A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.
The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.
The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.
Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.
The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.
The eye is all-seeing
Death becomes staged as a TV commerical
The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.
Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.
Diane (Laura Dern) speaks to Cooper’s doppelgänger (Kyle MacLachlan) in the darkness, sans coffee, navigating her relationship with Cooper, screaming out in “FUCK YOUs”, helping Cole (David Lynch) and the FBI’s investigation. Cole is more restrained, whistling along, more serious than comedy makes him out to be. We see more of her personal life, her partner leaving her apartment. Cooper’s doppelgänger sits in lockup in Yankton, Sioux City: in his stares, he carries none of Cooper’s personality, unable to even respond to Diane. Even his fingerprints are an inversion of Cooper’s. His position must be negotiated with Warden Murphy (James Morrison), moved into the Sherriff’s Department in chains, his position reversed; he must be free.
Janey-E (Naomi Watts) waits by her car, a motherly figure to Dougie: her husband can’t gamble; must meet her at the specified time. As police seek a location to Dougie’s missing vehicle, she reiterates her position in life amid the stress of running a family; there’s more to life than cars. In the episode’s most beautiful sequence, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek) storms through a crowd with a gun in the Lucky 7 courtyard, alongside the tree from the Red Room. In documentary fashion, Lynch documents the vox pops and news footage reacting to Dougie’s heroism: “he smelt funny”; it was a blur, like a cobra; a gun gets placed away as evidence.
Lynch seeks to expand upon the legend of Laura Palmer. Ben’s (Richard Beymer) secretary, Beverly (Ashley Dudd), lives in a time where Laura’s name is no longer known, faded from relevance. But her and Cooper’s identity is embedded within the haunted physical space of the Great Northern, amid its wood and Native American totems, as we feel a trace of the past in the keys to 315, the room where Cooper was shot in the finale to Season 1. In the Sherriff’s Office, Hawk (Michael Horse) retrieves missing pages from Laura’s diary, coming to terms with their significance. Hawk and Frank (Robert Forster) must attempt to reconstruct the past of who came out of the Lodge, moving a case from closed to open. Laura’s missing pages are perhaps this series’ greatest connection to Fire Walk with Me (1992) and its brutal depiction of Laura’s sexual abuse. In her scrawled handwriting, we’re reminded of the fate of Annie, and Cooper’s transformation, and Laura’s torment with the duality of embodiment of BOB and her father. These scenes feel like exposition, but it’s functional, serving to both forward and rewind the narrative. Lynch wanted ambiguity in Laura’s demise, but by reaching back to the diary, he creates a narrative path forward, filling in the shades he left open.
In the roadhouse, we sense how Laura’s story never existed in isolation; the Renaux family keep up a decades-long business, an industry in blonde 15 year old whores, not caring about age. Laura, for all her sexuality, was never special; her story found a mirror in Teresa Banks. Maybe another of these women will end up in a similar fate. It’s cyclical.
Lynch places us firmly back within Twin Peaks, WA. We travel along the natural landscapes of the pines amid the misty mountains, nature standing untouched for millennia with a spiritual connection to the past. Twin Peaks’ natural landscape is its defining aspect, an escape beyond the city. Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) phones Ben up in the Great Northern from the forest, still high, not knowing where he is. Neither do we. Lynch relies upon the absurd and abstract: Frank Skypes Doc Hayward from his desk, played by the late Warren Frost (Mark Frost’s father), out fishing. Lynch could easily be rational and place a PC or laptop on his desk, but instead frames the conversation through retro yet modern tech, a desktop display rising through the wood panelling with the crank of a lever. These may only be small details, but add to the series’ charm.
However, Lynch still restrains his geography. He relies on static shots, setting a mood. Lynch holds the frame for several minutes in the Bang Bang Bar as a janitor clears up the bar’s mess as Booker T. & the M.G.’s Green Onions plays in the background; bands can’t perform all the time. The power of Green Onions has been destroyed through its continual usage, from the mods and rockers of Quadrophenia (1979) to the faux 1960s of Legend (2015), yet Lynch somehow manages to make it listenable. In the closing shot, we see the Double R Diner at night; Shelly (Mädchen Amick), Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Heidi (Andrea Hays) serve customers, and it feels like home. Lynch continues the investigation in Buckhorn as we question what happened to Briggs’ body and Cooper’s prints, building suspense as Lieutenant Knox (Adele René) notices a looming figure behind her shoulder.
How did we get Moonlight? Jenkins might seem a product of the film school generation, but as he relates on Awards Chatter, he studied at Florida State University, the only school he could afford; the film program was run out of a football stadium. Jenkins interned at Telluride, watching films, handing out tickets and making popcorn, meeting filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, Lynne Ramsay and David Cronenberg. He worked as assistant on Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), jaded with the Hollywood system, moving to San Francisco. He was a stagehand and carpenter trying to pay bills, unloading boxes at Banana Republic. Jenkins made Medicine for Melancholy (2008) with people from film school, influenced by Linklater’s Before films, using $15,000 from a friend and paying only 3 people, wanting to “prove to myself that film school wasn’t a fluke.”
Jenkins worked on other projects, becoming a programmer and moderator at Telluride, working on branded content with his largest budgets ever. As Kevin B Lee explores in his video essay Barry Jenkins Before Moonlight, his distinct style and focus upon character begin to emerge, illuminating minority perspectives from the Latina protagonist of Chlorophyl (2011) to the Arab American couple washing flags in a Laundromat in the wake of 9/11 in My Josephine (2003). We sense Jenkins’ entire aesthetic and technical brilliance, through out-of-focus shots and depth of field.
What the fuck are you doing? Why haven’t you made a fucking film?
Producing a film about African Americans in a Miami suburb was always going to be a struggle. Working with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s studio, alongside A24, the studio’s first in-house production, Jenkins had a $1.5 million budget and 25 days. Romanski “ignore[d] the idea that the industry couldn’t make a black, gay movie with no big stars”, with a budget where, as Jenkins describes, “other people can’t fuck with us”; Jenkins couldn’t even afford rehearsals. Jenkins adapted the film from an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney, a cinematic, non-sequential piece, writing the screenplay in 10 days from a hotel room in Brussels. Jenkins felt a personal connection, as though “Tarell took these memories of my memories and put them in a dream state”.
Moonlight is a queer film, a black film, an Oscar winning film and an independent film about drug abuse, poverty, masculinity, mothers and sons. It’s a punchline about how La La Land lost its Oscar, sitting alongside Gone with the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1943), Ben-Hur (1959), The Godfather (1972) and Schindler’s List (1993) and other Best Picture winners. Moonlight deserves it, carrying weight to anyone who was a kid, had a mom, was bullied in high school, had a crush, without sacrificing its specificity as a film about a black queer kid growing up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mom. Jenkins felt his aggressive empathy could only go so far, but tried to “mine my life for what was true and authentic”.
Studying at FSU, Jenkins found “everybody’s movies looked and sounded the same”, dominated by Wes Anderson knock offs, turning instead to Criterion laserdiscs and the films of Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai. In early pitches, Jenkins stressed the importance of “Queer Black Cinema”, collating his influences, but found no financiers. For Jenkins, cinema bridges emotion between cultures as a “global art form”; Miami and Hong Kong are not so far apart.
Many of Jenkins’ influences were unconscious. Speaking at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jenkins cited the influence of a scene in Beau travail (1999) coming back in the moment of shooting, years after he saw the film.
I go to André [Holland]. He was standing against this wall; he looked like James Baldwin. I was like “bruh, you still got that cigarette?
Moonlight’s triptych structure might seem innovative, delineating each act into its own episode whilst keeping an overarching narrative, but Moonlight’s narrative is linear: the 3-act structure is the most conventional model of narrative storytelling within film. Jenkins took influence from the triptych structure of Three Times (2005), charting relationships across different time periods, leading to “a deeper understanding”. Moonlight’s structure could draw parallels to Boyhood (2014), where Linklater sought a universal portrait of adolescence, filmed in real time over twelve years, yet Linklater spoke largely to the white middle class art school kids he grew up around. Playwright Tarell McCraney felt the film could be more poetic and gritty than Linklater’s approach. Jenkins made each section distinct, refusing to let actors see each other’s work, not wanting Chiron or Kevin “to bear the responsibility of trying to carry the same walking style, the same delivery of lines”.
Moonlight’s most radical aspect might be its visual aesthetic. Working with long-time cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins knows how to construct visual images. Laxton creates unreality and ethereality through the brightness of lights and subdued lighting, beyond a naturalistic aesthetic to a “dreamlike state”. Jenkins recreated Miami as he remembered it, “super vibrant, super bright, and super colorful” in its “greenery and open sky” and “massive spaces”, relying upon the anamorphic frame. Speaking in Rotterdam, Jenkins argues the naturalism of social realism is itself artificial, pretending the camera isn’t there; Jenkins never hides it, embracing cinema as situated space.
Shooting on the Alexa 235, Jenkins found versatility. Jenkins drew attention to the human face, relying upon “moment[s] between the lines”, allowing actors to “be human”. Like photojournalist and director Khalik Allah, abstracting vocal from the visual in Field Niggas(2015) by framing poverty-stricken minority residents of Harlem in close-up, Jenkins disorients the viewer, shifting between a dissonant 48 and 24fps, seeking an amplified emotional state and intensity where he could “promote those emotions”. Jenkins’ moving camera becomes fluid and uncomfortable, recalling Alan Clarke and Kubrick’s disorienting use of Steadicam. In pink and green hues, colour takes on a symbolic resonance, creating a duality between Chiron and his mother.
