Friday, December 16, 2016

Jedi Walk With Me

In 1981, George Lucas approached David Lynch about directing the third Star Wars film in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi (aka Episode VI). According to the book, David Lynch, by Michael Chion, Lynch refused the offer for various reasons, including the fact that he acknowledged Jedi would “not have been his film but, in a large part, [George] Lucas’s.”

The mind boggles at what a Lynch-directed Return of the Jedi might have looked like. The closest we can come to imagining such a film is to look at Dune—Lynch’s one true science fiction film (and, ironically, one based on another man’s vision—that of Dune author, Frank Herbert). The 1984 film was a commercial and critical failure. But although Dune was not a success, it was (and still is) a good example of Lynch’s visual imagination and directorial skill, even though he was working within the strict confines of studio control.

So, what could one expect from Lynch’s Star Wars if he had had some directorial freedom? For one thing, the film would have been slower. Lynch often describes his films as dreams—moody places that are open to interpretation. Given the epic science fiction nature of Herbert's Dune, one would have expected a more action-oriented, kinetic film. Instead, Lynch gave us spaceships that don’t move and scenes where characters stand around and think their dialogue. In effect, Dune was a slow-motion, internalized film. A bold experiment, to be sure, but hardly the kind of direction one would apply to a Star Wars film.

Lynch’s Jedi would likely have been dark and uncomfortable. Lynch is fascinated by the frail and vulnerable nature of the human body and characters in his films are susceptible to being bruised and battered. The heroes in Lynch's film would hardly escape their encounters with the Empire unscathed, rather they would probably emerge from their conflicts disabled and disfigured. And one cringes at the thought of what brutality might be inflicted on the ever-hapless Imperial Stormtroopers.

Lynch often exposes human physicality as an organic piece of a larger world. In Dune, Lynch envisions human bodies as components of mechanized entities (see the First Stage Guild navigators who have tubes going in and out of their heads). One wonders what Lynch could have done with the figure of Darth Vader, who was "more machine, now, than man.” Undoubtedly, this aspect of the character would have been a draw to Lynch, and his depiction of the conflicted Sith Lord could have been both repulsive and mesmerizing.  Darth Vader could, ultimately, have reminded us of John Merrick in Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

But what of other characters and settings? How would they differ under Lynch’s direction? We can imagine changes to specific elements of Return of the Jedi by comparing them to other Lynch films:

Instead of a puffy, muppety Jabba The Hutt, imagine a Jabba that looked more like a Third Stage Guild Navigator and who acted like the oozing and festering Baron Harkonnen from Dune. (Jabba was supposed to be disgusting—and he was, by Star Wars standards—but a Lvnchian Jabba would have been a true gross-out, complete with open sores on his skin and an oily, sticky complexion.) And Jabba would have been more than nasty—he would have been cruel, subjecting his entourage to torture and terror.

Instead of the cartoonish, Tolkienesque Emperor who acted like a comic-book super-villain (complete with dastardly dialogue and super powers), imagine the Emperor as a Lynch villain similar to Bob from Twin Peaks or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Lynch’s Emperor would not have been creaky and withered, but manic and brutal—an Emperor who physically assaults Luke (perhaps pummeling him with his fists), rather than standing back and throwing lightning bolts at him.

Instead of the sunny, magical woods of Endor complete with cuddly Ewok fauna, imagine a dark, damp, ominous forest like those found in Twin Peaks, with tribes of misshapen (but Samaritan) outcasts similar to the circus freaks that help John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Instead of the shiny, pristine, antiseptic corridors of the new Death Star, imagine a shadowy, steamy, sooty interior punctuated by the rhythmic noises of heavy machinery and hissing exhaust. And all these sounds would be overlaid on an organic, throbbing ambient soundtrack.

There’s also Lynch’s recurring theme of dysfunctional families that breed incest, adultery, rape, and other traumatic calamities. While Lynch would not have been able to tamper with the basic family unit of Vader/Luke/Leia, who knows what twisted nuances he would have introduced into, say, the Vader/Leia relationship?

These are but a few examples of how David Lynch might envision Return of the Jedi. But such a version was clearly never going to happen. Because Lynch realized early on that he didn’t fit into the Star Wars universe.

The original Star Wars trilogy presents a rare instance where directors lost much of their authorial presence. Despite the fact that The Empire Strikes Back was directed by Irvin Kershner and Return of The Jedi by Richard Marquand, these were still Lucas’s films. They bear his imprint, his style. In the Star Wars trilogy it was the producer (Lucas) who was the auteur.

As part of the Star Wars cadre of directors, Lynch would have been expected to follow Lucas’s designs and desires—to create a Star Wars film according to strict parameters—a situation that Lynch would have found stifling and restrictive and may have led to a clash between Lynch and Lucas.

Fortunately such conflict never came to be. David Lynch understood that Lucas’s vision superseded his. Lynch clearly made the correct decision when he chose not to pursue Lucas’s original offer. Because no matter how striking and original a Lynch-directed Return of The Jedi might have been (had it actually been made), it undoubtedly would have been a perplexing, heavy, and uninviting episode of Star Wars.

