Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cynicism, emotion, and Zen: Deceased Harry Dean Stanton

The best character actors always have memorable faces. Harry Dean Stanton's visage was perfection it went from a lean, rough-hewn cowpoke's mask to the sunken, weathered mug that made him instantly recognizable in all of his roles since the mid-Eighties.

The details of his youth are scarce (he wanted it that way, if the documentary Partly Fiction is any indication), but set him up for a career playing “average American cynic” parts. A native of Kentucky, he served in the Navy in WWII he was a company chef in the Battle of Okinawa (!).

He returned from the war and pursued his interest in performing through college and into several stage roles. His regular work as a supporting player on TV and in the movies began in earnest in the late Fifties and never stopped until he died over a week ago at 91.

Through the Sixties and Seventies, he carved out a place as a supporting performer, usually in Westerns and crime movies. Although no one knew his name at the time despite his close friend Jack Nicholson including it in graffiti on the sets of his films his no-nonsense demeanor and his memorable face found him playing heavies (he was the thinnest heavy around) and characters who get killed off rather quickly.

His career changed for good thanks to one role that of “Travis Henderson” in Wim Wenders' Paris Texas (1984), scripted by Sam Shepard. Wenders and Shepard gave Harry Dean his very first starring role at the “tender “age of 58. As it turned out, it was one of the few he ever got, but the film itself was good and he was so excellent in the role that his name finally became as familiar as his face.

The same year saw the release of Repo Man, the brilliantly off-beat comedy where Harry Dean played the coke-sniffing veteran repo man Bud. The combination of that brusque, cynical character (who had a mean way with a bat) and the quiet, directionless Travis established HDS as a sturdy presence in the ever-fickle movie industry.

From heavies to good guys, the one common thread in his movie work is that, like his friend Jack, Harry Dean was an indubitably American presence. His characters had seen it all, done most of it, and were at a slight remove from the over-stimulated culture we live in. He was effortlessly cool and his characters often reflected his own craggy charm and fascination with both country and Mexican music. 

Good character actors are always impressive because they lend a back story to even the most briefly seen characters, through their physical presence. HDS did that in every film he appeared in.

I saw Harry Dean in concert at the long gone (and much lamented) Bottom Line here in NYC. I attended the show almost on a lark, since I wasn't aware of Harry Dean's commitment to his music and just figured it would be a suitably odd evening.

By the show's end I was struck by two things: his evident love for the songs he performed (which were nearly all country and Mexican), and the amazing readings Harry Dean threw in as “interludes” between his musical performances. He read from Shepard's The Motel Chronicles (the source for Shepard's script for Paris, Texas). I was bowled over by his readings, which were stirring and very emotional.

Sadly he didn't do any complete audio books, but he did narrate (as the “older” Hunter S. Thompson) this audio version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Jim Jarmusch plays Raoul Duke, Maury Chaykin is Dr. Gonzo, with Harry Shearer among the other voices.

As he aged, Harry Dean evolved into the ultimate “senior hipster” used in the sense of the real cool folk of the past, not the faux hipsters of the present. He smoked and drank to his dying day (seemingly) and was none of the worse for it, as he had always been a spindly, unhealthy-looking guy who was ready to indulge (quietly, ever so quietly).

One of the most interesting juxtapositions is to view two recent (read: made in the last decade) documentaries about him. The full-length feature is Sophie Huber's Partly Fiction (2012).

Huber was hard-pressed to get Harry Dean to answer any of her questions. In the film, she recruits his friends David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson to ask him questions and reminisce, but it is only through filming him singing that she seems to get at the “real” Harry Dean. He opens up while singing, and then (and only then) is she able to get him to comment on his family life and his very busy career as a performer. 

A few years earlier, though, Harry Dean was far more cooperative with an interviewer for the DVD extra “Harry Zen Stanton,” made by Peter McCarthy for the 2005 DVD release of Repo Man (which McCarthy produced). Although he didn't offer any information about his private life, he did sum up his personal beliefs, which were indeed Zen-like but also heavily cynical about the activities of the human race. They also indicated that he was very well-read for “an old cowpoke.”

“… There's no answer to that. Don't you follow what I'm trying to say? Everybody wants an answer to why I did this, why all that happened. Ultimately there's no answer to it. Everything happens the way it's going happen, nobody's in charge, it's all gonna go down Iraq war, Napoleon, serial killers, wars… you never know what's going to happen next.

