Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) – Part 1, dir. David Lynch

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Welcome back to Twin Peaks! Since the release of Inland Empire (2006), Lynch’s name might have receded. But Lynch hasn’t stopped creating, producing experimental short films, Lady Blue Shanghai (2010) for Dior, launched a coffee range, remaining an artist, collating The Missing Pieces (2014), yet Twin Peaks acts as his return to both television and longform narrative storytelling.

Lynch became embittered by his experience attempting to produce Mulholland Drive (2001) as a series at ABC, but television has shifted radically as a medium in years since. Though television remains a difficult industry, built upon unfulfilled pilots, premature cancellations and racial and gender disparities, relying on rote narratives, unnecessary filler and cheaply produced content, the rise of showrunner-led shows with clear visions and passion for storytelling and incredible cinematography has created an industry of high-profile productions, thanks in part to the high budgets of Netflix, Amazon Studios and HBO. David Fincher directed House of Cards (2013-present). Nicholas Winding Refn is directing the Ed Brubaker-scripted Too Old to Die Young. Barry Jenkins is directing The Underground Railroad.

Twin Peaks existed before boxsets; television was ethereal, only available in cut-down versions, scriptbooks or synopses, before binges became possible without a VCR. But its influence on longform storytelling was immense, even as recently as series like Riverdale (2017-present), using the basic premise of small-town teenagers and a deceased fellow student washed up on a lake.

Other series tried to resurrect themselves, with Dallas (2012-14) struggling to find a foothold. Twin Peaks ended with a cliffhanger, recently touched upon within The Missing Pieces but never properly concluded. Whatever happened to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)? The series’ ending had been obscure enough that it never demanded an ending; its lack of resolution is conclusion in itself. The Return follows along that narrative arc, but never offers an immediate answer.

Twin Peaks built itself upon worldbuilding; Twin Peaks was a character in itself, the meeting place for students, FBI agents, parents and prostitutes, defined by Angelo Badalamenti’s score, the Packard Sawmill, the Great Northern and the Welcome to Twin Peaks sign in the series’ iconic opening, leading the viewer in. Filmed in Snoqualmie Valley, the locations have become a tourist destination in itself, carrying a sense of depth. Twin Peaks was a soap opera, frequently leaning upon the absurd and surreal, remaining lovable with a cast of well-written characters to keep going back to. The series rarely penetrated its own borders; even as characters entered Canada into One Eyed Jack’s, it remained in driveable distance, within the linear confines of the story. Fire Walk With Me (1992) might have expanded the series’ world, elaborating upon key backstory, yet its traversing of location only occupied the film’s opening act, a prelude to events before Angelo Badalamenti’s score opens the film for real.

The opening episode is not so much interested in Twin Peaks as a unified location but in its characters, themes and concepts. We move between New York City, Twin Peaks and Buckhorn, South Dakota, free from the confines of location, within a world where travel seems more freely available, the small-town an illusion. Most of the students at Twin Peaks High School in the original series probably upped and left long ago, seeking their own personal homes. Even our new title sequence is tied less to physical place but more ethereal emotion, traversing the texture of the Black Lodge and the flow of the waterfall. Moving from 4:3 to 16:9, the mountain ranges and the Great Northern suddenly seem uneasily broader.

Lynch’s depiction of NYC owes something to his approach to LA in Mulholland Drive. A city of nighttime skyline, it betrays a different lifestyle. Sam (Ben Rosenfield) and Tracey (Madeline Zima) drink lattes from oversized paper cups, more concerned with Starbucks than percolating cups of black joe. Sam’s obsession with the camera, observing changes within a window-shaped glass box, feel a reinvention of Mr. Roque’s hidden gaze in Mulholland Drive. Our mysterious place becomes an unoccupied warehouse, befitting any hipster wanting to move in rent-free, its sofa and lamp transposed from the surreal domesticity of the Red Room. In Buckhorn, the procedural elements play as a more competent version of the Sherriff’s Department, as principal Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard) is charged with murder. Constance (Jane Adams) checks fingerprints against a database in seconds, still drinking her mug of coffee, beyond the paper trail that could lead an episode’s entire subplot within the era of Twin Peaks. Yet some of the series’ most iconic locations are absent, with no Double R Diner to position the viewer; Badalamenti’s score is largely subdued.

The Return demands strong knowledge of what came before, refusing to offer clear guidance for those late to the party. Twin Peaks continues as though it were 1992, or as if 24 seasons had followed with the same cast. It takes getting used to, characters aged by decades yet acting unchanged, dressing the same, without movement, shattering the illusion of their iconic youthful appearance. The Sherriff’s Department has no young replacements, with deputy chief Hawk (Michael Horse) adopting Cooper’s fondness for donuts and coffee in his absence. Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) reappear still together, delivering exposition as they mention their 24 year old son; Lucy’s choice to leave Dick Tremayne is here to stay, still acting as receptionist. Only an updated computer by her desk has changed.

Less egregious is the opening appearance of Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), sans Hawaiian shirts or therapy. As Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) meets up with his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) at the desk in the Great Northern, we sense time’s progression. Ben is an old man holding onto an empire, beyond the pine weasels and confederate flags of male insanity of the original series. Ben and Jerry look backwards, commenting on his new secretary Beverly (Ashley Judd), remembering how their relations with women used to be. Perhaps the episode’s most welcome appearance is the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), speaking on the phone to Hawk, offering mysterious clues. Coulson passed away of cancer in 2015, and her emaciated body, short hair and oxygen tank make this clear, unable to deliver the strongest of performances. The Log Lady is a symbol, the subject of t-shirt prints and rerun openings filmed for syndication, but her presence, however brief, remains appreciated. But The Return becomes its most engaging where we focus upon new characters, following forgetful Marjorie (Melissa Bailey) and dog Armstrong as police attempt to open the room of deceased librarian Ruth, unaware she has the key in the first place, using a Lynchian sense of farce.

