Friday, April 24, 2009

I Guess I Need to Talk about Star Trek

No doubt you've heard the news.

I mean, the early reviews are everywhere!

Star Trek - the franchise-reboot film from director J.J. Abrams - is good. Real good.

OK, my hopes are now definitely up. My expectations are very high. And when that happens there isn't usually a good pay-off.

I'm a big fan of classic Star Trek--the original Enterprise, Kirk, Spock, etc. I love the original series and the films (Star Trek V, excepted). But I have always been leery of a prequel film, one that goes back to show us the early years of the characters we know so well. I have no doubt that Abrams' new movie is slick and exciting and contains edge-of-your seat thrills. I have no doubt that we will have two hours of great fun, that we will get our money's worth. I just hope we also get Star Trek.

What do we need?

  1. A good science fiction story. There has to be some high-concept idea at play--not just a plot featuring a villain who attacks the Federation and tries to kill Kirk. Good Star Trek always has a sense-of-wonder. Even the much-maligned Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a solid SF tale at its core.
  2. A depth of character. The early promotions feature a hot-headed Kirk and a stuck-up Spock. OK, fine, these characters need to start somewhere and we want to see them grow and change. But Kirk has to be smart and Spock has to feel. And they have to become true friends--characters who come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other. (Alright, that may be too much for one short film, but there has to be some element of this at play.)
  3. A mission statement. That's right, a mission statement! Right from the start, Star Trek told us what is was about: "To explore strange new worlds . . . to boldly go where no man has gone before!" That is the essence of Star Trek--to see what is beyond the horizon, to embark on a journey of discovery in a galaxy full of wonder and risk. I fear that the new film may forget this critical aspect of Star Trek, that it may be too concerned with a good-versus-evil plot and therefore become too . . . earthbound. It appears that the threat in the film comes at Kirk as he is thrust into events beyond his control. This is typically the way Star Trek films work. Even the great Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan followed this pattern: Kirk was pulled into a conflict he did not go looking for. In fact, after the first film (which closely followed the promise of the original series) the Star Trek movies became more about heroics than about exploration. The crew was always "saving the day" rather than seeking out new worlds. OK, films are different from television. The Star Trek mission statement described the series as a whole, not necessarily each individual episode. Still, I long for a return to the promise of Star Trek: the wonder of exploration and the thrills that came with it.
I'm sure I will like the new film. After all, I've never seen so many rave reviews, even from die-hard fans of Star Trek. But I am worried that a really good, fast-paced action film will be mistaken for good Star Trek.

I will be expecting a lot from the movie. And I will bring with me my checklist of "What makes Star Trek, Star Trek."

Expect to hear back from me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Judy, Judy, Judy

(NOTE: This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Wrapped In Plastic 75)

In Fire Walk With Me, long lost FBI agent, Phillip Jeffries, says, "Well now, I'm not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we're not gonna talk about Judy at all. We're gonna keep her out of it."

Who is this mysterious person that Jeffries mentions? Is Judy important or is she some piece of nonsensical fluff thrown into the film by David Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels? Can her identity be gleaned from clues in the film, script, or series?

The answer to the last question is: Yes. But here's the catch; Judy has a different identity depending on which version of FWWM you examine. Judy is a character (or an idea) that changed as FWWM evolved through scripting, shooting and editing.

The Judy of Twin Peaks

The most popular theory about Judy is that she represents another missing or murdered victim like Teresa Banks or Laura Palmer. She fits into a cyclical pattern suggested by the film and series – a girl (Laura, Teresa, Judy) is killed; an FBI agent (Cooper, Chet Desmond, Phillip Jeffries) is assigned to find the killer. The case is never completely solved because the agent ends up missing (or in Cooper's case, severely compromised).

Fire Walk With Me describes Phillip Jeffries as "long lost," suggesting Jeffries "disappeared" while on some assignment. The film also features the disappearance of FBI agent Chet Desmond who has been investigating the murder of Teresa Banks. We know from the series that at least part of Cooper will disappear after he solves the Laura Palmer case. (Cooper's "good self" will be trapped in the Black Lodge.) So the pattern is compelling: three agents disappear while on assignment; two obviously investigating the death of a young woman. Connect the dots and surely one can assume that the third missing agent (Jeffries) was also investigating the death of a young woman, in this case, Judy.

