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Alien Isolationism

October 4, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.53.48

The reviews for Alien: Isolation emerged this week – the game follows next Friday – and while the game scored pretty well, what’s really interesting is the divide between the scores given by UK and US-based critics.

At the top line, at least (and let’s be clear – I refuse to do any maths or real research about this) the UK went for 8s and 9s, the US for 6s and 7s: Eurogamer liked it, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly loved it, while IGN, Gamespot and Polygon were less enthusiastic.

This is interesting because, while there’s a chance the UK writers are unconsciously rooting for an English studio (the game was made in Horsham by Creative Assembly), I actually think the divide springs from the thing that I find most interesting and valuable about the game: the way it presents space, and specifically, the very British way it presents space.

This isn’t an accident – Creative Assembly has always been clear that Isolation takes inspiration from the frigid horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, rather than its action-heavy sequel (which, as I discuss in this Edge piece on Edge Of Tomorrow, casts a long shadow over video game aesthetics). Here’s a passage from my review of the game:

And what is being shown? Panels. Fat-keyed computer consoles. Hexagonal architecture. Isolation hasn’t so much copied the worn, antiseptic future of Scott’s film as it has absorbed it on a molecular level. The game is beautiful – not just film grain and lighting pretty, but artfully constructed in a way that makes it deeply pleasurable to simply be inside.

The last bit is really the key – it is a science fiction that is so intelligently put together that simply taking it in is compelling, without action or violence. I described this on Twitter as “Pinewood craft”, meaning it has the same detail and depth of setting as the great influential science fiction movies filmed by British technicians in the ’60s and ’70s, with their diligent practical effects and precise camerawork – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.56.01It turns out this was a perfectly moronic thing to call it, as Star Wars was shot at Elstree, Alien at Shepperton, and 2001 at a combination of the two, though I think the point still stands. What Alien: Isolation achieves is an environment so practically and perfectly realised that it heightens the very reality of what we’re seeing. It’s the shadows that fall across the surface if the Death Star, the flawless invisible rotations of 2001’s gravity walks, the grim industry of the Nostromo.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOHThere’s a romance in this idea, for sure. Al Hope from Creative Assembly has talked about digging up old sound reels from the production of Alien, complete with gruff cockney voices bookending each effect with references and suggestions – this is a great PR gambit because we (certainly I) want to see a correlation between the hands-on modellers, set-builders and craftsmen who built these films, and the tactile blue-collar futures they present. This is why we’re all so pleased Star Wars VII has come back to England (it really is Pinewood this time), to help us flush away the green screen nothing of the prequel trilogy, and the pervasiveness of digital effects everywhere. Realities look better when you build them.

A thought I’ll save for another day is how this practical streak runs through the also very British apocalyptic fiction I’ve been steeped in recently, with writers like John Christopher, Nevile Shute, Sir Fred Hoyle and – of course – John Wyndham pinning down the precise ways in which we’ll fall and be broken apart, a pragmatic approach to the end. But that’s what also convinces me that there is a particular sensibility, a particular Britishness, that runs through Alien: Isolation, and accounts for its bumpy travels.

The Weekliest Think: Doom and Rage

October 3, 2014

Rage Against the Machine

I’ve been posting a bit more recently and enjoying it, and so – because of this, and because of the fact I thought of the phrase ‘The Weekliest Think’ on my cycle to work this morning – I’ve decided to do a regular post. Every week, in case that wasn’t obvious.

This week is something I’ve been promising to write since the summer – it’s about two creative works from the early 1990s that share a peculiar rightness: they are id Software’s Doom, and Rage Against The Machine’s first, self-titled album.

The path that led to writing this was finally reading Masters Of Doom a little earlier this year. It’s a solid, in-depth account of the making of Doom and – more strikingly – the wider state of games development in the early 1990s, a time of smaller teams and quicker turnarounds, when an idea sharp and fast enough could reach escape velocity and become something.

