Wrapped In Plastic

Twin Peaks (1990-91), the brainchild of creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, has, in the last decade, risen above cult status.  In part this is due to Lynch’s Oscar nominated Mulholland Drive (2001), and part to the various DVD releases of the show and its streaming on Netflix.  Only a few weeks ago plans to revive the show were announced via Twitter by Lynch himself.  Indeed, almost all of the success of the show, be it when the show originally aired or today, is attributed to David Lynch, and occasionally Mark Frost.  But in the interim, between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and and the release of the Twin Peaks Gold Box, it was the fanzine Wrapped In Plastic (1993-2005) that nurtured interest, merchandising, and critical debate around the show and its creator’s other projects from Lost Highway (1997) to Storyville (1992).

back issues of Wrapped In Plastic

Phenomenon like the Twin Peaks resuscitation is rare in film and television.  Perhaps the greatest example of a fan motivated revival is the franchise Star Trek, whose initial six features were the result of a decade long campaign by fans to bring the original television series back.  It’s too early to tell whether Twin Peaks will spark the sort of fan base and coinciding franchise that Star Trek did, but it is undeniable that the responsibility for any “rediscovery” of Twin Peaks by the public is due to Wrapped In Plastic and its readers.

Wrapped In Plastic was not an iconoclast of its genre, nor was it that consistent in its writing.  It did, however, fill an unlikely niche by bringing Twin Peaks to its fans in print for 75 issues.  Typically the format was quite standard for a fanzine; a cover story, an essay or two, some brief reviews on projects by Twin Peaks’ cast and crew, and then the letters section.  Wrapped In Plastic also covered Chris Carter’s X-Files, linking it thematically and aesthetically to Twin Peaks a number of times.  By incorporating articles and occasional cover stories on X-Files the fanzine was able to broaden its fan-base.  It is essential to put into context the function of the fanzine at the turn of the 21st century when such periodicals were primarily found in the then obscure comic shop and therefore had to compete with fanzines for Star Trek, Star Wars, Charlie’s Angels, Vampirella, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond, etc.  The already insular nature of those frequenting such shops provided a tight sense of community to the Wrapped In Plastic reader, prompting events designed to mirror Star Trek and comic book conventions but aimed at Twin Peaks.

Wrapped In Plastic No. 60This end of the Twin Peaks culture, its true “cult”, has not yet broken onto the social media platforms of the show’s newest fans.  In fact it is hard to get a handle on its function and very nature outside of the back issues of Wrapped In Plastic.  This gets to the very heart of “cult followings” in the age of cyber-space.  Fanzines like Wrapped In Plastic have been replaced by blogs, much like this one.  But these blogs do not come with the built in distribution direct to a niche audience that a printed fanzine comes with.  Thus communities like those built up by Wrapped In Plastic are slow to transition to social media, often suffocated by legions of new fans posting and blogging about the same subject.  This also furthers the novelty sensibility of a conference or festival held by fans beyond the reaches of the internet.  Consider the anarchist free-for-all of Twin Peaks blogs on tumblr in contrast to Radiohead and Sonic Youth blogs which function with a clear cohesion and sense of community.

There is simply something intrinsically communal about picking up a fanzine, an immediate sense of belonging, reassuring one’s self that there are other people in the world with like-minded interests.  The power of print, in this fashion in particular, is largely responsible for the hardcore punk scene of the eighties that sparked bands such as The Minutemen, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Sonic Youth.  Personally, it was this sense of belonging that I felt when I bought my first issue of Wrapped In Plastic from Steve’s Comic Relief with my allowance in 2002.  And, for me at least, that notion of Twin Peaks as a wider community of fans is absent from blogs.  So the benefits of Wrapped In Plastic have been two fold.  Firstly it provided a communal platform for fans and, secondly, breathed new life and interest into the landmark television show.

-Robert Curry

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Protest, Police Brutality, & The Documentary Film

After the shooting of Michael Brown, and all of the incidents that followed, it seems a poignant time to take stock of America’s relationship to its police officers.  In general, this reflection tends to lend absurdity to the Romantic notions of law enforcement perpetuated by Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Columbo, and Lethal Weapon.  In fact such scrutiny has befallen American law enforcement that the very label of “law enforcement” has become a joke.  This is precisely why I have turned to the cinema for an examination of how America has interpreted it’s relationship with police in the last century.  To do this I have preferred the documentary to the fiction film primarily to avoid the unique relationship the American public has with its Romantic depictions of cops, deciding that this particular relationship was better suited to a different essay all together.

