Saturday, January 20, 2018

Happy Birthday David Lynch and Rest in Peace Harry Dean Stanton - Their Collaborations and Some Brief Thoughts on Twin Peaks Season 3

While writing my previous post, last year (which talks about, in part, the first time these two great men would work together), I was acutely aware that probably sooner rather than later, I'd be in a position where I'd have to write this one. Wasn't trying to tempt fate of course but with Harry Dean Stanton then turning 91, I knew it was only a matter of time before we would sadly have to look back at his life's work, with no new screen credits coming. 

Having said that, 91 is, of course, a bloody good innings and like say, Christopher Lee, Harry Dean was another man who very much died with his boots on and had the kind of career that many or most would need two lifetimes or more to play catch up with.

So, in order to pay tribute to him and also as a birthday hat tip to friend and frequent collaborator David Lynch, I figured why not have a look back at the times they joined forces. Again, I covered the first of those projects, "The Cowboy and the Frenchman" (1987) in my last blog entry, so first up, it's off to 1990, with Wild at Heart...

This was one of the first Lynch films I ever saw (as a late night double bill on TV, with Kiss Me Deadly) and while I've always enjoyed it, I never counted it among my favourites of his until relatively recently. I think certain parts rubbed me the wrong way. But now, I love practically every minute. 

I've always thought that it would make a good entry point for anyone who hasn't seen a Lynch movie before. I mean in terms of plot it's relatively conventional, compared to the more abstract and potentially alienating narratives of say Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. But it contains enough of the director's fingerprints to still be considered very much "a David Lynch film". In particular, it's a good showcase for the wide range of moods and tones he can achieve... often contrasting wildly divergent ones within a single scene or moment. E.g. absurd humour, in situations that shouldn't necessarily be funny, has always been a trademark and Wild at Heart has that in spades.

Essentially a road movie remake of The Wizard of Oz, starring Nic Cage (channelling Elvis)  and Laura Dern as lovers on the run (he's broke parole and she's fleeing an overbearing parent, played by her real life mother, Diane Ladd), it features a vast array of characters, many of them quirky or grotesque, played by one hell of an ensemble cast, many of them from Twin Peaks, which, as many of you will know, was at the height of its popularity at the time. Ditto Lynch in general... not just from TP but Wild at Heart would go on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1990. By the time Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me arrived, two years later though, things would be looking very different indeed for the director. 

Harry Dean Stanton plays Johnnie Farragut, sometimes sweetheart of Diane Ladd's wicked witch character and also a private detective, tasked by her to bring Laura Dern home. As always, he's a delight to watch. Within a relatively limited amount of screen time, he really brings Johnnie to life and suggests a lot of sides and facets to his character. And he has a scene which calls forward to one in Twin Peaks season 3 and cracks me up. He's watching a nature show and imitating the animals. The analogous one in TP is, however, tonally almost the opposite. In fact, and without giving anything away, it's quite unsettling.

I'll say no more as I'd like to cover all of these things in depth at a later date. All I'll add is that if you haven't seen it, whether you're a Lynch fan or totally new to him, I'd say you should see it at least once. If you're of the latter description if only to find out whether you'll be game for more or not. And music fans, this has a fantastic soundtrack. Stacked to the rafters and super varied. I love it.

Moving on... as I said, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which marked DL and HDS's third time working together, saw the director's estimation in the public and critical collective eye taking a complete nose dive after the giddy heights of the year and a half or so before. Thankfully, folks have come around to the film since. As I've talked about it at length (see, in particular, my post from exactly a year ago and the linked podcast discussions), I won't say much more. For our present purposes though, it features Harry Dean as Carl Rodd, the manager of the Fat Trout Trailer Park in Deer Meadow, who doesn't like being woken up before 9AM. EVER. I know how he feels. Again, within a short space of screen time, he conjures up a very real and tangible sense of a character, haunted and world weary, who has seen and been through some serious shit over the course of his life, without every explicitly saying what. He'll return in season 3 of Twin Peaks (not a spoiler, he's in the promos released prior to the show airing), which we'll get to later.

Speaking of TV though, next up, is Lynch's final foray into the televisual arena from that era... Hotel Room, which first aired on HBO on January 8th 1993 and was repeated the following night. A series of three short films, the first and third directed by Lynch and the second by James Signorelli, I watched it for the first time recently and while I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but Lynch completists, I found it absorbing and intriguing for the most part. The middle story was slight but enjoyable enough. The Lynch segments which bookended it though, were much more interesting.

