1. These are undigested notes coming fast on the heels of me finishing my third or fourth rewatch of the original run of Twin Peaks.
2. Conventional wisdom says that season 2 of Twin Peaks is the bad season. This is certainly an impression that David Lynch is happy to support--he was barely active in the second half of the season, after Laura's killer was revealed. I'm not so sure it's accurate, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that, as I see it, there's only about four bad episodes in the second season. That's a hefty number but it isn't unusual; your average season of Star Trek has more duds. Now, these bad episodes are bad. These are the episodes where James goes off and gets involved in a pastel noir and Ben Horne goes slightly mad and thinks he's Robert E. Lee. There's not really anything redemptive that can be said about these interludes.
3. On the other hand, lots of things that I've seen pointed out as "bad" really aren't. Super Nadine is goofy, but it's fine. Heather Graham has a certain dry humor about her that matches well with Kyle MacLachlan. Billy Zane acts like he's wandered in out of another show, mumbling his way through the episodes; it's charming. The Windom Earle plotline isn't great, but it's hardly an abomination.
4. Oh, yes. The second half of season two introduces Denise Bryson, who is objectively one of the best things about the show.
5. Now, this isn't to say that season 2 is nearly to the level of season 1 (or, more accurately, that the post-reveal series is to the level of the pre-reveal series). But it isn't for the reason a lot of people, including David Lynch, suggest. Lynch is convinced that the death of Laura was the engine of the series and that removing the mystery destroyed the show. And perhaps he's right. But the precise way that works is less concrete than "they killed the mystery." Put simply--Twin Peaks without the Laura Palmer mystery is less nasty. Twin Peaks pre-reveal is a thick stew of sex, incest, abuse. There's not really a morally pure character here; even Pete has his cruel streak. After the reveal, the town cleans up. To take one obvious example, Ben Horne--the abusive sexual predator (remember, he had a relationship with the teenage Laura for *years*)--drops his cigars and starts trying to be a good person (a plotline revisited, to greater success, in The Return). The evil at the heart of the town becomes mere eccentricity. I think this is why Windom Earle comes off as a cartoon: he's an outside parody of an evil villain rather than an internal reality.
6. Because if BOB is "the evil that men do," that means that he's really Twin Peaks itself. Much like the creature in Stephen King's IT is foundational to the community it terrorizes, so BOB is the outgrowth of all the horrors committed by the people in this small town.
7. I would like to make a paradoxical suggestion, though. If the reveal led to a lightening of the darker elements of Twin Peaks, Lynch is wrong that it killed the show. In fact, there's an important sense in which Twin Peaks could only be itself once the revelation had been made. This is literal in the sense that Lynch, when he got the opportunity to make a movie, chose to return the focus to Laura Palmer, making a prequel (apparently against the wishes of co-creator Mark Frost). But there's a deeper sense in which this is true. As long as the truth of Laura's killer remained a secret, the show couldn't really be about the thing it's really about, which is not only abuse (and not only Lynch's favorite theme of women in trouble) but about abuse within the nuclear family.
8. I've not said it in so many words, partly because I assume anyone who's read this far knows it, but Laura Palmer is murdered by her father after years of sexual abuse. I've written about the centrality of incest to American small-town narratives, so if you want more of my thoughts on this--better-developed and copyedited--check out my book. Laura Palmer is a lot of things, but one thing is an heir to a whole line of girls abused by their fathers. The ur-text, by my estimation, is Henry Bellamann's Kings Row. Closely on its heels follows Grace Metalious's Peyton Place. In both of these novels an important plotline is precisely the abuse of a young girl by her father (or stepfather in Peyton Place, a choice forced on Metalious by her publisher). Laura Palmer is directly in this line. However, she's different in an important way: while the abused girls in the two older works are side characters whose stories are designed to reflect or influence the protagonists' journeys, Laura is (as Margaret Lanterman would say) "the one." Her spectral presence guides the entire narrative.
