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April 23, 2014
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April 21, 2014
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Vladimir Nabokov's Hidden Noir: Despair
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Showing posts by: Jake Hinkson click to see Jake Hinkson's profile
Mar 28 2014 11:00am

While Twin Peaks is a web of contradictions—combining as it does comedy and horror, “high” art and “low” art, pathos and irony—its central contradiction really boils down to this: while it has the structure of a whodunit, it rejects the entire notion of a solution.

Here’s what I mean. The whodunit, as a literary and cinematic narrative form, has always posited a reductive view of human nature. Human motivation exists in a whodunit as little more than a piece of the puzzle. This isn’t to say that whodunits can’t be well-written or fun, but it is to say that their overriding objective is to answer one central question: who is the murderer?  Once that question has been answered, the whodunit is over. The who is more important than the why. The killer, once revealed, ceases to be a source of interest or contemplation. The end of a whodunit reassures us that the bad person has been weeded out from among the good people and that order has been restored. (Noir, in contrast to the whodunit, has always been more interested in the why than in the who. This is the reason that so many noirs are told from the point of view of the killer rather than the cop.) 

[I hope you weren't looking for a clear-cut answer...]

Mar 24 2014 11:00am

Let us now praise Audrey Horne. When we were first introduced to the pretty high school senior played by Sherilyn Fenn, she seemed to be perfectly in sync with the weirdness of her town: disengaged, offbeat, self-contained. (Her first scene was killer. Bored in class, she responds to her name being called during roll by putting air quotes around her answer: “Here.”) Yet, as the first season progresses, Audrey starts to grow, gradually altering our opinion. We look back on that first episode and observe that she was practically the only one in town who wasn’t devastated by Laura Palmer’s death. At first, we assumed this was because of some rivalry between the two, or perhaps it was simply a function or Audrey’s ironic remove, a way for her to put air quotes around the whole idea of “grief.” Yet the more we find out about Laura and the more we find out about Audrey, the more we side with the latter. Although Audrey (mostly) keeps her own counsel, she has a certain honesty and pluck that puts her ahead of those around her.

[It's always the one's you least excpect who surprise you...]

Mar 21 2014 11:00am

Here’s something that has become increasingly clear to me by the sixth episode of this show. No one on Twin Peaks is what they seem. In many ways, of course, I began watching the show with that idea. I expected duplicity and complication and revelation. But it’s only natural to seek out some foothold in the tangles of the narrative. You search for your protagonists. And we get protagonists: Agent Cooper, Donna, James, Truman. And we get some obvious villains: Leo, Bobby, Catherine Martell. But to an admirable degree, the show isn’t content to stay bound to these categories. No one is what they seem. The nice people all have surprisingly dark depths, and the creeps all have unexpected vulnerabilities.

More on that in a moment, but first some catch up on the plot: Cooper and Truman discover a cabin in the woods where they suspect the murder took place. They find a rare bird, some twine, and part of a poker chip from a nearby brothel. All these clues tie into evidence found on Laura’s body (bite marks, ligature marks, piece of a chip in her stomach). Meanwhile, Hank Jennings (the husband of Norma Jennings, the owner of the RR Diner) has returned from prison. He beats up Leo, who has apparently been running Hank’s drug trade in his absence. Leo goes home and slaps around his wife Shelley (who works as a waitress at the RR Diner). What Leo doesn’t know is that Shelley and her secret boyfriend Bobby Briggs have been planning for this moment. Shelley draws a gun and shoots Leo. We don’t see Leo get hit, though, so I’m prepared for pretty much anything to happen next. The episode ends with Cooper returning to his hotel room to find Audrey Horne naked in his bed.

[In Twin Peaks, if you're not cheating, you're not trying...]

Mar 17 2014 11:00am

It’s time to talk about Invitation to Love. Throughout the first four episodes of Twin Peaks, I’ve been seeing this cheesy soap opera in the background. At first, it was easy to dismiss as a kind of goofy joke, a satire of cheap entertainment. But as the show has progressed, it has become impossible to miss that something else is going on with Invitation to Love.