Moving to Showtime, The Return allows the series to push itself beyond ABC’s guidelines, just as Fire Walk With Me allowed a far more brutal and honest depiction of Laura and Donna’s sexuality; Sam and Tracey make out on the sofa, escalating as Tracey strips naked, left in bloody death as they take their eyes off the box. The Return’s murder mystery avoids the immediacy of the hook of both the original series and Fire Walk With Me, the discovery of Laura and Teresa’s bodies launching forward both narratives. Laura’s presence hangs over, throughout promotional material and in the opening as a photograph within the school’s cabinet, an unavoidable ghostly spectre. Cooper becomes immersed within the monochrome surrealism of the Black Lodge, evoking back to Eraserhead (1977), sitting alongside ??????? (Carel Struycken) and his phonograph.

Although the series’ opening is far from Lynch’s best work, never capturing its heights, its questions weigh down upon the viewer, unravelling within the mind. Lynch leaves hooks, between the glass box and Cooper’s presence, remaining to be answered.

Alien: Covenant (2017), dir. Ridley Scott

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Ridley Scott has one of the most diverse directorial careers, beginning his career as a set designer on Out of the Unknown (1965-71) and Z-Cars (1962-78), touching seemingly every genre from sci-fi to crime to fantasy epics. Other directors expanded Alien (1979)’s mythology, from Cameron to Fincher to Jeunet, but since Prometheus (2012), Scott has created new worlds, hoping to launch a new prequel franchise alongside other resurrected franchises like Planet of the Apes.

Moving from the USCSS Prometheus to the Covenant, we focus upon a new crew, searching for Origae-6. With 15 crewmembers, Scott avoids centring the narrative with a focal protagonist; like a military unit, all of them are equals. Scott has achieved similar before: in Black Hawk Down (2001), Scott honours the legacy of real soldiers, imbuing each character with a distinct personality or trait, from storybook artist dads to basketball players and coffee drinkers. Covenant has distinctive characters: chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), in his Stetson and love of John Denver’s Country Roads; Oram (Billy Crudup), holding onto his Christian belief; Dany (Katherine Waterson), acting as a modern day Ripley. But we never see our crew bonding, outside of the prologue Last Supper. A group assembles to toast deceased members with a bottle of Jack Daniels, but no one is ever in the same room.

Scott’s group is diverse, including female characters like Faris (Amy Seimetz), Rosenthal (Tess Haubrich), Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo), and people of colour like Lope (Demián Bichir), Cole (Uli Latukefu) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett), yet does little with them. Lope is married to Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), but Scott barely makes their relationship clear. Our characters split into different crews, some remaining in orbit like Tenessee, Ricks and Upworth, others covering different parts of the planet. Our characters are marked for death, sensing their mortality from the opening, following grisly fates from combusting bodies to infections to attacks by Neomorphs, Facehuggers and Chestbursters, without end.

It feels like a morality tale: like the crew of the Prometheus, seeking secrets of God and the universe, those that seek out what they must not know are doomed to die. Covenant is a colonisation narrative: our protagonists look upon the planet’s wheat and hospitable atmosphere and see resources, a new paradise to move forward and grow, and build their log cabin, surveying the landscape with cameras and rovers. Filming in Fiordland, New Zealand, Scott creates an unnerving yet beautiful natural topography of trees and rocks, evoking the landscape of North America, a forest to get lost in beyond the Icelandic and Scottish vistas of Prometheus. Nature treads a delicate balance, trying to destroy our protagonists as they attempt to penetrate the storms of the ionosphere. Even in death, as 47 colonists are incinerated upon the ship, coffins sent out into space, we remain aware of space’s inhospitality and silence, their bodies likely to burn up, final destination unknown. Ledward (Ben Rigby) lights a cigarette, blowing smoke rings, affects the planet’s microbial life at a scale far beyond comprehension. Scott zooms in, spores collecting within his ear.

Using horror elements, Scott increases the film’s body horror and gore. Ledward’s body self-cannibalises itself: the alien existing within us, not an external threat, evoking Shaw’s fear of pregnancy in Prometheus. Quarantined in the med-bay, we experience Ledward’s violent convulsions as blood emerges from his back, the Neomorph within him. In a shower sex scene between Ricks and Upworth, the alien becomes almost phallic, emerging as an appendage, increasing an unnerving bodily distress. Scott’s use of body horror is perhaps the film’s most exciting aspect, yet his conventional use of the Neomorphs in the final act is far less engaging, becoming a generic threat attacking the wing of the ship. However, Scott remains able to create an unnerving, claustrophobic ‘base under siege’, following Dany through the corridors in first-person camera, aided by the unease of Jed Kurzel’s score.

Covenant owes a debt to an entire history of science fiction cinema, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). David (Michael Fassbender) acts as HAL embodied within the consciousness of David Bowman, uneasily inhuman in his high intelligence. In the opening scene, taught by Weyland (Guy Pearce), David gazes upon a statue of Michelangelo’s David, his namesake; looks upon a painting of the Nativity; rehearses a piano piece of Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla. The white room reflecting the planet’s surface seems almost endless, outside time, like the neoclassical bedroom combining anachronistic artistic styles in 2001’s conclusion. David’s cultural knowledge is artificially constructed, carrying no personality, reciting verses of Ozymandias (1818) yet revealing traces of artificiality as he confuses Byron with Shelley.

