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J.M. TYREE
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

RACHEL YANKU

What made you want to start writing critical essays about film, and what made you specifically want to write about the return of Twin Peaks?

J.M. TYREE

I should probably mention that I don’t differentiate between criticism and creativity because criticism must be a creative act. It’s all a way of trying to understand ourselves and our world. For me writing about art is an act of discovery, like visiting a cathedral. It’s like a pilgrimage. The meaning of the pilgrimage is partly about the pilgrim, partly about the journey, and partly about the place you’re discovering. You want to learn all about it - you try to find out everything that’s known about what you’re seeing - but I think you wind up learning more about yourself. Twin Peaks is a good case study. It takes me back to my own teen-aged years, when I watched the show with my mom, who was a big fan. For viewers of my age group, Twin Peaks: The Return also involves a return to our own past selves. It’s like time travel or travel between dimensions. We were around the age of Laura Palmer when she was murdered and I think everyone identifies with her and her friends. High school is the center of American life, after all.

RACHEL YANKU

Does writing about TV differ than writing about film for you? Or are they one and the same?

J.M. TYREE

Lynch tried to make cinema out of television. That this might be possible seems obvious today but it sure wasn’t when he started out on Twin Peaks. It’s hard to explain to younger people how bad television was in the 1980s and how you couldn’t escape from it, there were very few alternatives to watching reruns and nightmare banalities that seemed almost sociopathic in their programming. Anyway, Lynch helped bring cinema into the language of serial entertainment, that is one of several reasons why I think of him as Hitchcock’s inheritor (but also Hitchcock’s harsh critic, especially along gender lines). But Lynch was defeated by television, in the second season of Twin Peaks the show was basically wrecked because nobody in American television could conceive of the idea of a limited series like they had in Britain, with shows that ended when the story was over, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Instead the show had to continue past its logical narrative conclusion because those were the conditions under which you had to make a show at that time, it was the assembly line and the commercial tyranny of corporate sponsors on the networks. Even now, in our current golden era of television, these bad old impulses are making a comeback, with senselessly repetitive second seasons and slow-as-molasses story development. Probably more things happen in the first hour of Twin Peaks: The Return than in the entire series of Iron Fist or those other Netflix superhero shows.

RACHEL YANKU

What was your favorite TV show as a teenager? To what extent have your tastes changed, and to what extent has writing about television/film affected your tastes? What type of genre speaks to you the most?

J.M. TYREE

Everything begins with The Twilight Zone. There’s a sense in which you return to your roots in your tastes after you get educated and the fear of liking trash wears off. The more I learn about film history, like the German Expressionist horror classics by Murnau and Lang, and the more classic film criticism I read, such as the great book The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, or Cinema and Experience by Miriam Hansen, the more I realize that my original impulses towards horror stories and stories that detached themselves from realism were more interesting than I was taught in school and in college. David Lynch and W. G. Sebald were as obsessed with the idea of mirror worlds, doubles, and dreams-within-dreams as Edgar Allan Poe. The silent Expressionist film The Student of Prague is a bit like a very early version of Twin Peaks and is based on a Poe story called "William Wilson." Sebald wrote in his book Vertigo that maybe Kafka had seen The Student of Prague at a screening in the 1920s, and had seen an image of a man dueling with a version of himself in a mirror. The only difference between me in high school and me now is that now I’m just as obsessed with Sebald as I am with Lynch and Poe. You start to get really interested in high and low culture and the stuff in the middle begins to seem uncool. That’s part of becoming new wave and embracing what Jeff Vandermeer calls “the new weird.”

RACHEL YANKU

Did you read any critical film essayist as a young adult, and if you did who was the most moving?

J.M. TYREE

I always try to emulate the late, great Roger Ebert, whose television shows about the movies I watched avidly growing up, looking for clues about how to live a more interesting life. He was the guy who liked almost everything that was good, high or low, domestic or foreign, he told you what to see and how to watch it, and he made it seem like ideas mattered so much that you could take the risk of disagreeing with somebody over a work of art. Above all he didn’t try to alienate people with his ideas, he invited them in. I find that lack of fear refreshing but I also liked how he expected his audiences to know the classics and care about culture rather than dismissing things from the past. I miss him so much!

RACHEL YANKU

What director would you like to speak to right now and why?

J.M. TYREE

I’m going to say something that sounds more provocative than I intend, which is that I don’t think great artists are really the best people to talk to about their art and sometimes they just aren’t very good company at all. That said, I would love to have a coffee with Lynne Ramsay, if I could get over my feelings of awe, which she would find very annoying. She’s one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, she’s a few years older than me, and her movies, like Morvern Callar and You Were Never Really Here, have the kind of uncompromising vision that I associate with directors like Lynch. She’s also like Lynch in that she enters into the realms of dreams, visions, and nightmares and lets the images do the talking rather than relying on scripts or theatrical concepts. I think Lynch and Ramsay are the true inheritors of the subjective camera of Hitchcock and Murnau, the cinema of the dark inner life.


J.M. TYREE is the Nonfiction Editor of New England Review and the coauthor of Our Secret Life in the Movies (with Michael McGriff, A Strange Object), an NPR Best Book of 2014. His most recent book is Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London (Stanford University Press).


RACHEL YANKU is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.



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