Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017 film)

Once upon a time, superhero movies came along less than once per year. Nowadays, the annual output approaches ten, and the superhero genre has gotten into somewhat of a groove – for better or for worse. The skilled creators who make these movies have learned various formulas that have been proven to succeed. One may particularly note that Marvel has a good track record over a decade of producing mainly good, and occasionally very good movies. DC has been more erratic in its offerings, and perhaps it is the resistance to mere formula that allowed DC to score an original win with 2017's headliner, Wonder Woman.

The first thing that distinguishes Wonder Woman from the vast majority of other superhero movies is apparent in the title's second word, and this word and identity also distinguished the 1941 comic hero from almost all of her dozen-and-some predecessors. The star is a woman – clearly a break from the norm for superhero movies with a single, central star – but is that all there is to it, one chromosome of difference, or does it mean something? If so, is it because she is typical in some way of real women, or because of how the character is developed?

As I recently commented, Wonder Woman has been subjected to many new origins and reboots in recent years – more than one quite good one – which makes it an immediate challenge for any added version, cinematic or otherwise, to do something new. But director Patty Jenkins and the rest of her team succeeded. Or, if they didn't do anything completely new, they did something that breaks the pattern of lots of pretty-good but increasingly formulaic superhero movies.

The need for this is apparent. Deadpool lashed out against the conventions in one way: Its (anti)hero disposes with traditional superhero virtues in exchange for cynicism, humor, self-deprecation, and selective verisimilitude. He could easily, without superpowers, star in a remake of Animal House (in fact, he did; it was called Van Wilder). Deadpool laughs at the superhero conventions of virtue while dealing up a lot of action. When he is injured – even when a limb is severed from his body – he barely flinches and plays the moment with deadpan comedy.

Wonder Woman does something almost completely opposite. She believes in her heroic destiny, completely without reservation. She is noble and idealistic and stubborn and absolutely nothing throws her off her game.

If there is one scene that stays in the viewer's memory, it is probably her initial display of power in man's world, and the script picked a hell of a place for her to show it – on a World War One battlefield. As the less popular of the world wars, its savagery is probably less in the collective mind than is that of its sequel, but the trench warfare of the First World War put human fragility on display in a definitive sense. We can picture World War Two soldiers swaggering through the European countryside during a break in hostilities, ambling through some fields on the war to the next battle, but the No Man's Land on the Western Front of the earlier war allowed no human dignity. And so, there was no better place than No Man's Land to introduce Wonder Woman. Holding her shield against a rain of hot metal, Diana was everything the rest of the moment was not. Color where there was no color, strength where there was no strength, life where there was no life, a woman where all others were men. Her steady movement forward into the firepower of the enemy is likely the film's central image.

But a series of non-action, staid, talky scenes may do more to cement the film's uniqueness. In London and in Belgium, she's in completely unfamiliar territory surrounded by Steve Trevor's team of flawed and gray-moraled men. Both as witness to and object of their moral failings, she is completely unaltered by their weakness, their avarice, and their clumsy advances on her. She is completely inflexible in her morality, but she does not use her powers to win the argument. Before the film is over, she has made each of them, in some way, a better man than he was when she met them. She easily could have picked them up and spun them over her head until they bellowed for mercy, but that was not her way. Her primary contribution to Man's World was not to serve as a human tank on a battlefield but as a messenger of purer virtues.

And the credit there goes to Gal Gadot. She gave life to those values with the power sincerity. We've heard lesser actors read similar lines off a card in a bland
and perfunctory way, but she means them, or does an impeccable job of seeming to. Gadot is a former beauty pageant winner who also served two years as a soldier. Remarkably, she seems to have brought the best of each of those identities to her performance.

Wonder Woman's – and Gadot's – unbridled idealism is not new in superhero movies. It occurs in flashes here and there in all the better movies of the genre. To make the characters more subtle, more nuanced, they are more complex than noble. In many respects, that makes them better movie characters. It makes them worse heroes.

