Monthly Archives: January 2013

David Lynch’s Lost Highway: Who is Dick Laurent?

(Obviously, there are spoilers – but the post is so focused on certain details of the movie that it will be incomprehensible to those who have not seen the film. Since I assume anyone who has interest in what follows has seen Lost Highway, I give no summary of its plot, but simply plunge into a few of its intriguing aspects. As usual, for convenience sake, the post title omits the name of one of the writers: his name is Barry Gifford, and though I have not had the fortune to read many of his works, I have read his memoir, Phantom Father, and it is excellent. For quotes, I rely on the original draft script, as well as a transcript of the film – the movie differs often from its draft screenplay. The blog A Few Years in the Absolute Elsewhere was kind enough to mention this post in their insightful essay on Lost Highway, “Funny How Secrets Travel: Revisiting David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997)”, and I make a small attempt to return the favor.)

Possibly David Lynch’s darkest movie, it is from beginning to end the world of a sociopath: the color palette is greys, browns, yellows that are sickly, greens that are hospitally, a few reds that are always ominous. There is something essential missing in this man, Fred Madison, and there is something essential missing in the colors of the movie. A question I’ve had for a while about Highway is in the post title: why does the movie take the time to establish that the same character, played by Robert Loggia, doing a great job as usual, has two separate and distinct names, Mr. Eddy and Dick Laurent? This man is a brazen, intimidating figure with armed guards; he has no need for the discrete cover of a secret identity, and the movie gives us no hint that one identity is a cover for the other, does not give us any explanation at all – he simply appears to be known by two names without connection to any other. The answer provided on the film’s wikipedia page, is, surprisingly, completely wrong: “Arriving at a cabin in the desert, Alice reveals to Pete that Mr. Eddy is actually a porn producer named Dick Laurent and he forced her to do the films.”1 There is a flashback (at a much earlier hotel rendezvous, not at the cabin) where she first meets Eddy and she is forced at gunpoint to take off her clothes – but no mention is made of his name. Additionally, there’s no evidence that she’s coerced into making these movies, and this complicity is a crucial point.

I think Lost Highway is a simpler movie than some believe it to be (though that doesn’t detract from its quality), and I think the reason behind the names used for this character is simple as well. Highway, as most concede, is about a man who, after killing his wife, enters a fantasy world where he is now a younger, more virile character, who gets to have sex with a woman who is a double of the wife he could not perform with. It is world of denial and forgetting, where a man is able to deny his responsibility for his wife’s murder by blocking all memories of it, where everyone else is the villain, and he is the victim. If it is enjoyed less than some of Lynch’s other work, it is because there is only one character, Fred Madison, and his double Pete Dayton; his wife is a distant enigma to him, and the characters of the fantasy world are variations on those of his past life, his projections, the people he wants them to be. This, I think, is the reason for the two names, Dick Laurent and Mr. Eddy, of this character. Fred Madison, a few days before killing his wife, killed the man he suspected was her lover, and this man is Dick Laurent. Just as Alice Wakefield is a fantasy variation of Renee, Mr. Eddy is such a variation on Laurent.

Before I go into this important point, I’d first just like to clarify what’s a confusing, and deliberately mysterious element of the film: the layout of the Madison house.

FRED AND RENEE’S: A MAP

The Madison house is a great background for the first part of the movie, because it seems labyrinthine, a place whose mysterious corners the characters can get lost in, though its layout is simple, consistent (no tricks which add or remove rooms), and mapped without difficulty, allowing us to easily place the action at its various points.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Two polar points on the house seem to be presented as the domains of Fred and Renee, respectively, the rehearsal space and the bathroom. We only ever see Fred in the rehearsal room, and when Fred enters the bathroom while Renee removes her make-up, she gives him a hard stare in the mirror until he leaves.

I go through various parts of the first part of the film and give physical context for some action, where such context is ambiguous or where such context might offer additional insight.

The movie opens with Fred in the dark, on his side of the bed, smoking. The curtains, which are operated by an automatic mechanism to open at a specific time in the morning, open, and we now see Fred reflected in the mirror.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He gets up to answer the intercom, then goes down the corridor, so effectively used in this movie, to the living room, to peek out at whoever left the message. He moves from window to window, before reaching the window of the rehearsal space.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

A small note: some have speculated that this intercom message, and this whole scene happens the morning of Renee’s murder. I don’t believe this is the case, but I don’t know whether there’s any direct evidence that I could cite to refute this. I should mention, however, that the last time we see Fred and Renee before they enter their house the night of the murder, the car is parked in the street. When Fred looks out this morning, there’s no sign of his own car in the street.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Fred gets his equipment ready for his gig in the rehearsal room, Renee comes out of the hall, Fred walks from the music room to Renee, the living room fireplace in the background:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

When he calls the house that night, we see the phones in the living room,

David Lynch's Lost Highway

the rehearsal space,

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Renee’s side of the bed,

David Lynch's Lost Highway

When he comes home from the gig, we see him ascend the stairs, then turn down the corridor to the bedroom. He sees his wife asleep on her side of the bed.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Fred’s dream involves him emerging from the corridor, then turning about in slow motion from the perspective of the fireplace to the stairs – yet I’m never sure if he’s at all times in the same place, or if he is moving through the twists of the corridor, back to the bedroom.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He sees the fireplace burning with a speeded up fire.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He may then turn around to the other side of the room to see smoke ascend from the staircase. This smoke might be thought of as an intruder into the house – always the evil without, never within. Then, we have a further ambiguity, because the camera then travels down the hall, as if it were taking the perspecive of this smoke moving through the corridor, yet we cut back to Fred, turning, either still in the living room, or navigating the twists of this hallway. We then reach the bedroom, and Renee raises her hands in fear.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway - the strange ominous dream

The morning that the second videotape arrives, Renee goes out to get it. Fred, however, is up already, entering the living room from the direction of his music room.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

The second videotape carries an unexpected detail: we would assume that the cameraholder would move from the area of the staircase to the Madisons’ bedroom, but the motion instead is from the rehearsal space, Fred’s domain, across the living room to the corridor. Right before the Madisons sit down to watch the videotape, Fred will walk the very path that the camera appears to take, moving from where he emerges out of the living room to the corridor leading to the bedroom.

Lost Highway: crossing the living room.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

On the night of the muder, Fred goes inside the house to make sure it’s safe. The phone is ringing. We see Fred move through the corridor.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Then, the camera moves from the phone out into the hall, as if following a spirit that’s been trasmitted from the device into the house. This spirit seemingly meets Fred, who is very scared of it, and a look crosses his face as if he’s been given an order he doesn’t want to follow but is afraid to refuse.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Fred re-enters the house with Renee, Renee takes her makeup off, and gives Fred the already mentioned cold look. Fred moves down the dark corridor.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

We have now one of the more ambiguous and, for me at least, most disturbing, moments of the film – Fred appears to be at the end of the corridor which opens into the living room. We do not expect a mirror to be here, yet Fred now encounters his reflection. Perhaps the viewer has misplaced where Fred is in the house, or perhaps this is not a reflection at all: this is Fred meeting his double. This double comes, expectedly, from the direction of Fred’s space, the music room.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

This moment is echoed when Pete walks into an engulfing darkness, seemingly apart from any space in the house, and touches the head abrasion that he suffered when he was transported into this life.

Lost Highway: reflections.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

Alice calls for her husband, just as she did in Fred’s dream, from the bedroom’s edge of the corridor.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

This, however, is not quite a re-play of the dream. There, the fireplace was lit with an accelerated fire. Now, the fireplace is vacant. Fred may have met his double in the earlier sequence; now we see a pair of shadows move across the living room walls, again, from the position of Fred’s space, the music room, towards the corridor.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway - shadows move across the room

We now see Fred emerge from the hall, into the bedroom.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

The camera pulls back from a bordered darkness – but this is not the hall. It’s the next morning, and this is the Madisons’ television.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

It is helpful to look at the way Alice Wakefield2 is portrayed before getting to Dick Laurent. Alice belongs to a fantasy world that Fred constructs for himself, one where he hopes to find a happiness that eludes him in his present state. Before reaching this fantasy world, we see Fred often looking upward, as if for some kind of deliverance.

This begins after the cops arrive, Fred looking up while following some mysterious noise, only to see one of the cops near a skylight.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He makes the same gesture on the morning that the last tape is delivered, before he starts watching it.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

When in prison, he looks up, but his way is, literally, barred: any salvation is blocked.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Fred looks up from his bed in his prison cell and sees only the light of a lightbulb, a dim fraction of the salving light he looks for. The bulb itself is behind a grill:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He is forced to look up in the prison hospital, in order to take a sedative – a kind of release, a kind of escape, but a brief and shallow one.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Back in his cell, he looks again up at the light, then turns to the prison wall, which unfolds like a curtain upon a cabin which returns to its form after its destruction. The same process will take place with Fred: he is now in prison, his life destroyed, yet somehow, impossibly, he will return to life. Out of the cabin appears the Mystery Man; Fred’s deliverance will come, not from god, but this force of malevolence.

Fred is in his prison cell, and there is a great noise, and a light, much like some divine visitation. Again, Fred looks upward, and this time he is delivered. Fred is given a vision, of Pete Dayton outside his house, entranced by something, as his parents and girlfriend call out to him, as if he were trapped in another world. Fred shakes with a massive convulsion, as if a new existence were being birthed out of his head, and we might repeat that phrase with an addendum: as if a new existence were being birthed out of his head, literally.

David Lynch's Lost Highway - Pete Dayton is in a trance

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Fred is re-born as Pete into this new world, but it is not a fully constructed one. His focus is on sating his lust for the wife who is not quite his wife, Alice, the double of Renee, and other parts are left awry, a telling clue that this is all fantasy.

This shows up most clearly with his parents, who seem sketched in, an afterthought, not quite animated by actual credible life, and sometimes disappearing altogether3.

They sit on a couch, watching a banal, ancient documentary on berry picking:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Later, speaking to Pete about the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance, they sit in their living room, without any light on.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Pete leaves his room to go out, looks around the house to say goodbye, but his parents are gone.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He speaks to Eddy on the phone, his parents standing right there in front of him, and then, suddenly, they disappear.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

In this fantasy world, Alice is Renee with all the virtues and vices Fred wants. She is beautiful, and sexually hungry, but, of course, in this world, he is able to satisfy her. She is also deceptive, malicious, wanton, mendacious – he wants these qualities in her as well, as they vindicate Fred’s view of this woman and her murder. The creation of this very fantasy, the very thing he wants, a sexually ravenous lover who will betray him, is the very thing that will destroy the fantasy. He wants this woman to lead him into murder, because it cannot possibly be his fault that he killed anyone, and she must be deceptive, so that even if he did kill her, she had it coming. These very elements lead to the movie’s nightmarish end, where the qualities Fred wants in this woman bring about a murder where he ends up chased by the police. Long before things fall apart, Fred may have a sense that whatever world he dreams up, it will disappoint him. He arrives in his new life, and we see him relaxed in the backyard of his parents’ home, the only scene of bright, rich color in all of Highway. He should be blissfully happy, and yet he gets up, looks over the fence at the neighboring house, and ponders the life next door.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Just as Fred looks for deliverance in his cell and sees only the false light of the bulb, Fred creates another image of false light in Alice, an incandescent creature with glowing blonde hair. In their second meeting, she is a bright beacon, dressed all in white. We might look at her shoes here as part of this fantasy design as well; we might refer to these heels as ultrahigh, vertiginous, insane, or, doubtlessly how Fred sees them, slutty.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He is drawn to this light, like a moth, and it will end him. We are given this very image in Pete’s room, as the face of Alice twists around the room, and then we cut to the room’s bulb:

Lost Highway: like a moth drawn to a flame.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

Throughout the Pete Dayton sequence, we see images of Renee played again, but skewed, so as to give them a different cast, always of a sinister, malevolent femme fatale.

A close-up of Renee’s lips when she’s on the phone to the cops:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

A close-up of her eyes when watching the tape:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

In both images, we see a deeply frightened woman. When the images recur as Alice, they are of a woman rabid with lust, betraying her husband, Mr. Eddy.

The mouth:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

The eyes:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

We might take this specific contrast even further, by giving the full context of some of these images: a pan over Renee’s face when she’s on the phone to the cops that is mirrored in Alice’s phone call to Pete; one moves from Renee’s mouth to her eyes, the other from Alice’s eyes to her mouth.

Lost Highway: those eyes, that mouth.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

We see a shot of Renee, overhead, unsatisfied, after Fred’s failed attempt at sex.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

There is a very similar overhead, later, Alice’s face lying in bed, only now she’s asking Pete to help rob her friend:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Lost Highway: "I'll ask Andy to fix me a drink."

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

ALICE
I’ll set it up for tomorrow night. You’ll meet me at his place at eleven o’clock… Don’t drive there… Take a bus … Make sure no one follows you…His address is easy to remember… It’s 2224 Deep Dell Place… It’s a white stucco job on the south side of the street… I’ll be upstairs with Andy…The back door will be open… That leads into the kitchen – go through the kitchen to the living room – there’s a bar there… At eleven fifteen, I’ll ask Andy to fix me a drink… When he does, you can crack him in the head… Okay?

Of course, there is the contrast of Fred and Renee trying to make love, their lips never touching, and the passionate embrace of Pete and Alice near the end:

Lost Highway: song for the siren.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

Renee is friends with Andy, a skeevy type who Fred does not like at all. On the ride home, Fred asks his wife how they know each other. It involved work at a place called Moke’s:

FRED
How’d you meet that asshole, Andy, anyway?

Renee stares out the front window – thinks back.

RENEE
It was a long time ago…I met him at this place called Moke’s…We…became friends…He told me about a job…

FRED
What job?

RENEE
I don’t remember…Anyway, Andy’s okay…

FRED
He’s got some fucked up friends.

Pete asks Alice how she got mixed up with her unsavory ring of friends, and the story touches on the same points as Renee’s, but here they fill in the details of what she did at Moke’s, exactly according to Fred’s fantasy of this woman: she is a whore. The job at Moke’s his wife never talked about involved her making pornography, and Alice liked making it.

PETE
How’d you get in with these fuckin’ people?

ALICE
Pete… Don’t…

PETE
How’d it happen, Alice?

ALICE
It was a long time ago…I met someone at this place called Moke’s…we became friends. He told me about a job…

PETE
In pornos?

ALICE
No… A job…I didn’t know what. He set up an appointment for me to see a man.

(we have the lengthy scene where she’s forced to strip at gunpoint, we then cut back to Alice and Pete)

Alice’s hand reaches up and strokes Pete’s cheek.

PETE
Why didn’t you just leave?

Alice doesn’t say anything. She drops her hand – looks down.

PETE (CON’T)
You liked it.

ALICE
If you want me to go away, I’ll go away.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Alice not only liked making these pornos, she married the man who forced her to take off her clothes with a gun to her head. She’s a woman who respects force, who likes it rough.

Since Fred sees her as a lying, malicious bitch, it should be expected that this woman is happy to set him up for the murder:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

PETE
We killed him.

ALICE
You killed him.

They travel to the cabin in Andy’s car, which, for some reason, looks very similar to that of Fred’s.

This is Fred’s:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

This is Andy’s:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

This car ride involves a series of shots that’s almost an exact mirror of the scene of Fred and Renee driving from the party – both in the shot, close-up of Alice, close-up of Pete; the original ride has both in the shot, close-up of Renee, close-up of Fred, two-shot again. In the original car conversation, Fred assails his wife with a series of suspicious questions about Andy, about Moke’s, questions that exhaust her. The second conversation shows us how Fred sees himself, as Pete, the perpetual victim of this treacherous woman, dragged further and further into this criminal enterprise – he’s very scared, she’s coldly confident.

I quote again the conversation, about Moke’s, in the first car ride.

FRED
How’d you meet that asshole, Andy, anyway?

Renee stares out the front window – thinks back.

RENEE
It was a long time ago…I met him at this place called Moke’s…We…became friends…He told me about a job…

FRED
What job?

RENEE
I don’t remember…Anyway, Andy’s okay…

FRED
He’s got some fucked up friends.

The conversation in the second car ride:

PETE
Where the fuck are we going, Alice? Where the fuck are we going?

ALICE
We have to go to the desert, baby. The fence I told you about…He’s at his cabin.

Here is a sequence of the images from both car rides, a pairing of almost exact symmetry – the first car ride ends with the two characters in the shot, the second car ride does not:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Lost Highway: two drives.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

DICK LAURENT IS DEAD

Only one set of characters refers to Eddy as Dick Laurent, and those are the cops surveilling Pete. The first time takes place when Eddy goes to the garage:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

AL
Lou, you recognize that guy?

LOU
Yeah…Laurent.

The identification is made only one other time, at Andy’s murder scene:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

AL
Ed… Take a look at this!

ED
Yeah. That’s her all right. That’s Fred Madison’s wife with Dick Laurent.

This, of course, raises the question – how does Fred know that Eddy is also called Dick Laurent, famously saying at the film’s end, “Dick Laurent is dead” when he never hears such information?

Just as the unfaithful wife he cannot satisfy is turned into a vicious femme fatale, Fred turns Renee’s lover into someone else to justify his killing; Dick Laurent becomes the homicidal lunatic Mr. Eddy. We are, however, so engulfed in Fred’s own fantasy world, that we’re unable to even see the distinction between the actual man and created character. Unable to see that when Fred assaults and kidnaps Laurent, then cuts his throat, this man has perhaps no connection to the crime world whatsoever, but whose only transgression is having an affair with Renee.