I liked the book particularly because, as evidenced by the tortuously introspective tone of my recent posts, I’m enjoying the perspective that comes with distance and age – or more specifically the disorienting, expansive feeling that comes with context being given to something I experienced pre-internet. I feel like this is a bigger subject, actually, and a weirdness experienced particularly sharply by my generation, who entered adulthood just as the web became ubiquitous and information became the air around us. The sense of it is grasped perfectly by Jenn Fran (though she was writing specifically about how a gaming community was revealed by the emergence of the internet):

The concept of gamers as a unified community was new to me – to all of us. It felt like when someone suddenly turns up the lights in a darkened bar and you realise there are a lot of people in the same room

This quote stuck with me because I first played Doom – a lot of Doom – in the pre-lights up era, alone and adolescent, sealed off from the continual flow of context and consensus to which all our experiences are now subject. And it also struck me because reading Masters Of Doom, supplementing my singular take on Doom with an external history, felt like turning the lights on. The story it told connected with the things I remember – the layout of specific levels, Star Wars WADs on illicit discs passed round at school, the agony and payoff of networking PCs – and made it possible to pin myself on the map of the Doom cultural sweep.

I’ve taken the long way round to saying that I replayed Doom after I finished the book, and still found it extraordinary. This is what I mean by peculiar rightness – there’s a self-contained perfection to Doom, an integrity of theme and execution, a flow to the twitch and glide, to the violence and the technology. It stands as undiminished in a way that Wolfenstein and Quake – the before and after for id Software – simply don’t. I just took a break to play Doom again and I am totally right about all these things.

Replaying Doom led me naturally to something else. Doom came out in 1993 – I probably got hold of it at the end of that year, when my family’s first PC arrived, or in 1994 – just a few months after the release of Rage Against The Machine’s first album, at the end of 1992. As best as I can remember (I’ve not read a contextualising history of MTV or Our Price yet) things hung around then a little more than they do now – the albums that defined the imported American alternative scene stood on the racks of the high street and in rotation on radio and TV for longer than they might now. Whatever – the point is that for a kid on the spiral arm of the cultural galaxy, living in a crap tiny town actually called Cuxton, Doom and Rage Against The Machine were for all intents and purposes simultaneous.

And then they were actually simultaneous, as Rage became the soundtrack for Doom, and the two meshed and intersected. Most obviously, the anger of the music, it’s percussive bursts and explosions, was an idiot fit for the shotgun release of Doom. But this was just happy theming – there was no fury in the way I played the game, more like focused relaxation, strafing through familiar waves and patterns. So – and here’s where I step away from anything I can really stand up – there’s something else that links the two, aside from being compressed and fossilized together in my memory. It’s something to do with America, with dissatisfaction, with the certainty and purpose of gifted youth, and the creative agility of small, tight groups.

The other thing about distance and age is that some things fall away and some things remain. I am not planning to write anything soon about Terrorvision’s How To Make Friends And Influence People, or Rise Of The Triad. At some point it becomes clear that some of the things you liked, that fit and made sense of something, have a quality that is lasting and significant. And that’s the claim I’m really making for Doom and Rage Against The Machine, and their peculiar rightness.

I wonder if I am the first one.

P.S. I also just listened to How To Make Friends and holy hell I’m actually really enjoying it, maybe I was talking rubbish this whole time.

P.P.S. I’ve changed it from The Weekest Think to The Weekliest Think, because a) it gets across the idea that it’s weekly better and, b) Weekest made me sad every time I read it because it makes the thinking sound rubbish.

Jodorowsky’s Dune and the power of the unmade

September 18, 2014

Jodorowskys-Dune-PosterI saw Jodorowsky’s Dune recently, and in many ways it feels like a film I was predisposed to love – it’s about unmade things, the elusive travel of ideas, and it tells a story that, eventually, leads to David Lynch.