9. But here's what's important here: until we know the truth of Laura's murder, we can't really see what the show's doing. We can guess, we can intuit, but we can't put it in so many words: that the central evil haunting the small town of Twin Peaks is abuse within the nuclear family. That the very structure that seems to promise stability and morality is itself the origin of all the evils it claims to oppose. This is an important observation, and one that can be extended upward; insofar as the nuclear family is conceived of as a mirror to the town, and the town as the mirror to the country (this is the core thesis of my book), we have to say that Twin Peaks is making larger claims about America itself--that it generates the very evils it fights. Such an argument would take more time to develop than I have here.
10. This is what I mean when I say that Twin Peaks could not be Twin Peaks until it was "killed" by revealing that Leland Palmer murdered his daughter. The revelation forces the story finally to be upfront about its central thesis. Everything afterward becomes a working-out of this central thesis, from the remarkable Fire Walk With Me to the astounding third season. I think it would not be an overstatement to say that, had Lynch and Frost gotten their wish, the show would never have been able to live up to the potential of the first season-and-a-half.
I've got a big thing on F for Fake (kind of) that I want to post soon, but I'm waiting for my blurb at the Arts and Faith website to go up.
Incidentally, check out the Arts and Faith Top 25 Spiritually Significant Documentaries list. It's a good list, compiled by a small group of critics and viewers, of whom I am one.
I wanted to do a quick post about Succession. This thing is going to be spoilery and half-baked, so be warned.
Man, what a finale, right? I don't think I've been this satisfied by a series finale since Twin Peaks ended. Everything came together so satisfyingly, so inevitably.
A quick note on reception, which I might develop at more length later in some way. I've seen Succession compared to Shakespearean tragedy, but that doesn't seem quite right to me. Succession isn't a tragedy--in spite of what people keep saying online--it's a satire. This difference is key. Put very simply. in tragedy, the tragic hero is better than we are in some way: Hamlet is more thoughtful, Lear more regal, Macbeth more noble, and so on. They're undone by an inner flaw, but that flaw is in some ways a reflection of what makes them great. Think poor mad Captain Ahab, whose flaw (madness, hubris) is of the same stuff as his grandeur.
With the possible exception of Logan, none of these characters are great in this way. They aren't magnificent people whose flaw arises from their magnificence; they are all flaw, all failure. If we bring Shakespeare into this at all, we have to say that this is a Shakespearean plot populated by idiots. Kendall might think he's Hamlet, but he's barely a Prufrock (and at least Prufrock had the self-awareness to know that he was no Prince Hamlet). And that's satire. So when Kendall ends up sitting on the riverside, he's not a grand figure brought low--he's a low figure who's returned to his proper level. The same could be said of Shiv or of Roman. The fact that an empty suit is elevated to the throne at the end simply puts a cherry on top: the prize they were seeking was always a nonsense role that can be filled by the most craven person in the main cast.
Is there hope for these people? Jeremy Strong certainly doesn't think there's any for Kendall, as he observes in the show's official podcast. Me, I'm not so sure. There certainly doesn't need to be any hope for them. They're bad people and they're getting to live their lives in spiritual (though not material) destitution. They're reaping what they sow. Again, that's kind of the satiric point. And yet there's a couple of points here that give me pause:
1. Strong tells a story of texting Jesse Armstrong after watching the episode and receiving back a line from The Waste Land: "Entering the whirlpool." It's a line from "Death by Water":
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Now, I'm not going to do my Waste Land schtick again, but this is very interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One is that the whirlpool here is clearly tied to the Wheel of Fortune: Phlebas is on a cycle, recapitulating his life. This of course relates to the way the characters here are stuck in a cycle, but there's an implicit suggestion of rebirth here. So could Kendall rise again? Maybe. Or maybe not. The key here is that he's left in a state of uncertainty: things could go either way.
2. Speaking of uncertainty, our favorite neo-nazi slimepuppy Roman Roy has a moment of unexpected clarity in this episode when he says that he, Kendall, and Shiv--and indeed all their ways and ends--are "bullshit." Now, I want to consider this observation from two angles. First, the obvious one: he's recognizing that they, these characters, are shallow, facile people who were never up to the grand Shakespearean stakes that they thought they saw in their struggle. That is, he's recognizing that they are in a satire, not a tragedy. It's a moment of self-awareness that has been present in his performance over the past four seasons, but its positioning here is significant. Roman has always been the most self-aware of the siblings, though that self-awareness is undercut by a failure to see beyond itself: it's unselfaware about its own limitations as self-awareness (which is what makes Roman such an easy mark for fascism).
