Features

“For the Last Time” – Five Years of Twin Peaks: The Return

By now, you probably know me. I love Twin Peaks. It is a show that does things for me that even shows I love more cannot do. It’s also a show that I will take any excuse to talk about for annoying lengths of time and this time, that excuse is the five year anniversary of the release of the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return. Let me set up what the angle is here then. This isn’t me reviewing all of The Return, this definitely isn’t me trying to explain what the show is about or what certain scenes mean, it’s just me talking about how I feel about these first two episodes after five years with them. I’ve seen the whole show twice before and am rewatching it again for this piece (and for a follow up one in September about the finale), so it’ll be a mix of me talking about things I’ve picked up this time and also reflecting on what it felt like back in that first summer of Twin Peaks. There will obviously be some spoilers for these episodes in the post, but by now you either have seen the show, will never watch the show or don’t click on articles where I chat Twin Peaks, I think we’re all clear.

We knew this would be the return of Twin Peaks. Anything more than that, you have to tune in.

In the run up to Twin Peaks making its grand return, we knew basically nothing about what the show was going to be. Eventually, we started to be drip fed information. One of the earliest and most curious pieces of information was a full cast list, which contained a bunch of surprising names. Monica Bellucci? Sky Ferreira? Michael Cera? It was odd and especially among the expected returning cast, a lot of these newer names stood out. What role they would play in the show we didn’t know but we knew to expect them around in some form or another. More cryptic teasers appeared in the run-up to release and offered just the barest of information about what was to come. First, it really was absolutely nothing, just footage of Angelo Badalamenti playing iconic music from the series, to the point where footage of David Lynch eating a donut felt like a big step up. Eventually, some of the final teasers gave us fleeting glimpses of iconic locations or characters from the original series and then, that was that. We knew this would be the return of Twin Peaks. Anything more than that, you have to tune in on 21st of May (or be at Cannes, but we can’t all be that lucky).

The first two episodes were released as one “feature length presentation”, which is why I’m clumping them together and though I really am going to try to not just talk this through scene by scene, I need to spend a moment on how well the opening sets us up. We open in the Black Lodge, the most iconic Twin Peaks visual there is. In fact, we open with footage from the original show, as Laura Palmer says to Agent Cooper “I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…” Cut to, 25 years after we had last been in Twin Peaks, we are reunited with Coop and a character we will come to know as The Fireman. The Fireman gives both Cooper and the audience a series of clues that will help decipher the mystery, in a way that feels reminiscent of Lynch himself giving audience members clues to decipher Mulholland Drive. These clues all come back into play by the end of the series, but also don’t expect them to reveal the true hidden meaning or anything like that. They’re for exploration, not guiding. Coop says “I understand” but as an audience member, feel no shame if you don’t, whether on viewing one or five.

If this were a revival show in the same way that other classic shows have had revivals, we would immediately move from this into a scene of another beloved character getting up to classic hijinks. We kind of do, these early episodes have a surprising balance of that, but it isn’t quite that simple. The scene following the Fireman’s clues is one of Doctor Jacoby getting a delivery of spades. It’s odd in a way that Jacoby is odd, but not… Well, not immediately punchy. The payoff is worth the wait, but I remember initial confusion about why we were shown something that felt unsatisfying. The only immediately satisfying reunion is that of Ben and Jerry Horne, owners of the Great Northern Hotel. Little seems to have changed for them since the season two finale, with Ben still being a sleazeball who tries his best and Jerry being a guy who is free to goof around whenever he pleases. Other than with them, you’re going to have to wait for some really satisfying character moments. Once again, I cannot stress enough how much some of these moments justify their wait (a moment with Big Ed remains one of the most fantastically moving moments I’ve ever seen on TV), but don’t start The Return hungering for immediate comfort.

Things can never be as they were. We can never truly return home.

It’s one of the things that makes this revival such an impressive piece of work, because all our expectations are upended immediately and place us in total suspension. Things can never be as they were. We can never truly return home. Time’s arrow marches on with or without us. Nothing is as brutal a reminder of this as the appearance of The Log Lady. In real life, Log Lady actress and long time Lynch collaborator Catherine Coulson was battling cancer during the production of The Return and revived her character out of adoration for Lynch and Twin Peaks co-writer Mark Frost. There was no way of sugar coating this and so in the show too, The Log Lady is also battling cancer, requiring dialysis tubes and losing her hair due to chemotherapy. Her scenes are patient, as she says the last few messages her log needs to give the world and on the other end of the phone, Deputy Hawk listens with nothing but respect and love.

These scenes are still set in the otherworldly land of Twin Peaks but, as the best of Lynch’s work does, they ground fantastic worlds in understandable emotions; in this case, grief. Not every actor can return to Twin Peaks looking as glam and wonderful as ever, buoyed up by a little medical enhancement and a lot of good genetics. Not every actor can even return, like the much missed David Bowie and Jack Nance. And heartbreakingly, since the premiere of the show, we have lost yet more actors who brought their characters back for one last ride. There’s an argument to be made that because of this, The Return is a show forced half into mourning, which is never felt more strongly than in the absence or the imminent absence of those we have always loved.

