These22pictures of the people of Pyinmana, near Naypyidaw, central Myanmar, were all taken in the relative political freedom of 2018, three years before the military junta returned themselves to absolute power.
I tried to be all profound and meaningful when writing this post, to talk about the failings of development programmes, of juntas, and of coups. But quite honestly, my colleague Anita (whose pictures these are) and I spent our time in Myanmar generally inviting ourselves into a closed world and pointing our cameras at what and whomever stayed still long enough. It seems hypocritical to bemoan evils when we both lived expenses paid at the Naypyitaw Hilton. Poverty tourism? Maybe. I like to think we managed to document moments of daily life in a world only so briefly open to the gaze of outsiders. Did we treat our subjects like exhibits in an anthropological diorama? I hope we preserved the uniqueness of their world. So few members of the development-industrial complex invited into Naypyidaw bothered to explore beyond the hotel bars. I only met one other westerner in Pyinmana – a flash-packer who had mistakenly gotten off the train in the wrong place – in two years.
These pictures might as well be from science fiction for the radically different reality they capture. I have no desire to romanticise the awful poverty the people live in. Yet, and without wanting to strip anyone of their agency or dignity, these images testify to the uniqueness of their society and to the creativity and determination of these much put-upon people. Yes, the smiles are the result of the camera; yes, our being there prompted mirth otherwise absent. In our defence, we posed for selfies with anyone that asked. People wanted to meet us just as much as we did them, amazed we showed interest in their lives.
We took pictures thinking we were documenting a soon-to-be-gone world: the Lady was spear-heading change. Sadly, the 2021 coup put the patient back on life-support. You have to feel most sorry for the young raised on the prospect of a brighter future. The Tatmadaw destroyed that hope. Again.
We were very lucky to have been able to take these pictures. We couldn ‘t do it today. Mine abound on this blog; Anita’s represent the last of our material. I long wanted her to do something with her images and I’m thankful she allowed me to edit and share them. It was a good opportunity to revisit such amazing people and their unique home.
Someone needed to document the people of Myanmar in that place and time. I’m glad it was us. Pyinmana, you should know we miss you.
“My dear, you have black dress?” My heart sank. Nina’s English can be a little cryptic at times. She couldn’t mean did I have a black dress; was she inquiring whether I was clairvoyant enough to know she needed hers? I really wasn’t in the mood for code-breaking. The night, it seemed, obliged us to attend a stranger’s funeral. I hastily donned black shirt and trouser, tried to inhibit my cynicism and dutifully fought my way out into the oven hot Thai night.
I was to be the token foreigner at the funeral. There was the predictable laugh and joke at my expense when I got to the COVID-19 checkpoint: the bald farang should put antibac on his head! Boing! Silly comedy noise on the soundtrack. Smile. Pretend to be amused and laugh along. I had to bend down so the lady with the temperature scanner could reach the side of my head. I climbed over the mountain of shoes in the doorway that offended my health and safety spider-sense and went inside.
Buddhist temples at night are the oddest places, cheap red garden chairs abound, structural columns painted a faux gold and plastic Buddhas all illuminated by stark white strip lights. No mood lights, no atmosphere just bold naked white lights. Floral tributes to the deceased stood in front of small shrine behind which were several unboxed Beko refrigerators. Music played via a USB plugged into DVD player plugged into a Heath Robinson assemblage of wooden boards and frayed cables covered in decades of grime and dust. Everything was open to the air and there were as many stray dogs present as mourners.
We waited for some time for an even number of monks to arrive; they sat on a raised dais after performing some half-arsed supplications to a lunchbox-quality Buddha image. Thai monks always remind me of Discworld wizards, vaguely comical, and either morbidly obese or so body-horror sinewy you wonder whether their organs are still on the inside. The most rotund had a fold-back clip holding his robes in place. The windows behind them were covered by a hanging carpet and several pink children’s blankets. The call and response chanting began, which was oddly relaxing apart from the distortion everytime the lead monk rocked too close to the microphone. Everybody made the Wai and got into their spiritual groove.