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The first film I would like to address is also the oldest, Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon (1968).  Marker’s film captures the fervor of the Yippies’ protest of the Vietnam war at the Pentagon on October 7th, 1967.  This non-violent protest rapidly devolved into a confrontation with MPs and police, of which the most popular account is surely Norman Mailer’s often self-critical Armies Of The Night.  For my purposes the history comes second to the presentation of the facts that make-up the history.

Almost naturally, Marker’s film covers the initial conception of the protest in New York, then follows the Yippies to Washington DC to levitate the Pentagon.  In this way, once the violence breaks out between police and demonstrators, the viewer intuitively sides with the radical left.  To further reinforce this strategy Marker uses several cut-aways to news footage of Vietnamese civilians mutilated by either bombings or napalm.  All of the while authority figures, such as the MPs and police officers, are regulated to a kind of faceless mass bloodying all those who clash with it.

In opposition to Marker’s obvious liberal spin on his footage is Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2002).  The Weather Underground represents something unique in almost all American political documentaries, objectivity.  Part of this may be accounted for by the subjects’ cynicism, and part of it in the structure chosen for the film.  For unlike Marker’s film, The Weather Underground chooses to intertwine both the narratives of the radical Weathermen and the conservative law enforcement agencies tasked with apprehending them.  The method of intercutting back and forth between the Weathermen story and the FBI story is powerful, particularly when, in contemporary interviews with the persons involved, neither the once radical nor the former FBI men sound all that different in terms of their rhetoric of today.  In fact, both sides of the conflict seem to exhibit total disbelief in their former lives, spanning some fourteen years between 1968 and 1982.

The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground

Siegel and Green’s representation of violence is also democratic.  If The Weather Underground shows its audience an instance of one of the Weathermen’s bombings, then that will be countered with an instance of FBI injustice or police brutality.  Unlike Marker, Siegel and Green’s thesis is not dependent on a victim/victimizer relationship between subjects, but looks to determine how one side’s violence fed another’s, perpetuating in cyclical fashion an endless stream of attack and counter-attack.

Siegel and Green’s approach is superficially at work in this third film, Jason Osder’s Let The Fire Burn (2013), but is undermined by the subtextual void created by Osder’s lack of commitment to explaining to his audience the very nature of MOVE, the supposed protagonists of his documentary.  Similarly to The Weather Underground, Osder insinuates that violence begets more violence (or in most cases the suggestion of potential violence beckons realized counter-violence).  However, Osder’s film does not inform the viewer of any of MOVE’s intentions nor any motives.  So it becomes a matter of speculation as to the emotions the film draws from its audience as being politically motivated or simply propagandist in nature.  More often than not, when a filmmaker negates essential details in a documentary it is to disproportionately represent either side of a conflict, relegating the intention of the film beyond the simple cinematic journalism, albeit liberal, in The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon and The Weather Underground.

It seems safe to say, given the example of William Gazecki’s Waco: The Rules Of Engagement (1997), that the audience’s sympathies would not go out to the abominable Philadelphia Police Department but rest squarely with the MOVE members.  After all David Koresh manages to come off as the victim of the ATF in Gazecki’s film simply because his crime was far out weighed by the ATF and FBI’s intentional mass murder of innocents; so why doesn’t the same apply to Let The Fire Burn?

One cannot say for certain Osder’s motives for his omission, though it certainly wasn’t out of necessity; Philadelphia burned several blocks of row homes to kill the members of MOVE, begging the question of Osder’s film “how much overkill does it take to get the sympathy of a jaded American audience?”  What is undeniable about Osder’s film is its outrage at the racism of Philadelphia officials and police officers, setting it apart drastically from The Weather Underground and The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon which dealt almost exclusively with white liberal activists.  But Osder’s obvious assumption that an audience, that will inevitably be racially mixed, would side with a militant police force out for blood over a defenseless house full of men, women and children, be they black or white, is a serious mis-step suggesting a more directed political agenda.

Let The Fire Burn

Let The Fire Burn

Despite the differences of these three films, as well as their merits and failings, each indicates a suspicion of authority and an outrage at violence.  That the moments recorded in these films seem to have slipped the minds of the average American prior to each film’s release is, in my opinion, the epicenter of the biggest problem in America today; ignorance.  And it isn’t cultural or political ignorance, but an ignorance of America’s history.  If the lessons of these three films were remembered by everyone everyday, even if one only experienced the event through one of these films, then more articulate and exact conversations could begin around American legislature, ultimately resulting in some kind of reform that would take America away from the precipice of violence and intolerance.