Which leaves the question, what do we fill those spaces with? Lynch and Frost’s answer is, a huge world full of loads of other weirdness. In these two episodes alone, we dash between New York, Las Vegas and South Dakota in between our time in the town of Twin Peaks. That felt very weird for me on a first watch. The original run of Twin Peaks worked so well because while it gestured towards a larger world, it was almost always grounded in small town America, aggressively refusing to compromise on that vision. So in going out into the big city, had Lynch and Frost lost their spark? The answer, of course, is no. This isn’t a losing of a spark, just the two channelling their spark into a new circuit. We have good reason to be here, it just might take time before we work out what that reason is.

It might take time for some of those locations, but not New York. An enigmatic setup of a man, watching a box, itself watched by a series of cameras, is disrupted first by a sexual encounter and then by a violent one, as *something* (even now, I don’t have a great answer for what the something is) explodes through the box and murders the two lovers. Whether you know what this story means or not, you can grasp what the emotion means. We aren’t in the cutesy world of the original Twin Peaks series anymore, we’re in the world of David Lynch’s feature films, where sex and violence are hyperreal explosions perforating a surreal status quo. The freedom of modern TV means we don’t have to shy from gore or nudity anymore and Lynch is promising that he won’t. This is far closer to the griminess of Fire Walk With Me than even the darkest moments of classic Twin Peaks.

Sex and violence are hyperreal explosions perforating a surreal status quo.

While Lynch only directed a handful of episodes of the original Twin Peaks, he directed every single of the 18 episodes of The Return, which helps explain why it fits into this broader pattern of his filmography. For a caught up surrealism nerd like me, that was great news then and remains great news now. For those who wanted cutesy fun and a splash of murder, it’s also worth noting that Riverdale came out the same year, and may offer a watered down version of what you want. Because make no doubt, The Return is the show David Lynch wants to make. He doesn’t care if you understand it, he doesn’t care if you like it, he definitely doesn’t care if you think a scene is too long. You either have to take his world exactly as it is or accept that this isn’t for you. There is no shame in that, despite my Riverdale quip, this really is an acquired taste from episode one.

Once you have acquired that taste though? Oh my God, delicious! Re-watching the show, everything fits together so much more comfortably. I’m no longer worried about how (or if) everything will fit together, because I can see the bigger picture of the narrative. That feeling allows moments to really breathe. Comedy can be funnier, scares can be scarier and Matthew Lillard can be more Matthew Lillard. I wanted to talk about him (in my notes this section was just about him) but I had to tie him in to a wider thing somehow. I love his performance in The Return, fitting into the classic trope of a man accused of a murder he’s sure he didn’t commit, a role that offers such delicious room for him to flex the acting muscles.

When I first saw this episode, Lillard was just Shaggy from Scooby Doo for me (an admittedly great time, no slander here), but now that I’ve seen him in films like Scream, I have a better appreciation for him as a performer. The guy is crazy versatile and if you too only know him from those crazy roles in the nineties and early noughties, just watch his scenes from this on YouTube and prepare to have your socks knocked off. He is frightened, forceful and furious in incredibly subtle ways, balancing on the edge of about six different knives. Lillard gives one of the best performances in The Return and the more you see of the show, the more you’ll realise what an immense compliment that is. If you had any fears about what new characters might do to pollute a world you loved, he assuages them immediately.

“Shadow” evokes a comfort in me that everything will be alright, yet it still allows an excitement about the uncertainty to come.

And finally, after a very bonkers two hours, we reach the end of the episode. We’ve watched the Black Lodge tear itself apart (a metaphor so perfect I’m furious I never wrote an academic essay on it), seen old friends show their age and also been introduced to the new threads that we’ll spend the next 16 hours following, probably. So we have earnt one last return to Twin Peaks and where better to cool down than The Road House or, as it has now been trendily updated to, The Bang Bang Bar. Playing at the bar are the band Chromatics with their song “Shadow”, a song that now never fails to give me goosebumps. It is quietly and ethereally beautiful, excellent in ways that I am far too stupid to actually explain other than “it fits the vibe very well”. The song evokes a comfort in me that everything will be alright, yet it still allows an excitement about the uncertainty to come. There are plenty of other amazing songs played in The Road House, but “Shadow” is the perfect one for this moment.

In this scene, we also get one last reunion, as we are reunited with Shelly and James, two of the characters from the original series with the most screen time. Here we find Lynch and Frost at their sappiest, allowing two characters to reminisce. Though it was pretty much immediately made fun of by many fans, Shelly’s line “[James] has always been cool” always landed for me. It’s a lie, but a lovely one to indulge in, a rare moment where The Return does feel like the show fans expected it to be. Even this is undercut though by the appearance of actor Walter Olkewicz, last seen 26 years ago as Jaques Renault, a character who died. Why is he here? Is this the same character? Perhaps The Road House exists in a different world than the rest of the show? These three questions will never get conclusive answers, yet their appearance is the needed salt to undercut the sweetness of Shelly’s comment about James. No matter what it looks like, this will not be the return you expect from Twin Peaks.