The deceased’s family sat on heavy wooden chairs in front of the monks through the first set of chanting. The monks held what looked like ceremonial fly swotters in front of their faces. As the number of voices in the spiritual chorus raised to four, ceremonial offerings were placed in front of the monks and four family members got on their hands and knees in devotion. In contrast to the Hindu cremation Nina and I had spectated at in Kathmandu, there was no wailing, no gnashing of teeth and no deathly pallid hands sticking out comically from under shrouds. The whole event took at most twenty minutes and was conducted with the sort of stiff upper lip reserve my Englishness approves of. Nina said the ceremony was cut short due to the lateness of the hour.
Feeling that this anti-climax lacked the grandeur an anonymous cancer victim deserved, I stood back while the departing mourners, Nina and her work colleagues, took selfies and group photos. The deceased raised no objection to this accounting of his life totalling only a co-worker’s status update. The futility of life, social media and cancer fully-measured, the living went for KFC.
The recent military coup in Myanmar might seem of little importance to many of us – just political trouble in a country most could not find on a map, even if they cared to look.
Not only did I find it, I spent three years living in Naypyidaw, the capital.
The Return of Democracy
Democracy returned to Myanmar on 8th November 2015 – my 39th birthday.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won with a landslide. The military kept control of key ministries.
Foreign experts, investors and aid agencies were already flooding into the country. I had arrived six months previously.
I was determined to not spend my free time in my room or in hotel bars bragging about which tax haven I banked in as did most of the NGO staff and consultants. I wanted to see what was going on around me.
Naypyidaw does not have much to offer; the only other major town in the area is Pyinmana, itself notable only as the halfway point on the crucifying 18-hour train journey between Yangon and Mandalay.
I was somewhat conspicuous as the only foreigner in that small town – more so with my cameras.
I heard their language’s equivalent of “My god! Come look what’s coming down the street!” approximately once a visit.
I had always wondered if any place remained that was culturally isolated from our own. This illusion was only shattered here by a set of prehistoric parcel scales that had been made in Birmingham. Oh, and me.
The station is nothing special, a hundred metres of concrete with a rusted corrugated roof. The biggest difference to the stations you know is this one is home to a community of families. Each family and their worldly possessions fit in a cardboard box on the platform.
One Sunday afternoon, I was blundering around there, ineptly taking pictures. The residents were used to me – they knew I was not a military spy.
A lady asked if I would photograph her teenage daughter. I waited as the girl, excited beyond compare, ran off to beautify herself as best she could. Imagine never having seen your own picture.
Having no way of sharing the images digitally, I made prints and took them back to the family. The shock and gratitude on their faces! Life clearly had not and would not give them much, I hope I managed to make that poor child feel good about herself, if only for a second.
Of course, I had to take more pictures and this started a cycle as more kids arrived to be photographed. My street photographer’s anonymity was gone forever.
Sometime later, I went down to the station early one morning whilst it was still dark. The residents were all huddled together in sleep on their platform. Many waiting for trains were awake and chatting. One party even offered to share their rice with me – they had next to nothing and would have freely given half of it to a complete stranger in the early hours.
Opposing the Junta
If you have ever looked at a map of faraway places and wondered who lives there, imagine how much worse it is knowing who does and that they are once more helpless victims of a merciless criminal junta.
Prior to the coup, the community was threatened as there were plans to replace the country’s narrow gauge railways with something more modern. Whilst I suspect the station is safe from any redevelopment plans now as the international backers are likely to withdrawn from the project, the fate of the good people remains just as tenuous and uncertain.
Myanmar people are tough – I’m sure if you can raise a family out of a cardboard box, you can weather the junta. These people, like the country itself, deserve so much better.
The what of the who? Right? I’m trusting you’ve never heard of this movie and I’m going to tell you why it’s worth your time.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a comedy western, and to the surprise of many, the film Sam Peckinpah chose to follow The Wild Bunch with. Got your attention now? I hope so.
The Wild Bunch blew many a bloody squib through the Hays code in 1969. Bloody Sam’s tropes are all present in that one – friends betraying friends; men without honour believing they live by a code and contradicting it at every turn. Bloody death, hail of bullets. The eulogy of the western. It appeared the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Peckinpah-lite) and a year after Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Clearly the end was nigh for that genre. The violence of The Wild Bunch sickened many.