Between each chapter, Jenkins utilises repeating leitmotifs, a perfectly organised construction. Jenkins mirrors shots, drawing parallels from images of the controlling tides of the ocean and moon, positioning water and the ocean as a “place of possibility”. Water and nature become insistent: as Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) describes, he “catch[es] thissame breeze” in the hood, that “everybody just wanna feel”. In the final scene, as Jenkins describes in the screenplay, Little locks his gaze “right at us, staring plaintively, plainly, nothing requested, no expectation: just a clear, undisturbed openness”, leading us into the ocean.
I’ve been thinkin’ bout you (You know, know, know)
I’ve been thinkin’ bout you, do you think about me still?
Do ya, do ya?
– Thinkin’ Bout You – Frank Ocean (2012)
Moonlight is a film about identity, between three Chirons, Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes), and three Kevins (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), including non-professional actors, some recruited from community centers. McCraney sought the film to be a process of discovering the “innermost self” between “the macro, micro, personal and even spiritual”, manifesting within “slivers of moonlight”. Identity construction is an ongoing process, as McCraney continues to evaluate “questions about my own identity and my own self-worth”. Chiron holds his self back, taking the world in yet never speaking, unable to form his identity. As a teenager, he pretends to smoke, yet Kevin can tell it’s a ruse. His name is created and rejected by others. Chiron stresses to Teresa (Janelle Monáe) that his name is no longer Little, yet she tells him he has to earn his name and make it true. Kevin re-christens his name as Black, a name he initially rejects.
As an act of autobiography, speaking in Rotterdam Jenkins argued he “made this film for an audience of two”, but audiences can find empathy in their own soil. Jenkins feels “audiences are actually champing at the bit for really personal unique visions of things”, rather than the directing committees of cinematic universes. But its entire cast and crew were affected: as Jenkins relates on Awards Chatter, Sanders needed a moment to breathe, having issues with his own mom; Monáe knew “cousins who sold drugs [and] cousins dealing with sexual identities”.
McCraney entrusts Jenkins with his own experiences. Blackness and queerness intersect between two marginalised communities, with internal biases. As McCraney comments:
My gayness doesn’t give me any pass. I’ve still had the police pull me out of a car, put guns to my head, lock me in handcuffs and leave me face down in the pouring rain for no reason. […] There’s no gay card that gets you off the hook.
Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen?
McCraney comments he “never had a coming out moment”, but “small moments”; Chiron never states his identity. We can read Kevin as bisexual, or bicurious, or in denial, but the film never makes this explicit. It tells as much as it needs within the frame, allowing us to fill in gaps. Jenkins reminds us of the lack of linearity to sexuality: I never came out once. I came out as gay, as andro, as pan, as ace. I feel confident in my identity now, but this might not stay stable.
Jenkins refuses to stylise sexuality, never eroticising Chiron’s experiences. Kevin and Little wrestle as kids in Cherry Park with intimate contact, falling to the ground. As a teenager, Kevin brags, telling Chiron about screwing Samantha in class; in Chiron’s dream, Kevin’s experiences distort amid sounds of ocean waves, to music video logic. As Chiron is jerked off on the beach, Jenkins emotionalises queer sexuality beyond physical acts, amid the waves of the ocean. Speaking with Jerome about the scene, he determined “Chiron had never kissed anybody, period.”
As he describes in the screenplay:
These are waters they’ve never charted, the culmination of invitations they’ve been sending since day one.
As Josh Lee writes, Jenkins is “showing queerness as we recognise it”, not the “forbidden, shadowy sex” of Brokeback Mountain (2005) but “allow[ing] queerness to surface in other ways”, letting queer viewers “reconcile feelings of loss and resentment towards our childhoods, and begin healing in a way that no sex scene could.”
As an asexual, identifying as gay as a teenager, Jenkins’ depiction feels the most honest. My sexuality was a string of awkward handjobs. School was dominated by a culture of pressure, behind half-truths and hyperbole, sexuality an act of performance. Chiron instinctively apologises to Kevin. I still do this to this day. But queerness is never something to apologise for. Kevin accepts him, asking “What you got to be sorry for?” Queerness concealed the odd boyfriend here and there and desperate longing. As university started, sexuality felt an obligation.
As Lee argues, as Black, Chiron builds a “hardened exterior” to survive, retreating within and erasing his own identity. McCraney found the final act of the film difficult to cope with: as Jenkins relates in Rotterdam, after screening the film “he just sat there, staring into space for about twenty minutes”; in the play, Kevin’s phone call was the ending; McCraney “had not reconciled what that relationship was”. Jenkins emphasises sexuality through glance and gesture and the act of making food. Kevin cooks food he’s never able to serving coffee, throwing together black beans, rice and chicken in a fetishised dance. Speaking at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jenkins comments that he wanted to “retain the repetition” of the circular narrative of McCraney’s script. The act takes on different meanings, “happen[ing] to us over and over again”; food takes on a paternal function as an “act of nurturing”.
Kevin takes a photo out of his wallet, revealing his family, Samantha as wife; Black never has a chance for a child. Black drives 12 hours for an uneasy reunion, dancing to Barbara Lewis’ Hello Stranger, going back to Kevin’s apartment together, hinting at something, but still shaking. Even as adults, Jenkins plays restraint with sexuality; speaking in The Village Voice, Jenkins comments that the importance is in what Chiron “seemed prepared to accept”, not if anything actually happened. As Lee writes, Chiron’s experience, for the privileged, is “an exaggerated reflection of our own experiences”, whilst “to-scale” for others, as an unarticulated queerness in a culture where HIV is concentrated within black poverty.
Everything black, I don’t want black
I want everything black, I ain’t need black
Some white some black, I ain’t mean black
I want everything black
– The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Black filmmaking is inherently politicised. Early black filmmaking acted independently through segregated audiences, dislocated through integration, filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux responding to the racism of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Jenkins found inspiration in UCLA’s L.A. Rebellion of the 1970s, “where Spike [Lee] had taken his cues from”. Black cinema seems defined by projects narratives, through the New Black Wave of the 80s and 90s like Boyz n the Hood (1992); in Fresh(1994), we sense uneasy responsibility placed upon young black kids. Spike Lee embraced the ghetto, unapologetically playing to black audiences issues of representation and racism. American History X (1998) provides uneasy counterpoint to ‘hood’ narratives: sympathy is placed in swastika-emblazoned neo-Nazi Danny, following his murder of a black teenager in brutal detail.
Being a black filmmaker carriers a burden. Jenkins found launching a project after Medicine for Melancholy difficult amid recession, studio-owned independent distributors like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent dissolving; projects with Disney and Focus Features, like Stevie Wonder time travel story Wonderland and his adaptation of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man falling through. Jenkins sought a project with FSU friend Adele Romanski, producer of Kicks and Morris from America, pitching a film he described as “‘Die Hard’ on the Bay Bridge” to Romanski’s frustration. Black narratives often rely upon microbudgets, with Gimme the Loot (2012) utilising smaller voices within a big city, whilst Tangerine (2015) embraced iPhone cinematography. Fences acted as a passion project for the already established Denzel Washington. Jenkins found allies in directors like Ryan Coogler, Kahlil Joseph and Terence Nance, watching early cuts of the film.
Moonlight is unapologetically black: its characters black, its music black, its identity struggle queer and black in a world where queer black narratives are difficult enough to see even in porn. Film and photography have nullified our vision of black skin, but Jenkins embraces the shirtless black body; fought against a cinematic medium calibrated towards white skin, rejecting powder but using oil to sheen “moist, beautiful black skin”.
Central to Moonlight’s racial identity is its musical identity. In the opening credits, over A24’s logo, Jenkins immediately assaults us with blackness with Every Nigger is a Star, though it were the 20th Century Fox fanfare in Star Wars, offering cues to the film’s tone. Jenkins wanted to create “a very aggressive, radicalized depiction of my version of a black experience where I grew up” in Blaxploitation’s vein, bringing “art house to the hood” without code-switching or concessions. As Kambole Campbell comments, Black’s embrace of chopped and screwed R&B reflects his upbringing; hip-hop, as storytelling platform, has a “complex relationship with homosexuality and images of masculinity”, aided by the reflexive hum of Nicholas Brittel’s score.
Little finds peace dancing; as Jenkins describes in the screenplay, “the first time all film, it looks like he might be having fun” in the rhythm and silliness. Chiron undergoes repentance for his sexuality in a playground fight with Kevin, becoming performance as other kids cheer, framed in circular motion. Like Marieme’s fight in the Parisian banlieue in Girlhood (2014), it becomes a show of strength neither party is entirely willing. McCraney comments black hypermasculinity is an “emasculation”, craving attention within uneasy domestic situations.
Masculinity builds through vocabulary, oscillating between violence and empowerment in “faggot” and “nigga”; words, yet powerful. Queerness manifests as masculinity as kids compare dick size: it’s ugly; it’s a peanut; it’s Freddy Kruger. In one of the most powerful scenes, over a glass of juice, Little asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) what a faggot is. Juan disconnects word and identity, implicitly reiterating it’s okay to be queer: Chiron can be gay, but “you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.” Little asks how he knows, and Juan doesn’t have an answer; he just thinks. The scene becomes a confessional within open space, barriers lifted; Little asks if him and Paula (Naomie Harris) do drugs. He nods.
