Sunday, March 11, 2018

Goodbye 2017...Hello 2018

2017 was a ride. No, more of a descent into chaos. It also found me obviating between two familiar states of mind: the need to consume as much TV and film possible and the need to get lost in the printed page. The latter ended up winning out as you will notice.

What I Watched, What I Listened To, and What I Read

* * * * * * * * * * 

Phantom Thread
It Comes At Night
Good Time
The Shape of Water
The Blackcoat's Daughter
Get Out
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

To see: Happy End, The Florida Project, Call Me By Your Name, A Ghost Story, The Square, Nocturama, Rat Film, Lucky, The Post

Films I Liked (A-/B+): The Killing of A Sacred Deer, Lady Bird, Raw, Logan, Wind River, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gerald's Game, Brawl In Cell Block 99

Decent (B/B-): The Big Sick, The Beguiled, Logan Lucky, Blade Runner 2049, Creep 2, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, I Tonya

Middle of the road (C+/C/C-): The Discovery, Trainspotting 2, Alien: Covenant, Baby Driver, mother!, Cult of Chucky

What are you? : Kuso

* * * * * * * * * *

If I had to list one piece of media over everything else as far as artistic impact goes, it would go to Twin Peaks: The Return. Conflicting with this feeling is the impact The Leftovers' final season had on me. Only that was more cumulative. Peaks, while having a superb third season, wasn't really what I'd hoped for for it's two seasons. Sure it spawned a cultural waterfall of coffee, pie and backwards talking midgets. But in retrospect it wasn't the Lynch I responded to the most. The one who would make a film based around the series a year after it's finale. The third season has more in common with that and, for good measure, the stream of consciousness of Inland Empire with the vignetted structure of Mulholland Dr.

Leftovers felt...personal.

Back in 2007, Ebert did a list of his favorite movies. He too was conflicted with the top 2. He was his brain chose No Country For Old Men and his heart chose Juno. This is how I feel about The Return and Leftovers' final season. My brain chooses The Return.

2017 saw the debuts of Mindhunter, The Deuce and Legion. Each showcasing strong writing with The Deuce being from the minds of The Wire (David Simon and George Pelacanos) and Legion coming from the mind of Fargo (Noah Hawley). Mindhunter filled by insatiable appetite for true crime this year and shows David Fincher at the top of his game.

While not quite shows with traditional 'seasons', miniseries like Big Little Lies was a show that had some solid writing and fantastic performances. Not as memorable direction which would have made it jump higher. Wormwood, like Twin Peaks saw one of our greatest documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris, get a long leash from NetFlix and allowed to make a 6 part docu series.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return
2. The Leftovers S3
3. Mindhunter S1
4. Better Call Saul S3
5. The Deuce S1
6. Wormwood
7. Legion S1
8. Stranger Things S2
9. Mystery Science Theater 3000 S11
10. Big Little Lies

* * * * * * * * * *

Father John Misty- Pure Comedy
Sun Kil Moon- Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood
Chelsea Wolfe- Hiss Spun
Ulver- The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Steve Wilson- To the Bone

Favorite Soundtrack: Twin Peaks: The Return
Favorite Score: Phantom Thread by Johnny Greenwood

* * * * * * * * * *

1. Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec
2. It by Stephen King (re-read)
3. Underworld by Don DeLillo
4. Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
5. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
6. Libra by Don DeLillo
7. My Struggle Vol. 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
8. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
9. The Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka
10. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
11. Fat City by Leonard Gardener
12. All the Pretty Horses/The Crossing/Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
13. Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders
14. The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector
15. The Long Home by William Gay
16. Matterhorn by Karl Matterhorn
17. A Christmas Memory/One Christmas/The Thanksgiving Guest by Truman Capote
18. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
19. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
20. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
2. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
4. Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders
5. Iceman: Confessions of A Contract Killer by Philip Carlo

11/22/63 by Stephen King
"...stupidity is one of two things we see most clearly in retrospect. The other is missed chances."
Not only did King craft his strongest work in over a decade, it also happened to be his best love story. (A)
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben McIntyre
"The fatal conceit of most spies is to believe they are loved, in a relationship between equals, and not merely manipulated." (A)

