Your vigor for life appalls me.” (While acknowledging its charming degeneracy, I am eliding Bad Santa [2003], a successful black comedy and the most mainstream of Zwigoff’s films, in the name of Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory; it simply doesn’t fit with the rest.)

Terry Zwigoff, Crumb, 1994, 16 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes.


The Metrograph theater recently ran a Zwigoff retrospective, with the director present for questions after each screening, and I was eager to revisit his films to see how they would play in an era distinctly hostile to their concerns. They were largely as I remember them; none of them rose or sank significantly in my estimation. Crumb remains the standout, with Louie Bluie serving as a sweetly melancholic prelude to many of the later film’s themes, primary among them a longing for a sepia-toned, prelapsarian America that never really existed. The Clowes collaborations are consistent in tone but uneven in quality; Ghost World—a post-high-school coming-of-age tale based on Clowes’s graphic novel of the same title, featuring two female misfits growing apart in an unnamed, Sacramento-like city—is the far more effective and affecting movie.

Art School Confidential, a merciless satire of art colleges (partly based on Pratt, where Clowes was a student) that grafts a preposterous murder mystery onto a plotless, four-page Clowes strip from his comic Eightball, suffers because much of it was already done better in Enid’s summer art class in Ghost World (the cheaply feminist “tampon-in-a-teacup trick” was taken from Clowes’s original “Art School Confidential” strip). Indeed, one suspects that had Ghost World not been so lauded, Art School Confidential would never have been conceived, let alone made. It has all the failings of a sequel without actually being a sequel. (It could be called a sensibility sequel, analogous to the relationship between David Lynch’s Inland Empire [2006] and his earlier Mulholland Drive [2001], with all the aesthetic/thematic overkill that progression implies.)

Both Clowes collaborations include moldy figs as main characters: Steve Buscemi’s crotchety Seymour in Ghost World (based on Zwigoff and, to a lesser extent, Crumb) and Max Minghella’s impossibly innocent freshman Jerome in Art School Confidential (a rare example of a young moldy fig, who worships Picasso, insists on representational work, and has little sympathy for or understanding of postmodern art). Despite similarities to their creators, both characters are treated harshly and have their lives effectively destroyed (though Jerome attains a strange kind of fame at the price of his freedom). This is consistent with the special sort of self-loathing that haunts moldy figs: Unable to appreciate contemporary culture or engage in normal human relations, the moldy fig turns on himself, as evidenced by Crumb’s more self-lacerating strips where he appears as a character.

This can be harmful, even fatal. Crumb’s older brother Charles, who evinced a precocious talent for and obsession with drawing comics as a boy, particularly fan-fiction extensions of Treasure Island, was bullied by his explosive, domineering father and tough guys at school, eventually succumbing to schizophrenia and remaining a recluse for the rest of his life, living with his mother until he committed suicide in 1992. Robert Crumb credits Charles with inspiring him to become a cartoonist (partly by force when the boys were young). Crumb, which is dedicated to Charles and is almost as much about him as it is about Robert, contains the most chilling representation of the descent into mental illness I’ve ever seen. As he lost his grip on sanity, Charles’s self-drawn comics began to feature increasing amounts of text, the expanding word balloons crowding out the characters within the comic panels, eventually devolving into imageless graphomania, at first consisting of legible words but later just endless lines of squiggles.

According to Robert, when Charles was growing up, he would often deflate people and situations by saying, sarcastically, “How perfectly goddamned delightful it all is, to be sure,” which could serve as the moldy fig’s credo. Such negative, contrarian attitudes have been unfashionable for so long in American pop culture that I was worried that Zwigoff would never receive funding for another film, so I was heartened to hear that his pilot for Budding Prospects, an adaptation of T. C. Boyle’s novel about marijuana farming, became available for streaming in March on, irony of ironies, Amazon.com.

Andrew Hultkrans

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 1. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).


EUCALYPTUS TREES, WEAKENED BY DROUGHT, are on their last legs all over Los Angeles. One fell and knocked out the power lines next to my friend’s house, where I am staying, in Eagle Rock, and we stood on the deck drinking Vinho Verde––delicious, like if wine were beer––watching the action. A fire truck loitered for an hour, produced no helpers, and left. Disruption made the street its own neighborhood. Homeowners came out wondering, hands synchronized on hips. One man retrieved his digital camera and tripod and took commemorative photos. Another ambled the length of his driveway twice an hour to see what was up. For a few hours, nothing. Power trucks eventually came, two then three. My friend walked down to the street, tan and hot in a crop-top, to talk to the workers, but even she couldn’t inspire them to finish faster. I thought this was fine. The only problem, really, was that without working television, or internet, we were missing the West Coast premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return.

The light dimmed outside, and my friend and I read books by flashlight and candle. Flies that would normally stay by the window were drawn to the page, and I killed the first by whacking it against a coffee table with The History of Sexuality in paperback and the second by crushing it inside The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick. Its viridian dead body blotted out four or five letters of text in the story “Back Issues,” so that I may never know whether the New York Public Library is at Forty-Second or Forty-Seventh and Fifth. Finishing the Vinho Verde, my friend remembered that by siphoning her cellular connection, we could stream The Return, available via Showtime on Hulu and Amazon, without electricity. This inappropriate usage of data would cost something totally nuts per minute, but “whatever,” said my friend, and I had to agree.