As a teenager, Chiron endures constant bullying and taunts from Terrel (Patrick Decile): in Mr Pierce’s class, he reiterates that “gay niggas” croak of AIDS from white blood cell deficiency; implies Chiron is on his period. On the street, Terrel defends his heterosexuality, whilst attacking Paula’s sexual availability. Terrel’s attacks becomes almost flirting: he blows kisses and smiles, threatens to fuck his ass up, points out his “tight ass jeans”. Queerness became a target; pulled aside by the teacher, or threatened for fighting back, but without a solution to make bullying stop with half-hearted apologies. High school was a daily, isolating struggle, without anyone to talk to. Chiron conceals unvoiced emotion: he cries so much, he might “just turn into drops”. Black performs masculinity, having gone through juvie. Black doesn’t drink, refusing wine, choosing water; Kevin asks who he’s “doin’”, and he isn’t. Black and Kevin form duality, spending time in prison and in an exhausting job in Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, not “makin’ more than shoe money”, but content; Black has tried to block out his past life. Kevin escaped the streets; Black can’t escape it.
Race involves constant negotiation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me (2015), “the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men”, disembodied as an act of terrorism. As Mahersha Ali comments, he requires “dexterity”, editing himself “in order to try and not draw attention” through how he walks, talks and dresses; even within the Muslim community, Ali faces controversy. As Coates describes of his childhood in Baltimore, “fully one third of my brain was concerned with […] the culture of the streets”.
Juan becomes a father figure, in the streets of Liberty City in a condemned crackhouse. As Hilton Als writes, “Juan is looking at his past while the boy looks up at a future he didn’t know he could have”. For Als, Juan subverts “Negro hyperbole”; rather than making Little a pimped drug runner, he feeds and nourishes. As Jenkins relates at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, our image of the black male is tainted, not controlled by black men; Jenkins refused so subvert the stereotype, but acknowledges its currency as something that walk[s] in with the audience into the cinema”. As Charles Bramesco writes, Jenkins imbues “stock figures native to fiction about poverty” with “finely shaded humanity”. Speaking at TIFF, McCraney acknowledges Juan derives from his own mentor, a drug dealer nicknamed Blue he misses dearly, who taught him how to ride a bike, admiring his “generosity of spirit”.
Ali appeared in Moonlight on days off from Luke Cage (2016), but his shadow dominates. Even in smaller roles in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Ali elevates. In the cool, sea breeze, relating being a “lil’ bad ass”, Juan reminds Little that black people “was the first ones on this planet”. As Ali comments, Juan “sees a little piece of himself” in Little because of his otherness; as a dark skinned Cuban, Juan “identified with black culture” and tried to assimilate, without being African American.
Jenkins took advantage of bad weather as he moves the camera along with the waves of the ocean, water hitting the lens, working with Laxton to create a breathtaking sequence. As he acknowledges at the BFI, the scene is a “baptism”; “African-Americans in the Atlantic Ocean” is a powerful image, swimming “out into the abyss”. Little’s relationship with Juan embodies black ritual, what Wesley Lowery describes in They Can’t Kill Us All (2016) as the “talk”, a “set of warnings” passed down generationally of “self-awareness”, acknowledging one’s own embodiment as a “threat”. Chiron develops an awareness of his own black identity. As Coates reflects in Between the World and Me:
I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.
Chiron’s narrative is cyclical: he becomes Juan, driving a Chevy Impala with a BLACK license plate, adopting fake gold teeth, a crown on the dashboard, peddling drugs, unable to escape and construct his own identity. But Black realises his own construction: in the diner, he takes his teeth out; meeting his mother again, he cries. Black reaches into both theological and sociological debate: is his fate predestined, written into sins of the father, or is he able to escape it and perform his own self? Jenkins leaves open symbols and ambiguity, confronting us only with Chiron’s limited perspective, never experiencing Juan and Paula beyond his own world. As McCraney reflects, Chiron’s transformation is “emulation”, attempting to become “the thing he craved or loved” yet “missing out on the fundamental thing you want most”.
Jenkins embodies a rarely seen in cinema; film seems more interested in the water resorts of Tampa. Jenkins wanted to make the film for “people who might’ve grown up under similar circumstances”, depicting Liberty City as it actually is, chipped paint and cinderblocks, beyond the San Francisco of Medicine for Melancholy. Jenkins’ childhood was cramped, with “seven or eight of us in a two-bed apartment”, often going without food. Paula acts as a composite between McCraney and Jenkins’ mothers; McCraney’s late mother suffered from HIV, whilst Jenkins’ was an addict and nurse, never knowing who his real dad was. McCraney wrote the script in 2003 in the aftermath of his mother’s death and his rejection from Yale. As he tells the BFI, the play became a cathartic diary:
My mother had just died, I had no school to go to, no job to go to, and I was just sort of stuck, in a way, so I sort of created this thing, and it was full of pain; it was full of me trying to recount how I got to this painful moment, how I got to this guilt moment.
Harris was conflicted on Paula’s representation, feeling there were enough “one-dimensional black women in the media”, but, as she tells at TIFF, found she “had so much judgement” around crack addiction, not seeing the “beating heart”, self-hatred and the “demon” within Paula. In the hallway, Jenkins sought to symbolise distance that cannot be traversed between Chiron and his mother, a space of darkness. Chiron and Paula maintain an uneasy relationship, through poverty, addiction and sexuality, seeking time both away from and with Chiron. Desperate for money, she forces Chiron to give her the last of his, because she is his flesh and blood. Teresa becomes a friendly figure to Chiron, teaching what his mother can’t: allowing him to stay any time, showing how to make a bed. Speaking in the commentary, invoking Eisenstein, Jenkins argues “information is in the cut”, creating an understated sense of Juan’s “sudden absence” and its effect on Paula and Teresa’s relationship. As Black, he visits her in rehab in Atlanta; Paula, in desperation and anguish, acknowledges she “fucked it all up”, and that Chiron can escape the streets.
Chiron becomes trapped by institutions supposed to protect him. As Coates writes in Between the World and Me, society only protects some with “a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth”, whilst allowing a black “infirmity before the criminal forces of the world”. Principal Williams lends a sympathetic ear to Chiron, insisting he isn’t being punished, doing nothing wrong, suggesting he identify the culprit to the fight and press charges; Chiron has no response but silence. Chiron’s school emanates a sense of entrapment. As Jenkins describes in the screenplay:
This building did not exist a decade ago; its older, decrepit predecessor demolished and replaced with this vision built most in the image of a prison, constructed by the same money and resources used to erect those spaces and ultimately with the same intention: to keep all who enter watched and in.
Chiron gives into impulse, neither in right nor wrong, voicing the violence teenage selves wished to perform, breaking a chair on Terrel’s head in retaliation, paying the price in handcuffs within a classroom built upon fighting. As Coates reflects, “the streets and the schools” are “arms of the same beast” in a culture of fear and violence, falling back into the streets. Speaking of the scene in a broadcast interview in The Atlantic, Coates reflects on how Chiron is now in the system, punished for attempting to stand up and protect himself. Jenkins was inspired by a real-life incident he witnessed on the Metro, as a group of friends tripped each other over; the kids were never the same again. Jenkins wonders if the film can allow the kid to “understand what was lost in that moment”, still feeling guilt over his subjectivity.
Black cinema’s position is redefined from the visibility gained from the protests surrounding Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, revealing inequalities present for decades. As he tells the BFI, Jenkins feels conflicted over the film’s temporal position, developed “under a completely different regime”, carrying different currency under a new president. As Adam Shatz argues, unlike the historical 12 Years a Slave (2014) and Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight is not an act of protest, but affirmation.
As years pass, cinema’s space inhabiting Ferguson’s spaces is shifting, Warner Bros developing a biopic on Brown’s life. Through protracted production cycles, Ferguson’s impact is felt more deeply through the realms of documentary, comics and fiction, with series like Material (2015) and Black (2016-17) responding to events and seeking empowerment. In the young adult novel The Hate U Give (2017), Angie Thomas closes the gap between Tupac and our current generation, showing he still has lessons for us to learn. Short film pieces like Stop (2014) allow us to witness the indignities of racial profiling on a young black athlete.
I Am Not Your Negro offers perhaps our closest cinematic post-Ferguson narrative, juxtaposing the words of Baldwin against news images of Ferguson protests, expressing continual relevancy. But in shaping a “popular narrative”, Peck divorces its context from the 1960s and diminishes Baldwin’s queer identity. But black revolt carries forth through other ways: in Chi-Raq (2015), Lee empowers black women against male sexuality whilst attacking the prevalence of gun violence, establishment use of the confederate flag and the double-bind between gangs and the police. In Get Out (2017), we sense the fear of erasure of culture and assimilation into white neighbourhoods, where black bodies become fetishized and police violence a looming threat.
Though Moonlight never focuses explicitly upon institutional police brutality or other forms of racism or oppression, it remains insightful with clues to how the black community is perceived and perceives itself, beyond heavy-handed white-serving narratives.
Janey-E (Naomi Watts) struggles to reconcile herself to Dougie (Kyle MacLachlan)’s lost identity, lacking the husband and father she and her son so desperately needs. In Season 2, Nadine’s lost identity was a source for comedy and pathos, seeing its effect on relationships and teenage jealousy. Janey-E deals with Dougie’s actions, remarking at how Jade “gives 2 rides”, dealing with owed debts, speaking to peddlers from her corded telephone; a scorned woman. In the playground, handing over a wad of notes, Watts delivers a sheer powerhouse of a performance, acknowledging her financial position as a 99 percenter, struggling to get by for a father and child. Lynch places our sympathies within Janey-E; the cartoon of the 1950s housewife has faded away, revealing a reality.