The last time we saw an actor bring a superhero to life with such unflagging idealism was Christopher Reeve's Superman. That series, to add some complexity, spent some time in the third film showing him as a red-kryptonite-forged Bad Superman. But even the Reeve Superman (though not his Clark Kent) had a mean streak, a whisper of sadistic pleasure, directed solely at wrongdoers, as when he made a building-scaling cat burglar fear a deadly fall, when he beat up the jerk trucker who beat up Clark Kent, and when he pretended to be powerless and crushed Zod's hand in a theatrical taunt. Henry Cavill's Superman is more consistently noble than Reeve's, probably at his ugliest when he tells Jonathan Kent that he isn't his father. His decision to kill Zod is the screenwriter's decision – a decision that the 1978 Superman never had to face, though the end of Superman II ­seemed to show him allowing the deaths of the three Kryptonian villains (a shot showing their survival was cut from the theatre version). Gadot's Wonder Woman also kills, in battle, because she has to. But we never see her use her powers with glee, with pride, except when she is a small child. When she begins her career, if it were, as Wonder Woman, she's already the person she needs to be. Man's World is the place where she accepts that role, but there is, fundamentally, no "Clark Kent," no "Bruce Wayne" to muddle her identity. Whatever life she adopts as Diana Prince (currently unseen by us except in a minute or two of dialogue-free scenes), it is as the person she has always been, perhaps playing a role to hide her identity, but Wonder Woman is who she has always been, if by another name.

Like many of the better Wonder Woman stories, the 2017 film is a Greek tragedy. The brilliant choice of history as the setting for her story is that the audience already has the big ending spoiled for us, and perhaps this is why her origin was moved, relative to the comic book origin, to the earlier of the world wars. World War One will end, yes; London, of course, will not be destroyed. And what Diana considers to be her single greatest purpose will elude her. We already know that World War Two is coming, so we know that beating Ares didn't stop war as she'd hoped it would. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, taking a break from his work as James T. Kirk) gives his life preventing a tragedy that didn't occur in the real world, and we have to presume that whatever Diana did after 1918, it failed to prevent the DC Extended Universe's version of World War Two.

One of the great challenges for the Superman film franchise was that its 1978 landmark captured the hero – and minted the genre – so perfectly that it was a hard act to follow. So seductive were its merits that Superman Returns flopped by attempting to copy Donner's 1978 work on a structural and thematic basis so closely that it lacked a life of its own. And so, Wonder Woman's greatest challenge will be to keep the character engaging in a team movie next year and a second solo feature later. It also remains to be seen how the broader superhero genre will respond to this alteration in its pattern, a hero who is completely, unblinkingly, noble – and a woman. Are you up to it, boys?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Twin Peaks, Season Three, Episodes 1-8

The question is, "Where have you gone?" Waking up after a 26-year dream, Twin Peaks drops us, and at least some of its characters, into disorientingly unfamiliar situations.

The first two seasons of Twin Peaks (1990-1991) presented the viewer with sharp contrasts in tone, unapologetically strange personalities, and intervention on Earth from a bizarre spirit plane while keeping one thing almost totally constant: The setting of the town of Twin Peaks. This geographical constraint was dropped in the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, and it is totally blown away in the new, third season. In its first eight episodes, Twin Peaks: The Return takes us to the fictional and somewhat Twin-Peaks-like rural town, Buckhorn, South Dakota, and also to Yankton Federal Prison on the other side of that state, a long days' drive south from there to Las Vegas and to East Coast metropolises Philadelphia and New York City, with a short stop in Buenos Aires. And yes, there is some action in the town of Twin Peaks, but far less than the opening seasons would lead one to expect. What this all signifies is that the third season is not about a town or even small, American towns in general but about a phenomenon that happened to affect powerfully the town of Twin Peaks but is broad and far-ranging in its extent. Season 3 has focused so far by following the threads of one specific (but very complicated) story, and then panning back – way back – to something general.

The specific story is that of three Dale Coopers – two more than we started the series with and one more than we had in 1991. Way back in Season 2, Episode 11, Deputy Hawk told us:

There is also a legend of a place called the Black Lodge. The shadow self of the White Lodge. Legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self. My people call it The Dweller on the Threshold. … But it is said that if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.