Following the scene in the Mystery Man’s cabin, we suddenly jump to the “Lost Highway Hotel”, with no explanation as to why Fred has gone there. His wife and Dick Laurent are in room #26, and he takes room #25.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He carries with him the gun Alice gave him, because of course he is never a violent man, only an instrument of others. His wife leaves, and he storms into the room with the gun, knocking Laurent unconscious, then taking him to the desert.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Lost Highway: "You're coming with me!"

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

After Fred cuts the man’s throat, he stands over him with his double and helper, the Mystery Man. As Laurent waits for some explanation for why this has happened to him, the Mystery Man hands him a console showing him video playback. Earlier in the film, we had this crucial and well-known exchange between Fred, Renee and the detectives:

AL (to Renee)
Do you own a video camera?

RENEE
No. Fred hates them.

The Detectives both look at Fred.

FRED
I like to remember things my own way.

AL
What do you mean by that?

FRED
How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

The Mystery Man now shows Dick Laurent Fred’s own memories, of how he wanted things to happen, of the man he wants Laurent to be: Mr. Eddy, a sexual pervert, a mobster, a monstrosity.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

He kills Dick Laurent, and leaves the body in the desert.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Because Laurent’s body is lost in the desert, Andy has no idea that Laurent is dead. We might also note that during this conversation, the moment after Andy brings up Laurent’s name (“He’s a friend of Dick Laurent, I think”), and Fred repeats it (“Dick Laurent?”), we cut to Renee; what connection does she have with Laurent that we cut to her now? When she joins the conversation, for reasons either deliberate or accidental, Laurent’s name goes unmentioned – as if either Andy or Fred know that she’s having an affair with this man, and don’t want to provoke a reaction by speaking of him as dead.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

FRED
Andy, who’s the guy on the stairs? Guy in black?

ANDY
I don’t know his name. He’s a friend of Dick Laurent, I think.

FRED (troubled)
Dick Laurent?

ANDY
Yeah. I believe so.

FRED
But Dick Laurent is dead, isn’t he?

ANDY
He is? I didn’t think you knew Dick. How do you know he’s dead?

FRED
I don’t. I don’t know him.

ANDY
Dick can’t be dead. Who told you he was dead?

RENEE
Who, honey? Who’s dead?

FRED
Let’s go home.

The killing of Laurent also gives significance to the images of the desert that recur throughout the movie, seemingly for no reason at all – Fred has suppressed his memory of the killing, just as he has managed to forget his killing Renee, yet both rise to the surface. He has visions of Renee’s dead body when he is Pete, in Pete’s room, and the memory of the surrounding desert returns again and again, beginning when Alice comes back to the garage, then again when they have a rendezvous at a hotel.

David Lynch's Lost Highway - Pete dissolve to the desert - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/SolidBrilliantCrab

David Lynch's Lost Highway - Desert dissolves to Alice - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/SlightSecondAmericanlobster

Lost Highway: sunrise, sunset.

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

The two glimpses of the desert, and the shot of the mountains after we move up from Laurent’s body.

We also see this memory surface explicitly at another moment: Pete sees the photo of both Renee and Alice together at Andy’s house, and his nose starts to bleed. He rushes to the upstairs bathroom, and he’s suddenly in the hall of the hotel. There’s room #25 where he lay in wait, and there’s room #26, the very room where we see Renee and Laurent in bed. When he opens that door, he sees his wife, a nasty, sarcastic vixen, having sex, betraying him.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

During the killing of Laurent, though we see Fred as Fred, I think he still thinks of himself as Pete: the man who does these murderous deeds is always someone else, not him, not Fred, who’s somehow gotten blamed for these killings. We note the almost magical quality of Pete’s clothes: though Fred and Pete are men of very different height and bulk, somehow Pete’s clothes fit Fred without difficulty. We note also what the Mystery Man yells at Fred, that Alice is Renee, as if this name would be unfamiliar to him. The Mystery Man demands of this man his name. Though we see him as Fred, this is a man still playing a part.

FRED / PETE
Where’s Alice?

MYSTERY MAN
Alice who? Her name is Renee. If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying. And your name? What the fuck is your name?!

There is now a cut back to the detectives at Andy’s mansion, who discover Pete Dayton’s prints all round the murder scene. Conveniently, they connect this killing to that of Renee: Fred isn’t guilty of that murder, it was always Pete Dayton who was the guilty one.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

ED
Hey, Al, look at this.

(a shot of the framed picture of Laurent, Andy, and Renee together)

AL
It’s her, all right. Fred Madison’s wife … with Dick Laurent and Mr. Dent-head over there.

AL
We’ve got Pete Dayton’s prints all over this place.

ED
You know what I think?

AL
What’s that, Ed?

ED
There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence.

So, we have Pete who somehow is the villain all along, and Fred is blameless. Pete is the one who killed Renee, Andy, and Laurent. Fred kills Laurent, leaves him in the desert, yet he imagines himself as Pete doing this, Pete delivering the message to Fred that Laurent is dead. Pete is a stranger, Fred does not know this man, yet somehow he is also his servant, doing his bidding, killing this man he wanted dead, and then delivering the news.

The cryptic opening shot of Fred at the beginning, smoking in the dark, is him in the dawn after he has actually killed Laurent. He has entirely blocked out what he has done, and yet he somehow feels what he has done. The knowledge of his wife’s betrayal and his part in the death cast a shadow on him, and his expression is grim. In this movie of doubles and reflections, where we find it difficult to distinguish between what is Fred’s life and his fantasy world, this opening shot of Fred staring into the camera is actually a shot of his reflection in the bedroom mirror.

David Lynch's Lost Highway

David Lynch's Lost Highway

The bedroom mirror is clearly seen in this shot:

David Lynch's Lost Highway

I will raise one last possibility, of which there is little evidence, but I find tantalizing nonetheless. Though we never see this, I think Fred somehow knew someone like Pete in passing, and decided to try to set him up for the murder of his wife and Laurent, just as Pete ends up fingered as the actual killer by the detectives, at Andy’s mansion. I think Fred paid a hoodlum like Pete some money, then gave him access to his house, either by leaving a door unlocked or providing him some keys, so that he could come in at night and film the outside and inside, then send the videotapes to his address. A mysterious request: but Fred will be pay this man a lot of money for this task, no questions asked. All in order to put the suspicion on this young man for the murder of Renee. Whether Pete stumbled onto the murder as it took place when shooting the last videotape, or whether Fred imagines this last videotape, I have no answer. Again, I have no evidence of this, except one moment, which might give indirect support.

This is a movie with various intricate visual connections, the shots of Renee linked to the shots of Alice. After the killing of Laurent, the Mystery Man whispers something in the ear of Fred, which might be instructions on what to do next. We then move to a close-up of Fred’s eyes. There is, I think, only one other moment where we have a close-up of Fred’s eyes, and that is when they receive the first videotape. I detect in him a different feeling here than in Renee, as if he has been expecting the videotapes to arrive. We have a possible veiled reference to this in the draft script, after they watch the second videotape. My bolds:

Fred and Renee stare at the snowy TV picture. After a few moments of silence, Renee gets up and switches off the set. She is visibly shaken, trembling. She stares fearfully at Fred who seems less disturbed.

Again, as I said, we only have one other close-up of Fred’s eyes, and that’s while they watch the tape. Here are the close-ups of Fred after the Mystery Man whispers to him, and then when he watches the tape with his wife:

Lost Highway: "You're coming with me!"

A post shared by Goto Tengo (@gototengo) on

Renee’s eyes show fear. Perhaps Fred’s show something else: a sense of a plan slowly going into effect, a plan both known and unknown, the memory there and the memory suppressed, of his criminal acts, and the blood he’s shed.

ADDENDUM: THE KILLERS INSIDE ME

Within this movie are two men, one a suspected killer, the other a man who killed many. The Mystery Man was played by Robert Blake, an actor who appeared to have had a blessed start in life as a child actor in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and as a regular on “The Little Rascals”. This blessed life was nothing of the kind. As related in “To Die For”, by the always excellent David Grann, he was beaten and resented by a father who would later kill himself. His “Rascals” co-stars would die in barfights, commit suicide, or become addicted to drugs. Blake would exile himself from his family and become a heroin addict, selling drugs to keep his habit going. He would get three comebacks, once as a young killer in the movie In Cold Blood, once as the star of Baretta, and a final one as the malevolent riddle in Highway. His comebacks would always end in bitterness, and his last would be finished with his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, shot to death in a restaurant. Bakley was a troubled woman who hadn’t been allowed to wash as a child because her grandmother feared running water. She grew up obsessed with the ideal of fame and wanting to marry someone famous, first setting her sights on Jerry Lee Lewis, then on Blake. After her death, a quickie biography was rushed out, a Hollywood scandal tour bus would stop at the place of her last meal, and Hustler published some old nude photographs. This is what she always wanted, her sister would say; “This is what she died for.” Blake would be indicted, found not guilty of the murder, though believed by many to be the killer. His role in Highway is haunting and brilliant work, and at the time of this writing, his last.

In Slavoj Zizek’s “Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway”, an analysis of great repute which I find flawed and over-complicated, Zizek identifies the Mr. Eddy figure as a paradoxical law-making jouisseur, a paternal authority who also looks on the world as a carnal feast, there for his unrestrained enjoyment. I disagree: Mr. Eddy is entirely an agent of chaos, and his passion for proper driving etiquette is not evidence of lawgiver authority, but a tic whose aberrance throws the rest of him into absurd contrast, the agent of chaos who doesn’t see himself as such. A similar example might be Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs, who insists on proper tipping before heading out to rob a bank.

That I don’t think this label applies to Mr. Eddy, however, does not mean I think the type doesn’t exist. I believe it does apply to someone in Lost Highway, though not to any character, but to one of the cast members: Louis Eppolito, who played Ed, one of the two detectives who visit Fred and Renee.

Lost Highway

Louis Eppolito’s grandfather was Diamond Louie, a man who stole diamonds, fenced goods, and ran prostitutes. He was friends with Lucky Luciano, and three of his sons would join organized crime. The debonair Freddy the Sheik would become a Gambino underboss, Jimmy the Clam became a hitman, and Ralph, Fat the Gangster, was a mafia soldier. Fat the Gangster, a man who hated rats and cops, was Louis’s father. He killed a nightclub owner, he beat his son, and, when a priest slapped his son for causing a disturbance, he sucker punched the priest. When Louis Eppolito went to school, FBI agents investigating his father’s heroin trade would tail him. Joe Profaci, a distinguished mafia eminence, told the son to be like his dad: “You got to grow up and have a lot of honor like your father.” Follow his footsteps, counseled Profaci. “If you want to grow up right, grow up like your daddy.” Louis Eppolito became a cop. In one class, a diagram of the Gambino crime family was used as a teaching aid. Look, said a fellow student to Eppolito, this guy’s got the same name as you, and the fellow student pointed to the diagram node that was Louis Eppolito’s father.

The cops of Lost Highway are Mutt and Jeff pairings, and Eppolito was half of a Mutt and Jeff pairing as well. He was boisterous and physical, a doo wop lover, a former Mr. Universe before his bulk turned to fat. His first partner was Steve Caracappa, a thin, quiet man who wore tailored black suits, pearl tie tacks, and a gold nugget pinkie ring with the NYPD logo. He would go on to be considered one of the best detectives in the department and an expert in organized crime. His cold, always watchful eyes gave him his name: the Prince of Darkness. When Eppolito and Caracappa arrested a member of a gang that was robbing dance clubs, Eppolito dunked the man’s head in a bucket filled with a mixture of hot water and ammonia. When one husband beat his wife, Eppolito didn’t arrest the husband but instead came back to the scene wearing a ski mask and beat the man with a lead pipe. Abused women, according to Eppolito, were an easy source of sex: “Every time we went on a call where a husband smacked his wife, I went back that night and smacked it to her, too. Battered wives were the most vulnerable.” After nearly choking one man to death, he had an affair with the man’s wife, a woman with a gorgeous body who fell a little too hard for the detective: “She was a cop’s dream — until she’d cry and tell me how much she loved me. I knew deep down there was no way in the world I’d consider throwing a ring on this one’s finger.”

Eppolito would describe all these events in his book, Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop, a memoir which related many fascinating stories from his career, while leaving a few out. Though it was an intriguing story, he did not mention the time jewelry went missing from the scene of a homicide that Eppolito and Caracappa were investigating. When a man was arrested in his office by Caracappa, the arrestee would allege that money and office property were gone; another man would be arrested and handcuffed, then find the three hundred he had on him vanished. A DEA informant told the government that Eppolito dealt drugs. Another informant would allege that Caracappa and a second detective unknown to the informant had offered to show her a copy of a homicide report in return for ten thousand dollars. All these stories went untold, and received no disciplinary actions or censure. All cops, especially busy cops, received complaints – but these complaints seemed out of proportion with the amount of arrests Eppolito and Caracappa were making, and without the usual motivations. You could understand the self-interest of an arrestee lodging a complaint, but why would two separate confidential informants allege that cops they didn’t know were dealing drugs and selling confidential reports?

Mafia Cop closed with the incident that brought Eppolito’s career as a detective to a close. In 1984, after mob boss Carlos Gambino’s nephew was arrested in a drug deal, his house was searched and a confidential NYPD file related to the investigation of Gambino’s nephew was found on the premises. In order to obtain fingerprints from the document, it was placed in a bell jar, and photographed after it was fumed with a corrosive chemical – the chemical would destroy the document shortly after the photographs were taken. The fingerprints were obtained, and they matched Louis Eppolito’s. This was the last, most explosive accusation leveled yet against Eppolito while he was still a cop. The detective was suspended, then transferred to another unit, before retiring in 1990. As said, this was the last, most explosive accusation made towards Eppolito while he was still a cop.

Four years after Eppolito’s retirement, a Luchese underboss named Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso became a federal informant. He confirmed what another mob turncoat, Pete Chiodo, had already revealed: the mob had a source inside the NYPD which gave them access to any and all intelligence they wanted – federal, state, local, anything. They called this source “the crystal ball”. Chiodo was not close enough to this source to reveal who they were, but Casso could. The crystal ball was not one man, but two, and their names were Steve Caracappa and Louis Eppolito.

Lost Highway

Casso was a frightening and deadly man. He had helped many people to their death, and these two detectives had sometimes helped out as well. When Jimmy Bishop, a Luchese associate and head of a painters union, a man who knew enough to do a lot of damage to the Lucheses, became a confidential informant, it was a secret known only to the police department’s Organized Crime Investigation Division. After he began his co-operation with the police, Bishop was shot several times outside his mistress’s house. James Heidel, truck hijacker, Luchese associate, and member of an ace robbery crew known as the Bypass Gang (they could bypass just about any alarm), was another confidential informant. Among many other things, Heidel revealed to his police contact that Luchese underboss Anthony Casso had a source inside the police who shared crucial information, but he didn’t know the name of the detective. A few months later, Heidel had just finished a game of handball and was gong to his car when a man walked up and pulled out a gun. Heidel turned and ran into some on-coming traffic when this man and others started to shoot. Shot several times, Heidel managed to jump onto a passing motorcycle, before being shot again multiple times and then falling off, dead. The Times, the next day: “Another Man Slain in Mob-Style Killing.” It was the eighties, and such daylight murders were happening all the time. A few days later, the crystal ball passed on to Casso a recording that Heidel had made while wearing a wire, proof of his betrayal.

When Casso associate Burton Kapan was involved in a scheme to steal treasury bills and sell them overseas, one person involved in the scheme pocketed money that he should have handed over. This person, Israel Greenwald, had no connections with organized crime and no knowledge that the bills were stolen. The FBI, having caught on to the scheme, convinced him to co-operate and wear a wire. Shortly after, on his way to work, he was pulled over by two police officers who told him he was a suspect in a hit-and-run investigation and needed to appear in a line-up. He was never seen alive again, and more than a decade later his bones were found in the dirt under a parking garage. When an attempt was made on Anthony Casso’s life, he was given the confidential NYPD report on his own attempted murder. The report identified the chief suspect as Jimmy Hydell, head of a mafia crew. Kaplan would later explain that the detectives accepted no payment for handing over this report:

Q: What did Casso ask you?
A: What do I owe them for this? I told him the story that they wouldn’t take no money because someone tried to hurt him, and he shook his head, he said, Boy, that’s really nice of them. They must be pretty good guys.

Jimmy Hydell would be arrested, handcuffed, and disarmed by two cops, who dropped him off in front of a Toys ‘R’ Us, where the detectives taped up Hydell’s legs and stuck a handkerchief in his mouth, before putting him in the trunk of the car of Frank Santora, another Casso associate. Hydell was taken to the basement of a house in Bergen Beach, where he was tortured by Casso and others for several hours. Hydell knew he would die, and pleaded with Casso that his body be left somewhere it could be found, so his mother could collect the life insurance. Casso assured the man he would do so, then shot him multiple times. To this day, Hydell’s body has never been found.

When Casso made these revelations, Eppolito and Caracappa were retired cops living opposite each other in Las Vegas. Eppolito made some money as a bodyguard, and some acting in films such as Goodfellas, State of Grace, Predator 2, and as “Al the Guard” in Switch. He would write the screenplay for Turn of Faith, a movie about a hero cop who is best friends with a mob killer and a priest. The world it depicts is one that is unremittingly cutthroat and profane. The cop beats a man in an alley and gives the mob killer tips on upcoming investigations; the priest says things like, “Get your fucking hands off me, fuckface.” He was hired to write a comedy about a homeless bag lady; he entered talks with LaToya Jackson’s ex-husband, Jack Gordon, about writing Jack Gordon’s autobiography. After Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish were convicted of killing casino magnate Ted Binion, Eppolito formed a one-man committee, “Citizens to Ensure Justice Is Done”, which bought a full-page ad in a Vegas paper declaring Murphy’s innocence, all in the hopes of getting a screenplay deal out of the woman, which would, of course, tell her side of the story.

