Thursday 5 July 2018
There was a weary inevitability to the way news about last Thursday’s shooting at the Capital Gazette offices broke on Twitter, the initial splash sending ripples of claim and counterclaim through countless sub-threads. As this presidency lumbers along, Twitter has come to represent something ineffable about Trump’s America – an arena in which vigilante justice reigns, where opinions are formed in a fraction of a second, and where people say what they want, especially if it offends. It’s a world in which profound implications are ignored in favour of appearances, and where the search for anything resembling objective truth can feel woefully naïve.
Twitter, it seems obvious to say, is only ever as benevolent as the people who use it. Were we a species united by a common bond – that shared land and resources and protected one another from threats to our planet – Twitter might have helped us evolve into a race of cosmic beings. We’ll never know. Instead we’re driven largely by fear and anger and a belief that we are somehow special, destined for greatness and threatened by barbarians at the gate. And those are qualities that get reflected by Twitter, a hall of mirrors in which messages are distorted and amplified billions of times over, blurring the borders between fact and fiction, while the real story unfolds somewhere off the timeline.
It’s not a new idea to suggest that the search for the great American novel was a distraction, and that the country itself may be the pre-eminent work of American fiction: a tale of conquest and capitalism, a history written by victors in the loudest voices possible. How else is it possible to account for the wider world’s tacit acceptance of a nation built on stolen land brazenly legislating who can and can’t live there, despite lingering evidence of a Native American culture obliterated by genocide? What else can explain its politicians’ condemnation of human rights abuses abroad, while black Americans – many of whose ancestors lived and died as slaves – are treated like criminals, murdered by white law enforcers who are seldom held accountable? How else does America get away with telling the world who is and isn’t responsible enough to own nuclear weapons, despite being the only nation to have used them in aggression, killing hundreds of thousands in the process?
Such things are possible because the fictional tale of America is so compelling – a story of democracy and glamour, of wealth and raw power – and because we in the UK have been complicit in writing as well as addictively consuming it for generations. It was only a matter of time before it came under the sway of a fictional president, one for whom reality and reality television are much the same thing. Nor is it a coincidence that Trump has emerged in the age of social media, or been able to use it so masterfully to spread his message. His belief that the world revolves around him is true on Twitter, a platform that rewards instant gratification and favours sensation over thought, and he knows exactly which buttons to press to get a reaction. It’s easy to imagine him calmly scrolling through the hundreds of thousands of replies to his tweets and nodding with approval, seeing only numbers, a self-promoting PR robot oblivious to the raw emotions colliding around him. He knows that the more outrageous his claims, the more people on both sides of the political divide will retweet them. And slowly, inevitably, his version of events gets heard: more people attended his inauguration than any in history; the collusion with Russia is fake news; those kids in cages were Obama’s fault. The latter point was driven home by followers posting a doctored version of a Time magazine cover in which Trump looms over a screaming child being detained at the border; in the new version, Obama is questioning why the girl is out of her cage, and Trump is saying ‘Let’s go find your mommy, sweetheart’.
Nor are those of us immune who think we’re smart enough to see through the fiction. We too thrill to the controversy: our wailing outrage is the soil that Trump supporters find so fertile – proof of our madness, and their president’s power – and they water the roots of their lies with our liberal snowflake tears. We’re constantly distracted: no sooner have we exhausted ourselves railing against one injustice than another is coming down the pipeline, and the last becomes just another brick in the wall. We’ve begun to accept as daily occurrences revelations that a few years ago could have unseated a president: defence of Nazis and alleged paedophiles, multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, references to ‘shithole countries’ and immigrants who are ‘rapists’ or ‘all have AIDS’. Our outrage meters barely register as blips things that would once have seemed unthinkable.
Yet some things are still big enough to shatter the meter. The Capital Gazette shooting is one such moment. Done honestly and effectively, journalism is humanitarian work, especially in an age of disinformation. The idea that Trump’s tirades against his ‘enemy of the people’ may have contributed to American journalists being killed in their own country is a horrifying prospect, yet there is a grim inevitability about it: in a world built on lies, the pursuit of truth is bound to be a dangerous job.
