Monday, April 26, 2010

The Hitcher

It was the film no one wanted to make. It became the film no one wanted to see. When The Hitcher came out in 1986, it barely made a dent in the box office and what few critics did see the film, hated it for the unrelenting sadism and brutality that occurred with seemingly no rhyme or reason. The film was quickly relegated to home video hell and doomed to obscurity. And then a curious thing happened. The Hitcher gradually began to take on a second life through word of mouth, spawned by the riveting performance of Rutger Hauer, the actor who played the frightening yet charismatic antagonist. The film, much like its villain, is a nasty piece of work that doesn’t care if you like it or not – it just wants to scare the living hell out of you and I would argue that it does so with a refreshing simplicity. The Hitcher doesn’t beg to be psychoanalyzed – it is something to experience in all of its white-knuckled intensity. The film has gone to inspire films like Jeepers Creepers (2001) and The Forsaken (2001) and spawn a vastly inferior sequel and remake.

Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is driving a car for someone else across the country en route to San Diego. We meet him traveling along a deserted stretch of highway out in the middle of barren desolate terrain buffeted by mountains somewhere in Texas. As night gradually becomes very early morning, Jim struggles to stay awake. At one point, he actually drifts off and nearly drives headlong into a truck. It begins to rain heavily and he spots a lone figure on the side of the road. Ignoring the advice his mother once told him, Jim stops for the hitchhiker – a decision he will come to regret.

The man introduces himself as John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) and right from the get-go something doesn’t seem right about him. He doesn’t tell Jim where he’s going and when they pass a car on the side of the road, Ryder grabs Jim’s leg startling him so that they don’t stop. When Jim tells Ryder to get out, he ignores him and instead tells the young man that the car they just passed belonged to a man who also gave him a ride but he didn’t get far. Ryder says with a laugh that makes us and Jim uneasy, “I cut off his legs and his arms and his head, and I’m going to do the same to you.” Ryder says this last bit with an almost bored indifference as if he were reciting a shopping list.
Ryder proceeds to hold Jim at knifepoint and plays excruciating head games with the young man, including forcing him to say the words, “I want to die.” Fortunately, Jim manages to push Ryder out of the car and drive off. He thinks that he’s free and clear, that he’ll never see this creepy psychopath again. However, this isn’t the last time Jim will see Ryder – it’s only the beginning of a nightmarish journey. Ryder proceeds to stalk Jim, making his life a living hell as he torments the young man in all sorts of sadistic ways, like ramming his car with a pickup truck or framing him for several murders that he in fact committed or nasty little things like putting a severed finger in his food at a diner.

Jim is forced to literally fight for his life as he tries desperately to escape this madman. Along the way, he enlists the help of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a beautiful young waitress at a diner, and the local cops but to no avail. Ryder is like a force of nature that will not be denied and it’s up to Jim to stop him. Most of the film plays out like a cruel game of cat and mouse as Ryder pushes Jim to the brink of madness.

C. Thomas Howell is good as a young man trapped in a terrifying situation. He is able to convey just the right amount of sweaty desperation as his character tries to figure out a way of this state of affairs. With younger-than-he-looks features and that reedy voice, Howell is well-cast as a naive twentysomething who is forced to grow up real fast and do things he would never have dreamed of doing before. Up to that point in his career, Howell was known mostly as a Teen Beat poster boy with sympathetic roles in films like The Outsiders (1983) and director Robert Harmon uses this image to make Howell instantly sympathetic so that we care about what happens to his character. As the film progresses, Jim gradually comes apart at the seams while Ryder gets calmer and calmer – not at all the stereotypical psycho and his victim. Both actors get to play against type which makes them so interesting to watch.
Along with Wulfgar in Nighthawks (1980) and Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), John Ryder is one of Hauer’s signature roles. He has such a fascinating screen presence and infuses his character with a casual menace that is something to behold. He exudes an almost Zen-like calmness that is strangely unsettling. He has one of those dangerous smiles that on the surface seems inviting but is actually quite threatening. Hauer plays Ryder as an enigmatic force of nature. We are never told his backstory or find out why he’s doing this to Jim. These things aren’t important because the film exists entirely in the present. Even though Hauer doesn’t have all that much screen time, his presence dominates the film because when he does appear, he is so charismatic that you can’t take your eyes off him. Throughout it all, the actor gives Ryder a genial grin but it’s those eyes of his that tell a different story, one of madness. Unbeknownst to Hauer, during filming, Howell found him “frightening, intimidating, and that he was in a constant state of fear, almost as if he really was Jim Halsey and I really was John Ryder.” It certainly translates on the screen and makes the film better for it.

I always wondered if most of the film is a nightmare that Jim experiences and that his dream state starts when he nods off at the beginning of the film with Ryder as a grinning boogeyman, the 1980s answer to Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Ryder seems to magically appear just when Jim begins to feel a tiny bit safe. Interestingly, Jim also dreams while holed up in a jail cell and when he awakes it feels like he’s still dreaming, that none of what is happening is real. In retrospect, Hauer has said of his character, “To me he doesn’t exist. He’s just a ghost that comes out of the desert.” Another theory that has been put out there is that Jim is schizophrenic and that Ryder is actually a split personality with Jim, in reality, doing all of the killing. This is one of the things that elevates The Hitcher above your typical hack-and-slash horror film from the 1980s – it is open to interpretation because it refuses to provide in easy answers.

Director Robert Harmon certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension when required, like in the scene where Jim wakes up in a seemingly empty police station only to find everyone in it dead. The opening scene between Jim and Ryder also crackles with intensity as the psycho nonchalantly threatens the young man. Eric Red wrote the screenplay and this was the follow-up to the one he wrote for Near Dark (1987). Both films are set in desolate Texas landscapes with protagonists thrust into nightmarish worlds that they must try and escape from. Red has a real knack for exploring extreme behavior that offers glimpses into the darkest parts of our souls. For a film that has such a notorious reputation, people tend to forget that The Hitcher isn’t all that gory. Even its most shocking set piece largely happens off-screen but, much like with the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the use of sound and our imagination fills in everything else to horrifying effect.
When he was 20-years-old, New York City-based writer Eric Red made a short film entitled, “Gunman’s Blues” in the hopes of getting the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. When no offers came, he moved from New York to Austin, Texas in 1983, taking a drive-away car cross-country (just like Jim in the film). During the journey, Red had a lot of time to think and became inspired by The Doors song, “Riders on the Storm.” He found that the “elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film.” According to Hauer, Red had Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in mind when he wrote the part of John Ryder. Interestingly, the screenwriter also felt that the character should have an electronic voice box. For seven months, he drove a cab and wrote the screenplay for The Hitcher.

After it was completed, Red sent a letter to several Hollywood producers asking if he could send them a copy of his script for The Hitcher. His letter concluded: “It (the story) grabs you by the guts and does not let up and it does not let go. When you read it, you will not sleep for a week. When the movie is made, the country will not sleep for a week.” Script development executive David Bombyk received a copy of Red’s letter and was intrigued by the description of the film. Red sent him a script that ran approximately 190 pages in length (one page traditionally equals one minute of screen time). By all accounts, the original script was not for the faint of heart: an entire family was slaughtered in their station wagon; an eyeball was discovered inside a hamburger; a woman was tied to a truck and a pole and then torn in half; there was a decapitation, as well as several slashings, shootings and car crashes. A big fan of horror films, Red has said that his favorite scene in the script is when the woman is torn apart.

