Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing on the Wall (The Killing and Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

After pondering, since last Sunday, how in blazes the premiere of AMC's The Killing ended up being more pleasurable than a grim TV series about the brutal murder of a teenage girl in rainy-day Seattle has any reason to be, it finally hit me that the show is assuaging our frustrations toward a prior hit series of yore. No, I don't mean Twin Peaks: despite the superficial similarities in plot and setting, David Lynch's sideshow struck me as a fraud from the start, contemptuous of its audience, not even remotely interested in solving the mysteries it dangled before us, thereby leaving my emotions happily uninvested. It's The X-Files that comes to mind. That show was a crock too, yet Gillian Anderson's Scully offered some recognizably human behavior that held our attention in the face of some patented absurdities, even if Chris Carter's M.O. was to make her rational worldview look foolish at the end of every hour. Mireille Enos, the star of The Killing, has, with her red hair and unnervingly level gaze, a remarked-upon resemblance to Anderson; and the fact that the opening episode went of its way to make her homicide detective Sarah Lindsen perceptive, intelligent and right felt like a retroactive means of smacking Mulder upside the head.

The Killing was satisfying in and of itself too, its ominous prologue setting the tone: Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay) running desperately ahead of an encroaching flashlight through darkened woods, intercut with a tracking shot of Sarah Lindsen going for a morning jog across a bridge, a murder victim and her subsequent investigator connected across parallel narrative tracks. (There's more than a passing nod in Sarah's introduction to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.) Twin Peaks began famously with the discovery of Laura Palmer's plasti-wrapped body; nobody remembers Lynch undercutting the pathos by fixing his lens on a young detective wailing uncontrollably by the riverbank. In other words, the moment wasn't about Laura's death; it was about pushing her out of the frame and putting this marginal character and his weird behavior at the center of it. The Killing shows a little more respect for its characters, including Rosie's parents (the wholly believable pairing of Michelle Forbes and Brendon Sexton), with whom we spend much of the first two hours. The premiere takes its time between revealing Rosie first reported missing to the discovery of the car in a lake with her body in the trunk, and Forbes and Sexton expertly take us through the difficult task of feeling what they're feeling -- initial worry, dismissal of fears, relief at false good news, then lacerating shock and guilt.

It's still early in the game, but so far The Killing has a nice mix of comforting cliches and breaking of original ground. For every hoary plot device (Sarah Linden is The Detective About To Leave Before One Last Case), there's a completely unique character like Linden's partner, the goofball gadabout Det. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Holder looks like a scrawny ferret and talks with an ostensibly regional accent that more closely resembles a Cajun with a mouth full of gumbo. (The actor --fittingly for a series adapted from a Scandinavian original -- is Swedish.) Linden and Holder become mismatched partners, to put it mildly; yet there are no overblown disagreements or misunderstandings between them. They circle each other wearily, pulled into a case against their communal will, then pool their respective skill-sets together to crack it.

This pays off for Holder (and the viewers) in the closing minutes of the premiere, as he suckers a pair of Rosie's gal-pals to reveal the location of "the cage," a basement dwelling in their high school where Rosie may have been last spotted on the evening of a Halloween dance. Effective as the payoff was -- images of (menstrual?) blood on the bed and a bloody handprint on the wall -- it makes me uneasy to think that The Killing is going to be another moralistic example of punishing an adolescent girl for her burgeoning sexuality. Nor am I as yet terribly fond of the subplot pertaining to a local politician (TV vet Bill Campbell) and his undetermined role (if any) in Rosie's death. Combining these elements would be very Veronica Mars, and while it worked fine on that show I'm hoping the creators of The Killing try a different tack, one that hasn't been done to death.

