Thirty-point riff on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
  2. SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
  3. To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
  4. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
  5. SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and  replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
  6. Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
  7. And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
  8. And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
  9. Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
  10. A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
  11. But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
  12. Re: Point 11: I already made an (awfully) oblique argument at some length almost three years ago about franchise films in general and Star Wars films in particular, arguing (maybe arguing) for, say, Wong Kar Wai to direct the next Star Wars film.
  13. In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
  14. So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
  15. (Yes).
  16. The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
  17. The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
  18. And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
  19. So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
  20. A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
  21. The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
  22. Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
  23. And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
  24. For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
  25. Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
  26. Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
  27. “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
  28. And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
  29. Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
  30. And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.

 

Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this riff in December, 2015. I’ll see the new film on Saturday. 

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Hunter in the Snow I — Joshua Hagler

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Hunter in the Snow I, 2016 by Joshua Hagler (b. 1979)

Mental Places: A Conversation with Gerald Murnane

You’ve probably already seen these Blade Runner short films, but I hadn’t because I’d been avoiding all coverage of the film before I could see it.

A review of Blade Runner 2049

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Film poster for Blade Runner 2049 by James Jean

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.

By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?

Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.

Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.

Continue reading “A review of Blade Runner 2049”

Friday the 13th film poster by Francesco Francavilla

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Lynch wasn’t somebody who you could schedule with

Like 25 minutes of Mulholland Dr. set footage

Hopelessly boring

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Barry Hannah in Hollywood

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“Pull Back and Reload: Barry Hannah in Hollywood,” a wonderful article by Will Stephenson, is new this week in Oxford American. The article focuses on Hannah’s time in Hollywood in the early 1980s, trying to develop a movie script called Power and Light with Robert Altman. Altman, (not-so-)fresh from making cult jam Popeye, was enchanted by Hannah’s 1980 novel Ray. The director invited Hannah to stay in his Malibu home to work on a script:

Hannah had driven out to Hollywood proudly on his Triumph motorcycle, he and Altman having settled on a meeting place, whereupon Altman was to guide him the rest of the way to his home in Malibu. But when Altman arrived, Hannah hadn’t showed. The filmmaker waited for an hour, increasingly frustrated, until he noticed, across the street, a peep show and adult video store. As Rapp remembers him putting it, Altman thought to himself, “That fucker would be just crazy enough . . .” He wandered inside the adult emporium and there found Hannah, deeply absorbed.

The article is pretty great, larded with nuggets from Hannah’s correspondence and not a few wild anecdotes. Check it out.

 

The Repo Code

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

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RIP the great Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017

…Kelly’s HeroesTwo-Lane BlacktopPat Garrett & Billy the KidCockfighterRenaldo and ClaraAlienWise BloodEscape from New YorkChristineRepo Man, Paris, TexasRed DawnPretty in PinkThe Last Temptation of ChristWild at HeartFire Walk with MeFear and Loathing in Las VegasThe Straight StoryThe Green MileBig LoveInland EmpireTwin Peaks: The Return, and so many, many more.

Harry Dean Stanton elevated any film he was in, adding strange depth and soul to characters who may have otherwise been flat. Stanton was what people who write about film call a character actor, a subtly bizarre term, really, if you think about it, one that we use to easily distinguish between leading actors—“stars”—and the folks around them who are far more interesting. The greatest character actors are true artists, and Harry Dean Stanton was the greatest character actor. He did play the lead, occasionally though, as in Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders), a cult film that look let me stop here and say, See Paris, Texas already if you haven’t, it’s amazing. And while he’s not exactly the lead in Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox), he’s certainly the weird bouncing gravity that both anchors the film and propels it forward. (I assume that Repo Man is still required cult film viewing for young folks?). It was a joy to see Stanton one last time this year in Twin Peaks: The Return, where his performance of “Red River Valley” was a standout scene in a show full of standout scenes. While I’ll miss seeing him in new films, Stanton’s long list of roles insures that we’ll still be able to wonder into a film or show and excitedly declare, Oh shit! Harry Dean Stanton is in this!

Tomorrow’s already the 10th

This Steely Dan Documentary Is Worth Your Time Even If You Don’t Like Steely Dan

Even if you don’t like Steely Dan, this 1999 documentary about the making of their 1977 album Aja is fantastic. (The first segment of the YouTube vid might be blocked in your country; watch via this link if so).

First off, the Aja documentary is fucking hilarious—Walter Becker and Donald Fagen come across as the smartest, most venomous guys in the room—a wicked mixture of witty and cruel—-and watching them discuss each track, and each part of each track is fascinating (especially when they pick apart failed guitar solos). The film also features a marvelous supporting cast, including braggart percussionist Bernard Purdie (of “The Purdie Shuffle” fame), and poor old Michael McDonald, who struggled to nail his background parts on “Peg.” What might be most fascinating though is seeing how Fagen and Becker pieced the instrumental tracks of Aja together, bringing in different session musicians—entirely different bands—from day to day. And if you’re still not convinced, here’s a sample (of a sample):

 

 

The new Twin Peaks characters, ranked from worst to best

 

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As David Lynch and Mark Frost’s excellent series Twin Peaks: The Return approaches its conclusion this weekend, I have set myself the deeply important task of ranking all (okay, not nearly all) of the new characters we’ve been introduced to this season. They’re ranked from worst to best. The rubric I’m using is my own damn aesthetic intuition.

