Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): December 2016

Friday, December 30, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1 episode 7 (Sundance version) - "No Goodbye Thanks"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 15, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion)

What an intense hour of television, full of twists and gut-punches. Not only did the show manage to surprise me and keep me in suspense, it did so despite some prior clues (and correct suspicions). More importantly, Top of the Lake really delivered on its premise, and the themes it sustained throughout. That includes a mood of uneasy, think-twice foreboding...the viewer's feeling of generalized mistrust reflects Robin's own state of mind all too well. Looking back over the story, none of the developments appear arbitrary. The outcomes, the revelations, the discoveries both false and true, are deeply rooted and cleverly seeded. There are plenty of loose ends and open questions but the important threads are tied up, the necessary answers provided, and appropriate ambiguities retained.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 6 (Sundance version) - "The Dark Creator"/"No Goodbye Thanks"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 15, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

This was the best episode so far, but that praise comes with a caveat - in a sense, this isn't an episode at all. I'm referring to the different versions of the series, which I recently discovered (I wrote the intro to this viewing diary, explaining this discrepancy, at a later date), but I bring it up now because this is one of the few "episodes" where that chopped-up quality feels especially evident. Usually the American cuts find a good, natural-seeming spot to stop but episode six ends abruptly when Robin rides toward her fateful meeting with Matt. Nicely suspenseful, certainly, but without much of a final visual punch. Most likely, the "proper" ending occurs several scenes earlier at Jamie's funeral, as his friends push a skiff containing his body out from shore. That's quite a scene, though I questioned it at first. Staging an elaborate memorial at Paradise, the mourners decorated with Jamie's signature "NO" on their faces and clothes (even the horses have the word emblazoned on their haunches), while GJ's hippies sing a folksy cover of a Bjork song...it all seemed a tad overdramatic for a show that's usually much more down to earth.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 5 (Sundance version) - "A Rainbow Above Us"/"The Dark Creator"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 8, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion with Garth Davis)

The two big developments in this episode are a death and the discovery that someone else is not dead. Jude, Robin's mother, passes away not long after visiting GJ's compound. Her immediate feeling of reassurance is perturbed anew when she notices Robin embracing Johnno. Jude's final scene in the show depicts her extracting a promise from her daughter, that she won't go out with Johnno. Ironically, Robin is with Johnno when her mother dies, only hearing her voice one last time from a phone message recorded earlier. Robin's relationship with Johnno is up and down: she is relieved to discover his "secret" was simply that he didn't do enough to help her when she was being raped, not (as she feared) that he participated himself. Still, she has doubts, and after her mother's vague warning, she presses: did he signal her rapists to pick her up fifteen years ago? Johnno is so offended that he storms out, although later they will reconcile. But he never flat-out says no.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 4 (Sundance version) - "The Edge of the Universe"/"A Rainbow Above Us"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 1, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

As it turns out, Robin's big discovery - "I think I know what she meant by 'No one'!" - may have more to do with herself than with Tui. Visiting Al at his chic glass house that evening, she explains that by "no one" Tui may have meant "more than one" rather than zero. In other words, she was gang-raped. Al is dismissive, turning the subject to Robin's past. In this episode, we we finally learn the details of the detective's own trauma. About twenty years ago she attended prom with Johnno; he disappeared with some friends, so she left and hitched a ride in a truck. Johnno also hopped aboard the back (though she never knew he was there) and then the driver and other passengers took her to an isolated spot and raped her. The perpetrators were not charged, but the cops and Mitch violently punished them off the books. Robin got pregnant, gave the baby up for adoption, and years later received a letter from her now-teenage birth daughter, to which she never responded.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 3 (Sundance version) - "Searchers Search"/"The Edge of the Universe"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired March 25, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis)

Similarly to other short series I've seen, episode three is reserved mostly for character development and insight. Robin discovers her mother is going to die, and she tells her fiance (on the phone) that he deserves better before cheating on him with Johnno. We learn more about Johnno's past, both his relationship with Robin (she was his first kiss) and his years in a Thai prison. Even the still-missing Tui gets screentime when Robin is moved by a videotape of her playing in the woods. This may be Top of the Lake's clearest nod to Twin Peaks yet - and Robin's fascination with the victim places her closer to the likes of Dale Cooper than the "True Detectives". There's an extra twist to the bond, though, since Robin too is female and haunted by her own dark past. She clearly identifies on some level with the missing girl.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 2 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired March 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

There's something special about second episodes. Rarely are they as immediately memorable or self-contained (open ending aside) as pilots. But they offer something a first episode rarely can: a feeling of settling in, investing, opening a door and entering a much bigger room. The first episode of a show could almost be a movie as it sets the wheels in motion. Even in Top of the Lake's case (where exposition is minimal), characters must be established and premises must be anchored down. That's why it's so liberating to see the same opening credits give way to new images at the start of a new episode. Two opposite qualities attach us to the material. One is familiarity. Whether it's been a week or a few seconds since we watched the previous episode, the interim of ending and new beginning offers us reassuring authority in this world. It's as if we were sitting next to a new viewer, explaining who's who and what's what. The other quality is openness. With the necessary work done, the plot doesn't have to tie itself up anytime soon. Relationships are fluid and malleable. Nothing is set in stone; anything could happen.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 1 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Aired March 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion)

