A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ghost in the Wood: Some thoughts on Twin Peaks

People often talk about the work of David Lynch in terms of genre. Much of his oeuvre fits the tradition of neo-noir, featuring postmodern remixes of tropes developed by the likes of Otto Preminger, Edward Dmytryk, and of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Noir elements are certainly present in spades in Twin Peaks, as are elements of soap opera. Twin Peaks isn't subtle in its self-aware embrace of soap opera styles, motifs, and plot twists; it signals this embrace through its frequent references to the show-within-the-show, Invitation to Love. Less discussed in analyses of the show (at least analyses that I've read--I don't profess expertise in Lynch scholarship) are its debts to the haunted house genre.

Twin Peaks is the least-ambiguously supernatural work that Lynch has produced. Whereas in films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive many of the weird fiction elements are attributable to characters' dreams or hallucinations, in Twin Peaks it's difficult if not impossible to interpret the demons, whatever they are, as anything other than a literal presence. Those demons' home, the Black Lodge, is the first in a tradition of sites of spiritual significance on TV, a tradition that runs through Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Hellmouth and Lost's island.

Significantly, the black lodge is located in the woods. The woods, and indeed, wood itself, is the show's dominant image. The opening credits sequence provides us not with images of the town itself, but images of the surrounding woods, juxtaposed with images of the sawmill that transforms those woods into industry. The first face that you see in the pilot episode is not that of the dead Laura Palmer, but that of Josie Packard, owner of said sawmill. The last time you see Josie's face, it's in the wood--having died of fear after killing her lover, Thomas Eckhardt, Josie's spirit is absorbed by the wood of the Great Northern Hotel, wood that was likely cut in her own mill. Wood is imbued with an animism throughout the series, most notably embodied by the Log Lady's log. How appropriate that the forest is called Ghostwood.

But if wood can carry spirits, the birds that perch on that wood, like the bird in the opening credits' first shot, can carry demons. The owls are not what they seem.

When I point to Twin Peaks' indebtedness to the haunted house genre, I mean haunted house stories in the broadest sense, encompassing stories of homes and people occupied by evil spirits, be those the spirits of the dead or the spirits of demonic others (in Twin Peaks we encounter both). Modern haunted house films, from The Amityville Horror to Paranormal Activity, take the elements of classic gothic fiction and move them out of the castle and into suburbia, transforming the middle class ideal of home ownership into a nightmare. This is why the genre is so amicable to the Lynchian treatment--many of his films, most notably Blue Velvet, are about finding the nightmares hiding behind the veneer of suburban contentment.

One of the best haunted house films ever made is Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), in which a real estate developer discovers after a series of horrific events that his new home is built atop a cemetery, and that his boss, when building the neighborhood, only moved the headstones, leaving the bodies. Poltergeist begins with an iconic shot of a cathode ray tube television at the end of the broadcast day, turning to static, which is how the ghosts haunting the property communicate with the people in the home. Ten years later, the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) would begin with an image of static on a TV tuned to a dead channel, and that image of static would recur throughout the film.

Looking at the opening of the film alongside the opening of the series, we get a juxtaposition that constitutes the heart of the story: nature vs. modernization, the untouched vs. the developed. People misremember Poltergeist as being a film about a house built on an "old Indian burial ground," but in fact the house is only built on a modern cemetery. In Twin Peaks, however, the area's connection to indigenous populations is unavoidable, represented either through Deputy Hawk's expositional monologues about local beliefs, or through Ben Horne's appropriations of native iconography in the design of the Great Northern (it's telling that Ben's intellectually disabled son always wears a Native American headdress). The Ghostwood National Forest may not be a burial ground, but it's certainly a site of the sacred.

That's why I think it's so interesting that the show's biggest B plot line involved Ben Horne and Catherine Martell fighting over the rights to Ghostwood Estates. I used to think this plot line was pure soap opera, but I've come to see it as essential. Twin Peaks' existing suburbs already boast haunted houses, most notably the Palmer house--what would happen if Ghostwood did become another housing development? What poltergeists would be unleashed?

Perhaps in the past 25 years, Ghostwood Estates actually has been built. If there's one omission from the revival's cast list that has me worried, it's Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell. Without her, I fear that the fate of Ghostwood Estates will be an ignored or underdeveloped component of the show. I hope it won't be. I hope we'll get to see Ghostwood, and Theresa Banks's ring, and Andy and Lucy's now 25-year-old child, who I hope is a daughter named "Judy."