It's a great theory. It fits nicely with the facts established in the series and (apparently) in the film. It's a clean and precise way of tidying up an annoying loose end. And it provides more relevance for the presence of Phillip Jeffries in the story. What it does not do, however, is explain why—at two hours, eight minutes and 21 seconds into the film—an image of a monkey appears on screen and clearly says the word, "Judy." This very deliberate scene suggests something else entirely about Judy. But what?

The Judy of the Scripts

The monkey does not appear in either the pre-release or final draft of the FWWM script. However, the name, "Judy" does. In fact, the various scripts provide some tantalizing clues about who Judy could be.

In an early draft (dated July 3rd, 1991) Phillip Jeffries first appears in a Buenos Aires hotel where the head clerk hands him a note from a "young lady." Soon after, Jeffries appears in Cole's office in Philadelphia where he tells the assembled agents he's "not gonna talk about Judy." Jeffries says, "I want to tell you everything, but I don't have a lot to go on. But I'll tell you one thing: Judy is positive about this." Then Jeffries drops a fascinating detail: "Her sister's there, too. At least part of her."

This early draft of the script provides strong evidence that Judy was a living person whose note to Jeffries compelled him to go to Philadelphia to tell Cole, "everything." (After all, "Judy is positive about this.") This script also introduces a second mysterious person to identify – Judy's sister. It is possible that this sister may be Josie Packard who "died" in the TV series but whose spirit seemed to live on in the walls (and drawers) of the Great Northern hotel. Robert Engels attempted to clarify some of these early draft mysteries in an interview that appeared in Wrapped In Plastic 58: "The thing behind Judy has to do with where David Bowie [Phillip Jeffries] came from …. He was down there [Buenos Aires], and that's where Judy is. I think Joan Chen [Josie] is there, and I think Windom Earle is there. It's this idea that there are these portals around the world, and Phillip Jeffries had one hell of a trip to Buenos Aires and back! He really doesn't want to talk about Judy because that reminds him of whatever happened to him." When asked if Josie, therefore, could be Judy's sister, Engels replied, "Yes. Yes, I think that is true."

But when Lynch and Engels revised the script for the shooting draft (dated August 8th 1991), they altered aspects of Judy's identity. In the later draft Jeffries still receives a note from the head clerk (who says a young lady left it) and Jeffries also tells Cole that "Judy is positive about this." But he makes no reference to Judy's sister. Instead, he says he "found something in Seattle at Judy's." This line now links Judy to Teresa Banks and Laura Palmer—all three women lived in Washington State. It also suggests that Judy could have had some interaction with the Lodge residents (particularly Bob) who exist in the Pacific Northwest (where they physically manifest themselves).

So we know that Judy could be related to Josie. She could be alive and in Buenos Aires—or she could be dead and from Seattle. But none of this matters because all evidence about Buenos Aires and Seattle and Josie was deleted from the final version of FWWM. All we know for certain is that Phillip Jeffries mentions Judy and 100 minutes later so does the monkey.

So we are back to the question: Who is Judy and why does the monkey say her name?

The Judy of Fire Walk With Me

David Lynch and Robert Engels originally envisioned "a whole other set of mythology" to include in FWWM. Judy and her sister were products of that mythology. But this mythology had to be abandoned when Lynch realized that the additional backstory was too burdensome for one film. As a result, he likely deleted most references to Judy during editing. But Lynch may have been stuck with one reference to Judy he could not easily remove.

Jeffries makes a dramatic entrance into Cole's office and his very first line is the one about Judy ("I'm not gonna talk about Judy"). It's a great line, wonderfully delivered by David Bowie. What's more, it establishes a detached and incoherent feel to Jeffries and it reinforces his other-worldly nature. The line is also a part of one long continuous take in which Jeffries enters the office and confronts the agents. As such, there was no way for Lynch to remove the line without disrupting Jeffries' introduction to the scene. In other words, given the construction of the scene it would have been impossible for Lynch to bring Jeffries into the office, establish his physical position in relation to the other characters, and also delete the line. To do so, Lynch would have had to re-shoot the scene, an unlikely endeavor given the time and money it would to take to re-assemble the actors and re-establish the set.

So Lynch was stuck with a line about Judy. But because the original and complex identity of Judy (Josie's sister or first murder victim) was now abandoned, Lynch had to provide a new identity for the mysterious Judy, especially since he was trying to make FWWM a stand-alone film.

