The Way Back

Art as a buoy, and a trap, in “I Saw the TV Glow” and “Ghostlight.”

A subplot from David Lynch’s limited series “Twin Peaks: The Return” has bearing on Jane Schoenbrun’s “I Saw the TV Glow.” Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), one of the ingénues of the original “Twin Peaks,” is now a middle-aged woman stuck in a stifling marriage. She doesn’t appear until late in the season’s 18-episode run, and her entire narrative concerns her efforts to talk her husband into taking her to a bar to find a lover. Audrey’s conversations with her husband are nonsensical and stretch out over a handful of episodes, interspersed with many other threads. Confounding even by Lynch’s standards, Audrey’s story annoyed even the filmmaker’s fans.

What arose through the repetitiveness of Audrey’s arguments with her husband was a sense of her being trapped in unreality. The futility of Audrey’s attempts to achieve anything suggested a frustration dream. Was Audrey still in her coma from season two, which aired over 20 years earlier? The disturbing conclusion to Audrey’s story leaves quite a bit unresolved, but it suggests an imprisoned consciousness. More than one consciousness was imprisoned or suspended in “The Return,” and the imprisoning agent for Lynch seemed to be nostalgia: a longing for something that barely existed to begin with. And longing for something you never had or can’t have is a trap.

Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece threw a gauntlet to filmmakers, illustrating new avenues for telling nontraditional stories. “Twin Peaks: The Return” is a mammoth act of coitus interruptus, of suspension, of texture, of grace notes, of anti-climax. It is composed of shards of incident that sometimes wind in on themselves, sometimes don’t, sometimes crisscross with other incidents, sometimes don’t. With “I Saw the TV Glow,’ filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun steps up to Lynch’s challenge, fashioning a shifting blend of character study, thriller, and surrealism that is riven with narrative trapdoors.

 

Lynch’s characters suspected that they were trapped in dreams, or perhaps within Lynch’s production itself. Schoenbrun particularizes that alienation to gender dysphoria and queerness. Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) long for the implicitly queer YA soap opera that united them as teenagers in the mid-1990s, “The Pink Opaque,” which suggests a blend of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed,” but they aren’t merely fiending for the show’s analogue pleasures and inclusive mythology.

Maddy believes that the show was awakening something in them, or perhaps that it was reality and that their current existence was manufactured by the show’s villain, a moon-faced demon called Mr. Melancholy who is clearly modeled after the eponymous location from Georges Méliès’ 1914 fantasy, “A Trip to the Moon.” In Schoenbrun’s construction, a longing for a show becomes a metaphor for physical displacement. Or: Schoenbrun weaponizes the current nostalgia fetish industry and turns it against itself, portraying media as a salve, a wellspring for actualization, and a trap all at once.

Early in the film, Owen (played at first by Ian Foreman) confesses to Maddy that he knows something is wrong with him inside. The casualness of this declaration is wrenching, suggesting that Owen is arriving at this self-hatred through exhaustion after years of trying to make sense of himself. Maddy tells him that she likes girls, warning Owen not to get his hopes up over her, while he says in lieu of a sexual drive that he likes TV shows. It’s one of the film’s best lines, suggesting that a pop cultural obsession is a way station, a place for a consciousness while in agony. “The Pink Opaque,” with its magical teens bounded by a prophecy and hounded by monsters, seems to reflect Owen and Maddy’s isolation back to them in the guise of a kind of folklore.

An early sequence succinctly portrays Owen and Maddy’s bonding: Owen walks along a high school corridor while Caroline Polachek’s mournful yet exhilarating “Starburned and Unkissed” plays on the soundtrack. Handwriting appears over the image as Owen and Maddy exchange notes about “The Pink Opaque.” Owen isn’t allowed to stay up late enough to watch the show, and so Maddy makes VHS tapes for him, with synopses and mentions of “monsters of the week.” This poignant montage communicates years of camaraderie in a matter of moments. It’s the sort of directorial flex — an ostentatious wedding of sound and image — that young filmmakers adore. In Schoenbrun’s case, this flourish cuts to the heart of pop culture at its best: as a shared language.