Jodorowsky’s Dune, if you don’t know, is a documentary made about an elaborate but abortive attempt to film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel in the 1970s, led by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The project falls into that tradition of post-studio system international filmmaking where, slipped from the leash of Hollywood authority, characters of great charisma and uncertain reliability gathered momentum for grand follies-in-the-making (Terry Gilliam seems drawn – or forced – into this space frequently, and there’s something about the ambition and the financial fragility of these projects that shouts “fiasco!”)

The simplest story the documentary tells a about a passionate storyteller enrolling a supergroup of artists, actors and collaborators, convinced that he has the chance to make a film that can change the world (or at least to convince us that he’s convinced, because Jodorowsky is roguish and it’s difficult to tell). But to me the film is more importantly about the perfection of things not made or finished, and also the idea that “made” is a more fluid term than we might normally recognise.

This is evidenced by the existence of the documentary itself, a tribute to the never-realised (and so never tested, but crucially never dispelled) possibilities of Jodorowsky’s film. This is the hook of the unmade, the seductiveness of what might have been – there is a power to the unfinished text because of its perfect potential. Although it’s also impossible to watch the documentary without realising that in a way – in several ways – Jodorowsky’s Dune has been made. The director put together a comprehensive and meticulous storyboard with the illustrator Jean Giraud (Jodorowsky offhandedly describes the creation of the book as “shooting”, and Nicolas Winding Refn describes having it performed to him by Jodorowsky) while the documentary itself breathes a basic life into some of these sequences, which are animated using the original drawings.

Most compellingly, though, the creative energy gathered and prepared by Jodorowsky was, after the collapse of his Dune, released into the industry and dispersed among various projects. His unmade film was hugely influential – not just, as the documentary comes close to suggesting, because his storyboards did the rounds of the Hollywood studios, but, I prefer to think, because of the way ideas and creativity crackle and leap, the way relationships are formed and the unbound potential of projects manifests itself as things finished and appreciable.

There’s no coincidence in how tightly the offshoots of Jodorowsky’s project remained entwined. The key figures – Giraud, as well as effects designer Dan O’Bannon and artists HR Giger and Chris Foss – worked on Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly afterwards. And the documentary doesn’t mention that following Alien Scott then dallied with Dune himself, working with Giger in pre-production before leaving to make Blade Runner, where he wanted to work with Giraud (who declined) and did work with Douglas Trumbull (who had turned Jodorowsky down a few years earlier), a beautiful symmetry of near-misses and connections.

(Actually, proving both that the internal workings of my mind are very obvious and yet often remain hidden from me, I wrote similarly about the perseverance of ideas in this recent post about Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is particularly relevant because Chris Foss designed some of the ships for that, too. An irresistible aside: in Simon Parkin’s piece for the New Yorker – which simply calls Guardians “a new Marvel film” – Foss says “To be truthful, I didn’t bother asking which film I was there for. I just drew spaceships, which is all most people seem to want from me.”)

Eventually Dune did get made, with Scott replaced by David Lynch (there’s a wonderful moment when Jodorowsky remembers seeing Lynch’s film, and his ecstasy as he realises it’s a disaster). In a fairly direct way this leaves Blade Runner, released in 1982, and Dune, released in 1984, as the final, manifested product of Jodorowsky’s project. Except, of course, neither film has a definitive ‘final’ form – they’ve both been famously subject to repeated re-edits amid studio interference and audience speculation about lost cuts and what might have been. This is the same wisftul force that surrounds Jodorowsky’s Dune. Even when things are made, they are subject to the power and potential of the unmade.

What I get from all this, and why I value the documentary, is that it makes it possible to see all production, and all creativity, as a constant, unending process, one that is shaped occasionally into finite forms by the intervention of industry and circumstance. And sometimes the pressure of these interventions, and the fragility of the things being created, results in a formal instability – Dune’s TV edit, the five versions of Blade Runner included on the blu-ray release and, I probably shouldn’t add because this post is longer than I wanted but I will anyway, the three versions of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which was made at the same time as Dune but released a year later following a running battle with Universal).