And that's just what David Lynch did; he found another persona to attach to the name. That persona was Laura Palmer.

Lynch reintroduces "Judy" to the film after Laura Palmer has been killed. He deliberately places a close-up shot of a monkey uttering the word, "Judy," just before he cuts to another close-up of the dead Laura. This simple edit obviously establishes a connection between the name and the character: "Judy" is said/Laura is shown.

So, OK, if Judy is Laura, what's it all mean? I admit there is no easy – or exclusive – answer to this question. Any interpretation is subjective, any "solution" dependent upon the predilections and analytic approaches of the observer. The short and simple answer is that Laura Palmer was a convenient candidate to become "Judy." Lynch needed to provide some identity and who better than Laura?

Of course, we expect that, in Lynch's mind, there is some deeper meaning – some substantive connection – between Laura and Judy. Perhaps in a self-contained, "stand-alone" FWWM the mysterious Judy simply becomes a "code word" for Laura, a symbolic representation of the idea of Laura Palmer.

Names and identities have always been fluid concepts in Lynch's work; any study of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive shows this to be the case. Perhaps Judy functions as a "secret name" for Laura, one that empowers her or someone else. David Lynch's lyrics to the song, "Floating," from Julee Cruise's 1990 album, Floating Into the Night, contains the intriguing lines: "When you told your secret name/ I burst in flame and burn." This line echoes Laura's comments to Donna about falling in space: "For a long time you wouldn't feel anything. Then you would burst into fire … forever." Are secret names words of power? Do they tap into an energy that is unfathomable in "reality?" Lynch's investigation into the slippery nature of names and identity hints at these provocative themes.

But let's be careful. Assigning meaning to Lynch films is always a tricky proposition and nowhere is that more true than with FWWM. The film was continually evolving through scripting, shooting and editing. The purpose of characters, scenes and dialogue changed as Lynch sought to create a consistent, cohesive work that transcended the trappings of the televised series. Lynch resisted committing to any specific backstory and was open to changing and redirecting the story material as the process continued. Robert Engels explained that the story behind FWWM was never concrete: "It was free-form – David would start to look at something and say, 'I think it is more interesting to go this way.'"

So with that in mind, Judy could be anything or anybody: A living being, an unknown victim—or Laura Palmer. Or maybe she is nothing more than the original inspiration to Robert Engels when he wrote the script: "Judy – the name is from my sister-in-law. I think that's where it came from."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Just Wondering: When is Cult Art?

I was paging through the short movie reviews in The New Yorker and decided to read their brief comments about Watchmen. I already knew they hated the film but I read it anyway. A line in the review caught my attention: "Alan Moore's graphic novel [is] something of a cult among devotees, which means that, like all cults, . . . it has escaped critical rigor."

That line got me wondering about all sorts of things.

First, what does "cult among devotees" mean? Doesn't a cult imply a loyal following (i.e., devotees)? I suppose you can be a devotee of something that does not have cult status: A devotee of ER or 60 Minutes or Superman or Walt Disney animation. Do these things transcend cult? Are they big enough and so well-known that the terms of "cult" do not apply?

Some things inspire cult followings and, in turn, become "cult objects." But if something is cult has it really escaped critical rigor? Does such a designation provide immunity from critical study? Or have cult shows (and comics and movies) been overlooked or ignored by the critical community?

The implication in The New Yorker piece is that a cult object won't hold up to a thorough vetting, won't last under the exacting scrutiny of academic analysis. But just because something has escaped critical rigor does not mean it can't withstand it.

Just wait and see if Watchmen doesn't generate its own body of critical study. It has happened before. I would argue that Moby Dick was once a cult object. So were movies like The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane. More recently, we have David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or David Lynch's Eraserhead. These are now revered works of art. They are also cult objects that have thrived under critical examination.