This was Eppolito’s post-detective career: acting on the fringes of movies by great directors such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch, while writing scripts that were never bought or produced. Jayne McCormick, a former call girl, mortgaged her house to pay him to write a screenplay based on her unpublished autobiography. McCormick saw Reese Witherspoon as a good choice to play the lead, but Eppolito preferred Angelina Jolie. When Eppolito sent over the finished script to McCormick, she was appalled. It was filled with misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. Eppolito shushed her: a good screenplay didn’t need proper spelling. I Never Met a Stranger: The Jane McCormick Story traced the life of an escort from her difficult beginnings to her time as a rat pack consort. The movie opened with a thuggish man trying to convince his girlfriend to become a prostitute. “It’s gonna be a piece of cake,” the boyfriend said to someone played by either Reese Witherspoon or Angelina Jolie, “Besides, with a body like you have, he’ll cum in two minutes and it will be all over.” Eppolito told McCormick he always wrote a cameo for himself in his scripts, just like Alfred Hitchcock. That’s why Stranger had a scene where a fat man took a prostitute to his hotel room, but passed out before he could have sex. McCormick would end up going bankrupt paying Eppolito for his work. When she called the ex-cop to cuss him out, he would get angry back. “Don’t call me when you’ve been drinking,” he would reply, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

The other movie he was trying to get made was Murder in Youngstown, a crime film set in the notorious Ohio city4, and Eppolito was having more success with this project. He had come across an eager and well-connected investor in Steve Corso, a mob connected accountant. Corso wanted to get into the movie business, and he was also looking to score drugs and girls for some friends coming to Vegas for the weekend. Eppolito assured Corso that he could provide him some great movie investment opportunities, and that he and his son, a local dealer, could help him out with the other stuff. Corso had led an interesting life. He had come out of working-class Hackensack, gone to school at New York University, then Cornell, then joined a white shoe accounting firm that had offices all the way from Los Angeles to Switzerland. He lived in the wealthy neighbourhood of Greenwich, Connecticut, and he took frequent trips to Vegas. But his life was even more interesting than that. He gambled often in Vegas, and he often lost. He owed over half a million to various casinos. This was in addition to past debts, for which he’d stolen over five million from the white shoe accountants to pay. These thefts had caused the FBI to raid his firm. Corso went on the lam, then cut a deal. He would be a confidential agent for the bureau, and act the part of a mob accountant. That was why he was wearing a wire at the meeting with Louis Eppolito. And when Eppolito entered the restaurant where a follow-up meet was scheduled, that was why four agents pushed the ex-cop against a wall, handcuffed him, and announced he was under arrest.

William Oldham had been working towards this moment for years. He had quested after the crystal ball since he was with the Major Case squad, the very place Steve Caracappa had worked, when the series of confidential informants were killed with almost unearthly prescience. Caracappa worked across from Oldham, in the Organized Crime Homicide Unit (OCHU), where he had literally written the book on mafia death in New York City – an index of every mob killing in the city; if a homicide detective wanted to see how a victim fit into the larger structure of the mob, they would consult Caracappa’s book. Caracappa had fought for the creation of the OCHU, it was disbanded after he left, and Oldham had always been haunted by a horrible thought: that Caracappa had wanted to establish the OCHU to make his intelligence work for the mafia easier. The arrest of Caracappa and Eppolito was one important moment; the other was the co-operation of Burton Kaplan.

Kaplan had been a Navy codebreaker during World War II, a man so good at breaking japanese codes that he was offered a job at the newborn National Security Agency. He went back to Brooklyn instead, and became an appliance salesman. A gambling habit he’d had since he was thirteen meant he needed more money than a legitimate job could give him, and he soon became a top notch fence in stolen goods, a successful marijuana dealer, and an associate of Anthony Casso. In his seventies and near blind, he was convicted on drug charges that meant he would probably die in prison. Oldham would meet him there, with the offer of a deal: there are two guys we are interested in, and you know which two guys. Kaplan chose his words carefully: “With all due respect, and I do respect you guys because my father-in-law was a cop, I got nothing to say.” Kaplan didn’t need to explain why he wouldn’t co-operate, but he did: “I took an oath.” Oldham lost it. “They took a fucking oath,” said Oldham. “I was a cop for twenty-five years. I was in Major Case with one of those guys. I know what a fucking oath is about. If every cop in New York City was like these two, no one could walk the streets.” Kaplan got up to leave. Oldham had one more thing to say, his voice now without anger. “Burt, you’re giving up your grandson.” Oldham, again: “You’re going to die in jail without ever touching him. You’re choosing the fat guy and the skinny guy over your only grandson’s chance to know his grandfather.” Some shadow of hate fell over Kaplan’s face. He avoided looking at Oldham for the few seconds left in the meeting. But he wrote down the name of his lawyer on a legal pad, and passed it to the detective.

Caracappa and Eppolito were indicted on eight counts of murder, as well as kidnapping conspiracy, witness tampering, bribery, money laundering, and drug trafficking. Kaplan’s testimony would be crucial in their eventual conviction. The following was given on his first day of this testimony, and said without any emotion at all:

Q: Did you have a business relationship with Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa?
A: Yes.
Q: Can you please tell the jury what the nature of that business relationship was?
A: They were detectives on the New York Police Department who brought me information about wiretaps, phone taps, informants, ongoing investigations, and imminent arrests and murders. They did murders and kidnapping for us.
Q: What did you do for them in exchange for this?
A: I paid them.

When the crystal ball was at the height of its powers, John Gotti had demonstrated his invulnerability in beating yet another murder conviction. By the time of the Caracappa-Eppolito trial, his Ravenite social club was a shoe store. Tony Café, the head of the Bonanno family, once one of the five powerful mafia families in the city, had five hundred dollars lifted from his pocket by a woman. Café was upset about that. He was upset about a lot of things. He had two broken toes from diabetes, he’d been hit with a bookmaking charge, and if he was convicted, he’d lose his social security and veterans’ benefits. His co-defendants had four bypass surgeries among them, and they all needed afternoon naps. When they were arraigned, a federal agent was worried that one of the defendants would escape by running out the back door. Run out?, asked the incredulous judge, this man can hardly walk. What’s the worst thing that happened to the mafia, Café was asked. “Gotti”, he says.

Caracappa and Eppolito would be found guilty on all counts. Eppolito would take off his jacket, his belt, his tie, and his gold chain after the verdict. He was a cop, and he knew the procedure: you hand over valuables, and anything that can be used to hang yourself. A few days later, during the hearing where the cops were sentenced to prison for life, there was a ruckus. In 1988, Eppolito had walked off his beat into a Brooklyn deli, took a soda from the refrigerator, drank it, and was about to leave when a counter worker gave him a hard stare. “You got a problem with me?” asked Eppolito. “You didn’t pay for the soda.” said the counter worker. Eppolito threw some money down. Two days later, he came back and arrested the counter worker, Barry Gibbs, for the murder of a prostitute. Gibbs would be convicted, and serve close to twenty years, before the key eyewitness would reveal that Eppolito had threatened to arrest the eyewitness’s mother for drug possession, drugs that Eppolito would plant on her, unless he named Gibbs as the killer.

“Remember me?” Gibbs would yell from the gallery. “Remember, Mr. Eppolito?” The attention of the court, Eppolito, everyone, fixed briefly on this man. “Do you remember what you did to me? Barry Gibbs! Do you remember? I had a family, too. You remember what you did to my family? You don’t remember what you did to my family and to me? Remember what you did to me? Me! Do you remember?” The judge ordered that Gibbs be removed from the court for causing a disturbance.

The preceding, however fantastic, is real. It is taken, with mild re-arrangements, from The Brotherhoods by Guy Lawson and William Oldham; the Kaplan transcripts, the paragraph on Tony Café, and Eppolito’s conduct after the verdict are taken from The Good Rat by Jimmy Breslin. Both books present different facets of the Caracappa-Eppolito case, and both are excellent.

On April 17, 2005, this post underwent a copy edit. On April 28 and 29, gifs were added to supplement explanations of certain ideas. On May 10, 2015, the split screen gif of the car rides was addded.

FOOTNOTES

1 Thankfully, this was corrected, on April 7 2013: “Lost Highway (film) (revision edit 21:36, 7 April 2013)”. I am grateful to the wiki user for their efforts. Those wishing to look at the wiki page as I saw it when this was first written can look at “Lost Highway (film) (revision edit 00:16, 19 December 2012)”. This footnote was added on December 14, 2013.

2 In the original script, Alice’s last name is Wyatt; though it may be a coincidence, the context of the surrounding plot makes me immediately think of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story that shares Alice’s last name.

There, a man has the mad urge to leave his house and happy marriage in order to observe his wife over a period of two decades, a nearby neighbour in heavy disguise. It is a story of analysis of the mind of this man, rather than events, and nothing that takes place in Highway is borrowed from this story. The only thing they share is this obsession of a husband observing his wife when he is absent, though of course in Highway a husband does not simply observe his wife, but re-creates her as he wants her to be.

In describing Wakefield’s condition, his in-between state after he retreats to this role of voyeur, we may have an apt description of Fred’s state of mind in creating his fantasty life:

The singularity of his situation must have so moulded him to himself, that, considered in regard to his fellow-creatures and the business of life, he could not be said to possess his right mind. He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world–to vanish–to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead. The life of a hermit is nowise parallel to his. He was in the bustle of the city, as of old; but the crowd swept by and saw him not; he was, we may figuratively say, always beside his wife and at his hearth, yet must never feel the warmth of the one nor the affection of the other. It was Wakefield’s unprecedented fate to retain his original share of human sympathies, and to be still involved in human interests, while he had lost his reciprocal influence on them.

This section, the penultimate moment before Wakefield returns to the wife he abandoned decades earlier, is perhaps apt as well:

He ascends the steps–heavily!–for twenty years have stiffened his legs since he came down–but he knows it not. Stay, Wakefield! Would you go to the sole home that is left you? Then step into your grave!

As is this, the story’s end:

He has left us much food for thought, a portion of which shall lend its wisdom to a moral, and be shaped into a figure. Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.

3 This idea is taken ever further in the original screenplay. The parents are not simply phantom characters, but malevolent spirits who are party to the illusion that Fred has created for himself, but also laugh at his foolishness: this illusion will eventually destroy him. The characters they are most similar to are the elderly couple at the beginning of Mulholland Drive who cackle with glee at the nightmare that this actress has created for herself.

A relevant excerpt of the same scene in the film where Pete walks about the house and finds his parents strangely gone:

Pete is sitting perched unsteadily on the very edge of his bed. He HEARS a succession of highly-amplified SOUNDS at intervals with eerie stretches of silence: CRICKETS in fractured cadence a distant TELEVISION – a FLY buzzing slowly in the room a MOTH’S wings beating against light bulbs in the ceiling fixture – the washing of DISHES.

Pete’s reaction to these sounds is one of petrified confusion. Underlying these sounds is a kind of unearthly, steady DRONE.

Pete gets up off the bed, unsteadily. He moves toward his bedroom door. As he moves the amplified SOUNDS shift.

He can hear laughter. The laughter seems to be LOUD, but at the same time coming from people who are trying to contain the laughter – to hide it.

Pete opens his door and peers out.

Pete’s POV down the hall toward the living room – his mother and father have stopped laughing and are turned with guilty smiles in his direction. They are smoking a joint, passing it back and forth. They are not looking directly at him. They seem to be looking, but not seeing.

Pete’s parents POV down the hall toward Pete’s room. There is no one there – just an empty hallway.

Pete’s parents continue to stare, but then turn away toward each other – they start to laugh quietly again.

Pete’s Pov – the hallway and the living room – there is no one in the living room. It’s empty.

CUT TO:

INT. DAYTON HOUSE – PETE’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

Pete turns from the hallway and comes back in his room – unsettled and confused.

He can hear laughter coming from the living room.

4 The subject of another excellent story by David Grann, “Crimetown USA”, about Youngstown and James Trafficant. It can also be found in the excellent collection of his reporting, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.

(All images copyright October Films, CiBy 2000, Asymmetrical Productions, and associated producers.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrity Profiles: Actress X

You get paid to be looked at. You get paid for looking away. The now infamous profile by Steve Marche, “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, embodies both ideas. It is an essay centered around looking, her moon pale skin, her divine symmetries; where another piece might note the sweater or unruly hair of the subject, here, the physical essence is its heart. This looking is not simply lexical, there are accompanying photos. The actress may not have been paid, or paid only a token fee, for this attention, but she gets the publicity of a magazine cover. There is also a looking away: the writer’s focus is only pm the extraordinary beauty of this person, the fame of these looks, and the evocation of mystic ritual to somehow capture the power of this woman’s symmetries. Though this entire transaction is financial (Fox gets her cover publicity, Esquire gets sales and clicks with their cover), the more direct, finance-based, question is never asked: is it possible that this beautiful woman, famous for her beauty, isn’t bankable at all?

The profile, almost always of female celebrities, where you get proximity and don’t get anything like proximity, did not begin and end with this piece, but is part of a long, painful tradition. The perspective of the essay reproduces the perspective of the accompanying photos: a beautiful woman, a more beautiful woman than we will ever know, is briefly made known to us, in her underwear or intimates, her being known to us, briefly, a moment of great significance to the humble man, because her looks are touched by the divine. For a small interval, a goddess walks among us. Such a profile enforces a relationship between an attractive woman and a writer, of object and adulator, and both parties hate it. It opens up both for mockery for playing these roles. “Esquire’s Interview with Megan Fox Is the Worst Thing Ever Written” wrote Jamie Lee Curtis Taete; five years prior, Ron Rosenbaum had asked1, of an essay on Angelina Jolie which accompanied a photo of her nude with a sheet, is this “The worst celebrity profile ever written?”. That the process is openly disliked by both is there in the profile itself, by Tom Chiarella of Halle Berry, “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”: “I never like meeting celebrities. Worst part of the job, really. Invading someone’s life, if only for a moment — lousy. Everything you do is built upon a trust that is illusory at best, an utter lie at worst.” Chiarella describes throwing up all morning before these interviews, and of how one writer feels sickest right before the car arrives to take him to the meet: the sort of physical reaction one expects before a sitdown with a mafia chief or the head of a country’s secret police. They asked me, Chiarella has to repeat to himself, over and over again. They asked me.

That the writing is bad is not due to the writer, but the Procrustean bed in which he has been fitted: the woman will be photographed and positioned as an object of divine beauty, not simply as an attractive, charming, or incredibly eye-catching woman, but the most beautiful woman in the (United States/World/Universe) / of (the decade/century/history of earth) (Beyoncé, for example, has just been granted by GQ one such title). Tom Junod, the writer of the Jolie profile is a man of excellent skills with an enviable track record (there are many to choose from, but my favorite piece of his would be “Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?”). The problem is the constraint of writing an ode to a building that is not a building, a garden that is not a garden, a statue that is not a statue.

The beauty is presented as something mystic, something without limit, something outside man, infinity. This is not a new idea, and is simply a modern extension of what can be found in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

To be certain, each of the sexes embodies the Other in the eyes of the complementary sex; but to his man’s eyes it is, in spite of everything, the woman who is often regarded as an absolute other. There is a mystical surpassing insofar as “we know that in and of ourselves we are insufficient, hence the power of woman over us, like the power of Grace.” The “we” here represents only males and not the human species, and faced with their imperfection, woman is the appeal of infinity.

That the woman does not simply have gorgeous skin or hair, but must be written of to embody this infinity is what provokes the risible metaphors. This infinity calls to mind the mystic and the overwhelming, so images associated with these are cited, and the association is ridiculous. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, asked one scribbler; that he was writing of a boy doesn’t matter. Simple modest lust has found more than enough in a newfound day to convey the pleasure in seeing the woman who carries the nimbus of all our hopes and appetites. Infinity, however, demands something greater; the Jolie profile asks, shall I compare thee to 9/11? The Fox piece: shall I compare thee to an Aztec sacrifice? What about the search for bigfoot? Leprechauns?

Like nuclear war, which Angelina Jolie’s gorgeous looks may or may not have been compared to, the only way to win this game is not to play it. Even, however, when the game is exposed as a game in the first paragraph of such a profile, the game continues to be forced on others. Here is Bill Zehme, a biographer of Andy Kaufman, laying it all out in the opening of his feature, “The Heather Graham Story”:

Here in the new world of magazine making, it is a distinct pleasure to give you precisely what you want. It is a pleasure most distinct. For instance, the various persons who nowadays frequently appear on our covers without wearing very many clothes appear there for you and for people just like you. They know that you want them to appear there as much as we want them to, especially because you want them to. Often, these cover persons are photographed weeks before a writer is dispatched to divine their inner truths and tender secrets–that which becomes the nutmeat of the text (this) that accompanies photographs like the ones you may be noticing at present (those).

What follows is less a profile of Graham than an examination of the celebrity profile process itself:

Here in the new world of celebrity appraisal, this is how things have been working: A writer is first permitted to meet a famous subject someplace other than the subject’s home (intrusive, presumptuous), and then they Go Do Things together (or Create Events) so that the writer can observe the subject attempt to Approximate Reality, whereupon the writer can then write about these experiences as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance, so that the reader will gain visceral glimpses of revelatory behavioral traits, or candor, thus rich insight. If this sounds like fun, it is. Publicists and editors generally broker the details of such staged assignations between client and writer, so that the initial meeting will often feel like a blind date–albeit one set up by other people whose judgment (both parties pray) will be trustworthy. If this sounds exciting, it is.