Watch it for all these reasons. And watch it because Jodorowsky himself is a consummate storyteller – he seems almost compelled to tell stories – who remains passionate, sly and wonderful even his 80s  (another Gilliam link is that it’s hard to watch Jodorowsky rage at the shortsightedness of the industry without calling to mind Don Quixote). Watch it.

Captains and Kings – farewell, Robin Williams

August 19, 2014


This time last week I woke up at 3 a.m. and did my customary lurch for phone and dry-eyed scan of app-chatter that eases by brain into solid thoughts. I’d had the kind of sleep which leaves you feeling raw – exposed to an insistent spotlight of unrest – because I was getting a car to the airport for an early work flight. I caught a series of half-mentions and mid-series tweets which even then I knew meant Robin Williams had died.

I picked through the tributes and the remembered favourite scenes. I read, for the first time, the guidelines surrounding the reporting of high-profile suicides. And, as we struck down an empty M4 and the sun rose up ahead of us, I read Walt Whitman four or five times. It was a self-indulgent bit of mourning, quiet tears as I marvelled at the bitter fit with Williams’ passing and subsequent exaltation.

I wrote a piece about Williams’ work, which is online here. This came from notes scribbled in the car as the dawn broke, and started with two things in particular that I wanted to articulate: Williams’ ability to play, which gave so much of his work a childlike quality, and the look I associate most with him that transitions him out of that play, a fading smile, an expression of animated joy that turns to a kind of benevolent understanding.

In the end I lost the specifics of that look, although it formed the basis of my description of Williams as a “performer whose understanding of humanity was based on a sensitivity to darkness and light.” But one thing I didn’t have room to mention at all – and the reason for this blog post – was something related to Williams’ role in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Here’s what I did say:

In The Fisher King, a perfect Terry Gilliam mix of fairytale and squalid grandeur, Williams was Parry, a broken man whose emotional wounds sabotage his attempts to rebuild himself. The film captures a truth of mental illness for those who suffer it in the concrete reality of Parry’s thoughts, externalised with a typically Gilliam-esque flourish as a huge red knight wreathed in flames. It is about darkness striking at the light, the knight appearing as Parry is falling in love again, and about the disregard this darkness has for apparent happiness. “Please,” Parry begs, “Let me have this.”

Williams was open about his own battles with depression, and various people reacted to the news of his death with welcome discussion of mental illness. Letters Of Note tweeted a message Stephen Fry had written to a fan in 2006, which included this passage:

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:
Here are some obvious things about the weather:
It’s real.

You can’t change it by wishing it away.

If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.

It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.
It will be sunny one day.

It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.

One day.

I’m fortunate enough to have limited first-hand experience of depression – three or four abrupt dark patches, separated by years – but I recognise the resolute reality of the experience Fry describes, and I was grateful for the timing and simplicity of the message. “It will be sunny one day.” It was as close to the right thing to say that morning as it’s possible to get.

Then, later, when I was writing and thinking about The Fisher King, I was struck by how closely Fry’s analogy fits with the seasonal basis of the Fisher King myth, and the circular ideas of fertility and rebirth it embodies. I thought about what an astute choice the film’s writer, Richard LaGravenese, had made, in portraying a damaged man who would rise again, and best of all I thought about the richness and depth of Robin Williams’ films, and what astute choices he made. I will miss him.

Guardians Of The Galaxy: So serene on the screen

August 8, 2014


I saw Guardians Of The Galaxy this week. That was an excellent decision. I saw it late, in a huge, nearly empty theatre, and once it started the film had a momentum that didn’t slip. I sat thinking about how much I was enjoying Chris Pratt, like I always do but more because someone had the sense and money to put him at the front of a film this big, and about how the film caught something of the 1980s past the obvious references, something in spirit and style. It was, I thought, the kind of sharp, joyous action sci-fi I haven’t seen since, oh, about 2005.

Yes, this is about Serenity.