“We think we're in charge. Ten seconds from now, none of us in this room know what we're going to be thinking or saying. So who the fuck is in charge?”

As he talks to McCarthy, he does at first seem like a diehard cynic. But it becomes clear that he had read up on Zen Buddhism and various sciences:

“… It's an old Eastern concept. One guy phrased it, 'To realize you're nothing is wisdom, to realize you're everything is love.' Or pure intelligence, pure awareness. Ultimately that can't be defined in words. It's beyond words, it's beyond consciousness. It's a hard sell!”

McCarthy closes out the mini-doc with Harry Dean quoting the Tao Te Ching:

“If you don't realize your source/you stumble in confusion and sorrow./ If you realize where you come from/you naturally become tolerant/disinterested or attached, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king./ Immersed in the wonder of the Tao/you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.' Seeing everything as a meaningful whole… one connected whole.”

Perhaps that is what ultimately made Harry Dean such a cult hero in the last three decades. He was an individual who loved music and acting (in that order, it seemed) and knew “too much” about the petty squabbles and tediously predictable behavior that makes up our daily life.

For him, a good smoke, a potent drink, and some emotional music (punctuated by incarnating different characters in different films) was all that he needed.

One of the best tributes to Harry Dean was posted to the Net for his 91st birthday. The David Lynch/Twin Peaks fansite Lynchland got HDS to give them a list of his 15 favorite songs, and so they assembled a little “mix tape” for The Man (with a little vocal intro he provided).

The choices range from his beloved Mexican music (a Vicente Fernandez tune, HDS singing a Mexican-tinged piece from Ry Cooder's soundtrack for Paris, Texas) to folk (Joni's “Big Yellow Taxi,” some Dylan) to country (his friend Kris' “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Orbison's “Blue Bayou,” Robert Earl Keen's wonderful “The Road Goes On Forever,” Steve Goodman) to timeless (Fats Waller's “Gonna Sit Write Down...” and Johnny Cash singing Danny Boy”). It's quite an assortment of treasures, found here.

Harry Dean brightened up any film he was in, including “maverick” landmarks (like Two Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and classic genre pics (Alien, Escape from NY). He is one of several terrific scene-stealers in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1979).

The film is slightly schizophrenic: The performances and script follow the novel very closely, but Huston decided to “rev” up certain comedy sequences by making them farcical in tone (the total opposite of O’Connor’s deadpan mode), with composer Alex North’s sporadically goofy score making those scenes feel like they’d wandered in from a Hal Needham movie. Those misguided moments aside, the film is indeed another downbeat Huston gem.

One of the most enjoyably weird projects Harry Dean starred in (yes, one more starring role!) was the 1987 “Rip Van Winkle” episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (who had worked with HDS on One From the Heart) and the most striking aspect of the show were sets designed by Eiko Ishioka that “breathed.” Very, very trippy entertainment for a show aimed at kids.

Altman’s underrated Fool for Love (1985) found Harry Dean as an older man who had a special relationship to the lead characters, played by Kim Basinger and Sam Shepard (who also wrote the play the film was based on). He was married to Barbara Mandrell in his mind…. [The thumbnail for the embed is blank, but the link works.]

David Lynch had a special connection to Harry Dean, both as a personal friend and as a filmmaker. HDS worked for him several times, with his biggest part coming in the mostly forgotten HBO anthology film Hotel Room (1993). Harry Dean plays an average Joe who is humiliated by his colleague (Freddie Jones) as he tries to avail himself of a hooker (the late, great Glenne Headly).

Harry Dean’s big final role was the starring turn in the forthcoming Lucky, but most folks reading this blog (who are surely Twin Peaks fans) saw him in Twin Peaks: the Return reprising his role from Fire Walk With Me.

His character was one of the many who simply disappeared during the series, but the scenes he was in were quite memorable and added to the unspoken themes of the series, which were aging and death. (Which I discussed in this piece on the blog.)

As good as he was in so many films, I would vote for his short turn in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as being one of his finest moments. He again does what a character actor needs to do: He appears only in a single scene, plays a character that he has imbued with a back story, and then steals away the film.

