David Lynch

About David Lynch:
Films of David Lynch:
  • Twin Peaks - David Lynch & Mark Frost (1990-91)

Mark Frost

Films of Mark Frost:
  • Twin Peaks - David Lynch & Mark Frost (1990-91)

“Northwest Passage”, Twin Peaks, Season 1, pilot - David Lynch (1990)

“Northwest Passage” is the opening, pilot episode of the original Twin Peaks (1990-91) serial drama TV series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost.  The acclaimed series, set in the fictional small town of Twin Peaks in Washington state, concerns the dramatics and intrigue surrounding the investigation of a macabre murder that has taken place there.

This episode sets the stage and introduces most the cast of characters who will appear in the series.  It begins when the naked body of local highschool girl Laura Palmer is found wrapped in plastic and washed up along the banks of the local river. Laura was the highschool football homecoming queen, and the entire community is shaken by the grisly news.  Sheriff Harry S. Truman (played by Michael Ontkean) begins an investigation.  The immediate suspect is Laura’s  boyfriend, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), who was known to have secretly seen Laura the previous evening.  The plot thickens when another local girl, Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), is found walking in a dazed state along the railroad tracks after having been clearly sexually abused and beaten the previous night.  So FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to take over the investigation.

Examining Laura’s corpse, Cooper discovers under Laura’s fingernail a tiny piece of paper with the letter ‘R’ typed on it.  He connects this to the murder of another girl in the region one year earlier under whose fingernail was found a similar piece of paper with the letter ‘T’ typed on it.  So he suspects there is a serial killer lurking in the area. 

Much of this episode is devoted to situating the story in the town of Twin Peaks and introducing the large cast of characters.  They comprise the following:
  • FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan).  Straightforward and logical, he has a keen mind and an innocent demeanor.
  • Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is an upstanding and sympathetic upholder of law and order in the community.
  • Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) is Sheriff Truman’s young secretary.
  • Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen) is the widowed owner of the local sawmill.
  • Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the beautiful highschool girl found murdered at the start of the series.
  • Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) is the father of Laura Palmer.
  • Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) is Leland’s wife and Laura’s mother.
  • Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) was Laura Palmer’s best friend
  • Dr. Will Hayward (Warren Frost) is the father of Donna Hayward
  • Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is a pretty highschool classmate of Laura and Donna.
  • Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) is Audrey’s father and is a wealthy landlord.
  • Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) is a highschool dropout and works at the local Double-R Diner.
  • Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), a trucker, is the abusive husband of Shelly Johnson.
  • Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) is the conniving sister of Jocelyn Packard’s deceased husband.
  • Pete Martell (Jack Nance) is Catherine’s gentle husband.
  • Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) owns and runs the Double-R Diner.
  • James Hurley (James Marshall) is a biker and secret lover of Laura Palmer.
  • Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) runs a local gas station and is James Hurley’s uncle.
  • Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) is a highschool girl who survived the savage attack on her and Laura Palmer, but she is in a comatose state.
  • Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) is the boyfriend of Laura Palmer
  • Mike Nelson (Gary Hershberger) is Bobby Briggs’s best friend and is a one-time boyfriend of Donna Hayward.
  • Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn)
  • Deputy Sheriff Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz)
Already in this pilot episode, the viewer learns of a number of clandestine romantic relationships among these people:
  • Bobby Briggs and Shelly Johnson.  Although Bobby was the boyfriend of Laura Palmer, he was secretly seeing married waitress Shelly Johnson on the side.
  • Ed Hurley and Norma Jennings.  Both of them are already married to others – Norma’s husband is serving a prison sentence for manslaughter, and Ed’s wife seems oddly obsessive about home decorating.
  • Benjamin Horne and Catherine Martell. Catherine is married to logger Pete, but her greed for wealth draws her to Horne.
  • Sheriff Truman and Jocelyn Packard.  Perhaps because Jocelyn is a recent widow and Truman is a public servant, their relationship is not widely publicized.
  • Donna Hayward and James Hurley.  Although Donna is the girlfriend of  the obnoxious Mike Nelson and James apparently had a secret relationship with Laura Palmer, as Donna and James jointly work to solve the crime, they find themselves drawn to each other.
The initial evidence points to Bobby Briggs and James Hurley, who are both known to have privately and separately seen Laura on the evening of the murder.  But then further evidence is found in an abandoned railroad car outside of town – a mysterious mound of dirt with Laura’s necklace, missing half of its charm, on the top and the cryptic message “fire walk with me” placed there.  The viewer learns (but not yet Cooper and Truman) that James Hurley has the other half of Laura’s necklace charm in his possession.  So James and Donna bury that part of the necklace charm in the woods.

A skin mag is also found among Laura’s possessions that has a photo of Ronette Pulaski and also an image of a truck that the viewer knows is the one that Leo Johnson drives.  So there are multiple clues pointing in different directions.

At the end of this pilot episode, Sarah Palmer has a nightmare of someone digging up the necklace charm (the significance of which is unknown to her) in the woods.

“Twin Peaks” - David Lynch & Mark Frost (1990-91)

Undoubtedly the finest work of filmmaker David Lynch is Twin Peaks (1990-91), an American serial drama TV series that he co-developed with Mark Frost.  It is basically a mystery story, but it features a pervasively eerie and evocative atmosphere that overcasts everything.  It is this moody and expressionistic ambience, which colors the entire physical and emotional landscape, that makes this series one of the great works of cinema.

There are a number of elements that contribute to this creative mix.  The film is set in a fictional town in the northeastern corner of Washington state, Twin Peaks, whose economy centers around its local sawmill.  This setting provides an opportunity for another Lynch portrayal of the dark underside of small-town middle America, as he did with Blue Velvet (1986).  In this case there is a vast soap-opera-like cast of characters, most of them having secrets and disturbing obsessions they cannot share with others in their community.  Lynch’s and Frost’s characters are rarely straightforward and innocent – they are often driven by fears, lusts, and obsessions and are sometimes under the disturbing influence of mysterious, occult forces.