But trying to predict what Lynch will do is probably foolhardy. More than anything else, I just hope to enjoy the ride.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Let’s Talk About Miscarriage, Baby (Guest post by Paula Matzke)

A note from Brian: This is a post from my wife Paula. I don't have much to add, but we both believe in the value of normalizing these challenges. And, as usual, I'm blown away by her eloquence.

A note from Paula: In the course of trying to make uncomfortable topics less uncomfortable, things inevitably get weird and awkward. If you're not in the mood for weird and awkward (especially if you know Brian and me personally) this may not be the post for you. Take what you need, and leave the rest. 

Content warning: miscarriage (obviously)

Miscarriage. I don’t even like typing that word. Even when you type it, it still sounds like something that should be whispered. In like, an old women’s sewing circle. Followed by a bunch of those sad tongue clucking sounds and a few murmured “Oh, what a shame”s.

Miscarriage. I had one (‘Oh, what a shame!’). I initially did not want to talk about it because miscarriage is weirdly….embarrassing? However, I very quickly realized what a huge number of other women have realized: that our collective not talking about it makes it feel worse, and that we probably should talk about it more.
There are some very powerful things written by other women about their miscarriages. Many of them are written by women who have some degree of distance from it and have accrued some wisdom or, in many cases, a subsequent child. I’ve noticed in particular, that we seem to feel more comfortable hearing about women’s miscarriages when they now have a baby. Ali Wong has a great comedy special in which she discusses her miscarriage. In interviews she says that people didn’t start really laughing at it until she was visibly pregnant with another child. We want there to be a happy ending.

My miscarriage happened last week. There is no baby. There is no wisdom. There is no happy ending.

I 100% do not want to discount accounts of miscarriage from women who went on to have a baby and/or learned something really profound. I have read and heard many of these narratives and found them extremely helpful and comforting and I think we need that. I am so grateful to these women who have written about miscarriage with beauty and wisdom and eloquence, but you know what? Maybe sometimes we don’t need wisdom, beauty and eloquence. Maybe sometimes we need some discomfort and vulgarity and rambling.

I am no stranger to writing about difficult and uncomfortable topics. In the past I have written very candidly about psychosis and psychiatric hospitalization because I also have bipolar disorder. My medical file now emits a palpable cloud of awkward pity when opened. However, there is a certain pride in having ‘stigma’ be a keyword in pretty much all the articles about any part of your medical history. I’ve got double stigma now: I have fucking STIGMATA (I’d make the obvious Jesus joke here, but when you have bipolar disorder you’re not allowed to do that, so you know, make it yourself). Not to make light of other medical conditions, but honest to god, I really hope next time something awful happens to me it’s appendicitis, or pernicious anemia, or some other shit that it is socially acceptable to talk honestly about outside of a social worker led support group or blog post that people will call you “brave” for writing.

So what happened? Well, I was having a perfectly normal pregnancy. This may be surprising to some of you that know me and/or Brian, because it was supposed to be a secret. You are not supposed to tell people before you make it to 12 weeks. This is because most miscarriages happen before 12 weeks and it is very sad and awkward to have told people you are pregnant and then have a miscarriage and have to tell them you are not pregnant. It is also very sad and awkward to NOT have told people you are pregnant and then have a miscarriage and have to tell people not only that you are not currently pregnant, but also that you were pregnant. It is sad and awkward either way and if you are pregnant you should tell people whenever the fuck you want to.

Anyway, I was pregnant and it was perfectly normal and uneventful. I didn’t bleed; I was throwing up, my boobs hurt; these were all good signs. I had no particular reason to worry about miscarriage, but I did anyway because I am an anxious fuck. From the minute I got that positive test, hell even before I got that test, I worried about miscarriage. I knew that about 1 in 4 pregnancies ended in miscarriage, so it wasn’t a totally irrational worry, at least in the beginning. But as the weeks went on and the risk of miscarriage theoretically dropped (I say theoretically because this is an event that has already happened and therefore the probability of its having happened is now 100%), I still worried. This was not because I had some kind of special intuition, it was because I am an anxious fuck and I always assume the worst. My husband, bless his heart, did not worry. This was, at the time, the more rational position. He was full of hope and blissful ignorance and was therefore very reassuring.

