Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Twixt (2011) dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Logline: A nearly washed-up horror fiction writer arrives in a foggy, off-kilter small town for a book signing. He sticks around to solve a mystery, write a collaboration, dream a few dreams, hang out with E. A. Poe, and battle some (personal) demons. 

Twixt, Coppola's latest digital feature film/experiment, has not been very well received on the festival circuit. On the one hand, this reaction makes a sort of sense: the film has an extremely idiosyncratic visual style that borders on the inept, supporting a narrative that is purposefully pulpy when not obscured by the haze of dream logic. On the other, the negative reactions reek of dismissal based on rather impermeable definitions of how a film should look and operate. What I find: Twixt is a brilliant, fascinating film, as personal as it is quietly revelatory.

But it's not really a horror film. To be sure it has all of the trappings and atmosphere of one: ghosts, vampires, child murders, foggy towns, midnight strolls. However, these elements serve as a sort of associative window dressing, rather than agents of fright or unease. At its core, Twixt is a lovely, melancholy exploration of the creative process and the perversion that creativity must suffer when transformed into physical product.

So Val Kilmer plays Hall Baltimore, a "bargain basement Stephen King" who arrives in the town of Swann Valley for a book signing. Swann Valley, being itself a third-rate Twin Peaks infused with a bit more mundanity, has no bookstore but instead a hardware store with a book section. The book signing fails to be a complete bust, for while there Baltimore meets the local sheriff (Bruce Dern) and learns of the recent murder of a young girl, harkening back to the town's proud tradition of child slayings. Soon enough, Baltimore and the sheriff join their untalented minds together to craft a novel about the case, with the surefire title The Vampire Executions. The film, the book-that-is-being-written-during-the-film, and the book itself intertwine across the running time, creating a metacollage that makes it difficult--and maybe superfluous--to pin down which events are happening in which text. The film's loose reflections on creativity and the construction of artistic narrative (guided by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe) are butted up against the pulpy mystery of the novel's plot/the film's plot. This is disorienting and is probably partly to blame for some of the negative reaction the film has garnered: if one mistakes the peripheral mystery plot as What It's All About, one is strapping one's self in for collision with disappointment.

Even though it may look that way (especially visually; see below), Twixt is not a film all too concerned with surfaces. It's not a film about a mystery, but about the reason behind why one is carried along by its clues and revelations. And for a film that is ostensibly about a writer writing a book, it's worth noting how little time is actually spent on the process of writing. Instead of the written product, the film values the imaginative process of creating that narrative in the mind and unconscious--to actually put the imagination down on paper, if possible at all, is not tenable without a cheapening, an abasement of the original vision (either due to natural inability or the forces and expectations of the market consuming your writing). We are privy to one actual scene of Baltimore composing, a straight-to-the-camera montage wherein he drunkenly struggles to put down the first words of his outline (Kilmer is in top form here, and throughout). He finds himself unable to do so--the previous night's dream, in all its subtle melancholy and eccentricity, cannot be conveyed by "The night was humid." When Baltimore finds his moment of redemption and completes his character arc it is through his dream, not through his completion of the manuscript. His novel, a product, can only go on to do "okay business." The film seems to find this state of things inevitable, and brushes it off as smilingly as it can--perhaps you have to sell out your dreams a little, choke them up with stock plots and resolutions, in order to get by. But this turn doesn't have to ruin what can be gained through the imaginative construction of narrative. The film's resolution devolves into a hokey pulp horror moment, but it's done with a grin. The narrative's real conclusion was back in the dreamworld (a conclusion that autobiographically mirrors a tragedy in Copolla's own life), and we're allowed to indulge in it. It's hard for me to see the film as making a case against the written word and its limitations. Rather, it seems clear in its argument that while our words may be corrupted, the purity of our visions remains.

There's also the film's visual aesthetic to grapple with. To say the least: it is a style that will not immediately appeal to all. The film has been shot on medium-grade digital cameras and has that slightly bland, cheap consumer feeling to it in certain scenes. Baltimore's dream strolls through the town at night are shot primarily in black and white (with garish red accents applied to certain objects (mostly blood), like in Sin City (2005) or Schindler's List (1993), but it's more effective here when subtle: a pink rouge coloring the cheeks of Elle Fanning's lonely character). Significantly, these dream sequences are composed of live action video with static, rendered backgrounds that give one the feeling of watching actors moving around in a Windows 98-era video game (some shots look uncannily like screencaps from the classic, atmospheric point-and-click adventure Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland).* Visually, it's a logical extension from the work Coppola was doing in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) (with its towers of blue flame and superimposed silhouettes of the hairy-palmed Count), but here it's so much more endemic to the environment and material. Twixt is a dream--it looks like one, operates like one, and resolves (or fails to resolve) itself like one. Like the best of dreams, it fades only partially upon waking, its images and spirits continuing to mull around behind our eyes.

*Apparently these dream sequences were filmed in 3D (or maybe post-converted?) and projected that way theatrically. I did not see the film this way, so can only imagine that the 3D makes these sequences appear even more jarring (I have trouble believing that the 3D would soften the images' peculiarity).

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