Been there, done that. Cooper has met his shadow self, or doppelganger, and survived, but their meeting resulted in a switcheroo – Evil Cooper has been on the loose for 26 years now, while Good Cooper has sat cooling his heels in the Black Lodge, having at least a few conversations with friends such as The Giant and MIKE. But this situation has a time limit, and it has just expired. Good Cooper is free to leave the Black Lodge if he can get Evil Cooper back in. Evil Cooper knows this and has backup plans. First, he created a third, fake Cooper named Dougie Jones who is sucked into the Black Lodge when Good Cooper appears. That kept Evil Cooper on Earth, but he was incapacitated and taken into a Federal prison. Good Cooper has to kill Evil Cooper in order to remain on Earth, but Good Cooper has returned with his mental capacities reduced to that of a toddler, stumbling – in a successful Forrest Gump style – through the life of Dougie Jones while he struggles to regain his memory and/or be found by his friends in law enforcement. Evil Cooper, as shrewd as he is immoral, has backup plans behind backup plans, escaping prison and even death to remain free and fighting for his evil life to continue.

As they prepare for an inevitable showdown, both Good Cooper and Evil Cooper have some supernatural assistance. Good Cooper is being given hints and cues from some unstated source – probably MIKE and The Arm (the Man From Another Place, now "evolved" into a walking human nervous system that resembles the baby in Eraserhead). These clues enable him to win big in love and business and even in a Las Vegas casino. Meanwhile, Evil Cooper knew in advance of his incarceration how to (and the need to) hack the prison security system and blackmail the warden into allowing his release. Good Cooper is gradually regaining his memories and skills, best seen when he rapidly disarmed ruthless assassin Ike The Spike. His allies Deputy Chief Hawk and the Log Lady in Twin Peaks and FBI personnel Cole, Bryson, and Rosenfield are perhaps on his trail and will perhaps accelerate his recovery if they find him before Evil Cooper does. Along the way, Season 3 has picked up some very loose threads, showing us Diane (played by Lynch regular Laura Dern) and surfacing the missing pages (except one) from Laura Palmer's diary. For reasons that are not yet completely clear, Evil Cooper needs some numbers and in the season's first scene, The Giant gives some numbers to Good Cooper; there's a decent chance that those are the same numbers.

Those are the facts of the season's first seven episodes; then Episode 8 drops the bomb, literally. After Evil Cooper is revived from death by dark, horrible-looking men from nowhere, we jump back to July 1945, and witness in psychedelic detail the first atomic bomb explosion in the desert of New Mexico. Inside the fireball, we, The Giant, and a new character named SeƱorita Dido witness the emergence (and possible origin, or passage to our world) of BOB. Eleven years later, in 1956, a horrible winged bug-lizard hatches from an egg while the horrible dark men (according to the credits, Woodsmen a la FWWM) stagger like zombies away from a Convenience Store (again, a la FWWM) and begin to terrorize some nearby people. A Woodsman kills a couple of people and sends a hypnotic message over the radio, "This is the water and the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within." Then, a girl who has left an idyllic Fifties date opens her lips and allows the horrible bug-lizard to super horribly crawl inside her. It seems quite probable that we have thus witnessed the origin or transition of the entire Twin Peaks spirit world.

To connect a few dots (or plots), here, in 1956, Leland Palmer was about nine years old (at least, the actor, Ray Wise, who plays him was). This allows for the bomb, egg, creature, and Woodsmen to be on the scene when Leland, as a boy, met BOB and allowed him inside. Gordon Cole has a photo of an atomic explosion on his office wall, indicating that he may know about the relevance of nukes and the great menace out there facing his world. Dido is (from the Aeneid), the name of a woman whom a man meets on his way to a greater destiny, and this is the name of the woman who witnesses the origin of BOB. And the horse in the Woodsman's verse may be the one we have seen twice now (just before Maddy dies and when Good Cooper leaves the Black Lodge), when the spirit world is interfacing with our own.

Twin Peaks is as much about tone as it is about plots and details, and the tone of Season 3 is unmistakably more like David Lynch's theatrical films than the television show that Twin Peaks started out as. Lynch has peppered the cast with actors such as Naomi Watts, Patrick Fischler, and Laura Dern who were prominent in his films. He has also brought, from his films to Season 3, visual and thematic motifs such as a woman listening to a record player, menacing and unnaturally dark men, and a world of big, bad criminality. Twin Peaks: The Return may provide a unifying glue to Lynch's entire career and it seems not impossible that he could even link one or more of his fictional worlds to the Twin Peaks universe before it is over.