The morning of my first pre-natal appointment, my husband took his blissfully ignorant (and very cute) ass to work as normal. I woke up in kind of a funk. I had previously been very excited for this appointment, but I was noticeably less excited that morning. Again, I would like to think it was some kind of “mother’s intuition”, but more likely it was that it was the first day after spring break and I was a tired anxious fuck. I went into the appointment eager to finally have some concrete evidence that the little sprout inside of me was there and ok. It was there. It was not ok.

It’s kind of a cliché to say that you can’t possibly understand what it feels like to, at one second think that you will probably be bringing a baby home in seven months, and the next second know that you won’t because your stupid embryo doesn’t have a fucking heartbeat. So I will try.

You know that feeling where you are expecting reassurance? Like when you text your friend to see if they got home safe, or tell your partner that you love them just so you can hear it back, or hear a car pull into your driveway when you’re expecting someone home and they’re late? It’s like when you get a call back from your friend’s number, but it’s someone else’s voice. It’s like hearing that infinite pause instead of “I love you too.” It’s like when you look out the window and it’s a police car.

It’s that feeling when your wife went off to her pre-natal appointment that morning and you hadn’t even thought about it until you looked at your phone after class and saw the missed calls.

My husband is no longer full of hope and blissful ignorance. It has been squashed right out of him like the last dregs of toothpaste and now for any future pregnancies we can be anxious fucks together.

My body failed at pregnancy, but it also failed at miscarriage. I had what is called a “missed miscarriage”, which is when the embryo or fetus dies, but your body doesn’t recognize it, so you don’t miscarry “naturally” (which is the polite way of saying you don’t bleed and cramp and expel the dead embryo or fetus from your body). In this situation you can either 1) wait for above “natural” miscarriage to happen 2) induce bleeding and cramping and associated dead embryo or fetus expulsion with medication, or 3) have surgery to clear out the dead embryo or fetus from your uterus.

Many women like to let things happen without additional intervention or prefer to have the comfort of miscarrying in their own home. That’s perfectly valid. I, however, did not want to let things happen naturally because nature is a goddamned asshole. Additionally, the prospect of copious amounts of blood and pain did not appeal to me, while a minor surgery that would get it all over with quickly and that involved a legal high did not sound so bad.

A week later I got what is technically called a “manual vacuum aspiration”. This is where they basically take a big syringe and suck out the dead embryo or fetus and associated uterine gunk. It is exactly the same procedure they use for many elective abortions. The difference is that when you wanted the pregnancy you get to do it in the hospital instead of having to go to a whole separate clinic and your insurance covers it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It was painful and awkward, but I got to get high so I didn’t really care that much and I don’t remember much either. I threw up on the car ride home. My husband pulled over and I spewed apple juice onto the dirty snow and thought about how this was the last time I would throw up because of this pregnancy.

Physically, I actually feel much better now, which I feel weird about. I’m no longer nauseas and exhausted. I haven’t bled or cramped that much after the surgery. Emotionally, I feel like a woman who just had a miscarriage. I have spent most of my time on the couch watching re-runs and eating take-out (but I’ve still managed to lose 3 pounds, so there’s that). I have not been back to work yet. This is not only because I want to cry and eat pizza in peace, it is particularly because my job this week was supposed to involve 1) making plans for my future that just a few weeks ago were supposed to have to be rearranged to accommodate a baby, and 2) teaching students a unit about kids dying of cancer. I do not want to do either of these things right now even though I probably physically could. I have also previously been on the student side of the TA having an obvious emotional breakdown in the middle of class situation, and it is not comfortable for anyone. My students deserve better.

Luckily (well not really luckily because, as I have been wisely told, there is no good news when there’s a dead baby involved) miscarriage is one of several “trump cards” in life. Similar to how saying you have diarrhea will get you out of pretty much any social obligation, informing people of your miscarriage is SO awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved that no one is going to ask follow-up questions or challenge you. They just want to get out of that conversation as soon as possible and they don’t want you around crying and being sad. To be frank, this is one of the main reasons that I told people. I needed that instant pity and I wasn’t above getting it.

