Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

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TV, Writing

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.
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TV, Writing

The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.
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Writing

Book Review: THE PRESS GANG – Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 (edited by Jim Colvill) + author interview

★ ★ ★ ★

Film criticism is a thrilling, if mercurial, business, and one which can either chew a writer up and spit them out on the other side of corporate vacuity, or lead them to stand firm against the cultural tide.
In many ways, The Press Gang exemplifies that ongoing struggle. Subtitled ‘Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011’, the book strings together two decades worth of criticism spanning an era of cinema undergoing a long-standing, pervasive metamorphosis into a corporate mono-culture. Edited by Jim Colvill, who undertook a mission to seek out the writing of three critics who penned a brace of work for the now long defunct New York Press, the book is a snapshot of criticism during a key time, filled to the brim with detailed, often fascinating analysis on pictures as diverse as Michael Bay’s The Island through to Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (nope, I’d never heard of it either).
This is uncompromising, often searing film writing which is not designed to simply encourage you to indulge the filmmaker or studio producing said films, but rather question their cultural, aesthetic and personal value in the world, as part of a broader societal whole.
Continue reading “Book Review: THE PRESS GANG – Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 (edited by Jim Colvill) + author interview”