Yet, there is much that is remarkable about The Wild Bunch, not least of which being the fact that Peckinpah followed it with a comedy that stands the test of time far better than the rest of his films.
Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch,Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are the same film – friends betraying friends and all have not aged well. They feel like genre works of their respective decades. That’s not to say they are not great films; they all stand amongst the true greats of the genre.
But Cable Hogue? Why such obscurity? Why such latent greatness? Considered a minor entry in Sam’s filmography by many, why should its place in the lexicon be rethought?
The film opens with Hogue betrayed by his prospecting partners and left to die in the desert. He finds a water hole and lays claim to it. His ambition being to turn a profit from passing coach traffic. David Warner plays a wayward clergyman (his form of faith-healing involves putting his hands on women’s breasts). Hogue prospers, falls for Stella Stevens and then alienates her; he has his revenge and then, well, someone invents the motorcar. I won’t spoil the ending. It’s another sad story of the passing of the wild west.
Let’s be clear, the heart of this film is Robards. His charisma carries the film with ease. There is subtlety here – compare his Hogue to his Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West. In contrast to that character, Hogue isn’t a superman of the frontier, he is one of the little people, beaten, cynical and world-weary. You feel the emotional pain and fatalism in how Robards carries himself. The world has not been kind to him. When he says he hates to go in amongst ’em, you feel every ounce of his disdain for the company of his fellow men. Unlike the members of the Wild Bunch, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.
David Warner gives a flawlessly slimy performance – all lust, sweat and appearing permanently in need of a good bath. Warner, never a screen-leading man in his own right, was never better than his roles for Bloody Sam. Compare his role here to Cross of Iron or the predatory man-child of Straw Dogs. Much like Robards, Warner is another who improves films just by being in them.
The snowflakes in today’s audience would no doubt accuse Sam of toxic masculinity – his movies are certainly a man’s world. But, let’s consider Stella Steven’s Hildy: yes, she’s that most tissue-thin of female clichés – the happy hooker with a heart of gold – and spends much of the film in a state of undress. Yet, I ask you this – which of the characters actually ends the film in a better material situation by their own design?
I am unapologetic for my love for this film and I freely admit to being under the spell of the Peckinpah myth. I would rate Straw Dogs as his finest film – certainly the most powerful, but in Hogue we see a movie with a cynical romantic heart and a great character piece that belongs to a different cultural age where the only discussion of intellectual properties was between copyright lawyers. Brands were for cattle.
I’m sure all cineastes go through a Peckinpah period. To fellow fanboys, I recommend David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography If They Move, Kill ’em. As for The Ballad of Cable Hogue, you could do worse than searching it out.
Just don’t turn your back on the people you search with.
As Spielberg’s most famous character is currently being revisited without him, I feel it is time for an opinionated retrospective. The mainstream press holds on Spielberg’s every cinematic word (looking at you, Empire). Everyone sings his praises. Who wouldn’t want to sit and chat movies with Spielberg? Who wouldn’t want to be this guy?
I feel it’s time a sensible voice added something new to the discussion.
Ah Spielberg, we all know the legend: the shy Jewish kid that went from a product of divorce to the youngest TV director on the lot to the most successful and influential filmmaker of all time. While most mortals can only dream of wealth, fame and success like his, he spent $200 million on a yacht and then had to be talked into going on a cruise in it by his staff.
It’s been nearly 32 years since Indy rode off into the sunset, 30 since Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. As his remake of Westside Story looms, many might ask has he lost his touch? Of course, he is perfectly entitled to have done so. It is the medium-defining masterpieces of his early career that guarantee his place in the film library on Mount Olympus. Few are lucky enough to have even a lick of that much ‘touch’ or being afforded the opportunity to demonstrate it.
What glorious exercises in cinema those early works are: Duel is a solid exercise in tension. Jaws is so good it hurts. Those barrels bobbing around in the water get me every time. The sublime edit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its flawed hero bungling his way through his adventures to the Divine saving the world, is the definition of timeless.
Temple of Doom is highly uneven, the character is more a superhero and loses his charming flaws, yet the filmmaking is awe-inspiring. Witness the colour design, the editing. There are obvious defects in that eras effects but we can forgive that. For anyone who wants confirmation of who really shot Poltergeist, look no further than the tracking shots/close ups used in Doom and how they are replicated exactly in the horror film.