There was so much just in these two episodes that I never got to mention. The first appearance of a woodsman, the brilliant use of uncanny CGI and the excellence of Kyle MacLachlan in two of what will eventually be four roles. The Return is so dense that after five years, it doesn’t feel like we’ve come close to finding everything and yet it is also so well balanced that this density is never cumbersome. Regardless, at this point you have to go along for the ride that Lynch, Frost and all their collaborators are taking you on, because the places they are going are wonderful and strange. I’ll be back in September to talk about the last two episodes so if you’re looking for my thoughts on the stuff in the middle, just message me, talk to me, demand my ever-so-interesting thoughts on the way “Episode 8” fits in with a globally surreal vision of the impact of the atomic bomb. But until then, I’ll write on something more accessible, I promise. Maybe another review, remember those?

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Oscars 2022 Predictions

Oscar week is here and if you’re anything like me, it snuck up on you! This year I was really hoping to do a big old write up of all sorts of categories, but I am running up against quite a few deadlines and still trying to do the obligations that no one expects from me but me. So here we are! Six big categories to run through, my amateur opinion to run through them with. As ever, I am not responsible for you using my advice in any sweepstakes you may be involved in, especially because my own predictions have changed since I submitted my predictions at my work sweepstakes. But this is all a bit of fun, awards are pointless and nothing matters, especially because Belfast will win and ruin any good will I had for the ceremony. So hell to it, let’s predict wildly! And while we’re at it, let’s lament those potential better winners! Oscars!

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Kirsten Dunst for The Power of the Dog

Should Win: Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter

Setting the trend early, the Best Supporting Actress category is filled with some incredibly worthy nominees and some that, while not necessarily bad, feel puzzling. Chief of these examples is Judi Dench for Belfast. Dench is a filler vote, someone for voters to choose because they know who she is and not because she actually gave one of the five best supporting performances of the year. There was room for so many other incredible nominees to break through, but instead Dench’s wobbly accent and Cats-PTSD inducing monologue made it. She’s a great actor, but that doesn’t mean all of her performances deserve recognition. I also don’t feel strongly about Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard, though that may be because the film itself leaves me so cold. She has one great monologue in a kitchen, it will be the clip they show at the ceremony, I don’t want to besmirch a performance from a film I barely remember.

Now we get to three amazing performances from three actors who I think may stand a chance at taking the trophy. Ariana DeBose seems to be the bookies favourite at the moment, for her joyous performance as Anita in West Side Story. She was a totally new actor to me when I saw the film, but her and (the cruelly snubbed) Mike Faist have been my strongest impressions since seeing West. DeBose completely lit up the screen and has frankly earnt her place here for the “America” number alone. Something in my gut though says that Kirsten Dunst will pip her to the post, for The Power of the Dog. I feel like I am way overestimating the winning power of the Dog (classic me, betting on losing dogs), but this feels like the right time for Dunst. After decades in the industry, she has finally secured her first Oscar nomination and it’s for a great role. What should be the cliched “housewife turns to substance abuse” type role is lent a delicate fading of hope by Dunst, in what is my favourite turn from her since Fargo. Speaking of Fargo, the season four star Jessie Buckley is my favourite performer of the bunch for her work in The Lost Daughter. I think Buckley is one of the greatest working actors today and she finally gets Oscar recognition for a character who has to be understandable to the audience despite also making irrational and unlikable decisions. Despite being unlikable though, there is something in Buckley that draws us deep into the character and her work lends the film an anchor from which Colman can work in the present day sections. Her win here seems unlikely, but I can live with that because Buckley will almost certainly be back again to pick up that trophy some other year.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Troy Kotsur for CODA

Should Win: Kodi Smit-McPhee for The Power of the Dog

This is a weird category, in that I think that every actor in the category is a really great actor, but not all are giving particularly great performances in their nominated films. Case in point, Ciarán Hinds for Belfast. Hinds is an actor who has had a wide and brilliant career, even giving good performances in delightful trash like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. However, he is in Belfast. We’ll talk more about the film itself later, but his role is kind of thankless, just off to the side. I guess he’s one of the best things in the film, but that is low praise. Similarly, Being the Ricardos is a bad movie, yet the brilliant J.K. Simmons is in it. He got nominated because his character appears one note and yet opens up to show another side. But also, he’s incredibly watchable, because he’s an actor who can string bronze out of hay. Again, he is one of the best parts of a film that is not good.

The other three actors however are all very worthy nominees for the roles they’ve played. Two of those three are from The Power of the Dog. Jesse Plemons has never given a performance I didn’t like and this is no exception. He’s a great counter balance to Cumberbatch’s lead, offering a genuine loveliness. One line delivery from him properly warmed my heart, in ways you wouldn’t expect from a film like this. Also not being what is expected is Kodi Smit-McPhee, an actor who has never wowed me but has a knack for choosing films I like (one day Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will get the acclaim it deserves). In Power, his character is a coiled spring, slowly unravelling until he pops. It’s a treat to watch and his performance is my favourite one of this category. For a while, Smit-McPhee was the frontrunner but at the last minute, it seems like Troy Kotsur will take it for CODA. This is no crime. CODA is not a film I am crazy on, but Kotsur is absolutely brilliant. His brutish presence hides a softness and while it’s hardly a big secret, it’s one that made me smile to see appear. He is funny and gross and has the biggest emotional moments of the whole film. If CODA deserves recognition for anything, it’s for Troy Kotsur.