For one thing, it’s simply too much of a presence to be dismissed. Initially, the show-within-the-show was just one tiny piece of the increasingly complex jigsaw puzzle that is Twin Peaks, but by episode five it has crossed over into the show proper in interesting ways. The most obvious example of this is the introduction of a “fictional” Invitation plot point into the “real” milieu of Twin Peaks: the sudden appearance of Maddy Ferguson, Laura Palmer’s lookalike cousin (both characters are played by Sheryl Lee), which seems to spring out of a plot on the soap opera involving twin sisters.

[For a dead girl, Laura Palmer is sure on screen a lot...]

Mar 14 2014 11:00am

The trick of a show that continues one long, evolving storyline is to slowly—even teasingly—advance the main plot (Who Killed Laura Palmer?) while delivering enough episode-by-episode pay off to keep the viewer from feeling overly manipulated. In other words, you gotta keep ‘em coming back.

In the last episode, Lynch and his collaborators (namely series co-creator Mark Frost) gave us Agent Cooper’s strange dream, and ended the proceedings with Cooper excitedly calling Sheriff Truman to report that he knew the identity of the killer. Were we poised to see the case solved in this episode? Of course not. Agent Cooper kicks off this episode by reporting that the dream was riddle he must decipher. The dream, he is sure, holds the solution of the mystery. About this, we can have little doubt.

[What did she whisper?!]

Mar 10 2014 11:00am

 And here we go. This is the episode where I discover I’m really in Twin Peaks, ensconced fully in David Lynch. I’ll give a brief rundown of some of the episode particulars and the way the plot is developing, but I want to get to the end of the episode, to the moment where this show becomes the show I’ve always heard about.

First though, things kick off with a scene so odd, one can only wonder at it. The Hornes (the family of high school femme fatale Audrey Horne, played by Sherilyn Fenn) are having dinner when Mr. Horne’s brother Jerry shows up. Mr. Horne and Jerry then proceed to scarf down fistfuls of baguettes in a grotesque display that made me think immediately of the short films of Louis C.K. Does this scene of absurdist comedy exist for any reason other than to be absurdist comedy? I don’t think so. It’s sorta funny, but it’s mostly odd—and that’s its real function, to create in the episode’s first scene a sense of discombobulation. At its root, absurdism is about thwarting the deep human desire to find meaning. We watch these two grown men yelling at each other through moist mouthfuls of bread, and we don’t know what the hell is going on. You don’t know what the hell is going on? David Lynch seems to say. Good, then let’s get started.

[This show sure knows how to mess with your mind...]

Mar 7 2014 12:00pm

After the pilot episode of the series set up the town and the central mystery of homecoming queen Laura Palmer’s murder, the first regular episode, “Traces to Nowhere,” begins to expand the canvas and deepen that mystery. FBI Agent Cooper, after securing a superior cup of java, questions a young man named James Hurley (played by James Marshall) about a video that shows Laura and her friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and hints at the presence of an unseen third person. Hurley admits that he shot the video, and that he was indeed having an affair with Laura, cheating with her behind the back of her batshit boyfriend Bobby Briggs, but he denies having anything to do with her death. We believe him, and so does Cooper.

Meanwhile, we get a closer look at the abusive marriage of the waitress Shelley and her asshole husband Leo the truck driver. Shelley is carrying on an affair with Bobby Briggs, but Leo’s got more than few secrets of his own. He’s bringing drugs into town (a lot of drugs apparently, since Bobby owes him $10,000) and he’s concealing a bloody shirt. When Shelley hides the shirt from him, Leo beats her with a bar of soap in a sock.

[You can't trust anyone...]