The Last Crusade (if only) is sublime, the only error being the casting of Alison Doody; just cast a German actress! There can’t be a shortage of them. X never marks the spot. With any luck Marcus has the Grail already! Donated by some of the oldest families in Germany! I see you, Tom Stoppard.
Then there were the nineties. Deux Ex Machina entered the room.
I’m going to make a bald claim here – Jurassic Park is not a good film. It is a poor adaption, over-simplifying a great novel and shoe-horning in unnecessary drama with annoying child actors which was soon to be a defining trait (okay, cliché) of his work. Cliché no. 2 is the Deux Ex Machina ending: they’re doomed… they’re doomed… oh they’re not. Truly a terrible way to write yourself out of a corner.
He pulled the same trick at the end of Saving Private Ryan, yet another massively overrated entry. Witness critics forever shouting about the brilliance of the beach landing sequence, staged straight out of the nightmares of John Ford and Robert Capa. But then what? A cast of faceless no-marks and Tom Hanks. Didn’t that start a worrying trend! For the record, Shakespeare in Love deserved the Oscar. War of the Worlds was ruined by more unnecessary child clichés – the teenage girl with the maturity of an adult, prone to panic attacks whenever the script needed it. The son surviving undercuts the drama in the situation; there are no stakes, Steven!
Then, of course, there is the mighty Schindler’s List. Three hours of near flawless filmmaking ruined in the last five minutes by saccharine schmaltz. “I could have done more” …. Blub blub. Seriously? That’s not how real people act. Schindler watches the workers celebrate the end of the war. Gift of the ring. He walks to his car, gets in. Looks around. Shadow in the car. White headlights, dark screen. Drives off. No words. Fade out. It doesn’t need signposting so explicitly. Visual poetry ruined by the very emotionalism the film had avoided so well until that point.
Or is it just a well-shot exploitation movie? Jew porn, as the famous playwright noted at the time. Come see the horrors these poor people suffered! It’s shocking! ‘Entertainment’ is one of the first words on the screen. You decide. Terry Gilliam pointed out the film still has a happy Hollywood ending. The Holocaust didn’t for 6 million people.
As for AI, well, that’s a god-awful piece of crap – two thirds a watchable story if we consider it a warning of how creating an immortal robot child would be an act of cruelty. Cut the ending at spending eternity in a glacier and you have a powerful statement. But robot/aliens? And ‘mommy’? Vomit. The publicity at the time made the point Kubrick took years to shoot, whereas Spielberg took mere weeks. Doesn’t it show. You almost have to feel sorry for the marketing people that had to hawk this rubbish.
Minority Report is without doubt the best of his later films. The cinematography is beautiful and the story of an abducted child handled with far more restraint than could be expected. It’s a shame the writers changed the original short story’s ending. The casting of Max von Sydow makes the antagonist obvious from the first scenes.
And then? Some tedium with a horse, some Daniel Day Lewis and some unremarkable historical pieces. He phoned in Crystal Skull, added CGI monkeys. Ready Player One, whilst technically flawless, is a hollow story of the little people versus the corporation. No hypocrisy here, Mr Spielberg.
All artists peak, all decline with age, riches and success. But then he made his Tintin movie with visual invention that showed much of the old flare. More of this please.
Let us not forget his involvement in many other cultural crimes: Brett Ratner, JJ Abrams, the John Goodman Flintstones movies and Seaquest DSV to name but a few. Nuking the fridge became Hollywood shorthand for terrible story-telling.
Recently we have had Indy 5’s James Mangold’s Twitter meltdown and The Force is Female. Smart money is on Indy dying on the moon and being lectured for being part of the patriarchy. Spielberg clearly saw what Disney did to Star Wars and stayed clear. You have to respect the man for that and wonder why Mr Ford’s agent would allow him to be part of the trashing of his own legend for a second time.
We have no right to ask the man for anything. He enriched the 70s, defined the 80s and rocked the cinematic world in the 90s. But who wouldn’t want one more fantasy film? One more return to the purity of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist?