I feel like Serenity is a story that’s tried to tell itself several times. As Dune and Blade Runner fans know, all the best sci-fi worlds exist in fragmented, tantalising pieces, and Joss Whedon’s wistfully remembered space western is no different. It existed in 2002 as the Fox television show Firefly until, after 11 of its 14 episodes aired, it didn’t any more. Then it existed as the Universal movie in 2005, which wasn’t seen by enough people to become the Universal franchise.

And perhaps it existed even before that, as early as 1997. Re-watch Alien: Resurrection, the Alien sequel written by Whedon, and the scavenger crew propping up the stretched Ripley plot are a close, dark parallel of their future incarnations aboard Serenity. Someone even mentioned the similarity to Whedon.

…it just stopped me in my tracks. I was like “Yes, my pony did its trick again!” I really never thought of it until somebody pointed it out to me. But the irony goes further than I could have imagined because we shot it on the same stages at Fox as they shot Alien: Resurrection. In fact, Serenity was built over the pit they dug for Alien: Resurrection, for the underwater sequence.

I love this quote, because it strikes at how ideas work, circling and charming before manifesting in ways sometimes the thinker doesn’t see, and because it acknowledges how ideas also have to be reconciled to a system of production and an industry, and how the two often invisibly together to make things.

This relationship lurks behind the other thought I had in my empty theatre, as I watched Peter Quill imperfectly, unconventionally stride through a cosmopolitan cosmos wearing a long brown coat and backed by a mismatched set of mercenaries: just as Serenity existed in Alien: Resurrection it exists now, too, in Guardians of The Galaxy. Except because I’m still furious about Firefly being cancelled like everyone else who’s ever been on the internet, what I actually thought was: why does this get to exist, and not just to exist but to thrive and explode, when Serenity failed?

I don’t think Guardians is a hit because of the Marvel tag, or the Disney marketing dollars. I’m also not a moron and I don’t think these things hurt, but Guardians doesn’t star long-established heroes and this isn’t a typical Marvel world, it’s one that feels like original sci-fi. It feels instead as though the cultural momentum of comic book storytelling has shifted the orientation of mainstream audiences to the point where Guardians can be – and Serenity could have been – embraced.

This shift was gradual. When I got to university 15 years ago even I, who grew up playing video games, reading shelves of Tolkien derivatives and loving cinema, felt that comics were still a nerd-step too far. And then ten years ago, during the period when Firefly failed and Serenity missed its audience, the studios were releasing Daredevil, Catwoman, The Fantastic Four – awkward missteps of a system that saw the potential in comics, saw the vast source material that lay beyond Spider-Man and the X-Men, but just didn’t get it.

So they hired people who did. One of the striking things about Marvel’s recent run of success is who is in charge of their biggest movies. Whedon himself, his pony still doing tricks, wrote and directed The Avengers. Shane Black brought a similar levity and humour to Iron Man 3. And James Gunn, who gave Nathan Fillion so many of his post-Serenity roles, came in to make Guardians Of The Galaxy. The work of these people has grounded the potentially fly-away Marvel universe, and their films adhere to the essential rules Whedon laid out for Firefly: “…don’t be arch, don’t be sweeping. Be found, be rough and tumble, and docu and you-are-there.”

So depending on how you look at it the answer to my question – why Guardians gets to exist when Serenity failed – is either the triumph of the nerds, or the vast appropriation of niche culture by the maw of Hollywood. And of course it’s both, it’s ideas and industry, and how the two often work invisibly together. And that’s why the success of Guardians, which is the same seed of an idea as Serenity even though it’s an excellent thing all of its own in a hundred other ways, leaves me both thrilled and a little thoughtful, in that way tantalisingly fragmented universes make us think. They really are the best ones.

Past worlds and other places

August 1, 2014


I moved house a year ago, almost exactly, and this is the story of how I nearly wrote something about it, and then didn’t.