In its original form, Bombyk found the script to be “extremely brutal and extremely gory,” but he and personal manager Kip Ohman (who later became co-producers of the film) also saw in it “a level of challenge, intensity and poetry.” In addition, Ohman described the script as “a suspense Hitchcockian-type thriller.” Bombyk and Ohman were worried about getting it in good enough shape to show their bosses in order to prove to them that it was more than an exploitation film. Bombyk worked with Red via several long distance phone calls to Texas and eventually the writer moved to Los Angeles. Red agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to the powers that be. The two men spent six months reworking the script, removing most of what Ohman felt was repetitive violence.

Bombyk brought a revised, toned down version of the script to his boss, producer Eric Feldman and his partner Charles Meeker. Feldman had cut his teeth in the movie biz shepherding a diverse collection of films like Six Pack (1982), Hot Dog... the Movie (1984), Witness (1985), and Explorers (1985). They liked the script but wondered, “how could we manage to translate it to the screen without making a slasher movie?” Meeker said. Feldman and Meeker decided to come on board as executive producers. At this time, Bombyk had also given a copy of the revised script to David Madden, a production executive for 20th Century Fox. Within a few days, Madden called back and told them that the script was “terrific.” However, the studio wasn’t comfortable with the subject matter, but they felt that the writing was unique and interesting enough to give the producers a letter-of-intent to distribute The Hitcher. This would allow them to get financing and then once filming was completed, the studio would reimburse them for the budget.
The producers went looking for an inexpensive director. Still photographer-turned-cameraman Robert Harmon was given a copy of the script by his agent but thought it was just another script – that is, until he listened to a series of messages left by his agent on his answering machine encouraging him to read it. Harmon read the script and early the next morning called his agent and told him that he wanted to do it. In February 1984, the director met with the producers to talk about the project. He recalled, “Even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail.” The producers were impressed with Harmon and the fact that he also envisioned the film as a Hitchcockian thriller. However, he objected to the eyeball in the hamburger scene and never planned to show the poor girl getting ripped in half.

Fox ultimately rejected the project over the size of the budget and saw it as a “straight-out horror movie.” Madden also admitted that he would have “argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross.” Feldman and Meeker optioned the film themselves, paying Red $25,000. Major studios like Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers passed on it, as did smaller ones like Orion Pictures and New World Pictures. Reportedly, many executives liked the script but balked at the girl being ripped in half scene. At least two studios were willing to consider making The Hitcher but only if Harmon was replaced. However, to their credit, the producers had faith in the director and stuck by him.

Independent producer Donna Dubrow had heard about The Hitcher while working on another film and to her it sounded like “Duel with a person.” When she went on to work for Silver Screen Partners/Home Box Office, she contacted Feldman, a former employer, and asked for a copy of Red’s script. She submitted it to her boss, HBO senior vice-president Maurice Singer. He liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer. They needed his approval to get the film made. It would not be easy to convince him because it was not the kind of material that he liked. Sure enough, he passed on the project. However, Dubrow had to go back to New York on other business and met with Fuchs. She mentioned The Hitcher script and pitched the Hitchcockian thriller angle. He listened politely to her and that was that.

When Dubrow returned to L.A., Singer told her that Fuchs agreed to make the film but with the stipulation that the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would be reduced. Over the next few months, the filmmakers negotiated two key scenes in the script with studio executives: the girl getting ripped apart and the eyeball in the hamburger. For the latter scene, Harmon just changed the body part to a finger. As for the former, everyone at HBO/Silver Screen, except Dubrow, wanted it changed. Fuchs did not want the girl to die but Dubrow argued that this would change the story significantly. There were arguments about how she should die and Dubrow remembers, “they were trying to make her death not horrible, when – by the nature of the script – it had to be.” The studio even suggested softening her death by having a funeral. The filmmakers refused to back down and executives finally relented at the last minute.
While these discussions were going on, the producers began the casting process. In early drafts, John Ryder had been described as skeletal in nature and so actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Terence Stamp were mentioned. Harmon was set on casting Stamp and even carried around his picture to pitch meetings. The actor received a copy of the script but he turned down the role. Sam Elliott was offered the role but an agreement could not be reached on his salary. Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. While in L.A. for a short visit, he read the script. Even though he was looking for non-villainous roles, the script “really got ahold of me ... I thought, ‘If I do one more villain, I should do this.’ I couldn’t refuse it.” The one reservation he had was with the scene of the girl being ripped apart and Feldman told him, “You are the bad guy and you’ll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!”

For the role of Jim Halsey, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez (who, reportedly, was interested). They agreed on C. Thomas Howell and liked his look. At the time, the actor was being more selective with the roles he took and heard that the script was a generic thriller. Harmon personally gave Howell a copy of the script. The actor couldn’t put it down and “couldn’t believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it.” Howell also wanted to work with Hauer, fresh from a career-defining performance in Blade Runner. Jennifer Jason Leigh agreed to do the film because she also wanted to work with Hauer again (they co-starred in Flesh + Blood) and loved the character of Nash because “there was a real person there.”

The budget was set at $5.8 million and contractually, Tri-Star was obligated to distribute any film by HBO/Silver Screen. They saw an early screening and Tri-Star president David Matalon said, “It’s the best film that we have for 1986.” The Hitcher opened in 800 theaters and it performed poorly at the box office. To add insult to injury, it was also savaged by critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film no stars and wrote, “But on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It's very clear what sort of spine-tingling suspense Mr. Harmon is after, and just as clear that neither his direction nor Eric Red's screenplay can generate that kind of intensity.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “This is the kind of movie that may satisfy the mentally deficient, but it is more likely to drive away from moviegoing every unsuspecting adult who stumbles into it hoping for a decent thrill or two.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, "In the end, the only thing that does scare you about The Hitcher is its emptiness: not the emptiness of a desert road or a fear-soaked night, but a shriveling void in the people who made it." The one lone positive review came from Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll who called it “an odyssey of horror and suspense that’s as tightly wound as a garrote and as beautifully designed as a guillotine.”

In attempt at damage control, one of the film’s producers claimed that its commercial failure was because there wasn’t enough violence and that Nash’s death should have been shown: “There’s other gore in the movie, other killings, but this is the main one. It’s the motivation for the hero. You can’t show all the killings we showed and then not the main one. It’s cheating the audience.” He claimed that this hurt word-of-mouth and resulted in its dismal box office results.

In keeping with the current trend of remaking classic horror films that don’t need to be remade (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th), Michael Bay decided to give The Hitcher (2007) a go with music video director Dave Meyers behind the camera and television actress Sophia Bush in the C. Thomas Howell role along with fellow T.V. thespian Zachery Knighton in the Jennifer Jason Leigh role (sort of).
In this version, two college kids – Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachery Knighton) – are traveling through New Mexico on the way to Spring Break. Along the way they pick up a mysterious hitchhiker who calls himself John Ryder (Sean Bean) and this remake proceeds to follow the original’s plot quite faithfully. This new version hits a false note right from the opening shot as a cute bunny rabbit is unnecessarily run over by a car in a feeble attempt to quickly establish the film’s badass credibility. Instead, it comes across as a lame attempt that does not bode well for the rest of the film. From there, it quickly trots out the stereotypes, including the slack-jawed yokel cliché complete with lazy eye no less.

Sean Bean is fine as the psychotic killer but he lacks the casual menace of Rutger Hauer who could go from genial to intensely frightening at the drop of a dime. Bean’s take on Ryder is rather generic – he is just another monster that has to be destroyed. With Hauer’s performance, there was a certain twinkle in his eyes, a sly look and shark-like grin as if to suggest that Ryder was actually getting off on all of the carnage he was causing. It’s damn near impossible to improve on an iconic character such as this one and Bean doesn’t quite do it but certainly gets an A for effort. Sophia Bush and Zachery Knighton don’t fare nearly as well as the good-looking young couple but to be honest their characters could be played by anyone. It doesn’t help that they lack any kind of on-screen chemistry. They don’t do anything to make themselves distinctive and certainly don’t hold a candle to their original counterparts, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

To his credit, first-time feature film director Dave Meyers shoots the hell out of the film. It looks good and almost distracts you from the weak script and generic performances. Sadly, much of the ingenuity he demonstrates in some of his music video work is absent here except for a car chase that is scored to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. The same holds true for the scare tactics as Meyers eschews the original’s unrelenting terror for cheap jolts that we’ve seen in countless other, better movies.