All three stories take place in the same hotel room but in different years and featuring different characters. The first one, "Tricks", is set in 1969 and concerns Moe (HDS), whoever arrives at the room with a hooker in tow (played by Glenne Headly). Before they're able to get down to business, one of Moe's past associates, a man called Lou (the great Freddie Jones, who also worked with Lynch frequently) arrives and completely cock blocks him and then some. I'll say no more save that it has an interesting trajectory and sort of calls forward to later Lynch films... in particular, Lost Highway. Funny at times, also sad at others (hats off to Harry Dean, who again, really pulls you in to his backstory) and also something of a mindscrew, I really dug it.

Again, the second story was serviceable enough but also sort of forgettable. But the third, starring Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt, titled "Blackout", was great, I thought. The title tells you all you need to know on the surface. The whole thing is basically, as I recall, the two telling stories to each other, in the gloom of the dimly lit hotel room. I couldn't tell you even a fraction of what they said. It was, on a first pass, sort of hypnotic and mindnumbing at the same time but I don't mean the latter necessarily as a criticism. You might say it plays almost as a precursor to Inland Empire, which features many extended scenes of characters telling us tales. That sort of thing also features somewhat in Twin Peaks season 3 as well. In all cases, stories and characters are told of and don't necessarily have a relation to who is telling them (though they sometimes do) but suggest a whole wider and sometimes weirder world (or worlds, in the case of Inland Empire) outside of where we are presently. It seems many folks found this aspect of Inland Empire and season 3 of Twin Peaks one of the most off putting parts, perhaps even just being bored by it all. I get that, for sure. For myself though, again, I like how it suggests a whole universe of things happening around the edges of whichever scene we're currently in.

Anyway, Hotel Room is well worth a watch if you're totally on board with Lynch or a fan of the actors involved. Otherwise, I wouldn't go out of your way to see it.

It'd be a few years before Harry Dean and Lynch would work together again. And mentioning their next collaboration is perhaps, something of a spoiler. Though not really. I say this as you don't know he's in it (unless you've been told or have been looking at HDS's IMDb page or something) until he actually appears. It's The Straight Story, from 1999.

Basically, Harry Dean asked for his name to not appear in the intro credits and only at the end, so folks wouldn't think he had a bigger part than he does. Another incident that speaks to his humility and integrity. 

For anyone unfamiliar, the film tells the true story of Alvin Straight (played by the late, great Richard Farnsworth, in his last role. He terminally ill when he made the film, out of respect for the man he was playing. Sadly, the pain of his illness led to him taking his own life, the following year), who, upon hearing that his brother (HDS) has had a stroke, drives 240 miles on his riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin. 

Again, I'll say little more for now, as I'd like to cover this in depth. As Lynch himself said, it's arguably his most experimental film. And as folks have observed, the title is apt as it's about as straightforward as Lynch ever gets. Further adding to the strangeness here is that it's G/U rated and was partly produced and distributed by Disney.

Even if you don't particularly like Lynch I'd say that this movie, like The Elephant Man, should transcend that. There are parts which are certainly Lynchian in both but generally, they're beautiful, moving films that I think every human being should see at least once. In fact humanity is a word that they make me think of very strongly and an element to Lynch's work which isn't talked about enough. He strikes me as an artist deeply attuned and sympathetic to the experiences and feelings of his fellow homo sapiens. And The Straight Story is a case in point. If you watch it and aren't at least a little moved, you might be dead already. And again, and even more so here, Harry Dean is phenomenal in his single scene.

Finally, before I talk a little about Twin Peaks, we're fast forwarding to 2006 for what is, in my opinion, Lynch's most underrated film and one of my favourites of the last 20 years, Inland Empire

I can totally understand why many folks, or heck, even most, it seems, don't like this or can't stand it. I mean if you want to use a James Joyce analogy (those words themselves might send some running, screaming to the hills), if Mulholland Drive was say, Ulysses, then Inland Empire is Finnegans Wake. Which is to say, if you thought the former was experimental and narratively abstract or opaque, then multiply that to the nth degree for the latter. There's a bit more to the Joyce comparisons but I'll save all that for when I get around to talking about the films properly on their own.

For the uninitiated, the story follows Laura Dern, who plays Nikki Grace, an actress, who plays a character called Susan Blue in a film remake of a Polish production alleged to be cursed (apparently the leads were murdered). And in the course of playing her, she gets lost in her character and possibly others, or other incarnations, and between worlds before coming full circle, sort of, at the end of the film. Oh, and there are talking rabbits. 

That's about as succinct a synopsis as I can offer. Again, I can understand why it drives folks batshit but for myself, it feels like a logical extension of Mulholland Drive and I love the meta and multidimensional story(ies) being told here. It's not as purely cerebral as it sounds either. I find the ending in particular very moving and almost transcendent, in a way only equalled by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Harry Dean plays Freddie Howard, an old Hollywood pro who seems to be assisting Jeremy Irons, who plays the film within the film's director. Perhaps he's a producer. I forget off the top of my head. Anyway, again, in his short screen time, he's completely scene stealing. There are a couple of moments, including one strange, out-of-nowhere bit of dialogue about dogs, that I find simultaneously funny and also strangely sort of moving. I think it's the sense of age and such a long life lived that he brings to the character that again makes him seem so real. 