At such moments, the postmodern fiction of America unravels, and the emotional detachment of Twitter culture – the memes and emojis, the lols and the trolls – is revealed to be an armour of irony insulating users against the real-world consequences of their words. It is horrific, though hardly surprising, to learn that Milo Yiannopoulos had only days before the shooting claimed that he couldn’t wait for ‘vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight’. Even more telling is his subsequent decision to weigh in on social media, dismissing his comment as an innocent ‘troll’, and attempting to turn the blame on journalists to whom he’d sent the message.
Where can one turn for solace at such times? Perhaps the answers lie in fiction itself. Orwell is understandably making a lot of sense right now; the pre-war existential dread of Kafka feels somehow fitting. And a couple of days ago, the opening of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist seemed to be telling me something:
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
I think we’re in the shriek phase now.
Wednesday 27 June 2018
In October 2014 I found myself travelling to Paris to interview David Lynch. I made landfall soon after a minor hurricane that had been scouring its way across Europe: the city’s trees moaned and the sky filled with leaves, and by the time I arrived at the Cartier Foundation – European patron for Lynch’s output as a fine artist – the storm was a neat metaphor for the state of my nerves.
A new exhibition was being installed, and the museum was closed to the public. I gave my name at reception and took a seat, and was immediately plunged into a scene of such Lynchian weirdness that I began to wonder if I was part of the show. On the desk was an old-fashioned table lamp that kept flickering on and off, though this didn’t faze the male receptionist, who stared ahead as if in a trance. Occasionally a vintage telephone would ring, and he would pick up, mutter the words ‘Fondation Cartier’, then replace the receiver, all without breaking his gaze. Meanwhile the storm howled outside, and every time the doors slid open to admit a visitor, a gust of wind scattered dry leaves across the foyer. Amid this stood an old lady with a broom, who with agonising slowness swept the leaves into a pile, only to watch each time the doors opened and her work was destroyed, before quietly and uncomplainingly starting over.
Eventually I felt in need of air, and was heading towards the door when I saw Lynch through the glass. He was standing alone in front of a large tree that shook violently in the wind, one hand pressed against the trunk as though in secret communion, the other cradling a cigarette. He wore a raincoat that flapped in the gale, though his famous silver quiff was remarkably unruffled. Twenty minutes later we were sitting across from each other over a table in an upstairs conference room, and I found myself with the unusual problem of being unable to visually process his face: if I focussed on Lynch’s eyes, or his mouth, or the chrome fin of his quiff, the rest seemed to dissolve into a shimmering pool of colour. I considered the possibility that this was anxiety – for 30 years I had viewed Lynch as a genius on a par with Blake, a visionary giant who had lifted a curtain to reveal the tenuous nature of reality. At the same time, part of me felt this might be Lynch’s magic – like the receptionist, like the old lady with the broom – and that if I looked out the window I’d see him still standing there with his back to me, coat billowing and palm flat against the tree. Either way, I thought, this is how cults get started.
At the same time he was lovely – of course he was lovely, the same adorable oddball I’d seen beguile and befuddle countless interviewers in the past. Lynch’s eccentricities elude description, though the impression I had was of an excitable 12-year-old Eagle Scout in an old man’s body, permanently propping up the bar of a 1950s diner in the afterlife. He interspersed our conversation with ‘hot diggedy’s and ‘darn tootin’s, and he yelped with pleasure when a PR person entered carrying coffees. He politely indulged a couple of dry questions about his love of Paris – I was writing for Eurostar’s travel magazine – and he told darkly personal stories about his creative process, including an anecdote about a childhood encounter with a naked woman who had stumbled bruised and bloodied down the quiet street on which he and his brother were playing one evening, a clear influence on Blue Velvet. But he refused to be drawn on the forthcoming third season of Twin Peaks, filming of which was scheduled to begin in a few months. All he would say, when pressed, was a phrase that I would hear him repeat several times in interviews of that period: “I just love the world of Twin Peaks, and I can’t wait to go back there.”