Werner Herzog's unwieldy mix of visual grandeur and German existentialism gets a major workout in his 3-D extravaganza Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And while I've often found his personality and approach irksome in efforts like Grizzly Man, here I finally happened on a point-of-entry onto Herzog's wavelength: he's a comedian at heart. How else to explain the sublime comic timing of moments such as Herr Werner interviewing a learned scientist only so he can ask the befuddled poindexter questions like: "Do zee paintings dream at night? Do zay cry?" Even funnier is when the same man confesses that his original job was a circus performer, and Herzog's voice trembles with excitement. "Ver you a lion-tamer?" he asks hopefully.

Sadly not. But the caves of Chauvet in southern France offer the next best thing: ancient paintings of lions, horses, rhinos, and other wildlife; handprints from an anonymous Cro-Magnon whose journey through the cave, another scientist explains, can be traced by his crooked finger; deep, dark internal passageways whose womb-like splendor does not escape Herzog's attention; gorgeous external surroundings threatened (a bizarre postscript tells us) by a nuclear plant altering the habitat enough to render it suitable for albino crocodiles. Herzog likes to condemn modern technology while exploiting it to its fullest capabilities; curiously, James Cameron in Avatar, the last 3-D movie I've seen, took a similar approach. The difference between them is Cameron is disappearing ever further down the CGI rabbit hole, whereas Herzog keeps himself rooted in the real world, even as his ideas drift into the ether.

What is the point of Cave of Forgotten Dreams? On one level, it's a standard Herzogian lyric poem about the ineffable, represented here (like all his other films) as a State Of Nature. He's not out to educate us, quite the opposite in fact: he wants to leave us in a state of awestruck rapture. The use of 3-D, his second agenda, achieves the first fairly well. The tactile detail of the paintings, the contours of the cave formations, the depth of field would simply not be attained by standard filmmaking. Even with his fancy new toy, though, Herzog retains a sense of mischief. When he asks an anthropologist to demonstrate prehistoric spear-chucking, and the pointy edge thrusts out of the frame, it's a nod to the original 1950s-era 3-D films. A good gag. Less successful are the let's-shake-the-camera-while-we-walk scenes, an eyestrain compounded by the extra dimension. (Blair Witch 3-D -- a horrifying thought.)

While I remain a 3-D agnostic, a critic on Facebook recently made a persuasive case that a positive byproduct of the fad could be that it forces directors to hold the image of whatever it is they're shooting -- a futuristic means of returning to classical filmmaking. So far we've had very few major filmmakers take a crack at three-dimensional movies -- only opportunists and hacks. (I want to see what an artist like Scorsese can do with the form in his Hugo Cabret before rushing to judgment.) That Werner Herzog has tried it in a documentary, with mostly success, is laudable. The visuals alone make Cave of Forgotten Dreams well worth seeing, yet the fact that I walked out of it in a surprisingly upbeat mood had less to do with the images themselves than of Herzog's inimitable comedy stylings. At one point, he points to two pairs of ancient footprints on the floor of the cave, one belonging to a wolf, the other to a child. "Vas zee boy chased into zee cave by zee volf?" he wonders aloud. "Or did zay come into zee cave together as friends?" Priceless as that spoof of Herzog reading Curious George is, he may be the ideal filmmaker for the subject after all.


Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah, I figured the bloody handprint on the wall was a result of a menstrual accident as well: maybe the basement was reserved by the school boys as some type of rape cellar? That's usually the direction that shows like this tend to go.

The pilot has me intrigued for next week's episode, but I can't share the opinion that The Killing may be the next Twin Peaks -- much less a better show. Now, of course, the Killing pilot is at least superior to the abysmal second season of Twin Peaks, but not in comparison to Twin Peaks as a whole -- or, more appropriately, as a concept. Lynch's show pleased me so much because it whisked me away to another world, secluded from reality, in which the characters could be eccentric and lovable--even the villainous or obnoxious ones. But The Killing feels the need to be realistic and dead-serious, and to me this just makes it derivative of other modern-crime shows like CSI. And although the movie is set in Seattle, I'm totally not digging the whole blue/white filter cinematography thing; it's like they're trying to make an arty version of Cold Case. With a lot of rain, that is.