Mar 3 2014 12:00pm

Thirty seconds into the show, and already I’m smiling. The theme music by Angelo Badalamenti is a slow, sugary mix of synth and strings that’s, well, goofy. Along with the green neon credits, the music practically screams 1990. But what the hell, there’s no shame in screaming 1990. (The beginning of Casablanca screams 1942, etc.) These credits go on for a surprisingly long time, though, and the longer they go on, the more interesting the music becomes. Or perhaps a better way to put it is to say that by the end of the credits, I’m not so sure they scream 1990 anymore. Yes, they seem very much of their time, but there’s also a deliberate oddness to them, an almost stubborn insistence on pathos that I am shortly to learn will be a consistent quality throughout this pilot episode.

We begin with the discovery of a dead girl, naked and wrapped in plastic next to a river in the logging town of Twin Peaks, Washington.  Ah ha. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The line itself floats up from the past like a question from a game of Trivial Pursuit.

[There's always more than meets the eye...]

Feb 27 2014 9:45am

Welcome to Twin Peaks, Population: UsHow have I managed to go this long without seeing a series as heralded as Twin Peaks, a show that pretty much defines the notion of “cult television,” a show by one of the oft proclaimed geniuses of cinema? Well, for one thing, I was a kid when it first came out. When the pilot episode was broadcast in April of 1990, I was fourteen years old and, in all honesty, that year I was far more excited that The Flash had his own show.

Which, I admit, still doesn’t explain why I haven’t caught up to the show in the subsequent twenty-four years. The answer to that conundrum is that I’ve never been a huge David Lynch fan. Once I stopped watching television shows about superheroes and turned my attention to cinema, I went in pretty hard for the old stuff: noir, Westerns, sixties European art cinema. By the time I got around to Lynch, my taste had formed in other directions. That’s not to say that I don’t admire David Lynch. I like parts of many of his films, and I love all of Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story. But that’s about as far as I’ve gone with him. Which makes me the perfect man for this job. I come to Twin Peaks as someone who likes, but doesn’t love the cinema of David Lynch. I come as an admirer, but not a true believer.

Over the years, I’ve gone out of my way to steer clear of Twin Peaks—for fear of learning too much and spoiling the discovery of the show itself. I could easily avail myself of the answers to its mysteries with the click of a few buttons, but, then again, if I wanted to do so, I could also ruin the end of pretty much every novel ever written. But I’ve always suspected that Twin Peaks might hold far more enjoyment in its mysteries than in its questions. So come along with me as I make my first trip to Twin Peaks, Washington.

We'll see what there is to see.

Check out all the posts in Criminal Element's Twin Peaks Rewatch.

Jake Hinkson's posts on the first season air every Monday and Friday throughout March!

Feb 5 2014 5:00pm

Editor's Note: This entry will kick off a new series on the Final Westerns of the great cowboy stars. First up: Gary Cooper.

When The Hanging Tree appeared in movie theaters in 1959 the Western was at its peak. Indeed, no view of the 1950s can be complete without an acknowledgement of the outsized popularity of the cowboy picture. Westerns were simply everywhere. They filled movie houses, and they dominated television programming. They were to the 50s what science fiction is to us now: the shared national escapist fantasy. Before the frontier moved in to outer space, it still lay out west.

There’s a solid argument to be made that the star most responsible for the Western’s popularity was Gary Cooper. In later years, of course, John Wayne would supplant Cooper and lock down the title as the biggest Western star of all time. (For all intents and purposes, John Wayne became the Western.) But while Wayne was big in the fifties, Cooper had been associated with the Western longer and to greater acclaim. More sensitive than Wayne or Randolph Scott but less neurotic than Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, he was, to pinch the title of one of his hits, The Westerner.

He first hit it big in The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926 and damn-near invented the laidback cowboy character in The Virginian in 1929. Many more Westerns followed (as did comedies, romances, and war films—god, Gary Cooper was great), but the film that cemented his hold on the genre was Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon. High Noon didn’t invent the so-called “adult Western”—Westerns that were a little more likely to stay in-doors and involve characters who didn’t fit white hat/black hat morality—but it remains the exemplar of the species. The film proved to be a box office blockbuster that won Cooper an Oscar and shaped many of the Westerns that would follow.