Another key ingredient is the haunting musical score composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who  worked with Lynch on a number of his films, including Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999), and Mulholland Drive (2001).

The overall narrative scheme for the series concerns the investigation of a mysterious and grisly murder of a beautiful yong girl in the town.  The overriding task is to discover and capture those who were responsible for the crime.  This situation is established almost immediately in the pilot episode when the corpse of the young girl is discovered on the banks a river near the town.  A murder investigation is begun immediately by the town sheriff, but because there is a presumption that the murder investigation will involve evidence across state boundaries, a FBI investigator is appointed to take charge.  The main narrative development follows this FBI agent’s undertakings, but the narrative focalization often localizes on various other participating characters in the story.

The principal characters in the cast of Twin Peaks are:
  • FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan).  He is a good-natured rationalist: straightforward and logical.  Unlike most of the other characters, he has no hidden personal issues.
  • Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean).  Despite the odd historical reference in his name, he is not a politician, but an upstanding and sympathetic upholder of law and order in the community.
  • Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) is Sheriff Truman’s young secretary.
  • Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen) is the widowed owner of the local sawmill.
  • Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the beautiful highschool girl found murdered at the start of the series.
  • Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) is the father of Laura Palmer.
  • Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) is Leland’s wife and Laura’s mother.
  • Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) was Laura Palmer’s best friend
  • Dr. Will Hayward (Warren Frost) is the father of Donna Hayward
  • Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is a pretty highschool classmate of Laura and Donna.
  • Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) is Audrey’s father and is a wealthy landlord.
  • Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) is a highschool dropout and works at the local Double-R Diner.
  • Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) is the abusive husband of Shelly Johnson.
  • Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) is the conniving sister of Jocelyn Packard’s deceased husband.
  • Pete Martell (Jack Nance) is Catherine’s gentle husband.  Nance is a Lynch regular, e.g. Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986).
  • Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) owns and runs the Double-R Diner.
  • James Hurley (James Marshall) is a biker and secret lover of Laura Palmer.
  • Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) runs a local gas station and is James Hurley’s uncle.
  • Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) is a highschool girl who survived the savage attack on her and Laura Palmer, but she is in a comatose state.
  • Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) is the boyfriend of Laura Palmer
  • Mike Nelson (Gary Hershberger) is Bobby Briggs’s best friend and is initially the boyfriend of Donna Hayward.
  • Madeline "Maddy" Ferguson (Sheryl Lee) is Laura Palmer’s cousin.    
  • Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn)
  • Deputy Sheriff Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz)
  • Deputy Sheriff Tommy "Hawk" Hill (Michael Horse)

The episodes of Twin Peaks are:
  • "Northwest Passage", Twin Peaks, Season 1, pilot - David Lynch (1990)
  • "Traces to Nowhere", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 1 - Duwayne Dunham (1990)
  • "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”, Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 2 - David Lynch (1990)
  • "Rest in Pain", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 3 - Tina Rathborne (1990)
  • "The One-Armed Man", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 4 - Tim Hunter (1990)
  • "Cooper's Dreams", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 5 - Lesli Linka Glatter (1990)
  • "Realization Time", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 6 - Caleb Deschanel (1990)
  • "The Last Evening", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 7 - Mark Frost (1990)
  • "May the Giant Be with You", Twin Peaks, Season 1, Ep. 8 - David Lynch (1990)
  • "Coma", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 9 - David Lynch (1990)
  • "The Man Behind the Glass", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 10 - Lesli Linka Glatter (1990)
  • "Laura's Secret Diary”, Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 11 - Todd Holland (1990)
  • "The Orchid's Curse", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 12 - Graeme Clifford (1990)
  • "Demons", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 13 - Lesli Linka Glatter (1990)
  • "Lonely Souls", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 14 - David Lynch (1990)
  • "Drive with a Dead Girl", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 15 - Caleb Deschanel (1990)
  • "Arbitrary Law", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 16 - Tim Hunter (1990)
  • "Dispute Between Brothers", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 17 - Tina Rathborne (1990)
  • "Masked Ball",Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 18 - Duwayne Dunham (1990)
  • "The Black Widow”, Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 19 - Caleb Deschanel (1990)
  • "Checkmate", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 20 - Todd Holland (1991)
  • "Double Play", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 21 - Uli Edel (1991)
  • "Slaves and Masters", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 22 - Diane Keaton (1991)
  • "The Condemned Woman", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 23 - Lesli Linka Glatter (1991)
  • "Wounds and Scars", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 24 - James Foley (1991)
  • "On the Wings of Love", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 25 - Duwayne Dunham (1991)
  • "Variations on Relations", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 26 - Jonathan Sanger (1991)
  • "The Path to the Black Lodge", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 27 - Stephen Gyllenhaal (1991)
  • "Miss Twin Peaks", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 28 - Tim Hunter (1991)
  • "Beyond Life and Death", Twin Peaks, Season 2, Ep. 29 - David Lynch (1991)

Bob Rafelson

Films of Bob Rafelson:

“Five Easy Pieces” - Bob Rafelson (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970) was a signal film for more than one reason.  For one thing, it was probably lead actor Jack Nicholson’s finest screen performance, and established him as a genuine superstar.  But more significantly at the time, the film became the flag carrier for what came to be known as the “American New Wave”, a time when a new, innovative, and more artistically oriented group of young filmmakers emerged on the Hollywood scene.  Five Easy Pieces was named the year’s Best Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, and it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

Indeed, what distinguishes Five Easy Pieces is its meandering and anecdotal narrative style that still manages to hold the viewer’s attention on the main character’s troubled concerns about life [1,2].  This is because those anecdotal episodes are not just random bits, and they constitute an essential part of the main character’s sense of frustrated wandering [3].  This narrative cohesion may well have arisen from the fact that the film script is based on an original, probably semi-autobiographical, story by director Bob Rafelson.  The screenplay itself was written by Carole Eastman (using the name, Adrien Joyce), who was a personal friend of Nicholson and Rafelson, and together they must have fashioned the story in a collaborative and somewhat extemporaneous fashion.  It is reported that the film was shot in sequence (i.e. shooting in the order of the scripted scenes, which is more supportive of making last minute changes in the story) and that Rafelson could not decide on which of three proposed endings to use until the film shooting was completed [4]. Nevertheless, the script as it stands is a marvel [3] – one of the four Oscar nominations the film received was for Best Original Screenplay.

