An Afternoon in Garmonbozia

Laura Palmer Played by Sheryl Lee

Twice a year, Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blue-Rays. Today, I bought one of my favorite films from the 1990s, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), a prequel based on his two-part television series, Twin Peaks for ABC. The term “garmonbozia” is a nightmarish Black Lodge term meaning pain and suffering. In the movie, the pain and suffering relates primarily to two young women who are killed, and one who is presumably scarred for life: Laura Palmer, Theresa Banks, and Ronette Pulaski.

The so-called Black Lodge is a strange room with no windows, full-length floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes, and a zig-zag pattern in black and white on the floor. Its permanent inhabitant is Michael J. Anderson (below) as The Man from Another Place. He speaks in a strange, barely understandable dialect which was filmed speaking backwards deliberately, and then reversing the sound track. He eats garmonbozia, which looks very like creamed corn.

Michael J. Anderson as The Man from Another Place and Kyle MacLahlan as FBI Agent Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was not a popular film when released. No matter, it and the ABC TV series were at least a decade ahead of their time and are just now coming into their own. (Though, truth to tell, I loved the film when it was first released; and only now am I watching the TV series.) Both the film and the TV series are postmodern to the max and greatly influenced the development of films to follow. In an article from the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Parker wrote:

Stylistically, the most immediate posthumous effect of all this might have been the gnostic, everything-signifies vibe of The X-Files, but there are glimmering splinters of Twin Peaks in Breaking Bad’s trippy desert-sizzle; in the irruptive, disabling dreamtime of Bran Stark on Game of Thrones; and in the absurdist plot spirals, the gizmos and MacGuffins, of Lost. The Sopranos paid homage with Agent Cooper–esque fugue states and shots of trees blowing in the wind, rippling in their fullness and strangeness. And how is it finally communicated to Tony Soprano, after years of repressed suspicion, that Big Pussy—one of his most trusted sidekicks—is ratting him out to the FBI? By a talking fish, in a delirium, after some bad chicken vindaloo. It doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.

I have only a few more episodes of Twin Peaks to watch on DVD and then … and then … I just may pay a visit to the area. I have friends and family in the area.

 

 

Twin Peaks

My Latest Discovery, 27 Years After the Fact

I have never been a big fan of television series—making time to watch them on a regular basis was too much of a drag on my time—but I have always been a big fan of David Lynch.I have loved all his films I have seen, even the strange Eraserhead (1977). Dune (1984) was something of a disappointment, but then came Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and all his subsequent work.

Over the last several weeks, I have slowly been going over the Twin Peaks (1990-1991) TV series. Even when it does not appear to make any sense, it is brilliant. The people of that strange little Northwestern town beggar all attempts at pat descriptions and then there is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who has fallen in love with the town, its people, its coffee, donuts, and cherry pie. Not to mention Tibetan mysticism and dreams that provide answers to the crimes that have plagued the town.

In this country of ours, very little makes sense in a God-is-in-His-Heaven-and-all’s-right-with-the-world 19th century way. Does Trumpf make sense? Does our Senate and Congress make any sense? Very little, in fact.

The Log Lady of Twin Peaks

To date, I have seen the first thirteen of the thirty episodes that make up the show as it was in 1990-1991. (I am not into binge watching, because I tend to miss too much that way.) Whether I find out, definitively, who killed Laura Palmer does not matter to me. I am not looking for answers. What I am looking for are interesting questions, and the series delivers on this scorebig time!

Alienation Effect

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Today was a strange day. It was beastly hot and humid, with a Mexican Monsoon effect. Having no air conditioning in our apartment—and living in an area that regularly gets hit by power blackouts—Martine and I decided to go to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.  The lobby was crowded with young tourist couples seeing the displays about American Horror Story, a series on FX with which I was previously unacquainted. These guys (and their women) were heavily tattooed, wore their baseball hats backwards, did not know to flush toilets, and led with their smart phones taking pictures of everything in sight.

I suddenly felt old. Here I was with a large group of young people that made me feel alienated. And here I was going to see a couple of Playhouse 90 episodes from 1959. I might has well have been talking in Armenian to a group of prairie dogs. Did I feel bad about that? In a way I did, though I would not have considered going far to seek common ground with them: The gulf between me and them yawned as big as the Grand Canyon.

But I felt delighted with the Playhouse 90 episodes I saw, shot in consecutive weeks. The first was “The Town That Turned to Dust,” written and introduced by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer. The story was about a lynching in a small Texas border town called Dempseyville of a Mexican youth who was accused by William Shatner, as the local dry goods merchant, of beating up his wife Fay Spain and robbing the store. The sheriff who is powerless to prevent the lynching is Rod Steiger, in a powerful role, with James Gregory as a visiting newspaperman.

The other was a dramatization of “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Ryan as Gatsby and Jeanne Crain as Daisy May Buchanan. Rod Taylor was excellent as Nick Carraway. Rod Serling introduced the episode, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner.

Although I do not watch much (if any) current television, I have a great deal of love and respect for the early days of the medium. Back at the beginning, they not only knew how to produce superlative entertainment, but used people who knew how to act, not just nod their heads meaningfully.

“The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Robert Culp and Arlene Martel in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Arlene Martel and Robert Culp in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Right after lunch, it started to drizzle; and Martine was without her umbrella. So we decided to go to the Paley Center for Media and watch some old TV. While Martine was watching episodes of Amos and Andy and My Little Margie, I decided to watch an episode of The Outer Limits.