Best Actress

Will Win: Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos

Should Win: Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter

I am not exactly enamoured with this field of nominees. Again, it’s a selection of very talented actors but absent of any career best roles. I will get it out of the way now, I haven’t seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye, so have no idea if Jessica Chastain is any good in it. She wears a lot of prosthetics, plays a real person and has been playing the awards season game well. I have a manager who thinks she’ll take the prize but I’m doubtful personally. I’m also going to be controversial, I don’t think Kristen Stewart is that great in Spencer. It hurts me to say that because the film has not seen the love it deserves, but I found Stewart’s performance (the sole Oscar nomination for the film) alienating in all the wrong ways. She has also not been getting much recognition this season, so I don’t think a win is on the cards, but her performance of Diana is one that will attract many voters regardless. Penelope Cruz is deserving of her place here though, for great work in Parallel Mothers. The film is a rollercoaster of melodramatic emotions and without someone to latch onto, many audiences would feel lost. Cruz is exactly that figure though, someone who the audience can latch onto with ease. There is something about her in Spanish speaking roles where she suddenly is an amazing actress (especially her collaborations with Almodovar), which is a trend Parallel Mothers thankfully falls into.

It is a toss up about who my favourite actress of the race is, between Cruz and Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter, but I think I settle on Colman. She plays the same character as Jessie Buckley (talked about a little earlier up the page), yet does so in a way that feels totally unique. I think it’s a credit to the two actors to say that they make the same character feel totally separate and of course, Colman brings her best with her interpretation. She bubbles under the surface, being hard to read and yet paradoxically never too hard to understand. She’s not as great as in The Favourite, but she’s still the best of this bunch. Unfortunately though, I have a gut feeling that Nicole Kidman will win for Being the Ricardos. I can’t put into words why I think she’ll win, but I just feel it. That’s a special shame because her performance is terrible and exactly the kind of performance I hate. She plays an existing (and beloved) figure, looks unrecognisable and has multiple showy monologues. It hits you over the head with capital a Acting and I never believed it for a second. Yet I still feel like it’s where the Academy will lean. Let that show you how low my estimations of that strange little group are.

Best Actor

Will Win: Will Smith for King Richard

Should Win: Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog

In most years, the Best Actress category is the one with the performances I like the best whereas Best Actor is just men being gruff and playing historical figures. In a move of progressiveness though, this year the Best Actress category is uninteresting and Best Actor is full of some genuine gold. Not among that genuine gold is Javier Bardem for Being the Ricardos. Again, I don’t like this film and its reliance on big Acting, that abandons subtlety or grace for long monologues about old actors. I’m happy Bardem is getting a chance to play roles other than weird bad guys, but this is not the direction I want him to move in. We’ll brush over this briefly, I have not seen The Tragedy of Macbeth yet. I’ll try and see it before the actual ceremony but it has me intrigued. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have captured the attention of the Academy, as Denzel Washington is one of very few nominations for the film. I wish him luck, but he’s another actor who is here so often that a loss won’t be a big blow.

Big three time. Isn’t Andrew Garfield great? Just, in everything. He’s done stuff I liked more than Tick Tick Boom but this remains an impressive display of his talent. It is literally all singing, all dancing and so while it’s showy, what it shows is that Garfield is very talented indeed. He’d be a great outsider winner. That almost certainly won’t happen though, as one of these two gentlemen will take it. Current favourite is Will Smith for King Richard. I don’t like this film and I’m also not crazy on Smith as an actor (apologies to anyone offended). This is certainly some of his best work, but from me that’s low praise. But, he’s overdue an Oscar, maybe this is his year, before I Am Legend 2 or Bright 2 obliterates the actors existing good will. I’d personally go with the early frontrunner Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog. He’s an actor who I’ve liked before but never been that crazy on, yet in this role I was totally absorbed by him. His character has this rough exterior and it fades through the film, allowing you to glimpse through at the layers crafted underneath. I have no doubts that another watch would reveal even more to this great performance, but I’ll just appreciate it this much for now.

Best Director

Will Win: Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Should Win: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi for Drive My Car

I wouldn’t always talk about Best Director in my Oscar predictions, but this year I feel like there’s actually decent reason to discuss this category as well as Best Picture. As ever, I should clarify that as an observer it’s always hard to break down what makes a great director, but I’ll do my best to justify why these directors do or don’t stand a chance in the running. We’ll start with everyone’s favourite menace to society Kenneth Branagh, nominated for Belfast. He is nominated alongside four complete titans in the field and for a film that feels almost accidentally made. The only reason he could win is because it does feel very much like a personal film from him, but I wouldn’t write that acceptance speech if I were Ken. Similarly, a win for Steven Spielberg seems unlikely, despite him being Steven Spielberg. Don’t get me wrong, West Side Story is a cracking little film, but it has been very underseen and is Spielberg being the usual brilliant Spielberg. He’s great, but that’s no surprise. Similarly low in the odds for running is Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza. It’s a film that has been really well loved by many and one that demonstrates the trademark attention to detail that PTA brings to all of his films. However, it feels like a lot of the hype has died down, we’ll see how well it does at the actual ceremony.