Another key feature of the film is its visual style, for which much credit may be given to the expressive cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs.  On the one hand many things look raw and gritty, as if we are getting slice-of-life, hardcore realism.  On the other hand, though, many of the characterizations are carefully enhanced exaggerations of social types, which emphatically contribute to a sense of the main character’s alienation.  In fact these depictions of eccentric American social types are part of the film’s charm.  America may have a wider range of social eccentricities than other parts of the world, and this film offers an opportunity to gaze at various slices of visceral Americana.

The story begins showing Bobby Eroica Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) engaged in the hard slogging of oil-rig work in the Bakersfield, California oil fields.  He and his coworker and buddy Elton (Billy "Green" Bush) are your typical working-class “good old boys”.  They eat in diners, go bowling, play poker, and get drunk routinely.  Bobby has a sexy but unpolished girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), who works as a waitress at a diner and who adores Bobby.  Although Bobby lives with Rayette and Elton is married with a kid, both men like to score sexually with other women they happen to meet at the bowling alley or at bars.  In fact, although Bobby is often good-humored, he can also be selfish and abusive, just to evoke laughs and to make light of the current situation he finds himself in.  We often see him struggling inside between following his immediate impulses and doing the right thing.

There is one absurd moment in this early account when Bobby and Elton get stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway.  Bobby sees that the stalled trailer truck in front of them is carrying a piano, and he gets out of his car, jumps onto the trailer, and begins manically playing a Chopin concerto.  What lies behind Bobby’s crazy actions only becomes clear later on.

This early part of the film wallows in the working-class milieu that seems to define Bobby’s existence, and it is colored by a soundtrack featuring songs sung by country & western icon Tammy Wynette, whom Rayette happens to idolize.   But things take a drastic turn when Elton  gets arrested for violating his parole and Bobby loses his job.  Bobby then goes to Los Angeles to visit his sister, Partita (Lois Smith), and we soon get an entirely new perspective on Bobby.

Partita is a concert pianist, and we gradually learn that Bobby comes from an educated and refined upperclass family of musicians. She urges Bobby to go to their family home in Washington state to visit their dying father, from whom Bobby has been estranged for several years.  Now that earlier mad scene on the trailer truck makes more sense: Bobby is actually a trained classical musician.

Reluctantly, Bobby decides that he has to drive up to Washington, and even more reluctantly, he gives in to Rayette’s demands that he take her with him.  Along the way, they give a ride to two women stranded on the road, one of whom offers a particularly offbeat slice of Americana.  This mannish woman continually rails against men for making the entire world a filthy place.  She is on her way to Alaska, because the white snow fields there suggest to her an absence of filth.  Although this episode seems like it is unconnected with the rest of the film, the manly woman’s  diatribe does echo metaphorically what may be going on in Bobby’s mind.  Bobby, we gradually learn, is continually running away from the world  – he doesn’t want to get stuck for long in any situation he finds himself in, because that will inevitably involve some cleaning up some of the “filth” created by life itself.

When Bobby arrives at the large Dupea family home on an island in Puget Sound, the film moves into a new sociocultural  dimension.  While the diegetic music up to this point has come from Tammy Wynette, the music from here on is dominated by five piano pieces of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin, to which the film’s title presumably refers.  The Dupea family is educated, accomplished, and refined, but they are no less eccentric than what we have seen up to this point.  And they are playing roles, too – just playing different kinds of roles than what we have seen so far.

In fact it is role-playing that is the key to Bobby’s problems and alienation.  He sees that all the people he meets are playing roles that soon become tiresome.  Like Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man, Bobby is always employing the rotation principle in order to opt out of the dead-end situations that inevitably arise [5,6].  It now becomes evident to the viewer that when Bobby was growing up in the Dupea household, he was always the impudent brat who didn’t do what he was told.  This made him lovable in the eyes of his older sister Partita, but barely tolerable in the eyes of his father and older brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite), who is a violinist.  Like his siblings, Bobby was trained in childhood as a pianist, too, but he didn’t want to end up there, and so he rebelled.

After dumping Rayette at a nearby motel so that her crass ways won’t embarrass him in front of his upscale family, Bobby goes to the Dupea home.  There he meets his brother’s fiancé, Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), and he is immediately attracted to her, and she to him.  Catherine is more natural and genuine than anyone we and Bobby have seen so far, but the cynical Bobby can’t help engaging in his own role-playing in order to attract her.  One time when the two are alone and Bobby plays a song on the piano for her, Catherine is honestly moved by his playing and tells him that.  But Bobby is too cynical to buy what she says and assumes she is role-playing just like he has been.  Misjudging her sincerity, he tells her that the two of them were both just faking it:
"I faked a little Chopin. You faked a little response."
Despite these missteps, the two do get together for a romantic encounter.  Catherine seems ideal, and Bobby, wondering if this is the authentic pairing that he has been looking for, asks her to run away with him.  But Catherine sees through him, and knows that a relationship with him wouldn’t work.  She identifies his basic problem when she tells him,
"You have no love for yourself, no love for family, for friends--how can you ask for love?"
The film’s ending is melancholy and memorable.  Bobby, now more alienated than ever, abandons Rayette and heads off into further isolation.   He is still running away.