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
"Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition."
My first Baldwin. Upon finishing it, he rocketed up toward my all time favorite authors. (A+)
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
The Latin American equivalent of Camus' The Stranger. (B+)
Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders
With the exception of Life: A User's Manual, the most original piece of fiction I read this year. A lot of expectation was heaped upon Saunders who, up to this point, only did short stories. Masterfully. This shows he is not just a great short story writer, he's a great writer. (A+)

Notes On the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson
The deceptively simple book offers short bursts of wisdom of a filmmaker more concerned with the process than the destination.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
"You might by poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."
So much great literature is born from the plights of middle to lower class. Can a good book be created out of the upper middle class struggle? Franzen says yes and plunges us into a family dynamic that is as dysfunctional as Married With Children's Bundys. (B+)
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
"He was well aware that of the two or three thousand times he made love (how many times had he made love in his life?) only two or three were really essential and unforgettable. The rest were mere echoes, imitations, repetitions, or reminisces." (A)
Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders
Reading this book post election lit a fire under me. Bernie was the candidate whose ideals I aligned with the most and whose politics remained as unchanged and fervent as when he got involved in Civil Rights in the 60's. This book is proof. (A)

Underworld by Don DeLillo
Probably the most challenging book I read in 2017. Roberto Bolano once talked of the "great, imperfect, torrential works that blaze a work into the unknown...the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."DeLillo is a writer who sees and hears America like no other. A Cold War narrative launches the dive into late 20th century America's anxieties and haunted past. It is great to watch this great master spar. (A+)
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Subversive insanity of the Bookonist order. Nobody writes about the end of the world like Vonnegut. (A+)
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
How does one even describe what happens in this book? There's loose dialogue between the explorer Marco Polo and the emperor Kublai Khan. Yet the descriptions of the places Marco Polo has visited combine the real with the imagined in a way that can't be described in words but only felt. (A+)
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
I'm a big fan of the movie and Grady Tripp ranks as one of the great characters in my mind. (B+)

Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste by John Waters
John Waters explains the crudeness of his work with such articulation and understated wit that you fall in love with him all over again. Eminently readable book from an endlessly subversive man. (B+)
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron
The current champion of weird fiction and cosmic horror. Combines hard boiled noir with textured dread. Recommended to fans of True Detective. (B+)
Favorite stories: Old Virginia, Shiva Open Your Eye, Procession of the Black Sloth, The Imago Sequence
The Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka
The awful, the absurd, the grotesque, the endless mazes of bureaucracy. It's Kafkaesque. His stories induce a sense of claustrophobia and are as psychologically twisted as anything out there. (A+)
Favorite stories: The Metamorphasis, In the Penal Colony, The Hunger Artist, The Burrow

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec
Changed the way I looked at book. Perec was part of the Oulipo movement. A group that helped redefine what is possible with the novel. Life: A User's Manual contains so many stories in its puzzle like structure. And every one of them is compelling. (A+)
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
"Innocence is a kind of insanity."
My first Greene and definitely not my last. It's a book that reminds us that the road to hell is paved with best intentions. (A-)
Fat City by Leonard Gardner
This book reeks of sweat, booze and boxing gloves. It's a Tom Waits song on full volume. (A+)
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Vivid and brutal. Desolate and unforgiving. Has just as much in common with the Old Testament than anything from Faulkner. (A-)
My Struggle Vol. 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The second volume to an unprecedented intimate portrait of an artist. This time Karl lets us in on his love life and his publishing of his first couple books. (A+)
Libra by Don DeLillo
The JFK assassination is one of my biggest obsessions. As far as film goes, JFK satiated my hunger. Yet it only went so far until I yearned for more. John Douglass'  JFK and the Unspeakable turned out to be THE non fiction book to turn to for the subject and earlier this year, Stephen King's 11/22/63 took the event and combined it with a fictional narrative of time travel to a compulsively entertaining result. In Libra, DeLillo focuses on the man in the middle of it all: Lee Harvey Oswald. In doing so, he creates his most straight forward yet most thrilling piece of work. (A+)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What if the underground railroad was literally an underground railroad? Colson Whitehead takes this concept and sets us on a journey with Cora. (A+)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector
The closest anyone has gotten to reproducing the nightmares of Kafka without aping him entirely. I'm still deeply rattled to the core about the implications of this novel. (A+)
By Night In Chile by Roberto Bolano
Bolano has the ability to put the reader in a trance. The stream of consciousness structure for this novel just so happens to work perfectly for the story- a deathbed confession revolving around Opus Dei and Pinochet. (B)
The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
Trilobites changed me. It's that kind of story that changes you on a molecular level. Breece only published one work before he took his own life. For a man that surrenders everything with each of these twelve stories, I remain peaceable and sated when I read them. (A+)

Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Scariest book I read this year. Cemented in me that horror that is born out of a concept
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
The generation to generation story spoke to me like no other book this year.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The best non fiction book I read all year.
Iceman: Confessions of A Contract Killer by Philip Carlo
After a book about the dawn of man, it never fails to fascinate how when reflected through a person like Richard Kuklinski, we still have our base animalistic instincts intact. Luckily, none of this are even close to the kind of true monster Kuklinski was. (A-)

It by Stephen King
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Good reading material for whenever you decide to take a trip to Mexico. Scott Smith only wrote two books and both of them were turned into movies. From what I hear, the movie adaptation of The Ruins is (as is the case with many adaptations) nowhere near as good as the book. (A-)
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Speaking of movie adaptations, this is one I'd actually like to see. The ending wasn't as good as everything that led up to it. Though the palpable sense of dread is all encompassing. (B+)
Off Season by Jack Ketchum
Green Room meets Cannibal Holocaust set in the backwoods of Maine. This one is vicious, unrelenting and unforgiving. (A+)
Hell House by Richard Matheson

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Graham
A cotton candy coated nightmare noir of carnies, tarot, and darkness. For those who like their noir black as a moonless night. (A)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
THE book on the Vietnam War. While I like Things They Carried more, that book is more about the power of story through truth vs. fiction. Everything you came to that book for but missed: the role of race in the war, the cameraderie, the bureaucracy, this one fills in the blanks. (A+)
Swan Song by Robert McCammon
Once again, Robert McCammon has reduced me to a blubbering mess. First Boy's Life, now this. I am going to miss these characters and the journey McCammon took me on. (A+)
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Openly gasped at the greed, cheered for Tom White's conviction and let out several "oh my god!"'s throughout this story of greed, power and murder. What Grann has done here is take an event all but swept away by the sands of time and thoroughly excavated it with painstaking research and a narrative style that makes it as compelling as any fiction I've read this year. (A+)
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Probably McCarthy at his most philosophical. Billy Parham ranks as my second favorite character in his work. Just ahead of Anton Chigurh and behind Judge Holden. (A+)
Angels by Denis Johnson
Johnson maps out the disenfranchisement of the soul in stark detail. Bleak, this one. (A-)
Red by Jack Ketchum
Ketchum gets introspective. He's best when he goes for the jugular so this one, while having a brisk pacing, lacks the bite of some of his other works. (B)
Cities On the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
I'm not one for book series. Which happen to dominate the sci fi and fantasy genres. But seeing two of my favorite characters cross paths enough to where a book is devoted to them is the best treat McCarthy can give and a stirring closing to his Border trilogy. (A)
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
Junger juggles fascinating ideas about community and veterans returning home and the effects of solitude vs. how they felt as a unit in combat. (B-)
A Christmas Memory, One Christmas and The Thanksgiving Guest by Truman Capote
The first short story alone made me fall in love with Capote's description of memory. A classic that, like It's A Wonderful Life, will forever haunt me around this time of the year. (A+)
The Long Home by William Gay
I've found a new favorite author. His name is William Gay. The fact that this is his debut is nothing less than stunning. What a way to end the year. “While he slept the world spun on, changed, situations altered and grew more complex, left him more inadequate to deal with them.” (A+)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Art of Lynch

"In most modern instance, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable."
-Susan Sontag in her essay "Against Interpretation"

"A film should stand on its own. It's absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words."
-David Lynch

I. Eraserhead and its impact
The first time I heard of Lynch was when walking through a Circuit City and spying a DVD with the profile of a man on the cover with hair sticking up as if he was just cartoonishly electrocuted. The man was Jack Nance and the film was Eraserhead. Turning the DVD over, I was perplexed to find no synopsis or credit list at the bottom. No reviews. Just a picture of the Lady in the Radiator with the phrase "In Heaven Everything Is Fine" around her. At that point in my exploration into movies, I had gotten into Kubrick and I devoured every interview and scrap of information I could find on the man. I quickly learned that one of his favorite films was Eraserhead. One Circuit City trip later, I would be holding it in my hand.