But on a little lower layer, there's something almost...I don't want to say "Zen" here because it feels shallow...there's something profound about this character facing his own inner nothingness at this point. These characters have been brought to a place where self-acknowledgement is possible. Or, perhaps, not-self acknowledgment: a recognition that they are fundamentally nothing, essentially nothing. This is a scary recognition, but it's one that's essential for any sort of peace. These characters have no essential nature; though Kendall insists that he can only do one thing, that self-image is an illusion. And if they can break free of that illusion, they may be able to break the cycle.
Incidentally, my reading this year has me digging more into the Tarot, and I do associate Roman with The Fool, which is a card of pure potentiality and also of nothingness (it is the zeroth card, after all).
3. Finally, there's Shiv. I love Shiv. I love her and Tom together--they are absolutely unhealthy and also absolutely scintillating. And she's important, because her choice is the one that ultimately determines the resolution. So where is she at the end of the show? Well--like her brothers, she's been reduced to nothing. As others have observed, she's almost certainly still richer than her husband; the "power dynamics" here have not been so much reversed as complicated. Her diminishment is one of ego, not pure power. I don't mean "ego" pejoratively. After struggling for all these seasons to make her way as a woman in a man's world, Shiv has lost the fight. And that's devastating. She is not a trophy wife, but she's been absolutely shut out of the company (for now, anyway). The final shot of her and Tom in the car is rife with irony and ambiguity: she stays with him though she does not need him. But she will not clasp his hand (nor he hers). They are not a partnership. They're...something else.
But of course potential is there. We know that in spite of their unhealthy power-plays that each of them feel something for the other. Based on Sarah Snook's performance, I do believe that she really loves Tom (in whatever twisted way the Roys can love anyone); and Tom loved (at least) her. Again, they're bound to this cycle of illusion, but there's a potential there to break the cycle if they can only stop and see themselves for the bullshit they are.
(On a ground-level-dumb observational note, see that Shiv is still pregnant at the end of the series. If we assume that pregnancies in literature are symbolic of new life, new beginnings, then Shiv carries within herself a future that has not yet been born. What that would look like is up for grabs: not only does she come from a terribly abusive family; not only is she married to a man with whom the dynamic is fundamentally unhealthy; but mere episodes ago we saw her drinking alcohol, raising the possibility that she's poisoned this new world even before it was born. But the point is that we don't know: the baby is pure potential).
Now. I'm not saying that this ending is hopeful. It's ambiguous, which is the point. On a literal level, based on everything we've seen, there's no reason to believe these characters will do anything different than they've done all this time. Kendall will sink lower and lower; having finally and totally lost the one thing that gives him meaning, he'll enter the whirlpool. Roman will probably go full fash. Shiv will keep futilely trying to assert herself in a system that hates her, seeking a prize that would never satisfy her.
But. Much as I suggest in the Nightmare Alley episode of The Projectionist's Lending Library, the literal likelihood of a character suffering the worst possible fate doesn't really negate the fact that at this point, at the end of the narrative, they are left in a state of potential. And that's precisely what gives the finale its charge. Hope might be faint, but it's there.
I've enjoyed Succession since I started watching it, but this season has confirmed for me that it's one of the greats. I look forward to revisiting it many times in the future.
I just finished teaching four weeks on The Waste Land. I usually try to mix up my texts from year to year, but one thing I've kept consistent is that I've taught this poem every year. And every year I discover new things in it as I shift focus from class to class. This year, my big revelation involved this section from "What the Thunder Said":
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
So without any attempt to be systematic or even particularly insightful, here's some notes on this passage.
1. Eliot tells us in his notes that this section is partially indebted to the encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Here at the end of the poem Eliot is preparing us to finally encounter the Hanging Man who was missing from Madame Sosostris's deck--a figure of renewal for Eliot, associated with dying-and-rising gods such as Osiris, Dionysus, and Jesus.