Dougie struggles to perform a fatherly role, unable to say goodnight to Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon). Amid cowboy memorabilia in his bedroom, we sense something deeper the courtyard statue reminds Dougie of, unable to access. Dougie and Sonny Jim develop an affectionate relationship, clapping lights on and off as a form of play, before being reminded by Janey-E’s shouts and screams of the reality. Dougie’s boss, Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray), epitomises this contradiction of identity: behind his desk sits a framed poster of his younger self, boxing champion, in congruence to his current self in the insurance world. As Dougie mimics boxing poses, does his sportsman aggression still stand up? Lynch touches more into the Red Room mythology, largely absent from the past few episodes, appearing briefly in the form of MIKE (Phillip Michael Gerard). Enraptured, Dougie doodles scribbles and ladders over case files, inadvertently finding a surreal solution that Mullins congratulates him on.
Perhaps the most welcome presence is Carl (Harry Dean Stanton), reprising his role living in a trailer park from Fire Walk with Me (1992). 90 years old, Dean Stanton remains an endearing icon of cinema; interviewed for Universal’s DVD of Repo Man (1984), Stanton confronts us to an entire philosophy of life. Dean Stanton’s career is wide and diverse, from earlier work like In the Heat of the Night (1967), 80s classics like Escape from New York (1981) and Christine (1983), to his confounding yet appreciated cameo in The Avengers (2012). Dean Stanton is a committed actor, never failing to light up every film and project he is involved in.
Carl is in stasis: living in a trailer park, nowhere to move forward in life, still smoking the same cigarettes after 75 years. The trailer park’s residents live with instability, waiting months for wheelchairs or government handouts. Richard (Eamon Farren) becomes caught up in a life of drugs and crime, leaving tragedy in his wake as his truck blares down the highway. In the series’ most powerful moment so far, scored by Badalamenti, Twin Peaks becomes united by tragedy: a young boy runs out across the road, as his mother holds back, crushed by Richard’s unsympathetic truck. Lynch slows the world down, everyday people standing in grief and shock, cradling each other in the senselessness. Carl embodies this grief, offering a shoulder for the mother as a yellow apparition rises to the sky. Through one awful action, a community comes together.
The child is a counterpoint to Carl: Carl, in his old age, stands on the shoulders of death, waiting for his time to bide. For the young to pass seems implausible. In the Double R, we sense the light and passion of Twin Peaks: barmaid Heidi (Andrea Hays) speaks to teacher Miriam (Sarah Jean Long) as she enjoys her second piece of cherry pie, an unending laugh and happiness. Twin Peaks isn’t prepared for another Laura Palmer; Twin Peaks has life. Lynch subverts Doris’ (Candy Clark) comic relief from the previous episode about her car not being fixed, becoming a joke to Chad (John Pirruccello) and the rest of the Sherriff’s Department; a co-worker has to remind us of the realities of life, as her son committed suicide. Hysteria is justified.
Lynch litters the episode with his signature smattering of classical film references. Albert (Miguel Ferrer) parks his car in the rain in his yellow coat, speaking to Cole (David Lynch) on the phone, yelling “fuck Gene Kelly”; Albert can’t sing in this rain. Albert enters Max Von’s bar in Philadelphia, counterpoint to the Bang Bang, a la Max von Sydow. Later, reference is made to The King and I (1956). Lynch is interested in building mythology and mystery: Diane (Laura Dern), no longer the disembodied voice for Cooper to speak to in his FBI tapes, is given a face, in her silver bob of hair and cigarette. Lynch might be spoiling his own ambiguity, but adds a welcome connection to the original series. As Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek) stabs photographs of Lorraine (Tammie Baird) and Dougie and wanders down a corridor, leaving a bloodbath in his wake, Lynch switches genres, reminding us of the joy of the botched assassinations of Mulholland Drive(2001). But Lynch also continues Hawk (Michael Horse)’s investigation into his own Nez Perce heritage, finding the reappropriated face of his tribe as a symbol to a manufacturing company, as problematic as the Native American mascots of sports teams and colleges. Hawk uses a wrench to force open the back of a door, a set of notes contained within. The mystery deepens.
Cooper’s doppelgänger (Kyle MacLachlan) sits in prison, contemplating. Lynch plays with the mirror, returning us to BOB’s manifestation 25 years ago in flashback. “You’re still with me.” Cooper’s body is not whole. The doppelgänger is dragged into the interview room, monitored, allowed a call; instead, he fucks up the facility, displaying laden, supernatural powers. Tammy (Chrysta Bell) can see the trace, analysing an image of Cooper and his fingerprints and on her Mac.
Dougie remains trapped, signals of Cooper’s identity as FBI agent refracted through a mirror image, his garish bright green suit inverting Cooper’s black suit. Rather than solve cases for the FBI, Dougie works on cases for Lucky 7 Insurance, in a modern, glass complex, handed a wad of paper files by boss Mullins (Don Murray) to read overnight. Lynch plays up the fish-out-of-water comedy that was so genius in the Silver Mustang in Part 3. In the elevator, Dougie stares down at a pile of stacked lattes, grabbing a coworker’s, almost making love to his coffee as though he never had “damn good joe” before. In the courtyard, Dougie stares at a statue of a western figure, pointing his gun outwards. He gestures out his hand, loitering around into the night, as though he senses his earlier, gun-brandishing form.
We sense Dougie’s discomfort in the elevator, unable to move. His body is base level, unable to pee out his coffee besides standing there, holding onto his groin, vulnerable to the sexual manipulation of a co-worker. In the meeting room, a table spread out with donuts a la the Sherriff’s Office, Dougie struggles to conform to workplace protocols, calling a co-worker a liar, leading him in trouble.
Lynch knows how to play restrained comedy: Mike Nelson (Gary Hershberger), no longer the jock in high school, wears a suit, incredulous at the resume Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) failed to fill out, evoking the awkward comedy of the car dealership scenes in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996). Landry Jones, having impressed as Banshee in X-Men: First Class (2011) and the boyfriend in Byzantium (2013) is a welcome presence, a major crush but also a creep with his bizarrely awful moustache. Frank’s wife Doris (Candy Clark), better known for roles in films like American Graffiti (1973), adds little to the narrative, ranting to Frank (Robert Forster) about black mold on pipes, yet paces the narrative out with comedic tension, building character in the process. Season 2 lived and breathed in its comedic moments, from Andy and Lucy’s parentage conflicts to Nadine’s identity crisis as high schooler in the body of an adult.
Lynch moves past limitations, opening with beautiful, silent shots over Vegas; Lynch leaves the US, re-establishing Buenos Aires for the first time since Jeffries’ disappearance in Fire Walk with Me (1992) in an aerial, drone-esque shot. Lynch’s minimalism is clear with the clues he gives, staring down at a light bulb and a flashing, beeping device in locked-off shots, little indication to their significance. Lynch builds mystery further: casino staff watch over monochrome CCTV footage of Dougie’s lucky streak, furious; in the Pentagon, official investigation deepens as Major Briggs’ legacy hangs over. On Sycamore Street, we return to the child and drug-addicted mother of the previous episode, a car engulfed in flame. In the Sherriff’s Department, Andy (Harry Goaz) and Hawk (Michael Horse) read over folders, unable to find any Indians. We’re confronted with smaller clues: the coroner’s office look over a decapitated body, bathed in blood in a grisly shot; Jade (Nafessa Williams) gets her car washed, finding Dougie’s key to the Great Northern, mailing it back home.
Lynch also finally reminds us of the small-town Twin Peaks this series has largely avoided, re-establishing the Double R Diner, a respite from wider events, stopping by a cup of a coffee and a slice of cherry pie. Beyond the artificial sets of the series, the Double R feels part of a wider world just as it did in the pilot and Fire Walk with Me, glimpsing the passing traffic outside the windows. Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Shelly (Mädchen Amick) remain in their same jobs, unchanged by the decades; part of their home, never devastated by financial insecurity and the rise of Starbucks and fast food culture. The Double R is a community with warmth: the chef Toad, played by the late Marvin Rosand, invites us in, always smiling.
Lynch re-establishes Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) as modern day conspiracy theorist, broadcasting paranoia over the internet about being poisoned by muffins and the air we breathe in a “global corporate conspiracy”. Jacoby plays as a Wes Anderson anachronistic eccentric with the contrasting lenses of his glasses, captain’s hat, 1940s microphone and “lamp of freedom”. Jacoby’s views aren’t even fringe, within a culture where Infowars’ Alex Jones is afforded credibility as a rising media empire, selling toothpaste, supplements and t-shirts. Steve Bannon is a conservative, fact-bending documentarian turned Trump aide. That Jacoby sells shovels coated in gold paint online for $29.99, metaphor as he digs through shit, never feels false, but entirely realistic, an apt place to end up, only a few steps away from Ben Horne’s embracement of the confederate flag as Civil War general, battlefield spread over an entire room. Jacoby becomes a performance: Nadine (Wendy Robie) watches, still with her iconic eyepatch; Ben’s brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) lights a joint, watching on his iPad, the only way to enjoy the insanity.