The reason he’s able to do that is because the scene he’s in is, in my opinion, the best scene in the picture, and the one that most clearly outlines what Scorsese, scripter Paul Schrader, and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis were trying to say about Jesus: that, even if he was entirely human, his believers would still cherish the concept of him being a deity.

Harry Dean’s Saul (also called Paul) is a preacher who has a gimmick: He speaks about the “resurrected Jesus.” When the real Jesus (Willem Dafoe) approaches Saul (in the dream-world in which he is able to live as a regular human being) and says that he, Saul, has made up a completely fake theology, Saul tells Jesus he is wrong and the people he preaches to *need* the story of the resurrected Jesus, whether or not it actually happened.

“I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed,” says Saul. When he is told point-blank by Jesus that he’s recounting a fake story, he replies, “My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful” than the real person, standing in front of him.

It’s a powerful and very well-written scene. For me it is the crux of the entire film, which is about the humanity of Christ, and has some beautifully rendered moments and some segments that land with a thud (as in Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the desert).

The scene is immaculately conceived and written, and it is indeed “sold” by Harry Dean, who plays Saul with an incredible conviction, and even pride in conveying a falsehood to his followers. It’s the moment where Scorsese most fully articulated the theme of the film.

To close out, I have to end on Harry Dean singing, since that seemed to be the thing he enjoyed the most in his final years. Here is the B-side of a single he released in 1993, a Mexican-tinged tune called “Across the Borderline.”

Monday, September 11, 2017

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Notes on the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks: The Return ended not with a bang, but with a whimper – in the form of an ear-piercing scream from Sheryl Lee, the performer who has gone through more torment than any other in the work of David Lynch. The finale of the series has been hailed as a masterpiece by some and a confounding, confused mess by others. I lean toward the former opinion, but have lingering tinges of the latter in my fanboy soul.

Lynch has conducted a “war” on conventional storytelling since his earliest films. Thus the absolute joy felt by his fans when episode 8 of this season abandoned a narrative for the most part and simply focused on imagery. Given the inclusion of large amounts of dead space between the characters and the slower pace Lynch uses in his work, it was a delight to see him return to his avant-garde roots in that “very special episode.”

The rest of the series rose and fell, depending on one's reaction to the ways in which he and his coscripter Mark Frost sabotaged conventional storytelling. As was the case with Lynch's features and the Lynch-Frost two-season run of the original Twin Peaks, a plot was always present, but odd “swerves” appeared, tongue-in-cheek melodramatic cliches were thrown in, and Freudian and mystic symbolism was introduced with the result being that viewers were uncertain if the authors were respecting that symbolism or mocking its simplicity.

Lynch and Frost's main “strategy” was to introduce a surplus of characters. This seemed reasonable in the first few episodes introducing several new characters, hauling out the ones from the original series, and throwing in the many (many!) guest stars whose presence was entertaining but often distracting.

But it didn't stop after a few episodes (or “parts,” as Lynch deemed them). The scenes set in the Roadhouse introduced several 20-something characters in each show, nearly all of whom were never seen again in the series. It didn't even stop as the season wound down to its final hours. When fan-favorite Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) showed up in part 12, she was married to a character we'd never seen before and had a discussion about three people we hadn't seen or heard of. (Or had we? Online fans would desperately try to connect names from minor characters we'd already seen with these newly-mentioned nonentities.)

This particular device came to be so ridiculous that it seemed as if Lynch and Frost were doing two things: creating a dream world populated by people we'd see only once; and delivering a spoof of soaps that complicate their plotlines with hordes of mostly unnecessary characters.

This strategy even showed up in the final episode, as the most praised/disputed event occurred: Cooper took a trip through a “wormhole” into another America. Here Lynch was utilizing the device he had used in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those films, however, have the trips to the wormhole world (read: fantasies, nightmares) occur well before the final few scenes, so viewers can attempt to situate themselves (and identify the characters in the second world that mirror those in the first).

I believe that TP: TR was one of the most cinematic things to happen to television in quite a while. It was a breath of fresh air in many regards, especially the eighth episode, which I think of as the  “Eraserhead episode.” The multiplication of red-herring characters (for lack of a better term for the many dream-residents who merited only one appearance or mention) was willfully and comically perverse of Lynch and Frost, though, and left many of us trying to “assemble” some kind of narrative for the season.