When you tell people about your miscarriage they now know, not just that you’ve had a miscarriage, but also some shit about your sex life, which is fun. When you are young and recently married and obviously very sad about your miscarriage people will assume that you have been “trying” (which is polite code for ‘having unprotected sex’) and may continue to do so in the future. “Trying” is also not polite conversation, so now there’s just a whole bunch of unspoken knowledge and assumptions about your and your partner’s reproductive organs out there. For those who are curious, yes Brian and I had been “trying”. Yes we will continue to be “trying” in the future. No, we don’t want to talk about it with you unless you’ve also had a miscarriage and want to be sad about it with us.

That’s it. I hope I’ve at least satisfied your morbid curiosity about miscarriage. And for those of you who didn’t have any morbid curiosity because you already know all too well yourself: I am so, so sorry. I hope my words have at least provided some small comfort to you in the same way other women’s stories have comforted me. Like I said before, I don’t have a happy ending. What I do have is pizza, Sex and the City streaming, and a bottle of wine. So let’s talk.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Impatience with "Problematic" Stories

Because I'm perpetually behind in my pop culture consumption, I only recently finished Louis CK's series Horace and Pete (2016) and Denis Villeneuve's film Sicario (2015), both on Hulu. They're both well made, with solid acting, writing, and directing, and I probably would have enjoyed them both quite a lot if I had watched them when they first came out. But, watching them in 2017, I hated them both. In the wake of the election, my tastes changed--specifically, my patience for "problematic" narratives has diminished substantially.

I've often joked about the way in which the word "problematic" gets thrown around sometimes as a euphemism for "bad," but that's not quite accurate. The way that I teach stories (be they novels or films or TV shows or whatever), and the way that I try to talk about stories outside of the classroom too, I try to lead with the assertion that it's important to acknowledge ambiguity. No story has a single interpretation that is "right" to the exclusion of all other interpretations. That's especially important to acknowledge when engaging in an evaluation of the sociopolitical implications of a story. I doubt that there is any story that is purely progressive or purely reactionary. When someone says that a story is "problematic," often what they are communicating is that they acknowledge the story's ambiguity but feel that its implications lean more towards the reactionary than the progressive. Because people so often adopt a defensive crouch when confronted with the reactionary implications of stories that they enjoy, I've always maintained that it's perfectly okay to enjoy problematic stories--we all like some problematic stories--and it's perfectly okay to draw out more progressive interpretations that exist within the story's ambiguities, so long as you don't try to shut down conversation or deny interpretations that may be less comfortable.

I still believe this, but on a purely personal level, it feels like the balance has shifted, and as I said, I just don't have as much patience for some problematic narratives. Take Sicario, a film about U.S. federal agents trying to take down a Mexican drug cartel. The film not only upholds stereotypes about Mexican criminality, but explicitly uses those stereotypes to justify the horrendous authoritarian tactics of its protagonists, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and partnerships with murderers. It's certainly possible to read the film against the grain. Our viewpoint character, an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, is horrified by the abuses committed by her CIA counterparts, played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, and in some respects the film can be seen as asking us to share in that horror and condemn these actions. But ultimately, it's hard not to see this film as aligning with Donald Trump's rhetoric, presenting a dystopian view of the Mexican border as a lawless land requiring brutal suppression. It's a stomach-turning worldview.

The problematic worldview of Horace and Pete is much more subtle, but no less troubling. Louis CK and Steve Buscemi play the titular Horace and Pete. Horace is a sad sack divorcee who is estranged from his children, and Pete is a schizophrenic recently released from a mental hospital (the show's offensive depiction of mental illness is a topic for a whole other blog post). The two run an unprofitable dive bar that has been in their family for 100 years, along with their sister Sylvia, who is suffering from cancer, played by Eddie Falco. Much of the series focuses on Sylvia's desire to sell the bar coming into conflict with Horace and Pete's rigid, self-destructive adherence to the traditions established by their physically and emotionally abusive parents and grandparents, the bar's previous owners. Their story is interspersed with conversations from the bar's regulars, mostly about politics. The series was released during the 2016 presidential primaries, so many of these conversations are built around the creation of cynical equivalences between the Republican and Democratic candidates. In a way, the show's depiction of both its title characters and the barflies offers a useful take on the "white working class" whose disaffectedness led to Trump's victory. I can see it serving as a time capsule, providing a glimpse into a very particular moment in the history of white masculinity. The problem is, the show asks us to sympathize with these broken men and their nihilistic, misanthropic patrons as they all refuse to break free from their cycles of self-destruction, taking others down with them.

But I can't offer that sympathy. Not in 2017, when I know where those self-destructive tendencies lead.