David develops a nihilistic god complex, telling Weyland that he as a human will die, whilst David will live. David must protect the planet’s landscape from humanity’s intervention, akin to HAL’s murder of Poole, forcing Dany into stasis. Weyland’s creator is unknown, just as humanity’s creators, but David becomes his own creator, moving the legacy of the Xenomorphs forward as he freezes a pair of embryos upon the ship.

In the opening scenes, Scott’s slow movement introducing the vessel reminds us of 2001’s model work, framed as an orchestral spectacle of humanity’s achievement. As our 2000 colonists lie in hibernation upon the ship’s 7 year mission, we’re reminded of the endless rows of frozen bodies in 2001, as Dany’s husband Branson (James Franco), the ship’s captain, is incinerated alive within his own capsule in the whirr of warning sounds. Covenant almost belongs to another era of science fiction, balancing the 1970s spacesuits of the original film with modern technology. In its use of nature, art and spirituality, Covenant also owes something to Solaris (1972). In Solaris, Tarkovsky imbued rooms with personality as life is recreated away from home. Scott moves between screens, Dany yearning for the autumn trees of nature, like the opening scenes of Solaris. She mourns for the memory of Branson, recreated in a video of him ascending a mountain, playing on her tablet, just as Solaris reconciled Kris with the memory and hollow recreation of Hari.

Covenant exists upon the legacy of Prometheus, a decade after the events of 2093. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) exists as trace, a hologram, dogtag, grave and photograph, yet never as flesh and blood; Shaw only takes upon a physical presence in the prologue The Crossing. Although Scott is interested in expanding the film’s horror and alien presence, beyond science fiction worldbuilding, he remains interested in the same existential questions that drove Prometheus forward, as Shaw searched for the universe’s holy grail. Scott positions people of faith within a science-oriented world that denies religion’s unanswered questions, creating an interest conflict and dynamic. Dany holds onto her cross as she watches Branson’s video, yet never takes time to pray. Oram hangs onto his faith, speaking of seeing the Devil as a child, feeling ostracised by his own crew as fundamentalist, without reasonable judgement.

David adapts to a new world, draped in long hair and cloak, leading a sheltered, Medieval-esque existence, finding an interest in zoology as he draws sketches of insects, bodies and anatomy. David’s android form becomes contrasted by Walter, a new model with an American affectation, marked by difference. In the opening sequences, we’re introduced to Walter casually, walking through the ship’s corridors in a hoodie. Walter has been built for servitude, less complex and without sense memory, without sleep, one of an infinite series of identical versions of himself. David becomes a mentor for Walter, teaching him how to play the flute like cigarette papers, concealing his emotional manipulation.

Covenant continues upon Prometheus’ worldbuilding, creating an immersive science fiction world that continues to ask questions. As David recites Ozymandias, we witness the mass genocide of the people who came before, reduced to petrified corpses that the crew of the Covenant must walk upon. In the darkness of the world, the pillars of old empires remain, within the neoclassical architecture of the temple. Though the black pools of the Engineers might seem abstract, Scott creates a world of ideas that only build this franchise further. Covenant is only a step along the way: in the film’s final scene, we move towards a new mission and a new world, as our protagonists continue to seek out Origae-6. The Alien franchise still has new stories to tell. As the vessel moves forwards, to Kurzel’s hopeful score and Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, we have a new destination.

Fox and His Friends (1975), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a genius of New German Cinema, making 43 films in his 37 year life. As Charlie Fox writes in This Young Monster (2017), he was a “compulsive”; in his cocaine addiction, he felt an immense energy, experiencing a “shorter lifespan significantly more intensely [and] more imaginatively” within an unstable film industry. Recently, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation have prepared new restorations, allowing his films to be seen by new audiences thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy and cinema re-releases. Fassbinder, often starring in his own films, portrays Franz Bieberkopf, carnival act Fox the Speaking Head, symbolically reflecting Fassbinder’s own persona. In its style, Fox and His Friends is undeniably Fassbinder, from his melodrama to the composition of the frame.

Although American cinema struggled to explicitly depict queer identity beyond subtext until the 1960s and 70s, in part through the Hays Code, German cinema tackled issues of homosexuality since its inception. As Robert Beachy describes in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014), Different from the Others (1919) had been a box office success on its release, before protests by Protestant, Catholic and anti-Semitic groups led to censorship. Beyond the effeminate stereotypes of American cinema, Weimar cinema became caught in a cultural zeitgeist through the aufklärungsfilm genre, invoking queer relationships in films like Sex in Chains and Pandora’s Box (1928), and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), many of whose cast and crew became victims of the Holocaust.

As Beachy argues, Berlin as a city had been central to academic discourse around homosexuality as a distinct identity beyond individual sexual acts, through the work of people like Karl Maria Kertbeny and Magnus Hirschfield, altering understanding of gender identity in the process. By the 1970s, Paragraph 175, a law enabling a culture of blackmail and prostitution within queer subculture only worsened through the Nazi Party, remained in West Germany’s constitution, demarcated difference between queer and straight despite some reforms. Fassbinder creates a portrait of the subculture within this: Franz becomes viewed as a prostitute by Eugen, cruising at public bathrooms, yet Franz rejects this identity. Fassbinder represents the unity of community, gathered together between drag performers, young men, older men and English-speaking American servicemen, in everyone’s own uniqueness.