This film proves yet again that producer Michael Bay has no understanding of the horror genre, merely offering up a clone of the original film. The Hitcher was a nasty little horror film that had no ambitions other than to scare the crap out of you and succeeded due in large part to Rutger Hauer’s creepy turn as a charismatic and seemingly unstoppable hitchhiker cum killer. The film was an exercise in white knuckle primal fear, charting a young man’s journey on the road trip from hell. What makes The Hitcher so scary is that it takes the plausible set-up of picking up a hitchhiker and then proceeds to take it to all kinds of unexpected places. The film plays on some pretty basic fears only to then heighten them to almost absurd levels as represented by the nearly superhuman Ryder who seems capable of anything. The original film’s stature has improved over the years, helped along by the unnecessary sequel and the instantly forgettable remake. All they do is remind one just how superior the original is – a timeless horror film featuring the ultimate boogeyman.

For more on The Hitcher, check out Sean Gill's fantastic review of the film over at his blog, Junta Juleil's Culture Shock where, last week, he dedicated entirely to Rutger Hauer!

Friday, April 23, 2010

DVD of the Week: The Missing Person

With an Academy Award nomination for his scene-stealing role in Revolutionary Road (2008), Michael Shannon’s career was given a considerable boost. For years, he’s plugged away in small roles in big films like Pearl Harbor (2001) and more substantial parts in independent films like Grand Theft Parsons (2003). He’s one of those character actors that can bring an extra special something to the table with his unconventional looks and quirky acting style, much like Steve Buscemi did in the 1990s. So, when Shannon gets the chance to headline a film, as he does with The Missing Person (2009), it is definitely worth a look.

“I coulda lied there forever, but the phone rang.” And with that bit of hard-boiled narration we are introduced to the world of private investigator John Rosow (Michael Shannon), a rumpled burn out cut from the same cloth as Elliott Gould’s gumshoe in The Long Goodbye (1973). Rosow is hired by an attorney over the phone to tail a man (Frank Wood) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train. Rosow may come across as a burn out but when it’s called for, he displays the necessary private eye skills: paying off a taxi cab driver to tail his target, pulling a fast one on the hotel clerk where the man is staying at, and listening in on the man’s room.
Rosow eventually finds out that there is much more to this mystery man than meets the eye and that there is much more to the job than he was initially led to believe. Halfway through the film, the story veers off in an unexpected direction that gives the film noir genre an interesting spin as we gain significant insight into both Rosow and the man he is following. Without giving too much away, we begin to realize that the film’s title applies not only to Rosow’s target but to the private eye himself.

Writer/director Noah Buschel makes good use of Michael Shannon’s world-weary face. Rosow seems to sport a permanent grimace as if every action were a painful chore. It doesn’t help that he appears to be a barely functioning alcoholic. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that he is haunted by memories of his past that come to him in his dreams. Through several flashbacks, Buschel hints at a happier time for Rosow when he was involved with a beautiful woman that was probably his wife. Shannon doesn’t overplay his character’s affectations but does make one aware of them by the way he carries himself and through body language.

Buschel has a good ear for snappy film noir dialogue, like when Rosow trades barbs with two FBI agents that are tailing him. It evokes a bygone era which juxtaposes rather nicely with the contemporary setting. For example, Rosow is approached by a dishy, femme fatale (Margaret Colin) type and asks her, “You’re not one of those gals that uses sex as a weapon, are ya?” to which she replies, “No. I don’t like violence.”
While Chicago is photographed by cinematographer Ryan Samul to look drab and drained of color, L.A. is sunny and vibrant so that Rosow, with his plain brown suit, looks out of place. Like Gould’s P.I. in The Long Goodbye, Rosow is a man out of time. He listens to music from the 1950s and dresses like a gumshoe from the 1940s which is rather fitting seeing as how Shannon looks like an actor who could’ve had a pretty good career appearing in film noirs from that era. Shannon is fascinating to watch and is an actor that makes interesting choices when it comes to a given scene. The world weary private eye genre has been done to death but Shannon, along with Buschel’s excellent writing, keeps us engaged for the entire running time of The Missing Person.

Special Features:

None.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The One You Might Have Saved Blogathon: Mulberry Street

More than two years ago, Arbogast over at his wonderful blog, Arbogast on Film, started a floating blog-a-thon entitled, “The One You Might Have Saved,” in which he asked bloggers to come forward with those doomed characters from horror movies whose plight or personality so moved the writer that he or she wished they had the power to breach the fourth wall of cinema and save that person from his or her tragic fate.” Well, he’s issued another call for some more contributions and I thought I’d offer my contribution to the cause.
One character that comes to mind is Casey (Kim Blair) from Mulberry Street (2006), a horror film about the spread of a deadly infection that occurs in New York City thanks to some funky mutated rats chomping on people, turning them into nasty, killer rat-like mutants. Casey is an Iraq War veteran that has finally come home after a tour of duty emotionally and physically scarred. I like how the film introduces her – she’s on a train heading home. She is sitting across from a woman who immediately takes one look at the scar on her face and judges her. Noticing the woman’s reaction, Casey self-consciously takes several locks of her hair and brushes them over her scar. This brief scene makes us instantly empathize with Casey and from there on in we are invested in her story. It is a credit to actress Kim Blair that we identify with her character so quickly and stay with her for the entire film. Unfortunately, she’s only done one other film since Mulberry Street which is too bad because I found her very interesting to watch.
Unfortunately, Casey’s happy reunion with her father, Clutch (Nick Damici), is cut short because of those pesky rat-people and pretty soon they are fighting for their very lives, not just on the streets of Manhattan, but finally at the tenement building on Mulberry Street where he lives. One of the tragedies of the film is that after everything Casey goes through, including seeing her father bitten by a rat-person and then kill himself by jumping to his death, she manages to survive the night along with a teenage boy named Otto (Javier Picayo) on the rooftop of the building only to be killed a la Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968) when a squad of hazmat suit-clad soldiers (evoking Romero’s The Crazies) mistake her for an infected rat-person and kill her. As if that wasn’t soul-crushing enough, the final image of the film implies that her father wasn’t dead yet and actually saw that his daughter had been killed as evident from a tear streaming down his face.
Whenever I watch this film I put myself in Otto’s place. Why didn’t the kid say something to these soldiers before they took poor Casey out? The girl was obviously too exhausted emotionally and physically to say something. If I had been him, I would have put myself in between her and the soldiers and told them that we weren’t infected. But no, the kid doesn’t say anything, she winds up dead and we are left with a very 1970s, nihilistic bummer of an ending.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spanglish

There are films for every moment in your life. On a Sunday afternoon after brunch and a stroll you don’t want to watch a Lars Von Trier film. Why is it that you can almost always find Terms of Endearment (1983) or As Good As It Gets (1997) on television on Sunday afternoons more than any other day? People want to spend a lazy weekend watching a James L. Brooks or a Woody Allen film because they offer a comforting vibe that is perfect for these times. Brooks is a curious sort of auteur. His cinematic output is quite small but distinctive. For someone who makes such popular crowd-pleasers, he remains largely anonymous. He is never mentioned in the same breath as other contemporaries like Woody Allen. Perhaps it is because Allen is influenced by Ingmar Bergman and other art house favorites while Brooks comes from a popular T.V. background. He is the rare auteur who listens to and uses audience test screenings to fine-tune his films. Sometimes this backfires on him as it did with a disastrous screening for his musical I’ll Do Anything (1994) that prompted Brooks to take out all the musical numbers. The result was a commercial and critical failure – a rarity for the filmmaker who has won three Academy Awards (a hat trick for Terms) and four additional nominations, including three out of his five films garnering Best Picture nods.