The next to last episode, part 17, solved the key dilemma of the entire series – the menace of the evil Cooper doppelgänger in a single sequence. The final part produced a classically Lynchian “swerve” with Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern) having sex and then entering another version of their world (why? Because!). In that world, of course, Cooper encounters yet another group of new characters until he winds up back with Laura Palmer (or, more accurately, her manifestation in that world).

As a final in-joke Lynch cast the real-life owner of the “Laura Palmer house” in Washington State as the woman who owns the house in this other reality. (A fact that online fans revealed in the days after the show first aired.)

To pile strangeness on strangeness, Lynch and Frost settled on yet another “swerve” that further complicated the events of the last episode. A warning from the “Fireman” character had evoked the names of “Richard and Linda.” These characters were never mentioned again until Cooper and Diane had sex, which turned *them* into these characters (for what reason? Since no fourth season is planned, it's possible we'll never know unless we want to take the names as a reference to the British folk-singing duo….).

Lynch's war on conventional narrative was never more glaringly apparent than in TP: TR. One of the primary ways in which he skewed the storyline away from the original two seasons of TP was to base the third season's plot on various events that occurred only in the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which he wrote with Robert Engels.

As I noted in this previous blog entry, the film has its merits (and a deeply devoted cult of fans, some of whom consider it Lynch's finest film), but it jumbles the TP chronology with a lengthy first act that contradicts the way things were recounted in the original series. (A prequel that contradicts its source is rare indeed but Lynch has stomped on linearity in various ways elsewhere, so FWWM is not surprising in that way – frustrating for fans of the original series, but not surprising.) 

FWWM contains a “fissure” in time where a character from the end of the initial series Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) appears to Laura Palmer. By doing this, Lynch was creating a scene that only meant something to regular viewers of TP, thus solving the rather flimsy issue of whether anyone should ever watch this prequel before watching the original series.

To make things even more complicated, Lynch included a long scene in “The Missing Pieces,” a fascinating assemblage of outtakes from FWWM (which was a five-hour long feature to start with), showing Annie surviving the ordeal in the Black Lodge and having the owl ring stolen from her by a nurse (thus helping to set up a third season of the TP series in the series prequel!).

When TP: TR appeared, though, it was apparent that Lynch and Frost had wiped Annie from the storyline, along with the super-villain Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). The “erasure” of those two characters got rid of the reason Cooper was split in two he had entered the Black Lodge to retrieve Annie, who had been kidnapped by his ex-partner Earle.

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been spilt on the Internet about the show's finale. My take on it was that it was initially frustrating and confusing but grows on you (well, maybe not the one-shot Audrey “conclusion”…). This is especially true if you remember the unspoken theme of the season, namely growing old.

Cooper's past includes a Chinatown-like situation in which he inadvertently caused the woman he loved to be murdered. He entered the Black Lodge to prevent this from happening again (this time with Annie)  and this caused an evil doppelgänger version of him to be created. So, despite his Sherlock Holmes-like talent for deductive reasoning and his Zen-like calm, he already was revealed to be a flawed hero in the original Twin Peaks.

In TP: TR he is split in two and, when the going gets rough in Part 17, it is the mysterious young man with the green glove (a deus ex machina who finally made an impression in part 14) who defeats the evil “Mr. C,” not our cool and calm hero. Then, “whole” again, Cooper moves back in time to “liberate” Laura Palmer and, of course, screws things up even worse.

The final sequence shows Cooper as a detective who clearly has lost his touch at deduction. He has wrecked the life of the Laura Palmer living in that wormhole reality. The lingering feeling one gets is akin to Sondheim's line “...losing my timing this late in my career...”

Cooper is not only incapable of being a hero anymore, he's actually perpetuating a new horror by awakening a “past life” in that version of Laura (if that is indeed what is going on here viewers are left to make up their mind as to when/where the wormhole is situated). Lynch and Frost also complicated matters by making the alt-Laura into a shady character who is indeed capable of murder no write-ups of the final episode I've read have mentioned the dead body that Cooper sees in her home….

What we are left with is a finale that reverberates after one sees it most especially if one had already keyed into Lynch and Frost's obsession with aging. The rigors of age were indeed felt throughout the season in the faces of the cast, in the inclusion of three sick characters, in plot threads concerning the stasis of others (job-wise, romance-wise, and life-wise), and in the slower movement of the players. Lynch has always enjoyed slowing down his works and now he finally found the perfect vehicle with which to do it. (For Lynch's own words about his pacing, check out the quote from him in my last piece on Twin Peaks.)