-Robert Curry

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Socialist Realism In It’s All True

Welles in Rio to shoot the Carnival as the centerpiece to his third film It's All True, of which Four Men In A Raft was the final episode.

Welles in Rio to shoot the Carnival as the centerpiece to his third film It’s All True, of which Four Men In A Raft was the final episode.

So much has been written on the films of Orson Welles, finished and unfinished, that it hardly seems necessary to contribute to that discussion at all.  But having revisited It’s All True: Based On An Unfinished Film By Orson Welles (1993), a few observations struck me as fairly obvious that were nonetheless relatively ignored by the authors of the film; Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson.  Yet it is possible that the motives for avoiding a confrontation with the aesthetic of Welles’ footage derives from Wilson himself.  Having, for many years, served as an assistant to Welles and Mercury, Wilson perhaps thought it best to continue to preserve with a certain fervor the image of Welles as a staunch patriot, and reinforce the rhetoric of blind admiration that has come to encompass Welles as a filmmaker since the advent of New Hollywood in the mid-sixties.

The primary concern of this piece is not with the majority of It’s All True, which in my opinion is a fine documentary that presents a well detailed account of Welles’ production and initial concept for the film.  Rather, the concerns of this short essay remain distinctly with the filmmaker’s “reconstruction” of the last episode in Welles’ film, Four Men On A Raft.

Four Men On A Raft

Orson Welles’ Four Men On A Raft

Four Men On A Raft is concerned with two thematic elements.  The first is the simple narrative that begins with a love affair between a fisherman and a woman.  Shortly after the fisherman and the woman marry, the fisherman dies.  At which point four fisherman determine that they must bring their grievances to the capitol in Rio with the hope that changes will be made to the conditions of their everyday working life.  Narratively speaking the film begins with a fiction that metamorphoses into a re-enactment of historical fact (the journey to Rio).  The second thematic concern is a visual one.  Like Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, Welles presents the inhabitants of his narrative as a mass.  Individuality, or a breaking off from the mass, is only achieved when the hero (or heroes in this case) have determined to take matters into their own hands.  Even in Welles’ presentation of the mass there is a clear Socialist Realist influence, particularly in the long funeral procession.  When this visual mechanism is then applied to Welles’ narrative structure it becomes clear where the allegations of communism were coming from.  Four Men On A Raft is indeed a beautiful film, but it is far more political than its re-constructors would have the viewer believe.

Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth (1930)

Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930)

Prior to the reconstruction, It’s All True goes to great lengths to present Welles’ project as a kind of humanitarian effort, which is clear.  However, in aligning himself with the collective working classes of Brazil in his films, and in his effort to present them sympathetically to an international viewing public, it becomes almost necessary for Welles to adopt the vernacular of Social Realism.  The fault in the presentation of the reconstruction is that the filmmakers do not explore Welles’ relationship with Social Realism as a cinematic aesthetic.  Instead, it’s ignored for reasons, one would assume, that have to do with allegations  that Orson Welles was a communist.  Welles was not.  Any biography could tell you that.  But since Richard Wilson died before It’s All True was released it is unlikely that another film will ever be able to illuminate nor articulate Welles’ debt to the influence of Soviet filmmakers.

-Robert Curry

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Resurgent Trends

Emília Vášáryová in Vojtech Jasny's THAT CAT (1963)

Emília Vášáryová in Vojtech Jasny’s THAT CAT (1963)

The Czech “new wave” of the sixties is, without a doubt, a cinematic movement unified by intent and not by style.  There is hardly anything uniform between the cinematic styles of Schorm and Passer other than an expression of one’s nationality, either in a political or subjectively personal arena.  Czech filmmakers of the sixties, much like those in West Germany who comprised the New German Cinema, had the nearly insurmountable task of asserting themselves as a unit that was expressive of a society oppressed in the years following the second world war.  Where the West German filmmakers found economic and sociological resistance to their expressions, Czech film artists were faced with censorship, political intervention, and Western ignorance; a far more severe set of obstacles that seems to have only relaxed briefly between 1965 and August 1968.  However, the rebellious nature of the Czech “new wave” has managed to produce some of the most iconoclast and desirable images of individuality in all of film history.