All but guaranteed to walk away with Best Director is Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. There’s a lot of cynical reasons for this. Her name has been front and centre for the marketing of the film, it’s a way of celebrating a Netflix film without letting it win Best Picture and it looks progressive having a woman win Best Director two years in a row. There is also an uncynical reason for Campion winning and that is that she has crafted a brilliant film. She has wrangled in top tier editing, cinematography and performances, all in a film that feels incredibly controlled. It’s hard as an outsider to know what else to credit directors for other than that. However, Campion is not my choice. Instead, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is my choice for the miraculous Drive My Car. Like Campion’s film, control is the word. This film is three hours long, yet somehow feels perfectly balanced. The longer a film is, the more it has to justify every minute and yet justify Hamaguchi does. I would not cut a single scene. I love Drive My Car and am backing it in every race this year, but this is one category where its loss would not feel a tragedy. Four titans (and one Branagh) enter the thunderdome, only one can leave.

Best Picture

Will Win: Belfast

Should Win: Drive My Car

It is the one everyone scrolls down to read every year, because it’s the only one that matters! Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a selection to set my soul on fire. There’s some good stuff, sure, but we have to shovel our way through the shit before we get to it, and even then we may discover yet more shit. Speaking of, Don’t Look Up! I don’t like this film and I don’t really know anyone who does. Yet, it seems to have some swell of support behind it. If it won, it would be pretty much the funniest possible outcome, causing an immense shitstorm through all sections of the internet. I am almost rooting for it. Not as bad but more unlikely a winner, King Richard is nominated for Best Picture. How? Moving on. CODA is being touted by many as the current favourite, but I am prepared to once again underestimate this film and its odds. It does nothing for me aside from a few nice scenes and some great performances, yet many like it. There’s a chance of victory, I’d rather something else win though, a win would seriously damage the films legacy when much greater films are in contention.

We now start to move more towards worthy nominees, but ones that also don’t stand a chance. Case in point, West Side Story. It’s gorgeous, an entertaining watch and a take on material that has previously won Oscars. However, it stands no chance. Dune also stands no chance. It’s a brilliant blockbuster made with genuine craft, yet it is big space nonsense. Maybe when Dune: Part Two comes out it will pull a Return of the King and get enough awards for the whole franchise, but this first entry will have to be happy with some technical awards through the night. Licorice Pizza is also a really well made and really likable movie, but it is rocking around with too many controversies in its boat to be a slam dunk of a choice. I liked it quite a lot when I first saw it, but I haven’t thought about the film much since, probably a bad omen. Elsewhere, we find Nightmare Alley, an excellent film made by an Oscar winner that no one saw and that most people who did see thought was too dark or too long. I, however, loved it. It’s big and indulgent, sure, but it’s a true craftsman getting to indulge so I was happy to be there. It also has no chance. So it goes.

Big three time! For most of this season, The Power of the Dog has been the Best Picture frontrunner, and why shouldn’t it be? It has big themes, it looks amazing and it just gives more and more to you as you continue to think about it. There are two reasons I don’t think it’ll get Best Picture though. First, its heat has faded. Awards season is all about riding the rollercoaster for as long as you can, but it seems like Power hasn’t quite got there. Second, it’s a Netflix film. That still feels like a big bridge for the Academy to cross, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. No, I think we’re at Belfast. I hate Belfast. The last three months have allowed a bad impression to only further sour, letting this poorly made film fester under the spotlight of my brain. But it’s in black and white, it plays songs people know and it has “crowd pleaser” written all over it in big gold font. With the way Best Picture is voted on, it is exactly the middle of the road kind of rubbish that could Green Book its way to a win. Exactly the kind of win that would shut out a worthy competitor like Drive My Car. It is the film in this race I am most in love with by a large margin, a patient ode to the transformative power of love, grief and art. The fact it could even be nominated here is honestly enough of a win for me, because it stands no chance of winning. But man, if it won, I would almost certainly throw my back out again celebrating, like I did with Parasite. It seems like my spine may be safe though, sadly.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Trash

Hi everyone. My name is Henry Jordan and I love trash. I love trash food, I love trash music and I especially love trash films. I love trash films so much that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on them (and if you’re interested in a more academic spin on the article you’re about to read, let me know and I can send you a copy). But I often have difficulty explaining that love to other people. Which is where this post comes in. With this being a new dawn for my blog, it feels right that I should get in a post as early as I can about the joys of trash and where trash virgins (not to be confused with trash virgins, if you catch my drift) can get their first fix.