Preparing to leave the house we’d occupied for six years made me think about the other buildings in which I’d lived – flats and terraces, rooms and walls – and about the way a home embeds itself in memory. As I was packing and laying bare the hard geometry of the house, it seemed obvious that a home is more than just the location in which the things you remember unfold, that there’s something in the physicality of lived-in space and the textured processes of recall that make those rooms and walls part of the fabric of remembrance.

One of the things that interests me about games is their use of location. Not just the construction of virtual realities, but how these other places (to steal Andy Kelly’s dead-on phrase) can be as real and important to us as the solid ones outside the screen. There have always been unreal locations that are as familiar to me as any of the physical ones I pass through on my to access them, locations I can explore mentally in the same way I remember old schools or bedrooms. And so I came up with an idea for something to write that would explore these things.

The idea was that in moving house I was finally clearing out a lot of things I didn’t need (it’s glib, but Palahniuk’s line from Fight Club about the way the things you own end up owning you does describe the tug of illogical reticence at tossing clinging objects). One of these things was my Mega Drive – or rather, our Mega Drive, as I shared it with my brother – and I would give it an appropriate send-off by playing through the same games and exploring the same places with my children as my dad did with my brother and me. I was (and am) struck by the image of my Mega Drive and its games packed and ready to move: a series of virtual worlds collapsed into plastic cases, crammed and stacked into one of the many boxes that were themselves crammed and stacked in the non-virtual world of my house. An excerpt from the vague but upbeat pitch.

As an industry we talk about how games are still a young form, but it struck me that, in my family at least, they’ve touched three generations, helped bond and shape relationships, form memories.

The piece would be about those memories – about revisiting the locations of the most important ones from my childhood with my kids to see what they think and how we enjoy it together.

It’s about how games can be positive, shared, imaginative experiences, and about how there’s more permanence to the medium than the arms race of consoles and PCs would have us believe. It’s a sign of an established culture that games from 20 years ago – the good ones, anyway – can still inspire and bring a family together.

The response was a yes and then, thanks to work needed to un-vague the ideas and the issue of me having overlooked the fact that moving house is more stressful than performing eye surgery on yourself, I didn’t write it. Although that’s not quite true – I wrote some of it, I just didn’t finish. It went like this.

“Shall I set it up? Does it have HDMI?”

My son is peering quizzically at the back of the Mega Drive that I’ve had, it strikes me suddenly, for twice as long as I’ve had him. I tell him that, no, it doesn’t have HDMI, or even a SCART connection, “Just, well, an aerial.” He looks dubious until I switch the power on and NHL 94 announces itself with the abrupt, grunting EA Sports intro that he recognises from FIFA. “S’IN THE GAME”

We’re on the verge of moving house, and in my current state of mind this kind of consistency seems impressive. Twenty years of the same bulldozing branding, a connecting thread between my son’s childhood and my own.

Moving house has made me reflective. I’ve been thinking about space, and the time we spend in it. I’ve also been thinking that the next space I move into won’t be big enough for the Mega Drive, and that after all these years, it’s time to pass it along.

Which is fine. Maybe it would have been fine. But I felt it was getting away from the things I really wanted to write about. It was only after a recent visit to some of the homes and houses from my very early childhood that I felt the urge to take another look.

What were the things I really wanted to write about? One of them was about playing Doom for the first time in over a decade, and how the fluent thrill of running automatically through corridors and killboxes impressed on my memory through endless repetition was interrupted by a sudden, wordless urge not to approach a specific doorway. As the memory was excavated and solidified, as surrounding shapes and landmarks oriented themselves into forgotten familiarity, I knew there was something hidden behind the door. The feeling stayed with me because, I thought, it seemed so much like walking into a real childhood scene, a once-inherent geography that lights up dormant corners of memory and belonging. And that’s exactly how it did feel, when we reached my grandma’s old flat in the Stockwell Park Estate: it wasn’t clear which block was hers, and then it suddenly was, it was this way, under this bridge and above this car park. (An aside: the walkways and mazey levels of the Stockwell Park Estate would make for a bastard good custom Doom WAD).