Schoenbrun doesn’t go in for a lot of plot apparatus, which may annoy people who’re expecting the film to conform to the more overtly visceral rules of horror cinema. “I Saw the TV Glow” is composed of several episodes set over 25 or so years, following Owen and Maddy as they age into disaffected young adults haunted by their love for “The Pink Opaque.” The show merges with Owen and Maddy’s neuroses to become a kind of third entity: an internal theater of horror. In the actual TV show of “The Pink Opaque,” the moon man is a dude in an endearingly lame costume. In Owen and Maddy’s imaginings, it is one of the more terrifying demons in recent cinema, with a shifting face and granular textures and a booming voice that suggests bottomless bitterness.

After disappearing for years, Maddy reaches out to Owen convinced that “The Pink Opaque” is real and that they are actually its protagonists, though they’ve been lulled by that moon thing into the drab entrapment of their current existence. Maddy’s sense of not belonging is a metaphor that Schoenbrun allows us to ponder for ourselves. The same can be said of Owen’s increasing suspicion of having denied something intrinsic to his being. A late, bold flourish borrows heavily from David Cronenberg: a character rips out of his own body a pink force that might be the hidden essence that he’s spent years quietly killing with conformity to mainstream social expectations, whether they pertain to gender, sex, or working anonymous 9-to-5 jobs that suggest purgatory.

As “I Saw the TV Glow” grows more hopeless, Schoenbrun leans harder on Lynch. Schoenbrun borrows the penchant that “Twin Peaks: The Return” had for musical interludes that comment on the action, suggesting requiems, and for symbols that are mysterious and tactile at once, such as a burning TV that signals Maddy’s disappearance and the heartbreakingly blunt graffiti that tells Owen that “there is still time.” The totems and wounded music, sort of appropriate to the period, sort of not, and forlorn characters and pregnant pauses and unexpected ellipses allow us to feel the characters’ fear that their lives are permanently wasted—unsalvageable. I’m guessing that many people of many bearings can relate to that feeling. It’s the feeling that drives us back to old TV or an old song, looking to recapture that which never was to begin with.

Most filmmakers don’t emulate Lynch and get out alive, Schoenbrun, in their second feature after “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” proves themselves to be a profoundly confident stylist — a conjurer of a kind of mournful ecstacy. Don’t be surprised if “I Saw the TV Glow” grows into a generational landmark.

 

 

Schoenbrun’s pitiless ending suggests that art isn’t always enough to lead us back to the mainland, while Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s “Ghostlight” is more optimistic. In this film, a family rocked by tragedy returns to life through the camaraderie of mounting a local production of “Romeo and Juliet.” It sounds cheesy, and the film isn’t entirely without cheese, but that’s part of its shaggy charm and power. I work in a theater and, let me tell you, some of this cheese is true to life. There’s something appealingly old school about “Ghostlight.” It feels like an American indie of 25 years ago, in the vein of Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me.”

Dan (Keith Kupferer) is a fiftyish, heavy-set construction worker with kind, lost-looking eyes; his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen) is a teacher who looks exhausted with her role as the family’s fount of stability; and Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is their 16-year-old daughter, who is intelligent, talented, and given to explosions of rage. So is Dan, who is laid off from work at nearly the same time that Daisy is suspended from school. We learn that a member of their family has recently died, Daisy’s teenage brother. The particulars of the boy’s death are unusual and parsed out by O’Sullivan and Thompson gradually. The death suggests a parallel to “Romeo and Juliet,” and so when Dan begins to play Romeo, it becomes an avenue for him to empathize uncomfortably with his son.

Kupferer, Mallen, and Mallen Kupferer are a real family, and O’Sullivan and Thompson are a couple who have themselves faced loss. This context informs “Ghostlight” with biochemical intimacy. Many scenes have curveballs that suggest real life instead of three-act plotting, such as the quiet way that Sharon reacts to Dan when she learns he’s in a play. Emotional explosions seem to come from nowhere and they are more intense than one may expect, and they imbue “Ghostlight” with a volatility that keeps it from getting too cute. Also pivotal is the fact that this family looks and behaves like regular people. Get a movie star anywhere near this project and the force of it might pop.

When Dan finally performs Romeo’s suicide scene, he isn’t too good, he doesn’t magically morph from a construction worker into a polished actor. We feel his effort to transcend his own expressive limitations, and when he does the moment of actualization is profoundly moving. O’Sullivan and Thompson take a risk near the end of the film, potentially disrupting their delicate realism for a flourish that suggests not only a reckoning for Dan but an acknowledgment of a higher mercy from the stars.

“I Saw the TV Glow” is playing at Movieland and available on demand. “Ghostlight” is currently playing at West Tower 10 and Regal Virginia Center.

 

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