Fassbinder explored masculinity throughout his work, like Hans’ destructive alcoholism in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), caught in an abusive relationship with his wife. Fox and His Friends carries these themes forward. Franz is not a likeable protagonist, becoming a manifestation of Fassbiner’s “uniquely loathsome personal aura”. Forming a bond with Eugen, Franz rapidly elevates their relationship to sex, without time to think. Franz finds himself drawn to Eugen’s father, Wolf, enjoying a degree of privilege as Wolf accepts Franz on instinct, saying that he “like[s] him much better than the last one”, giving Franz an unofficial role as a bookbinder. Franz’s sister Hedwig becomes torn apart by his actions, leaving Franz alone by the end of the film. In one scene, we see her disassociation from the entire subculture, bemoaning the lack of heterosexual men in a party built upon diverging relationships, jealousy and the sexual gaze. All men screw the same men.

Fox and His Friends is filled with full-frontal nudity, yet Fassbinder is clinical, refusing to eroticise the male body, presenting desexualised flaccid genitals in a swimming pool. Yet Fassbinder keeps a continual sense of sexual gaze, as we sense eternal desire and unfulfilment. Going on holiday to Marrakech in Morrocco, Eugen and Franz seek further sexual fulfilment. Franz sets his gaze on a Tunisian migrant worker, portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, as he and Eugen follow him, inviting him back to their Holiday Inn as they take a taxi. Taking a seat at the hotel restaurant, the pair are caught in a dialogue split by cultural boundaries, trying to take him back to their room. Fassbinder focuses upon eyes and silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. As they walk to Franz and Eugen’s room, ben Salem’s character is barred, because he is an Arab, experiencing internal discrimination within his own country.

Fassbinder goes beyond the subculture to explore themes of capitalism and class. Society never rejects Franz for his queerness, but for his class position. Franz exists as a social outcast, his carnival show broken up by police leaving him with an identity he cannot adapt to. Franz is a swindler, betting on the lottery every day, racing in Eugen’s car to hand in his lottery ticket at the last possible minute, bartering with the store clerk; stealing money from a local florist. Franz is elevated to high society, receiving a 500,000 marks jackpot, never deserving it. He rebuilds a new life with Eugen, making an apartment for themselves, antique furniture juxtaposed against modern aesthetics. In his new life, he becomes in constant search of new loans to only further is wealth and physical ownership.

Franz’s identity becomes false. Eugen tries to force him to adapt to the conventions of high society. Going to a French restaurant, Eugen must explain the illegible menu to him, ordering the food for him as onlookers judge in disgust. Eugen bemoans Franz’s lack of cutlery, telling him the dessert fork is on “the left of your plate” as he attempts to eat a cake whole. At the table, he performs fairground tricks. He goes to tailors, trying on expensive clothes, using the iconic Fassbinder reflection shot, projecting front and back in dialogue simultaneously. Yet Franz can never escape his iconic, emblazoned denim jacket. Franz and Eugen’s holiday is booked at random, with no preplanning or worldly knowledge, based on brief descriptions from the travel agent. Franz finds a works for Wolf without any skills, mucking up a print run, never realising he wasn’t actually employed.

In the film’s most emotional scenes, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire becomes Franz’s personal anthem.

Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Rejected by Eugen, taking control of their flat, Franz undergoes a devolution, ostracised by his own sister. For all he tries, he cannot move beyond his origins. Selling his modern car at a dealer’s, Franz is met by casual anti-Semitism, joking that he isn’t a Jew as he swindles Franz, buying the car for peanuts within a crumbling market.

In the closing scene, Franz becomes a symbol of Fassbinder, a corpse laying in a subway station, overdosing on valium prescribed by his doctor. Franz’s worldly possessions are taken, a group of kids stealing his iconic jacket and his money. As Charlie Fox writes of Fassbinder, “death was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette in the alley.” For all of Fassbiner’s “Dionysiac excess”, Franz and Fassbinder could not escape death.

Colossal (2016), dir. Nacho Vigalondo

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Nacho Vigalondo began his career making cult Spanish sci-fi films, but has begun to reach into the American market, following segments in horror anthologies and Open Windows (2014) with Elijah Wood. For American audiences, Colossal marks the launch of a new distributor, Neon, bringing festival hits and cult films like The Bad Batch to wider audiences.

The strength of Colossal is it accepts its budget limitations, balancing indie movie aesthetics with the effects-heavy kaijū giant monster genre. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a freelance writer creating content for a website, living in New York City with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), left unemployed for the past year within a fragile industry. Hathaway is a familiar voice, beginning her career as teenage characters in The Princess Diaries (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), animated characters in Rio (2011) and resting on franchises as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Gloria might seem an indie movie cliché, yet Hathaway delivers a strong performance, remaining relatable and funny.

Even in its soundtrack, the film accepts the indie movie, as Crybaby’s When the Lights Go Out plays in the bar. The film is self-aware: Gloria jokes that they’re in a Wes Anderson movie. But the film isn’t self-aware enough to turn this into a visual gag in the style of Anderson’s cinematography, leaving the joke hanging in the air. The film relies upon quirky contrivances, as Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) threatens Tim to leave his bar with illegal fireworks smuggled from Mexico, kept in storage for ten years, telling him this is “the most irresponsible thing I could do”, merely to make a point. Oscar loses customers and sets half of his bar on fire, probably unable to recoup half of the costs, merely to tell Tim to fuck off.