md02I also wanted to write about the fact I found a PS2 memory card during the move, and how the game saves trapped inside struck me as a series of interrupted lives taking place in different imagined worlds that I would probably never visit again. And how opening the black plastic boxes containing my Mega Drive cartridges I’d found slips of paper with long strings of numbers written on them. Most Mega Drive games didn’t have a regular save function (they were, my replays with my increasingly inattentive children showed, so short – that shifting scale of age which makes the looming environments of youth impossibly small seems also to extend to time) and so as an alternative games would often generate complex passwords which would recreate the game exactly as you left it. There is a code written in my dad’s angular blue handwriting which unlocks a game of Battlemaster that one day, over 20 years ago, we played together for the last time.

And maybe that is why when my son and I started to play one of my old favourite games, Arcus Odyssey – an action RPG none of my friends owned, an American import bought from Software Plus on Gillingham high street – I was so determined to get to the end. We wrote down codes at the end of each level just like the ones we found in the box. We played for hours, because it was longer than Sonic, longer than Streets Of Rage II. During the later levels I had to convince him to carry on, to leave FIFA for a few more hours and see this through. And eventually we did – the boss fell, the credits rolled, and I realised I had seen this before, after all. I’d just forgotten.


P.S. I did not get rid of the Mega Drive. Of course I didn’t. I’ve still never completed The Immortal.

P.P.S. You should probably listen to the intro music from Streets Of Rage II, it’s timeless.

“One chants out between two worlds…” – Twin Peaks, cinema and television

July 30, 2014

Twin Peaks

I reviewed the latest release of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks for Total Film this month. The review isn’t online but I’d like to share this paragraph, which covers my reaction to watching the original Twin Peaks series in high definition.

What it leaves us with is an excellent, clean transfer, but also, perhaps unexpectedly, a sense of loss. There’s something about the fuzzy 1:33 image of old broadcasts and DVD releases that works silently with the character and history of the show. Twin Peaks is Lynch on television, which stands consciously distinct from his theatrical work because it is a format about which he’s often been skeptical and an institution with which he’s endured an agonising, antagonistic relationship. It’s that tension, between Lynch’s cinematic ambition and the square, glowing limitations of TV sets as they were 25 years ago, that shaped Twin Peaks. It was a journey through the tube into a world of the uncanny and the idiosyncratic, facilitated by that soft-edged glow. Something intangible, something more than nostalgia, has been cleaned up along with the image.

I had limited room to be extravagantly self-indulgent in the magazine, so I couldn’t mention the various things I was also thinking as I wrote this. But they include Lynch’s quote about Blue Velvet – “It’s a song, and a texture” – and the fact that Twin Peaks, like all his work, feels textured, like a humming cathode-ray tube. And they also include the quote in the headline above, from Twin Peaks’ sinister poem recited by Mike the One-Armed Man, which catches something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole.

I guess this strikes at what I enjoy about Lynch, or more specifically, what I find rich and consistently rewarding about his work. His career comes packaged with a sense of contortion: from the prolonged, penniless production of Eraserhead, through the daily death of blockbuster pressure on Dune, and on to the formal convolutions of network television. What’s struggling to emerge in each instance, what persists throughout, are ideas. To quote Lynch again (and it really is best if you read it in his voice, full of ’50s deliberateness and emphases)

I always say ideas are the most important thing, and the idea tells you everything. The idea is like a seed. The tree is in the seed, but it doesn’t look like the tree. So, when you finally see the tree, you might make some changes, but when you get an idea you really do see the whole tree, but it’s in an abstract form.

I’ve long since stopped searching for solid, dirt-in-hand meaning in Lynch’s films. Instead what I think is more beautiful is that his ideas – sometimes a texture, sometimes a feeling – emerge from a just-so arrangement of image and sound and surrounding. And the form, as he says, is mutable, abstract. The idea is the whole thing.

Next up: an exploration of why, despite how much I enjoy Lynch’s films, nothing I ever write about them makes them seem fun in any way.





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