I didn't watch The X-Files, though, so I can't comment on that comparison. You're right about the Clarice Starling parallels, though. So far, I like the cops. And I like the high school kids. But I'm with you on the politician--that's a meandering subplot. I just wish they hadn't called the show "The Killing": why, oh why, did they have to throw Kubrick's memory under the bus like that? I understand that the Danish title of the show is "The Crime", or something... anything but "The Killing" would have done.

Also, Herzog in 3D!?? What madness is this.

Craig said...

Ha, ha. Well, "The Killing" is such a generic title, and one of Kubrick's oldest and lesser-known films (albeit a good one), that I can't begrudge them too much. Your concerns about the show becoming the next "Cold Case" I'm in tune with, though, and not just because the creators of this series also made that one. I'm hopeful, perhaps naively, that they have some tricks up their sleeve, because the cast they've assembled is more than capable of carrying out whatever is in store. (Michelle Forbes has become the equivalent of an ace relief pitcher on at least four or five cable shows now. She's amazing.) And I'm hopeful that "the cage" isn't what it seems to be, if for the only reason that the girls Holder conned didn't seem afraid of it.

David Lynch is a subject impossible for me to discuss rationally; I must have a biochemical reaction against the man's work. I can admire your argument about entering a different world, but I can't share it. I need some identifiable human attributes to keep me there.

The Herzog flick is scheduled to open -- not wide, but wider -- by the end of the month. I hope it lands in St. Loooey because I think you'd enjoy it.

Unknown said...

I was surprised by how taken I was by "The Killing", which I had only decided to see at the last minute rather than suffer through another hour of Toddy Haynes' "Mildred Pierce". (Haynes is to me what Lynch is to you.)

I am hoping that whatever turns the story takes doesn't veer into the ridiculous, as this genre sometimes tends to do, but the actors, the characters and the mood really did grab me.

The one aspect the show does handle well is the mismatched partner business, which is less of one being more right than the other than how two different approaches can work depending on what information they need to get. I at least hope this aspect of the show stays consistent for its run.

ted mills said...

Haven't seen The Killing, but you're off on Lynch and Twin Peaks. Yes, one could look at the first "wrapped in plastic" scene takes away from Laura Palmer, but is this not followed up by one of Lynch's bravura sequences, when an empty chair at school, her friend's worried look, a crying girl in the distance, and Badalamenti's music create a sense of shock and grief.

Also, Fire Walk With Me took on Laura Palmer as a person instead of enigma to be solved, and was a devastating film, methinks. Sheryll Lee's performance in that was the best in her career.

Craig said...

Ted - Thanks for weighing in. It wouldn't surprise me if I am off-base on Lynch. I don't remember the scene you mentioned from the show. I did try watching "Fire Walk With Me" once years ago, but turned it off right around the point where Ray Wise started ranting about the dirt beneath Sheryl Lee's fingernails. Peter Dinklage's brilliant tirade in Tom DiCillo's "Living in Oblivion" encapsulates my feelings on The David.

Steven - Yeah, we'll see how it goes. If Michelle Forbes's hair turns shock white, we'll know it's time to turn the dial.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, you're totally off on Twin Peaks. Lynch, it's fair to say, isn't that interested in traditional mystery mechanics, but that doesn't mean he has contempt for his characters or for the audience. Twin Peaks at its best was about presenting these oddball characters - often warped versions of various genre cliches - and then doing something emotionally real and intense with them. The friction between the sublime and the ridiculous, or the real and the surreal, is the heart of Lynch's work. The effect of Laura's death on this community is felt very powerfully throughout the first season. And Fire Walk With Me, a brilliant capstone to the series, is nothing if not a head-on look at Laura's life and death, an elegy in the form of a horror movie.