Moving back to her childhood home in middle America, Tim forcing her out of their flat to sober her up from her alcohol addiction and find new, Gloria finds a changing landscape; some things stayed the same, some changed. Working in a newly renovated pub, Gloria finds new family and a life as a waitress, befriending Oscar, Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). Filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, the setting epitomises the smaller scale lifestyle of films like Nebraska (2013), Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, beyond the busy city.

Colossal might have some romantic comedy conventions, yet largely tries to avoid a love triangle. Colossal has its share of conflict and jealousy, yet tied to childhood arguments than romantic drama. Oscar is nice to Gloria, giving her half his furniture so she doesn’t just have a half-inflated airbed to sleep on. Words are thrown; chairs are broken; TVs destroyed. Gloria forms a bond with Joel away from Tim, accepting his questionable advances and sleeping with him, waking up with her arm trapped underneath his comatose body the following morning.

Dan Stevens was a joy in The Guest (2014), portraying a similar character who doesn’t reveal his entire motives, caught in a small-town where he doesn’t entirely belong. Tim might be hot with a tightly-groomed beard, the epitome of #boyfriendgoals, but he’s a total dick. He lives in his own New York City bubble, insistent his way of life is better than Gloria’s: sober, aesthetic interior décor, working with clients for a big company, staying at Holiday Inns as he travels across the country. Tim can’t accept Gloria working as a waitress, because she’s too good for it; he can’t accept small-town people serving their local community with coffee and booze.

Colossal is a film about addiction, as Gloria becomes pressured to keep up a lifestyle of alcohol. In New York City, she attends an endless string of parties. At home, we see her alcoholic desire, staring at drinks in the fridge, waking hungover in the middle of the day, only for her next shift to begin. Everyone in their 20s knows her pain. In the bar, she’s pressured by Oscar to have another beer, pouring away to the floor in defiance. In the closing scene, we’re still left with open-ended doubts. Garth has his own secret struggles with addiction, snorting cocaine in the bathroom.

Using the kaijū genre, the monster and robot attacking Seoul become videogame avatars of Oscar and Gloria, manifesting their own conflicts. Colossal feels like the childhood dream of anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s; Oscar and Gloria literally play with action figures in a sandbox every morning at 8:05am. The premise almost feels out of The Twilight Zone (1959-64), using science fiction as a moral lesson, feeling like a PSA. But there are also shades of The Giant and A Monster Calls, metaphorically representing human issues and anxieties. Beyond the simulated deaths of videogames, Oscar and Gloria struggle with the real consequences of their actions. Their small conflict is transposed against the huge-scale fantasy of giant monsters running through Seoul, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. She feels grief over what she could have done. We’re given a sense of responsibility, between threats and blackmail, as Oscar threatens to kill hundreds unless she makes a change. Tim kicks Gloria out at the worst point, refusing to deal with her problems in favour of himself.

Like with Pacific Rim (2013), we cross the boundaries between American and Asian cinema. Rather than first-hand perspectives, we learn of destruction from cheering crowds in the bar. The tears of South Koreans are never ours. Gloria hears of her destruction through screens, from newspapers to websites to images on TVs to phonecalls, learning hours after the fact through her own media bubble. Colossal engineers a global response, reports informing us of a plummeting stock market, nuclear weapons and a tense relationship with North Korea. As Gloria stands her ground as a peaceful monster, apologising to South Korea through a message transcribed by the owner of a Chinese restaurant, she punches Oscar in the face, remixed as a THUG LIFE meme on YouTube as a viral video.

Oscar and Gloria carry awareness of their spectators, onlookers cheering from the houses beside the playground, unaware the fight is happening right in front of their house, private conflict becoming public. In the final act, Gloria rejects Tim’s offer to go back with him, flying to Seoul to end her conflict with Oscar for good. To resolve the space between, Gloria needs greater distance. As she demolishes Oscar, destroying her childhood playground and the threat of nuclear war in the process, she becomes a spectacle cheered on by cellphone-brandishing crowds, a superhero defending the city. In dramatic irony, her achievements become unacknowledged, standing just away from the cameras.

Colossal might be derivative, re-appropriating tropes from indie movies, romantic movies and kaijū films, yet remains a fun ride from its comedy to performances.

Kong: Skull Island (2017), dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts

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Jordan Vogt-Roberts is best known for his young adult film The Kings of Summer (2013), yet Vogt-Roberts is expanding into a $190 million blockbuster. The film never denies Vogt-Roberts’ authorial voice, projecting his name in big letters during the opening credits. Like with Gareth Edwards, moving from Monsters (2010) to the big budgets of Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One (2016), Legendary is helming up-and-coming voices at the forefront of their new monster movie franchise.

Kong’s history might not be as illustrious as Godzilla’s, appearing in a handful of sequels and reboots yet nothing compared to Godzilla’s dominance in everything from comics, toys, animated series and videogames, failing to secure his own franchise. Rather than seek gritty emotional melodrama or scientific explanations for Kong’s existence, the film embraces its B-movie quality. The film makes its statement from its opening scene, as crashed fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C Reilly) becomes ensnared in a swordfight with Japanese fighter Gunpei Ikari at the edge of Skull Island. Cinematographer Larry Fong captures an incredible sense of composition, utilising contrasting blue and red neon lighting in the club scenes in Saigon, or fireballs reflecting in a pilot’s visor.

Skull Island is elevated by its cast, reuniting Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L Jackson as protagonist James Conrad (evoking Joseph Conrad) and deranged colonel Preston Packard, alongside powerhouse Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver. Yet the film is also joined by young talent: Thomas Mann, beautifully playing teenage adolescence in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), is warrant officer Reg Slivko (Mann’s co-star RJ Cyler is busy launching another franchise with Power Rangers (2017)).