Although Bobby is dropping out and can be selfish and sometimes obnoxious, many of us will be able to recognize something of ourselves in Bobby.  His alienation, like that of Camus’s Meursault (from Camus’s L’Etranger, 1942), is pervasive and existentialist.  He can still cope in the everyday world, but his engagements are invariably inauthentic and mostly playacting (as he said on that occasion to Catherine).  We might compare him to Francois Truffaut’s protagonist Charlie in Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a French New Wave film that probably influenced the American New Wave filmmakers.  Both protagonists are formally trained pianists who have dropped out and fallen into society’s lower scales.  But Bobby is more extraverted and loquacious than Charlie. Bobby can operate freely in most social situations, but they never seem to lead him to the satisfaction he is looking for.

All this is well conveyed through the superb acting performances in this film.   As already mentioned, Jack Nicholson’s characterization of Bobby is a seminal turn.  But Karen Black’s emotive performance as Rayette is equally compelling.  Both Nicholson and Black were nominated for Oscars.  Even the lesser roles are well performed.  For example, there is something about Susan Anspach’s portrayal of Catherine that persists in the memory long afterwards.

The key thing about this film is that Bobby Dupea is not a mysterious character.  We all know him and in some respects share his feelings and concerns.  The film is telling us that the mystery is not Bobby, but life, itself.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Five Easy Pieces”, Great Movie, Roger Ebert.com, (16 March 2003).
  2. Michael Dare, “Five Easy Pieces”, The Criterion Collection, (11 February 1990).
  3. Jugu Abraham, “154. US director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970): One of the finest examples of screenplay-writing from Hollywood”, Movies that Make You Think, (9 December 2014).
  4. J. Hoberman, “One Big Real Place: BBS From Head to Hearts”, The Criterion Collection, (28 November 2010).
  5. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, (1843).
  6. The Film Sufi, “The Treatment of Love in Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or", The Film Sufi, (8 June 2011).

Raoul Ruiz

Films of Raoul Ruiz:

“The Blind Owl” - Raoul Ruiz (1987)

The Blind Owl (La Chouette Aveugle, 1987) is a French film by noted Chilean director Raoul Ruiz.  The prolific Ruiz (1941-2011), who directed more than 100 films in his career, fled Chile in 1973 after the coup d'état led by dictator Augusto Pinochet and settled in Paris, where he became something of a cult figure among the intellectual cineastes there.  Ruiz’s preference for making low-budget, but intellectually complicated and obscure, films suited their tastes, and in fact he once said that he liked to make films that
“would have to be seen many times, like objects in the house, like a painting. They have to have a minimum of complexity.” [1].
And certainly The Blind Owl is a good example of Ruiz’s penchant for obscurity. 

The film was loosely based on Sadegh Hedayat’s famous Iranian novella Boof-e Koor (The Blind Owl, 1936), which itself is dark and cryptic.  But Ruiz complicated things further by only adapting certain parts of Hedayat’s work and by also incorporating elements from the 1624 Spanish drama El Condenado por Desconfiado (Damned for Despair) by Tirso de Molina (Gabriel Téllez) and by introducing his own ambiguities.  The result is almost a game of complexity, and this will only appeal to the tastes of some viewers.  In fact noted French film critic Luc Moullet, who did like the film, remarked that
“I’ve now seen The Blind Owl seven times, and I know a little less about it with each viewing.” [2]
(There was an earlier, Iranian-made film of Hedayat’s novella that was directed by Kiumars Derambakhsh, Boof-e Koor (1975), and which was more faithful to Hedayat’s original text.  See also my review of another Iranian film based on a Hedayat story – Dash Akol (1971), directed by Masoud Kimiai. [3])

In fact I don’t believe that Ruiz’s film of the story even has a coherent plot, and instead it offers merely a sequence of suggestive fragments that were inspired by Hedayat and that point to the complexities of human experience at the existential level.  In this respect, even though the film only very loosely follows Hedayat’s novella, it might be best to begin our discussion there.

Hedayat’s work starts with what apparently is a horrific nightmare of a man who is visited one evening by a dark and beautiful woman.  She silently enters his room and gets into his bed, but before long the man notices that she is dead.  For obscure reasons he cuts her corpse up into pieces that he puts into a trunk and then meets an eery and repulsive old man who may be his uncle and who offers to help the man bury the trunk.  All of this is told by a narrator whose obsessive and repetitive phraseology suggest that he is insane.

In the second part of Hedayat’s work, the narrator, still obsessed but here immersed in an ordinary world, talks more about his tortured married life with a woman he loves but calls “the whore”.  She sleeps with a wide variety of lowlifes but won’t let him even kiss on her on the cheek. 

The weird and ambiguous plot elements of Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor have induced a wide variety of interpretations, some associated with social issues at the time (the novella was published in Bombay in 1936 when Hedayat spent a year there, and it was banned in Iran).  But I would say that the core themes underlying the tale are far more elemental and lie at the heart of human existence – inner guilt, fear of death, and loneliness.  Hedayat conjures up these feelings with constant references to acrid tastes and smells and repugnant images of decay and deterioration.  These innate concerns are overlain with the deep mysteries of life that are somehow mysteriously embodied by woman.  And this is all connected with the horror of having one’s core, essential personhood rejected (when the rejection is by a woman, the denial is more fundamental) and its associations with the fear of annihilation.  In short, there is a pervasive ambience of fear, anxiety, and depression, but also of a compulsive attraction (to the feminine mystery).  An example of Hedayat’s imagery concerning the feminine mystery is the following passage, which refers to the narrator’s mother [4]:
“They were slanting, Turkoman eyes of supernatural, intoxicating radiance which at once frightened and attracted, as though they had looked upon terrible, transcendental things which it was given to no one but her to see.  Her cheekbones were prominent and her forehead high. Her eyebrows were slender and met in the middle. Her lips were full and half-open as though they had broken away only a moment before from a long, passionate kiss and were not yet sated.  Her face, pale as the moon, was framed in the mass of her black, disheveled hair and one strand clung to her temple.  The fineness of her limbs and the ethereal unconstraint of her movements marked her as one who was not fated to live long in this world.  No one but a Hindu temple dancer could have possessed her harmonious grace of movement.”
Hedayat’s expression of these themes predate Sartre’s La Nausée (1939) and Camus’s L’Etranger (1942), but they lie at the core of Existentialist artistic concerns (and may have even directly inspired later authors).  Ruiz, I would say, drew inspiration from Hedayat’s existentialist themes and used his plot elements only as instruments to create his own cinematic form.

