Mini-Review: A Bit of a Fixer-Upper…

Gene Wolfe didn’t spend much time in the here and now in his novels. A clear majority of them are set in other worlds or other time periods, and if you asked a Wolfe cultist to recommend you some of his work they’d probably cite Latro In the Mist, The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus (and maybe The Wizard Knight) over any of his rare modern-day books, with the possible exception of his early career highlight Peace. The present didn’t really seem to be one of his interests; until The Sorcerer’s House, he hadn’t set a novel in the current era since 1990’s Pandora By Holly Hollander, and most of his modern-day novels were published in short breaks between major projects.

Just such a break presented itself in 2010, a point when Wolfe had completed The Wizard Knight and tacked another volume onto the Latro series, and sure enough he’s paid a brief visit to the present day in the form of The Sorcerer’s House, which has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a Wolfe novel but might be the best novel he’s ever done in a contemporary setting since Peace.

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Valley of Destin(y/a)

Dorothea Tanning is not primarily known as a novelist; her main claim to fame is as an artist, one of the original generation of surrealists who managed to keep her work fresher, develop her ideas further, and continue working for much longer than many of her peers. After initially making a splash in the 1930s, she kept producing artwork into the 1990s; if you hurry, you can still catch the excellent exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern.

In parallel with her artistic career, she had a less widely-appreciated literary career, and once her paintings and sculptures stopped flowing she spent the last decade or two of her life concentrating on poetry and prose, with an emphasis on the former. Chasm, her sole novel, came out in 2004, but it had a long germination, being as it is an expansion and extensive revision of the earlier short story Abyss, which originally appeared in 1949 before appearing in a revised version in 1977.

The Arizona desert which had such a great aesthetic impact on Tanning herself when she and Max Ernst went to live there provides the setting of the novel. Deep in the desert lies the mansion called Windcote, a bizarre architectural excess built by Raoul Meridian, a powerful, patriarchal manipulator with a fetish for women’s hair and a “laboratory” in which he constructs his personal homegrown brand of fetish equipment. Meridian has, over his lifetime, embroiled himself in the life of multiple generations of what you could call the “Destina dynasty” – a line of women all called Destina, ever since in the 1680s a forefather declared that all daughters of the line would be called “Destina”. There are currently two Destinas at Windcote; the elderly Baroness and a small child, looked after by her governess Nelly.

The tedium of life at Windcote is about to be disrupted; over the course of a weekend Meridian expects to greet various guests, among which are Albert Exodus and his fiancée, Nadine Coussay. In a decidedly Rocky Horror Show move, Nadine is 100% fine with coming up to the lab to see what’s on the slab (implication: her, with various sex toys of Meridian’s design interfacing with various parts of her anatomy), which leaves Albert at a bit of a loose end. Rattling about the house, he has a little tea party with Destina, with whom he gains a creepy fixation even as he falls out of love with Nadine, and who shows him various gruesome trophies brought to her by a “friend” out there in the desert.

Albert becomes fixated on the idea that Destina’s friend is, in fact, a mountain lion, and persuades Nadine to give Meridian’s hand-crafted dildos a miss, just this evening, so that they can go creeping into the desert chasm where Destina meets with the lion and see the lion. The two of them should watch out – bad things happen in the desert at night, particularly to a pair of individuals who aren’t communicating well with each other. Meanwhile, back in the house, Nelly finally gets Meridian alone…

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Agent Cooper, You Are Far Away

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The news of a third season of Twin Peaks, coming 25 years or so after we last visited it via the weird hybrid prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, felt both like a glorious opportunity and an enormous creative risk. Not only had plot elements from the original’s ending suggested that a comeback in 25 years might be possible, but also the spectre of network interference that was widely held to have scuppered the original was banished. Written solely by creative leads Mark Frost and David Lynch, and directed from start to end by David Lynch, the whole prospect gave the series creators far more control than they ever had (or could have dreamed of receiving) during the show’s original run. Early on in the production process there was a risk that Lynch would walk away due to not being given the budget to tell the story he wanted; Showtime buckled, gave him a free hand, and later took pride in promising viewers the “pure heroin David Lynch”. That in itself is testimony of how the original Twin Peaks changed the television landscape. The major question was whether the magic of the original could be recaptured.

I’m not going to get into a spoilerful analysis in this review (and will thank commenters for using spoiler tags liberally in the comments), but in short: no, to a large extent they didn’t recapture the old formula. They did not try to, and in retrospect they would have been fools to attempt it; in the past quarter of a century what was fresh and different about so much of Twin Peaks has become part of the standard toolkit of serial television. That “pure heroin David Lynch” line is apt, because more or less the only aspect of Twin Peaks that hasn’t been successfully imitated is the distinctive aesthetic vision and apt for utter weirdness that Lynch brings to the table. (Wild Palms largely sabotaged itself trying to go faux-Lynchian, and it generally hasn’t been a recipe for success since then either.)

It becomes apparent very early on in this third season (sometimes dubbed Twin Peaks: the Return) that Frost and Lynch know full well that their unique selling point lies in letting David be David; the big question was whether you could do that over 18 episodes of a TV series and not allow it to become frustrating and stale. Incredibly, they more or less manage it, and they do it by once again refusing to be bound by the accepted wisdom of how television works.

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“There Are Things Happening In This House…”

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Jacques Rivette was a director and film critic in the French New Wave movement whose style I would compare to a sort of cinematic equivalent of the magical realism strand in literature. You have the same combination of a real world, usually contemporary setting with hints of more unusual things going on and occasional overt lapses into supernaturalism, and a sort of enigmatic, reticent style of direction which, much like the narrative style of the magical realism authors, means that the story tends to keep its secrets close to its chest.