Premiering in 2013, the first episode of Top of the Lake knows that we have certain expectations about this sort of mystery show. It makes sure to toy with those, but also, in a way, fulfill them. The short series was created by the great New Zealand/Australian director Jane Campion with Gerard Lee, whose work I'm unfamiliar with (IMDb reveals him to be a longtime collaborator of Campion, co-directing a short film from '83 and writing her acclaimed feature Sweetie). Together they craft a world both realistic in its grungy, atmospheric detail and heightened in the eccentricity of its behavior. From an American perspective, Top of the Lake is illuminated by two popular trends, both with deep roots in Twin Peaks: the auteur-driven "prestige TV" phenomenon with Campion not just creating, producing, and co-writing the episode but also directing; and the "dead girl" genre in which the body of a tragic young woman sets the plot in motion, introducing an outside detective protagonist and exposing secrets and weaknesses in the surrounding community. The big surprise for me, based on what little I'd heard (or thought I'd heard) about this particular show, is that this time, the "dead girl" doesn't actually die...or, as the episode ends, does she?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top of the Lake: a viewing diary


Introducing the New Zealand show Top of the Lake (2013)

This week I launch my first viewing diary since The Prisoner. The first episode will be reviewed on Friday, and new entries will follow every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the end of the year. Top of the Lake is a mystery set in the murky mountain town of Laketop, on South Island. The show stars Elisabeth Moss, whom I simultaneously began watching on Mad Men (at the pace I'm going, that particular viewing diary won't be published for years); here she plays an urban detective who joins a local police investigation in her rural hometown. Top of the Lake is co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion, whose Bright Star I reviewed in 2010 (I featured a couple of her short films in my #WatchlistScreenCaps exercise a few years later). I've yet to see most of her features but consider her work A Girl's Own Story one of the strongest short films of the eighties and also admire The Piano, so I was looking forward to this series going in.


complete directory of season 1
(*these links will work on the day of publication)









The Netflix/Sundance Version (which episodes I'm watching)

Logistics turned out to be incredibly complicated. There are two versions of Top of the Lake available to American viewers. On DVD, the show follows the BBC structure of six episodes; streaming on Netflix, the show uses the Sundance Channel breakdown of seven episodes. The BBC episodes have titles and a single director for each episode (whereas the Sundance episodes often have two), suggesting that the production was organized around longer individual episodes and then the same material was divided up into shorter episodes to fill a longer run in America. So in other words, the British pilot has its ending chopped off and attached to the beginning of the second American episode. This shifts a bit more of the second episode's end to the beginning of the third episode and so on until the sixth American episode contains hardly any of the sixth British one, most of which has been shifted to a brand new "episode seven." Confused? I certainly was. Here's a picture:



At least I'm pretty sure that's what happened. If anyone has more details, please let me know in the comments below and I'll update the post accordingly.

I decided to stream the show on Netflix, and only discovered after three episodes that I was locked into a slightly skewed version of the series. Nonetheless, I don't regret it - this is likely the version that most of my readers will have seen so it makes sense to give it priority. Still, it does muddle discussion of the different directors' input, and occasionally disrupts the narrative flow (the end of the penultimate episode feels particularly abrupt). The writers probably did know they would have to write for two different structures because even these cannibalized episodes tend to end in cliffhangers. It's a little embarrassing for me to go back and read my notes on the episodic structures now that I know more about their creation, but it is what it is. This is a viewing diary - sometimes I figure things out as I go.


I hope readers who've seen the show will enjoy re-visiting it, and if anyone watches along with this diary (either over the next several weeks, or coming back to these posts in coming months and years), I hope you'll comment and leave your own reflections and speculations on each entry. I will probably cover season two either live as it airs (it was shot last year in Hong Kong, with Nicole Kidman making an appearance) or catching up at a later date if it coincides with too much other activity on the blog. However, those will probably be shorter entries, in accordance with my new viewing diary format (a paragraph on the story and a paragraph on my own reflections). This diary for season one - which I wrote over the spring and summer - is more in-depth, with about five paragraphs each.

See you on Friday for "Paradise Sold".

Friday, December 9, 2016

December status update: where we've been, where we're going (+ my call to the Ben Dixon show)

my new Twitter header and all-around favorite picture at the moment

With the election behind us (but oh, not really) and Christmas on the horizon, this seems like a good moment to pause, take stock, and look both forward and backward. I have some big projects coming up and others that I've just completed, which I'll get to in a moment.