Lynch pays close attention to music, from the jazz of Johnny Jewel’s The Flame in the opening montage, to its extension of identity, cutting sharply to Lorraine (Tammie Baird) on her cellphone to the diegetic distorted whirrs of Blunted Beatz’s I Am, tied to physical space; Uniform’s edgy, growling rock blares down the stereo of the retro black car moving through Sycamore Street. As Steven and Becky (Amanda Seyfried), Shelly’s daughter, end up on the run in noir-ish fashion, Lynch refuses the instinct to add dramatic weight or thrill through music; Lynch holds back, waiting until they turn the stereo on in the middle of a drug-induced high, snorting coke on their wrists in clear view of the Double R. Lynch keeps the camera locked overhead on Becky, smiling as her face shifts and the red seats engulf behind her, slow, love-infused lyrics passing by. Lynch refuses to manipulate time, allowing us to experience these moments.
In the Bang Bang Bar, Trouble perform Snake Eyes in their 50s-esque leather jackets and electric guitars, a new generation of youth watching. Richard Horne (Eamon Farren) stands as an anachronism, dragging a pack of Morleys in contravention of the no smoking sign as a James Dean-esque rebel. Richard’s cigarette is evocative of a moment with Justin Theroux on the set of Mulholland Drive(2001), with Lynch as a rebel of the pilot’s production:
[In] a scene shot after the network voiced its concern, Lynch told Justin Theroux, “Take a really fucking big drag–fucking love that cigarette.
Morleys are a staple of television production, in substitute of real brands through series like The X-Files (1993-present). Richard’s cigarettes represent a masculine aggression: the cigarette conveys sexuality, but he transforms, becoming an aggressive rapist as he forces a woman over, strangling her to the intensity of the music and the strobe.
The Refugee Crisis is one of the most divided issues of the present, a schism between right and left questioning immigration, borders and national identity, encapsulating fears of job security and terrorism. Amid recent events, from blocked travel bans from Muslim majority countries to terrorist attacks throughout the UK and Europe, these questions aren’t going away. Aki Kaurismäki is a singular voice in Finnish cinema, gaining international distribution and recognition where others fail. His style is distinctive, producing the most compelling film about the Refugee Crisis to date by blurring the lines of comedy.
Refugee Crisis cinema has largely been documentary: Fire at Sea (2016) evokes the neorealism of post-war Italian cinema, witnessing the arrival of refugees and national reaction. Series like Exodus: Our Journey to Europe follow refugees first-hand attempting to cross the Mediterranean and settle in Britain, shot with hidden cameras; online media like VICE provide in-depth coverage of what refugees go through. Béla Tarr responded through his exhibition Till the End of the World (2017) at the EYE Filmmuseum, combining photojournalism, multimedia elements and film sequences from his films, closing the distance between post-war migration and the present day. Amid political tensions, journalistic pieces like Welcome to Weimar offer our closest idea to what it means to be a refugee.
Kaurismäki immediately confronts us with the ridiculous: Khaled (Sherwan Haji) appears at port on a coal freighter, covered in black. His eyes peer out, wandering around the ship, noticing the captain in his own world, watching a puppet show on an old TV. Speaking to David Jenkins in Little White Lies #70, Kaurismäki cited the influence of Michael Powell. Powell’s WWII cinema touched upon the notion of the immigrant: in 49th Parallel (1941), Nazi sailors arriving in Newfoundland confront an agrarian Canada built by immigrants, otherised as outsiders. Arriving in Helsinki, Khaled asks for directions, without phone. Bathing in a public shower, combing his hair in a mirror, Khaled becomes one of us, dressed in crosshatched shirt; there is no distance. As Kaurismäki reflects:
In my young days everybody left Finland. One million went to the United States, one million went to Sweden and one-and-a-half million went to Australia. And this is what I’m thinking now. So when all us economical roaches are everywhere, how come we are so impolite now?
Whereas many documentaries and articles focus upon the journey, The Other Side of Hope is interested in arrival, integrating into European culture not at war but at peace. Rather than an abstract mass of refugees or statistics, Kaurismäki focuses upon a constructed personality embodying the crisis. Kaurismäki spent three months researching “every bloody article on the subject”, casting refugees he could not legally credit within the film.
Khaled’s journey is related through exposition, talking about being attacked by neo-Nazis in Gdansk as he hid in a ship bound for Helsinki. Khaled’s narrative is cyclical, a constant target of racism. Khaled escapes deportation, the dream of a refugee, hiding in a shower and breaking the back window, but he cannot escape discrimination. Called a “camel driver”, attacked at the bus stop; drenched in lighter fluid by thuggish far-righters at a bar; stabbed by one of the group in a car park, implausibly surviving. Kaurismäki avoids music, creating a minimalistic approach, never emotionalising events but allowing us to accept them as they are, without partisan bias: the refugee crisis is accepted as reality, without manipulation.
Khaled makes a case for his right to stay amid bureaucracy, kept in a cell by initially welcoming police; describe his experiences and elicit sympathy, every word recorded by tape. In trial, overshadowed by the EU and Finnish flag, Khaled is ordered repatriated, flown to Damascus and transported to Aleppo, told in emotionless tone his home is not dangerous. An unending routine: the judge swiftly orders the next refugee be brought in, likely to receive equal fate. We cut to a group of refugees in the Reception Centre, watching war-torn images on TV: hospitals destroyed, many people dead. Khaled is told home is safe, yet must return to this.
Khaled is kept at a Reception Centre, unable to sleep, embodying silence and emptiness. Identity becomes reduced to objects, lacking home and family: reading books or playing instruments in military-esque beds, little to pass time but a constant stream of cigarettes. Khaled lacks a mobile: a stretch, as mobiles are essential tools for refugees, coordinating with contacts and organising their transportation and arrival. Befriending Iraqi Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), differences forgiven, allows him use of his ancient brick of a mobile. Security has dissipated to constant instability. Khaled no longer a mechanic; Mazdak no longer a nurse. Mazdak cleans the metro for two months, spending most of the past year out of work, unable to allow his family to stay.
Finland’s dream becomes detached from reality: Khaled feels constant longing, wanting to be reunited with sister Miriam (Niroz Haji). Leaving Helsinki becomes just as difficult as arriving. Kaurismäki interrupts the film with street performers and country and blues music at the bar, as Khaled sits reflecting. As old music legends sing of the Lord and the land, we sense Khaled’s longing for his own land, Syria, in spite of hardship. Kaurismäki reminds us of the complexity of the crisis: the Reception Centre is diverse, refugees from Africa, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, some women in hijabs, others without, culture away from home. Asked of denomination in his interview, Khaled speaks of burying the prophet, but denies having no religion. Khaled relinquishes religious precepts, drinking beers with Mazdak, even as Mazdak dismisses an entire city of “nonbelievers”, attempting to integrate into secular culture.
Kaurismäki contrasts Khaled’s journey with shirt salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), following each move of a poker game gripped to our seats, winning a wad of euros; acquiring a restaurant, the Golden Pint, drawn from Kaurismäki’s own experience running Zetor in Helsinki. The Golden Pint is a joke, without any kitchen hygiene, serving plates of tinned sardines and potatoes. Wikström benefits from capitalism where Khaled cannot survive; refugee survival becomes defined by economic capability, only affording travel through life savings. As Robert F. Worth writes in The New York Times, the “constant pressure of war” in Syria has “left almost no room for a real economy”, its industrial centres decimated.
Khaled tries to find respite sleeping outside the Golden Pint, but finds compassion and manipulation in Wikström, giving Khaled under the radar work, a fake ID just barely concealing his identity. As officials initiate a security check, Khaled becomes the dog in the kitchen, hiding in the bathroom as the whirr of the vacuum cleaner continues on, still plugged in. Khaled’s bedroom becomes a mattress in a closet, surrounded by supplies; Miriam is even worse off, hiding in a compartment hidden beside the exhaust of a truck.
The Golden Pint attempts to appeal to Helsinki’s minority communities, its Japanese and Indian diasporas as its identity changes through poorly placed signs. Chefs learn recipes from books, adopting Japanese robes worn within the kitchen; a decorative golden cat; sushi bathed within ice cream scoops of wasabi sauce, substituted with haddock as their supplies run out. Kaurismäki gives no explanation: Japanese residents pile in in busloads, but leave in distress. The Golden Pint becomes an Indian restaurant, attempting to make a quick buck by covering every market.
Kaurismäki places anachronisms side-by-side with present reality, interested in the visual: the Golden Pint has a jukebox, looked over by a mural to Hendrix. Wikström’s vintage car sits in a car park of modern cars. As Khaled has his photograph taken by police, a DSLR sits next to a typewriter sitting next to a laptop sitting next to an old-fashioned lamp, measuring Khaled’s height with a tape measure.
Kaurismäki’s comedy is subdued, relying upon absurdity. Where other international comedies fail to penetrate cultural and language barriers, Kaurismäki’s dependence upon silence instead favours visual humour, creating a universal language used not for irreverence but social comedy. Kaurismäki conveys character through objects: Wikström leaving his wife is told through a pair of keys on the kitchen table and her ashtray filled to the brim with cigarettes. Through cinematographer Timo Salminen and his production design, Kaurismäki embodies the same world he began in the early 80s in its visual aesthetic: its distinctive yellow font, long shots, desaturated colours, worn down buildings and concrete. Rather than appeal to a fast news cycle, Kaurismäki creates a timeless narrative that will remain relevant through the generations, without lacking in specificity.