One factor which has made Rivette’s material hard for newcomers to appreciate is the extreme length of some of it. Whilst Rivette would make films of a more usual running time, his most famous work, Out 1, is a truly daunting prospect. There’s an abridged version entitled Out 1: Spectre, which goes at over 4 hours, but the full experience – Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is an epic of almost 13 hours long. That’s naturally a barrier both to home media release and for cinematic revivals.

However, Arrow Academy have blessed us with an expansive boxed set, encompassing both versions of Out 1 and several subsequent projects in a similar magical realist vein, allowing for perhaps the easiest entry point to this difficult body of work ever offered to the public. Though they were filmed after, I will tackle the subsequent movies first, before moving on to a detailed analysis of Out 1.

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It Is Happening… Again

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

I’ve got good news: that gum you like is going to come back in style. Twin Peaks is returning for a new season after a 25 year gap that seems strangely planned, and I’m tremendously excited about the whole thing. One thing which is particularly gratifying is that show masterminds David Lynch and Mark Frost have remembered that Twin Peaks was an early example of a multimedia event, with tie-in media offering non-essential but sometimes fascinating supplementary material to enrich the experience.

One of the nice things about these items is that they were diegetic to the series, presented as artifacts from its world – sometimes representing significant plot points. Murder victim Laura Palmer’s secret diary, for instance, was a significant clue – and was actually published for us to read. Thus, ahead of the new series, Mark Frost has put out The Secret History of Twin Peaks, representing one supporting character’s idiosyncratic take on the subject that provides a few tantalising hints of what might be coming up, but focuses more on contextualising some of what has come before.

So, how best to catch up with Twin Peaks? The first port of call should probably be the now ironically-named Entire Mystery blu-ray set of the show’s original run, which includes all the episodes of both seasons, extensive extras, the prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, and – to the great delight of fans – a fat stack of cut scenes from Fire Walk With Me, spliced together by Lynch into what almost qualifies as a supplemental movie.

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To Know Is To Die

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Although the Mel Gibson movie adaptation, which guts its nuances in order to fit into a Hollywood-appropriate running time, might be more prominent in some circles, I think in the long term it’s the original production of Edge of Darkness that will stand the test of time. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin – whose other credits included the first draft of The Italian Job, and directed by Martin Campbell (who in between directing this and the Mel Gibson version directed Goldeneye and the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale), it’s an unmistakeable artifact of the 80s which, perhaps due to the fact that it pays only passing notice to the Cold War and deals with subject matters with half-lives greater than the lifespan of even the most secure nation states, still seems deeply relevant.

Ron Craven (Bob Peck) is an experienced Yorkshire police detective, who one dark and stormy night in the mid-1980s collects his adult daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley) from a meeting of a left-wing student organisation. As they’re dashing through the rain from the car to their front door, a man steps out of the darkness, screams Craven’s name, and raises a shotgun; Emma rushes forwards and takes both barrels to the torso and the the assassin flees into the night, leaving Emma dead at Craven’s feet.

Craven’s colleagues in the police think it’s a revenge killing – Ron worked in Special Branch in Northern Ireland during some of the most vicious parts of the Troubles, and therefore doesn’t want for enemies from that quarter. However, as Craven goes through the weirdly intrusive but sadly necessary chore of getting her possessions in order, he makes a string of alarming discoveries – a Geiger counter, a radiation dosimeter, and a vicious-looking automatic pistol. Craven knew that Emma was a member of Gaia, a radical environmentalist group, and he was aware that Gaia had planned some sort of action involving Northmoor, a privatised nuclear facility owned by International Irradiated Fuels.

Is it possible that, despite all Craven’s warnings, Emma and her cohorts actually went to Northmoor – and if so, does that mean she was the assassin’s target? Mysterious Whitehall duo Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice) certainly think so, and so does an American contact of theirs, the avuncular CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker). On top of that, American businessman Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson), owner of the Fusion Corporation of Kansas, seems to have his own interest in the affair, particularly since he intends to purchase International Irradiated Fuels (and Northmoor with it). Just what is inside Northmoor that could be worth all this subterfuge? What vision does Grogan have for the future that requires him to own Northmoor? What extremes will Jedburgh go to in the pursuit of his own agenda? And is Craven merely imagining things in his grief, or is he really being guided in his investigation by the ghost of Emma?

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The Sorceror’s CEO

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

1986’s Edge of Darkness, a one-series-and-done thriller about murder, nuclear cover-ups, ecology, space colonisation, global extinction, and the role of ancient secret societies in all of the above, prompted a brief fad for dramas featuring a touch of magical realism or esoteric conspiracy here and there. They didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, mind, but if you look back the common threads become markedly more evident. The strangely compelling VHiStory blog, in which the author watches all the VHS tapes that have sat piled up in their garage for the past couple of decades, has made convincing arguments for a number of series as attempting to mimic the style and success of Edge of Darkness. Of these, both Jute City and Wipe Out have almost entirely vanished from view; neither has had an official DVD release, and whilst Jute City has appeared in bootleg form on YouTube footage of Wipe Out seems to be impossible to find. VHiStory makes a good case that Jute City seems to have followed the Edge of Darkness checklist a little too closely, whilst if Wipe Out‘s directly copied scenes from Edge of Darkness as VHiStory claims that might have created legal as well as commercial barriers to giving it another release.

Wipe Out was broadcast alongside The One Game, the third series VHiStory identifies as belonging to this “a bit like Edge of Darkness” microgenre. Unlike the others, it has enjoyed a DVD release, and for my money it stands on its two feet very well. Like Edge of Darkness, it’s full of ambiguous moments which can be read as suggesting a far more esoteric interpretation of events, but unlike Jute City or Wipe Out it benefits from a drastically more original story and an aesthetic style all of its own.

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