I'll return to the film and all the above another time. Suffice to say for now, Inland Empire is definitely only for those sold on Lynch's most experimental words and for the cinematically adventurous in general. And that's not to be condescending to anyone. These (and probably most of Lynch's) films are really love it or hate it sort of movies.

So then, to last summer and Twin Peaks season 3. And in as non spoilerly a fashion as I can, as I realise not everyone reading this will have had chance to watch it all yet. And as I think I said above, I'm going to be brief and vague too, as I'll be talking about the season in depth at a later date...

What did I think? Well, it's complicated and too much so to unpack here. Generally though, I really loved it. Not without reservations about certain aspects and sure, there are things I might have liked to have seen done differently. Those were few and far between though. Like many, I'll be the first to say that it didn't give me what I "wanted"... in quotes because I never thought, even for a minute, that I was entitled to be given certain things by it/have any expectations met or rewarded etc. I was always going in expecting the unexpected. I mean with Lynch any other approach would be foolish, right?

Despite what I just said, sure there were times, especially at the beginning and end of the season, where I had a certain amount of internal conflict or resistance to what I was seeing and the responses it was conjuring within me. And full disclosure but without getting into why yet, when I first finished the finale, in early September last year, for about half a day or so, till I re-watched it, I was pissed. Really, fucking fuming. Didn't help I was super depressed at the time I guess. But by the time I'd finished my second viewing that night and upon reflection, I'd done a complete 180 and absolutely fucking loved the ending.

In summation, there's a lot one could say about season 3 and a lot of words one could use to describe it (the TV/film debate aside). Two that I really liked were suggested by online commentators/recappers etc and sorry, I forgot who mentioned these right now but anyway... these two phrases sum up a lot of the way I feel about the experience as a whole... "a summer" and "a gift". The former as the whole build up, watching, reading, discussion with friends between episodes etc and the fall out from the end, really filled and defined the summer of 2017 for me. And the latter in the truest sense of the word, in that my God, I feel blessed beyond words to have been able to watch it and that it ever even aired.

Without giving anything away for those who haven't watched it, the season contained countless great moments and some that sit alongside any of the greatest things I've ever seen on any screen. Seriously, nothing I've watched has enthralled me, mystified me and moved me as deeply as this season did, save perhaps other favourite Lynch films and a handful from other directors.

To pull back a bit and focus and also to wrap this post up, I'd say one aspect that made it resonate so deeply with me was the passage of time between seasons 1/2 and Fire Walk With Me and how that fed into season 3. Frost and Lynch really ran with the thematic opportunities that presented, particularly in terms of ageing and mortality.

As many of you will now, some of the folks who appeared in season 3 are, sadly, now no longer with us. Miguel Ferrer, for instance, died a year and a day ago, and unfortunately, several months before the season would premiere. The same was true for Catherine Coulson and Warren Frost.

And others, including Harry Dean Stanton, stayed with us until just after the season ended. He passed away on the 15th of September. So not long at all after the finale aired.

Returning as the now less cranky, apparently more at peace, trailer park manager, Carl Rodd, whose domain seems to have relocated to Twin Peaks, his presence and certain of his scenes show some of the most acute sensitivity to and deep engagement with the themes mentioned above. He even alludes, and quite humourously, to his eventual date with the grim reaper.

He gets some great scenes, which I won't spoil. One I will mention though, as it appears in one of the aforementioned promos. It shows Harry Dean, sat on a park bench, looking at the breeze stirring the leaves and branches of a tree and reflecting. On what, it is, of course, ultimately impossible to say. But his demeanour and expression, and Stanton's incredible ability to communicate a whole lifetime of personal history without even saying a word, suggest deep internal rumination about his entire time on this mortal coil and where he might go when he shuffles off and beyond it. Or that's how it makes me feel, anyway.

I'll let you all go now as I've no doubt rambled long enough. But hopefully I've sufficiently conveyed my thoughts on all of the above film/TV and given a sense of the tremendous admiration and respect I have for both of these men. Cheers to you, David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton. And again, Happy Birthday and Rest in Peace, respectively.

P.S. I just realised I totally forgot to mention Lucky, starring Harry Dean and also featuring Lynch, directed by John Carroll Lynch (no relation). Still not had chance to see that yet but as soon as I do, I'll report back here. Can't believe the film nearly slipped my mind. 

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