2. A telling difference here is that Eliot's risen god is spectral. In the Lukan account, Jesus walks and talks and breaks bread with the two disciples. He's physically risen and physically interacting with them. But in Eliot, the risen god can't even be seen directly. When the speaker counts (looking to his companion) he only numbers two on the road. It is only when he looks ahead that he sees "another one." Which is to say--the figure appears in his peripheral vision. It cannot be looked at, only glimpsed.
3. Another feature of this spectral redeemer is that they are androgynous. Eliot's speaker says "I do not know whether [they are] a man or a woman." Now, I've read this poem many times over the past sixteen or more years, and I'm not sure I've ever fully taken in what the speaker is saying here. The Waste Land is, among other things, about gender; Eliot even suggests that Tiresias, the prophet who transitions between genders (multiple times!) is the key figure in the poem. Now, Tiresias possesses the sexual characteristics, seemingly, of both genders ("old man with wrinkled female breasts"). This spectral redeemer isn't quite that, but they do exist in a kind of in-between space, neither man nor woman. I'm not quite certain what to make of this, but it seems to me now that Tiresias and this figure have a fundamental unity--not as strong, perhaps, as that between the merchant and the Phoenician sailor, but there all the same.
4. I want to make some sort of connection, too, between Tiresias and the Divine Hermaphrodite that some people see in the World card in Tarot, but there's something holding me back: namely, that Tiresias doesn't represent unity or renewal. On the other hand, this phantom savior does--one way of reading the final words of the poem is that Eliot posits a healing of fracture through union.
As I say, I don't mean to do anything here except lay out some very basic thoughts that have occurred to me through this most recent reading of the poem. The Waste Land is a tremendously rich text and always surprises me every time I return to it. One day I might even understand it.
Today I'm just making a quick post on what I'm watching (or, in some cases, re-watching). Two new, two rewatches:
Look, everyone is watching Succession. Or, at least, so it seems. And they should, because it's really good. Great, even--and I mean Great with a big G. I probably wouldn't have said that a season ago; I liked it a lot, but I wasn't ready to say that it's a permanent work. But now? Absolutely. The run of episodes starting with Logan's death and running through his funeral are all a step above anything the show's done before. I'm not sure I've ever seen on television a sequence as rending as the death episode. It brought back some bad old memories of my mother's death and the numbness and disbelief that attends such an event. And when you follow that with the next episodes--the extreme emotional violence of the Shiv-Tom argument on the balcony, an argument so intense that you almost wish they would do something physically violent just to break the tension--the election-night episode with its echoes of 2016--the funeral where self-interest and mourning blend in strange and magical ways.... It's just a fantastic show and one that I expect will maintain a following long after the finale drops.
2. Oh, No! Here Comes Trouble!
This one's an odd one. I'll just give a summary here from MyDramaList:
Pu Yi Yong is a typical high school student. When he unexpectedly gains superpowers after waking up from a car accident, his previously uneventful life is suddenly not so ordinary anymore.
This summary doesn't do the show justice. Neither does the English title, which is goofy and doesn't at all convey the mixture of genuine human emotion and silliness that characterizes the show. The protagonist here can see dead people and help them through the power of...traditional Chinese calligraphy. It's an odd little idea, but one that I vibe with. I just finished teaching The Waste Land for the semester, and one of the things I continue to adore about that poem is the hope at the end that, somehow, the poet can make a broken world whole. There's something of that in this show as well. Also something of Alan Moore's contention that artwork is a kind of magicwork. I wouldn't say this show is either Great or great, but it's charming and intriguing.
I watched the first two seasons of Atlanta some time back, but frankly I found the second season so anxiety-inducing that I gave it up. That's not a judgment on the show; I would have been watching it around 2019/2020 and those were stressful years for everyone. I decided to give it another go, so now I'm halfway through season 1 again. The really weird stuff hasn't kicked in yet, but I'm enjoying the humor and the streaks of absurdism woven through it.