This was one way to evade the usual indignities; the other is “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”, where the profile is actually an interview of Tom Chiarella by Berry, with the writer, Tom Chiarella, appearing in the footnotes. It’s more entertaining than Zehme’s piece, and probably the best I’ve read in this cringeworthy genre: the hilarious buddy movie that the actress hasn’t made yet. Berry laughs at the fact that Chiarella is trying to lose weight and avoids the bread, but eats the pastrami. “Hey, genius, ever heard of the Atkins diet?”, quips a footnote. The essay does not feel like an escape to a gossamer world of breath-taking unearthly objects, but very much our own. Chiarella writes of an ex-wife delivering premature babies from crack addicts who quote scripture instead of taking birth sedatives. When Berry enters the restaurant, her name is sounded through the crowd of diners like a drum signal, and the sensation does not feel welcome or comforting, a sensation far more acute than the banality celebrity is hard stuff, guys!, but Berry takes no notice: “The woman could walk a steel wire through an ice storm”, Chiarella writes, admiringly. That the work of Zehme and Chiarella has not ended the genre is because movies still need advertising, celebrity profiles are free (or close to it) advertising, and what Zehme and Chiarella do is not safe. The Graham profile shifts the focus to the profile itself; in the Berry profile, Chiarella comes off better than Berry, simply because one is an experienced writer, and one isn’t: even a goddess has her limits.

The sole purpose of this exercise, after all, is to sell a movie and to sell mags. This is a profile designed around the photos of the woman, and its primary function is to pose this woman’s physique as something close to divine, and to present an intimacy that is not intimacy. The movies are a business, the magazines are a business, the woman is a business. This is made clear in the ways the article is made search engine friendly2. Zehme’s “The Heather Graham Story” gets the title “Heather Graham Hot Pics – Sexy Photos of Actress Heather Graham”; Chiarella’s “Halle Berry’s Date With A Perfect Stranger” has “Halle Berry Photos – Hot Pictures of Halle Berry in Lingerie”; Carla Gugino, an actress I’m greatly sympathetic to and whose talents are substantial, receives the aboveboard “Carla Gugino: A Woman We Love” and the belowboard “Carla Gugino Nude Pics – Carla Gugino Naked Pictures and Video”; Naomi Watts and Rosario Dawson are given nunly discretion with, Watts’ “Naomi Watts: The Storm Took Its Sweet Time Building” carrying “Naomi Watts Pictures – Naomi Watts Photos and Interview” while Dawson has the dignity of an article where the web page title matches that of the profile, “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”; Angelina Jolie “Dies For Our Sins”, and since she’s anyway dying, sin away with “Angelina Jolie Photos – Sexy Gallery and Profile of Angelina Jolie”; Megan Fox is offering herself up for sacrifice, as the article title implies, “Megan Fox is Saving Herself” but she’s offering herself up as well, as the web page title implies: “Megan Fox Cover Interview – Megan Fox Sexy Photos”. Fox may be a beauty that connects her to a long mystic tradition, but the essay’s accompanying photos carry the tags of the material world: “Megan Fox Lingerie”, “Megan Fox Sexy”, “Megan Fox Dress”, “Megan Fox Breasts”. It seems we campaign in poetry, govern in biology.

So, the potential reader, or more likely, potential viewer, is expected to be an impatiently sex hungry lowbrow, an inferior creature in supplicatory adoration of this greater object. Though I don’t think I’m a big fan of A.J. Jacobs’ work, his “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”, assumes the aptest pose for all this: because of a book he was writing that I don’t think I want to read, he must live biblically, spending some time with the gorgeous actress without besmirching himself with sinful thoughts. That he must be so close to this woman who will be presented as an erotic object, without any erotic possibility, where the very evasion of the erotic only emphasizes the erotic quality of the object, all these are the common traits of the writer’s role in these profiles, acting as the reader’s proxy; the dutiful schoolboy composing laudatory odes of this distant goddess, all while trying so very hard not to masturbate.

That this approach is not inevitable given its subject, even a female performer who defines herself by her sex, can be found in other profiles. There is the possibility that “Jenna Jameson’s Forbidden Desires”, about the porn star, and “The Dirtiest Girl In The World”, about Sasha Grey have a different tone because the writer is female than male, and certainly the talents of Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of both, are formidable3, but a large part of the distinction is the simple choice to write of these women, not as objects of divine beauty briefly granted to humanity, but as one writes of any man or woman, the closely observed details forming a portrait, which, though not unsympathetic, does not create the amorphous pliant image of, to employ the Esquire style, hot sexy Sasha Grey acting hot and sexy! Jameson comes across as savvy, tough, with a growing disenthusiasm for porn, and a low simmering hostility towards the rest of the world. Do you remember me from that night in New York, asks a fan, I spent twenty thou on you. If you spent twenty thou on me, Jameson replies, I would have remembered you, before she turns away4. There’s a mention of how awful it is to get your period in Vegas, and only one mention, in the story’s middle of her looks: “Her body is really beautiful. Everything except for her breasts is utterly in proportion, her skin creamy, thighs and ass taut, no evident blemishes or cellulite.”

Grey comes across as a horny boy’s genie wish, the typical such wish gone awry, though it’s exactly what’s been wished for: a beautiful smart girl, who’s also into girls, with the sexual hunger and attitude of a man. Sometimes women are referred to by their genitalia, and some might refer to female genitalia as an abyss: Grey is an abyss that stares back. The overwhelming sense of her is someone smart, cold, dedicated, and intimidating, able to switch an erotic hunger on and off like a switch. She lives a carnal life on-screen, but an aesthete’s one off: she has only slept with six men, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink. Again, there is only a brief, unpoetic mention of her looks: “At five feet six and 110 pounds, with straight black hair that shoots to her lumbar spine, Grey’s naked body is exquisite and natural, with taut skin free of blemishes and tattoos (she resembles Kate Beckinsale in physique, and her affect is a similar mix of languor and brutal hauteur).” In different circumstances, she might have been a hedge fund manager rumored to own a mansion with a well-equipped dungeon, or the notorious head of a revolutionary cell, known throughout tsarist russia for her discipline, endurance, and lack of mercy. “You’re like the wife!”, she yells at her sweet, liberal fiancé. As they say, this is what you want, this is what you get.

Another approach can be found in, “Leap of Faith” by Adam Green, last month’s Vogue profile of Anne Hathaway. It is actual life sculpted into fantasy, though a fantasy as active subject, rather than object, a fantasy that would appeal to some women: being very successful in a competitive and glamorous profession, getting the role of Fantime, being photographed by Mario Testino, ending up married to a solid, kind man, wedded in a wedding gown designed by Valentino. Though Steve Marche, in the Fox profile, turns up his nose at many attractive women, I think even he would concede the beauty of Hathaway, but this quality is only given a one sentence mention: “Hathaway is known for walking the red carpet in Valentino or Stella McCartney, but I can report that she also looks pretty swell in a T-shirt and jeans.” Her looks are obvious, and they must be considerable if she’s on the cover of Vogue, but the degree of such beauty goes unstressed. Dwelling on such a thing would imply less a gift, than an inconvenience – being a well-admired statue gets in the way of doing actual work. For this is the other striking difference from the other profiles, as it gives lengthy space to her surrounding workplace of Les Misérables, what the part involves, and what she did to prepare for it. It remains, I think, movie life portrayed as fantasy: there are no saccharine episodes, but we get only the good moments of film-making, a hard-working cast and crew getting along. That she is at work, actual difficult work, of which she is a part of a larger project, rather than a vanity piece seemingly designed around her, there is no question, and that this is part of the fantasy there is no question either; the active achieving life, rather than life as still object. At one point, on set and in costume, Hathaway, rail thin with two missing teeth, asks the Vogue writer, teasingly, aren’t you going to tell me how I look? It is followed with: “Welcome to my world.” One wonders, what world? The world of acting, or the world where it’s decided one’s chief role is as an object of desire and all else is a detriment to that?

Work is what all these women seek, and it is the search for work, the difficulty of finding good work in Hollywood, which is the undertone of many of the profiles. “We are supposed to be actors, aren’t we?”, asked Carla Gugino with exasperation over people being unable to link her to a specific part from the varied ones she’s played. In 2000, Heather Graham was declared to be the twenty-sixth sexiest woman in the world, but: “it’s still hard to get some jobs.” Adam Stein writes in “The Summer of Jessica Biel” of her role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “there has got to be better material than this.” Or, perhaps not, he thinks, as he moves on to her work in Cellular and Blade: Trinity. Biel, in the profile: “I want choices. I want options. I want to lay out all the directions I could go and have the ability to choose.”

Doing publicity such as this, to be photographed in your underwear and for others to wax lyrical about, supposedly expands the choices available to you, demonstrating that you are co-operative and willing in the studio’s wishes, that you will do your part to generate publicity for a movie; of course, such publicity demands are all in your contract, but you are helpful enough to allow them to be in your contract. The humble demographic mass of men may have nothing like the powers of this exceptional woman, a goddess, but they have one: they can make her strip. In being given the gift of one infinity, another is taken away, because beauty fades. The woman defined as a divinity by her looks will discover soon that she is no longer divine, and she will be defined by what she used to be, what she is not now, a fallen goddess, and people will take pleasure in her taking this fall, at her arrogance for even assuming a title of divinity, even when it was given to her by others. In reply to a Slate article, “Porn and the media: How the pornography industry wants to be covered”, one commenter wrote: “‘Entourage’ in no way means that Sasha Grey has gone mainstream. She will be back doing the adult film stuff in no time, if she isn’t already. Because she’s good at it, and not very good at all at the mainstream stuff.” It was said, I think, not without glee, and even as cold-blooded an animal as Grey might feel heartbreak at this dismissal. Some glee might be felt over this heartbreak as well, as if some sword had finally managed to pierce the skin of some deadly beast.

Marche, in an infamous passage of “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, writes:

Megan Fox is a bombshell. To be a bombshell in 2013 is to be an antiquity, an old-world relic, like movie palaces or fountain pens or the muscle cars of the 1970s or the pinball machines in the basement. Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction.

Liberation and degradation both played their part. If you want to see naked women, of virtually any kind, do virtually anything to their bodies, it’s a click away. And women no longer need to be beautiful in order to express their talent. Lena Dunham and Adele and Lady Gaga and Amy Adams are all perfectly plain, and they are all at the top of their field.

There’s no doubt that this transformation has been overwhelmingly excellent. But we’re losing something in this process. Because creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices.

De Beauvoir, in Second Sex, anticipates all this, and invokes the mystic tradition just as Marche does:

In any case, some will object that if such a world is possible, it is not desirable. When woman is “the same” as her male, life will lose “its spice.” This argument is not new either: those who have an interest in perpetuating the present always shed tears for the marvelous past about to disappear without casting a smile on the young future. It is true that by doing away with slave markets, we destroyed those great plantations lined with azaleas and camellias, we dismantled the whole delicate Southern civilization; old lace was put away in the attics of time along with the pure timbres of the Sistine castrati, and there is a certain “feminine charm” that risks turning to dust as well. I grant that only a barbarian would not appreciate rare flowers, lace, the crystal clear voice of a eunuch, or feminine charm. When shown in her splendor, the “charming woman” is a far more exalting object than “the idiotic paintings, over-doors, decors, circus backdrops, sideboards, or popular illuminations” that maddened Rimbaud; adorned with the most modern of artifices, worked on with the newest techniques, she comes from the remotest ages, from Thebes, Minos, Chichén Itzà; and she is also the totem planted in the heart of the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and here is the greatest wonder: beneath her painted hair, the rustling of leaves becomes a thought and words escape from her breasts. Men reach out their eager hands to the marvel; but as soon as they grasp it, it vanishes; the wife and the mistress speak like everyone else, with their mouths: their words are worth exactly what they are worth; their breasts as well. Does such a fleeting miracle — and one so rare — justify perpetuating a situation that is so damaging for both sexes? The beauty of flowers and women’s charms can be appreciated for what they are worth; if these treasures are paid for with blood or misery, one must be willing to sacrifice them.

The poses in the photos from the Fox piece, the whole purpose of the enterprise, glow not so much with sensuality, but boredom. One, of Fox lying on a couch in a white dress with a partly see through top, evokes despair. What perhaps helped Fox as much as her appearance in Transformers were some accompanying photos for a GQ story (“Megan Fox was a Teenage Lesbian!”, by Mark Kirby), shot by Terry Richardson, which emanate a raw, nasty sexiness5. The current Esquire pictures, especially the cover, suggest a hostage situation: the game is dull now, the game has been dull for quite a while. In “The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox” by Lynn Hirschberg, she complained, “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.” That was three years ago.

Occasionally, I copy the sentence of the book I’m reading so I can keep track of where I am. One, from my notes, is “We won’t be pinned down, either. We have no one law that governs us. For me there is only one law: I am I.” It’s from Lawrence’s Twilight of the Unconscious; but I was sure it was from The Second Sex.

(Originally, this piece was supposed to be part of something slightly longer, dealing with other themes – whether it ever assumes this other, native ideal, is an open question. On July 18th, 2014, footnote #5 was added.)

FOOTNOTES

1 Though I knew of this piece beforehand, and was planning on referencing it, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that a Slate podcast which deals with, among other subjects, the Steve Marche profile, brings it up as well, along with the earlier Lynn Hirschberg piece on Fox. I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that Junod gave a reply to Rosenbaum’s piece: “Tom Junod Responds To 2,000-Word Slate Swipe”.

2 Again, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Choire Sicha, in his evisceration of the Marche piece, “Lena Dunham, Adele, Lady Gaga, Amy Adams All Very Ugly, Says ‘Esquire'”, also brings up the strange contrast between the titles written for swooning hearts, and the titles written for, well, let’s say more earthly purposes, and designed for search engines; the slate podcast makes the point as well.

3 Though just about every by Grigoriadis is worth reading, I’ll quote a section from her recent “Bret Easton Ellis’s Real Art Form Is the Tweet”:

And then we’re sauntering down the well-proportioned corridors of the mall at the same lugubrious tempo as everyone else, and he’s talking about the Microsoft swag event in Venice last week, and he’s saying “it’s crazy it’s so nice out—it’s the winter.” And he buys some noise-canceling Bose headphones that he selects from under a blue sign with white lettering that reads GIVE THEM WHAT THEY REALLY WANT and we go into the Mac store to get him an iPhone case and he looks at them but thinks they’re too expensive and he gets flustered and says “it’s so fucking annoying” but buys one anyway. And we’re back outside waiting for a coffee and people are buying Christmas cards and he’s talking about the Gus Van Sant premiere that he walked out of last night because he likes to sit in a particular place in the ­theater and he was nowhere near that place.

The next paragraph begins: “In a lot of ways, it’s more Ellis’s world than ever, as if he had invented it.” And, of course, the previous paragraph, done without explicit mention of its intent, is a pitch-perfect imitation of Ellis’s style.

4 This is a slight, unmalicious, juggling of the material. I give the original section from which this is taken from.

There’s a bodyguard and a rope blocking the banquette, but people keep leaning over. “Do you remember me from that night in New York?” asks a guy with a goatee. “I spent $20,000 on you.”

“Um, I think I would remember if you spent $20,000 on me,” says Jameson, turning away.

Another man grabs her hand.

“You give me pleasure,” he whispers.

“Ewww she shrieks, cowering. “I’m so over this.”

5 The mention of this infamous photographer in this context, and perhaps in any context, perhaps requires an explanatory caveat. The allegations against Richardson go beyond what is labeled “scandalous behavior”, and fall under the catergory of coerced sex. Some of these allegations can be found at “Why I’m Finally Speaking Up About What Terry Richardson Did to Me” by Anna Del Gaizo, “Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model’s Story” by Jamie Peck, “Another Model Comes Forward With Horrible Terry Richardson Allegations” by Callie Beusman (this model would turn out to be Charlotte Waters, as mentioned in “Anonymous Model Who Accused Terry Richardson of Assault Comes Forward”, also by Beusman), “Everything Wrong With New York Magazine’s Terry Richardson Cover Story” by Callie Beusman (commenting on the original profile, “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” by Benjamin Wallace), and “A Horrifying Timeline of Terry Richardson Allegations, From Trash Cans to Tampon Tea” by Hannah Ongley. I think Richardson is a talented photographer, someone whose photos are very effective at coveying youth and energy, though I also think his talents are narrow. They take all things and convey only these qualities, or nothing. Where the photographs of Herb Ritts focus on textual contrasts, such as taut skin and hard grains of sand, or Helmut Newton produces unsettling, unassuring nightmare scapes, Richardson’s photos take the Hugh Hefner aesthetic of turning sex into a harmless, friendly and unthreatening playground, then amps up the mass franchise sunniness. The essay that best captures the Richardson aesthetic isn’t about Richardson, but BuzzFeed: “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” by Heather Havrilesky. Richardson’s photo of Megan Fox is like his photo of Mila Kunis, which is like his photo of Sasha Grey, which is like his photos of the cast of Glee: youth and sexiness is conveyed in each, the “eternal, unnervingly upbeat present tense”, to use Havrilesky’s phrase, with nothing of the actual performer conveyed. There is something in BuzzFeed‘s quizes and lists which tends to banal anonymity, and despite their erotic vibrancy, there is something in Richardson’s pictures that is ultimately anonymous – the subjects are stripmined for this erotic vibrancy, and everything else is left behind. Absent the youthful sexy feeling, when Richardson photographs Angela Lansbury, Woody Allen, or Oprah Winfrey, there is just absence. There is an emptiness underneath the happy sexiness of Richardson’s happy sexy photos, and here there is just emptiness.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bruce Wagner’s Wild Palms

(Spoilers, obviously)

A TV mini-series about a milquetoast lawyer who becomes engulfed in mystery: now twenty years old, it was set, at the time, in the near future of 2007, which is now our past. It is a show that has almost entirely vanished from the collective cultural memory1, and though this is not damning in itself, I do think the show is a failure – but it has one notable aspect, which is jaw dropping. This aspect, however, went seemingly undetected when it was written about upon its release. This key aspect proves that one can write about anything, even the most litigious of subjects, as long as one changes the setting a little, placing characters which can easily be linked to their real counterparts in a slightly different setting, a science-fiction dystopia rather than their native habitat. I leave this notable aspect to last, and write briefly on why I think this series does not work.

