“A Real Indication”


I just watched David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the 1992 prequel to his brilliant television show.  The film’s ostensible story is the telling of what happened in the days just before Laura Palmer’s death.  It’s real story is a human soul and mind in disintegration, of the hidden dangers lurking just beneath the seemingly normal exterior of the human psyche.  One of the things I enjoy most about Lynch’s work is their deliberate interiority, the way the line between what is real and imagined is blurred into non-existence.  It’s difficult to tell the difference between things that happen in the physical world, the so-called “real” world, and the things that happen in the minds of his characters.  It’s a very real possibility that there is no “real” world in Lynch’s films, just an extended dream sequence meant to represent the darkest thoughts, desires, and nightmares of human beings.  In short, this is one weird movie.

This song from the soundtrack of Fire Walk With Me is definitely cut from the same cloth as the film.  David Lynch wrote the lyrics, Angelo Badalamenti the music.  And like everything else Lynch has his hands on, there is a sense of unreality to this song.  It’s unmoored from context or genre.  Jazzy but not quite Jazz.  Spoken, not quite sung.  It reminds of Pere Ubu or the Residents.  Or Was Not Was’ great “Dad, I’m in Jail.”  I googled the name of the band listed as the performer, but there doesn’t seem to be any information on Thought Gang; most of the hits related to a novel of the same name by Tibor Fischer.  That seems appropriate.

It’s also totally appropriate that this clip simply uses the empty red room from Special Agent Dale Cooper’s dreams.  And Laura Palmer’s dreams.  And the Black Lodge.  You won’t know what any of this means unless you’ve seen Twin Peaks.  I’m not sure you’ll understand this post at all unless you’ve seen Twin Peaks.  I highly recommend both the TV show and the movie, and pretty much every other movie David Lynch has made.  He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, although I admit to not having seen several of his films; I think he’d like that.  I am positively vibrating in anticipation of the new Twin Peaks episodes premiering in May.  I’ve been watching whatever they air on Showtime in preparation for the return to one of my favorite imaginary places.  But then again, isn’t every place in Lynch’s world imaginary?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for cherry pie.

Gone to the Movies: “Suicide is Painless”


I caught part of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H on TCM the other night.  I’ve always been a huge fan of the TV show, and I really like the film–although I can see why some folks who saw the show first would be put off by it.  It’s black humor at its finest, with Altman’s signature style of vignettes and realistically overlapping chaos guiding the story of the lives of the personnel in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.  (I will never call it a “police conflict” even though that was its official designation.)  The movie was much more like the book, which I also read.  The film and the book are vicious satires of war and social mores, although that was somewhat diluted by the charm of the series.

Here’s the context for the song: The 4077th’s dentist has decided to kill himself because he couldn’t, uh, perform one night.  The surgeons, including Hawkeye and Trapper John, indulge his moment of vanity by setting up a fake good-bye party and giving him a “black pill” that is probably nothing more than a mild sedative.  They all say their farewells while the song is sung (yeah, there are lyrics to go along with the ubiquitous melody).  Later, Hawkeye convinces a nurse who’s going home to have sex with the dentist as a way to get him back in the saddle.  This is apparently no hardship for anyone since the joke about the dentist is that he is, um, quite well-endowed.  From the recreation of The Last Supper at the beginning, to the “resurrection” via sex at the end, the scene is perfectly played.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the name of the dentist up until now.  If you’ve seen the movie, you already understand the double meaning of the song’s title.  (If you haven’t, well, you should.  It’s a great flick.)  The dentist’s nickname?  Painless.

Of course, the idea that “suicide is painless” is also ironic.  There is nothing painless about suicide, for anyone involved.  The somewhat nonsensical lyrics of the song and the smiling, easy to hum tune belie the reality of the act.  Johnny Mandel wrote the music, while Robert Altman’s son Mike wrote the lyrics, which the director reportedly wanted to be as dumb as possible  (Altman’s son was only fourteen when he co-wrote “Suicide is Painless” for his dad).  Of course, the whole scene in the movie is about the unreality of this particular act, highlighted by the selfishly trivial reasoning behind it.  The dumbness of the lyrics are actually a perfect fit for the dumbness of suicide.

Gone to the Movies: “Bye Bye Life”


I just watched the end of All that Jazz on some channel or another (I think it’s one of the offshoots of a local broadcast channel, but I’m not sure).  I probably shouldn’t have.  Not because I don’t like it; All That Jazz is a terrific movie.  It’s based loosely (or not so loosely) on the life of Bob Fosse, who directed the film.  Bob Fosse was one of the greats of theater/film, and he was a favorite of my father’s.  The film centers on Joe Gideon, who is slowly working/smoking/drinking/fucking/pill-popping himself to death.  It’s his heart, of course, which is highly susceptible to hard living.  My father lived pretty damn hard in his time, and his heart is finally what gave out on him.

Maybe it’s the couple of glasses of wine I’ve had tonight.  Maybe it’s seeing the movie.  Maybe it’s because Dad’s birthday is just a few days away.  But it got to me.  I’ve recovered enough that I’m not currently in a fetal position; maybe I’ll do that later.  I don’t know.  I know I’ll never really put his death to rest, I’ll never quite get over it.  I’ll always feel like I could have, should have done something more–even though I’m pretty damn sure there isn’t anything else I could have done.  Even though I know it isn’t true, I’m always going to feel responsible somehow.  There’s always going to be a shadow of a doubt, a small recrimination that I should’ve taken better care of him.

And I’m always going to wish I had another chance.

Gone to the Movies: End of the Century


I’m still really thrown by Tommy Ramone’s death last week, so I’m a little off my game.  Sorry.