4. Twin Peaks
I love this show. Obviously, I've watched it several times before, and I frankly don't know if I can ever write about it in a way that really conveys how I feel about it. Season 1 is obviously solid, but season 2 is good, too, in spite of its reputation. I do think that this rewatch convinces me more than ever that certain multi-hour videos about how it's all really about television are...not only wrong, but absurdly wrong. It's a show about a lot of things: Lynch/Frost's own peculiar metaphysics, violence against women, the hypocrisy of American mythology. It might even be partly about television. But anyone who says it's really, really about television is high on their own supply. Maybe I'll have more to say when I finish this rewatch.
Just an addendum to my post of a few days ago about Caligula. It seems that (some) critics have spoken and the consensus is leaning positive.
In his original review, Roger Ebert held little back. He found it “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” and “If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty.” He even admitted to walking out two hours into what was then a 170-minute film. I’m positively evangelical that one needs to finish the film before writing a word, no matter how egregious the experience. Still, I do understand the rhetorical benefit that added for his vintage take. Having not seen the version that Ebert described as being “not good art … not good cinema, and … not good porn,” I have to admit that I’ve seen far more egregious examples of cinema than this almost charmingly carnal version. That’s not to say that this is a good film, by any means, but it's at least pretty good thanks to the decades that have transpired and the new restoration.
Creative jack-of-all-trades Thomas Negovan’s herculean efforts, a three-year process during which he sifted through 96 hours of preserved footage from the notorious original shoot, have elevated the carnal carnival to its originally intended glory. The initially enlisted screenwriter Gore Vidal envisioned a profane political satire on the speed and intensity with which unchecked power corrupts, a decadent sin-a-palooza addressing an America at the tail end of the indulgent, onanistic “Me Decade.” As explained by a series of title cards tacked onto the new-and-drastically-improved edit, producer and Penthouse founder Bob Guccione ran roughshod over Vidal’s script, just the beginning of a shitshow production that saw all major creative personnel either quit, get fired, or be physically barred from entering the set. Concerned about earning potential, Guccione shot and inserted additional passages of hardcore penetration not fully excised by Negovan, but scaled back to make room for the substance of the story. As masturbation fodder, it’s not very good, the wide-shot cinematography and noxious lecher vibes both killing any sense of intimacy, passion, or even simple pleasure. As cinema, however, there’s plenty to be said for the motion picture once declared a “moral holocaust” in the pages of Variety.
Caligula’s strengths – the elaborate sets (particularly the head-chopping machine), the OTT costumes, the beautiful way that it is lit – are still present and correct. As are the multiple orgies, the infamous fisting scene, the copious nudity and the genuine shock of some of the violence. At the Cannes premiere of the new version, there were some walkouts following the scene where Caligula rapes both bride and bridegroom at a wedding; anyone expecting a purely silly cult movie may be surprised at how dark and upsetting some of it is – and always has been.
Meanwhile, Josh Karp (author of Orson Welles's Last Movie) has a piece on the making of the movie.
As someone who studies Gore Vidal pretty heavily at this point, the movie Caligula remains a fascinating bit of strangeness. For those of you who don't know the full story (and there's an excellent website that covers all that), the thumbnail sketch is as follows: Vidal wrote a screenplay about the famously mad emperor Caligula; Italian director Tinto Brass directed it; and then the head man at Penthouse magazine took the movie, cut in some hard, hard core sex scenes, and the result is a mess in which some of the best actors of their generation (Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren) turned in performances that ranged from puzzling to preposterous. It's a movie that's almost worth watching for that factor alone. Almost.
When I watched the film some time back, though, I was struck by how much promise was lurking right below the surface. Vidal apparently intended the movie to be an analysis of the corruption of power--something he touched on in his much-earlier essay on Robert Graves's translation of The Twelve Caesars:
Yet what, finally, was the effect of absolute power on twelve representative men? Suetonius makes it quite plain: disastrous. Caligula was certifiably mad. Nero, who started well, became progressively irrational. Even the stern Tiberius’ character weakened. In fact, Tacitus, in covering the same period as Suetonius, observes: “Even after his enormous experience of public affairs, Tiberius was ruined and transformed by the violent influence of absolute power.” Caligula gave the game away when he told a critic, “Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.” And that cruelty which is innate in human beings, now given the opportunity to use others as toys, flowered monstrously in the Caesars.