I’ve tried to explain before what it is that makes trash films so great, but it’s very difficult without the help of a therapist, able to psychoanalyse why my brain is as broken as it is. So instead, I want to introduce you to five key films that show you different aspects of the badfilm experience. If any of these take your fancy, there’s a whole world of trash behind them that I’m trying to open the door for. They each come with a follow-up recommendation and I’m more than happy to supply any additional recs to those still curious for more. But essentially, if you’ve ever wondered what the deal is with bad films/trash films/however we want to define them, these are the ones I think you should start with. So gather round with your friends and your intoxicant of choice. Let’s dive down into this nightmare together.

The Room

If you’ve seen any film on this list, it’s probably The Room. However, this being a beginner’s guide, I still feel like we absolutely have to touch on The Room. It is the insane brainchild of Tommy Wiseau, a film which he directed, wrote, produced and starred in. The plot is… Well, like so many of the films we’re going to cover, the plot is inessential, but let me give it a shot anyway. There’s a man named Johnny, who has a girlfriend named Lisa. Lisa is cheating on Johnny with his best friend Mark, which creates tension and drama between them all. Around this is a boy named Denny who keeps popping into the titular apartment, Lisa keeps meeting up with her mother (who definitely has breast cancer) and there’s a whole host of other characters who do nothing and have no purpose. They all come in and out of this room in San Francisco (why San Francisco we do not know), until the film is over. This is The Room.

But a simple description of plot can’t do justice to The Room. Only watching it can, because only when watching it do you realise how poorly all its elements fit together. Johnny comes home to Lisa, complains about his job and then they have sex. It’s quite a long sex scene and a very uncomfortable one, but it’s one we will see again so buckle in for that. Then Mark (who again, is Johnny’s best friend, please remember this) comes round to also sleep with Lisa. This sex scene is less awkward to watch but still not great. Another sex scene comes ten minutes later and then the whole thing really goes off the rails. Random characters come and go (sometimes changing actor with no fanfare), Johnny does important chores like buying flowers and in case you forgot where this film is set, there’s occasionally a filler shot of an iconic San Francisco landmark. This continues for the entire 99 minute runtime with absolutely no reprive.

This nonsense string of events, tied together by apparently only the delusion of the screenwriter-cum-lead actor, is made even more excruciatingly brilliant by Wiseau. His performance is dire, every line sounding like it barely managed to escape his mouth, though not without being tainted by his very thick accent. You might think that other actors would do better but no, they’re also hampered by Wiseau’s awful dialogue and terrible direction, direction that is legendarily terrible. The infamous moniker of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” is not unnearned, as every single time I rewatch The Room I spot a new terrible detail that rocks my world. The most notable one was that on viewing number five, I realised that the rainy window prop used for one of the sex scenes is actually a stand-alone part of the room, not even connected to the wall. It’s the reason why group viewings are so valuable to your experience of The Room, because a new pair of eyes can often reveal a mystery that you hadn’t even considered.

The Room embodies the kind of badfilm that exists because of single minded lunatics, one of the most fruitful genres there is. As such, it’s hard to find only one film to recommend here, but I’m going to go with Ben and Arthur. It has been called The Room for the homosexual community and that feels fairly spot on. Again, it is terrible dialogue, used to fill scenes that feel completely unrelated to each other, before leading to an entirely unearned conclusion of extravagant melodrama. Though once quite hard to find, I believe Ben and Arthur is currently kicking around somewhere on YouTube, so give it a look if you’ve already enjoyed the many pleasures The Room has to offer.

Miami Connection

If you’re planning on experimenting with badfilm, films that sit very comfortably within genres are one of the safest bets you can have. More specifically, horror and action seem to deliver reliably, because even their failures end up becoming endearing. While there are plenty of bad horror films I could recommend, I’m sticking to action today and recommending Miami Connection, one of my most treasured discoveries. It is the timeless tale of a rock band who must use their taekwondo skills and friendship to stop a gang of drug dealers and ninjas from bringing their stupid cocaine into Orlando. You know, one of those tales.

In the same way that The Room is frontloaded with a lot of sex scenes, Miami Connection is frontloaded with a lot of musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are all absolute bangers and you will be streaming them as soon as the film rolls credits. To give you an accurate idea of how rad the band are, all I have to do is tell you their name; the one, the only, Dragon Sound. Though the lyrics are dorkily charming (such as those in their song “Friends“, about being friends for eternity, loyalty, honesty), the vocals and guitar playing genuinely rock. I love them so much that I bought a Dragon Sound shirt, which has been recognised twice in public to my intense delight. If you don’t find yourself humming at least a few of the songs days after a viewing, something has gone wrong.

The other thing that takes up the majority of the runtime in Miami Connection is fight scenes. Sometimes those fights are with guns, sometimes with swords, but mainly with awesome taekwondo skills. And if you’re thinking “hang on, but how do the main characters all know taekwondo?” then fear not, we have training montages, in which our band (who are also housemates and orphans and seem to share one tank top between them all, don’t ask) slow mo punch each other in the face. It is truly giggle worthy stuff that is essential to the film because it also paves the way for our finale, an action spectacle that ramps up the melodrama in totally unexpected ways. Even in the world of cheesy action movies, there are very few things like it, especially its closing message.