And if a work can go from cult to art, how about from art to cult? Could there be classic works that have achieved a new kind of cult status because they are so revered? Tell me there aren't Hamlet geeks (err, devotees) out there. Or people who are way over-the-top for Joyce's Ulysess or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Hmm, feels like a circle is closing. Too much critical rigor and you're a cult all over again. Nice!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Beautiful Dark Chapter 7: Wild At Heart

I didn't expect to like Greg Olson's chapter on David Lynch's Wild At Heart. I didn't expect to like it because I do not like Wild At Heart. It is my least favorite David Lynch film (for reasons I will discuss below). So I was dreading reading this chapter, expecting to find myself at odds with Olson, forced to explain why I think the film is unsatisfying while he praises it as an artistic success. But now, after reading this latest chapter from Beautiful Dark, I do not find myself in this position. Olson does praise the film. He finds much merit in Wild At Heart. He casts a perceptive eye on the work and provides a valuable discussion of the film's themes and Lynch's over-all approach to his material. I cannot argue with such a lucid and respectful approach to any work, especially one by David Lynch. In short, Olson has written another fascinating and valuable analysis of a Lynch film.

Like any good film criticism (and like all of Beautiful Dark's chapters so far), Olson analysis made me want to go back and watch parts of Wild At Heart. I re-watched much of the film and found that, despite Olson's keen observations, I still don't like it. Though Olson shows that there is a psychological complexity to Lula and Sailor, the film's protagonists, they are, to me, less compelling than most Lynch characters. Wild At Heart is about two people reacting to the insanity and excesses of the world around them. Through Lula and Sailor Lynch wants to show that the world is, indeed, "wild at heart and weird on top." It is full of violence and unfairness and uncertainty. In order to stay grounded and safe in such a crazy, brutal world, Sailor and Lula seek comfort and security from each other. It is their relationship and their connectedness—rather than their individual relationship to the world—that is central to Wild At Heart. This is what makes the movie different from other Lynch works where conflict is typically found inside a main character who must cope with psychological imbalance or emotional insecurity.

These individual conflicts are not absent from Wild At Heart; Lula in particular struggles with her own denials and perceptions of self. As Lynch told David Breskin in the book, Inner Views, "Lula plays tricks on herself, like we all do. She blocks out many parts of reality so she can still continue to be Lula" (p. 86). (I've written in Wrapped In Plastic that Lula is very much like Laura Palmer in that she creates mental barriers against difficult truths in order to stay sane.) But these internal struggles do not occupy the foreground of Wild At Heart. The relationship between Lula and Sailor takes that spot. As Greg Olson points out, it is through this relationship that Lynch explores a violent and crazy world: "Lynch felt an out of control craziness in the American air . . . ." (p. 307.) and "saw Wild At Heart as a chance to express his concern for the health of his cherished country and his belief in the saving grace of human connection" (p. 309).

And so Wild At Heart is about two people who together encounter an extreme, bizarre and seedy American landscape. Lynch's desire to explore the craziness in America gives him license to fully depict the grotesque, the repulsive and the ultra-violent. It is this aspect of Wild At Heart that turns me off. Lynch goes to great lengths to show extremity everywhere and in everyone. Wild At Heart features out-of-control fires, car wrecks, brutal murders, rape, torture, sadism and insanity. Lynch turns an unflinching eye on all of this (in fact, as Olson points out, Lynch's original cut was so extreme that the director knew he had to make edits for fear of making his film too repulsive). All of the insanity in Wild At Heart is happening outside of Sailor and Lula's control. The only way to cope with it is for the couple to stay true to one another, to let their love give them shelter. I find this a rather simplistic theme. What's more, a viewer has to go through a lot of messy excess just to get this easy message. In the end, Wild At Heart turns out to be less relevant and less thought-provoking than what we expect from David Lynch. As Craig Miller wrote in Wrapped In Plastic 74:

There is an unusual distance between the viewer and the main characters [and so] we do not feel their passion for each other. Neither [do] we feel the violence. These elements just lie on the screen, shiny and pretty . . . . If we're not supposed to feel the passion and the violence how are we supposed to respond? The film is not an analytical dissection of violence--say, the problems Lynch saw in America at the time--or a treatise on finding love in a crazy world. In short, there's nothing much to think about in Wild At Heart. (WIP 74, p. 10)

Fortunately, Greg Olson gave me more to think about than I expected. He provides and important look at Lynch's motivations for making the film and his examination of Lula shows that there may be more at work in Wild At Heart than first appears. I ended up enjoying Olson's chapter on Wild At Heart far more than I did the movie, itself. It was a far more cerebral experience and certainly more comfortable. Despite Olson's good analysis I still maintain that the film has less to offer than any other Lynch film. I do not feel challenged by Wild At Heart and I certainly don't feel moved by it. And that seems an odd reaction to a David Lynch film, don't you think?