By 1959, however, the cowboy was about ready to hang up his hat. Cooper was 58 years old at a time when 58 was old. He belonged to a generation that drank too much and smoked cigarettes all day, every day, almost as a kind of ritual. Not incidentally, it was a generation that died young: Bogart had died at age 57, and Gable would die at 59. Cooper himself would be dead of cancer in less than a year and a half.

[Let's continue this showdown...]

Jan 18 2014 1:00pm

One can’t really describe the Japanese mystery writer Seichō Matsumoto by comparing him to his English language equivalent because, in all the ways that matter, he has no equivalent. (The writer Wolcott Wheeler once described him as “one part Raymond Chandler, one part John Steinbeck, and one part Gore Vidal”—which should give some sense of how hard he is to pin down.) A true original, more than any other writer in his country, he shaped the Japanese crime novel into a psychologically dense, multi-layered creation. In short, he made the crime novel a respectable form of literature.

Like Chandler, he started publishing later in life—following a career in advertising and some military service in World War II. Unlike the notoriously unprolific Chandler, however, once he started publishing, Matsumoto became extraordinarily productive. An exact count of his books remains hard to come by, but it’s estimated that he wrote over forty novels, as well as short stories and books of Japanese history. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start publishing until he was forty-one. He had enormous success in his native country, but because few of his books have been translated into English, today he is probably best known  around the world for his collaborations with the director Yoshitarō Nomura.

[Two peas in a pod...]

Dec 21 2013 11:30pm

Serpico (1973) U.S. movie release posterForty years ago this month, Serpico hit movie theaters. It’s important to remember the context in which the film came into the world. The sixties had long since curdled into the seventies. New Jersey still bore the scars of the horrific Camden riots. Vietnam lay in ashes. The economy was entering a recession which would last until 1975. Watergate—which had begun as a small story about a burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters—had metastasized into a full-blown White House scandal. Just a month before, a sweaty Richard Nixon had gone on television to try and reassure an increasingly skeptical public that “I’m not a crook.” And in New York, the city was still reeling from the revelations of the Knapp Commission, which has exposed rampant systemic corruption in the police department.

Into this swirl of bad feelings, Serpico was released. Directed by the great Sidney Lumet, from a screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler based on the book by Peter Maas, it told the true story of the hero of the Knapp Commission findings, a brave cop named Frank Serpico. Frustrated with the corruption around him, Serpico had worked to expose the rottenness in the NYPD and nearly been killed for his efforts.

[How's that for gratitude?]

Dec 4 2013 11:15am

The public protests the incarceration of Hollywood actors during the Red ScareIn October 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held its first hearings into alleged Communist subversion in Hollywood. This kicked off one of the darkest eras in the history of the American film industry. For years, Hollywood was thrown into turmoil as investigations were held in Congress and on the front pages of newspapers all across America. Careers were ruined, friendships betrayed, and an entire generation of filmmakers and filmgoers came of age in a postwar environment boiling with suspicion and fear.

Perhaps, then, it’s not entirely incidental that film noir entered its golden years in 1947. A genre defined by guilt and paranoia, in some respects noir could only have flowered the way it did in tumultuous Hollywood of the late forties and early fifties.

[A scary time to be in show business...]

Nov 7 2013 3:00pm

a young Linda DarnellBeing beautiful was Linda Darnell’s curse. She was an emotionally intuitive actress, but almost from the beginning of her career, she was typecast because of her looks. Add in alcohol problems and a series of tortured relationships, and you have the recipe for a full-tilt Hollywood tragedy.

She was born Monette Eloyse Darnell in Dallas, Texas on October 16th, 1923 to a postal clerk named Calvin Darnell and his wife Pearl. Hailing from rural Tennessee, the fiercely ambitious Pearl had sought unsuccessfully to become an actress, only to end up as a domestic servant saddled with five children. Determined that one of her children would succeed where she had failed, she focused all her energies on her beautiful second daughter. For all intents and purposes, Monette was groomed from youth to be a star. She was enrolled in music, dance, drama, and elocution lessons while still a child, and her mother entered her into an unending series of beauty and talent contests.  