Speaking of the world of cheesy action movies, there are so many other choices for recommendation, but I know where my heart goes. My heart goes to Wakaliwood, the Ugandan action studio that makes and distributes its action movies from a slum on the outskirts of Kampala. Their films are low budget but high passion and even better, their best film Who Killed Captain Alex? is available for free on YouTube. If you enjoy it, buy merch from them and support their work, because this is that lovely little area where independent filmmaking and badfilm obsession cross over. It’s where the magic happens.

Showgirls

I don’t think Showgirls has a genre, but if had I to categorise it, it would be in the genre of Hollywood excess. It’s one of those films that cost a lot of money, made very little of it back and was a completely intoxicating trainwreck to watch happen. Lots of debate has been had in the 25 years since release regarding whether the film is secretly a masterpiece or is actively dangerous, including at the cinema I work at. One of my managers is very insistent that Showgirls is in fact a masterpiece, an insistence that is not shared by the other members of staff. I do not believe that Showgirls is a misunderstood masterpiece (as its place on this list proves, sorry Lorcan), but I remain captivated by it regardless. It took up a huge section of my dissertation, as I attempted to muddle my way through how the film works and after 3000 words I still didn’t get to the bottom of it.

So why does Showgirls compel me so? Let’s start with the plot. A woman named Nomi Malone (do you get it? No Me, I’m Alone) travels to Las Vegas to make her name as a showgirl. Though she starts off in the sleazy strip clubs on the outskirts of the strip, she soon dances her way up to the big leagues as an erotic dancer. The path to fame is littered with sex and scandal and more sex. I mean holy shit, there is so much nudity in this film. The original advertising played hard on this, clearly trying to bring in the horny men in their hordes, a tactic which backfired quite dramatically on the film. That fact becomes more hysterical the more you watch the film, as the nudity loses any eroticism and the films excesses become more and more absurd. The best big budget disasters are exactly this, films that collapse under their own excess. The fun of Showgirls in particular is just that the excess is an excess of the flesh (and you’d better believe there’s a late capitalist reading of that, see my dissertation for proof).

As with so many of the the films on this list, Showgirls is also brilliant because its dialogue is terrible. Instead of wasting all my time writing out my thoughts, I could have just put down three paragraphs of Showgirls quotes and you’d have understood. In that spirit, I’ll give you a couple of my favourites: “It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you”, “She looks better than a ten-inch dick and you know it!” or “I used to love Doggy Chow” to choose but three. These lines are delivered with admirably straight faces by the actors, whose playing it straight is one of the things that makes Showgirls compulsively watchable instead of nightmarish. David Lynch’s favourite boy Kyle MacLachlan is a sleazy guy with interesting pool habits, Gina Gershon is a screen-chewing starlet and as Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley is commendably committed. Berkley in particular suffered from cruel reviews on initial release and in supporting Showgirls so voraciously, I feel like I’m sticking a middle finger to the misogyny that nearly ruined her life. I’m also laughing at the film, but people are complex, we’re capable of both at once.

The trick with big budget disasters is picking ones that are terrible in interesting ways. A film like Pan is blandly bad, where Catwoman is so insane it works. A lot of it comes down to personal taste, so I’ll instead look a little lower budget for excess and recommend you the Patrick Swayze action film Road House. In Road House, Swayze is a bouncer for dodgy bars, brought into a particularly dodgy bar to clean the place up. He succeeds, by puching people in the face a lot. Then at one point, there’s some guy who turns up who wants to take over the entire town. Something about monster trucks, there’s a helicopter, an entire town becomes thirsty for blood. It’s action packed and homo-erotic and no, maybe not the same vibe as Showgirls, but it is a film as addicted to the same excess, making it also legendarily bad.

Vampire’s Kiss

Nicolas Cage is such an incredible actor that his films become something of a genre unto themselves. His films are sometimes genuinely brilliant or sometimes painfully boring, but he is always irrefutably watchable. Again, narrowing down options has been my only difficulty. Face-Off is prime Cage but too much of a good film to include, whereas Cage is brilliant in Deadfall until he is prematurely killed off and the film takes a dive. In the end though, it had to be Vampire’s Kiss. If you, like me, spent a lot of the early 2010s watching Nic Cage freakout compilations, a lot of Vampire’s Kiss is going to be very familiar to you, as it’s where so much of the best stuff comes from. This is Cage, in his prime, going all out on a concept that requires total dedication. You bet your sweet ass that Cage puts his all into it.

The setup is simple. While clubbing, Nic Cage’s character picks up a woman who he later believes to have been a vampire. He finds bite marks on his neck and therefore assumes that he is now becoming a vampire. We’ve all been there. It’s left ambiguous whether this is actually the case but regardless, he must deal with his “transformation” while still doing his job at the marketing house he runs. Cue Cage freakouts. Though the audience are left uncertain if Cage really has been bitten by a vampire, Cage believes it fully. He chases women through his building, hides from sunlight and even buys himself a pair of fake teeth to fit the part. It is the purely illogical, taken to its logical extremes.