The episode in question was “The Demon with a Glass Hand,“ directed by Byron Haskin and written by Harlan Ellison. It starred Robert Culp as the mysterious Trent, whom we are told at the beginning has lived forever, and the elfin Arlene Martel as Consuelo Biros. It was originally aired on October 17, 1964, and was the fifth show in the show’s second season.

This was at a time when television was great. tt reached out to a more unified audience with a well crafted story authored by the talented paranoiac Harlan Ellison. Trent found himself in Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building (called the Dixon Building in the story), with a glass hand missing the middle three fingers. A group of killer extraterrestial aliens called the Kyben are being sent from the future to get Trent’s hand and to supply the missing glass fingers, which they have. The object is to question the hand as to where the seventy billion earthlings from the year AD 3000 have gone. At the same time, Trent must obtain these fingers so that he could answer the same question and protect the missing earth people.

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

My friends in the film industry are always trying to get me to watch television, which they say has vastly improved with new original series like Breaking Bad and The Game of Thrones. In the relationship that Martine and I have, she gets to control the TV while I hit the books. Occasionally, I will watch a DVD while she is out taking a walk. That seems to work well for both of us, and I don’t feel as if I were missing out on anything.

In any case, it is fun to see some of the old classic television series like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, and One Step Beyond. I also have a real fondness for The Carol Burnett Show.

TV for Dunces

Whatever Happened to Real Stories?

Whatever Happened to Real Stories?

Television used to be first class entertainment. There was great comedy (Sid Caesar and Milton Berle), great speculative fiction (Twilight Zone), great whodunits (Perry Mason), and great quiz shows (You Bet Your Life). The shows were either scripted or with great impromptu acting. There was talent in front of the camera and in the smoke-filled rooms where the shows were planned.

That was then. Somewhere along the line, the TV producers decided that reality TV was cheaper to produce and would be accepted by the viewing public. And it was: with hundreds of channels of cable, there were scads of shows like Antiques Road Show, The Kardashians, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Pawn Stars, and a million forensic crime shows reprising old crimes.

Instead of entertaining the viewers, these shows sedated them. One of the stars of the genre was Donald J. Trump of  The Apprentice. All he had to do was glower and say “You’re fired!” and everything was golden.

Now this same Donald J Trump is our next (and perhaps last) president. All he has to do to solve the problems of this poor country is strike a few attitudes and tweet his uneducated opinions in the middle of the night. Advance planning no longer exists. We are now being governed by a bunch of untalented poseurs.

A REMINDER: Don’t forget to turn off your TV for tomorrow’s inauguration. Reality TV types hate having a bad Nielsen rating.

Playhouse 90

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Almost sixty years ago to the day—on October 4, 1956—CBS presented its first Playhouse 90. It was called “Forbidden Area,” written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring the likes of Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Diana Lynn, Vincent Price, Victor Jory, and Charles Bickford.

As he did later with Twilight Zone, Serling takes us to the heart of the Cold War and a projected Christmas Eve nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on major cities across the United States. Charlton Heston is trying to discover why eight B-99s of the Strategic Air Command suddenly disappeared without a trace from radar screens.

Playhouse 90 was live television: There were no rehearsals. While American viewers were watching, the actors were acting. As difficult as it was, this was the Golden Age of Television. Now there are hundreds more channels, dozens of content providers, and tens of millions more viewers, what they are watching is nowhere near as good as during those heady days of the 1950s and the early 1960s.

I love television as it used to be. As it is today, I would rather leave the remote to Martine and go read a good book.

Tonight, the UCLA Film & Television Archive put on a double bill of Playhouse 90 episodes written by Serling. It was introduced by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, who gave an excellent speech about why those days were the artistic pinnacle of television as an art medium.

Once When Things Were Different ….

Maurice Evans as MacBeth and Judith Anderson as Lady MacBeth

Maurice Evans as Macbeth and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth

There was a time when there were only a few television channels, and one could see wonderful material that presupposed a literate audience. In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, the Paley Center for Media put on screenings of six of Shakespeare’s plays on Saturday and Sunday of this weekend. It was my good fortune to see two of the plays.

The better of the two was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth fist aired on November 20, 1960. It was directed by George Schaefer and starred Maurice Evans as Macbeth, Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, Michael Hordern as Banquo, and Ian Bannen as Macduff. It was shot in technicolor on location in Scotland.

Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Ciaran Madden as Ophelia

Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Ciaran Madden as Ophelia

Also produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a 1970 Hamlet directed by Peter Wood and starring Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet, Michael Redgrave as Polonius, Margaret Leighton as Gertrude, and Richard Johnson as Claudius. John Gielgud had a walk-on role as the Ghost.

Both productions were highly professional. So professional that I was stunned seeing the two great tragedies one after the other. I thought to myself, “What would it take to have something like this on cable television today?” I would say close to zilch. Perhaps if Ophelia were in the nude and we saw a slo-mo close-up of Banquo being knifed in the head, but otherwise, no.

I think we may have to assume that the audience for these two great 1960 and 1970 productions no longer exists, or else they don’t allow patients in nursing homes to watch anything quite so exciting. Not when Lawrence Welk and Matlock reruns are available.

It’s strange that I have to drive to the Paley Center in Beverly Hills to see what television can do. As for my own television, I’d rather read a good book.