Anyway, I loved Cave of Forgotten Dreams as well, and yes, it's very funny, as Herzog almost always is. He has a very distinctive way of looking at the world, and he filters almost everything through that worldview. He does a great job of using the 3D organically, at least in the caves - some of the shaky outdoor scenes were headache-inducing, as you say. I'm still not convinced that 3D is a great idea, but here at least it makes sense and is used in an inventive fashion, even if at the end of the day I probably would've liked the film more or as much if it had just been 2D. (But yeah, the spear gag was priceless, especially when he all but apologizes for the scientist's lack of skill, saying that primitive hunters would've been much better.)

What'd you think of the absurd radioactive crocodile coda?

Craig said...

But, Ed, if I didn't rip David Lynch, what online blogger would? ;)

Seriously, you make a powerful case for "Twin Peaks" and his other work, but in most instances I just don't feel it. "Blue Velvet" is my favorite Lynch movie, the one that comes together the best for me, the one that resonates the most emotionally and reflects the era in which it was made rather than just flashes of the director's synapses. "Mulholland Dr." I admire tremendously on a technical level, and it undoubtedly has staying power, but it leaves me cold, falls more into the "synapses" category for me.

All the raves these days for "Fire Walk with Me" are fascinating, considering how despised the movie was when it was released. (And not in a polarizing Kubrick way, but in a "This is the worst movie ever made" way.) This is where it gets tricky with Lynch, but for a serious topic such as sexual abuse, I find him awfully flippant. (Never mind that it's technically not Laura's father, but [groan] BOB doing the abusing, and finally the killing.) The "dirty fingernails" scene (and many, many other scenes) tells me nothing about the subject or how Lynch feels about it; it strikes me as distractingly, self-consciously arch, being weird for weirdness' sake. I guess that's where I draw the line with Lynch: I can enjoy rattling around inside an artist's head for a couple hours, but not when it's up his own ass.

Craig said...

On the other hand, back to Adam's point about "The Killing": The ultraserious, ultrasomber approach can wear problematically thin too. TV shows with an overarching murder case premise tend to have a short shelf life, regardless of how they approach the topic. "The Killing" will hopefully last longer than the molasses-pacing of "Rubicon," but of course, the problem is balancing enough payoff to keep the viewer hooked without giving everything away too quickly. I admired the way the premiere was directed -- the image of the car pulled out of the lake, in particular, was haunting and elegant. But they're going to need some substance to keep people interested, both in terms of plot and the relationship between the central two characters.

As for "Cave of Forgotten Dreams": the coda was riotous, the cause of many scratched heads out in the lobby after the movie. Only Herzog could have come up with that. I also laughed at his adroit comparison between an ancient fertility statuette and the physiques of the cast of "Baywatch."

Unknown said...

I would second Ed's comment about "Twin Peaks" not being about the plot. In fact, I never thought it was necessary to solve Laura Palmer's murder and wished that it hadn't. I also may be one of the few people who didn't hate the show's second season.

Of Lynch, in general, I've been of the notion that half of his movies work and the other half don't. "Mulholland Drive" I always felt was his most complete and greatest film. But then, there's the Lynch who directs the pure wankery of "Inland Empire" that I find indefensible.

"Fire: Walk With Me" is actually strongest when Lynch tells Laura Palmer's story. But his digressions to random characters (Look! It's David Bowie acting weird!) and moments reveals there's only so many times a director can use "dream logic" as an excuse for avoiding to shape a halfway coherent narrative, theme or even mood.

Adam Zanzie said...

Totally agreed about the car sequence in The Killing; to make a cliched comparison, it reminds me of Psycho, and yet somehow it's all the more haunting because the girl drowned in there. It's not like she was killed quickly and then disposed of. So that part of the show is where its real heart is. The show will do well as long as Rosie's death is felt throughout the season, just as Laura Palmer's death was in the first season of Peaks.