Daises

These “desirable images” are particularly popular in America amongst the now twenty-something art school graduate and hipster.  This demographic, though extremely specific, obsessively seeks ways with which to flaunt non-conformity and make associations with identifiers beyond the mainstream.  For instance, the popular images of Audrey Hepburn that adorn the merchandise sold to the femme identified of this demographic is indicative of a re-appropriation of sixties chic.  In juxtaposition to the image of Hepburn, some have chosen Chytilová’s Daises (1966) in her place.  And it isn’t their identification with Chytilová’s themes of sexual non-conformity or her satire of government mandates that appeals to theme, but, in the strictest sense, the visual aesthetic of Daises.  If it were the film’s thematic content that interested this demographic, surely Chytilová’s Another Way Of Life (1963) would be equally popular.  Since this is not the case, one is left to assume that it is only the superficial pleasures of the images offered in Daises that tantalize today’s devotees to sixties chic.

Similarly Jireš’s Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970) has been appropriated by persons of the same age group who are typically Queer identified or simply relate to the dark themes of this particular fairytale film.  Jireš’s film presents motifs familiar to most Western film audiences such as sexual ambiguity and fluidity, vampirism, incest, wicked grandmothers, innocence lost, and a strong pre-teen heroine in the lead.  Jireš’s commentary on the relationship of church and state in Czechoslovakia aren’t nearly as essential, or even obvious, to the film’s latest set of fans as are the film’s witty “perversions” of the fairytale genre.  In fact the film has become such a staple of the “hipster” culture that it was the biggest draw at CIP’s Eastern European program that I helped curate two years ago.  Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders has also been cited as a favorite film for both Kevin Barnes and Phil Elverum.

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders

What both films have in common is a unique visual aesthetic, and this is what defines the relationship between the audience and these film’s today.  Jasny’s That Cat (1963) is another Czech film that operates under a unique set of visual signifiers and special effects that has not found a new audience amongst today’s twenty-somethings primarily because the film lacks the sexuality one who was raised in America associates with the silver sixties.  In identifying what is desirable in the images presented by these two Czech “new wave” films one need only determine why Audrey Hepburn continues to enthrall legions of young women today.  Because it cannot be stressed enough that this new found audience for Daises and Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders does not associate themselves with a passion for the Czech “new wave”, but strictly for these two films specifically, and the nostalgia for the sixties that they inadvertently present.

-Robert Curry

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A Book Review

on the set of Coney Island (1917)

There is no shortage of biographies and memoirs of the men and women who have shaped the cinema.  Ray Carney’s work on John Cassavetes is exhaustive and all encompassing, Richard Brody’s Jean-Luc Godard: Everything Is Cinema is a perfect mixture of the director’s personal life and his professional development, and Patrick McGilligan’s George Cukor: A Double Life is as thorough as thorough can be.  But the book in question is not a traditional biography.  This book takes the facts of a real life and endows them with a humanity that is absent from the official record of this life through the fictional invention of it’s author, creating a memoir that is supposed, and in reality, a novel.  The book in question is Jerry Stahl’s I, Fatty.

I, Fatty, as its title suggests, tells the life story of Roscoe Arbuckle.  Arbuckle, better known now for the scandal that ended his career, was one of the earliest and most influential innovators of screen comedy.  In the world of film literature Arbuckle, perhaps because of the infamy of his scandal, has been relegated to a footnote or a breezy chapter in a book on Buster Keaton or some extensive survey of the silent cinema as a whole.  Those writers of non-fiction, the good film historians such as Walter Kerr and Rudi Blesh, treat Arbuckle and his accomplishments with the appropriate reverence and respect without being concerned with the man who truly was “Fatty” Arbuckle.

I, Fatty by Jerry StahlIt is in creating a portrait of a man that Jerry Stahl excels; even if the man in his book is as much a fabrication as it is historical fact.  It is enlightening in its suggestion of a human being behind the “Fatty” persona.  To have the reader grapple with not only the facts already available in the works of Kerr and Blesh but the very concept that there was an emotional creature behind this famous persona who lived and felt the tumultuous events that we know made up Arbuckle’s life.  This suggestion is the real “food for thought”, the true success of I, Fatty.

It only helps that Stahl’s voice for Arbuckle is flawlessly consistent, imbued with the slang and jargon popular in the 1910s and 1920s.  It helps further that Stahl is very simply able to conjure a sense of time and space in his novel, making tangible the dusty back lots of old Hollywood, the worn out and rotting theaters on the vaudeville circuit, as well as the cold dank Kansas shack where Arbuckle was born.  It is these two principle elements that tie I, Fatty to our understanding of reality, an understanding that, if absent, would render Stahl’s rendition of Arbuckle a tasteless caricature.

Thankfully, I, Fatty works.  Though it may not be the definitive biographical work on Roscoe Arbuckle, it is the closest to it this reader has ever stumbled upon.