53. Steven Burnett

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Damn. Steven is the worst. Just hated the guy. By the way, Gersten Hayward is not the worst, but obviously she can’t be on this list (even though she’s in that picture above) because she was in the original Twin Peaks, accompanying Leland Palmer on piano for “Come on Get Happy.”

52. Deputy Chad Broxford

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Deputy Chad is a total piece of shit. Watching him get booted from the conference room with his sad ass lunch–two TV dinners and some soup!–was a highlight though.

51. Warden Dwight Murphy

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Warden Murphy tried to get slick with Dark Cooper, but, nope. I’m almost certain we will get the whole Mr. Strawberry story by the last ep…right?

50-48. The Fusco Detectives

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loved the Las Vegas plot and I wanted to like these guys but they were so annoying. I mean, I guess that’s the joke, but the joke was vexing.

47. Freddie Sykes

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Freddie Sykes telling that story to James is probably the most bored I got during The Return. However, he redeemed himself by punching those dudes who attacked James “James Has Always Been Cool” Hurley. I’m guessing his pugilist skills will come into play in the finale.

46. Darya

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We hardly knew ya.

45. Jade

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Jade was the first to be kind to Dougie, I realize, so I probably should put her higher on this list.

44-43. Sam and Tracey

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Look, these two didn’t get much screen time, but the two-part opener is a classic, and their characters quickly showed that The Return was not going to traffic in nostalgic fan service but instead do something new—something somehow darker and weirder than the original series.

42. Mickey

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Mickey is obviously a very minor character, his presence inarguably enhanced by sharing the screen with Harry Dean Stanton’s Carl Rodd. I liked the dude.

41. Ray Monroe

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I think we were supposed to hate Ray and I hated Ray. Typing out his name I realize that maybe he’s named after Ray Wise, who played Leland (?).

40. Special Agent Tammy Preston

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Maybe when I go back and watch The Return again in full Tammy will do more for me. But I tended to agree with Diane…

39. Colonel Davis

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Look, I know—very minor character. But it’s great to see a Ghostbuster on Twin Peaks…and the name echoes the actor who played Major Briggs, one of my favorite Twin Peaks characters.

38. Miriam

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I do so hope she survives.

37. Principal William Hastings

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Not a particularly interesting character until his utter breakdown and eventual death. Loved seeing Shaggy bawl.

36. Hank

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Like so many of the minor characters in Twin Peaks: The Return  who show up for a brief monologuish-dialogue, Hank shows us a character drenched in his own paranoid concerns, ready to spin off into his own madness, or his own sitcom. Like, make that sitcom. I’d watch it.

35. Ike the Spike

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Ike’s look when he realized that he’d bent his murder-spike was heartbreaking and hilarious.

34-33. The Evolution of the Arm and Philip Jeffries’ reincarnation.

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Are these two a cheat? I’m not sure. I mean…I guess in a way they aren’t “new”…and in a way they aren’t really “characters…except they are and they are.

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32. Gordon Cole’s date

I would watch this sitcom.

31. Becky Burnett

Becky at times seemed like an easy shorthand to show that not much has changed in the sweet dark little town of Twin Peaks. The “I Love How You Love Me” scene is one of the best in the series though.

30. Charlie

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Is Charlie ranked so high on this list simply because his introduction also brings the return of Audrey?

29. Beverly Paige

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I was really hoping that Lynch would do more with Beverly.

28. Sonny Jim

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Sonny Jim rules.

27. Wally Brando

So I accidentally watched episode 4 of Twin Peaks: The Return instead of episode 2 (like, I watched ep 1, then watched ep 4 the next night, thinking it was ep 2—I could probably write a whole essay on that). Anyway, Wally Brando’s monologue is the most ridiculous moment in a kinda ridiculous episode, an episode that contains maybe my favorite moment in The Return—Bobby Briggs breaking down when he sees Laura Palmer’s picture. Brando’s monologue, delivered to a Sheriff Truman who endures it with weary and forced goodwill, seems like a send-up of everything quirky in the original Twin Peaks run.

26-25. Wilson and Randall 

Goddamnit, Wilson, get it together!

24+. The Farm Gang

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Dark Cooper arm wrestling Renzo is a great scene in a series larded with great scenes—a dark and violent satire on Hollywood machismo, but one that helps subtly propel one of the major plots of The Return: “The starting position is much more comfortable.” It’s the out-of-place-looking guy at the end who asks Dark Coop if he needs any money who really cracks me up.

23. Anthony Sinclair

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Tom Sizemore’s Anthony Sinclair freaking out to the conga line is pretty great. The moment when Dougie gives him an accidental, dandruff-inspired back rub that leads to his break down is transcendent.