She started making appearances in movies in 1939 when she was still just fifteen years old (though by this time the studio, 20th Century Fox, had changed her name to Linda and tacked on two years to her official age). Already fully possessed and startlingly beautiful, she almost immediately became a star. She made four films cast opposite swarthy Tyrone Power and specialized in fresh-faced brides and ingénues.

Then, in 1943, her surprise marriage to veteran cameraman Pev Marley (who was twice her age) threw her career into crisis. She was placed on suspension and relegated to small roles. During this period, she made a brief appearance as the vision of the Virgin Mary that appears to a young girl in 1943’s The Song Of Bernadette. In the studio system, however, actors were treated as commodities, and it didn’t take very long for 20th Century Fox to decide that its voluptuous, newly-married young actress would be better commoditized as a sex object. Henceforth, she would play bad girls. As Darnell’s biographer Ronald L. Davis would note, “Beyond question Linda’s being cast as a slut rather than a virgin made her a more interesting property both for her studio and the gossip columnists.” Few actresses experienced the Virgin/Whore Complex in more literal terms than Linda Darnell.

[A trip that can can give a girl whiplash...]

Oct 23 2013 3:30pm

The classic era of film noir was notable for the incredible amount of talent behind the camera. Famous directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles produced notable work in the genre, while lesser known talents like Phil Karlson, Ida Lupino, Anthony Mann, Andre De Toth, Jules Dassin, and Robert Wise (just to name a few) got their chops directing moody, violent crime stories.

Perhaps the director with the finest list of noir credits, though, was Robert Siodmak. Originally from Dresden, he was born into money and a certain social privilege—with a successful father and an artistically inclined mother. At 18 he went to Berlin, which in those days was the swinging, cultural capital of Europe.  During the 1920s, Siodmak, along with his brother Curt (who would himself become an important force in filmmaking), worked his way into the bustling German film industry. It was an incredible time—the age of German Expressionism—and Siodmak worked alongside future film masters like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fritz Lang. Not incidentally, all of these men would make important contributions to film noir.

[One ticket to the Noir Hall of Fame, please!]

Oct 19 2013 7:30pm

The Last of the Smoking Bartenders by C.J. HowellThe Last of The Smoking Bartenders by C.J. Howell follows a drifter who believes he’s a secret agent meant to stop terrorists from blowing up the Hoover Dam (available October 20, 2013).

Hitchhiking across the Arizona desert, Tom is part-antihero, part-destructive force. Believing he has to live off the grid (in part because of tracking devices embedded in paper money), he hooks up with an assortment of outcasts—a hard-drinking river guide named Lorne, a band of meth-dealing Navajos—and carries out his war on terrorist cells spread across the Southwest. This is a low-rent quest, carried out on foot, funded in loose change:

Those he chased had everything. He supposed that’s why he couldn’t have anything. Traveling this way was the one way he wouldn’t be tracked. But money, Jesus, to travel without paper money was really pushing the point of diminishing returns. He’d devoted years to being under the radar, any radar, but what good was it if he never prevented an attack, if he got everywhere late?

The central question of the book is whether or not Tom is actually somehow involved in government conspiracies or if he’s just batshit crazy. He’s pursued by Special Agent Hailey Garrett, the sole operative of the FBI’s office in Saint George, Utah. Pretty and smart, but hobbled by a bad plastic hip, Hailey starts to track the path of destruction that seems to follow Tom wherever he goes. Even as she tracks him, though, the reader is still guessing about just where Tom’s delusions end and reality begins.

[You're not paranoid if they're really after you...]