Brooks’ films exist in a strange place. They are not low-brow fare, like Adam Sandler’s raunchy comedies and they are not art house darlings like the Coen brothers films. Perhaps his lack of serious critical attention or cultish adulation from cineastes is a result of his background in mainstream T.V. and his popular sensibilities. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Spanglish (2004) in the Chicago Reader takes on a confused tone as he does not quite know what to make of Brooks’ films. Rosenbaum writes, “Sometimes Brooks’s ideas are legitimate, but his way of putting them across is dishonest. Sometimes the ideas are dishonest, but his way of putting them across is legitimate.” Judging from the countless interviews Brooks has given over the years it is obvious that he is all about conveying a truthfulness in his work. Obviously, a certain amount of emotional manipulation plays a part but Brooks is never dishonest about it. He is the rare Hollywood player with a conscience. Like one of his protégés, Cameron Crowe (he produced Say Anything... and Jerry Maguire), Brooks believes in the underdog protagonist who may not always succeed by the film’s conclusion but has taken the worst that life can dish out and keeps plugging away.

Spanglish seemed to fly right under the critical and commercial radar despite the presence of Adam Sandler. Perhaps it was the misleading trailers that pegged the film as some kind of goofy Sandler comedy. This could not be farther from the truth as the film’s story is told by a young Mexican girl named Christina (Shelbie Bruce) about her mother, Flor (Paz Vega) and their misadventures in America. Flor gets a job as a housekeeper (in true sitcom fashion we never actually see her do any housework) for the Clasky’s, an affluent family in Los Angeles. They spend a summer in Malibu and bring Flor and her daughter with them. This sets the stage for ensuing drama as John (Adam Sandler) and his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) drift farther apart while Christina becomes seduced by the Clasky’s lifestyle.
John Clasky was inspired by an unconventional figure from popular culture: Dagwood Bumstead of the long-running comic strip, Blondie. “Dagwood showed up every day, got knocked down, never got to eat his sandwich ... the kids and his wife were always giving him a hard time. [But] he showed up every day and did his deal,” said Brooks in an interview. There is a scene in Spanglish where John makes a sandwich (not quite as impressive as Dagwood’s but delicious looking nonetheless) and is unable to eat it because Flor confronts him about an issue with her daughter.

All of this may seem like a standard sitcom set-up, and it is, but Brooks handles this all with a deft touch, never making these characters too severe. They are quirky in a comic way but with their moments of seriousness. He plays around with archetypes in his films. There is the good character that embodies kindness and selflessness – Debra Winger’s sympathetic character in Terms of Endearment, Helen Hunt’s protective mom in As Good As It Gets and Sandler’s easy-going dad in Spanglish. There is the zany character: Jack Nicholson’s wily ex-astronaut in Terms, Cuba Gooding’s flamboyant agent in As Good and Cloris Leachman’s show business mother in Spanglish. Finally, there is the antagonist, an A-type personality who eventually shows some humanity: Shirley McLaine’s acerbic mother in Terms of Endearment, Albert Brooks’ smugly superior reporter in Broadcast News (1987) and Tea Leoni’s frantic mother in Spanglish.

Brooks’ films straddle the line between comedy, drama and romance but he describes them as comedies “because they won’t live unless we clock a certain number of laughs.” It is this T.V. sitcom aesthetic that often draws scorn from critics and endears him to mainstream audiences. Brooks has a knack for creating engaging, three-dimensional characters and some of the most insightful dialogue in any mainstream studio film. To be fair, his films wear their influences on their collective sleeves. With their melodrama mixed with manic, comic interludes, they feel like feature-length sitcoms, right down to the same cadences and rhythms.

What separates his films from other comedy/drama/romance hybrids is that they have a humanistic streak that is never preachy or sappy. There is a truthfulness to them that resonates. This is an important aspect for Brooks who believes that comedy should “reflect real life because to me it’s more reassuring that we’ll get through.” The characters in his films should face some of the same problems that we all do and in doing so we relate more to them on some level.

What separates Brooks’ films from other romantic comedies is their ability to go effortlessly from comedy to drama in the same scene. He did this most effectively in As Good As It Gets with Greg Kinnear’s character as he recovers after being savagely beaten. In Spanglish, there is a scene where Deborah buys her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) clothes that are too small, on purpose, in what she thinks is a subtle way of telling her child to lose weight. She does this in front of the entire family and Flor, humiliating Bernice. The girl is not fat; she’s just a normal kid. It is an uncomfortable scene and we hate Deborah for what she’s done and share John’s frustration. Brooks explores the cruelty that people are capable of but in subtle ways. In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson’s character has a myriad of prejudices but the script tempers them with humor and sensitivity.
Those expecting Spanglish to be a typical Sandler film will be disappointed. Brooks prolongs his first on-screen appearance for as long as possible and when it does happen it is done in a subtle, understated way with no fanfare. For the first half of the film, Sandler plays a supporting role, allowing the other actors room to do their thing and then in the last half he comes to the foreground as the drama between him and Leoni’s character comes to a boil. As brilliant as he was in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Sandler is even better in Spanglish, dropping most of his usual shtick by playing a nice, normal guy who loves his family. He hits all the right comedic beats but in a quiet, restrained way and ably handles the serious moments too.

Cloris Leachman is the surprise scene-stealer as Brooks gives the veteran actress some of the film’s funniest lines. She teaches her grandson Georgie (Ian Hayland) old jazz standards to get over his nightmares. Leachman also gets the film’s climactic speech, a valuable life lesson for Deborah. The one weak link in this impressive effort is Tea Leoni’s character. Why would a nice guy like John ever marry and stay with such an insensitive flake like Deborah? She treats her daughter like crap and is always condescending towards her. The film never answers this question in a meaningful or satisfying way. Leoni certainly has a gift for broad comedy, delivering one of the most enthusiastically awkward sex scenes in recent memory. The only problem is that her performance is constantly at a manic level. There are no nuances, just a shrill, one-note performance.

Spanglish received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “And yet the movie is not quite the sitcom the setup seems to suggest; there are some character quirks that make it intriguing.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “You're in for a treat with this sweetheart of a romantic comedy. Director James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets, Terms of Endearment) doesn't just write comedy, he crafts it. With his unerring eye for characters, even their hidden dark corners, Brooks makes Spanglish a rich blend of humor and heartbreak.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Thomson wrote, “And what a joy it is to see Leachman given room to maneuver. As Evelyn, she's a pistol, carrying that over-filled glass of wine in one hand, but never spilling or missing a comic beat.” USA Today’s Mike Clark wrote, “Sandler is the best he has ever been playing the best chef in Los Angeles”

However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Sandler has a solid, fumbling likability, without which Spanglish would be not merely annoying but despicable in its slick complacency.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “This is a deeply unpleasant movie masquerading as a heartfelt social commentary on life in these United States (or at least in the wealthy republic of Beverly Hills).” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Brooks creates rich, quirky roles—Cloris Leachman is a hoot as Leoni's alcoholic live-in mom—but the discrepancy between the sizzle of his writing and the flatness of his camera work has never been so noticeable. Spanglish feels hemmed in, visually monotonous.”
It is Flor’s relationship with her daughter that is the ideal image of parenting that Spanglish presents. She uses compassion and kindness but is firm when she has to be. It is this compassion that attracts John to her. They share the same values and views on marriage and parenting. Brooks understands people’s idiosyncrasies. There is always the danger of being too melodramatic or too cutesy. The screenplays of his films are well-balanced and insightful. They fly in the face of the current trend by giving characters a big speech. “The only reason it doesn’t happen so often is because, a lot of times, writers are re-written, and speeches aren’t gonna survive that. Writers having authority over their own work is not an everyday thing. Writers like speeches,” he said in an interview. All of the characters in Spanglish are well-spoken, which is rather ironic considering the language barrier between Flor and the Clasky’s plays an important role.