Can you do it, Mr Spielberg? I’m not ashamed to beg. We’d willing forgive the Deux Ex Machina, the awful child drama, the CGI monkeys and War Horse for just one more piece of cinema to that old standard.
I constantly get told that its prohibitively hard to get a job in cinema – that the young should chose careers that are ‘useful’ for society, meaning business studies and computing. Yet, to those that dismiss the creative impulse and the dreamers, I ask What did you do during lockdown? Now tell me the world doesn’t need imaginers and creators of fantasies.
Come on, Mr Spielberg. Show us how it’s done. The autobiographical movie won’t cut it.
The ferry-bus was taking us across the tarmac at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. The destination was the plane into Myanmar. It appeared a relatively new jet, which was reassuring as air travel safety is always a concern – you hear stories. As the idea of living to see tomorrow settled in the mind, the bus pulled around this wonder plane to reveal our true destination – an aged prop plane. You felt your life expectation suddenly shorten. Yet, you could spot the Myanmar people; they were the excited ones taking selfies by the antique. Those of us that travelled more frequently felt it better not to look at the plane at all. Ours was a pensive and sombre tone. Never look a flying death-trap in the face.
My seat number was 1A; ‘at the front’, the flight attendant said.
Mercifully, the flight into Naypyidaw International Airport was an incident-free 90 minutes. The contrast between the two airports couldn’t have been greater. Front of house Suvarnabhumi airport is frenetic chaos. Once past immigration, the confusion turns into the standard sterile shopping experience. A more perfect metaphor for Thailand doesn’t exist.
In contrast, Naypyidaw International Airport serves a handful of flights a day; the only international one being the connection taking NGO types back and forth to weekends in Bangkok. The Friday afternoon flight was always at capacity. The staff generally outnumber the customers in the airport. The seats in the arrival lounge still had their plastic wrappings on after more than a decade of operation.
The road into the city is several miles of empty dual carriageway that cuts through rice fields and small communities. The road-sides and central divides are curiously well-landscaped, water-fed and attended by a large army of labourers, presumably the souls kicked off their land when the city was built. There is decorative greenery and fresh grass yards from the sun-baked earth of farmsteads.
The first major indicator of entering the nation’s administrative heart passed on your left: the headquarters of the Union Solidarity and Development Party – the USDP – the Junta party ousted from power in 2015 after it managed the transition to democratic reform. The people said, ‘no, thanks’.
Across a gaudy island, you pass into the first of the city’s zones – the hotel zone. The majority of the hotels are junta-owned fronts for laundering money; zero guests and 100% occupancy. If you arrived in the early hours, you would see the prostitutes leaving the military’s orgies. On the right is the Thingaha, where Top Gear were ‘refused’ accommodation. Around any of the hotel bars, you might meet anyone from German free-divers to disaster relief specialists to Belarusians ranting about ‘homosexual Jews’. Obese Trump supporters were well-represented until the administration cut foreign aid.
The building’s themselves were used as the athlete’s village during the South East Asian (SEA) Games in 2013; locked, abandoned and decaying fossil facilities could still be seen around the city. Oddly, there were two fantastic Italian restaurants. I had the good fortune to introduce many people to damn fine pizza.
After the hotels, you pass the Jewel Museum, site of the annual auctions of uncut stones. For several days, men in suits walk the town handcuffed to briefcases. A jewel dealer lived not far us, he ran the business from his gated home and had cages of uncut stones stacked in easy sight. Their value was chalked on the side: $40, 000, $20,000. Just off the main road was an industrial estate devoted to the jewel trade, except all the buildings were empty and unused. The signage suggested registered addresses.
Passing into the ministry zone, your cross the twenty-lane highway. To your left, the parliament building and the road to the majority of the ministries. If you have seen the Top Gear Burma Special, you will have seen them having a drag race along the empty highway. It’s here that they filmed this. I showed their documentary to civil servants in one of the ministries off this road. The right turn takes you to Uppatasanti Pagoda and to Pyinmana
As you continue along the highway, you pass more landscaping and unusually, herds of cows and goats being watered along the main road in a capital city. People returned to herd cattle in much the same locations after their eviction during the construction of the city. If you are on the twenty lane highways at the right time of the evening, you would see water buffalo crossing between the rice fields on either side.