One of my favorite music documentaries is End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones.  It’s wonderful and moving, and I learned a lot about one of my favorite bands from watching it.  I think you guys should watch it, too.  Sorry about the subtitles, though.  If you can’t stand it, watch the movie through your media portal/service of choice.  You won’t be sorry, although you might be a little sad.

Gone to the Movies: “The CIT Song”


I like movies, but I’m not really a movie person.  I’m not a cinephile, or even a buff.  I tend to make snap judgements on movies based commercials or trailers, sometimes reviews if I’m on the fence.  I won’t pay good money to go see a popular movie if I think it’s going to be crappy.  (For example, I’ve never seen more than about ten minutes of Titanic, and that’s just the way I like it.  Frankly, it was ten minutes too many.)  But I also won’t pay good money to see a critically acclaimed indie movie if I have no interest in the story.  I have no tolerance for mindless action movies, or juvenile slapstick and toilet humor.  As a result, there are a lot of movies I’ve never seen, and probably never will see.

I wasn’t always like this.  When I was a kid, I’d watch anything.  Which is probably what explains my great affection for 1979’s Meatballs, starring Saturday Night Live alumnus Bill Murray.  Its very loose plot is about how the counselors and kids navigate friendships and romance, all while competing against the local rich kids camp.  (A lot of Bill Murray movies feature some subtextual commentary on class, something I think someone should be doing academic studies on.)  Really, it’s just a feature-length excuse for kids to say funny things, sex jokes, and Murray hamming it up (“Hey, you, on the waterskis!”).  It’s exactly the kind of movie I would snub today.  But that would be a mistake, because Meatballs really is kind of funny.  There are good characters, and a lot of heart to it.  It also featured one of my favorite bad 70s songs, David Naughton’s “Makin’ It.”

It also featured this little gem.  I don’t know the origins of “The CIT Song,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers based it on some actual campfire sing-along for Counselors in Training (CITs).  It’s one of those songs I sing randomly, for no apparent reason.  It just pops into my head, and I have to get it out.

This movie almost makes me wish I’d gone to summer camp, or been a counselor.  Almost.  It would’ve been fun if I actually didn’t have to do any sports or activities or anything else they do in the movie.  And if maybe they could’ve eliminated any possibility of sleeping outdoors.  Or, really, any outdoor activities other than a nice walk or two, and sitting beneath some shady trees reading.

Gone to the Movies: “Superstar”


I debated a little with myself about posting this one, mostly because I am not a Christian; I’m not entirely sure this is my territory to cover.  The message of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t quite separate from more traditionally religious or conservative interpretations of both Christianity and Jesus, but there is a decidedly liberal bent to how Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber portrayed Jesus, Judas, and the rest in their musical.  Most importantly for me, though, is the fact that you don’t have to be a believer to take part in the discussion this musical and movie bring up.

Let’s start with the music.  Although many churches now incorporate Rock/Pop music into their services, back in 1970, turning the last weeks of Jesus’ life into a “Rock Opera” was tantamount to heresy.  I think it was a brilliant move on Weber and Rice’s part; the music helps make Christianity and the spiritual questions raised by the story accessible to younger people who were often alienated from the staid formality of religion.  The musical is about a conflict between Jesus and Judas over the direction of Jesus’ ministry, which ultimately leads to Judas’ betrayal, and both their deaths.  Judas is portrayed sympathetically, as a man concerned that Jesus has become more important than the message.

It’s not an unusual viewpoint.  Nikos Kazantsakis used a similar perspective in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ (a beautifully written book with lyrical prose, just in case anyone is interested).  In the novel, Jesus had planned everything leading up to the Crucifixion, including Judas’ betrayal, because he knew that’s what had to happen; Judas was the sympathetic best friend trying to talk Jesus out of it for much of the book.  The problem with Judas being a sympathetic character is that it removes him as a villain from the story, something many conservative Christians don’t approve of.  It introduces and element of ambiguity to the traditional narrative: “Did you mean to die like that?  Was it a mistake, or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”  If Judas wasn’t evil, if he was in some sense doing exactly what Jesus wanted him to do, then is Jesus always purely good?

I like this version.  I think it makes Jesus even more supernatural, and more spiritual.  If he knew what he was doing, what would happen if things continued down this path, that makes his sacrifice even greater in my book.  It also means that he understood what he was giving up–the chance at a long and happy life, a family, a comfortable living as a carpenter.  And Judas is redeemed.  He might have felt overwhelming guilt at giving up his friend and savior for thirty pieces of silver, but he was doing what he had to do, what Jesus required him to do.  That makes his love for the man even greater.

This doesn’t even touch on the brilliance of casting a black man as Judas in the film.  Carl Anderson was exciting and charismatic, and he belted out “Superstar” like a Baptist preacher.  And his very presence raised a whole host of questions about race that never get fully resolved by the musical (largely because these questions still haven’t been resolved over forty years later).  “Superstar” is the climactic song in the musical, summing up the one question everyone (sometimes literally) danced around throughout the entire film: “Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”

That question can only be answered with, or without, faith.  Or more accurately, faith in one answer or the other.  But while “Superstar” the climactic song, it is not the final scene.  That’s reserved for a shot of everyone leaving the scene of the crucifixion, then, in modern street clothes, climbing back on the bus that will presumably take them back to the modern world.  Of course, only one cast member is missing.

It’s one of the most affecting final scenes I’ve ever watched.  It leaves the final question of faith entirely up to the viewer, but also makes it clear that this is something enduring and eternal.  Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t convert me to a believer, but it does help me understand belief.