This wasn't a movie so much as it was an experience. One I would try to impose upon friends. They still talk about the time I showed up with that "extremely depressing film" and how, after being shown it, they knew my tastes had changed. But that was me. Let's focus on the man who created this playground of nightmares.

II. The Art Life
Before moving pictures, Lynch was involved involved in painting still ones. Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper being the two big influences on him. Hopper is all over Blue Velvet and you can trace a few Bacon paintings to some of the images in Twin Peaks: The Return. Every viewer of a piece on Bacon or Pollock or Matisse comes to it in a different way. Some see it as pure dreck while other view it as genius. None of this is new. It's as old as art itself. Lynch said of this process: "the painting or the photograph or the film remains the same, but it's the viewer who is the magic part of the whole process. Every viewer who stands in front of a photograph they are getting a different thing. It's different for each person even though the photograph is exactly the same." The way in which a painting is treated and an abstract piece of film is treated is still strangely different from one another. It's a circular process: the frames of a film are edited in a specific sequence with the same sounds and it comes from the film to the audience and back.

Art offers the escape from interpretation. Even a piece as abstract as the figure shown above, abstract as an attempt to have no content, thus offers no interpretation. What the viewer instead focuses on is the abstraction itself: the undefinable thing emerging from the man's chest, the blood, the open mouth.

Or in figure 2:

The triptych here even spells the content out for us. It also reminds us of Lynch's use of basic ideas-electricity, industry, a woman in trouble or in this case fire- to use as seeds in order to blossom abstract ones.

III. Now It's Dark

When you think about the malevolence of villains in a David Lynch films, the characters of Frank Booth, Bobby Peru and Bob always crop up. The horror they represent is definable. Though when a hit is carried out or a murder takes place, these same people bring along with them this unnerving eeriness you wouldn't find in another movie with one of those types of characters.

Evil as a force is something Lynch's films have taken interest to in several instances. In Eraserhead, the horror of fatherhood was front and center. Fire Walk With Me dealt with rape and incest. All set against backdrops of industrialization or towns heavily industrialized- the Packard Mill, Lumberton, the steam, the cutting of the logs, etc.

The creepiness of his work is so present because it feels so personal. Feelings of anxiety, obsessiveness, and decay produce this psychic intimacy between the artist and the audience. Writing itself is just another form of exploring one's own consciousness and projecting it onto the paper. As with any auteur, Lynch uses the elements of film- light, image, sound, and movement- as an extension of his writing. He just does uses them in more tangible, unique ways. His influences of 50's noir, Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Francis Bacon, the use of electricity are all felt throughout his work.

Lynch's best films resist the interpretation process that one would apply to your average movie. They are less about the explanation and more about the experience. David Foster Wallace said in his essay on Lynch "This is one of the most unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don't feel like you're entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies." The tether to a safe, moviegoing experience is cut. The absence of such a contract is terrifying because at least with a normal movie we can build certain internal defense mechanisms that determine how much of ourselves we give over to a movie. The defenses are removed because there is no agenda that is easily recognizable. This is a major reason his best films are so emotionally cathartic and nightmarish.

The Elephant Man remains one of the saddest films to this day. Always managing to sweep me up in a wave of tears throughout. While some of his other films are some of the most nightmarish. Then there's the outright hilarious absurdity of DumbLand. In this way, art can be seen as therapeutic. It purges and arouses dangerous emotions.

So to those who wished that the return of Twin Peaks wasn't like "that batshit crazy Inland Empire film" or, even more paradoxically, those who hated Empire and love the new season of Peaks, I must ask: what is it you like about Lynch? Because by the trajectory of his career and the direction he is interested in going, he seems less and less interested about affirming your crackpot Mulholland Dr. theories and whether or not you understand him. At a time where there are entire youtube channels dedicated to explaining the endings of everything from Pulp Fiction to La La Land (yes, really), ambiguity and mystery have become strangled with the need to have everything spelled out for the viewer.

When interviewed about his process the one word that crops up the most is ideas. While writers who have used Lynch-like images in their works have a rigidly secure interpretation connected to them, Lynch's ideas have a fluidity to them that not only lend themselves to wild fan speculation, but the ability to elicit such strong emotions: fear, laughter, tension. Where one artist's images speak, Lynch's images manage to conjure. Inland Empire is a prime example of this. "Making it up as you go along" is exactly what Lynch did with the production; an evolving script that flowed from one idea to the next. Yet it coheres loosely around a time, a place and character. A Hollywood production, time folding in on itself, and "a woman in trouble". Orchestrated chaos of image, light and sound. "I don't know what in the world it may be" Lynch says on a documentary of the making of Inland Empire, "But I'm ready for anything."