In spite of its intentionally capricious plotting and profusion of red herrings, there are several “rewards” one got from watching all of TP: TR. Perhaps the greatest of these is the “revelation” that Lynch is indeed an emotional artist. Given his background in the avant-garde and the return in this series of the ultraviolence he fetishized in three of his four Nineties features, it has been hard to think of him as an emotional artist.

Inland Empire
But this aspect has been there, from the longing for the happy American ideal in Blue Velvet (an ideal that the film itself acknowledged was overly sentimentalized and simplistic) to the deep, dark depression and moments of exultation that punctuated Inland Empire, Lynch has continually “surprised” us with moments that are not just visually striking and blissfully eccentric, but also deeply emotional.

Cooper's obsession with Laura Palmer's death and his final, overwhelming desire to prevent it even though it was absolutely certain that it wouldn't solve anything in the long run, since her abuse had gone on for so long is the ultimate manifestation of the emotional aspect of the show. An aspect that, as always, was made even stronger (and sadder) by the beautiful, moody music of Angelo Badalamenti.

The younger Cooper operated on instinct and wound up in the Black Lodge, a fractured man; the middle-aged Cooper is completely adrift, able to physically fight and outdraw those who menace him, but not logical enough to understand the cardinal rule of much sci-fi: toying with the past inevitably alters the present.

He wasn't the only one whose age was a topic in this season: The extremely attractive, 20-something characters of the original TP are now visibly older and grayer. They are parents now, but still making the same terrible decisions in their lives. (This was perhaps the reason that Lynch and Frost let two of the “more normal” characters, Norma and Big Ed, above, have a completely happy ending.)

The middle-aged characters from the original series are now seniors with the singular best transformation in TP: TR occurring with Dr. Jacoby's rebirth as an Alex Jones/Glen Beck vlogger/entrepreneur. Another senior remained a presence even though he never appeared onscreen Sheriff Harry Truman, battling cancer and existing only in the dialogue (mostly characters wishing well to him via his brother).

So, when one sets aside the red-herring factor and the tragic ending (compounded by the trapped-in-an insane-asylum-or-limbo fate of the much-loved Audrey character), there is one sweet legacy of the series: its treatment of old age and death.

Miguel Ferrer was ailing when they shot the show, but he concealed his sickness in his character Albert Rosenfield's trademark deadpan. There was a gift for Albert, though: an image of him happily chatting up an equally caustic coroner, Constance Talbot (Jane Adams).

The character of Doc Hayward was played by another ailing performer, Warren Frost. He was reportedly afflicted by Alzheimer's when he did his sequence, but it was a joy to see the Doc, another one of the “normal” anchors of the original series, if only for one scene (but Lynch and Frost did give the character one piece of seminal info to impart, about Evil Mr. C and Audrey!).

The most moving sequences, without question, were the appearances of the Log Lady, Margaret Lanterman. The actress playing her, Catherine E. Coulson, was visibly sick with cancer, her hair fallen out and an oxygen cannula visible in every scene. Her interactions with another “normal” anchor character, Hawk (Michael Horse), were beautifully acted and extremely touching.

One got the sense that not only did Hawk care for Margaret as an ailing friend, but that Horse cared for Coulson, and that the quirky and impenetrably odd Mr. Lynch let down his “screens” and he too, was showing his love for his very sick friend. (Coulson was a key crew member on Eraserhead and a longtime friend of Lynch's.)

The gray hair, slower movement (although Harry Dean Stanton looks cool no matter how slowly he travels), and the mentions of cancer conveyed the show's message about the vagaries of aging. The sight of Coulson in very bad shape still playing her role and contributing suitably weird “warnings” was one of the sweetest (that word again) things Lynch has ever done.

Coulson's final scene, in which she acknowledges her impending death and notes her fear and uncertainty, was perhaps the most beautiful note that was struck in the 18 episodes of TP: TR. It reminded us of the sense of oddball community that characterized the original series and, in its own way, was the emotional core of the show, leading up to the ultimate failure of our aged and very uncertain hero, Agent Cooper.