In the opening titles, we chart our way through remixed footage of the evolution of the atomic bomb, tying into Godzilla’s post-war origins as a product of Hiroshima and American occupation. Skull Island is a film about war, in the shadow of a wave of films from the 70s and 80s seeking to reconcile the war as its servicemen came of age: most notably Apocalypse Now (1979), shot contemporaneously, evoked in its golden sunsets, but others like Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning Vietnam (1987), achieving catharsis or comedic satire at the war’s incoherence. In Marvel Comics, The ‘Nam (1986-93) sought to provide a month-by-month account of the war, without superheroes. Its soundtrack may be strong, yet plays as a beat-by-beat emulation of every other Vietnam film, moving between Time Has Come Today, White Rabbit and Bad Moon Rising. The film namedrops Bowie with Ziggy Stardust, emphasising Marlow’s disassociation with the modern world. None of the power of The End in Apocalypse Now is here, played at low levels in the background attempting to elicit audience recognition.

Shooting in Oahu, the film uses the island’s beautiful vistas as an analogue for American conduct in Vietnam. Skull Island attempts to create a dialogue around the nature of war, as characters discuss weaknesses and strengths amid a backdrop of disillusionment, but the film does little to evoke these feelings in practice. We see the glee as bombs destroy the natural landscape from aerial view, animals caught in the destruction. Bombs are fetishised, framing agents of destruction in close-up. We never see human destruction: no bodies explode, nor guts and brains picked away by flies. A member of the group self sacrifices themselves, yet the film never offers explanation or a process of mourning. Gojira (1954) captured the shaken Japanese consciousness, yet Skull Island tries to be entirely apolitical.

Preston Packard evokes the archetype of the corrupt colonel, leading his men to death in a vain attempt at glory, wanting revenge against Kong. For Packard, America did not lose the war, but “abandoned it”. Packard is the cavalry, and will stop at nothing to reach his goal, determined with an invincible squad. Packard is far from an engaging portrait of the corruption of war, but a cartoonish villain.

Our protagonists remain torn by their parent’s generation and the impact of World War II. Conrad speaks of his father, mythologised as a John Wayne figure who fought Nazis. Marlow is an anachronism, in bomber jacket and curly grey beard, evoking the crashed fighter pilots of pulpy adventure novels or wartime comic strips as they attempt to adapt to the jungle wilderness. Reilly might be better known for his comedic roles in films like Step Brothers (2008), yet under the right director, Reilly can achieve real emotional gravitas, as the father in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or the animated protagonist of Wreck-It Ralph (2012). Here, Reilly is left with forced humour, playing up his fish out of water nature yet without finding an emotional centre, with dialogue worthy of George Lucas.

But no film can escape the conditions of the environment that made it. Vogt-Roberts described a sense of “catharsis to setting the film in the early 70s, moving our characters from a “world crumbl[ing] around them” to “an island untouched by man.” Like with the X-Men prequels, Skull Island uses the past to evoke a timeless aesthetic, working in real historical events amid its retro technology, clothing, music and values, tying the film to a previous socio-political reality than commenting on the state of war and terrorism in the present day. Even in King Kong (1976), the film sought to engage with contemporary issues around environmentalism and oil crises.

In an early scene, in the months surrounding Watergate, conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman) moves past a protest assembled on Capitol Hill, presciently bemoaning that there will “never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” Packard, as a powerful black man, rejects the implications of the Civil Rights Movement, with no care for inequality or the radicalism of the Black Panthers, but in service of his own power. As a photojournalist, Weaver exists amid a backdrop of second-wave feminism, in a war defined by its horrific broadcast and printed images. As Packard tells her, “a camera does a lot more damage than a gun”. Weaver photographs the crew; captures images of friendly natives. Larson often steps up to the role of the strong female, as social worker in Short Term 12 (2013), recast from the short film’s male protagonist, or the only survivor amid the warehouse shootout in Free Fire (2016). Weaver exists as far more than the girlfriend character to Conrad, or even to Kong; she is her own person. But the film does little to show the sexism and sexual harassment Weaver would have experienced as a woman against a man’s war, given only cursory acknowledgment.

Marlow may live along natives, but his existence seems a recreation of colonial narratives. Marlow treats Ikari’s memory as his “brother”, beyond uniform and war, leaving a promise to “never leave each other behind”. Yet our mad, aged fighter pilot might just have easily been Ikari, caught against the backdrop of a new American world. The voices of our face-painted natives are silenced, Marlow acting as interlocutor to relay their backstory and identity. But this comes from a franchise that originated in racial stereotypes: in King Kong (1933), Kong embodies an ape-like image, living among natives, running wild in New York City as he takes a white woman for his own.

The success of Skull Island is in its worldbuilding, creating an island that feels truly unique. Whereas other incarnations sought to juxtapose Kong against the expansive, historical metropolis of New York, Skull Island avoids this well-trodden story. Kong becomes a benevolent lonely god, wanting peace and harmony over his island without the invasion of humans. In its impressive production design, the film hints towards Kong’s ancestors, walking past skulls of previous Kongs in a foreboding graveyard. In its Harryhausen-esque CGI, the backlit Kong begins to look stop motion, fighting off helicopters in silhouette. Using motion capture with Toby Kebbell (also playing major Jack Chapman) and Terry Notary, the film avoids the immersive realism of Peter Jackson, favouring Kong as animated monster. Fighting Cthulhu-esque tentacles in a lake, viewed by a young soldier, we know who this Kong really is.