In this film by Ruiz, there are also two parts, but their connectedness and coherence is even more mysterious than in Hedayat’s novella.  In particular Ruiz introduces and extends complications associated with the mixture of identities – sometimes the identities of separate characters in the story are merged or mixed.  Things are even more complicated by the fact that there is a mixture of multilingual and multicultural overlays involving French, Spanish, and Arab (hence Muslim) cultures. 

The first part of the film is directly inspired by the first part of Hedayat’s novella and involves a nondescript young Frenchman (whom, for brevity, we will refer to as the “hero”) getting a job as a projectionist at a Parisian movie theater that shows Arabic-language films.  He works with a mysterious and sullen co-projectionist, Kassem, who hides his disfigured face by always wearing a balaclava that covers everything but his eyes and mouth.  Both the hero and Kassem have boarding rooms at the cinema, so they spend much of their time there.  Kassem’s beautiful girlfriend, Fatima, is also shown, and she has some friendly interactions with the hero.

The hero almost never watches the Arabic language films that he projects, but on one occasion when he happens to glance at the screen, he becomes transfixed by the sight of a beautiful and scantily-clad court dancer.  This woman later emerges from the film and comes to the hero’s room, gets into his bed, and silently dies – similar to the sequence in Hedayat’s story.  Also gruesomely following Hedayat’s narrative, the hero cuts her body into pieces, and with the help of an old man who appears and claims to be his uncle, puts the body pieces into a trunk and looks for a way to bury the corpse.  They eventually manage to cast the trunk into the river, but there are later disturbing images of the girl’s body parts floating in the stream.

The second part of the film moves further towards an immersion into the Arabic films that are being projected at the theater and that are apparently set in Cordoba Spain. There are two intermingled narrative threads in this section – one concerning a man whose job it is to behead sinners (not a part of Hedayat's story), and another thread about twin brothers who are madly in love with the court dancer (this second thread is derived from Hedayat’s tale). 

As the story progresses, there is further mixing of the outer story and the film-within-a-film elements.  There are also further identity mergings and confusions:
  • Fatima and the court dancer seem to merge identities at some points
  • The hero,’s alleged nephew, whose identity also appears in the film-within-a-film, at times merges his identity with that of the hero.
  • The hero’s identity also sometimes merges with that of his nasty old uncle.
All of these identity interminglings may remind us that our personal identities are essentially known to us only by the narratives we naturally construct about our experiences during the course of our lives.  We also intuitively construct narratives about the people we encounter, and these identities are, since they are our own constructions, also secondary parts of our own identity.  So Ruiz seems to be suggesting that these identity constructions can sometimes be mixed and confused within us.  We never really know who we truly our, and we only cling to these self-constructed narrative fragments to identify ourselves and others. 

However, I don’t entirely go along with the above, somewhat intellectual, assessment.  I think we always have some existential (i.e. phenomenologically primordial) certainty about our own conscious identity and our sense of personal autonomy.  This sense of personal identity is more fundamental than the schemata we construct that structures what we know about ourselves.  Nevertheless, these narrative notions are tied to the film’s ultimate message or experience.

The fundamental problem with this film is that the overall narrative scheme is not compelling.  The individual narrative fragments, though sometimes bloody and gruesome, don’t come together  into an intuitive and unifying narrative journey.  This problem contrasts with Hedayat’s tale, which does have a hypnotic narrative continuity.  We enter into the narrator’s consciousness in Hedayat’s story, but we don’t get into a sympathetic or empathic relationship with Ruiz’s hero.  The hero in Ruiz’s film is relatively passive, and I was unable to develop any feeling for what the hero wanted – his external world is there, but his internal feelings, desires, and directions are blocked from  us.

There are scattered fascinating images, though, and these seemed to be enough for Luc Moullet [2]:
"And rarely has a film’s ending provided such a succession or simultaneity of contradictory elements – mixing the extremes of pessimism and joy – or a summit quite so bewitching and extravagant. This finale is part of what makes The Blind Owl French cinema’s most beautiful jewel of the past decade.”
Not having yet, myself, seen the film seven times, though, I have, despite its fascinating inspiration, much more moderate feelings about its overall virtues.

  1. Carole Ann Klonarides, “Raul Ruiz”, BOMB Magazine (Winter, 1991).    
  2. Luc Moullet, “The Blind Owl”, (excerpted from Trafic, no. 18, Spring 1996), Rouge Press (English translation, 2004).   
  3. The Film Sufi, "’Dash Akol’ - Masoud Kimiai (1971)”, The Film Sufi, (12 April 2017).   
  4. Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl (1937/1957), (English translation by D. P. Costello),  Grove Press, New York, pp. 26-27.

“Little White Frock”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 39 - Herschel Daugherty (1957)

“Little White Frock", the final episode of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3 (1957), is a quieter and more contemplative drama than the usual offerings of this series.  Based on a story by Stacy Aumonier and scripted by Stirling Silliphant, this episode was directed by Herschel Daugherty.  The story centers around how the emotive expression of heartfelt feelings can affect  us and evoke our sympathies.  It also concerns the nature of playacting.