DC’s efforts to launch a cinematic universe split critical opinion, despite commercial success. Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) maintained dark and gritty tones, in line with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and The Dark Knight Returns (1988). Suicide Squad (2016) balanced wide numbers of characters between an uneven structure, unable to come together. Man of Steel may be the strongest effort, reimagining Superman’s mythology, but with major flaws. Behind failures lie masterpieces: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), Vertigo stories like V for Vendetta (2006). Introduced in Batman v Superman, attending a gala in an elaborate dress, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) charged into battle in the Trinity in the fight against Doomsday.
Since inception, Wonder Woman has been symbolic for young girls and women, central to protest movements, intersecting along lines of feminism. Captain America, in patriotic red white and blue, symbolises the American Dream, but often critiques it, rogue amid the corruption and conspiracy of Nixon and Reagan, or SHIELD and Tony Stark in Civil War (2006-07). Superman, lone-surviving immigrant from Krypton and young boy in rural Smallville, symbolises “truth, justice and the American way”, despite his heritage. Wonder Woman’s costume may be red, white and blue, but she’s Themysciran. Gal Gadot isn’t American either: she’s Israeli and Jewish, outspoken against the actions of Hamas, serving in the Israeli Defence Force, leading to the film’s banning in Lebanon.
The mythical Themyscira, paradise Amazonian home, plays with ancient Greek mythology: an image of waterfalls, ancient stone and luscious greens, shot in southern Italy. Young Diana (Emily Carey) grows up, introducing us to an entire culture beyond the metropolitan Gotham and Metropolis, with a unique culture with accents not out of place within the Mediterranean. However, the film never touches upon Themyscira beyond the film’s first act, leaving open questions around its inhabitants and identity following human intervention.
Diana’s origin combines multiple retellings, shaped by clay by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), a virgin birth without father; in Blood (2011-12), Diana is revealed as Zeus’ daughter, amid confusion around her identity. Diana has an uneasy relationship with Hippolyta: Hippolyta forbids her from becoming an Amazonian warrior, trained instead by aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana undergoes rites of passage of a young adult: meeting stranded American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), working for British intelligence, she defies Hippolyta, taking her ship out into the human world. These conflicts aren’t uncommon: in The Contest (1994-95), dissatisfied with Diana’s inability to reshape the human world of men, Hippolyta relinquishes her title, seeking a more worthy warrior in her place. Themyscira has a conflicted relationship with our own: in Greg Rucka’s run in the mid-00s, Themyscira is a recognised nation state with an embassy in New York, Diana as ambassador, in-line with real-world geopolitics and globalisation. Diana even recently became a symbolic ambassador to the real-world UN.
Through the World War I setting, this duality rises to the fore. In the opening, Diana arrives at the Louvre, examining an image taken in the aftermath of battle in 1918 glimpsed within Batman v Superman, utilising a wartime setting similar to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), transposing the World War II of her introduction in Sensation Comics #1 (1942) to World War I. WWI superheroes have always been retroactive, with Union Jack, introduced in The Invaders #7 (1976), deepening the legacy of Marvel’s universe. Superheroes emerged out of the vigilantes and pulp fiction of the 1930s in the shadow of the Great Depression, yet soon became a propaganda tool supporting national interests against spies, fascists and commies throughout World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The film adapts many elements from Marston’s first few issues, supporting characters like Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and villains like Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), reimagined in her Phantom-esque mask. Nazis became caricatures since WWII propaganda began, sans the uneasy politics of genocide and eugenics. In the alliance system, war is chaos. The centenary, afforded distance from living memory, allows us to reflect upon what the war represented.
Placed in the months before the signing of the armistice and Treaty of Versailles the following year, our protagonists launch into battle in the Western Front. Russia was caught in revolution; the US, having pursued an isolationist policy, joined the war, Steve smuggling information from the Ottoman Empire. The German Empire became increasingly militaristic, seen through the focus upon General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as villain. The “war to end all wars” became a breeding ground for political ideologies as the world tried to rebuild, amid anarchy, fascism and socialism and influenza. As Rüdiger Suchsland argues in Caligari: When Horror Came to Cinema (2014), the war reshaped cinema and art, through Dadaism, expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and surrealism. Wonder Woman reminds us of the devastation: 25 million dead, mothers, children, civilians. The film’s villain is war: Wonder Woman fights against poison gas obliterating the entire world. Her fight is futile: poison gas became a powerful threat through the work of Fritz Haber, its legacy felt through the genocide of the Holocaust and use of chemical weapons within Syria.
For Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a “hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind”. Diana is neutral: although Germany is ostensibly the enemy, she doesn’t take sides. Wonder Woman understands both sides complexly, attempting to find resolution. Through her lasso of truth, shield and bracelets, she never uses guns, a singular force of nature storming through No Man’s Land after a year in trenches without progress. She joins forces with a multi-ethnic group of soldiers, including American Scott Trevor, Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), fez-adorned Arab Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Native American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). In London, we walk past multiple ethnic groups, including Sikhs. Chief embodies the responsibilities of war and its legacy, confessing to Diana that his tribe was decimated by Trevor’s people. Sameer speaks multiple tongues, including Chinese, unable to fulfil his actor dream in wartime.
We see war’s impact through everyday people: Wonder Woman protects a small German village, aghast at starvation and refugees, forced to demolish a church tower. The film implicates the culpability of man, drawing duality between the symbolic Ares and our own free will, responsible for our own destruction. Focusing upon generals, influencing without fighting war, we move beyond presidents and kings and prime ministers to individuals, their own parts to play. Does killing Ares end war? The ‘one man’ theory simplifies war: the deaths of Hussein and Bin Laden positioned as ending the war in the Middle East; Hitler as enchanting dictator, not an ideology of racism and hate. Even in Star Wars, the deaths of Vader and Palpatine didn’t stop the rise of the First Order.
Themyscira embodies duality between the classical war of myths and legends and modern warfare. In an early scene with young Diana, we move within a Renaissance-esque painting as Hippolyta relates history down through ages, telling stories of Ares. Themyscira exists outside of time; its inhabitants have no awareness the war is actually on. Steve’s crashed plane brings human war to a peaceful place. As U-boats approach the island, hidden behind an invisible barrier, Jenkins draws these parallels most clearly, dark smog dissolving into the bright blue ocean. In the direst of times, even paradise is not safe; humanity sees paradise as another place to invade. In Snyder-esque slow motion, Jenkins places us in ancient battle evoking 300 (2007), juxtaposed against modern, mechanised war. Spears slaughter modern troops; Amazonians impacted by bullets amid man’s intervention. Themyscira stands behind fraternity, honour and small, internal conflicts. Modern war, in its global powers and uncertain enemies, is outside these structures. There is no glory as a German agent refuses to face war, swallowing a cyanide capsule.
Ares acts as both symbol of war and embodied god. Never becoming the main villain, he is necessary in a mythological fight between gods, transcending human conflict behind secrecy and hidden identities in his brotherly yet torn relationship with Wonder Woman. In a CGI intensive battle, war engulfed by orange flame, the film becomes its most Snyder, interested in visual spectacle over narrative storytelling, but remains engaging. The film implies Ares’ death ends the war, celebrations in London following the armistice, but this is disingenuous. Months of fighting and real human soldiers and negotiators had to come together first.
Placing Wonder Woman as period piece may seem a distancing measure, avoiding real world politics for escapism, but superheroes always respond to the world around them. Superman, upon introduction in Action Comics #1 (1938), had been a social justice warrior, “an enforcer on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised” rallying against “social injustices” like “poverty, inadequate housing conditions, mobster violence, and corporate and political corruption.” In radio drama Clan of the Fiery Cross (1946), Superman fought the KKK, incorporating “real Klan secrets leaked by Kennedy to expose and ridicule their rituals”. Recent stories like Batman #44 (2015) engage with issues of white violence and police brutality.
Films adaptations like The Dark Knight Rises (2012) show the power of public uprising amid poverty and chaos. In Batman v Superman, the film asks theological and philosophical questions over God and the power and control of superheroes. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008) cannot be detached from Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Wonder Woman cannot be detached from gender politics.
As Jill Lepore explores in The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), Wonder Woman was conceived as a “new type of woman”, who could “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. Creator William Moulton Marston had been in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway, attending talks by Emmeline Pankhurst and suffragist protests as a student. As Lepore argues, the World War I setting “makes a certain chronological sense”, within the Marston family’s admiration of “the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights and birth control”.
Female superhero films have largely failed, with Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) unable to capture the strengths of their characters or explore issues of gender or empowerment. Supergirl (1984) might be the most enjoyable, if only because of the Christopher Reeves series and its 1980s cheesiness. But these films failed because they were bad films. Female characters are left periphery, no matter how interesting their characters are. In animated films like The Killing Joke(2016), DC struggled to present Batgirl’s sexuality in a way that isn’t deeply problematic. However, as Lepore argues, Wonder Woman is not “the Women’s March”, lacking her “American commitments and her feminist cause” as the film seeks universal audiences, positioned as “an implausible post-feminist hero”.
As Diana walks through London, a gown covering her costume, Wonder Woman is forced to dress towards conservative fashion trends, unable to carry sword or shield or expose skin. Looking through outfits in a store, she’s attracted to the most masculine and agile outfits possible to wear in battle, adopting glasses a la Diana, a nurse with her namesake in Sensation Comics #1, whose pseudonym she adopts.
This sequence resembles another in the original comic, as Wonder Woman walks down the high street, passers-by gawking at her immodesty. Were Diana walking down that same street today, she’d be fine in shorts and exposed sleeves. But wardrobe has dominated Wonder Woman’s career. In The New Wonder Woman #178-204 (1968-73), Denny O’Neil disempowered the character, placing her within the modern, groovy fashion of Swinging London.
