Lost in the Movies: April 2015

True Detective episode 2: "Seeing Things"

The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).

The first episode of True Detective left me uncertain whether the show would go for mood and texture or character and plot, but "Seeing Things" definitely emphasizes the latter qualities. It is very investigation-oriented. We learn about the "ranch" where Dora Lange turned tricks before her murder. We also meet her drugged-up, mentally ill mother (Tess Harper) and in an episode full of creepy touches, the picture of Dora as a little girl surrounded by men in Klan regalia is one of the creepiest. (Turns out it's not Klan regalia - ed.) And through Dora's eerie sketchbook/diary we glimpse more details about the "Yellow King" who may have lured her into a pseudo-Christian cult, whose burnt-out church we discover near the end of the episode. This is one of the show's most memorable locales thus far, especially after Cohle's intuition leads to the discovery of a mural on its wall - featuring a naked woman crowned with antlers and crouched in a position similar to Dora's in that field.

True Detective episode 1: "The Long Bright Dark"

The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).

As it happens, just yesterday I started reading an anthology of mystery stories. In the introduction, author Tony Hillerman writes about the change in mystery-writing over the course of a century, from when the primary purpose was solving an intellectual puzzle to when the story's purpose became, in Dorothy Sayers' phrase, "literature of expression." By way of example, Hillerman cites one of the last stories in the anthology:
"Now, skip ahead to 1998 and 'Poachers.' In Tom Franklin's story the puzzle matters hardly at all. Here you meet real people - three orphaned and brutish brothers who live as predators in the wet woods of the Gulf Coast south, the old widower who loves them, and the sheriff who pitied them all. Who killed two of these brutal boys and blinded the third? You never really know. If you care, you can take your pick. In any case, the muddy river, the endless rain, the half-wild hunting dogs, are more important than the plot."

L'Amour Fou

Jacques Rivette's work is unusual because it evokes the uncanny by slightly skewing ordinary reality. Rather than emphasizing surreal, disorienting imagery, his scenes usually play out at a leisurely pace, allowing the actors to embrace strange idiosyncrasies and expand upon them. L'Amour Fou is often cited as the beginning of this trend, the moment where (after the restrained adaptation of La Religieuse) Rivette began to let his freak flag fly. For a while, the underseen film was generally positioned as his breakthrough but many more recent reviews generally peg L'Amour Fou as a transitional project in which Rivette works his way toward the themes and approaches he will pursue in his subsequent magnum opus, the thirteen-hour Out 1 (which was even more rarely seen than L'Amour Fou until 2007). I don't entirely agree with either interpretation since the director's debut, Paris Belongs to Us, already presents Rivette's vision fairly intact if not quite fully-formed. However, the director's experimental approach to L'Amour Fou was a bold new step for Rivette, building upon playful improvisation and mixed media rather than a solidified screenplay.

True Detective: the viewing diary (first season)

As the viewing diary unfolds, this directory will be updated

Original introduction

Next week I begin my first TV viewing diary for Lost in the Movies, an episode-by-episode reaction to True Detective, the hit HBO series from last spring, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as state cops in Louisiana recalling a grisly murder investigation from 1995. I have already composed partial episodes guides for Twin Peaks and Neon Genesis Evangelion (which will pick up again the week after my True Detective series concludes). The difference here is that these are my reactions immediately after watching each episode for the first time. As such I will not be offering in-depth analysis or tying together all the loose ends, but rather responding to my shifting impressions of this world and its characters. As I am not a psychic, the posts will not contain spoilers for upcoming episodes and new viewers are invited to read along as they watch too.

However, the comments section - should readers choose to use it - may be trickier to navigate. I would love to hear from any new viewers as they watch along (either now or on a later occasion) but I also expect that veterans will be discussing plot and character in-depth - a discussion I will probably join myself. So if anyone wants to share their impressions without risking spoilers, email me at movieman0283 at gmail and I will publish your comment with your name, for others to read. Then when you have watched the whole series you can come back and read the larger conversation. But, just to repeat and emphasize, the posts themselves will be completely safe for you to read.