To begin with, there was almost no sound. What there was for a score was, with one exception, diegetic, selected vagaries of the soundscape plucked and turned up to make a loose, spare derangement. Fans of the original Twin Peaks (1990–91), not to mention nonfans who also watched it, will remember that Angelo Badalamenti’s influence went way past the theme song, that adult lullaby, to disquiet the breezy scenes, make fun of sad ones, and build a fugue state throughout. Twenty-six years later, the theme remains, but nothing else plays. There are no sideways forays into jazz, no melodramatic crying jags, and few stabs at banter. The hell-bent silence makes the passage of time unbearable, like a subway ride without headphones, or a book, or a friend. Would I say that the first hour is slow? It is so slow that Stanley Kubrick watching it would start thinking about dinner.

David Lynch and Mark Frost, cocreators of Twin Peaks then and now, have said that the only scene flagged by the network in the very first episode, which aired on the American Broadcasting Company, was the one where Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), examining the body of a dead Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), took tweezers and dug deep under the empurpled nail of her ring finger to retrieve a miniature clue. A close-up on this procedure lasted fourteen seconds, which censors said was too long. It was perfect, yet in a technical sense the censors were correct: It was still TV. The basic differentiating formula for the best TV, or prestige TV, since the two aren’t synonymous, is film minus time. Films, when they’re great, improve on and proliferate life, which is why you don’t leave the cinema anxious about wasted hours, the way you do (I always do) after watching television no matter how good the show, and why it’s possible to watch episode after episode on Netflix or HBO Go without getting around to feeling uncomfortable or stopping to think. Some critics hold that television now is better than film, but though the average show on network television is cleverer, more inventive, more interesting than the average studio movie, suggesting that the best TV rivals the best new cinema, the medium which still represents the apotheosis of time taken and given, is rude and unacceptable unless you live in a town, like Twin Peaks, come to think of it, without a movie theater. All is to say: Lynch knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing the right thing when he calls The Return an eighteen-part film. Not a miniseries––nothing mini about it––and not episodic. To watch more than two episodes in a night would be like eating three cherry pies.

Lynch used to hate his show being interrupted by commercials, saying, Imagine if you were at the symphony and every fifteen minutes the music stopped and was interchanged with jingles, and a benefit of streaming is the optional elision of ads. Another cool feature is closed captioning, which on Hulu is customizable, ergo mine is neon lime with a glowed edge to match the titles and credits, and which on The Return gives us incredible, specific descriptors of sound and score. A line dialed by the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) isn’t ringing but “trilling.” Footsteps on tile in the Black Lodge are “odd reverberations.” Skin “crinkles.” In the anonymous woods are “whooshing sustains,” followed by, naturally, an “ominous tone.” But where technology gives godlike it takes away, and new problems show up in place of old ones, like the compression thinning the image-stream on a laptop so that the black ink and shadow flooding the screen turns silty instead of looking as meant: “Dark as pitch, as noir, as hate,” to quote Manohla Dargis in her review of Lynch’s last film, Inland Empire (2006).

There is almost no blue. Lynch banned blue-colored props from the set of Twin Peaks in the first season, maybe also the second. This contributed to a long sense of skylessness, redoubled here in The Return. We see only a pressed and dried cornflower blue, subdued further by dank cinematography. The blue stays in the background of Laura Palmer’s iconic school portrait, now displayed in a glass case with assorted trophies. The blue is matched on the bedroom walls of our new, female victim—well, her head is female, severed and floating atop the lumpen, tumescent body of a “male John Doe” (a funny redundancy, its specificity a comment on how the typical anonymous corpse belongs to a hot girl or a woman). There are stomach-dropping aerial shots of New York City and Las Vegas, two added locations that jar the expectation, the memory of Twin Peaks as existing on a map without a territory, but these are exclusive to night. The blue is matched again in the motel room where another woman dies.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 1. Darya and C (Nicole LaLiberte and Kyle MacLachlan). Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime.


There are almost no not-white people. This will become more noticeable and weird as further scenes, with further and extra characters, unfold in those cities, but basically it is as it should be. Lynch specializes in a whiteness that slips from the norm, from seats of power, from centers that are traditionally but never essentially, exclusively white, to become whiteness per se. He doesn’t participate in the creeping normalization that tries to include everyone in a whiteness reconstituted as chill and that to some degree is always white-centric, and he doesn’t show us worlds where anyone, save teenagers bent on going to hell, would seek representation. Rare among major white artists, and almost impossibly, he appropriates whiteness in a manner all at once glib, unstudied, and tender, superficial and earnest, well-intentioned. This appropriative tendency is a huge and underrated part of what we mean when we say “Lynchian.” (In this Lynchianness no one excels more, more obviously, than Lana Del Rey.) Ditto his light grip on irony. Atypically for such a white American, he knows that irony is not sarcasm, is not really funny, and is never on purpose.