Ultimately, Brooks’ films are about tolerance and optimism in a time when our society is so cynical and jaded. His films happen in spite of the world outside. Very few mainstream American films deal with class differences and Spanglish tackles it head on as Flor and her daughter’s Mexican heritage clash with the Clasky’s upscale world. With Brooks due for a new film soon, it is high time for this underappreciated effort to be re-discovered and re-assessed. In a time when the Hollywood dramedy is rife with lousy writing and stock characters, we need Brooks’ films now more than ever.



Friday, April 16, 2010

DVD of the Week: Fantastic Mr. Fox

When it was announced that Wes Anderson would be adapting Roald Dahl’s short story Fantastic Mr. Fox, it came as something of a surprise. Up to that point, Anderson had only made films based on original material that he created himself or with a co-collaborator. With The Darjeeling Limited (2007), many felt that the auteur had reached a creative cul de sac. Not only would he be adapting someone one else’s work but he would be doing it via old school stop-motion animation – virtually unheard of in this day and age what with the proliferation of computer animation. This change of direction seems to have paid off for Anderson who has delivered his most satisfying film since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) used to steal birds but has reformed his ways and is now a newspaper man. He is getting old and tired of living in a foxhole. So, he consults with his real estate agent Stan Weasel (Wes Anderson). Before he takes the plunge, Mr. Fox talks with his lawyer Clive Badger, Esq. (Bill Murray) and ends up buying a treehouse so that he and his family can live in comfort. However, cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to visit and makes Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. Fox’s son, jealous with his athletic prowess. Meanwhile, in her spare time, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) paints portraits of thunderstorms.

Mr. Fox decides to pull one more job stealing birds to eat but this one is his most ambitious gig to date. With the help of his landlord Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), he plans to steal chickens from farmer Boggis, then the next night geese from farmer Bunce, and finally the following night he steals some of farmer Bean’s cider from his secret cellar. Understandably upset, the three farmers get together and plan to kill Mr. Fox. As a result, he and his family are on the run and hunted. They have to call in the favors of all their friends if they hope to evade the farmers’ wrath.

Anderson still has an uncanny knack for picking just the right song for a given scene. Early on, Mr. and Mrs. Fox playfully yet stealthily circumvent a farmer to steal one his birds all scored to the melodical strains of “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys. Later on, Anderson pulls out the obligatory Rolling Stones cue and scores a sequence to “Street Fighting Man.” There is something thrilling about seeing these vintage tracks pop up in an animated film – a genre that tends to rely on mainly orchestral music or more contemporary songs.

The stop-motion animation actually gives the film a personal, handcrafted feel that has been absent from Anderson’s recent work and harkens back to his first couple of efforts, which are the ones where most people first noticed and fell in love with his films. The animation is incredibly rendered and executed, reminiscent of the vintage Rankin and Bass cartoons that kids of Anderson’s generation (and beyond) grew up on. There is a tangible quality to the characters and their environment that is still missing from most computer animation.

As the Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) progresses, it becomes apparent what drew Anderson to this project. Thematically, it fits right in with his other films. Mr. Fox is a charismatic yet rebellious patriarch, much like Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums and Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Furthermore, the Fox family is a highly intelligent dysfunctional one much like the family in Tenenbaums. The casting is spot on with George Clooney and Meryl Streep playing Mr. and Mrs. Fox. They banter back and forth like a couple from an old screwball comedy. Anderson has not forgotten what the majority of animated films not made by Pixar seem to have – that the best of the genre appeal to both kids and adults. Fantastic Mr. Fox does not talk down to kids and also still manages to appeal to the Anderson faithful. This film is a delightful, entertaining adventure well worth experiencing.

Special Features:

“From to Script to Screen” briefly explores how Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach took Dahl’s short story and expanded on it, even creating characters but all done in the spirit of the source material. Anderson says that he approached the animated film as if it was a live-action one with collaborators commenting on how the director managed to infuse it with his distinctive style. To this end, he storyboarded the entire film and shot video of himself acting out the story so that the animators knew what he wanted.
“Still Life (Puppet Animation)” takes a look at the stop-motion animation process. It is very meticulous and time consuming but if done well, looks great. It’s amazing how the animators can get expressions and emotions out of these puppets.

“A Beginner’s Guide to Whack-Bat” is a humourous mock-featurette on how to play this bizarre sport within the film.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Reckless

For a film that wasn’t well-received commercially and critically when it came out in 1984, Reckless featured several prominent actors early on in their careers, chief among them Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah. They portray young adults living in a dead-end town that has been gutted by the rapid decline of its primary industry. Seen as something of A Rebel Without A Cause (1955) for the 1980s, Reckless features a rebellious protagonist desperate to get out of a town that he feels has nothing left to offer him. Like the similarly themed All the Right Moves (1983), Reckless was the gritty flipside to John Hughes’ wish fulfillment films. While most people think of the ‘80s as a prosperous time in America, films like this one and All the Right Moves remind us of the small towns devastated by the loss of their primary industry (and source of income) and having its workforce depleted through painful attrition. If Reckless is remembered at all, it’s for the breakout performances of Quinn and Hannah, or the fantastic soundtrack of New Wave gems by the likes of INXS and Romeo Void.

The opening shot is of smoke billowing out of a factory that pretty much sets the bleak tone for the film. Johnny Rourke (Aidan Quinn) and Tracey Prescott (Daryl Hannah) meet when they play a game of chicken on a deserted stretch of road – him on a motorcycle, she in a car with her boyfriend (Adam Baldwin) and girlfriends (among them is a young Jennifer Grey in her feature film debut). Her smile as they swerve out of each other’s ways hints at her attraction to this risk-taker. The factory is omnipresent, always lurking in the background. It’s visible in the window next to Rourke’s seat in a class he shares with Tracey at school. Later on, there’s a great shot of Rourke driving past the factory and it dwarfs him, looming large while he looks like an insignificant insect in comparison.

Rourke’s father (Kenneth McMillan) is an abusive drunk and his mother now married to his dad’s supervisor (Dan Hedaya) at the factory. Rourke’s home life is a mess and a pretty strong motivator for getting out of town. On the flip side, Tracey’s parents give her everything she wants so that she never wants to leave but ultimately realizes that this is not enough. Not anymore. She has the most to lose and her decision of whether to stay or go is the toughest one for anyone in the film to make.

Can I just say how cool the dance sequence is in Reckless? Fed up with the tepid elevator music playing at the school dance, Rourke puts in “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void and he and Tracey dance together with delirious wild abandon. As soon as that opening guitar riff starts up and then the drums kick in a few second later, I get goosebumps every time. The camera swirls around Rourke and Tracey, trying to keep up with their bodies, adding to the intoxicating nature of this scene. In some respects, Reckless was the east coast New Wave answer to Valley’s (1983) west coast vibe. There were only a few good New Wave songs to come out of the early ‘80s and this film seems to have most of them.
While the dance sequence features dizzying camera movements, director James Foley keeps the rest of the film pretty simple, refusing to draw attention to the camera, focusing instead on the characters. His direction enhances the story. The dialogue has a very authentic feel to it. These teenagers talk like people their age actually do and what I realized is that it’s not just that this dialogue sounds so real but that teen films nowadays don’t. They’re missing the frankness of Reckless, All the Right Moves and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). It’s even more astonishing to learn that Steven Spielberg protégée and future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay! What the hell happened to him after such an auspicious start?