As I’m hopefully getting across, this film is only as brilliant as it is because of Nic Cage. There are some truly vintage moments in here, even excluding all the ones that are such brilliant acting gestures that words couldn’t communicate them. As I list these scenes off to you, please bear in mind that these are all real scenes that really exist from a real movie. In one moment, Nic Cage screams the alphabet to his therapist (yes, the whole thing). In another, he attempts to crush himself under the weight of his own sofa. In one climactic moment, Cage is walking down the street with a piece of wood and begging passers by to kill him. Cage has done so much brilliant work in the field of the subtle over the years, but when he wants to go full insane, no one does it better.

To recommend another film, the only place I can turn is another Nic Cage film and this time we’re going to The Wicker Man. Please don’t confuse it with the original and actually great Wicker Man from the seventies, this is a terrible remake with Cage singlehandedly saving the entire film from obscurity. It is the origin of the iconic “No, not the bees” clip, as well as a film in which Nic Cage spends much of the third act running around in a bear costume punching women in the face. It is as stupid and brilliant as you could hope for from Nic Cage, it’s your next port of call for when you want to get back in the Cage.

Fateful Findings

And finally, we end on another single minded maniac. The one, the only; Neil Breen. Breen is, like Cage, a genre unto himself, although his roles are more numerous than Cage. You see, Breen is an independent filmmaker who stars in, directs, writes, produces and does so much more for his films. He does so much work on his films that he makes up fake company names for makeup or catering companies, to hide yet more work he has done. So far he has made five films and all of them are exactly the same flavour of completely batshit filmmaking, plot and acting, blended together to make the weirdest smoothie you’ll ever drink. Of all his films though, Fateful Findings may just be the crowning achievement.

For all the films I’ve covered, I’ve attempted to explain the plot to you. I am going to struggle doing that with Fateful Findings, as there is simultaneously no plot and too much plot. Let me try and explain it, stop me if it sounds like I’m having a breakdown. Breen plays a writer, who as a child discovers a magical rock in the woods with his crush (“it’s a magical day” we are told). Breen gets hit by a car, taken to hospital but it turns out he’s fine. His wife is addicted to pills and is stealing his painkillers because she is addicted to pills. She is addicted to pills. Please, it’s important. There’s also another couple, where the husband is an alcoholic and the wife is a former porn star, probably. They have a daughter who tries to hit on Neil, but then the childhood crush comes back and then “NO MORE BOOKS” and then the wife dies and then “I’m gonna shoot this damn car full of holes” and then “I can’t believe you comitted suicide” and then government secrets and then “I resign as president of the bank” and then it’s a happy ending, what a magical day. Got it? Good.

Even after all my time watching bad films, there is nothing like the films of Neil Breen. Sure, other films have bad acting or bad dialogue or awkward editing, but not like this. This is a whole other level of bad and it makes Breen’s films so consistently refreshing. Be warned though, there are times where the experience of watching his films can feel like the experience of reading the plot summary I gave. It’s a lot to take in and you may feel like your brain is trying to escape through your ears. All of Breen’s films are like this, whether it’s Fateful Findings or I Am Here… Now (a film in which space Jesus Neil Breen comes down to heal humanity) or Twisted Pair (Neil Breen plays mutant twins who are battling each other and it has nothing to do with testicular trauma). Though they can be hard to find, Breen’s films are worth tracking down, to experience one of the greatest artistic voices badfilm has ever given us.

In honour of Breen, let’s go back in time for the final recommendation, to another auteur whose terrible films are truly legendary. Badfilm fans already know it, it’s Ed Wood, specifically his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both Breen and Wood heavily use stock footage to pad their runtimes, but that’s not the only similarity between our two auteurs. Breen uses plenty of terrible digital effects, but it’s not hard to imagine that a version of him in the fifties would have used practical effects and sets in a similarly poor way to Wood. Wood also makes films where the plot is total incoherent nonsense and will cause your brain to break beyond belief. I had an experience with Plan 9 where I watched it while a flatmate was listening to the song “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” and I started laughing so hard that my flat had to come check I was alright. It’s transcendentally terrible. When you’ve enjoyed the work of the modern master, go back and honour one of the greats.

I had way too many films to pick for this list. Once you start digging through trash, you’ll be amazed how deep it goes, whether you’re in the straight to VHS era in the eighties or the “there’s no way this was in multiplexes” era of the past decade. I didn’t even mention some of my favourites, like Cyborg Cop (and its magnificent sequel), Hard Ticket to Hawaii and the entire Andy Sidaris catalogue, Ma, Troma’s War, Samurai Cop and Troll 2, to name only the best examples I’ve found over the last five years. There’s a whole terrible world out there and if you ever need a guide, I am always here to be your Virgil for this trash inferno. I love recommending trash to people and not just because it gives some purpose to the hours of my life that would otherwise be judged to have been wasted on this finite time we have on Earth. Recommending is fun, you’re having an existential crisis, shut up. Just come dumpster diving with me, lets find some trash and have a terrible time together.

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