Where Godzilla is the “king of the monsters”, we encounter many prehistoric threats that serve to increase the film’s tension, from water buffalo to camouflaged stick-bugs to pterodactyls, thanks to immersive production design and CGI. Godzilla and Kong might have met before in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), but Legendary are setting us up for a reimagined showdown, closing the film with a post-credits scene sowing seeds for Mothra and Ghidorah. Though Skull Island may not be the greatest blockbuster of recent times, it remains a fun adventure expanding a world.

Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson

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During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.

Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.

In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.

Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.

Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.

As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884). 

Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.

Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.

Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.

Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:

[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.

In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.

Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.

Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.

Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”

What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.

Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.

Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.

McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.

La La Land (2016), dir. Damien Chazelle

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The 2017 Oscars have placed Hollywood in dilemma. Contenders like Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman and I Am Not Your Negro were produced or distributed by Amazon Studios. Suicide Squad won an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Debates shall be eternally waged over Moonlight vs. La La Land.

La La Land still won 6 Oscars.

Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlight and Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.

Was La La Land overhyped? As Dan Golding argues in his essay The Dreamers of La La Land, the film is “likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits”, as “too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too reactionary, too nostalgic”. Yet there is power in positive narratives, beyond identity formation in Moonlight or confronting mortality in Manchester by the Sea. Some might question the Academy Awards’ favourability towards films about the acting industry or show business in general, like The Artist (2011) or Birdman (2014), yet they won Oscars because they’re good films.

Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.

In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.

Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.

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The opening musical sequence, Another Day of Sun, is filled with colour and diversity

La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.

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Mia works as a barista on the WB backlot

The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.

In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.

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Mia’s bedroom is an anachronism

Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.

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Seb is singing, just not in the rain

JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.

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This is definitely California

Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.

Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.

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The Griffith Observatory is one of the most beautiful locations for the City of Stars sequence, evoking Rebel Without a Cause

Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

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Keith is largely sidelined in the film

Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.

Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.

In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.

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Jazzsplaining isn’t romantic

Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.

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Seb decides to play his own music at Christmas

Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:

Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?

Through Mia’s auditions, we see the realities of the acting industry, her opening audition met by the casting director on their cellphone, based on an audition Ryan Gosling had gone through. She spills coffee on her shirt, covering it up with her coat. In Someone in the Crowd, we see Mia’s isolation, rather than being popular and successful. Her Prius gets towed; no one turns up to her one-woman play. Yet if she likes it, what else matters? Forced to return home to Nevada after 6 years of auditions and perseverance, she must live her own dream; in The Fools Who Dream, we see the speed and pressure. Stone “whirl[s] through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado, filled with life.

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Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem

Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.

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Positioning Mia and Seb against a half-finished white painted backdrop, Chazelle questions the unreality of the musical

The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.

Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.

The Matrix (1999), dir. Lana & Lilly Wachowski

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It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.

Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).

Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects thatlife early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.

The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”. 

With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.

The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.

The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.

As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.

As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:

In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.

Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.

The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.

We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.

In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.

In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.

The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.

Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.

The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.

Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.

Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.

pipe
This is not a pipe

Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.

Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. The Matrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.

At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.

Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.

Personal Shopper (2016), dir. Olivier Assayas

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Kristen Stewart is a joke, forever defined by her stilted acting in Twilight (2008). Twilight is what it is: an adaptation of a YA novel, spanning several fanfic erotic sequels not featuring Kristen Stewart in the Fifty Shades (2014-present) series. Stewart started out as a child actress, appearing in masterpieces like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000). Every child actor has an interesting path. Elle Fanning grew up to be one of the greatest teenage actors around. Macaulay Culkin became Macaulay Culkin. Elijah Wood grew up to be that weird guy in Spy Kids 3-D (2003), Frodo, a serial killer and Dirk Gently’s friend.

Stewart isn’t going to win any Oscars any time soon. But Assayas proves she’s capable, lifting her out of American cinema into French cinema. Casting an American lead, Assayas sacrifices none of his film’s reality in favour of commercial intent, never breaching the film’s internal world. Maureen exists as outsider, with a diasporic American identity. Working for Kyra, she never fits into the Parisian world, with her old knitted sweaters or addiction to her cellphone. As a personal shopper, Maureen is continually alone, absorbing other people’s identities in shallowness and materialism, spending thousands of euros on clothes that aren’t hers. She follows her late brother Lewis’ French lifestyle because of a pact they made. As she tries on a sparkly dress, Maureen is caught between taking an identity which isn’t hers and the sheer joy of rebellion.

Personal Shopper captures a sense of modern job insecurity and globalisation. Maureen’s boyfriend, Gary, works in the Middle East, seen only through Skype calls. Maureen must travel across Europe between London and Milan, never able to enjoy travel. It’s a job, but never a rewarding one. In a film like Only God Forgives (2013), Ryan Gosling’s insertion into Thailand’s culture as an expat felt forced, as though our only way to relate is through a white figure. Here, cultural conflict is central to the narrative. 

Personal Shopper’s genre is difficult to classify. In part, it is a horror film. As Maureen explores Kyra’s apartment, it becomes a haunted house, like the gothic horror of the 1800s or a female-centric film like The Innocents (1961). Personal Shopper avoids representing its ghosts as the goofy cartoons of Ghostbusters (1984), but returns a sense of the unknown beyond clichés. Assayas’ ghosts are a spectre and trace of the past, an invisible presence caught between two realms of existence not immediately discernible. Assayas avoids the well-trodden tropes of gusts of wind or slamming doors, never falling for jump scares.