Foley has had a frustratingly uneven career, starting off strong with this film and following it up with the much underrated drama At Close Range (1986) with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. However, he’s also helmed clunkers like Who’s That Girl? (1987) and Fear (1996). Regardless, he will get a free pass for life from me for Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Foley is one of those directors that are only as good as the material he’s given to work with and fortunately, in the case of Reckless, he had an excellent script as a foundation. Producers Edgar Scherick and Scott Rudin asked Foley to direct Reckless a year after meeting him on another project.

Principal photography began in November, 1982 in Weirton, West Virginia, the primary location for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). The production shot for 35 days in order to finish filming before the harsh winter weather was to set in. However, the cast and crew still experienced snow on the ground and cold temperatures right from the first day of shooting. For the visual look of the film, Foley and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus were inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch because they felt that his style symbolized the emotional turmoil of Rourke.

Another good musical cue is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, used when Rourke and Tracey break into their high school. The song kicks in as he tosses various student records in the air while dancing through the halls and then smashes the trophy case with a fire extinguisher. This leads to the film’s rather steamy seduction scene between Rourke and Tracey in the school pool, culminating in a scorching sex scene in the boiler room that raised a few eyebrows back in the day and still generates heat (no pun intended) today.
According to Quinn, Hannah had a difficult time with the sex scenes, claiming at the time that they weren’t in the script. Foley disagreed and he and the actress argued. The actor remembered that he and Hannah had a mercurial relationship and that they “really liked each other and were supportive of each other, and then we really, like, got under each other’s skin and couldn’t stand each other.” In other words, their off-camera relationship often mirrored their on-screen one.

Rourke has all the trappings of a rebel. He’s got the leather jacket, the motorcycle and the disdain for authority. Early on, Tracey’s boyfriend asks him, “Whatever happened to you, Rourke? You used to be normal,” to which he replies, “I grew out of it,” which sums up his rebellious nature rather nicely and echoes that famous exchange in The Wild One (1953): “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” Aidan Quinn has the brooding charisma thing down cold and brings an intensity to the role that is ideal for his angry-at-the-world character. That, coupled with his good looks, makes Rourke pretty irresistible to Tracey. Quinn conveys a lot of pain and angst in his character but manages to do so in a way that doesn’t come off as clichéd or forced.

A casting agent friend of Foley’s gave him a Polaroid of Quinn and immediately the director knew that the actor was perfect for the role of Rourke. Within 48 hours, the filmmakers managed to locate Quinn and flew him to Los Angeles for a screen test. The actor was so tired and nervous that when he read the first scene, he started laughing and couldn’t stop. Foley reviewed the footage the next day and realized that “even though he had given an excellent reading, the sequence of Aidan laughing revealed more about his personality and screen potential than anything we could have asked him to do.” After getting the role, Quinn was scared because he did not have any experience making films. As a result, he didn’t sleep for three weeks. He did enjoy making the film but was disappointed by the outcome of it and recalled being “naive enough to be somewhat public about it.” He even warned MGM not to send him out to do publicity because he “wasn’t too keen about it.”

All of Rourke’s rebellious qualities are very attractive to Tracey, a beautiful girl bored with her predictable life and relationship with an overbearing jock boyfriend. Compared to him, Rourke is dangerous and exciting. She’s a cheerleader dating the quarterback of the football team – could her life be any more of a cliché? It’s no wonder she finds herself drawn to Rourke – he represents an exciting break from her predictable life. There’s a nice scene where Tracey takes stock of her “perfect” life and it freaks her out. She’s sick of it, sick of doing what’s expected. She sees Rourke as a way to mix things up a little but doesn’t anticipate just how much her life will change as a result of their relationship. Daryl Hannah is quite good here as she conveys Tracey’s epiphany of sorts.
I have a feeling that a lot of crushes on Hannah were cultivated with this film thanks in large part to her lovely locks of flowing blond hair in a modified Farrah, full lips and gorgeous facial features. Hannah had a good run of films in ‘80s, starting with Blade Runner (1982), Splash (1984), which launched her into the mainstream, The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and Wall Street (1987). High profile roles for her dried up in the 1990s with the occasional interesting supporting role in something like Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998) or an independent film like Hi-Life (1998), and later a memorable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

Reckless really captures what it feels like to be a teenager with an intimacy in the way it deals with their problems. The film honestly examines the theme of how much does one let another person in? How much do you trust them? These are questions that teens universally wrestle with and are rarely addressed as honestly as this film does. While Rourke openly expresses how he feels at any given moment, Tracey is much more guarded with her true feelings and the film’s climactic moment comes when she finally realizes what she wants. It’s really a shame that Reckless was R rated because more teens should have had access to it but at least there is always home video (and a new DVD release thanks to the Warner Brothers Archives) as a way for people to rediscover this underappreciated film.

Also take a look at Ned Merrill's excellent post on this film over at his blog, Obscure One-Sheet and a fantastic post over at The Moviezzz Blog.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Twin Peaks Tribute Week: Some of My Favorite Images

Taking my cue from Jeremy's visual tribute over at his Moon in the Gutter blog, I thought I would post some of my favorite images from the show.






Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Twin Peaks Tribute Week: Twin Peaks Shuffle

 "And there's always music in the air..."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Twin Peaks Tribute Week: April 4 - April 10th, 2010

Twin Peaks holds a special place in my heart because it was responsible for getting me seriously into film. I had always enjoyed watching them but once I saw the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, directed by none other than David Lynch, I had to track down and watch everything else he had made. This led to Blue Velvet (1986) which immediately became my favorite film of all-time and made me realize, for the first time, that a film could be so much more than just entertainment. What struck me about Twin Peaks is that Lynch took a lot of the themes from Blue Velvet (evil hiding under the facade of small-town innocence, voyeurism, a woman in trouble, etc.) and brought them into mainstream television, changing the medium forever. The show began with the murder of Laura Palmer and explored the ramifications of this incident over 16 subsequent episodes. As a result, Twin Peaks demanded much more of the viewer than the average weekly drama. One could not simply watch the occasional episode and expect to understand what was going on. Many details and clues to who killed Laura were buried throughout the 17 episode story arc so that watching every one was crucial to following the narrative.

What Lynch and his collaborators did was create mini-movies that lasted just under an hour every week, drawing us into a strange and engaging world that nobody had ever seen before. The show debuted on April 8, 1990 with an estimated 35 million audience. ABC helped fuel a media blitzkrieg promoting the pilot episode as a television event and trumpeting the show as a hit with advanced praise from the critics. Twin Peaks became one of the first pop culture events of the 1990s. Intense interest around who killed Laura reached a fevered pitch with articles appearing in major periodicals like Time and Newsweek while Lynch made appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. Unfortunately, the quality of Twin Peaks declined rapidly after the Laura Palmer storyline achieved closure. The show was never able to regain momentum and the series was cancelled after its second season. For a brief while it became a pop culture phenomenon and marked one of Lynch’s most prolific periods of his artistic career where he managed to bring his unique worldview into the mainstream.