Monday, December 5, 2016

We Must Pay Strict Attention

Back in 1990 and 1991, while Twin Peaks was on the air, some critics considered the show too confusing; some even went so far as to label it "impenetrable."  Back then, Twin Peaks was more demanding than most television fare: the show had a very large number of characters and numerous complicated plots.  If you hadn't been watching it from the beginning—or if you missed an episode or two in the middle—you could become hopelessly lost.
While some claim that Twin Peaks' complex nature was a primary cause for the show's downfall, others believe that the show's complicated structure was its most engaging feature.  Both viewpoints may be right.  The complexity of Twin Peaks was certainly an appealing factor, but in the second season, when the show splintered into a number of minor (and inconsequential) subplots, it lost some of that appeal.
Author Brad Chisholm cited Twin Peaks when writing about the "pleasures of complex viewing" in a 1991 essay for Critical Studies in Mass Communication.  Chisholm explained that the writers of Twin Peaks "exceeded the average number of simultaneous plot-lines" that television audiences were used to seeing.  Most serial dramas featured four or five plot-lines per episode and rarely stretched storylines over more than four or five weeks.  Twin Peaks, by contrast, regularly featured twice that many plots in storylines that lasted months rather than weeks.  Chisholm states that many Twin Peaks fans "considered the unending plot-lines and unfathomable occurrences central to the show's appeal." 
In order to better understand just how complicated and expansive many of Twin Peaks' stories were, I "graphed" all the show's major plot-lines. (Click to enlarge.)
The Plots of Twin Peaks, Plotted

As you can see, the series packed a lot into thirty episodes. 

Each plot-line is represented by a horizontal line.  In some cases, where a plot evolved into another (e.g. Leo is brain-dead, and later Shelly and Bobby care for him), the line is both dashed and solid.  The beginning or ending of a plot is represented by bullets.  Diagonal lines indicate where plots branched off (or flowed into) others.  The storyline involving Josie Packard is disjointed due to Josie's lengthy disappearances from the show.  Her plot-lines, however, are directly connected, and so I've represented the story "gaps" with connecting arcs. Some plot developments are not easily "graphable" (such as Josie shooting Cooper and Albert later discovering her identity) and are not represented here, further proof of the complexity of the Twin Peaks narrative. Finally, I've separated the first season from the second with a vertical dashed line.

The chart reveals some interesting patterns.  It clearly indicates a dividing line between episode 16 and 17.  In 16, Agent Cooper solves the Laura Palmer murder, a story which dominates the series from the beginning.  With that storyline concluded, the show's writers introduce a number of smaller storylines in the following episode.  Six new major plots are started (among them:  Cooper is framed, the Black Lodge mystery is introduced, Ben goes crazy, Evelyn Marsh blackmails James, etc.)  By episode 23, most of these storylines conclude, and a series of new plot-lines begin (the Cooper/Annie romance, Save the Pine Weasel campaign, Miss Twin Peaks, etc.). 
It's easy to see that the second half of the second season consisted of two parts.  The first part, which begins at episode 17, is where Twin Peaks receives the most criticism.  Many of the storylines in the subsequent seven-episode span are simplistic to the point of silliness. Ben Horne's Civil War fantasies, Andy and Dick's involvement with Little Nicky, the marriage of Dougie Milfordall these stories served as "space fillers" so that the show's large cast would have something to do. 
Meanwhile, Cooper and Earle's chess game, and their subsequent involvement with the Black Lodge, is a plot that practically simmers in the background.  Mark Frost commented on this phase of the series in Wrapped In Plastic #9:  "In retrospect, I think the Windom Earle story started too slowly.  Laura was a very hard act to follow in terms of storytelling, and we probably should have come out of the gate a little quicker with the Windom Earle story."
Once the Laura Palmer plot concludes, the producers of Twin Peaks fail to develop another strong, encompassing mystery in which to involve the cast.  Instead, they rely on a variety of shorter, inconsequential subplots to keep the series moving. Unfortunately, most of these small storylines are isolated entities, existing and unfolding on their own. Twin Peaks worked best when its characters shared a deeper connection, when they were components of a larger plot such as the Laura Palmer mystery.  (The show seemed to get back on track near the end—too late to save it from cancellation, however.)
Mark Frost was right.  Had the Windom Earle story been "up and running" earlier, the show might have stayed stronger for a longer period of time.  But, as the chart shows, that story was initially lost in a collage of meaningless mini-plots.  In the end, Twin Peaks may have collapsed under its own weight; losing momentum to fractured subplots and silly storylines. 
All of this was a sad result of network demands and the pressure to deliver satisfactory ratings on a weekly basis—relics of a different television era. The new Twin Peaks of 2017, however, will not suffer from the arbitrary demands of network TV. It will not drift and shift according to ratings and cast considerations, or become diluted by commercial pressures.  The new Twin Peaks will reflect the keen artistic sensibilities of its creators.  From the moment it first airs, it will be complete and substantial, deliberate and fully-defined.
We won’t need a chart to tell us that.

(A slightly different version of this article first appeared in Wrapped In Plastic, #14, (December, 1994).  Whew! 22 years ago!)