Maureen carries a self-awareness of the genre she exists within, akin to the awareness of genre trappings in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Maureen wants to be a strong, independent woman, telling her invisible stalker she hates horror films, where the helpless female character must avoid a male murderer. As she finds the body in the apartment, covered in blood, Maureen must embody this role, caught between the fear of the messages and her own independence. The camera moves through the corridors of the hotel as though in Steadicam, like the eeriness of the Overlook in The Shining (1980). As she is questioned by police, devolving into a cliché of the detective genre, Maureen finds these roles inescapable.

Personal Shopper’s horror is not in its ghosts or serial killers, but in its technology. Cinema, after all, is technology in itself. Often, films like Unfriended (2014) and Cyberbully (2015) have tried to tap into the internet as horror, failing to feel realistically terrifying, playing paranoia entirely ineffectively. Technology is so ingrained within our everyday life it feels difficult to critique without sounding out-of-touch or conservative. But technology is something we should be skeptical of, thanks to writers like Evgeny Morozov and documentarians like Adam Curtis. Technology has restructured social interaction, political engagement, working life, the news industry and so on, placing big data within corporations and governments. Anti-terrorism and internet security adverts may seem melodramatic, yet there are genuine fears.

I cannot control my phone. As I type up my notes for this review, Google voice command activates out of nowhere. Trying to listen to The Eclipse Viewer, it lowers the volume to 0. It skips to the next episode. My phone calls home, with no reason why.

Assayas tries to capture how overwhelming this all is. As Maureen attempts to relax and sketch, she’s interrupted by the blare of Gary on Skype, unable to ignore. In one scene, she attempts to ask a question, caught between a multi-person business call. There is no escape.

In his excellent video essay Smartphones in Cinema and TV – A Missed Opportunity?, Luís Azevedo questions how smartphones affects narrative and cinematic form, creating a sense of distance beyond our instinct to present text messages as a visual aesthetic as utilised by series like Sherlock (2010-present). Rather than embed technology in the frame, in the desktop documentary form used by video essayists like Kevin B. Lee, Assayas shows us technology as something we see on a screen through our own eyes. Assayas never aestheticises, but shows Gary’s Skype call continually breaking up.

Maureen’s iPhone, an everyday object, becomes something she fears. Like the emotionless computer voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Maureen receives texts from a stranger, conveying no emotion in their delivery to discern tone or meaning. Assayas never attempts to speed this process up, creating sheer tension out of sending and reception.

As she questions who is sending the texts – a friend, the ghost of Lewis? – Assayas never reveals the sender. In its anonymity, the phone receives new power. Maureen experiences the fears of many women – unwanted texts, stalkers, creepers sending dickpics – becoming a psychological fear. The sender pretends to be in the same space as her on the Eurostar, with nothing saying otherwise. But her curiosity must be met. In London, trying her dress on, Maureen instinctively grabs the phone. Her boundaries break down: she sends the sender a photo of her in the dress, an artificial sense of trust built through repetition.

Assayas uses technology in an expository function, to explain information. The phone becomes a manifestation of Maureen’s internal monologue, in anxieties and desires, becoming a voice on her shoulder telling her to try Kyra’s dress on. The phone becomes her closest confidant, to sleep beside and voice her thoughts to, as though the words will dissipate with no tangible connection to the real world. Technology is a tool: we see Maureen’s process of researching Hilma af Klint on her phone on the metro (before buying a physical art book), or watching a 1960s TV movie about Victor Hugo’s spiritualism on YouTube after her friend’s suggestion. Assayas connects these scenes, as the video plays on with no temporal or spatial constraints, moving between locations. Rather than unnecessary quirk, these elements become essential to advancing the narrative.

Assayas uses these technological mediums to connect us to our understanding of spiritualism. Spiritualism is directly tied to advancement of technology, through the party tricks that emerged with the advancement of electrical telegraphy in the 1850s. Assayas moves beyond the crystal balls, Ouija boards and campy horror to ground Maureen and her brother Lewis as mediums within our contemporary context, helping us understand spiritualism as a legitimate belief system. Despite the advancement of science and technology, faith and spirituality are going nowhere; they lose none of their power. Religion may seem dead, but it’s not.

Recently, I lost a friend.

I only met him a few times. But it still affects me; I must still come to terms with it, and question where his soul resides now. Assayas captures a search for meaning in the aftermath of a death. Maureen’s relationship with Lewis, dying of a heart condition they both share, creates a symbiotic blood tie between the two. Maureen follows in his footsteps, carrying an innate sense of her own mortality as she reconciles her beliefs, even in weakness. She holds onto the smallest chance, because it is a chance. Assayas depicts her desire to find peace and faith, yet no answers are forthcoming. Her friend attempts to swiftly get over the loss of Lewis, finding a new boyfriend, but we see an unspoken sense of repression: she can’t come to terms with his passing, even though she tries to.

Assayas’ ghostly spectre is at its most powerful here. Through a breaking glass, we infer a ghostly presence. Maureen tries to find scientific justification, surmising the glass broke some other way. But she knows her instinct is true. In the final scene, Maureen travels to the Middle East, and is haunted once more. In the film’s final lines, she asks:

Is it you, Lewis? Or is it just me?

The film fades to white (as opposed to black), as Assayas gives no answer.

Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch

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Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:

[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.

Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.

Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.

Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead (1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.

But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a creative feeling” of “freedom in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.

Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.

Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.

Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.

The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.

Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet (1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.

Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.

Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.

As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.

Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.

Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.

Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).

Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:

[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.

But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.

Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.

As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.

Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.

With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.