There are certainly hints of that in the final cut, but it's buried under the pornography and under the numerous shocking editorial lapses, in which character and story is sacrificed for...well, it's hard to say what, exactly.
Attempts have been made over the years to restore Caligula to something like the movie Tinto Brass would have produced. Alexander Tuschinski did a lot of work on it; he assembled what footage he could and consulted with Brass at various points. Apparently, he even got access to the Penthouse archives. The result is the mini-documentary above; and this is all the fruits of his labor.
I have no idea why they never went further with the project, though the story linked above gives some clues. What I do know is that, at long last, there is a recut of Caligula on the way. It's premiering at Cannes. And it isn't the Tinto Brass cut. Brass is not happy. He's even threatening legal action, though what he can do is somewhat obscure; presumably whoever owns Penthouse owns the movie.
If this isn't the Brass cut, what is it? Well, according to the movie's website, it's the Gore Vidal cut:
Amidst the drama and excessive litigation surrounding the completion of the film, the original 96 hours of raw footage were spirited out of Italy, and hastily placed in mismarked cans to hide their location. In the years that followed, the camera negatives and any unseen footage of Caligula was long believed lost, and the possibility of a coherent edit of the materials took on a mythical status among cinephiles.
In January 2020, it was announced that the original materials had been located and that Penthouse had commissioned author and archivist Thomas Negovan to produce a new edit of the film conforming to the original Gore Vidal script.
This is an odd decision, to me; I adore Vidal, but I can't imagine his name has that much more cachet at this point than Tinto Brass. The average Penthouse reader probably couldn't differentiate them in a lineup; the average cinephile would probably prefer to see the Brass version. Dark speculation emerges: is this a rights issue? Is the very dead Gore Vidal less likely to ask for a cut of the pie than the living Tinto Brass? I'm no lawyer and no insider, so I can't say.
[I should note that I mean no aspersions to be cast toward Thomas Negovan and his team, who have devoted three years of their lives to this project and who seem to be devoted to restoring this movie to something more in line with the movie it could have been at the beginning]
What I can say is two things:
1] There's something about this decision that doesn't smell quite right to me. And yet,
2] I'm really interested in seeing this cut. Not only because it apparently uses none of the footage shown in the original movie, but also because it does seem to be following the Vidal script. Since my interest in Caligula--beyond its status as a trash icon--is almost wholly Vidalian, I have to admit that I'm intrigued in spite of my grave suspicions about the motives behind it.
At any rate, I'm going to be watching for this thing to drop. It'll make an interesting bit of Vidal ephemera, and hopefully we'll get the chance to see better what the actors, at least, thought they were doing when they showed up on set.
I'm very excited to announce the forthcoming publication of my second book, God and the Great Detective: Ellery Queen's Struggle with the Divine, 1945-1965. Check out the publisher's website here. You can also pre-order, which I'm told is a very nice thing. Here's the write-up:
The problem of human evil is never far beneath the surface of mystery fiction, and this was particularly true in the wake of the horrific events of World War II. One figure who set out to investigate this crisis was Ellery Queen. This book provides a much-needed intervention in the study of detective fiction by giving sustained attention to Ellery Queen as well as suggesting possible directions for broader discussions of the genre. After WWII, Ellery Queen mounted an inquiry into the state of masculinity and of the world in the wake of unimaginable horrors represented by the death camps and the atomic bomb. During his investigation, Ellery rummaged through the ruins of culture, invoking and evoking figures such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and (naturally) Edgar Allan Poe. Ultimately, this quest brought him up against an unexpected foe: God himself. This book examines the ways Queen pushes against the boundaries of what was (and, in some circles, still is) considered possible or desirable in the genre.
This book was almost literally twenty years in the making. I've been fascinated by Ellery Queen from my teens, and one of my initial plans for my Ph.D. work was centered around Queen. So I'm glad to finally have something out there in the much-too-small world of EQ studies. More information to come.