Though it perhaps could not have been made without the rubric of Oliver Stone (he serves as executive producer), this production is ultimately novelist Bruce Wagner’s, who executive produced, wrote every episode, and on whose comic strip, a series that ran on the back of Details magazine, the show was based. The comic, illustrated by the late, talented artist Julian Allen2, has an entirely different tone from the later series, and this, I think, is a major change for the worse. Wild Palms3, both comic and movie, are about a man who deals with increasingly absurd incidents. The series deals with these in the baroque tones of a soap opera or a religious story (it can be seen as both), everything in exclamation marks: I’m falling in love with another woman! I’ve been asked to kill my best friend! My son isn’t my son!

The comic’s attitude, on the other hand, is as cold as frost, the indifference of The Stranger, by Albert Camus: mother died today, and I wish I cared, but I don’t. I am handicapped by not having read the whole comic, but what I describe as its tone is ever present in every panel, the narrator Harry Wycoff giving precise, cold narration: “I had a nightmare recently where I was yelling at someone. I don’t know why that was so frightening.” “Beth and I made love that morning. It was the first time since a cyst on her ovary ruptured.”

Wild Palms

The first time he describes his son, Coty: “Coty is already five. It’s practically a miracle to get to five without being molested.”

Wild Palms

His friend since adolescence, Tommy: “Tommy sells thousand-dollar vintage eyeglasses on Melrose. We went to Beverly High together. He has more money than me.”

Wild Palms

He meets with an old friend, Paige Katz, who wears a shirt, “Life’s a bitch…than you kill someone.”: “Paige asked me if I wanted to go somewhere as an ‘observer.’ I thought it was some faddish, thirtysomething joke like a hazing.” Then, for reasons unknown to him, he sees his friend beaten. He experiences something visceral to this, yet his voice retains its frost-like calm, unmoved: “Then I saw the blood. And it made my stomach hurt. It was Tommy.”

Wild Palms Wild Palms

This voice, for me, comes across not as affect, that of a desensitized class, but something close to our own thoughts so often, as we see the extraordinary or the horrific, which we observe without any tremor of great feeling. We have become reconciled to the idea that these things take place in our world, and we can no longer even remember when we become reconciled. Whether for the need of appearances, the appearance of a moral compass – television at the time might tolerate wanton violence, but it could not conceive an ordinary man unmoved by such violence – or dramatic momentum, rather than existentialist drama, we are given instead overexcited melodrama, where everyone acts louder than real life.

This Wild Palms is an unreal, plot heavy work dealing with virtual reality technology. It opens with Harry Wycoff, patent attorney, having a nightmare: he comes across a rhino in his empty pool, then hears his son call out for him. His son, we later learn, has the very same dream, the dream a prescient one for both. This vision marks both as members of a spiritual elect: the rhino, we are told, is all that is left of that significant creature the unicorn4. In the dream, Harry runs toward his son’s door, marked by a cross, the door opens, and his son’s room is filled with ominous red light: his son will be seen as a saviour, a successor to a church, but he is also utterly demonic.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

An old girlfriend, Paige Katz, hires him to find her missing son, and Harry soon ends up working for Paige’s employer, Tony (Anton) Kreutzer, the media tycoon behind TV network Channel Three, founder of a new religion and developer of a technology that will transmit interactive holograms via television. Harry’s wife, Grace, thinks he’s having an affair and tries to commit suicide. Harry becomes aware of a resistance group, the Friends, acting in opposition to Kreutzer and his associates, the Fathers; the Friends include both his father-in-law and his close friend Tommy. His son, Coty, is recruited first to play a part on a channel three sitcom, and then to kill one of the Friends, a co-worker of Harry’s. Where the comic has Harry passively watching his friend Tommy get beaten, here, Paige Katz brings in Harry to chase down the man she believes has kidnapped her son, and when it is revealed to be Tommy, his capture ends with Tommy’s portentous line: “This…is the beginning.” Both acts feel like a blooding, an initiation ritual to be performed before inductment into Kreutzer’s organization.

The Friends and the Fathers race to acquire various elements of virtual reality technology, both sides suffering losses. Paige and Harry end up defecting from Kreutzer’s group and joining the Friends, while his son stays on. In a series of revelations, we learn that Harry’s son, Coty, is in fact not his son at all, but has been switched at birth with his real son, Peter; Harry and Coty are actually brothers, born to the same father, Kreutzer. Harry’s wife, in turn, is daughter to a merciless woman named Josie Ito, who is Kreutzer’s sister: Harry and his wife, Grace, are actually first cousins. Early on, Harry compliments one of his aides on a dress, the aide thanks him and replies that it’s from his wife’s store, and Harry replies, in turn, that things are getting just a little too incestuous. If he only knew. The series ends with almost all the major characters dead, with Grace killed by her own mother, the destruction of Kreutzer and his organization, Harry re-united with his biological son, and with Paige now Harry’s girlfriend.

Though it might be considered a political series, it provides neither specific insights, nor does it provide any eerie sense of familiarity with the world we live in. The oppressive Fathers chant the poems of Auden, the resistant Friends chant from Whitman; a screechy hippie woman celebrates the victory of the Friends – these aren’t images that suggest some difference of virtue between the groups, but that any political activity is a fool’s game, tainting everyone equally, and drawing its energy, whatever the cause, from blindly obedient riffraff. We are told there has been a nuclear accident in Florida, and a massive depression in the early twenty-first century, both instigated, for its own purpose, by the state itself – though we never intuit why the state might do so. It’s politics designed for a credulous militia member – the state is a killing machine, politics is a fool’s game, so the only response is to retreat from political life altogether into a cabin or a bunker. More crucially, these great events don’t feel as if they’ve touched the unfolding world of the series at all – and this is crucial if this world is to feel like it’s some self-contained life, as all great fictional worlds do. “I’m a survivor of the disaster of Boca Raton,” says a disheveled figure at one point, and my first thought is, how bad can things go with a timeshare?

It is this sense that this future world is clumped together of various discrete elements, rather than a living possibility, which is the show’s other crucial flaw. That this future world is in visual stasis, almost entirely the same city as it is now, is not a problem – 9/11 and the housing crisis may have had a huge impact on the United States, but they have not produced anything visually novel or unprecedented, just the same old, same old: suburbs that became ghost communities, or veterans living on the street. Kurt Anderson’s too little known, incredibly insightful essay, “You Say You Want a Devolution?” notes a startling phenomenon: that our visual landscape, in architecture, clothes, and advertising, has reached a stasis point in the past fifteen or twenty years. Where before we see a distinct and astonishing difference in the visual look of the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, when we reach the nineties, the aughts, and our decade now, an equilibrium seems to have been reached, an unchanging look that does not change because it encompasses all things. This may well be because in an internet age there are no longer any subterranean cultures, and one cannot “discover” hiphop fashion, or brazilian music, as an intrepid few might have done – almost all obscurities are now accessible to all.

So, that the series contains little of a futuristic look is unimportant, but rather prescient. What is important is that such a future world should hold together, should be unlike our own, yet feel as if it is entirely its own world, with not a single inch directed by an outside force, but every part organic, a growth of its own. One should be able to intuit why every feature of the world is there, and not find any part to be out of place. The very opposite effect is most obvious in the show’s use of virtual reality and holograms, given a solid mocking by the AV club, “The future won’t look like this: 11 unintentionally ridiculous depictions of virtual reality”. We see a virtual reality in which cyberspace consists of people dressing up as eighteenth century nobles, and holographic versions of sitcoms and advertising. Both are ridiculous, conceived as something different or new, rather than in the terms by which a product gets to market: does anybody actually want this?

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Even if we have the possibility of talking or seeing someone via Skype, we prefer to communicate in text on facebook or twitter; never mind dressing up in fancy outfits for a simple meeting – the only thing that approaches this model of the internet is Second Life, and it’s a virtual ghost town. A three-dimensional holographic sitcom is untenable because a sitcom, with its rigid structure and laugh track is specifically unreal, the steady laughter (whether taped or from an audience) not simply telling the audience that something is funny but reinforcing the artifice of the program, a necessity for the jokes to work. Comedy programs that do not adhere to this format, Parks and Recreation and The Office among the best known, have an entirely different rhythm to their jokes, and must have an entirely different rhythm – without the laugh track we are in a different setting, a setting we take to be more real than that of the sitcom. Palms, in fact, does cross paths with the future of television, with a program whose power lay not in the fact of its vivid proximity to life, but its very artifice. This future appears in the brief character Mortie, because this man is played by Dan Castellaneta, who of course provides the voice of a character so well-known that he does not even need be named.

Wild Palms

The issue of a makeshift world also troubles one of the more fascinating ideas of the program, with Japan, at the time of the series an economic powerhouse expected to equal or eclipse the United States in national influence, showing a heavy sway in the furniture and clothes throughout.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

The only problem is that, again, it doesn’t feel intuitively right – were Japan to have become the dominant force of the series, changes would no doubt be there, but in many ways unsettlingly invisible. Artwork would be the same mishmash of the world selected by style curators, but the characters would be far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of Japanese politics, and far more of them would be fluent in Japanese, just as today there are many western news outlets that provide in-depth coverage of Chinese political life, and there are a growing number of Chinese speakers in the world – these details signal the growing importance of China, not any dramatic changes in fashion or interior design. The dramatic shifts of the future are near invisible, and this works to the show’s advantage with a largely unchanged Los Angeles, and to the disadvantage when it tries to give us fantastic changes in visual communications systems and Japanese decor. The astonishing impact of the past fifteen years of technology can be seen not in what has appeared but disappeared – the bankruptcy of book and record shops, the extinction of newspapers, the end of watches, the absence of payphones – a visitor from the near past might be able to infer that there’s now a combination of microtechnology and an information network that has caused the disappearance of these things, but it would be a difficult, tenuous hypothesis.

The most memorable and unsettling images of this series – there are several, and there well should be several given that the series directors included Kathryn Bigelow, Phil Joanou, and Keith Gordon – have nothing to do with the visual elements of the future world, but could be placed in any contemporary drama, their allure derived from making the ordinary exotic. Whether because of my own preferences, or their own inherent power, I find the best of these come from Gordon’s work.

For example, two children watching TV, but shot from the TV’s perspective, so they stare, rapt, out at us:

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

A waiter attends on two diners, Harry and his friend Tommy, but he is not a passive servant. He asks them if they are ready to order, impatiently – it is they who are guests at his place of business, and he is not dependent on them, but the other way around. This high-end restaurant has plenty of customers and has no need of their business, but were these men unable to gain entrance to this restaurant, it would reflect poorly on their status. The haughty demeanour of the waiter is an intentional pose to reinforce this relationship. We then cut to a scene with almost the exact same composition, but now the relationship is very much reversed, the Wykoffs’ domestic attending on their children, and she is very much dependent on them, rather than the other around.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

The resistance group The Friends use networks underneath swimming pools to meet surreptitiously and travel about the city. Here, as Beethoven’s Seventh swells in the background, Coty Wycoff, Harry’s son, stares intently at the pool, almost as if he sees through the concrete, through to the meeting taking place underneath – but this context is unnecessary for the image’s power. The only elements necessary are an intelligent boy staring with focused intensity at nothing at all, the empty water.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

As Harry tends to his wife, Grace, after her suicide attempt, the characters are shot at a distance that is almost never used in a TV show, their faces obscured behind a veil. It all fits with the sense of someone who has just tried to kill herself, who has reached the very edge of death before being brought back that she is in this small place of light in a vast dark room. As we might imagine Grace moving steadily closer and closer back to life, we move nearer to this lighted section. Her husband has become increasingly unknowable to her, so his face is a blur behind the veil, or falls into a shadow. I offer this explanation, but it is unnecessary; the scene is the most visually powerful in the entire show, and like all great images, requires no words to justify or explain it.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

The future world that feels like something organic, its every element in vitro, has been created most successfully in two movies, two obvious choices, by the same director: Blade Runner and Alien. In the first, the earth has been abandoned for better worlds, and the planet has the mood of a depressive turning inward and backward to past memories, as it falls into a decay it is entirely indifferent to. Deckard is obsessed with a past, a past that might be entirely false, but so is all of the Los Angeles he lives in, holding onto its memories as a noir landscape. Alien features a ship that isn’t a streamlined beauty, but a crude utilitarian piece of technology, like an oil derrick or a supertanker. The crew find the outpost of a civilization which, literally, dwarfs them, but whoever was here is already long dead; rather than a dream fulfilled of intergalactic contact, it is only an exhausted society breaching a tomb. Great technology has not brought the space crew happiness or enlightenment – the future is ugly, and it is cheap. The long dead civilization has itself been destroyed not for any moral transgression, or by a creature of greater intelligence, but a simple armor plated, acid blooded thing which is designed solely to host, reproduce, and kill. There have been attempts at explanations and extensions of this movie’s story, but they are unnecessary, and in fact diminish it. The spaceflight of this movie is not some lyrical dream, but just one more industrial expedition. Humanity, whatever its past dreams, is here concerned only with functionality, getting the work done as cheaply and effectively as possible; the alien of the title is a sick joke on all this, a creature that has no beauty or elegance, but one that, just like the ship, is a piece of ugly metalwork designed solely for efficiency – and far more efficient at survival than we are.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Though both movies have a distinct and overwhelming mood, they are not designed to create such a mood, but rather, it arises out of the clutter of elements that are there – and I do not use clutter disparagingly, but something necessary for the effect. For our lives are not planned, even in the most planned societies, but a pile of details playing off each other, a jazz group of a million musicians, rather than a small orchestra conducted by a martinet. The overall tone of both these movies is fatigue, which another writer might label as fin-de-siècle; great technology has arrived and it doesn’t matter, anymore than the wonderful toys of our time have given us the excitement and happiness embodied by the spokespeople of an electronics show5. We take these toys for granted, and they hold no magic for us. We trudge through our work with these devices as Deckard navigates through the photos with the Esper machine (a device that, unlike the virtual reality machines of Palms we immediately see the practical use for), exhausted, needing a bottle of scotch to finish the work. Here, again, we acutely note the loss in the change in tone from the Palms comic to the Palms series – an ice-cold narration entirely apt for the supposed wonders and magic of a future, the apt tone of exhaustion that imbues Alien and Blade Runner, and our world now as well.

THE DIVINE COMEDY: HELLA JOKE, A BITCH

I have focussed on the flaws of this series, and now I move to its one astonishing feature, and it is a striking one. I state it bluntly without suspense: it is the most scathing depiction of scientology I’ve ever seen, making “South Park”‘s “Trapped in the Closet” episode look like a piker’s game. Where “Park” ridiculed the movement as a con game, this series appears to take key figures from the movement – L. Ron Hubbard, his wife, Mary Sue, and scientology’s current head, David Miscavige – and transplants them into this story, only slightly veiled by a fictional scrim, portraying all three as amoral homicidal sociopaths. What is astonishing is that this show was produced, not at a time of weakness for the church, but at the height of its powers, when it had just received tax-exempt status as a religion. Equally astonishing, given that the target is clear and the fired arrows are soaked in venom, is that it seems to have eluded the critics of the time: John J. O’Connor of the Times, in “The Sunshiny Menace of ‘Wild Palms'” gives a one sentence tip of the hat to the movement’s appearance, “any resemblance of the “Synthiotics” movement depicted in this series to L. Ron Hubbard’s “science” of Dianetics may not be entirely accidental”; Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker in his review gives another single sentence mention, “Kreutzer would seem to be Wagner’s wicked caricature of the late author and Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard”; David Gates, reviewing the show in the late Newsweek, writes in “Invasion Of The Soul Snatchers” that Anton Kreutzer is “a neo-psychedelic demagogue resembling L. Ron Hubbard, Pat Robertson, Timothy Leary and Ross Perot”; that is the only mention of anyone associated with the movement, let alone the movement itself, in the review. This misinterprets the satire here as a glancing blow, when it’s a repeated punch to the kidneys.

This is the dialogue between Harry and his ex-girlfriend, Paige Katz, that introduces Tony Kreutzer, after a demonstration he gives on his pioneering hologram technology:

Wild Palms

HARRY
That’s the guy you work for? The guy who founded that freaky religion in the sixties?

PAIGE
Synthiotics. It’s helped a lot of people.

HARRY
New realism is very hip right now. I read about it in People.

PAIGE
Don’t be so cynical. You should read some of his books.

HARRY
Nah, I don’t dig bad science fiction.

After a ceremony in which Harry is inducted into the church,

Wild Palms

we see the outside of the building, “The Church of Synthiotics”:

Wild Palms

Synthiotics is, I believe, a variation on dianetics, the Hubbard philosophy which preceded scientology. Hubbard developed scientology around a similar set of ideas after he lost control of dianetics in a rights dispute with former business associate Don Purcell. One of the only critical histories of the movement and its founder available at the time of this series, Bare Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, describes what took place:

At the beginning of April 1952, Hubbard packed his belongings into the back of his yellow Pontiac convertible and headed out of Wichita on the Kansas Turnpike with his teenage bride of four weeks beside him on the front seat. Their destination, one thousand miles to the west, was Phoenix, Arizona, where loyal aides had already put up a sign outside a small office at 1405 North Central Street, announcing it as the headquarters of the Hubbard Association of Scientologists.