The tale begins with newly emerged star playwright Adam Longsworth (played by Tom Helmore), along with the play’s director, having difficulty with the casting of his latest play that is set to open soon.  Later at a cocktail lounged he and the director are approached by an elderly, formerly well-known stage actor Colin Bragner (Herbert Marshall), who hasn’t appeared on stage for years.  The meeting is cordial, but Longsworth suspects Bragner is buttering him up in hopes of getting a part in the upcoming play.  Nevertheless Bragner insists that Longsworth and his wife Carol (Julie Adams) be his guests for dinner that night.  Despite Adam’s resistance, Bragner manages to convince Carol to accept the invitation.

That evening as they are chatting over drinks, the Longsworths notice a little white frock draped over a chair, and Bragner launches into a long story about it.  It turns out that the frock is associated with Bragner’s long lost love, back when he was an emerging star actor.  Bragner’s tale is intricate and ultimately tragic – a story of dedicated and unfulfilled passions.  The emotional flavor of the telling is immeasurably aided by the soothing, dramatic tones of actor Herbert Marshall’s famously mellifluous voice.  The Longsworths are moved to tears by Bragner’s sad account.  At the end, though, we (and the Longsworths) learn that there is a surprise twist concerning Bragner’s tale.

There is an interesting multi-level aspect to this narrative:
  • Level-0.  We could say there is a ground level – the real world that we occupy along with Hitchcock’s dramatic performers and production staff.
  • Level-1 is the base fabula world evoked by the production.  This is the world inhabited by Bragner and the Longsworths.
  • Level-2 is the fabula world created by Bragner when he tells his story.
We the viewers are aware of all three levels, but we are moved to  suspend our disbelief in these fabula worlds as we enter them.  This is the business in which the fictional Adam Longsworth and Colin Bragner are engaged. It is also the business in which the Hitchcock production staff are engaged, and requires even more subtlety when the multiple levels are involved.

Note that Hitchcock’s TV episodes often feature a fair dose of malice.  There is often a murder; or if not a murder, a death; or if not a death, then a crime.  And these episodes also often have disturbing endings.  The “Little White Frock” episode is an exception to all this.  There are no murders, deaths, or crimes..  And the story concludes with a happy ending.  Remember this if you are looking for a relatively more upbeat Hitchcock TV tale.

“An Unlocked Window”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 17 - Joseph M. Newman (1965)

Perhaps the finest, and my personal favorite, of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV productions was “An Unlocked Window” (1965), which was Episode 17 of the final year of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  It is certainly one of the most spine-tingling horror features that I have seen, and this effect is attributable to the show’s diabolical narrative structure.  It operates in the fashion of an unknown and invisible spider slowly encircling its increasingly helpless prey and moving in for the kill.  We know that the “spider” is out there, but we don’t know where it is or even what it is.  In this sense it is a true horror film.

Of course this being a Hitchcock presentation, we can expect that there will be a case of misidentification of an important character and that there will be some sort of twist at the end of the tale.  Those elements in this context are intrinsic to the film’s horrifying outcome.

Veteran director Joseph M. Newman, in the last year of his career, directed the show.  James Bridges’s script was based on a story by English author Ethel Lina White, whose well-known novel The Wheel Spins (1936) had earlier been the basis for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).  And the music is furnished by Bernard Herrmann. The show’s star is Dana Wynter, whose most memorable film role was in  the harrowing tale, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

The plot does have a “red herring”, which is oftentimes an artificial plot element intended to mislead the viewer and is not usually an element in great stories.  In this case, though, the red herring is something of a metaphor for one of the story’s themes, and its use is justifiable on this occasion.

The story begins starkly.  A pretty nurse is shown walking home one evening and being strangled to death by a psychopathic murderer.  This, we learn from the news report, is only the latest crime of a still at-large serial killer who preys specifically on nurses with “pretty necks”.   Then the scene shifts to an old mansion in the countryside where two nurses are attending to a young wealthy gentleman who is bedridden with some kind of lung disease that requires the use of an oxygen tent.  Also living in the mansion is a married couple who attend to the grounds, the cooking, and the housekeeping.       

Since the serial nurse killings have all been committed in a general area of the city that includes  the mansion, the nurses are justifiably worried and take precautions by making sure that all the mansion’s doors and windows are securely locked tight.  So the younger of the two nurses, Stella (played by Dana Wynter), goes down to the basement to check that the windows there are all locked.  But she is frightened by seeing a mouse and runs back upstairs, thereby forgetting to attend to the last cellar window.  Throughout the rest of the story, there will be occasional cuts to a shot of the open, unlocked window, reminding the viewer that there is a neglected hole in their defense that may come to have dire consequences

But since there are five people in the house, they should be reasonably safe.  In addition to Stella, there is the older nurse Betty Ames (T. C. Jones), the caretaker Sam Isles, the housemaid Maude Isles (Louise Latham), and the bedridden young owner Glendon Baker (who seems to be on the verge or recovering his health). The focalization, though, is on the pretty Stella, and she is the one we are worried about.

As the story unfolds, however, it seems as though there is a noose slowly tightening around Stella’s neck.  In this respect note that whenever we are faced with a fearful situation, we take for granted that we are not completely alone – there are ordinary resources, infrastructure, and people that we can count on to operate in their customary ways.  Step by step, though, the support structure around Stella begins to unravel.  This leads to a growing sense of isolation and enclosure.

Stella is a caring and sympathetic young woman, and her beauty and manner has even attracted the amorous attentions of the handsome and wealthy Mr. Baker.  He vows to marry Stella as soon as he regains his health.  But we know from the unlocked window that Stella can sometimes overlook things, and another instance of that apparently appears when senior nurse Betty discovers that they have an urgent need for a new oxygen tank for Mr. Baker.  Betty scolds Stella for having forgotten to order a new tank, and then Sam is dispatched to go out that evening to town and bring back a backup oxygen tank.

Later a thunderstorm develops outside, and this leads to an electrical fault that apparently blows all the fuses in the house.  Now they are without electricity and pitched in darkness.  The maid/cook Maude, who up to this point had appeared to be loud and opinionated, has been drinking whisky to calm her nerves.   But the alcohol and her heightening fears get the better of her, and she starts to rave like a maniac.  Betty recommends that they give her a sedative injection to put her to sleep.