It is also noteworthy how much Season 3 shares with comic books, particularly the works of Alan Moore, whether Lynch is a fan who has drawn upon this material deliberately, or if they simply share the same influences. A bug infecting someone with an evil spirit by crawling into their mouth was done long ago in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. The idea of a profoundly violent event changing the world for the worse as if by synchronicity was also seen in Alan Moore's From Hell: Moore's story had the crimes of Jack the Ripper directly triggering the conception of Hitler while Lynch gives us the atomic bomb as the trigger that allows the evils of BOB and his spirit companions into our world. Of course, the idea of a scientific event producing beings with special powers is an older comic book trope, going back to the Flash in 1940 and Superman in 1938 as well as Jerry Siegel's evil "Super-Man" of 1933.

Now, preceding Episode Nine, we are truly at a crossroads. Evil Cooper is somewhere in the countryside, evil, enraged, and possibly immortal. Good Cooper is in Las Vegas, on the path towards regaining his capabilities. Good Cooper's allies are trying to work out the mystery before them. And now that we know that the evil in Twin Peaks began in 1945/1956, where are we poised in 2017? In the past, numbers (such as the time between Jupiter–Saturn conjunctions, and "I'll see you in 25 years") have been important. Is there some numerology with years about to unfold, so that what started in 1945 will end sometime soon, based on a magical number of years or alignment in the skies? Is there predestination guiding us to an inevitable conclusion? Or does Good Cooper have to rise up and win this as an act of will?

A key to the nature of the Twin Peaks story was perhaps spelled out way back in the second episode, "Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer." Agent Cooper, beginning to work on the Laura Palmer case, memorably positioned a bottle on a log and threw rocks at it from 60 feet and 6 inches away (the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate in baseball). Cooper, using an idea that came to him "in a dream," seeks clues in the way his subconscious mind and/or luck affect his throws. The "Tibetan method," he calls it. The episode was titled, "Zen, or, The Skill to Catch a Killer." Less than one episode later, Cooper tells Harry and Lucy that his dream (which ended the second episode) is the key to the case. "Break the code, solve the crime." This created the juicy prospect that the viewer, too, could break the code and solve the crime. Ultimately, however, this was not true. Many of the clues in the dream matched nothing at all. Others were hopelessly vague (e.g., that BOB's hair color matched Leland's, which it did only loosely). Still others were absolutely impossible to apply until the viewer already knew the solution (e.g., "that gum you like is going to come back in style," but the gum was linked to Leland after we already knew that he was the killer). In fact, Twin Peaks has never been built upon cleverness and logic and puzzles. It's full of dreamy obfuscation and wildly spiralling complexity without end. It sometimes makes sense after the fact, but it is not laid out according to conventional logic, and Lynch's comments on his own artistic process explain why:

Certain things are just beautiful to me, and I don't know why. Certain
things make so much sense, and it's hard to explain. I felt Eraserhead, I didn't think it.

Twin Peaks is driven more than anything else by David Lynch's visions from nowhere. It's how he works and it is, naturally, how his hero, Agent Cooper, works. Now Cooper – Good Cooper – is once again in the driver's seat, and Lynch will ask him, as Albert did twenty six years ago:

Cooper. In observation, I don't know where this is headed. But the only one of us with the coordinates for this destination and its hardware is you. Go on whatever vision quest you require. Stand on the rim of a volcano, stand alone and do your dance. Just find this beast before he takes another bite.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Twin Peaks: 25 Years Later

On June 10, 1991, a long, crazy dream came to an end… or to a pause. The relentlessly innovative, relentlessly weird series Twin Peaks sputtered to an early demise after something less than one and a half standard television seasons. During its brief run, Twin Peaks made an impression on virtually everyone in America and generated a cult following that lasted long past its series finale. So did the series' influence: the strange mixture of occult and soap opera, mystery and comedy, slapstick and horror caught on. Series directly inspired by Twin Peaks were many and outlived it by years and decades – Picket Fences, X-Files, True Detective and dozens of other shows borrowed something or other from Twin Peaks, whether that be cast, plot, directorial style, or tone.