Phoenix was so named because it was built on the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement on the Salt River, which had risen like the legendary phoenix. Hubbard, who had had more than enough of Wichita, could not think of a more appropriate location for the rise of his astounding new science from the still-smoking ruins of Dianetics.

Hubbard would introduce Scientology as a logical extension of Dianetics, but it was a development of undeniable expedience, since it ensured he would be able to stay in business even if the courts eventually awarded control of Dianetics and its valuable copyrights to ‘that little flatulence’, the hated Don Purcell. The difference between Dianetics and Scientology was that Dianetics addressed the body, whereas Scientology addressed the soul. With his accustomed bombast, Hubbard claimed that he had ‘come across incontrovertible, scientifically-validated evidence of the existence of the human soul’.

So, a church of synthiotics might be seen as the same as a church of dianetics, or, a church of scientology.

Just as scientology has been very successful at recruiting celebrities to enhance their image and evangelize on their behalf, the synthiotics church of Palms has two notables on hand to help them out.

There is the singer Chap Starfall:

Wild Palms

As well as the actress Tabba Schwartzkopf, who belongs to the high echelons of the church:

Wild Palms

Throughout the series, black vans full of organization thugs show up to chase down or take away dissidents. This may be an expansion of at least one incident that took place along these lines, described in Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology. It involved two top members of the church, Gale Irwin and Pat Broeker, who were pushed out when the current head, David Miscavige, took over:

Now genuinely afraid of [David] Miscavige, [Gale] Irwin slipped off the base at Gilman Hot Springs to call Pat Broeker, using his special callback system. Waiting at a gas-station pay phone for Broeker to return her call, Irwin suddenly saw Miscavige roll up with a number of his aides in a black van. As she’d later recall, he got out, walked to the back of the van, took out a tire iron, and as she watched, proceeded to smash the pay phone so it wouldn’t work. Then he grabbed a terrified Irwin, ordered her into the van, and accused her of mutiny.

A key product developed by Memocom, a branch of the synthiotics church, is Mimezine, a drug which makes holograms appear as vivid as real life. The name of this drug seems to echo one that Hubbard attempted to market, Dianazene, on the basis that it was an antidote to radiation sickness. A lengthy excerpt from Miller:

By April it seemed that Hubbard had given up his heroic, single-handed attempt to rid the world of nuclear weapons by ‘as-ising’ [a scientology term meaning to make disappear] the atomic bomb, for in that month he hired the Royal Empire Society Hall in London in order to preside over the ‘London Congress on Nuclear Radiation and Health’. The various lectures delivered at this extraordinary event were later condensed into an even more extraordinary book titled All About Radiation and written by ‘a nuclear physicist’ and ‘a medical doctor’.

The doctor was anonymous, but the ‘nuclear physicist’ was none other than L. Ron Hubbard offering the benefit of his advice with customary scant recourse to the laws of science. He asserted, for example, that a sixteen-foot wall could not stop a gamma ray whereas a human body could, an assertion later described by an eminent radiologist as ‘showing complete and utter ignorance of physics, nuclear science and medicine’. In line with his philosophy that most illnesses were caused by the mind, Hubbard avowed, ‘The danger in the world today in my opinion is not the atomic radiation which may or may not be floating through the atmosphere but the hysteria occasioned by that question.’ Radiation, he added, was ‘more of a mental than a physical problem’.

Fortunately, however, no one needed to worry about radiation, since Hubbard had devised a vitamin compound called ‘Dianazene’ (after his first child by Mary Sue [Hubbard’s last wife]?) which provided protection: ‘Dianazene runs out radiation – or what appears to be radiation. It also proofs a person against radiation to some degree. It also turns on and runs out incipient cancer. I have seen it run out skin cancer. A man who didn’t have much liability to skin cancer (only had a few moles) took Dianazene. His whole jaw turned into a raw mass of cancer. He kept on taking Dianazene and it disappeared after a while. I was looking at a case of cancer that might have happened.’

The doctor, writing under the pseudonym Medicus, confirmed in his section of the book that ‘some very recent work by L. Ron Hubbard and the Hubbard Scientology Organization has indicated that a simple combination of vitamins in unusual doses can be of value. Alleviation of the remote effects and increased tolerance of radiation have been the apparent results . . .’

The Food and Drugs Administration in the United States was inclined, after studying a copy of All About Radiation, to disagree. FDA agents swooped on the Distribution Center Inc, a Scientology company in Washington, seized 21,000 Dianazene tablets and destroyed them, alleging that they were falsely labelled as a preventative treatment for ‘radiation sickness’.

Hubbard was an energetic, engaging man, as seen in this brief description, again from Miller:

Ron [Hubbard], ebullient as always, was not in any way intimidated by the egregious company and surroundings [a rambling mansion filled with bohemians, intellectuals, and exotic ne’er-do-wells]; on the contrary, he felt instantly at home. Most evenings he could be found dominating the conversation at the big table in the kitchen, where the roomers tended to gather, telling outrageous stories about his adventures. One night he unbuttoned his shirt to display the scars left by arrows hurled at him when he encountered a band of hostile aborigines in the South American jungle.

This vitality and charisma is captured well in the show’s best performance, Robert Loggia as Kreutzer6. Some sense of this can be found in the speech Kreutzer gives when introducing his hologram technology:

KREUTZER
You know, I was in Tokyo just last week. And in Japan, they call me Fuji, because I am white on top. (laughter) To paraphrase Aristophanes, I have all the traits of a popular politico. Bad breeding…vulgar manners…and one hell of a tan.

A samurai suddenly appears, pulls out his sword, and attacks the senator, but when the sword slices through Kreutzer, it passes through him as if he were a ghost. The samurai retreats, the disappears in a flash.

KREUTZER
I’m not here, children. I’m a synthetic hologram. Talking to you, real time. From the penthouse of this hotel. One day, very soon, this is what it’s going to look like in the living room. You will co-star in weekly sitcoms. You will fight the samurai battles, and experience the heartbreak of first love. All between commercials, and if you own a TV, any old TV…and an adapter from Mimecom that you can get for under a $1000 dollars, then you have bought a ticket. I have seen the future…and it is channel three.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

The practices and principles of synthiotics are never discussed, except in one brief exchange between Harry and Paige, after Kreutzer’s presentation:

HARRY
What the hell was that all about?

PAIGE
He’s bigger than life, huh?

HARRY
Scary, like a roman emperor with the fingers. (makes gesture)

PAIGE
All he’s saying is that there’s more than one reality. That doesn’t make synthiotics any different than, say…buddhism.

Here we find a fit with one of Hubbard’s favorite ideas, truth is what is true for you. Miller describes a moment in a lecture of Hubbard’s at the Academy of Scientology:

Perhaps the most revealing thing Hubbard said about himself during the lecture was a comment on one of Commander Thompson’s [“Snake” Thompson, a supposed associate of Freud and mentor of Hubbard, who may not have ever existed] favourite little aphorisms. It appeared that the Commander used to tell Ron, ‘If it’s not true for you, it’s not true.’ It aligned with his own personal philosophy, Hubbard explained, ‘because if there is anyone in the world calculated to believe what he wants to believe it is I’. Never did L. Ron Hubbard speak a truer word.

In the series, Kreutzer’s past is always murky, but before we find out that Kreutzer is Harry’s father, we hear of a past association between the man Harry still thinks of as his father and Kreutzer, revealed by his father-in-law, Eli Levitt:

Wild Palms

ELI
There was a famous chemist back in the sixties, who was playing around with the fugu, puffer fish, ever hear of it? A delicacy in Japan? Dose of a single fish could kill, lesser amount gets you high. Mimecom grabbed it, tweaked it, came up with something of their own. They called it mimezine. Allows you to interact with holograms, is it real or is it mimecom? Impossible to tell.

ELI
That famous chemist I was telling you about, the one who pioneered it all…his name was Dex Wycoff, your daddy.

HARRY
You knew my father?

ELI
No, but the senator did. They were partners.

Harry tells Kreutzer of this meeting, and the senator adds a few details:

HARRY
I saw Eli Levitt last week. He said you knew my father.

KREUTZER
Indeed I did. He was the real thing. The Chicky [Eli’s son, and a brilliant inventor in his own right] of his day. Old Dex was legendary for two things. The purity of his LSD, and the fact that he was never seen in public without a tie. Your father wanted to use computers to free the brain from the body, and this was the seventies, there wasn’t even video. Critics dismissed him as an acid casualty, which he was.

HARRY
What happened?

KREUTZER
Blew his face off with a shotgun. Because of the recoil, the coroner determined that the first shot was not fatal. Ten minutes later, Dex finished the job. And I have always wondered what went through his mind in those last ten minutes.

The association between Kreutzer and this man maps with the connection between Hubbard and a brilliant scientist named Jack Parsons – not a chemist, but an engineer – who was also heavily involved with the occult. Miller gives a detailed description of this fascinating character:

John Whiteside Parsons, known to his friend as Jack, was an urbane, darkly handsome man, not unlike Errol Flynn in looks, and the scion of a well-connected Los Angeles family. Then thirty-one years old, he was a brilliant scientist and chemist and one of America’s foremost explosives experts. He had spent much of the war at the California Institute of Technology working with a team developing jet engines and experimental rocket fuels and was, perhaps, the last man anyone would have suspected of worshipping the Devil.

For Jack Parsons led an extraordinary double life: respected scientist by day, dedicated occultist by night. He believed, passionately, in the power of black magic, the existence of Satan, demons and evil spirits, and the efficacy of spells to deal with his enemies.

While still a student at the University of Southern California, he had become interested in the writings of Aleister Crowley, the English sorcerer and Satanist known as ‘The Beast 666’, whose dabblings in black magic had also earned him the title ‘The Wickedest Man In The World’. Crowley’s The Book of the Law expounded a doctrine enshrined in a single sentence – ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ – and Parsons was intrigued by the heady concept of a creed that encouraged indulgence in forbidden pleasures.

Jack Parsons was in a serious relationship with a Sara Northrup, who played an active role in his occult ceremonies – until she met Hubbard, fell in love, and married him.

Miller, on the intersection of Hubbard, Parsons, and Sara “Betty” Northrup:

One afternoon in August 1945, Lou Goldstone, a well-known science-fiction illustrator and a frequent visitor to South Orange Grove Avenue [Parsons’ house, where he rented out rooms to a large group of eccentrics], turned up with L. Ron Hubbard, who was then on leave from the Navy. Jack Parsons liked Ron immediately, perhaps recognized in him a kindred spirit, and invited him to move in for the duration of his leave.

He considered that Ron had great magical potential and took the risk of breaking his solemn oath of secrecy to acquaint Ron with some of the OTO [Ordo Templi Orientis, an organization set up by the satanist Alistair Crowley that focused on sexual magic] rituals. Betty, too, was much enamoured with the voluble naval officer, so much so that she soon began sleeping with him. True to his creed, Parsons tried to pretend he was not concerned by this development, but others in the house thought they detected tension between the two men.

Alva Rogers [one of the many residents of Parsons’ house], too, sensed that Parsons was suffering. ‘Jack had never boggled at any of Betty’s previous amorous adventurings, but this time it seemed somehow different…although the three of them continued to maintain a surface show of unchanged amicability, it was obvious that Jack was feeling the pangs of a hitherto unfelt passion, jealousy. As events progressed, Jack found it increasingly difficult to keep his mind on anything but the torrid affair going on between Ron and Betty and the atmosphere around the house became supercharged with tension.’

Nevertheless, Parsons clearly remained convinced that Ron possessed exceptional powers. After Ron had left to report back to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, Parsons wrote to his ‘Most Beloved Father’ to acquaint him with events: ‘About three months ago I met Captain L. Ron Hubbard, a writer and explorer of whom I had known for some time…He is a gentleman; he has red hair, green eyes, is honest and intelligent, and we have become great friends. He moved in with me about two months ago, and although Betty and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual affection to Ron.

The anecdote of the painful suicide of Dex Wycoff appears to be a comingling of two events: the death of Parsons in a massive explosion when he dropped some nitro-glycerine, an event which was often suspected to be a suicide, and the suicide of Parsons’ mother on hearing of her son’s death, her suicide a prolonged moment as the sleeping pills took a half hour for their lethal effect, while a friend, too crippled to stop or save her, looked on helplessly as she died. Again, Miller:

On the afternoon of Friday 20 June 1952, Parsons was working alone in the garage of the coachhouse, which he had converted into a laboratory. At eight minutes past five there was an enormous explosion. The heavy stable doors were blasted from their hinges, the walls blew out and a huge hole was torn in the floor timbers. When the dust had cleared, a partially dismembered body could be seen still bleeding in the rubble.

Further horror was to follow. Police traced Parsons’s mother, Mrs Ruth Virginia Parsons, to the home of a crippled woman friend in West Glenarm Street. Informed of the accident and her son’s death, Mrs Parsons returned to the room where her friend was sitting in an armchair. She sat down in another chair out of reach, unscrewed a bottle of sleeping tablets and, watched by her helpless and appalled friend, rapidly swallowed the entire contents. Unable to move from her chair, the terrified cripple watched her friend slowly die.

The inquest found that the explosion had been caused by Parsons accidentally dropping a phial of nitro-glycerine. But because of his known interest in the occult, there were inevitably rumours of suicide or even murder; none of his friends could believe that a man so experienced in handling explosives would have dropped nitro-glycerine accidentally.

Whatever the truth, no black magician could have wished for a blacker departure from the world.

Kreutzer’s revelation in one of the last scenes that Harry is his son touches on a similar romantic triangle, and hints that Dex didn’t commit suicide, but was killed by the senator.

HARRY
How well did you know my mother?

KREUTZER
We enjoyed each other’s company, Berniece and I. Dex wasn’t too thrilled. We had a child together. Did you know that? Dex thought it was his. Named the boy Harry. He found out, Dex did. He tried to kill me. I had to defend myself.

Harry’s plotline, a son rebelling a father, a son joining this formidable figure late in life, might be taken, I believe, from the story of Hubbard’s own first son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. – though referred to by everyone by his nickname, Nibs. Just like Harry, he lives apart from his father and joins the church late in life. From Miller:

While Hubbard was writing and lecturing in Phoenix in the summer of 1952, a somewhat unexpected event occurred – his son, L. Ron Hubbard Junior, turned up in town apparently intent on becoming a Scientologist. Nibs was then eighteen years old, a plump young man with a shining, cherubic countenance topped by wispy curls of pale orange hair. He had been living with his grandparents in Bremerton for the previous two years, but had been unable to settle down in high school and had decided to join his father in Phoenix.

Nibs enrolled at a correspondence school in an attempt to complete his high school education and his father gave him a job at the Hubbard Association of Scientologists, at the same time arranging for him to be audited intensively. As the son and namesake of the founder, Nibs was treated with some deference by other Scientologists and made rapid progress in the organization – he was soon designated as ‘professor’ of the ‘Advanced Clinical Course’, one of a number of courses on offer to ambitious Scientologists in Phoenix. He also acquired a number of initials after his name to support his professorial status.

Just like Harry, he ends up an adversary of the father and his church, the highest ranking defector at the time:

While he was still in Melbourne, Hubbard received an urgent telephone call from Washington with bad news. Nibs, he was told, had ‘blown’. To Scientologists, ‘blowing the org’ (leaving the church) was one of the worst crimes in the book: it was almost unbelievable that the highly-placed son and namesake of the founder would take such a step.

After ‘blowing the org’ in 1959, fortune had not smiled on Nibs. He had drifted from job to job, finding it ever more difficult to support his wife and six children, and as the realization dawned that he would never be allowed back into Scientology, he became an even more prominent critic of his father and his father’s ‘church’. When the church was locked in litigation with the Internal Revenue Service, Nibs testified on behalf of the IRS.

In July, Nibs gave an interview to the Santa Rosa News-Herald in which he portrayed his father as a wife-beater who had experimented in black magic and fed him and his sister bubble gum spiked with phenobarbitol. ‘He had one of those insane things, especially during the ’30s, of trying to invoke the devil for power and practices. My mother told me about him trying out all kinds of various incantations, drugs and hypnosis…He used to beat her up quite often. He had a violent, volcano-type temper, and he smacked her around quite a bit. I remember in 1946 or 1947 when he was beating up my mother one night, I had a .22 rifle and I sat on the stairway with him in my sights and I almost blew his head off.’

[Nibs] surfaced again in the June 1983 issue of Penthouse magazine, making even more sensational allegations – that Hubbard had been involved in black magic since the age of sixteen, believed himself to be Satan, wanted to become the most powerful being in the universe, smuggled gold and drugs, was a sadist and a KGB agent. He had bought Saint Hill Manor, Nibs claimed, with money obtained from the Russians. ‘Black magic is the inner core of Scientology,’ Nibs stressed, ‘and it is probably the only part of Scientology that really works. Also, you’ve got to realize that my father did not worship Satan. He thought he was Satan.’

Some of these claims could be substantiated by others – that Hubbard had beaten this boy’s mother and he had been involved in occult rituals conducted by Parsons – while others, such as the length of his involvement in the occult, and his connections with the russians most likely had no basis.

Miller:

It was wild stuff, perhaps a little too wild. Just like his father, Nibs lacked subtlety. Had he been more restrained, the interview might have made an impact. Instead, it simply strained the reader’s credulity to such an extent that it was hard to decide who was the most deranged – L. Ron Hubbard Senior or L. Ron Hubbard Junior.