Why does Lynch often rely on the mobius strip structure and dopplegangers in his most famous works? The earliest theories of art, those posed by the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was an imitation of reality. What Lynch is doing throughout his filmography harkens back to this very theory.
Perhaps no other work he has done has better exemplified this than Twin Peaks: The Return.

IV. Drink Full and Descend

If this all seems like prologue up until now, then that is good. Because in many ways, the reception of Lynch is a good way to discuss the impact of Twin Peaks: The Return. Every episode since it's premiere has confounded expectations. No promos. No 'previously on Twin Peaks' or 'next on Twin Peaks'. Nada. It manages to deconstruct everything TV has taught us. Much in the same way Lynch took on 90's television in it's 1990-91 run. The original series was very much of its time in the way it spoofed soap operas. There was a whimsical air to it when it wasn't showing us people talking backwards. The coffee and pie, the Black Lodge, Audrey Horne's dance, the Log Lady. Totems on a vast, dream like landscape populated by characters as exuberantly inquisitive as Dale Cooper and as eccentric as Nadine. The Return took these sacred totems and flipped them on their head. A cup of coffee that has a slightly different taste than what we are use too, but it's still damn good coffee.

The new season has more in common with the film Fire Walk With Me than anything from the first two seasons. Which raises the question: Is Twin Peaks: The Return just a great season or something entirely its own? Reboots and retreads are nothing new. Arrested Development and The X-Files got the treatment and both limped to their own finish lines. This was in part to the fan service both respective seasons tried to offer their fans. Not only does The Return dispose of any fan service to please its ardent followers, it throws us a new cast that is as twice as big as the original series.

It's a logical continuation of Lynch's aesthetic from where he last left off. "The world in the film is a created one, and people sometimes love going into that world." Lynch says in his book Catching the Big Fish. "And if people find out certain things about how something was done, or how this means that, the next time they see the film, these things enter into the experience. And then the film is different." This ideology is not unlike the experience of listening to a piece of music. You can argue back and forth with friends as to why Eraserhead is his most spiritual movie or what the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return is or isn't. And while interpretation can be seen as a good thing in some contexts, in other it can be seen as stifling. There is a sensuous immediacy to the images Lynch presents. Something that digs deep into our consciousness. You can't translate it into a definitive answer. They simply pendulum from bittersweet sadness to awestruck terror to laughter and back again.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

101 Horror Films

*This list has changed considerably since I first made a top 100 horror list a few years ago.*

What classifies as a horror film? This came up multiple times when making the list. Is Se7en or Silence of the Lambs horror? They harvest a lot more scares than most and cutesy reviewers like to refer to them as "psychological thrillers". To that I might ask: Isn't the most effective horror psychological? H.P. Lovecraft once said "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." That would certainly qualify a film like It Comes At Night as horror. But would it for Silence of the Lambs and Se7en? Both focus on serial killers which is an entire sub genre unto itself. Sure it's crime but those films dance along the edges of horror throughout their runtime. And if you're going to include them, why not Zodiac? And if you're going to include get the picture. So, those are out. (Stay tuned for a list on that subgenre later.) Where do Inland Empire, Eraserhead or Fire Walk With Me fall? You know, Lynch's filmed nightmares. Lynch is an entire entity unto himself. All of this can be misconstrued as some film snob's mantle of "Lynch would never direct such dreck as a horror film...he directs ART!" Something that's even prevalent among directors of some of our favorite classics. To this day William Friedkin insists that The Exorcist isn't a horror film. But none of us are buying it. Is Eraserhead a horror film? Not in the classical sense. Yet it scares the bejeebies out of me more than most horror films. So, they stay. All of this is personal opinion on what is probably the most subjective genre out there. Everyone has written their own definition. Here are 100 examples of mine:

Who Can Kill A Child (1976)


Onibaba (1964)

Eyes Without A Face (1960)

Favorite Horror Comedies/Kids Movies
Beetlejuice (1988)
The Burbs (1989)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Gremlins (1984)
Critters (1986)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
The Monster Squad (1987)
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)