-Robert Curry

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Lulu In Berlin, The Supplemental Feature

Louise Brooks circa the 1920s

It’s not difficult to see why Louise Brooks remains one of the most captivating personas of the silent cinema.  Even in her day her look and her talent for acting on film were widely discussed, praised, and adored.  Her celebrity may even be so potent today that it alone is responsible for the deluxe editions of her two films with G.W. Pabst (released by Kino Video and the Criterion Collection respectively).  These two releases posses an abundance of supplements ranging from interviews with Brooks, latter day short films (Windy RIley Goes Hollywood of 1930 was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and, on the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Richard Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin (1984).

Lulu In Berlin is, at essence, a filmic analysis of Brooks’ life in and around the cinema with a detailed foray into what was the climax of that relationship; her collaboration with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929).  In conversation with Brooks, Leacock prompts his subject to recall all of the anecdotes and personal reflections that make her own memoir Lulu In Hollywood such a delightful read.  But what Leacock is able to do in Lulu In Berlin that Brooks was not in her book is to deconstruct the visual aesthetic of Pabst.  To do this Leacock, like any sensible video-essayist, slows down sequences, freeze frames on notable compositions, and replays sequences of particular importance.  What Lulu In Berlin manages, that is entirely unique in my experience, is to couple the subjective recollections of a subject with an objective aesthetic analysis of another related subject congruently.

Consider the many DVD special features that one is most familiar with.  A celebrity, either director or actor, recalls the pleasuresLeacock and Brooks of making a film whilst, via jump cuts, the film in reference is often cut to.  The difference between these supplemental features on DVDs and blu-rays and Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin is their motivation.  Where Leacock presents an analysis that is two prolonged and intent on enlightening the audience as to the mechanics of a film and the experience of constructing those mechanics that make the film your average special feature is nothing more than a prolonged advertisement for whatever film happens to be in question.  Even some of the most informative special features, like those on Warner Bros. DVD release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), are, at their heart, commercials.

Leacock’s film of Louise Brooks, with all of its aforementioned merits, still would not likely to have been seen on a home video release if it weren’t for the fact that Louise Brooks is the subject.  In Barry Paris’ excellent biography on Brooks, Louise Brooks, Paris will, again and again, reassert this timelessness.  He points out that to many fans of the cinema today Brooks is more famous and recognizable than those actresses with whom she often competed, such as Clara Bow.  This observation, that is very true, was also shared by Leacock; who opened and closed Lulu In Berlin with the sequence pictured below.

freeze frame from Lulu In Berlin

-Robert Curry

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A Short Reflection On A Screening At International House

Mon Oncle (1958)

Last Friday I attended, with my brother, a screening of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) at International House.  What may appear to be an odd context to this screening, though not after a closer examination, was the fact that David Lynch had selected the film.  Lynch, with his reputation for dark and sexually violent films, is often overlooked for his use of slapstick, circumstantially motivated, as comic relief in his films.  One can easily see Tati’s influence, for example, in the blocking of the elderly bank attendants in the series finale of Twin Peaks; which also recalls a similar scenario at a hotel lobby in his film Wild At Heart (1990).  Lynch’s admiration for Tati is obvious, even if the influence of the latter is somewhat subtle.

The screening also afforded audiences a chance to further appreciate and contemplate the longevity of Tati’s film.  Presented to us, the audience, was a 16mm print of Mon Oncle, a cut of the film that had been prepared by Tati himself for distribution in Britain and the United States featuring some brief over-dubbing.  The contrast between this version and the now more familiar French language version highlighted the “silence” of the film.  In only one or two instances is the dialogue at all necessary.  And it is the “silence” of Mon Oncle, coupled with Tati’s satirical mastery, that enables the film to play today as fresh as it did more than fifty years ago.

However, upon departing the screening, one is left to wonder, as my brother and I did, why silent clowning has vanished from the cinema.  Considering the relevance and cinematic potency of such master silent comedians of the sound era as Tati, Pierre Etaix, and Jerry Lewis it seems a shame no one has stepped forward to fill those shoes.  Has that particular niche vanished?  Has society become too dependent on text and not upon the visual or representative?  In this age of high technology, which Tati predicted so long ago, I would assume the opposite were true.  Sadly, the analysis stopped there as my brother and I began discussing how delightful it would be if Albert Brooks were to return to directing and helm a film of silent clowning of his own.  Still, the question is an important one: where are today’s silent clowns of the cinema?

-Robert Curry

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