The show ends with Kreutzer attempting to evade death and become a virtual hologram, something of a god, who will rule the thoughts and dreams of the world. Again, Hubbard’s own end is mysterious as well: he lived as a recluse at the end of his life, his last public appearance taking place six years before his death, a death without a public funeral, only a cremation conducted quickly in the midst of the night, the identity of the dead never mentioned to those performing the cremation, and only discovered by the chapel owner after she read the death certificate. The cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemmorage [sic]. No autopsy was ever performed.

The telephone was already ringing when Irene Reis, co-owner of the Reis Chapel in San Luis Obispo, arrived for work on the morning of Saturday 25 January. A voice at the other end of the line identified himself as Earle Cooley, an attorney, and asked if they did cremations. Mrs Reis replied that they did, although the crematory was usually closed at weekends. Special arrangements could be made if necessary. Cooley then asked if a body could be collected from the Whispering Winds Ranch on the O’Donovan Road in Creston. Irene’s husband, Gene, drove the hearse out to Creston, not imagining it was anything but a routine job.

Cooley accompanied the body back to San Luis Obispo. At the Reis Chapel, a tasteful white adobe building with a red pantile roof on Nipomo Street, he asked Mrs Reis if arrangements could be made for an ‘immediate cremation’. He presented a death certificate signed by a Gene Denk of Los Angeles certifying the cause of death as cerebral haemorrhage and a certificate of religious belief forbidding an autopsy. It was not until Mrs Reis looked at the documents that she realized the body lying in her chapel was that of L. Ron Hubbard.

Mrs Reis knew enough about Hubbard to insist on informing the San Luis Obispo Country sheriffcoroner. Deputy coroner Don Hines arrived at the Reis Chapel within a few minutes. No one had had any idea that Hubbard was in the vicinity and Hines wanted to make sure that everything was done by the book – it was not every day that a ‘notorious recluse’ turned up in San Luis Obispo. Hines said that no cremation could take place until an independent pathologist had examined the body. He also ordered the body to be photographed and fingerprinted to ensure positive identifications. (Later the fingerprints were revealed to match those on file at the FBI and the Department of Justice.) It was three-thirty in the afternoon before Hines was satisfied and agreed to release the body for cremation. On the following day, the ashes of L. Ron Hubbard were scattered on the Pacific from a small boat.

This is not announced as a death by the church of scientology. Just as Kreutzer abandons his decaying body to become a virtual ghost, this is but a leave-taking of a physical state.

The news of the death of the founder of Scientology was broken to 1800 of his followers hastily gathered in the Hollywood Palladium on the afternoon of Monday, 27 January. David Miscavige made the announcement that Ron had moved on to his next level of research, a level beyond the imagination and in a state exterior to the body: ‘Thus, at 2000 hours, Friday 24 January 1986, L. Ron Hubbard discarded the body he had used in this lifetime for seventy-four years, ten months and eleven days. The body he had used to facilitate his existence in this universe had ceased to be useful and in fact had become an impediment to the work he now must do outside its confines. The being we knew as L. Ron Hubbard still exists. Although you may feel grief, understand that he did not, and does not now. He has simply moved on to his next step.’

Probably the most malevolent character in Palms is Josie Ito: she has the eyes of one her enemies torn out, drowns another, and chokes her own daughter to death with her bare hands7. One character says of her, “the friends have a nickname for Josie…Hannya…female demon”.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

She is portrayed throughout as a close confidante of Kreutzer, but whose relation we can only guess at, until it is revealed that they are sister and brother. This is a slight shuffling of details of her real-life counter-part, a determined, ruthless woman who was L. Ron Hubbard’s last wife, Mary Sue.

From an interview about The Master conducted by Brent Bambury, with a former high-ranking scientologist, Kate Bornstein, on this figure:

BAMBURY
The leader’s wife in this film, portrayed by Amy Adams, is a forceful character, and maybe even the real power behind the movement…

AMY ADAMS as PEGGY DODD
We do what we have to do to grow. The only way to defend ourselves is to attack. If we don’t do that, we will lose every battle we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.

BAMBURY
Did you know Mary Sue Hubbard, who was L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, and the number two figure in the church for many years?

BORNSTEIN
I knew Mary Sue Hubbard well. And it was a brilliant performance. Amy Adams captured her, completely. And yes, Mary Sue was posted as L. Ron Hubbard’s guardian. That was the post, the guardian. It was her job to protect scientology from bad people. I was scared of Mary Sue. Everyone was.

Miller gives this description of the relationship between the two Hubbards:

Hubbard would never allow anyone to criticize Mary Sue and although he rarely showed much affection for her in public, it seemed, after two failed marriages and innumerable affairs, that he had at last formed a stable relationship, improbable as it had first appeared. They were indeed an unlikely couple – a flamboyant, fast-talking extrovert entrepreneur in his forties and a quiet, intense young woman twenty years his junior from a small town in Texas. But anyone who underestimated Mary Sue made a big mistake. Although she was not yet twenty-four years old, she exercized [sic] considerable power within the Scientology movement and people around Hubbard quickly learned to be wary of her. Fiercely loyal to her husband, brusque and autocratic, she could be a dangerous enemy.

Here is former member Cyril Vosper, from Miller’s Messiah on the implementation of the social control system of “ethics”; I bold his opinion on Mary Sue’s influence of this behavior code:

‘Conditions’ were an essential part of the new ‘ethics technology’ devised by Hubbard in the midsixties, effectively as a form of social control. It was his first, tentative step towards the creation of a society within Scientology which would ultimately resemble the totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984 . Anyone thought to be disloyal, or slacking, or breaking the rules of Scientology, was reported to an ‘ethics officer’ and assigned a ‘condition’ according to the gravity of the offence. Various penalties were attached to each condition. In a ‘condition of liability’ for example, the offender was required to wear a dirty grey rag tied around his or her left arm. The worst that could happen was to be declared an ‘SP’ (suppressive person), which was tantamount to excommunication from the church. SPs were defined by Hubbard as ‘fair game’ to be pursued, sued and harassed at every possible opportunity.

‘What happened with the development of ethics,’ said Cyril Vosper, who worked on the staff at Saint Hill, ‘was that zeal expanded at the expense of tolerance and sanity. My feeling was that Mary Sue devised a lot of the really degrading aspects of ethics. I always had great warmth and admiration for Ron [Hubbard] – he was a remarkable individual, a constant source of new information and ideas – but I thought Mary Sue was an exceedingly nasty person. She was a bitch.

An incident on one of scientology’s ships, from Miller, I bold Mary Sue’s part:

Arthur’s [a son of Hubbard’s] special responsibility on board ship was to look after his father’s motor-cycles, in particular a huge Harley Davidson that had been given to Hubbard by the Toronto org. One afternoon, the Commodore told Doreen [a scientology member] to make sure Arthur had cleaned the Harley Davidson properly by wiping a tissue over the mudguards and petrol tank and bringing it back to show him. She returned with a black smudge on the tissue. Hubbard was incensed. ‘You go and assign Arthur liability,’ he roared at Doreen, ‘he’s not doing his duty.’

Doreen was relieved that Arthur didn’t seem to be too worried by his father’s reaction, or by the need to tie a grey rag round his arm, but it was not the end of the matter. Mary Sue, who was fiercely protective of her children, felt it was Doreen’s fault that Arthur had been assigned liability. Later that afternoon, she grabbed her by the arm and starting shaking her. ‘You little fiend,’ she hissed, sinking her nails into the girl’s arm, ‘you’re destroying my family.’

Another:

A few months later, Diana [a daughter of Hubbard’s] upset her father in some way. Hubbard reeled off a long reprimand to the messenger on duty, adding at the end of it: ‘OK, go and spit in Diana’s face.’ The messenger was a little dark-eyed girl called Jill Goodman, thirteen years old. She ran along the deck to Diana’s office, burst in, spat in her face with unerring accuracy and began shouting her message as Diana let out a scream of fury. Mary Sue, who was in an adjoining office, burst in as her daughter was wiping the spittle from her face. She grabbed Jill round the throat as if she was going to strangle her and also began screeching. Jill started crying and when Mary Sue let her go, she immediately rushed off to tell the Commodore. Another acrimonious husband and wife row followed, which ended with Mary Sue throwing her shoes at the luckless messenger Hubbard despatched to chastise her further.

It is Mary Sue, following L. Ron Hubbard’s orders, who heads up the infamous Operation Snow White, an attempt by the church to eliminate any government account that might harm the church’s reputation by having scientologists take positions in government agencies, steal documents from various agencies, and destroy them.

Miller gives a good description of this project:

Now sixty-two, Hubbard was also beginning to ponder his place in posterity. The Church of Scientology had been swift to make use of the recently enacted Freedom of Information Act, which had revealed that government agencies held a daunting amount of material about Scientology and its founder in their files, much of it less than flattering. Hubbard, who had never been fettered by convention or strict observance of the law, conceived a simple, but startlingly audacious, plan to improve his own image and that of his church for the benefit of future generations of Scientologists. All that needed to be done, he decided, was to infiltrate the agencies concerned, steal the relevant files and either destroy or launder any damaging information they contained. To a man who had founded both a church and a private navy this was a perfectly feasible scheme. The operation was given the code name Snow White – two words that would figure ever more prominently over the next few months in the communications between the Guardian’s Office in Los Angeles and the Commodore’s hiding place in Queens, New York.

Operation Snow White, the impudent plan to launder public records that he had dreamed up three years earlier, was progressing rapidly and with a degree of success that few would have believed possible. By the beginning of 1975, the Guardian’s Office had infiltrated agents into the Internal Revenue Service, the US Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency. By May, Gerald Wolfe, a Scientologist working at the IRS in Washington as a clerk-typist, had stolen more than thirty thousand pages of documents relating to the Church of Scientology and the Hubbards. He was known to the Guardian’s Office by the code-name, ‘Silver’.

Within the hierarchy of the Church of Scientology, ultimate responsibility for the activities of Operation Snow White rested with Mary Sue Hubbard, the controller, but it was inconceivable that she was acting on her own initiative or not discussing progress with her husband. And although the amateur agents had discovered it was ridiculously easy to infiltrate, bug and burgle US government offices, the risks were considerable, both to the agents themselves and their church superiors. Hubbard was not too worried about who would take the rap if Operation Snow White was exposed, as long as it was not him.

Things eventually go wrong, with a number of these infiltrators arrested, and one of them, Michael Meisner, revealing the details of the operation, leading to an FBI raid on church offices, as well as the indictment and conviction of top church figures, including Mary Sue.

At six o’clock on the morning of 8 July 1977, 134 FBI agents armed with search warrants and sledgehammers, simultaneously broke into the offices of the Church of Scientology in Washington and Los Angeles and carted away 48,149 documents. They would reveal an astonishing espionage system which spanned the United States and penetrated some of the highest offices in the land.

On 15 August 1978, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted nine Scientologists on twenty-eight counts of conspiring to steam government documents, theft of government documents, burglarizing government offices, intercepting government communications, harbouring a fugitive, making false declarations before a grand jury and conspiring to obstruct justice. Heading the list of those indicted was Mary Sue Hubbard. She faced a maximum penalty, if convicted, of 175 years in prison and a fine of $40,000. On 29 August, all nine defendants were arraigned in the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill and pleaded not guilty.

Mary Sue never betrayed her husband, but then she had never intended to. The trial was scheduled for 24 September in Washington, but the government prosecutors and defence attorneys were still bargaining at that date and a stay was granted. On 8 October, in an unusual legal manoeuvre, an agreement was reached that the nine defendants would plead guilty to one count each if the government presented a written statement of its case, thereby avoiding a lengthy trial.

On 26 October, US District Judge Charles R. Richey accordingly found the nine Scientologists guilty on one count each of the indictment. Mary Sue and two others were fined the maximum of $10,000 and jailed for five years. The remaining defendants received similar fines and prison sentences of between one and four years.

Mary Sue would end up exiled from control of the church by its current head, a young upstart dynamo named David Miscavige, who is portrayed in Palms with equal vitriol as the Hubbards. Like Harry, he is Kreutzer’s son, but where Harry is an apostate, this boy is the true heir to the church. Palms does not give the current church leader the status of a man, but makes him into a petulant, sociopathic child. In his most disturbing scene, we see him in the moments before he kills a co-worker of Harry’s8:

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

COTY
I just wanted to talk to you. You know, I made up all the stuff about Peter [another boy, working with the resistance group The Friends, who’s Harry’s real son] being here. This is a hard time for us. Exciting, but hard. I’m sure you know about, mom being in the hospital [Grace’s suicide attempt]. There’s lots of pressure on dad, too. “Windows”, [“Church Windows”, a program produced by the church of synthiotics] the new job. Everyone thinks he’s doing a great job, though. Just extra hard when the Friends tell him a bunch of stuff that isn’t true. You know what’s funny to think about? You love food so much! (COTY reaches for bag, and takes out a set of surgical tools.) But you’re never going to eat again. Not an egg, or a strawberry. Even a little baby pea. They’re gonna come in soon, talk to you about Peter. It won’t be so bad. They showed me how, but I’m a little nervous. I’m gonna do some cutting now, okay?

The Sea Org, the top tier of Scientology is well-known for dressing in naval uniforms, and this entity started out staffing the various ships of Hubbard’s which traveled the oceans. In the last two episodes, for no given reason, Coty and others suddenly start showing up in naval outfits, with Coty’s father witnessing a ceremony where his son is inducted into a position of high rank on one of Kreutzer’s yachts, The Floating World.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

We see Coty prominently filming the wedding of Kreutzer to Paige Katz; Miscavige started out in the scientology organization as a cameraman.

Wild Palms

From Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology:

[David] Miscavige was one of the many young disciples who formed a protective shield around Hubbard at his desert hideaway, “W.” Assigned first as a “traffic Messenger,” managing the flow of communications to and from Hubbard, he showed an interest in cinematography and ultimately became a member of the camera crew, working with the Commodore on his technical films.

Retiman’s book describes many of the details of the Miscavige character that show up in Coty; making this man’s fictional counterpart a child is a reference to his precociousness and intemperateness, but something else: his short stature.

[Daivd] Miscavige was born in Philadelphia in 1960 and grew up in a modest suburban home in Willingboro, New Jersey. His parents, Ronald Sr. and Loretta, a professional trumpet player and a nurse, were Catholics who raised their four children-Ronnie Jr., the oldest, followed by the twins David and Denise, and the younger sister, Laurie-to believe in Jesus and attend Mass at least somewhat regularly. Despite his Catholic faith, Ronald Sr. was drawn to Scientology, which he’d heard about from a business contact, and began to read some of Hubbard’s books, hoping it might help his younger son. A pint-sized, headstrong little boy, David was sickly, suffering from severe asthma and allergies.

Hubbard, who encouraged parents to look at their children as men and women whose bodies simply hadn’t attained full growth-“big thetans in little bodies,” as some parents said-had never established rules about when a child could or couldn’t be audited, go to work, or audit others. A precocious overachiever, David Miscavige learned to audit when he was twelve. By thirteen, he was counseling people two or three times his age and, some recalled, giving security checks to senior Scientology executives.

Now the self-appointed head of the All Clear Unit, Miscavige was twenty-one years old and, a highly aggressive and frequently belligerent young man, had come into his own. Though he could be supportive of those upon whose approval he depended, Miscavige was mistrustful of many others, with an “almost pathological” certainty, according to one former colleague, that he, of all the Messengers, was right. To some he seemed like a reflection of L. Ron Hubbard on his very worst days, cursing and barking orders at other Sea Org members, including some staffers much older than he, or screaming at those who disagreed with him. He chewed tobacco and in meetings would frequently make a show of spitting the juice into a cup. Brennan was appalled. “As I saw him, DM was like a highly impressionable spoiled child.”

After Hubbard’s death, Miscavige would be ruthlessly efficient at consolidating his power, exiling the rival force of Mary Sue Hubbard from the church.

In May 1981, [David] Miscavige visited Mary Sue in her Los Angeles office and told her that, as a convicted criminal, she could no longer be officially connected to the Church of Scientology. It would be “for the good of the church,” as well as for the good of her husband, if she resigned, he said. Furious, Mary Sue refused and, in one often-told account, became so enraged that she threw an ashtray at Miscavige’s head. But the twenty-one-year-old was intractable.

Numerous Scientology officials, particularly those loyal to David Miscavige, applauded his initiative. It was felt that Mary Sue Hubbard had blackened the name of the church; now it was only right that she be ostracized.

This conflict is reproduced in Palms with Coty worried that he will somehow be taken from power; the public revelation that Josie killed her own daughter, making her a liability for the church; and Coty giving one of Josie’s victims the opportunity to kill her.

JOSIE
Ahoy, captain! Well, don’t you look grand.

COTY
Deidre [Coty’s sister] been cooped up too long. It isn’t healthy.

JOSIE
Has she complained? I haven’t heard a word.

COTY
Grandma, what’s gonna happen after “Church Windows”? [the sitcom on which he’s been selected to star] You know when people get tired of watching?

JOSIE
They’ll never get tired.

COTY
Don’t lie to me. In a year, I could be history.

JOSIE
What’s gotten into you?

COTY
Are there other shows being developed?

JOSIE
Well, of course there are.

COTY
For me?

JOSIE
Yes! Don’t be silly!

COTY
Well, what are they?

JOSIE (flustered)
I don’t know darling, that’s the programmer’s domain.

COTY
I want the details. Now.

JOSIE
You’re acting like a child.

COTY grabs tanning mirror, then slaps JOSIE with mirror.