As for the spoiler discussion, let's get started now! Let me know below what you thought about True Detective. I will be somewhat sparing in my responses (after all, I don't want to completely "spoil" my own upcoming posts!) although I've already shared general impressions on Twitter and elsewhere. But I'm really curious to hear what you think.

Other than that, the first episode will go up on Wednesday, April 22, with further episode coverage arriving each Wednesday through June 17, six days before season two begins. See you there.

The Polemic as Poem: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 3 of 3) on the future of video essays

Part 1 of this interview covers Kevin's award-winning video essay Transformers: The Premake while Part 2 covers the aesthetics of making - and watching - video essays.

In the final installment of my 3-part interview with video essayist Kevin B. Lee, we cast the net wide, discussing specific video essays, overall trends in the video essay world, and the future of the form. As an introduction to the conversation, I would recommend watching What Makes a Video Essay Great? (featured immediately after the jump) Kevin's 2014 recap which illustrates many of the topics we will discuss, including Dina Fiasconaro's The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese's Work which he compares to another Scorsese video using similar clips. Her video and others discussed in this interview are embedded at the end of this post.

The Voice of the Video Essay: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 2 of 3) on video essay aesthetics

Part 1 of this interview covers Kevin's award-winning video essay Transformers: The Premake.

There are many ways to design, and many ways to watch, a video essay. In the following discussion, Kevin and I discuss his work, my work, and that of other videomakers. When does a video need narration to make its points, and when does narration get in the way? Should the essayist intervene in the film clips at every available chance, or occasionally allow the original work to play without interference? What defines a video as clickbait vs. artpiece, fan tribute vs. scholarly analysis, criticism vs. filmmaking? Can it be all of these things at once?

• • •

Desktop Dynamite: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 1 of 3) on Transformers: The Premake

Last summer Kevin B. Lee made a splash with his clever, thought-provoking short film Transformers: The Premake, which documents the global production of Transformers: Age of Extinction through fan videos, news articles, online conversations, and other media, including Kevin's own footage of the Chicago shoot. But is Transformers: The Premake a short film (the Berlinale Film Festival seemed to think so, screening alongside other shorts a few weeks ago)? Or is it a video essay, a work of criticism in audiovisual form? Can it be both? Is there a difference between the video essay and the essay film? Kevin himself calls it "a desktop documentary," describing the form in which it is presented (through multiple windows opening and closing on what appears to be a desktop computer) but he's open to multiple classifications. One of the exciting things about a new form like the video essay is its ability to cross and confuse boundaries, and this too is something Kevin is more than eager to discuss.

Kevin B. Lee has been making video essays for close to a decade, beginning on his film blog Shooting Down Pictures, which sought to review every title on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They Top 1000 list. In fact, he is often credited with inventing the form (at least in its online incarnation), though he is quick to note precedents ranging from Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) to Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself). Kevin is a unique founding figure in that, appropriately enough for a form which mixes criticism and filmmaking, he doesn't just make video essays - hundreds of them by this point - but also questions, interrogates, and analyzes them. Indeed, one of his most recent videos serves as a kind of meta-encapsulation to this entire approach. What Makes a Video Essay Great? explores its titular question with nuance and imagination, captioning videos with further captions, alternating his own narration with others, comparing clips of clips side-by-side...submitting video essayists to their very own sword.

After Kevin returned from the Berlinale, he and I spoke for several hours over the phone, discussing the Premake as well as other videos (by him, me, and other essayists) and larger issues with the video essay form. Here is our discussion, condensed and reorganized, but I hope it will only be the beginning. I want to hear what you think, about the specific video essays we discuss, about video essays in general, and about the relationship between criticism, creation, and fandom in this complicated digital age.

I have embedded Transformers: The Premake after the break, and it is recommended you watch it before reading Part 1 of the interview, which focuses exclusively on this work. Parts 2 and 3 of this interview, addressing broader topics in video essays, will appear tomorrow and Tuesday.