A few days before receiving the call about this interview, I’d posted a piece summarising why I thought a third season of Twin Peaks was a terrible idea. I admitted that this was partly the protectiveness of a nostalgic superfan loath to see the cinematic love of his adolescence exhumed and reanimated in front of a braying public. But I also saw no way that it could work. Twin Peaks, I wrote, was a moment in time and space that would be endlessly revisited – in writing, at fan festivals, in the countless films and shows indebted to its influence – but never convincingly recreated. I ended with a quote by Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), who in 2005 said: “I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was meant to burn very brightly for a short period of time. Almost like a comet. Very hot, very intense, very passionate. And then it burns out and disappears.”
I did my best to park these concerns when the new series aired, and I was pleasantly surprised by the first couple of episodes, which were so weird, even by Twin Peaks standards, that I couldn’t help feeling pride at Lynch and Frost for staying true to their initial vision of the show as a Trojan Horse for letting the inmates overrun the airwaves. But before long I was feeling uneasy, and by episode five I was convinced that season three was a failure – partly for reasons I expected, partly for reasons I didn’t, but with one overarching conclusion: it didn’t feel like Twin Peaks, at least not the Twin Peaks that mattered to those of us who had sat transfixed in front of every episode as it aired, and formed a club in a cobweb-strewn boot closet at school to discuss the latest plot twists.
Despite his claim in our interview, Lynch appears to have been reluctant to go back to the world of Twin Peaks. Even on a geographical level, season three has limited interest in Twin Peaks as a place. The first show felt in danger of jumping the shark every time the action crossed the swinging traffic lights that marked the outskirts of town (James Hurley’s fling with Evelyn Marsh being a notable low point). Yet season three expands to take in Las Vegas, South Dakota, New York and Texas, with the result that the whimsical sense of place that made the original show so memorable – that for many people was the original show – feels more like an origin myth.
The creators also break the fourth wall between the world of the show and that of the viewer. Whereas the first run made very few cultural references – a 1950s pop song here, a mention of Sherlock Holmes there – the events in season three unfold in a world seemingly infiltrated by our own, as though 30 years of poking and prodding by eager fans has finally penetrated the town’s defences. So it is that we get Gordon Cole’s dream about Monica Bellucci, or scenes in which modern bands play episodes out – Chromatics, Hudson Mohawke, Eddie actual Vedder – lending the feel of a 90s chat show, and implying that Lynch, once capable of convincing a generation that carrying a log around was cool, is now looking to the wider world to learn what’s hip. The musical segments are depressing for their predictability, and for their presentation of the once edgy Roadhouse as the sort of venue the family in Party Of Five might visit. But most of all, these scenes feel like a betrayal because of the way they suggest that Twin Peaks, previously as inaccessible as a dream, is now a place you might find on Google Maps.
Underpinning this is also a fundamental aesthetic difference. Once the creators were content to play the ironic small-town-soap-opera card for all it was worth, letting the action unfold between the same characters, in the same locations, with plot lines that were strange and tangled but could all be traced back to the emotional big bang that was Laura Palmer’s murder. Now the show feels like a series of self-contained scenes, each like one of Lynch’s painted canvases, vivid and surreal, but with little to link them together. Some of these scenes work well, like the young couple watching the glass box in a New York warehouse. Others are downright awful; the cockney with a superhero hand sucker punching Bob-in-a-bubble was my least favourite.
This architecturally abstract approach to narrative is nothing new. Lynch’s recent films have increasingly employed this structure, edging further away from conventional storytelling and closer in feel to his bizarre debut, Eraserhead. But Twin Peaks wasn’t one of Lynch’s films: it was a television show, and its success was as indebted to Lynch’s vision as it was to Mark Frost’s skilful manipulation of a large cast of quirky character, so many of whom we cared about, though so few we felt we knew.