Now it is just the two nurses and Mr. Baker.  Stella runs upstairs to check on Baker, but he is unconscious (or worse).  Their telephone line is cut, too, and there is immediate evidence that a strange man, presumably the killer, is approaching the house. 

The lethal noose is tightening, and we are set for the chilling climax.  What makes all this work is the dramatic pacing and atmospheric mise-en-scene – achieved by expert acting, cinematography, and editing – that contribute to the ever-increasing sense of enclosure.  We gradually sense that all of Stella’s escape routes are being cut off, one by one.  The killer, still unseen, is all the more terrifying, because he is only left to our imagination.

All in all, it constitutes one of the most frightening horror dramas ever.

“Change of Address”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 2 - David Friedkin (1964)

“Change of Address” (1964) was an episode (Season 3,Episode 2) of the popular TV anthology series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  This episode was directed by David Friedkin and scripted by Friedkin and Morton Fine based on an Andrew Benedict story. Interestingly, the musical score was provided by Bernard Herrmann.  As usual, it featured performances by major screen figures in the lead roles. And of course also as usual, it bore the famous Hitchcock earmarks of a suspenseful tale with a twist at the end.

The story concerns a middle-aged couple, Keith (played by Arthur Kennedy) and Elsa (Phyllis Thaxter) Hollands, who have just leased a beach house in fashionable Malibu, California.  The couple seem to have independent means, so this appears to be a lifestyle move, and their anticipations concerning those prospects are decidedly mixed.  Keith, seeking to recapture his fading youth, sees the home as providing an opportunity for adventure and new socializing with the trendy crowds that frequent the beach.  But Elsa, longing for the tranquility of their old homestead, hates the new setting.  When she looks out from their new apartment over the vast wavy ocean, she sees only wild turbulence and loneliness.  She also tells her husband that she thinks there is something eerily wrong with the new house and urges an immediate return to Philadelphia and stability. 

It soon becomes evident to the viewer that the Hollands’ marriage is teetering.  Keith has a roving eye, and his gestures of affection towards his wife are grandiose but phony.  In fact the more we see of Keith, the more evident it is that he is a complete egotist and has concern only for himself and his standing among pretty young women.  Elsa quietly senses this absence of affection from her husband, and she cannot conceal her growing unhappiness.

As an expression of his treasured sense of manliness, Keith fancies himself as a handyman, and he soon begins digging a deep hole in the cellar in an effort to improve drainage in the house in order to reduce the prevailing feeling of dampness.  Any viewer familiar with Hitchcock’s macabre tales can’t help wondering what other use this hole might soon be put to.

Meanwhile Elsa is embroiled in efforts to find a way to break their lease so that they can move out of the odious (to her) house.  She learns that the owners from whom they are leasing the house, the Wilsons, used to live in it, but Mrs. Wilson left her husband, and Mr. Wilson then moved away to Seattle.  Elsa wants to get in touch with the Wilsons, particularly with Mrs. Wilson, in order to learn more about the history of the house and perhaps about possible things wrong with it.

While she is doing this, Keith is busy cultivating a budding amorous relationship with a pretty girl (Tisha Sterling) he finds on the beach, who seems susceptible to Keith’s pseudo-manly boastfulness.

Things don’t look setup for a happy ending, and indeed what turns out doesn’t work out for anyone.  The twist at the end is interesting, but it is something I anticipated early on, and you will probably do the same.  Indeed the closing twist could have been better presented, and too much time is spent on Keith’s obnoxious, self-centered preening. Arthur Kennedy’s performance in this regard is energetic but lacks subtlety.  More nuanced and human is the performance of Phyllis Thaxter as Elsa.  Her worried and concernful visage is what sustains our sympathies throughout most of this tale.

Iulian Mihu

Films of Iulian Mihu:

"Felix si Otilia” - Iulian Mihu (1972)

Felix si Otilia (Felix and Otilia,1972) is a Romanian romantic drama directed by Iulian Mihu and based on the novel Enigma Otiliei (Otilia's Riddle, 1938) by the famous Romanian writer and literary scholar George Calinescu. Some reviewers have complained that Mihu’s film production strayed too far from Calinescu’s original material and, in particular, lost track of some of the alleged social themes covered in the novel.  Not having read Calinescu’s novel, I cannot comment on that issue, but I can say that the film, as it stands on its own, is a bizarre and haunting masterpiece.  It deserves more exposure on the wider world stage.

What Mihu has done is present the viewer with a broad, expressionistic tapestry concerning love  and its various manifestations within the mad swirl in which we struggle to find our places.  In particular, within the scope of all the ways love is supposedly sought for and expressed, there is a focus in this tale on the elusiveness of true love.

The story of the film is set mostly in a wealthy landed estate in Bucharest, sometime in the early years of the 20th century.  Felix Sima (played by Radu Boruzescu) is a young student who has come to Bucharest to study medicine and intends to stay at the estate of his wealthy but eccentric uncle, Costache Giurgiuveanu (Herman Chrodower).  The only person he knows in Costache’s extended household is his cousin Otilia Marculescu (Julieta Szönyi), who is Costache’s stepdaughter and who was Felix’s playmate many years ago when they were children.

