Archive for hal ashby

Peak Hours (Part 7)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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In a week where the absurdity of Washington has reached its zenith (for the week) I’m reminded of a political satire that pre-dated the era of Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump and yet eerily prophesized the swathes of talked-up men-children that came to occupy the highest office in the land. Hal Ashby’s Being There tells the story of Chance, an elderly gardener with learning difficulties whose employer dies, leaving him to go out on his own and obliviously rise through the ranks of Washington until he reaches the Vice Presidency. What does this have to with Twin Peaks: The Return?

One of the biggest surprises of The Return was that when the “good” Dale returned from the lodge (or Judy, or whatever it is now) he came back in the body of Dougie Jones, who when cosmically switched out with a somnambulist version of Cooper (I think), begins to strongly recall Chance’s characterization and story arc in Being There. Dougie is reminiscent of Chance in his childlike reaction to and pleasure in the world and the way that his speech vacantly mirrors what he hears from others. But it’s what happens to Dougie that makes this cinematic allusion absolutely unmistakeable.

Just as Chance is assumed to be a political savant after he offers basic horticultural tips to high-level diplomats, Dougie is viewed as a maverick genius by his boss Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) when he doodles over some claims in the course of his job as an insurance agent. The people who Chance and Dougie talk to read whatever they want into the most simplistic of utterances and reward them for bringing hidden truths about the world into light. The press exalt Chance for providing a solution to the economic crisis while Dougie is cited for exposing a fraudulent application.

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There’s nothing unusual about Twin Peaks delving into cinematic history. The original series had a fetish for film noir that resulted in characters taking their names from genre classics like Double Indemnity, Laura and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, it’s Dougie identifying the name of his FBI boss Gordon Cole (David Lynch) from a broadcast of Sunset Boulevard on TV (Lynch putting himself in esteemed company with director Cecil B. DeMille, who played a character with that name originally) that triggers the discovery of his secret identity. Referencing the work of a director from the American New Wave is a departure.

Perhaps Lynch is saying that American cinema of the 60s and 70s is to today’s generation of media artists what Hollywood of the 40s and 50s was to his. It’s impossible to watch David Simon and George Pelecanos’s The Deuce without thinking of Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Ashby’s own The Last Detail. Stranger Things is a riff on the Spielberg-Lucas canon while Ashby’s dark comedy exemplified by Harold & Maude hovers over dramedies like Girls and Transparent. Being There is never far away from TV satires of the dumbing down of the Washington political scene like Veep and Alpha House.

It remains curious because Lynch has typically avoided adaptation and remake in his canon (there are exceptions like Dune) but is nonetheless revealing about the shift to social satire from Twin Peaks to The Return. The less intelligent Dougie becomes, the more he begins to succeed at building his fortune, career and family. He climbs the corporate ladder and wins over the criminal element in Las Vegas by exhibiting a distinct lack of consciousness in his actions. He reveals the American success story for what it is; a blind stab in the dark whose outcome depends entirely on external factors.

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In a revival full of detours, none was perhaps more circuitous than having Kyle MacLachlan play the iconic Dale Cooper as an infantilised simpleton for the vast majority of the series. I’m sure it was a far greater challenge to the actor than even reprising a decades-old role as indeed it was for Peter Sellers to play Chance and break with his repertoire of larger-than-life comic characters. Ashby was taking a familiar face and channelling them through a new dimension of performance, which is very similar to what Lynch is doing here with MacLachlan by reimagining Dale through Dougie Jones.

We weren’t expecting Dougie Jones, especially not as a surrogate for Agent Cooper. But Lynch made the best of the situation, invoking another fine auteur director whose work still casts a long shadow over subversive media in the mainstream. It’s an association that helped The Return bear its satirical claws.

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