On your left, you pass the National Bank of Myanmar (a colonial throwback by all reports) and the National Library; you had to put your passport number in the big book to get into the place. In one of the rooms, I found the journal of the Christian Burma Research Society (from the late 19th Century until the 1930s). The first article was a report on child cannibalism and sacrifice in the provinces.
You pass the Ottarathiri Township, which is full of second homes for people connected to the Junta. Many stand empty, many are half-completed. Most have an attendant family living out of shanty attached whose job is to maintain the property in the owner’s absence.
The neighbourhood has a better and more reliable power supply than the rest of the city. Most of the civil servants live in single-sex hostels prone to outages that lasted days. There are two malls next to each other in Ottarathiri. One, ironically, called the Living Mall, never had any customers. There were at least two other abandoned shopping complexes around the city.
Looking down on the township from nearby Mount Pleasant hill is a large Buddha, apparently built by former president Thein Sein to atone for his sins. Orwell mentioned this practice in Burmese Days.
Before the city bleeds out into local villages, the final zone is another hotel one. Experience taught that these were ‘entertainment’ hotels with ‘karaoke’. Euphemisms all. Many half-completed hotels, concrete shells full of mud and stray dogs, were just decaying away and returning to nature.
The dual carriageway ends at a traffic island, the exits of which take you out into more rural areas. One of these areas is an estate of decaying wooden houses; I imagine these were temporary accommodation for the workers that built the city. People still live there. The other leads to a faithful recreation of Buddha’s birthplace.
On the outskirts on the city, the National Monuments Museum has to be seen to be believed. It is a vision of Myanmar’s famous landmarks realised in concrete. Except, it hasn’t been maintained since it opened. Water-flumes and water-slides end in pools of stagnant mosquito-filled green slime. The concrete landmarks were crumbling. A lot of rebars protruded. ‘Depressing’ doesn’t describe it. Much like the Military Museum next door, its intended audience clearly had lower expectations of its tourist attractions than our own and a greater appetite for celebratory nationalism.
In the Top Gear Burma Special, Clarkson comments that Naypyidaw was built in anticipation of the future. Whether or not that future was ever realistic or the envisioned one lost its validity when the coup happened, it is certainly a monument to an ill-defined something. For a city that had no organic growth, what exists is a product of those forcibly relocated to it. It isn’t a destination of any glamour but I would certainly go back and I enjoyed living there. It was a unique place to be and the right time to see it. Laughably, we may have seen it at its democratic peak. Perhaps the city is merely its own witness.
That said, from what I hear about how the civil servants are being treated by the Junta, it is starting to resemble the Orwellian hell that many had previously claimed it to be. It was public knowledge by 2017 that Min Aung Hlaing wanted to hold political office; the coup of 2021 was no surprise. We suspected that our work was just to modernise the bureaucracy and the democracy project a way for the military to let the NLD discredit itself in the eyes of the outside world. Once the Junta had the upgrades it wanted, many predicted the doors would close again.
So that is Naypyidaw, the administrative capital of modern Myanmar: an empty airport and a dual carriageway that ends at the Junta’s museum to itself. These are the surface features, of course. The civil servants posted there have no illusions about the city. Most hate it passionately and resent the fact they are away from their families. Yet, many believed in their work and felt they were building a better brighter future for their country.
How they feel since the military took power in February 2021 is a different matter.
Legend goes that Howard Hawks was so confident in his ability to make great movies he bet Hemingway he could make a winner from the worst of his novels. The result was To Have and Have Not (1944). Hawks was right, this movie is awesome. I’ll say it. It’s better than Casablanca.
Bogart plays Harry Morgan, captain of a small fishing boat who gets involved with a Victor Lazlo-like representative of the Free French. Replace Conrad Veidt’s Nazi with Vichy representatives, you get the idea. Where this film differs is in Lauren Bacall. My god, of all the movie goddesses that have graced the screen, Miss Bacall’s star shines the hottest. She plays Slim, a not-as-innocent-as-she-claims-to-be hustler whom Harry meets after she steals his client’s wallet. Their on-screen chemistry is weapons grade.