Early on there is established two parallel and what seem to be rather separate narrative threads:
  1. The Greedy Family Quest for Costache’s Money.  
    Costache Giurgiuveanu is a crotchety and self-centered old man approaching senility.  His younger relatives living with him at his large estate are all equally self-centered in their various ways.  Since none of them seem capable of making their own way, they are concerned about how they can secure a large portion of Costache’s money after the old man dies (which event appears to be imminent).  To make things more difficult for them, Costache is selling off various elements of the family estate and hiding the cash from everyone. So when Costache dies, it is feared that a large portion of the estate will be lost to the relatives. Some of these relatives are:
    • Aglae Tulea (Clot Bertola), Costache Giurgiuveanu’s sister.  She is a stoic cynic who tries to look after the practical affairs of the estate.
    • Olimpia Ratiu (Gina Patrichi) is a married daughter of Aglae.
    • Stanica Ratiu (Gheorghe Dinica), Olimpia’s husband, is a lawyer and an outlandishly greedy gold-digger who devotes all his energies towards extracting money from his in-laws and acquaintances. He does have some money but not enough to support his visions of a lavish lifestyle.
    • Aurica Tulea (Elena Dacian), another daughter of Aglae and unmarried, is obsessed with her fears of spinsterhood,, and she aggressively beseeches every eligible bachelor she meets to consider marrying her.
    • Titi Tulea (Ovidiu Schumacher), son of Aglae, is another self-centered and unemployed individual who fancies himself to be a fine artist.
    • Simion Tulea (Árpád Kemény), Aglaei’s husband, is already senile and mired in his own selfish fantasies of resentment.
  2. The Romance of Felix and Otilia.  
    Felix is clearly in love with Otilia, and he makes little effort to disguise his affections for her. Otilia seems to respond to Felix accordingly, but the situation is complicated by her being courted by wealthy and gentlemanly landlord Leonida Pascalopol (Sergiu Nicolaescu). Throughout the film Felix and Otilia have various romantic encounters, but Felix has difficulty getting Otilia to commit and bring their relationship to full fruition.
What connects these two seemingly disparate narrative threads is the nature of love in its various guises and manifestations.  To be sure, true love is the most profound experience we can have in life and represents the most authentic encounter of one’s true, inner nature with the world.  Compared to these authentic encounters, everything else we experience is bizarre, fragmentary, and meaningless. And this is how things are portrayed expressionistically in this film.  Most of the scenes from the first narrative thread not involving Felix or Ortilia show characters who are exaggerated phonys, in fact, almost clownishly so.  This gives the first narrative thread the character of a phantasmagoria – like a house of horrors – and it offers a striking contrast with the characterological authenticity of the scenes in the Felix and Otilia thread.

Mihu achieves this moody effect by locating much of the film inside the ornately decorated mansion that serves as Costache’s estate house.  In fact the production design is key to this film’s effectiveness, and evidence of that emphasis can be detected when note is taken of the fact that Radu Boruzescu, who plays the role of Felix, was primarily a film production designer, not an actor.

The lush feelings of the interiors in the film are presumably enhanced by a new color photography technique, Graphys Color, that was invented by Alexandru Intorsureanu and Gheorghe Fischer and which was used for the first time in this film.

But the most important production technique of all is the use of the many extended camera tracking shots that sinuously course through the labyrinthine and claustrophobic interiors as they follow the action.  This is what really creates and sustain’s Felix si Otilia’s moody atmosphere.

In the various contexts presented in the film, the viewer is exposed to a number of different ways that love, or the imitation of it, takes shape in the world.  Some contrasting examples are embodied by the following characters:
  • Aurica  
    Aurica is desperate to find a husband and is essentially selling what she calls love to anyone who will offer a settled marital existence for her.  Yet there is a certain naive sincerity about this plaintive selling of herself.
  • Weissmann  
    Felix’s fellow medical school student Weissmann is an avowed proponent of free love.  For him this means the mutual momentary satisfaction of sexual desire with no thoughts of a longer-lasting amorous union.  He finds a willing partner in Aurica.
  • Georgeta  
    Georgeta is a beautiful mistress of a general who has a brief affair with Felix when Otilia is away. She sincerely offers her unrestricted affection to whomever appeals to her fancy.

  • Stanica  
    The lawyer Stanica is a hypocritical narcissist, who uses the external, conventional signs of “love” for his utilitarian purposes. When towards the end he secures his fortune, he cold-bloodedly uses his legal skills to annul his marriage to Olimpia and then marry the beautiful Georgeta.
  • Pascalopo  
    The aristocrat Pascalopo sincerely loves Otilia, but in a paternal way.  There is no clear passion between the two, and he essentially sees Otilia as the daughter that he had always wanted.
All of these other expressions of love contrast with Felix’s soulful and fully immersive love for Otilia. Otilia seems to genuinely love Felix, too, but she has questions – she wonders whether their love can stand the test of time.  She is a little older than Felix and feels that her beauty will begin to fade when she reaches the age of thirty.  And she is also curious about Felix’s ambition to become a doctor and wonders if his professional goals would take precedence over their love.

At what appears to be a joyful and culminating point in the story, Otilia finally avows her total love for Felix.  But the next morning, Felix finds her bed empty and that she has run off for good with Pascalopo. In her farewell missive to Felix that he finds, she tells him that she ultimately thought she would wind up being a drag on his professional career and that he should now forget all about her. So her pragmatic doubts about love’s infinite possibilities finally took hold of her and ended their chances for lasting bliss.

In the final scene some years have passed, and Felix is shown now serving as military medic during World War I. He is attending to the wounded and dying soldiers after a horrific battle and is shocked to discover Pascalopo, who has been mortally wounded. With little strength left, Pascalopo tells him to pull out a picture from his pocket. Asked if he recognizes the person in the picture, Felix says, no. Pascalopo tells him that the unrecognizable figure is Otilia. Then Pascalopo dies before Felix can find out where Otilia is now, and the film comes to its somber end.

The beauty of Felix si Otilia is the aura of fatalism accompanying its melancholy portrayal of love – love that inevitably finds itself cast into the context of a practical world that appears, in comparison to the authenticity of true love’s profound experiences, as a phantasmagoric show of fakery and false love. True love is real, but it is elusive and ephemeral.  When it does come, it is only in those loving moments that we are truly alive.  It must then be embraced and held for as long as possible. For only as long love endures, we, in the sense of our truly authentic being, endure.