The show was kick-started by the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the beautiful teenage high school girl and homecoming queen found washed up on a beach, naked and wrapped in plastic. The outpouring of grief throughout the town is emotionally gut-wrenching as we see how news of her death affects her family, her friends, and even those who barely knew her. In some way, she touched everyone’s lives – good or bad. To save on money, Lynch intended to cast a local girl from Seattle "just to play a dead girl.” The local girl ended up being Sheryl Lee. "But no one – not Mark, me, anyone – had any idea that she could act, or that she was going to be so powerful just being dead," Lynch said in an interview. Indeed, the image of Lee wrapped in plastic became one of the show's most enduring and memorable images. And then, while Lynch shot the home movie that  Laura’s best friends James Hurley (James Marshall ) takes of Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Laura, he realized that Lee had something special. "She did do another scene – the video with Donna on the picnic – and it was that scene that did it." As a result, Lee became a semi-regular addition to the cast appearing in flashbacks as Laura and becoming a re-occurring character – Maddie, Laura's cousin who also becomes another victim of BOB (Frank Silva), the demonic presence from another dimension.
When another girl from her school, Ronette Polaski (Phoebe Augustine), is found wandering along a deserted stretch of railway tracks, beaten and raped, the FBI is called in to investigate. Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), an eccentric fellow who records his every thought and the minutest details into a tape recorder to his unseen assistant Diane. He meets with Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), a plain-spoken man who begins to feel a little like Dr. Watson to Cooper’s Sherlock Holmes. The FBI agent relies on his intuition and most intriguingly, his dreams to provide clues into the possible identity of the killer.

This culminates in a fantastic episode (directed by Lynch) where Cooper dreams of meeting Laura in an otherworldly dimension known as the Red Room where she whispers the killer’s identity into his ear while a backwards talking dwarf (Michael Anderson) dances to groovy jazz music. While making Eraserhead in 1971, sound designer Alan Splet taught Lynch how to say words phonetically backwards. Lynch planned to record some dialogue this way and then reverse it in a scene that was never shot. "When I got the Red Room idea this must have been coming back to me. Then the idea followed that the visual would all have to be done backwards as well." When this episode aired it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen on T.V. Lynch’s avant garde sensibilities were harnessed by co-creator Mark Frost’s sense of structure and storytelling and the result was some of the most compelling television as the nation became swept up in the mysteries of the show.

A producer at Warner Brothers wanted Lynch to direct a film on Marilyn Monroe based on the book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers. Lynch remembers that he was "sort of interested. I loved the idea of this woman in trouble, but I didn't know if I liked it being a real story.” Veteran television producer/writer Mark Frost was hired to write the screenplay. Lynch's agent at the time, Tony Krantz suggested that he work with Frost. Even though this project was dropped by the studio, Lynch and Frost became good friends and wrote a screenplay entitled, One Saliva Bubble with Steve Martin starring in it. However, this film was not made either.

Krantz had been trying to get Lynch to work on T.V. since Blue Velvet but the filmmaker was never really that interested in the idea. One day, they met at a Los Angeles restaurant and Krantz told Lynch that he should do a show “about real life in America – your vision of America the same way you demonstrated in Blue Velvet.” Lynch got an idea of a “small-town thing” but he and Frost were not too keen on it but decided to humor Krantz. Lynch remembers, "so one day Mark and I were talking at Du Pars, the coffee shop on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura, and, all of a sudden, Mark and I had this image of a body washing up on the shore of a lake." Frost wanted to tell “a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually.” Frost, Krantz and Lynch rented a screening room in Beverly Hills and screened Peyton Place (1957) as a source of inspiration for the kind of town they wanted to create.

They pitched the idea to ABC in a ten-minute meeting with the network's drama head, Chad Hoffman with nothing more than this image and a concept: "The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was the foreground, but this would recede slightly as you got to know the other people in the town and the problems they were having ... The project was to mix a police investigation with the ordinary lives of the characters," said Lynch. At the time, ABC was in last place among the T.V. networks and were looking for something that would get them out of the basement. ABC liked the idea and asked Lynch and Frost to write a screenplay for the pilot episode. Originally, the network didn’t think Twin Peaks would be made into a series and might run as a seven-hour mini-series that would appeal to college students.
The first thing Frost and Lynch did was draw a map of the town. According to Frost, “we knew the town had a lumber mill, but the specifics we weren’t sure of.” They talked about it for three months and then wrote the script in ten days. Frost wrote the more verbal characters like Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) while Lynch was responsible for Agent Cooper, writing most of his monologues. Originally, the show was entitled Northwest Passage and set in North Dakota, but the fact that a town called Twin Peaks really existed (much like Lumberton in Blue Velvet), prompted a revision in the script. Frost and Lynch went on a location scout to Washington state and a friend of Frost’s recommended Snoqualmie Falls. They drove there and found all of the things they had written about in the pilot. ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stoddard ordered the two-hour pilot for a possible fall 1989 series. He soon left the position in March 1989 as Lynch went into production. The director shot the pilot on location near Seattle in 24 days and on a budget of $4 million (subsequent episodes averaged $1 million and took a week each to shoot). Robert A. Iger and his creative team took over, saw dailies and met with Frost and Lynch to get the “arc” of the stories and characters. Iger saw a rough cut of the pilot by late May and ordered seven episodes.

However, even though Iger liked the pilot, he had a tough time persuading the rest of the network brass. "I was baffled by it," admitted then ABC president Mark Mandala, "but we were all 50-plus white males." Iger suggested showing it to a more diverse, younger group. "Unanimously, they loved it," Mandala remembers. Some executives figured that the show would never get on the air. However, Iger planned to schedule it for the spring. The final showdown occurred during a bi-coastal conference call between Iger and a room full of New York executives – Iger won and Twin Peaks was on the air.

Frost and Lynch wanted to create a timeless quality and achieved this by mixing styles from several different eras. Lynch said, “this started happening on Twin Peaks when we were shooting in the school which was built in the fifties. Something from the era just started floating around in the present day and influenced a lot of things that took place on the set.” Surprisingly, Lynch encountered very little interference from the network. Standards-and-practices only had a problem with one scene from the first season: an extreme close-up in the pilot of Cooper’s hand as he slides tweezers under Laura’s fingernail and removes a tiny “R.” They wanted the scene to be shorter because it made them uncomfortable but Frost and Lynch refused and the scene remained.
Before the pilot episode premiered on T.V., a screening was held at the Museum of Broadcasting in Hollywood. Media analyst and advertising executive Paul Schulman said, “I don’t think it has a chance of succeeding. It is not commercial, it is radically different from  what we as viewers are accustomed to seeing, there’s no one in the show to root for.” The two-hour pilot was the highest-rated film for the 1989-1990 season. Initial episodes were well-received by T.V. critics. The Washington Post’s Tom Shale wrote, “Twin Peaks isn’t just a visit to another town. It’s a visit to another planet. Maybe it will go down in history as a brief and brave experiment.” In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, “Twin Peaks is not a sendup of the form. Mr. Lynch clearly savors the standard ingredients ... but then the director adds his own peculiar touches, small passing details that suddenly, and often hilariously, thrust the commonplace out of kilter.” Entertainment Weekly gave the show an "A+" rating and Ken Tucker wrote, "Plot is irrelevant; moments are everything. Lynch and Frost have mastered a way to make a weekly series endlessly interesting." Time magazine said that it, "may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

What makes the first season so strong is the strength of Frost and Lynch’s vision for the show. They hand-picked every director and writer for the episodes they didn’t do themselves and this resulted in a solid consistency. Many of them were directors that Lynch had known from his days at the American Film Institute (i.e. Caleb Deschanel and Tim Hunter) or referrals from someone he knew. Lynch and Frost maintained tight control over the first season, handpicking all the directors. "They have a script and they chat with one or both of us and away they go. And then I'd see their shows at the sound mix. If something was completely wrong there would be time to fix it. But I can't even say that that ever happened," Frost said in an interview. After directing the second episode, Lynch went off to complete Wild at Heart (1990) while Frost wrote the remaining segments. The Lynch-directed pilot episode was the series blueprint in terms of style and tone that everyone else adhered to. It’s not surprising that the weakest episodes are the ones that diverge too far from this template.