22. Duncan Todd

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Patrick Fischler was great but underused as Duncan Todd. I liked to pretend that he was the same character who got so scared behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive.

21. Constance Talbot

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Jane Adams is a really underrated actor and every scene with Constance Talbot was a treat (especially her interactions with Albert).

20. Red

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No matter what you (or David Foster Wallace) thinks about Balthazar Getty, Red’s coin trick with Richard Horne was one magic moment.

19. Naido

As a character, the Eyeless Woman is obviously a cipher, but her introduction in the third episode is one of the most arresting moments of the series.

18. The Experiment

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Again, maybe a bit of a stretch of what a “character” might be—but my affinity for the characters I’ve liked best in The Return is very much bound in the aesthetics of their scenes—and I don’t know if I’ll ever see a television show as aesthetically compelling and confounding as the eighth episode of The Return. (And I watched it for the first and second times that I saw it on a fucking iPhone on an airplane).

17-16. Chantal and Hutch

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These two wandered in from a Tarantino movie. Again, a spin-off sitcom, please.

15+. All the minor characters in those end scenes at The Roadhouse

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One of my favorite things about The Return is its rough pattern of ending up at The Roadhouse (or The Bang Bang Bar, if you like) to witness some tender grotesquerie.

14. MC

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MC proudly presents THE Nine Inch Nails. MC proudly presents James “James Was Always Cool” Hurley. MC proudly presents “Audrey’s Dance.” And best of all…MC proudly dances to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” in one of the most sublimely silly sequences of the season.

13+. All the bands who played at The Roadhouse

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The first performance of one of these bands in The Return, the Chromatics playing “Shadow,” provides a wonderfully cathartic rush from the dark tension that builds up in the two-part opener.

12. ….but especially Rebekah del Rio

My dream is to go to that place.

11. Bushnell Mullins

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Bushnell Mullins ended up being one of the characters in The Return who I found genuinely moving. I hope we get to see him again.

10. Sheriff Frank Truman

Look. I know we’re all holding out for Harry Truman to show up somehow at the end. But Robert Forster is a ringer, and he’s done a great job this season. It’s also fun to pretend that he’s a doppelganger of his Mulholland Drive character.

9-8. The Mitchum Brothers

Like Bushnell, I ended up surprised by just how endearing these two turned out. Their devotion and loyalty to Dougie and his family (and Candie) seem absolutely genuine. And like Bushnell, I hope we’ll see them again.

7. Candie

God bless Candie.

6. Richard Horne

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Richard Horne is the worst. Okay, I started this stupid list by declaring that Steven Burnett was the worst…but Richard is, like, awful. Menacing, horrific, a little bit goofy—Lynchian. You sort of want to save him a little, which you also know is a stupid mistake.

5. The Woodsman

“Gotta light?”

4. Janey-E Jones

Janie-E not being in the top three on my list is proof that this list is stupid. Naomi Watts is amazing in The Return. I hope (a version of Dougie) finds his way back to her and Sonny Jim, just as Agent Dale Cooper promised.

3. Dark Cooper

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Dark Cooper, or Evil Cooper, or the doppelganger, or whatever you want to call him might not technically belong on a list of “new” Twin Peaks characters, because we know he was there at the very end of the final series. But c’mon. He can’t not be included. Dark Cooper was a cipher with depth, violent, but also radiating a strange sexiness as well as an ironic sense of humor. I’ll miss his black glowing energy.

2. Diane

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I didn’t read any of the press stuff for Twin Peaks—I didn’t know that Michael Ontkean wouldn’t be back as Sheriff Truman, for example, or that Robert Forster would be in as another Sheriff Truman—which made watching The Return  even more of a thrill. Probably the biggest little casting thrill though was Laura Dern showing up as Diane. (I gasped). Laura Dern is one of my favorite actresses, and she only seems to get better from role to role. (I’m still surprised how many Lynch fans haven’t seen Inland Empire, a film in which she is absolutely amazing). It would be difficult for me to overstate how perfectly Dern’s Diane fits into the visual logic of The Return—I have pretty much avoided all coverage of the new series, so I don’t know if anyone’s written an essay on all of her costumes yet, but I’d love to read one eventually. My hope is that we’ll see some kind of resolution with Diane (even if it’s a bizarre and unsettling resolution) in the finale—is there a non-tulpa Diane out there? Please.

1. Dougie Jones

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Agent Dale Cooper’s return in episode 16 is a supremely satisfying moment, but I’ll miss Dougie dearly. I have often used the word “Lynchian” to convey ideas like sinister, paranoid, dark, and weird—and I think the word fits. But a glowing optimism underwrites all that’s dark in the Lynchverse, and this light finds its avatar in Dougie, a kind of holy fool who’s protected and guided by the kindness of others. Thumbs up.

Rebekah Del Rio performs “No Stars” on Twin Peaks

George A. Romero’s Martin (full film)

RIP George Romero. 1978’s Martin is one of his finest—and most overlooked—films.