COTY
Don’t you ever say that to me. Don’t underestimate me. When you killed your daughter, your pulse never rose above normal. We’re alike in that way. But my crimes will be grander. I assure you. One day, I’ll put out the sun, and make bare every womb there ever was.

Wild Palms

COTY
There is a way to pay back the woman who did this to you. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Tully?

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

The series ends with Coty screeching as the church headquarters falls about him in flames. In 1993, such an ending might have seemed a little premature. Now, finally: maybe not.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

FOOTNOTES

1 To give an idea of how much this series has fallen out of consciousness, even when a reference is made to the show, it goes unnoticed. For instance, when researching this, I came across the summary of a “How I Met You Mother” episode titled “Everything Must Go”. This is also the name of the first episode of Wild Palms, and it is a recurrent and important phrase in the show. This episode of “Mother” involves a plot detail of someone buying a painting with a frame by Anton Kreutzer, the same name of the senator of Palms, who is involved in framing, manipulating, media. One would think the possibility might be raised here that this is a small, elegant in-joke, but the compiler of the summary makes no mention of it – instead, mis-hearing the name as Anton Kreitzer (I am not a Mother aficionado, have not seen a single episode, but a transcript of this episode is definite that it is Kreutzer), and writing of a reference to an old Cheers episode.

2 Samples of his other work can be found at his web site. The frames of the comic used here I took from a sample of the first Palms strip, found at the William Gibson Message Board, in the thread focused on “Gibsonian” material.

3 The show’s title is shared with that of a well-known and reputable Faulkner novel (I have not read it – I sometimes fall into his work with ease, and sometimes I find his endless sentences brutal as triathalons). Wagner hints at his appreciation of the novel’s title in a brief moment in his Force Majeure, a book so scathing and cruel in its portrayal of Hollywood and Los Angeles life, where everyone is a thief, an opportunist, a plagiarist – all the gold rings are bronze, all the bronze is tarnished, all the rings are stolen off the fingers of the dead – that in a better world, it would disillusion a far wider audience. It was this book that Oliver Stone originally wanted to make into a TV series and, unsurprisingly, the television industrial complex demurred, prefering something a little less corrosive.

The moment is this, when Perry Bravo, a former convict who briefly becomes a cause célèbre, discovers the Faulkner on the shelves of the Force protagonist, Bud Wiggins:

He fingered The Wild Palms and said it was a title so beautiful he was going to use it himself.

4 I touch on it only briefly in the main text, to avoid getting bogged down, but the symbolism of the rhino is specific, explicit, and recurrent throughout the series. It is an important symbol, important to both factions, the Fathers and the Friends, but not an ambiguous one – both view it the same way, as an image of totemic significance. Both factions, however, see the rhino as marking themselves, and not the other as the saved. Harry has the dream of the rhino, but so does his son; this is significant to members of both factions, and marks both as figures of crucial importance to each. Each, however, views itself as something like the true church.

Kreutzer states what the rhino means to the series, in bold type, in the first episode, “Everything Must Go”:

KREUTZER
Harry do you know what the rhino is? It’s all that’s left of the unicorn. A magnificent atavism. The remnant of ecstatic myth, rough, nearly blind, utterly exquisite. I bet you think I’m a twee old bastard, don’t you?

Kreutzer’s other son, Coty, also has the dream of the rhino and this is of importance to Josie. Coty cannot reveal his dream, because this might reveal to others his great importance as an heir to the church:

COTY
I had the dream again last night…with the rhinoceros.

JOSIE
Tell anyone? (COTY nods no) Not even your dad? (COTY nods no again)

JOSIE
You’re not afraid, are you, darling monkey? If you’re afraid of the rhino, then the dream goes away. Then you’ll be like everybody else. And that’s the most terrible thing in the world.

Harry has a second dream, where he goes down to the kitchen for some milk, then sees a rhino. He runs back up to his bedroom, to wake his wife, but instead he finds Page Katz in his bed, marked with a Wild Palms tattoo. He turns her over, but she’s suddenly transformed into Kreutzer, who makes rhino noises. The dream is an omen: Harry will have an affair with Paige, he will join the Wild Palms group, and he will discover that Kreutzer is closer to him than he could possibly imagine – he is Paige’s lover, the father of his son, Coty, and his own father as well. Since the rhino marks one as someone of spiritual significance, he makes the noise of a rhino since he’s the leader of his church.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

When Harry first meets the Friends, he hears that the Friend leadership have all had the dream of the rhino as well.

TULLY
Still having the visions, Harry?

GAVIN
The rhino’s key, Harry. We all saw the rhino.

STITCH
Not everyone sees the rhino.

When members of the Friends are killed, their bodies are marked with a rhino – a mocking note: if they are members of an elect, why weren’t they saved from death? Coty leaves his toy rhino on Gavin after he kills him, and a rhino is left with the body of the Friend doctor who extracts the Go chip from Harry’s hand.

Wild Palms

When Eileen, Gavin’s wife, visits Grace, to tell her of the circumstances of the death of her husband, Gavin:

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

EILEEN
Oh, hey I almost forgot. I brought you something. Here. (hands over toy rhinoceros)

GRACE
Where’d you find this?

EILEEN
Gavin had it in his pocket when they found him. I thought it belonged to one of the kids, and then I remembered the night we had dinner here, and Coty showed us his collection of sweet rhinoceri.

Tommy gives Harry a knife with a hilt made from rhino tusk. He’ll use it to perform his first heroic act, forcing a technician to broadcast his wife’s murder by her mother, the heroic act making clear that he is member of the elect.

Wild Palms

The series began with Kreutzer explaining that the rhino is the last earthly vestige of the unicorn, and as the series ends, Kreutzer speaks in his death scene of the unicorn again, as he gives his reason for transforming himself into a hologram. There is no place for the mystic, the mythic, in the world of crude substance, and so it must leave for another plane entirely.

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
Do you know what the unicorn does when it is surrounded by hunters? It sommersaults into the nearest abyss, breaking the fall with its horn!

5 It’s easy to find an example of this, I find one at “Baudrillard and Babes at the Consumer Electronics Show”, by Lydia DePillis:

A few feet away, a tall, slim guy named Jason Silva-a self-described “epiphany addict” and “techno-philosopher” – paced a stage freestyling on the amazingness of evolution and the Internet. Then he turned on a video of himself doing it even faster against a galactic backdrop, tossing out quotes from famous futurists as he built towards a climax. “Radical openness is huge!” Silva rhapsodized. “It’s a universe of possibility, it’s gray infused by color, it’s the invisible revealed, it’s the mundane blown away by awe! We need to cultivate radical openness as a way of participating in and celebrating evolution!”

6 There are many excellent actors in the cast, which includes Angie Dickinson, Ben Savage, David Warner, Brad Dourif, Dana Delaney, Ernie Hudson, Charles Hallahan, Rondi Reed, François Chau, and Kim Cattrall. The stand-out, for me, apart from Loggia, is Nick Mancuso who does a great job despite the crippling hindrance of not being able to show emotion through his eyes – they are veiled for much of the program by the dark glasses that provide him with artificial sight. Bebe Neuwirth, as always, is given neither enough screen-time or enough to do. Robert Morse gives off a strange, beautiful menace when he sings “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” that verges on greatness – he seems able to do so much, was asked to do too little, and now, he is no longer of this earth. James Belushi, who was beleaguered with slight notices for his work, is physically, the right choice, for he is Kreutzer’s son, and should carry the same traits of bulk and belligerence, of his father, but overshadowed by a passiveness, a disinterest, that he ultimately must overcome in order to attain the role of hero. What makes the work of Belushi and the others more difficult is that the writing is designed for momentum and exposition, so it feels as if the characters are seized by the plot, rather than animating it through their own initiative.

That Loggia gives the best performance here is not simply by virtue of his qualities as an actor, which are formidable, but that there is a complexity to this character that is lacking in the others. I have emphasised the strong similarities to the character of Hubbard, but there are two speeches that Kreutzer makes which distinguish him from this real-life figure, and make him more complicated, more sympathetic than a simple villain – however contemptible his actions might be.

The first, is a speech made right after he makes his hologram presentation where a samurai attacks him, and he meets Harry for the first time. He launches into the following speech, without prompting:

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
My father owned a little clothing store, downtown L.A. Did you know that, Harry? He started out a tailor. Oh yes, the jews were the only tailors. My father was murdered by the Friends. They broke into the shop, they stole his things. They defecated in his shop, and they beat this old man, this maker of…suits. They didn’t kill him. That came…months later. He stayed alive, long enough to have a fire sale. A fire sale. In an inferno. Can you imagine it, Harry? And I’ll never forget the sight of him: death, already in his eyes, slumped on a chair. Beneath a great, colorful banner: Everything must go.

A second insightful moment happens in the second to last episode of the series, “Hungry Ghosts”, during a conversation with Harry, the only other time Kreutzer speaks of his parents. There are many references to movies, music, and novels in this series, and this garden meeting between a father and son (though the son doesn’t know it yet), calls to mind the garden meeting of another father and son, Vito and Michael, in The Godfather:

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
Everybody’s hungry. Everybody’s a hungry ghost.

HARRY
What’d ya mean?

KREUTZER
It’s a buddhist thing. Like our hell. Hungry ghosts are souls. Doomed to wander the earth, tormented by an insatiable desire.

HARRY
Should I have that developed? Sounds like a channel three sitcom.

KREUTZER
(laughs) Play the ponies, Harry?

HARRY
Once in a while. I like the exactas.

KREUTZER
Santa Anita. Lovely track. They used it during the second world war. Called it an assembly center.

HARRY
For the camps?

KREUTZER
They moved them out from there. Heart Mountain. Manzanar. The people have forgotten all about that. Pearl Harbor changed everything. Oh, mama.

HARRY
Your mother was Japanese?

KREUTZER
Just a drop. But enough to satisfy executive order 9066. They sent her to Manzanar.

HARRY
I’m sorry.

KREUTZER
And he never took us to see her, once. Crazy drunk. All the time. “Mama was in the desert”, he said, “helping government agents bury children who were bad. So we’d better stay away.” She died a few weeks before the camps were liberated.

HARRY
And your father?

KREUTZER
Cirrhosis, thank god. I still think of him, wandering the earth, speaking in tongues. The original hungry ghost.

This is a man who is the son of persecuted americans, though they are not simple victims – his father neglected his mother at her time of greatest need, and Kreutzer, rightly or wrongly, damns him for this. Here we see a hint that Kreutzer does not wish power simply for power itself, but stemming from an early sense of vulnerability, of wanting the protection of great power. His mother was persecuted by the state, and his solution is not to reform the state to make it more just, but to simply take it over, and have it serve his ends. As said before, that these complexities exist does not make his actions any less contemptible; L. Ron Hubbard was a complex man as well, and that he felt want, that he suffered, does not prevent one from judging his deeds. For the curious, Hubbard’s father was an officer in the navy, often absent from the home, and his profession may have caused his son to equal this distant idol by inventing various seafaring heroics he was supposedly involved in, as well as the idea of the Sea Org. His mother worked as a clerk. His father was not jewish and did not die of cirrhosis. His mother was not part Japanese.

A final note: In this series that is peculiarly averse to difficult issues of race and ethnicity – though it was made a year after the L.A. riots, no reference is made to those things which provoked that historical moment, and not a single character ever breaks into spanish – Kreutzer’s heritage provides one small insight. As so many of the characters end up being related to him, by the close of the series it becomes clear that a great chunk of the cast that we’ve been watching is both part Jewish, and part Japanese; the mongrel nation that has been feared for so long has already arrived. A suitable epigraph of this point is the line said by a Japanese american character of the series, Hiro, before he commits suicide to avoid falling into enemy hands: “I come from a long line of tough bastards; my grandfather raided Dachau.”

7 There is an unexpected gender asymmetry in the quality of the villains; a defining trait of many soap operas is a great villainess, and even though I don’t watch soap operas, the names of the great ones are well known to all – Melrose Place‘s Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear), Dynasty‘s Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins), All My Children‘s Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), etc. – they are women who act however they wish to achieve their own ends. One can understand the appeal of these characters in a world where so often women are shamed into restricted forms of behavior through social codes; these women have no shame, so they’ll act according to their own code to get what they want. Josie Ito should belong to this tradition, but she doesn’t. Because she has been conceived (in part, I think, because of the real-life figure she is based on) as acting solely in the service of her brother’s agenda, she lacks the appeal of being her own woman, acting for her own ends. Since neither her devotion to her brother, nor her faith are fully explored, she is simply, vividly, violently cruel – and the great female villains of this genre are more than simple sadists. Their appeal does not lie with their callousness, but because they are some of the few women characters to act according to their id, as so many men do, without restraint.

There is a separate and strange problem with the other major female character, Josie’s daughter, Grace. Her existence on the show is an unending nightmare, a series of the worst possibilities that can burden a woman: her husband starts cheating on her – despite the fact that she’s much better looking than her mate, she’s unable to keep him; her child turns out not to be her child; she commits herself to love him anyway, then she finds out that he’s a sociopathic murderer; her mother hates her; finally, her mother kills her. It is a life without salvation or relief, and what the intent here is, I’m uncertain. Perhaps an acerbic depiction of how nasty the lives of women on contemporary TV can be, in contrast to their TV husbands – Harry ends the series a hero with the girlfriend he cheated on Grace with. That there can be no possibility for anything like happiness for a good woman such as this in a soap opera, and that her best choice is to leave it, might be hinted at in an event that takes place after Grace’s death. An old lover, Hiro, who is much better looking than her husband, commits suicide, and pledges to join Grace in the afterlife; a woman like Grace can have a happiness and the companionship of a kind, good-looking man, but she needs to exit television life to have it.

8 Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear goes in detail into David Miscavige’s own strange and violent behavior that might have inspired this character. The Ron and Loretta in this section are David Miscavige’s parents:

The following year, in June, Ron and Loretta had to return to the United States for a couple of weeks. They needed someone to take care of David while they and the other children were gone. There was another American studying at Saint Hill, Ervin Scott, whose wife was also afflicted with asthma. His memory is that he agreed to let the boy stay with him. He recalls that in the first encounter David’s parents, along with his twin sister, met with him before they left. Scott immediately liked the family. The father was “wonderful and bright,” the mother was “very beautiful, with high affinity,” and the daughter was “the cutest thing.” David, however, sat at the end of the couch, unsmiling, with his arms crossed. The family wanted to make sure that Scott knew what to do in case of an intense asthma attack. “They said, ‘We have to warn you about Dave,’ ” Scott recalled. “ ‘David has episodes, very unusual episodes.’ ” The parents explained that Dave became extremely angry when he was suffering an asthma seizure. “Then they said, starting with the husband, ‘When these episodes occur, do not touch him!’ The mother reiterated, ‘Yes, please don’t touch him!’ I said, ‘What happens?’ They said, ‘David gets very, very violent, and he beats the hell out of you if you touch him.’ And the sister says, ‘Oh my God, he does beat you, really hard!’ ” Again and again, the family members emphasized that David had beaten them during an attack.

An anecdote about Miscavige’s brutal treatment of another church member during an auditing session:

In August, Scott was sitting out in the yard across from the castle and the auditing rooms on the Saint Hill grounds. He was talking to a friend of his, a Norwegian nurse. Suddenly they heard a young woman wailing. Scott remembers looking up and seeing David, his face red and the veins visible in his forehead. He had a preclear folder under his arm. Behind him was the crying girl, who was holding her side in apparent pain. According to Scott the nurse exclaimed, “He beat up his PC!”

Karen de la Carriere was also a young intern at Saint Hill, and she was directed to join the others in the internship room. “They told us that David Miscavige had struck his PC,” she recalled. “He had been removed from his internship, and we were not to rumor-monger or gossip about it. We were supposed to just bury it.”

The Brennan who relates this anecdote of violence is Larry Brennan, who was at the time on the church’s watchdog committee:

Gold Base was the only place deemed secure enough for Brennan to send his dispatches. Brennan says that in late 1982 he witnessed Miscavige abusing three Scientology executives who had made some small error. The three offenders were lined up before their leader. According to Brennan, he punched the first one in the mouth. The next he slapped hard in the face. He choked the third executive so hard that Brennan thought the man would black out. No explanation was offered.

(A few aesthetic changes have been made since publication, and some material has been added. No part of the essence of the analysis made, however, has been altered in any way. Footnote 8 was added on November 28th, 2013.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Anne Hathaway: Neither Plain Woman, Nor, Damnit, Woman of the Plains

From the assorted youtube commentary:

i wanted catwoman like the original

I assume that by “the original” you mean like the one in Batman Returns? Guess what THAT IS ALMOST NOTHING LIKE THE ORIGINAL VERSION. It wasn’t a bad character, but the history, personality, weird stupid nine lives thing–that was NEVER Catwoman. She’s supposed to be a THEIF, sometimes antihero with a somewhat soft spot for Batman.

Still, Anne didn`t have the decency to cut her hair, plus, the movie try to hard to make her likeable, she`s was supposed to be a prostitute too.

You’re dead wrong on that – Anne cut her hair on Les Miserables. Do you really think that what an actor does with their hair is up to the actor?! That’s all up to the director/stylists.

Then she should cut her hair and refuse to use hills on her own will, out of respect o the source material

“And refuse to use hills”? What does that even mean? And let me repeat this for you – what an actor wears IS NOT UP TO THE ACTOR. THAT IS UP TO THE DIRECTOR AND STYLISTS. Anne Hathaway does not decide what her outfit and hair and makeup will be like, do you actually think that? You think actors just walk on set and go “K this is what I’m wearing”

Some of them are divas, but I will give you this one, damn he or she.

Tagged , , , ,