During the 1970s, experimental artists like Dara Birnbaum, following feminist scholars like Laura Mulvey, criticised media representation of women, remixing images from The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (1975-79). More recently, questions continue to be discussed with Wonder Woman’s quickly reversed costume redesign of armour-covered skin, amid efforts for stronger female characters.
Attending a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, Diana faces patriarchal judgement: she cannot know secrets of war, nor act as distraction to leering, horny ministers. She explains her role to them as his secretary, christened Diana Prince by Steve, constantly told to step back and not fight, decades before women were allowed to serve. Women worked as WAACs, nurses in combat and in munitions factories, but never in front lines. Man’s instinct is to protect women, but in doing so they lose their power.
Etta Candy represents the suffragist movement, wanting to fight for women’s rights, but never too hard. Suffragist movements split between violent and non-violent action; Etta would never chain herself to a railing or set off bombs, despite her beliefs. Women marched on Washington, draped in costumes, flags and shields. In Intolerance (1916), made contemporaneously to the movement, we see early arguments around the right of children, the state and the mother, alongside lines of poverty. Etta as Steve’s secretary is ironic: Wonder Woman became relegated to the secretary for the Justice League in All-Star Comics, unable to join them on international missions. Diana believes Etta’s role amounts to slavery within man’s world, tying to the central ideology that women were “enslaved to men” without the right to vote. According to Lepore, bondage within early issues of Sensation Comics, far from kink and fetish, ties into “the iconography of suffragism, feminism and the early birth control movement”, where women marched in chains as “political theatre”.
Feminism is shifting: women in the US achieved suffrage in 1920 with the 19th amendment; women over 30 in the UK achieved it in 1918. But debates continue on, Wonder Woman hailed as feminist icon in the 1970s in Ms. magazine; the missed opportunity of Roe v Wade; third-wave feminism, between identity politics, issues of sexual abuse and inequality. Through Themyscira, Wonder Woman confronts sexuality and gender, tapping into, as Lepore argues, suffragist ideas from feminist utopian fiction that suggested “amatriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy”, with feminist “obsession with Amazons”.
Themyscira is diverse, between black and white, but its women embody a particular kind of womanhood: largely white, cis, able-bodied, beautiful. Themyscira has no room for Asian women or trans women. The gods protect women, giving them their own island. With the arrival of Steve, Diana deals with masculinity and sexuality. Bathing in a fountain, Diana is confounded by his dick; he brags about size, whilst trying to remain respectful and apologetic to her.
On the boat, Steve doesn’t want to sleep next to her; that’s for marriage. Steve follows a set of ingrained, normative rules already feeling outdated. Diana is sex positive, reading 12 volumes on sex; she understands mechanics, but doesn’t need men. She has an island full of hot women, and her hand. Amid 1950s censorship of comic books, Sensation Comics was “accused of inciting lesbianism”. Who needs marriage? But as Steve confesses, marriages rarely stay together; men find other women. In the aftermath of battle, in snowfall, Steve talks about life in peacetime: having “breakfast”, falling in love, kids and growing old together. Immediately, they acknowledge this as bullshit, taking her up to his room and they embrace, fading to black. Sexuality isn’t linear; some cultures are free, some are more conservative.
Themyscira becomes respite from war for Steve, but he has a duty, making it out alive or not. Gadot and Pine play off each other well; Pine stretches himself beyond his role as Kirk in Star Trek (2009-present) as a dutiful man in war. However, their chemistry never feels romantic. Wonder Woman seems more interested in Sameer; her primary interest is in fighting war. In The First Avenger, we feel Steve and Peggy’s relationship more closely, understanding them as characters and what they stand for, feeling closeness and strength in their relationship. Wonder Woman attempts to manufacture connection through Steve’s watch, as symbolic memento, yet never acquires enough power.
Wonder Woman has a smaller contribution to DC’s cinematic universe than predecessors; Batman v Superman followed each origin, contained within videos on a tablet; the Flash made an unnecessary cameo fighting Boomerang In Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman has some connections, through its opening logo, Wayne Enterprises vans and an email thanking Bruce in the final scene, yet the film is largely disinterested in making Wonder Woman more than it is. Instead, Wonder Woman establishes a somewhat lighter tone, more colourful yet without sacrificing the dark and gritty elements that established this universe. In the lead-up to Snyder and Whedon’s Justice League (2017), Geoff Johns acting as executive producer, DC’s films have a way forward for an entire universe of characters.
In the fourth part of The Return, Lynch takes his mystery even deeper, with fewer answers. Lynch plays with heightened reality: Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) wins nearly 30 jackpots, allowed to go, not seen as a fraud but handed a bigger bag to replace his series of buckets. The Silver Mustang is the friendliest casino ever depicted on screen, taking Cooper into their office to offer him whatever services, from a limo to dining out to a sexual partner, he requires. Cooper becomes Mr. Moneybags, able to pay off remaining debts. But where is home? Cooper instructs his driver to find the elusive red door, a la the Red Room, of his house, based upon the description of former colleagues within the casino.
Cooper exists upon another frighteningly domestic life, playing as a 1950s vision of suburbia. Dougie is clearly unhappy, having met with Jade for sexual favours in the previous episode. Dougie’s wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), has an unrelenting optimism, preparing plates of pancakes piled high and jugs of orange juice. Maybe the Betty (or was it Diane?) of Mulholland Drive(2001) escaped her Ontarian life and Hollywood dream, torn apart by the loss of her lover and the difficulty of the Hollywood industry, finding a new domestic life where she can perform a new role. Watts channels Betty’s faux happiness perfectly, with a son, Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon).
Cooper contends with and inauthentic life, with shadows of reality: he wears a bright green suit, placing the tie on his head. He drinks black coffee out of a mug, labelled as obviously as the canned food in Repo Man (1984) as “I AM DOUGIE’S COFFE”, spitting it out in disgust. Looking in the mirror, it doesn’t crack; he isn’t Killer BOB. Lynch fucks with us, creating an identity crisis within Cooper. Is Cooper’s apparently deceased doppelgänger an undercover agent, working secretly for the FBI for the past 25 years? As ever, Lynch holds back an answer.
But this episode also brings in some recurring characters, and the fates of others who never came back. In the FBI, we meet Denise (David Duchovny) again, played by the actor better known for The X-Files (1993-present). As a trans woman, her presence in the original series was largely progressive, Cooper accepting this as part of who she is, despite being initially taken aback. Her original appearance might pull some jokes and rely on deadnaming, her gender fluidity used as ruse, yet was worlds beyond the issues that persist to this day with a focus on transition narratives, inaccurate stereotypes or “bury your gays”. She has to deal with what it means to be known as trans within the workplace, joking about hormones. Gordon Cole (David Lynch) is sympathetic to her, having accepted her transition within the FBI. Denise may be played by a cis actor, unfortunate when trans actors remain marginalised, but avoiding recasting her is something I can just about accept. Denise may not have a feminine voice; Duchovny largely sounds like David Duchovny. But maybe Denise couldn’t, or didn’t want to, go through transitioning, or her body reacted badly. As ever, trans people come in many different ways.
Cole channels the miscommunication humour that played so well within the original series, his trademark hearing aid replaced with a more modern, subdued device. In the Sherriff’s Department in the original series, Cole could camouflage himself with Cooper’s own quirks. Here, we see the frustration within the FBI as he exists upon his own plane. As the car approaches Mount Rushmore, his misinterpretations of Cossacks in Russia almost ground the car to a halt.
Cooper’s disappearance mirrors another disappearance: Phillip Jeffries, reportedly an ally to Cooper’s doppelgänger. David Bowie’s character in Fire Walk With Me (1992) relied on his alien image, appearing and disappearing from a hotel in Buenos Aires, walking through the FBI’s haunted corridors. Bowie’s absence is unfortunate due to his recent passing; could you imagine Blackstar-era Bowie, with his silver streak of hair, returning as Jeffries? Jeffries’ presence is still felt, discussed by Cole. Disappearing agents is just another day in the park for the FBI.
At the Sherriff’s Office, we contend with another legacy: the legacy of Laura. Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), her former boyfriend, has grown up from rebellious kid to deputy, staying in the same part of the country he’d grown up in. Gazing upon her iconic yearbook photo amid the evidence, reused throughout promotional materials and this series’ own title sequence, we see the emotion within his eyes. He’s still not done mourning, 25 years on. Through Bobby, we learn of the death of his own father in a fire, Major Briggs, played by the late Don S. Davis, witnessed by Cooper himself. Harry S. Truman’s legacy (Michael Ontkean declined returning) is fulfilled by his brother Frank (Robert Forster), an original contender for the role.
Perhaps Lynch’s craziest character inclusion is Wally Brando (Michael Cera), the son of Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Years may have passed since Cera’s popularity, as the boyfriend in Juno (2007) or early 20s everyman in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), yet Cera remains a cinematic joy. As Wally, Cera is no longer the grounded young adult trying to find his way in the world: he’s Marlon Brando, channelling Johnny Strabler’s rebellious image in The Wild One (1953), before James Dean symbolised the rebellious teenager in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Brando’s presence has always hung over Twin Peaks: the iconic casino and brothel is named after the western One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando’s only directorial effort. Wally Brando is a joke, speaking in highly stylised dialogue: he speaks of travelling across the country, with a map in his heart. But how can anyone not love Michael Cera?