First of all, now that they've been bumped off the front page, let me take one more opportunity to point you toward my Favorites series that wrapped up in early November (a great way to share it is to retweet my tweet-storm thread featuring a picture, link, and line for each one). It began way back in 2012 and hadn't even reached the halfway point this fall but I resolved to finally plow through it by posting an entry every day beginning in mid-September. The end result is a hundred entries on the films that move me, approached in as personal, casual, yet thoughtful a manner as I could manage. Hopefully, they encourage you to check out some the great films they cover. I've also posted a couple Fandor videos on older films (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) related to the new releases The Birth of a Nation and La La Land (and if you like them, please share them - the Boston one in particular has gotten a disappointing number of views, unfortunately). Incidentally, Fandor has adopted a cool new format which displays my previous work quite nicely. In November I also posted my first political commentary on this blog in years (mostly in the form of Election Night tweets) and shared a series of podcasts I've appeared on.

So what's upcoming? Having resumed my Favorites series and Fandor video essays after abandoning them in the spring, two endeavors remain. The first, my numerous YouTube/Vimeo series (including both my Citizen Kane study and the various ongoing series) will have to wait until 2017 to resume - I'm not ready to jump back in yet (although I did post one stray video there last month which I worked very hard on, for Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl). The second, my weekly TV coverage, is ready to return but in a slightly different format for the moment. Several months ago, I finished watching Jane Campion's short mystery series Top of the Lake, writing long reviews of each episode along the way (it's a viewing diary covering my reaction as it unfolds, unaware of what will happen next - just as with The Prisoner - whose concluding entry I'll also be posting soon - and True Detective). The introductory entry will go up on Wednesday, and then entries will go up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, wrapping up inside December. Aside from Showtime's 2017 Twin Peaks, this will be the last time I cover individual episodes of a TV show in such depth. From now on, I intend to write shorter capsules, similar to the format of my Favorite series, as I'll be covering series with dozens, even hundreds of episodes in the coming years. I've already begun some of that work, but won't publish any given series until all the episodes have been completed. No more getting ahead of myself!

And before I get to the final item, just wanted to insert a little teaser: stay tuned for lots of Twin Peaks material in the new year. That kind of goes without saying, given the new episodes but even before that I am going to share a massive series of character studies I've been preparing for months, plus - hopefully - an episode guide I can publish concurrently with any rerun Showtime decides to air before the new premiere. As early as New Year's Day, I may be in a position to promise nonstop Twin Peaks content every single day as we count down to that relaunch.

Finally, some other business to take care of with this entry: I always like to link up to whatever else I'm doing online, including appearances on podcast. Usually this is something Twin Peaks- or occasionally film-related, but last month I actually called into a YouTube political podcast for a change. This political season I've become a big fan of The Benjamin Dixon Show, a left-wing live talk show (which I usually download to listen to on my phone as a podcast) that invites listeners to call in with the "name, comment, and/or question." Ben's commentary is fantastic because he takes clear stands without falling into the "can't criticize my own side" trap. With that in mind, I called in to mention something that had been bugging me - the tendency of a handful of leftists to dismiss protests of Donald Trump by employing right-wing talking points. This ended up launching Ben into a great discussion of his own, about conspiracy theories (especially those involving George Soros) and the need to balance between having standards and taking available opportunities. Hopefully I can call again at some point - if anything, I'm only going to have more to say about politics in the coming months and years though I don't suspect a whole lot of it will find its way onto this blog (tune in on Twitter if that's your thing).

Here's the full show (if you want to jump to my comment at 33:13, follow this link)



Buckle up, and let's extract what relief - and contemplation, and action - we can in 2017, in all areas.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Lost in Twin Peaks #4: speculating about season 3 w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped

fan poster by Austin Shaddix

Last month I spent a full episode with Twin Peaks Unwrapped discussing Mark Frost's new book; this month (well, technically, the last day of last month but I'm a few days late in sharing) we're back to the short and sweet format of "Lost in Twin Peaks" - this time I focus on what to expect, and not to expect, from the upcoming series. Don't get me wrong; I actually haven't a clue, like almost everyone else not named David Lynch or Mark Frost (and ok, a few of the crew members though the actors all seem to be in the dark outside of their own scenes). But these are my musings and hunches, so enjoy. I talk about why Twin Peaks might actually wander far beyond Twin Peaks; the possibilities of alternative universes in light of Lynch's interest in quantum concepts (inspired by Martha Nochimson's work in David Lynch Swerves); and my suspicion that the series will mostly drop the soap opera format (with reference to Dennis Lim's work in The Man From Another Place, suggesting how the timeless sensibility of Lynch nonetheless frequently manages to connect with the relevant zeitgeist). In addition to my two cents, the podcast features extensive talks with John Thorne, discussing the Log Lady intros, and H. Perry Horton, discussing his new book on Twin Peaks - well worth listening to in full.