I realize the Peaks tagent is getting us a little off-topic, but your Lynch reservations are hilarious because they remind me of my on-again, off-again reservations towards Tarantino. Some of his movies (Kill Bill: Vol. 2) fascinate me to no end, while others (Death Proof) drive me batshit nuts. Since I love Lynch, though, I have to ask, what do you think of Eraserhead? I'd say it's his most perfect film, in part because it's his debut and it's free of all studio interference. And what's your opinion on The Straight Story? I'd say that's his warmest character study, so it may be right up your ally. The only Lynch movie that's ever left a bad taste in my mouth is Wild At Heart; I always tell a joke about how that movie feels like it was made on a day when Lynch forgot to practice his daily TM.

Like Ed, I cherish Fire Walk With Me, but I didn't gush over it at first -- since it's so different from the show. I can see why it angered people at Cannes, however; it can be deadly medicine to the uninitiated (though not everyone: Ryan's not much of a Peaks fan, either, but he loves FWWM). I know that Tarantino REALLY hated Fire Walk With Me: he made the same remark you make about how he thinks Lynch "crawled up his own ass" with that film.

Adam Zanzie said...

But I just watched that Buscemi clip. Lol... leave it to Peter Dinklage to make a politically-correct statement about dwarves whenever he appears in a film. He basically made the same speech in both Elf and The Station Agent.

Craig said...

Adam, I've never seen any early Lynch, neither "Eraserhead" nor "The Elephant Man." I think "The Straight Story" is a decent movie, marred by Lynch's usual nonsense (e.g., the next-door neighbor we're supposed to laugh at because she's fat and dim and doesn't know the number to 9-1-1). He crafts some lovely images -- the nighttime graveyard, for instance. But overall I think his approach, which always carries a suggestion of facileness, doesn't jell with Farnsworth's authenticity.

I hope you're right about "The Killing." Our friend Bill Ryan made a persuasive forecast that many who are praising it now will turn on it later. I may be one of them.

Lastly, Dinklage has given that monologue before, but "Living in Oblivion" was the first and best instance of it. It's a terrific comedy if you've never seen it, an affectionate satire of moviemaking in general and the pretensions of independent filmmaking specifically.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm skipping all the comments as they seem to be about The Killing, which I haven't watched but would like to.

I circled back to your Cave review after listening to a podcast of Herzog on NPR's Fresh Air this morning on the way to work. He uses the same line about the child and the wolf "walking as friends" and it sent me into giggle fits that lasted a good 10 minutes.

I'm interested to see the film, and I'd like to see it in 3-D, to take it in as Herzog desires. In the Fresh Air interview, he implied that he made the decision after scouting the location, but like so many things that come out of Herzog's mouth, I don't believe that. I think it just makes a compelling narrative, and we have loads of evidence that he values that most of all.

Herzog annoys me for the way he tiptoes around the truth and then takes objection when people imply he was in any way deceptive; and I think he gets a kid gloves treatment from critics because of his charm. But, fuck, I do enjoy him. He clearly loves making films, and it's impossible not to be drawn to that.

Craig said...

I was still having major beefs with Herzog right around the time of your and Ed's "Conversation" about him -- which doesn't seem that long ago, but he somehow won me over since then. It helps for me to regard him the way David Edelstein once described Johnny Cash: "a charlatan who's also the genuine article." Herzog loves making movies, as you said; and as pretentious and overbearing as he can be sometimes, he's genuinely in awe of the world around him. That makes him a breath of fresh air compared to all his movie-brat fellow filmmakers who've disappeared down their own navels.

When Herzog does play with technology, like the 3-D here, it clearly tickles him and serves a legitimate purpose toward enhancing the experience of the movie. It's funny, but earlier today my boss told me that he was interested in seeing a 3-D film, his last being back in the 50s or so, and asked me to recommend one. I suggested "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" without hesitation. But when he asked me what it was about, I got stymied. Descriptions that contain the term "the ineffable" never sound good, yet that's always what Herzog's movies are about.