Cinema history did not start with Pulp Fiction, which seems to surprise many these days. The film noirs that made Bogie a star in the 1940s should not be dismissed by the modern audience because of the age or their archaic cinematic style. Yes, Hawks’ cinema is expressed in a simpler idiom than we are used to today, but this is still a work of one of early cinema’s masters.
Like The Maltese Falcon, like the later The Big Sleep, and unlike Casablanca, I would ask modern viewers to listen carefully to the words spoken on screen. The dialogue and the depth of character here are decidedly modern. The dialogue is so fresh it could have been written yesterday. Compare it to the roles written for women to what followed in the 50s and 60s.
Slim is not looking for a man to protect her, she’s doing just fine on her own. She hustles tourists, she attempts to play the victim with Harry (who oddly, she calls Steve), she hustles in bars and manipulates her audience when she sings. See how she mocks Dolores Moran’s character (whose role was reduced because the studio liked Bacall). The limits to her character are her physical strength. She runs mental rings around everyone else. Apart from Harry.
Betty Bacall was obviously the real star here. She was a nervous 19-year- old whose on-screen posture, ‘the look’ (with her chin down) was a strategy she adopted to stop her shaking as she was so nervous. She shines in her debut here.
Two things in the final film show her greatness. One, of course, is how she looks at Bogie. You knew. It was there for the world to see. After filming, he went home to his unstable wife, she went back to live with her mother. Then there is that dance. To this day, I have no idea how she moved her hips like that. All I can say is I must have seen this movie at an impressionable age.
Much like Casablanca, the attitude here is cynicism, not romance. You feel the chemistry between Harry and Slim. Not need for the lemon-face or deep swelling music. Bacall’s Slim is not the two-dimensional cypher that Bergman’s Ilsa was. Her intelligence, actress and character, radiates off the screen. She’s capable, she’s confident. Slim is a predator, not a victim.
Consider the famous whistle scene. Bogie tells her to walk around him. She guesses he has no strings. She flirts. She manipulates. He resists. As real as screen relationships get. Surely, one of the greatest scenes every written.
Bacall’s debut was her best. She made other films with Bogie, Key Largo is so-so; The Big Sleep is divine. I don’t remember Dark Passage. After Bogie’s death, she lived a long and celebrated life. She heard the gun-shot that killed John Lennon.
To Have and Have Not is a true Hollywood classic. You witness true Hollywood legends in their prime and tinsel town myths forming in real time. Forget the technical limitations and the production values of the studio system, this is worthy of your patronage.
And there’s always Lauren Bacall jiggling her hips.
Let’s talk about the Lynch film nobody saw and less people remember. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, you missed a masterpiece by one of cinema’s true masters. Let me tell you why.
Anyone who was there at the time will remember the hype around Twin Peaks: the surrealist filmmaker behind Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet was coming to TV. Twin Peaks was the beginning of event TV. It was a huge hit.
However, Lynch dropped mostly off the Twin Peaks radar in season two to make Wild at Heart (1990). The world loved him. He returned two years later with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the reaction was vitriolic.
The die-hard fans hated the second season: not dark enough, not enough mystery. The reveal of the murderer’s identity removed its hook. After filming Wild at Heart, Lynch returned to shoot the final episode, which remains one of the best pieces of work of his career. There was no season three. The story ends on a cliff-hanger.
The cast were a great mix of seasoned pros playing the adults and some relative unknowns playing the troubled youth of the town. The actor playing Bob was a member of the film crew whose reflection was caught in a mirror during the early filming of the pilot. Lynch liked the image so much, the guy got the role. Kyle MacLachlan, as Agent Cooper, the FBI agent investigating Laura’s murder, redeemed himself yet further after Dune. You almost forgive him for Showgirls, but that was in his future. Lynch’s turn as the FBI director struggling with his hearing aid is very funny.
That Gum You Like is Going to Come Back in Style
Many thought the purpose of the movie was to resolve the plot set up by that cliff-hanger. Apart from Mr Lynch, of course; that would be too obvious.