This Cherry Pie is a Miracle! (Twin Peaks at 25)

This was written before the weekend's news, but feels more relevant than ever. We could certainly use a miracle now. I think we'll get one.


David Lynch's and Mark Frost's TV show Twin Peaks premiered twenty-five years ago today as the story of an FBI agent arriving in a small town to investigate the murder of a beloved young woman. ABC ran it at 9pm as a two-hour Movie of the Week. The pilot launched a thirty-episode run (eight in the first season, twenty-two in the second) followed by a prequel feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. To my surprise, I did not include any specific plot spoilers for Twin Peaks despite some vaguely suggestive details and discussion of its overall direction.

A collection of my other work on Twin Peaks follows this essay.

A quarter-century after its splashy debut, Twin Peaks remains both influential and ignored. Its influence has been frequently discussed, especially in our current epoch of thematically and visually ambitious cable television. What's amazing is just how widely this influence can be felt, on everything from dark, gritty police procedurals to light-hearted quirky comedies to bizarre supernatural sagas. That's because Twin Peaks touched on so many different genres, transforming them in the process before handing them off like macabre Christmas gifts (from a Jack Skellington-esque Santa, I suppose) to future generations of showrunners. However, I'm more interested in the ways Twin Peaks has been ignored.

The Twin Peaks Crisis (including Obnoxious & Anonymous podcast)

My interview with Kevin B. Lee, video essayist, was announced on Twitter but will actually go up next week, in three parts.

Well, I'm sure you've heard the news. Twin Peaks is now without David Lynch. According to the auteur, Showtime will not give him what he wants so he has walked. As far as he knows, the series will continue, but it will be without him. The outcry on social media was both predictable and astounding. As soon as Kimmy Robertson (who played Lucy on the original series) posted her cryptic but not-so-cryptic posts on Facebook, fans took to their various venues and declared their outrage. Twin Peaks became the second-ranked trending item on Twitter, after "Happy Easter" and Showtime's Facebook page was deluged with hate.

Here's what I think: this is not a bluff (Lynch really is planning to walk if/because he didn't get what he wanted) but Showtime will bend over backwards to get him back. Their response suggests that they didn't see this coming, and that he has essentially pulled a fast one on them. In negotiations, ironclad principle will always defeat business considerations. The latter is subject to reconsideration, the first is not. Perhaps I'm naive, but I believe Lynch will be directing all nine episode of Twin Peaks. I think this is where he needs to be, the defiant artist bucking the system, and that this is about that as much as anything.

I discussed the fate of Twin Peaks with three other prolific Twin Peaks commentators on the "Obnoxious & Anonymous" channel of Cameron Cloutier, whom I have discussed the show with on two previous occasions (in the summer and the fall). Let me know what you think in the comments - video follows after the jump...

My Adventures in Television: I begin a Wednesday tradition

From now on, Wednesdays will be devoted to entries in my "viewing diaries" for various TV series - most of which I will be watching for the first time

As we slip further into the twenty-first century, the long-standing division between cinema and television continues to blur. The experimentation and artistic quality long assumed to be the provenance of film are increasingly found on TV and perhaps more importantly, definitions of the medium are changing. Shows like True Detective and the upcoming renewals of Twin Peaks and The X-Files promise to tell enclosed stories rather than stretching themselves out over multiple seasons to keep viewers tuning in. The term "showrunner" has come to mean what "auteur" did for a previous generation - a designation asserting the television show's right to be considered an artistic venue and not just a vulgar commodity. Meanwhile the gulf between art and entertainment has grown wider in movies, always a sign that decadence and decline have set upon an art form, while many of the most-discussed and loyally-followed TV shows manage to fuse the satisfactions of good drama, the challenges of complex characterization, and (to a still somewhat limited extent) the flavor of adventurous style.

Or so I hear. I have not seen most of the acclaimed and/or popular shows of the last decade, and have missed out on many earlier precedents (like The Prisoner or The X-Files) which supposedly helped pave the way for shows with overarching mythologies and enclosed, but extended, stories. I am now planning to address this oversight.

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