One can’t talk about Twin Peaks without mentioning the unforgettable music by Angelo Badalamenti. He had worked previously with Lynch on Blue Velvet and really stepped it up on the show to provide rich, atmospheric music that enhanced every scene it was used. The music is so distinctive that is almost another character on the show. Who can forget the haunting theme for Laura Palmer or the jazzy score for the Red Room? And, of course, there is the show’s theme song that is instantly recognizable. Every time I hear the opening strains, it gets me every time. In the fall of 1989, Badalamenti and Lynch created the score. Lynch would often describe the mood or emotion he wanted the music to evoke and then Badalamenti would begin to play the piano. In 20 minutes, they produced the signature theme for the series. Badalamenti called it the “Love Theme from Twin Peaks.” Lynch told him, “you just wrote 75% of the score. It’s the mood of the whole piece. It is Twin Peaks.” Truer words were never spoken.
The show featured a fantastic cast of actors that ranged from Lynch regulars like Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Blue Velvet) and Jack Nance (Eraserhead, Dune, Blue Velvet), to Hollywood veterans like Piper Laurie (The Hustler) and Richard Beymer (West Side Story), to newcomers like Sherilyn Fenn (Two-Moon Junction) and Madchen Amick. They inhabit their eccentric characters so well and really make you care about them, like the pure of heart Agent Cooper, or hate them, like the wife-beating truck driver Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re). While these characters are either on the side of good or evil, they have plenty of layers (and secrets) that are fleshed out over the course of two seasons.

The problem with the second season is that after the murder of Laura was solved, the show lost its way for a spell as the writers struggled to create a storyline just as compelling. This is evident in brooding teenager James Hurley’s clunky film noir storyline or Nadine’s (Wendy Robie) bizarro regression to her teenage years albeit with a steady supply of adrenaline. Cooper even started wearing flannel shirts – a flagrant betrayal of the spirit of his character and symptomatic of how the show faltered with the absence of Frost and Lynch’s guiding influence. Twin Peaks improved significantly once Cooper’s ex-partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) arrived in town to play a deadly game of cat and mouse (and an actual game of chess) with Cooper that builds to an unforgettable final episode that infuriated many viewers but remains one of the most exciting and unpredictable swan songs for a series in television history.

Several problems plagued Twin Peaks that became readily apparent during the second season. There were the restrictions of the medium of T.V. According to Lynch, "the power of most movies is in the bigness of the image and the sound and the romance. On TV the sound suffers and the impact suffers." The network was also an issue for Lynch who said, “there were a lot of good people at ABC, but I really still got the feeling that what motivated their decisions had nothing to do with the show. And that's where I think they go wrong. The show is the least important part of their plan." The change from Thursday to Saturday night really hurt the show by diminishing its viewer audience. Lynch said, “I don't think the TV executives are as loyal to any one show as they are to an overall thing against the other networks. There's no way I can talk about what they did because it made zero sense to me. All I know is that they killed it by changing nights and then forcing the solving of 'who killed Laura Palmer.'"
As a result in the change from one day of the week to another, they lost a large chunk of their audience. "It's nice when people like something that you've done but it's sort of like love that seems inevitable that the people reach the point when they've had enough of you, and they fall for the next thing. You're helpless to control that process and awareness of it is like a dull ache,” Lynch said in an interview. There was also the public's desire to know who killed Laura Palmer. "And one thing led to another, and the pressure was just so great that the murder mystery couldn't be just a background thing any more." Once the murder was solved, the show lost its focus and struggled through several sub-plots and declining ratings. Lynch also didn’t like what happened to Agent Cooper over the second season: "Cooper ceased to be 100 per cent Cooperesque for me. He got these flannel shirts and stuff! Some people maybe liked it. So you say, ‘Yes, I'm glad in a way, and in another way I'm really sorry because a guy that's too much like me cannot sustain that intense interest or dream.’ He's got to be specific. Cooper is a certain way. It's necessary."

During the course of the second season Lynch and Frost had a falling out. While they worked closely together during the first season of the show, when Lynch went off to do Wild at Heart, Frost says that, "David left me alone." Frost elaborates further in an interview: "When he [Lynch] got on the set, very often he threw out the script – which didn't please me all that much. But he would go off and do his own thing. He wasn't showing up all that often. He'd come in and direct an episode every once in a while. He wasn't really involved with the scripts. Then he'd go off on his own thing and leave us hanging." Clearly, Frost did not like or approve of Lynch's methods on the set but it is abundantly clear that Frost has his own agenda. In a 1991 interview, he said that he and Lynch worked closely on the first seven episodes but in a Wrapped in Plastic interview he says, "David's not really a writer by nature. He's a wonderful director and a great visual stylist, and he can write in collaboration with somebody. But it's good if the person he's working with has a strong sense of narrative and story, because those honestly aren't David's strengths." It seems that Frost was quite resentful of the amount of attention Lynch received about the show, while he did not get nearly the amount of press or recognition for his contribution.

Looking back, Frost wished they had “worked out a smooth transition” and that the Laura Palmer storyline was a “tough act to follow.” In regards to the second season, Frost felt that “perhaps the storytelling wasn’t quite as taut or as fraught with emotion.” At its best, Twin Peaks surpassed the safe confines of generic T.V. The first appearance of the Black Lodge, an otherworldly dimension populated by cryptic supernatural figures, in the third episode is a prime example of when the series defied genre categorization. Agent Cooper has a dream where he finds himself in the Red Room, a place within the Lodge populated with backwards-talking dwarves, op-art floor design, and distorted spatial relationships. Lynch described the Black Lodge as a place where "there is no problem with time. And anything can happen. It's a free zone, completely unpredictable and therefore pretty exciting but also scary.” Cooper's dream is a brilliantly constructed sequence that echoes Lynch's experimental debut feature film, Eraserhead (1977).
Lynch went one step further when he revisited the Black Lodge in the final episode of the show. At this point, Twin Peaks was on the verge of cancellation. Lynch had returned from working on other projects and was surprised at what had happened to the show. Instead of only offering a tantalizing glimpse of the Black Lodge, as he did in episode three, he adopted a go-for-broke attitude by re-writing the script as he shot the episode and proceeded to set almost half of the show in this environment. As Agent Cooper wandered through various rooms searching for his true love, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), the conventions of generic T.V. disappeared. Cooper's actions followed a dream logic that seems confusing at first, but makes sense if you remember what was said about this place in previous episodes. The final result is a wonderfully surreal exercise as Lynch regained creative control to end the series with a shocking conclusion – good does not triumph over evil as Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge while BOB takes possession of his body in the real world. Lynch brings Twin Peaks full circle by thumbing his nose at convention and once again subverting our expectations.

Twin Peaks paved the way for quirky, unusual fare like Northern Exposure, American Gothic, The X Files in the ‘90s and continues to do so with shows like Wonderfalls and Lost. It has been 20 years since the pilot episode aired on T.V. and the show has lost none of its power or ability to enthrall with its intriguing mysteries and engaging characters. Lynch and Frost’s show broke through and proved that challenging, cinematic, serialized T.V. could find a mainstream audience if even for only a brief time.


For more Twin Peaks, check out the Twin Peaks Archive blog which is also celebrating the show's 20th anniversary. Jeremy Richey also paid tribute to the show at his wonderful Moon in the Gutter blog. There's also the episode guide blog, props blog, and exhaustive In Twin Peaks site. Joining the fun is Edward Copeland's in-depth look back at the show over at his blog and Christine Hadden's excellent celebration of the show over at her Fascination with Fear blog.