The film is the archetypal prequel. It opens long before Laura’s murder and follows Chris Isaak’s Agent Chet Desmond as he investigates a previous murder. Chet mysteriously disappears. Cooper turns up. Thus we learn Cooper is at least the second agent to investigate this case. David Bowie makes a fleeting appearance as yet another agent with a connection to it. Cut to Twin Peaks.
The Chet Desmond prologue is hated by many. However, it contains some of Lynch’s finest material. The Lil with the Sour Face sequence is sublime, Lynch’s own narrative logic runs riot here. Describing it as surreal fails to do it justice.
When we get to the town of Twin Peaks, it is noticeably different in tone to the one we knew from the series. The quaintness has gone. Lynch replaces it with oppressive darkness. Sheryl Lee (who played Laura Palmer both living and dead) spends the film screaming in terror. Many of the secondary characters are absent.
The biggest difference to the series, and what upset so many of the fans, was the change in theme. The series is (superficially) a ghost story, yet the film suggests the supernatural element is partly of Laura’s own manufacture, a psychological cover for the fact she is being sexually abused by her father. Lynch’s obvious mastery of filmmaking is on display here. His creation of the oppressive incestuous atmosphere in the Palmer household is so convincing, he said he got letters from incest survivors praising his work.
Let’s consider just some of the filmmaking here: Mrs Tremond and the child in the carpark; the sequence with Mike (the one-armed man) at the traffic lights is shear brilliance. The Chet Desmond opening is sublime. The nightclub scene captures the deafening music of the typical club like no other. And sex. Don’t forget that.
The Death of Laura Palmer
The crowning glory of this film (and I would argue of Lynch’s celebrated career) is Laura’s murder. Usually you should watch a sequence with the sound off to appreciate the structure but the noise is necessary here. One of Lynch’s many skills is as a sound designer. Witness how the sound builds tension, mirroring Laura’s distress as her pending fate becomes obvious to her. The noise builds and builds. It’s painful. Brutal murder. Then it cuts. Silence. Red room. Angel feathers, tears on Laura’s face. Not a word spoken. Sublime. This film, without doubt, ends with one of the greatest sequences ever committed to the screen. For shear mastery of the medium, Lynch peaked (sorry, wrong choice of verb) here.
The typical reaction to a Lynch movie is to ask ‘What the hell was that about?’ Here he was guilty of being too explicit. There is no ambiguity to this film. To use a modern term, he subverted expectations by not telling the story teased at the end of the second season and then told, clearly, the story of Laura’s death, which the audience already knew. For the only time in his career, his meaning was clear. Nobody liked it.
Lynch planned further Twin Peaks movies and these clearly became Lost Highway, which plays as Twin-Peaks-lite. The same tropes and iconography are present: confused identity, a woman with changing hair colour (say hi to Hitchcock for me), plus Bowie, Rammstein, the Song for the Siren and added Patricia Arquette. Oh, and tips on road safety. And yes, death by table. The film contains the greatest mobile phone scene ever shot. Lost Highway is Lynch at his most concisely Lynchian and is his most accessible film, if such a word applies to his work.
Twin Peaks: The Return (aka series 3) played more as a sequel to the film. It wasn’t universally loved. It’s long, slow and it goes nowhere for most of the run time. Is it good? There are moments. The black and white episode defies explanation. David Bowie’s character returns, but given his passing, his character is a large black kettle. Is it rewatchable? You have to be hard-core to sit through 16 hours and 25 minutes of it. The jury remains deadlocked on the value of a second watch. It has a now-typical retcon ending that might be its greatest strength or weakness. You decide.
In a perfect world, all films would be make by Mr Lynch. Whether or not Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is good Twin Peaks, it is sublime filmmaking by one of modern cinema’s greats.
Do you need to have seen the series to appreciate this movie? No, you don’t. I missed the series at the time and saw the film on late night TV in the mid-90s; it stuck in my mind so long I had to track down the VHS of both series to try to make sense of what I’d seen. It didn’t help. I have no understanding of the dancing dwarf to this day.
Is the new series Lynch is working on season 4? Let’s hope so.
Nina Na stays at Meena Resort, visits the King Taksin shipyard, walks along Laem Sing beach, explores the mangroves at Khung Kraben Nature Study Centre, explores the HTMS Prasae Memorial and bakes under the sun at Khao Laem National Park.