That Lynch is our guru and genius of white identity is one reason why I see so many fans and critics, and fans who are critics, all of them white, ask or demand that his works be held above and beyond interpretation. Yeah, I think. Nice try. The one near-definitive book on Lynch is by the critic and curator Dennis Lim, who doesn’t subject his taste to questions of either identity or identification, and who nonetheless has taken more care than most of his white peers to understand Lynch. This is an effect of Lim’s talent, and talent is always more or less selcouth, but it’s also no accident: One of the many things white people have refused to see about race is how we’re bound by our own, a refusal that makes us inadequate critics of our best representatives. Those fans and critics who, on the other hand, insist that things be explicable or that they alone have some answers are obviously wrongheaded. Less obvious is the problem: not that some viewers need everything to make sense, rather that they need things to be justified. Some things are simply not forgivable. The solution is not to mystify ignorance.

Besides, what we have here is an auteur who plays not with but to critics. Lynch teases, he tickles, he withholds relief and escape. He also holds out comfort in symbols and puns. He’s a lot like the other David (Cronenberg) in his twisted devotion to genre, his habit of making actors talk like they’re saying lines from other, lesser movies, and his hokey, dated special effects, stopping shy of “movie magic” and leaving spells broken, lying around. A serious dreamer, he welcomes without begging analysis, and takes analysts, even critics, seriously. The evidence of his generosity is that he doesn’t give his own interpretations. There are so many artists who think they can do my job. I let them. I like writing about art that leaves space. Take Lynch at his purest here, his lens hovering on Darya (Nicole LaLiberte), the newest of his uncanny valley dolls, in some anywhere motel during the last minute or two of her life as she goes from being hit in the face to getting shot in the head. Her heavy false eyelashes come unglued, lifting visibly from her natural lash line, in an exposure so slighting, cruel, and brief that you feel special, then guilty, for noticing it, though probably your noticing it is the point. Trompe l’œil, painted with a shaky, minatory hand, is the effect. Take Lynch at his most obvious in the scenes where a pretty young man is being paid to sit in a TriBeCa loft and watch an empty glass box, told only to wait for something, some image to materialize there. His crush comes over with lattes from the coffee shop where, in the guise of a junior ad executive, she works nights as a barista, and he tells her the loft belongs to “some anonymous billionaire.” “Oooh,” she goes. “Mysterious.” (Unnecessary emphasis hers.)

Twin Peaks, 1990–91, clip from a TV show on ABC. Season 2, episode 22. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

One image appearing briefly in the glass box––a harbinger greeted, as it happens and has to happen, by no one––belongs to the man last seen as Cooper, trapped soul and body in the Black Lodge (long story) for the past twenty-five years. Cooper hasn’t been seen this side of limbo since, possessed by his prime suspect’s demon, he bashed his head into a mirror and asked how Annie was, though he did find time to change into a tux before leaving the dimension. Wandering earth is his doppelgänger, a heartless, successful criminal wearing Lenny Kravitz’s pants, a Samson-haired and literally strong-armed man (what is his arm made of, steel?), a killer who goes only by “C.” Lynch at his most moral: There are no antiheroes, only heroes who stand to be ruined rather than fall. There are no complications, no excuses, and as he prefers not to diagnose from the director’s chair, there are no pleas of insanity. (A doctor on the original Twin Peaks, opining that Leland Palmer has been driven to kill by madness, triggered by grief, is stopped right there by Special Agent Cooper: “Do you approve of murder, Doctor Hayward?”) This binary starring role for MacLachlan, taken into consideration with his quite prominent billing, over the alphabetical rest of the cast in the end credits, may or may not indicate that the fifty-eight-year-old actor is angling for what we might have to call a “MacLachlanaissance” (cf. Matthew McConaughey’s “McConnaissance,” which peaked with his bravura performance as the philosophical, reluctantly loved, eventually schizo Rusty on season one of HBO’s True Detective). The last we see of Monsieur C, he’s driving what appears to be a 1989 Lincoln Continental (cf. Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln ads), hearse-black inside and outside, back to where he belongs.

The first we see of Twin Peaks in The Return is a lonesome clearing in the woods, and a red truck backing into a gravel driveway as smoothly as if it were shot in forward motion and reversed in post. Doctor Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) emerges at the door of a derelict trailer home and takes off a pair of shades to reveal another pair, one red lens, one blue, a joke about what—shadiness, layers, the third dimension? A joke about being Lynchian. The driver lifts boxes from the truck, and from the boxes brings objects seen only as shapes, wrapped in plastic. He asks the doc how he’s doing. “Good as ever,” says the doc. Not a joke, a fact about being here.

Five minutes before the end of the second hour, my friend’s laptop died, and mine, too, proved dead. The last thing we saw was Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) looking at James Hurley (James Marshall) as the Chromatics, live at the Bang Bang Bar, play a song about darkness. “James is still cool,” Shelly says. “James has always been cool.” I could honestly have cried. Outside the house, the men in orange hats worked overtime under temporary lights.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on May 21. It runs Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.