Sep 26 2013 3:00pm

Scandal's Season 3 premieres Thursday, October 3Scandal, Shonda Rhimes' hit political thriller, is terrific trash. I don’t say that as a backhanded compliment, either. I have every reason to believe that it’s designed to be instantly disposable. Amped up and flashy to the point of garishness, it’s an expertly made show that cannot withstand a single moment of serious consideration. I have to believe that this is not an accident. Thus, it is terrific trash.

Since the show returns to ABC for its third season on October 3, now seems like an excellent time to catch on the ways that—for good and for ill—Scandal sets itself apart.

**SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to assume that we’re all up to date on the latest shit. If you’re not ready to start Season 3, catch up and come back here. The internet isn’t going anywhere.***

[Let the cheers and jeers begin!...]

Sep 18 2013 10:00am

Lt. William BlighThis much we know: in the early hours of April 28, 1789, in the middle of the south seas a group of sailors aboard the British cutter HMS Bounty seized control of their ship. They loaded the ship’s captain—a career naval man named Lt. William Bligh—and 17 of his loyalists onto a 23-foot launch (essentially a lifeboat). The mutineers, led by the Bounty’s Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian then turned around and sailed back to Tahiti, from whose islands they had departed just a few days earlier.

Bligh and his men, for all intents and purposes having been condemned to death on the open water, made an astonishing 3,618-mile journey to the East Indies. Meanwhile, after fleeing Tahiti with some local women and supplies, Christian and a handful of his mutineers disappeared.

Somehow, of all the many mutinies in naval history, the story of Bligh, Christian, and the HMS Bounty took on the quality of a myth. In some respects, this is baffling. After all, the mission of the Bounty and its crew was hardly the stuff from which legends spring. Bligh’s job was to go down to Tahiti to pick breadfruit plants that would then be used as an inexpensive food source on West Indian sugar plantations. In other words, the Bounty was transporting cheap groceries in support of the slave trade.

In addition to the grimy nature of the mission, the ship and her men were all less than impressive. The Bounty itself was so small that the captain had to give up his quarters to make room for the breadfruit. Bligh seemed to be stuck in a go-nowhere job, with his middle age fast approaching, and his professional options dwindling. (“Captain Bligh” wasn’t even technically a captain; he was a lieutenant.) His crew was a ragtag group. Some like Fletcher Christian came from good families that had fallen on hard times. Many others were scared-up, toothless seadogs.

[The kind of seadogs that limp and go Arrrg in movies?]

Aug 16 2013 2:00pm

Laird CregarFilm actors subject themselves to a level of scrutiny that most of us would find unbearable. True, they do this out of ego and ambition, but that doesn’t change the cold hard fact that they make their living being objectified. Most of us would be creeped out by one stranger staring at us, much less the entire world.

These thoughts occurred to me as I reflected recently on the life and legacy of the tragic Laird Cregar. He shot to prominence in the early forties as a character actor, then became obsessed with turning himself into a leading man, and died at the age of 31 of a heart attack brought on by a combination of surgery, prescription drug use, and a reckless crash diet. The Hollywood machine—in one way or another—claimed a lot of famous victims, but Laird Cregar is someone who actually killed himself in an effort to be a movie star.

[There's nothing more noir than that...]

Aug 8 2013 10:30pm

CagedJenji Kohan’s Netflix series Orange Is The New Black is doing amazing things with the Women In Prison genre—creating a deeply moving, and often funny, portrait of life behind bars. But she’s drawing on a film tradition that back decades. That tradition reached its highest point with John Cromwell’s 1950 Caged, the Citizen Kane of Women In Prison flicks.

Eleanor Parker stars as Marie Allen, an innocent nineteen year-old widow who has been sentenced from 1-to-15 years for sitting in a car while, unknown to her, her husband knocked over a gas station. Her husband wound up dead and now Marie is in the joint where she’s told that she must “Get tough or die.” She’s recruited to be part of a gang run by a butch convict named Kitty Stark and her sidekick, Smoochie, but Marie politely refuses. She just wants to serve out the first ten months of her sentence until she can get paroled.

[Well laid plans and all that...]