Early in Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper says of his breakfast that there's nothing like the taste sensation when ham and maple syrup collide. That is an apt and possibly very deliberate metaphor for what Twin Peaks is. The snide, relentless competence of Albert Rosenfield and the calm, confident folksy charm of Sheriff Harry Truman are one of many collisions the show portrayed between people whose ethos – whose very way of being – were so different that it was hard to believe that the planet could contain both of them. Consider the outrageously eccentric household home to humble outdoorsman Pete Martell, his shrewish wife Catherine, and her mysterious sister-in-law from Hong Kong, Josie. Even unto themselves, these characters were full of contradictions – simpleminded Pete turning out to be a chess master, Josie hiding a romance with Sheriff Truman and a life of criminal intrigue, and Catherine posing for weeks as a Japanese businessman. Sometimes, these contradictions were developed at length, but they were found even in throwaway lines as when the Native American Deputy Hawk's refers to his former lover Diane Shapiro (PhD, Brandeis) and when Agent Cooper throws stones in a mystic ceremony for a distance of 60 feet and 6 inches (the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate in baseball). And the very idea that a supernatural demon would be named, of all things, Bob (by convention, spelled BOB).

Twin Peaks ­– the name tells you that duality is an important theme – was ruled by these clashes between opposites, and more than any other, there were two particularly ubiquitous dualities: ordinariness vs. strangeness and purity vs. corruption. And more than in any other person, these dualities both coexisted in the central but deceased character Laura Palmer. The beautiful homecoming queen who volunteered for charity was also a drug dealing, drug addicted, prostitute – something we found out in a series of shocking revelations throughout the first season. Even more shocking, we found out in the second season (and the series' print companion – The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer – that she had long been tormented by a disembodied spirit, a demonic predatory who has possessed her own father, and who had used his body to assault and rape her until she accepted death as her only way out.

The Twin Peaks story thus far, could be broken into the following parts:

• The Pilot, a decent standalone David Lynch film in its own right, except for its pointed lack of an ending, which was supplied for the so-called European Ending (aired on European TV and available as an extra on VHS and DVD) that sped through an unsettling resolution to Laura Palmer's death in a matter of minutes. Footage from the European Ending was used in Cooper's dream sequence at the end of Episode Three.

• The rest of the first season, in which the town and Laura's murder were explored, leading to an explosive finale with numerous deaths, assaults, and destruction. At this point, the writers had not agreed upon a resolution to the murder mystery, whose query, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" became a nationally-known catchphrase.

• The book, "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer," by Jennifer Lynch, which was published during the offseason and provided major developments/lookaheads regarding the plot, including the supernatural nature of Laura's killer, BOB.

• The first half of the second season, leading to the identity of Leland Palmer as the human host of BOB, and thus the physical body that killed Laura. This was filled with clues and red herrings, but led inexorably to a "twin peaked" conclusion in which the viewers learn first who killed Laura, and then later Cooper and the other authorities catch Leland.

• The second half of the second season, which meanders considerably, with a few mundane soap opera-ish plots as distractions from the central contest between Agent Cooper and his evil former partner, Windom Earle. The show itself battled ambiguous levels of support from its network, ABC, until its cancellation became certain and the series was given a memorable ending in which Agent Cooper returned from the Black Lodge possessed by BOB.

• A theatrical film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that served as a prequel to the series, showing the final days of Laura Palmer's life, the FBI's unsuccessful interactions with the spirit world from which BOB hails. Some truly bizarre scenes set in the spirit world showed that its residents visit our world to feed on the emotions of pain and suffering, presented as creamed corn and dubbed garmonbozia.

Now, after 26 years, the series resumes a few hours from now, in the future time frame indicated "25 years later" in the European Ending, Cooper's dream, and some scenes in FWWM. What will the series cover? It's certain that the "ending" of the second season will be addressed somehow, which would seem to require either that Cooper was somehow exorcised of BOB at some point in the past, or perhaps he still has the demon inside him, decades later.