Season three disappoints in terms of characterisation. Yes, there are some touching reunions: the stoical Hawk is superb, virtually unaltered save the shock of silver hair, while Lucy leaps off the screen as though she’s been waiting for this moment half her life; Jacoby is great in his new role as ranting radio host Dr Amp, while Nadine’s decision to free her long-suffering husband Ed is perhaps the only moment that genuinely feels lifted from the first run. Most powerful are the scenes in which a cancer-stricken Log Lady calls the sheriff’s office and relays her final cryptic messages to a quietly understanding Hawk: actress Catherine Coulson passed away from the disease shortly after, and these moments serve as a moving cinematic memorial.
Other returning characters fare less well. Alfred seems exhausted by his anger, while Deputy Andy’s ‘Stan Laurel’ shtick hasn’t aged well. Both James Hurley and Audrey Horne fall foul of scenes so dreadful that it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. Audrey spends almost the entire show trapped in a traumatised argument with an unlikely husband, finally escaping to the Roadhouse, where she takes the stage to awkwardly rekindle what the emcee refers to as ‘Audrey’s Dance’ (a title lifted from Badalamenti’s soundtrack), a scene that doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as reduce it to rubble. As for the new characters, they range from intriguing to agonisingly awful, though very few are allowed the space or sincerity to develop to a point where we care about them.
Yet it’s also possible to argue that this isn’t really the issue; that the single biggest problem with season three isn’t what’s on the screen, but what isn’t. Dale Cooper is one of the most compelling characters in television history: clipped and methodical yet warm and spiritual, with an old-fashioned style and a quirky sense of humour that have caused some to see him as a direct representation of Lynch. Beyond this, Kyle McLachlan’s beloved FBI agent is also the prism through which viewers experience Twin Peaks; he too is an outsider, regarding the people and events around him with childlike wonder, while simultaneously gathering together the strands of a great mystery in a way that makes us believe, albeit in vain, that everything will soon make sense.
McLachlan has been rightly praised for his portrayal in season three of what are essentially three different characters, but his presence is problematic. Between the brutal criminality of the dark Dale and the stumbling amnesia of Dougie Jones, what we actually get is an anti-Cooper, a step that feels a little like rubbing salt in the wound. We endure disturbing transmissions from the Red Room in which the One Armed Man pleads with Cooper, somehow trapped inside Jones, to wake up. Occasionally Dougie expresses a twinge of recognition – a sheriff’s badge, a bundle of case files, a superhuman desire for coffee – and our hearts leap. Oh, how we too want Cooper to wake up. And finally he does wake up, though by then we’re into the final episodes, and within minutes it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be an eleventh hour return of the hero, but a cameo by a Cooper who feels jarring and unfamiliar; who spends all of ten minutes in the town of Twin Peaks; and who serves, ultimately, as another symbol in Lynch’s shadowy exploration of the unstable nature of identity.
This is a running theme in Lynch’s work. In recent films he has upturned narrative convention and had characters slip in and out of other lives: see the jailed saxophonist in Lost Highway who wakes up transformed into a car mechanic, or the aspiring actress in Mulholland Drive who may also be a downtrodden diner waitress. In light of this, Lynch’s decision to populate Twin Peaks with multiple Dales and Dianes – even a Laura Palmer who is also a Texan waitress called Carrie Page – shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it feels profoundly symbolic when a Dale we’re not sure is Dale takes a Laura who definitely thinks she’s not Laura to the house she grew up in, and she doesn’t recognise it, and a stranger answers the door, and the pair of them just stand around looking confused, and we realise that this is where the show is going to end.
It hurts because, despite their surreal quirks that occasionally slid into parody, we believed in and cared about those characters. Yes, there were doppelgängers and alternate dimensions, but they served as a dark half to highlight the inherent goodness of the community: Major Briggs reducing his wayward son to tears as he describes his Arcadian vision; Leland Palmer wailing and clinging to his daughter’s coffin as it descends into the ground; Ed Hurley jumping to his nephew’s defence when a fight breaks out in the Roadhouse. Our love for those characters was what made it so unthinkably terrifying when, in the cliffhanger ending to season two, we realised that it was the dark Dale who had escaped from the other side – I remember my brother and I sitting with our mouths open, feeling like our entire world had fallen apart.
We didn’t know it at the time, but things were going to get so much worse.