In the Bang Bang Bar, Au Revoir Simone perform Lark. Because David Lynch has a fucking great taste in music.
The third part of The Return is a truly Lynchian vision. Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) may be free to go, but Lynch refuses to make things easy, painting an abstract, surrealist vision beyond the bizarreness of the Red Room. In a purple room, with its silhouetted windows and doors, Cooper meets Naido (Nai Yuuki), a silent, eyeless woman. We move through electrical circuits and power sockets, floating up ladders. Cooper moves into the vastness of space, into a cube hanging in the air, evoking back to Eraserhead (1977), past consciousness and the limitations of our own mind into a space beyond. In the Red Room, Lynch plays with abstract visions further, reducing body and head into nothingness and a gold orb.
Lynch allows an opportunity to return to the bumbling idiocy of the Sherriff’s Department, catching up on Hawk (Michael Horse), Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) continuing their investigation, leafing through folders and paperwork to no avail, reminding people to DONUT DISTURB them.
Hawk, as a member of the Nez Perce tribe, remains one of the series’ most important characters, positioning a Native American character within a position of power as one of the sanest people within the department. Hawk is neither redface cartoon nor uncivilised savage to be tamed or murdered by the white man, but a well-developed character with his own set of beliefs; Native Americans have always been an integral part of American history and culture. Lucy whitesplains to him, wondering if the chocolate bunny from the evidence she ate in a moment of stress is directly tied to his heritage. Easter is a Christian holiday; chocolate derives from Aztec and Mayan cultures. She stresses to him that he’s Native American, as though he wouldn’t remember his own heritage, unable to name the tribe he belongs to.
Through Cooper’s return, Lynch crafts a puzzle. Lynch pays close attention to the hands of the clock, suggesting his doppelgänger’s time is up. Like the limousine crash that marked the opening of Mulholland Drive (2001), Cooper’s doppelgänger desperately seeks to escape his inevitable fate, his body and crashed windshield found by a nearby highway patrol. Lynch ties in the “pain and sorrow” of creamed corn, barfing up an inordinate amount of garmonbozia as his demise is imminent.
Cooper awakens embodied in the form of Dougie Jones, lying next to his own vomit, combining and subverting elements of Cooper and BOB further. Lynch refuses to make Cooper’s return simple; he was never going to take an episode to do it, or make everything the same as it was. Cooper is left an empty vessel, trying to adjust to the world and rebuild his identity. He carries a key to the Great Northern, unable to know what the Great Northern is. He lies on the carpet, forgetting what shoes are. Dougie has met with prostitute Jade (Nafessa Williams) in Las Vegas, paying her off with dollars, leading him forth in her yellow car to their next destination. Where did he get that suit? And where did he get that haircut? Driving down Sycamore Street, sense the wider world Dougie is involved in. As Cooper and Jade drive away, the camera pans towards Jake (Bill Tangradi) and Gene (Greg Vrostos) in their vintage car, setting trackers and attempting to stage an assassination attempt.
At the Silver Mustang, Lynch plays up Cooper as a fish out of water, in a casino full of old grannies. Cooper tries to understand how to get tokens, the Red Room a slither in the corner of his eye. He yells “HELLLLOOOOO”, getting the jackpot. He yells “HELLLLOOOOO”, getting the jackpot. He yells “HELLLLOOOOO”, getting the jackpot to the whirr of the alarm. If only paying off student debts could be so easy.
One of the greatest elements of Fire Walk With Me (1992) is also back: the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia, including the return of Gordon Cole (David Lynch). Cole’s presence is greatly appreciated, setting up a new stage of the investigation. In the Red Room, the episode hints towards the “blue rose”, a codeword used within the FBI. Watching over images from the New York apartment, we witness Sam and Tracey’s brutalised, headless, mutilated bodies; Lynch lingers on these images, refusing to move away from them. The FBI headquarters is built upon juxtapositions; its walls display an image of the impact of an atomic bomb.
In a scene any other person would cut, we spend several minutes witnessing Dr. Jacoby spraypainting shovels, wearing a protective mask. Why is Jacoby spraypainting shovels? Why is Jacoby even here? Only Lynch knows. In the Bang Bang Bar, in its neon lighting, Lynch includes another musical performance: The Cactus Blossoms, performing Mississippi. Framed in orange lighting, The Cactus Blossoms feel like another era, with a country sound not so far apart from Lynch’s use of Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet(1986). It’s apt: Lynch’s work is often anachronistic, evoking other eras of noir thrillers. Of all the tropes within this new series, showcasing artists might be the most satisfying.
Having re-established the characters of Twin Peaks, its locations and new characters, the second part sets about the return of Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Sitting in the Red Room in his iconic suit, MacLachlan feels as though he hasn’t aged a day. But for his doppelgänger, it’s a different story.
Killer BOB is an integral part of Twin Peaks’ mythology, yet arrived by accident, through Lynch’s stream of consciousness. Lynch was inspired by set dresser Frank Silva’s appearance, finding a way to tie him into the series’ narrative, caught by accident in the mirror in Laura’s bedroom. BOB, in his long hair and sly smile, is a sinister vision, manifesting between bodies in moments of rage, within a duality of feeling.
In the series’ conclusion, it might ask us “How’s Annie?” But The Return won’t give us easy answers. With Silva’s unfortunate death from AIDS in 1995, MacLachlan must embody both sides of BOB and Cooper’s personality, adopting long hair and a leather jacket. MacLachlan feels out of place and body, unable to convey how truly sinister BOB could be. Cooper’s doppelgänger kills people. Where Cooper only ever kissed women, his doppelgänger has a more visceral sexuality, seeing multiple women; a woman tells him she’s wet. But his doppelgänger is also a step ahead, able to access FBI data and maps online through his laptop.
The central aspect of this part is the Red Room, the series’ most iconic vision. The Red Room might have only emerged out of the international pilot, tying in a set of occult images to appease European audiences, but became a cornerstone of the series through Cooper’s dream in episode 3. The Simpsons (1989-present) had even parodied it in Who Shot Mr Burns?, probably my first exposure to the series. The finale had been one of Twin Peaks’ greatest highlights, confounding the viewer with the unreality of the Black Lodge.
The Red Room feels like a piece of abstract art, a surreal painting, emerging out of Lynch’s art background: corridors and patterns going on for eternity; characters speaking in palindromes. Lynch peels away the curtains to reveal the blackness of infinity, a white horse from episode 1 standing amid the blackness. The Red Room plays as a mirror to events in the finale and Fire Walk With Me (1992). We finally meet Laura (Sheryl Lee), 25 years later, in her noir-esque dress; she and Cooper kiss once more. In the absence of Michael J Anderson, refusing to return, the Red Room finds another inhabitant alongside the bearded MIKE: a sentient, anthropomorphised tree, its head pulsating every time it speaks, a genius, abstract vision, only adding further to the surrealism of the Red Room. Laura removes her face, revealing a white void of nothingness within the contradiction of her existence, telling us she’s dead.
Lynch’s visual effects of the Red Room might seem objectively awful. The floor tears itself apart, becoming jagged blocks. Lynch stretches and twists the visual image, throwing Cooper out into the abyss of space, until he manifests within the infinity of the glass cage from the previous episode. Lynch fucks with us, but then this is David Lynch.
But Lynch also returns us to another integral aspect of the original series: family. In Buckhorn, the conflict between imprisoned principal Bill (Matthew Lillard) and wife Phyllis (Cornelia Guest) might feel soap opera, or the final departure between lovers in a crime series. But Lynch injects these scenes with raw emotion and a sense of subversion; in their infidelity, Phyllis manipulates with power over Bill, able to twist him to what she wants, entirely unforgiving. Phyllis watches a TV show of mauled animals, because this is her character. Through Laura’s relationship with her dad, Leland (Ray Wise), manifesting within the Red Room in his grey hair, we recall their fractured emotional breakdown so powerful within the original series, and the inevitability of Laura’s death in Fire Walk With Me. (Laura’s cyclical Missoula-born analogue and dual opposite, Maddy Ferguson, is absent.)
Lynch marks the passage of time through other characters. James (James Marshall) appears at the Bang Bang Bar, recently suffering a motorcycle accident. We imagine how time has passed for James: working odd jobs to pay the bills, doing manual labour, never able to rise up beyond his motorcyclist persona. As Hawk (Michael Horse) searches through the woods at night with his flashlight, he receives a final call from the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), inviting us in for coffee and cherry pie, the series’ staple diet, but tells us she’s too weak. In some alternative universe, we can imagine Hawk and the Log Lady together, eating large slices and laughing over old times, as she warns us once more in symbolism. It’s not to be.
The Return continues to expand Twin Peaks’ world: we move over to Las Vegas, Nevada, as Lynch returns to the dark underworld at night that defined locations like One Eyed Jack’s and Los Angeles in Mulholland Drive(2001). Mr. Todd (Patrick Fischler) and Roger (Joe Adler) meet for a shady business deal, but Lynch quickly moves away, likely to follow up in a future episode.
Lynch closes the episode in the Bang Bang Bar with music, as Chromatics perform Shadow; even the blue lighting channels Julee Cruise’s most powerful, viscerally emotional performances. Chromatics are one of my favourite musical discoveries recently, alongside other bands like CHVRCHES and female artists like Ladyhawke and Hannah Peel. CHROMATICS ARE THE FUCKING BEST. Lynch is adding greater visibility to lesser-known modern artists, rather than relying upon a needless celebrity cameo or a return for Cruise.