Friday 30 March 2018
I’ve said this many times, and I always get the impression people think I’m making it up, but it’s true. When my brother and I were kids, maybe five or six, my dad would tell us one of two bedtime stories: The Exorcist, or Alien.
To be fair, this was because one night we’d asked him for the scariest story he’d ever heard, and rather than follow in western parenting tradition and start with the Brothers Grimm, he’d thought long and hard about the horror films he’d seen at the cinema, and given us a genuine answer. Iranians like my father are all pleasantries when it comes to social functions, but among family they speak the truth.
The versions we got were heavily simplified, though with hindsight this seems less an attempt to censor them than a reflection of the fact that he hadn’t understood the films. The Exorcist, he said, was about a monster who looks like a girl, whose head spins around, and who vomits green soup; Alien concerned an astronaut who is attacked by a spider, and the spider lays an egg in his face, and then a thing that looks like a chicken jumps out of his stomach and kills everyone. When forced to pick one, he said the The Exorcist was scarier – someone had fainted in the cinema, and afterwards there were priests outside waiting to convert people. Yet it was the story of Alien that captivated me, and I pressed him for details. How exactly did the spider lay an egg in this man’s face? Did the chicken monster talk? Mostly I wanted to hear about it jumping out of his chest; when pushed, my father described an explosion of blood that covered a room full of screaming people, and in that moment I was hooked.
At some point in the second half of the 1980s – I was eight or nine at the time – I saw a VHS rental of the sequel, Aliens, in one of two twirling display stands in our local corner shop. I began a campaign to persuade my mum to rent it, and she finally agreed on the condition that she watch it with me, and send me out of the room if anything unsuitable transpired. Twice I had to leave – during the cocooned colonist’s whispered pleas for death, and when Bishop was bisected by the queen – but the following year Aliens was screened on television, and I found myself watching it alone, gripping the sofa as the colonist’s eyes snapped open, my parents in bed and no one to protect me.
Soon after that, the dorkdom began. I managed to convert my closest friend at school, and the pair of us watched and rewatched the film – also the original Alien, which we loved despite its lack of military hardware. We would spend lessons sketching the creature in our exercise books, and pass weekends assembling plastic kits of the monster and the military vehicles. James was the technical one: he drew blueprints for the Sulaco and built a replica from Lego; for my part, I spiked a water mister with red food colouring and had my Action Man figures encounter the alien in mum’s flower bed, where they ended up with limbs missing and red dye crusted into their soft, clenched hands. I became so obsessed with Harry Dean Stanton’s character in the first film that I asked my family to start calling me Brett. They didn’t.
My fascination followed me to secondary school, where I introduced my new friends to a game inspired by the film. One was the alien, and would be given a few minutes to fold himself into the shadowy, pipe-covered corridors that lay behind the changing room, after which the others moved in a quiet sweep through the area, checking imaginary tracking devices and expressing unease in expletive riddled American accents. Finally the alien would drop from the ceiling or explode from a corner with a scream, something that never failed to shatter our hearts with shock; there would then be a comical chase through corridors and into the changing room, where we would collapse in hysterics. In the strange, almost post-coital calm that followed, we would sit eating sweets and debating what it would be like to be dismembered.
For us, Aliens was less a story than a feeling. It was a feeling that crept unbidden into our dreams, or for which we volunteered as we pushed open the changing room door with our fellow marines. It was a feeling of fear, but also of wonder; at the beauty of the creature, the purity of its aggression, the mystery of its origin and the secrets of the derelict ship. It’s a feeling that’s been absent from recent additions to the franchise, but thankfully I’ve had a long time to get over any preciousness: I was at peak fandom when Alien 3 came out, a film that served as a premature baptism for the disappointments of adulthood. At some point I boxed up my models, took down my posters, filed my comics and trading cards into folders. But every couple of years I rewatch Aliens, and the following night, or the night after that, I’ll dream that I’m a child again, hiding in a maze of tunnels, the adults dead and the aliens stalking me. That feeling is still there. It won't ever go away.
If I ever have kids, I know which story I’m going to tell them.