Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Midnight Movie Monographers: MAURA McHUGH

Irish writer Maura McHugh is an award-winning creator of horror and fantasy fiction in various forms: short stories, plays, screenplays and comics. Her first story was published in 2004 and, since then, her short fiction has continued to flourish in magazines and theme anthologies, while her work in comics has included collaborations with Kim Newman and Tyler Crook (WITCHFINDER: THE MYSTERIES OF UNLAND), Star St. Germain (THE NAIL), and Leeann Hamilton (JENNIFER WILDE: TULPA) and Stephen Downey (JENNIFER WILDE: UNLIKELY REVOLUTIONARIES). The titles of two of her fiction collections in particular, TWISTED FAIRY TALES and TWISTED MYTHS, with their evocations of endangered innocence seem to point the way to her own Midnight Movie Monographs selection - David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)...  

At present, there are four books out in the Midnight Movie Monographs series. Of those initial four titles, yours made the most immediate sense to me - because it's an acknowledged cult film, and also because it's a film that offers more than enough food for thought to generate a book. Given that you could have chosen any horror or fantasy film to write about, was it an easy choice for you?

Initially, I drew up a short list of films I'd like to write about and sent it off to the series editor Neil Snowdon. We had a short conversation and settled on TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (TPFWWM). We decided on it before the new series was announced. In fact, because of the wealth of information about TWIN PEAKS, and the the two series preceding the movie, it was an intimidating choice. It added a great deal of work to the project. But I was prepared to do that as I admire the movie so much.

When did you first see the film? What was your initial reaction? 

I watched it on DVD after it was released, and I loved it - as much as you can love a horrendous fever dream! Lynch is one of my favourite horror directors, because his films always affect me deeply. His ability to instil unease and sever your anchors to safety are unparalleled.

TPFWWM was not a commercially successful film, despite following close on the heels of the TV series. But it seems to have had a profound influence on the way subsequent films began allowing themselves to tell their stories - allowing more fantasy to interweave with reality, allowing for more ambiguity and darkness. What do you see as its particular importance?

I think people forget that TWIN PEAKS landed like a missile into the rather humdrum television landscape of 1990. This is long before we had "event series" like we get today, when cinema was the prestige platform for actors. HBO did not start making outstanding TV drama until later in the 1990s. 

TWIN PEAKS masqueraded as a murder mystery procedural, with offbeat characters in a small town atmosphere, but it was wrapped up in a surrealist vision of the malleability of reality. Mark Frost and David Lynch (when they were in full control) were a great team as they had Frost's expertise with the television format and dialogue married with Lynch's skewed artistic visuals. It was a hugely innovative series for American television at the time. It opened up what was considered acceptable for a network TV audience.

It also came at a time when the Cold War went into rapid defrost, and a new millennium was visible over the horizon. TWIN PEAKS appeared like a cosy 1950s cartoon sitcom world, but it was a bright facade plastered over a dark seam of betrayal and exploitation.

Then along came the movie in 1992, and Lynch (with script co-writer Robert Engels) ripped back the layer and exposed the murder and abuse at the centre of the TV show. It was a huge shock to the fans, and the critics. Many of the people who loved TWIN PEAKS were probably unfamiliar with Lynch's previous work, and the fact that he does nothing the same way twice. We got an avant-garde, violent, reality-smashing movie centred on a poignant and profound performance by Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer, spiralling toward her inevitable death.

Is there a scene in the film you found particularly captivating?

There are a number of scenes that transfixed me at the time. The scene where Mrs Tremond and her grandson appear to Laura in full daylight, which is the first moment during Laura's sequence of the film where her boundaries of reality are fully breached. Then the subsequent dream sequence where they guide her through the various entrances into the Red Room. This leads to Laura understanding exactly what is happening to her. And of course the 'Pink Room' sequence, which induces that sense of being in an altered state.

Has your response to the film changed over time? Did the act of writing the book change the way you look at it?

I re-watched all of Lynch's work, and in particular the way he evolved up to TP:FWWM. The movie is a turning point for him, but it made it harder for him to get his projects made. I think it also resolved him to continue making the films he wanted to make. Pouring over his work and watching the film very carefully multiple times deepened my appreciation of his methods. He creates a structure but opens himself up for synchronicity and trusts his artistic instincts, even if his images don't make 'sense' to others (or even to him). Lynch is an artist first and foremost. He paints the image and hangs the painting - then it is up to the audience to interpret.

There are so many different ways that a writer can approach writing about a specific film, and there might even be more ways available to someone like you, who also writes their own original creative work. In writing about this film, what decided the approach you took to writing it?

Over the years I've done a lot of academic work, so I really enjoy watching films, analysing them, interrogating my reaction to them, and learning from them. This informs my own creative work. Lynch has been an important touchstone for me. 

Yet, I never thought of doing anything but a deep dive into the film - there is enough strangeness in TPFWWMI was like Laura entering the picture frame and going through the door, and it was a disturbing world to enter. I had quite a lot of dreams about the film, so it began to inhabit my mind when I was writing about it. 

I could have engaged with this in a more creative way, but I would only be a second-rate Lynch. Instead, I was grateful for the inspiration without co-opting it.

Did the process of writing your book result in any particular eurekas you’d like to point out, or hint at? In other words, was the process of writing the book illuminating for you?

Every project brings unique challenges and moments of revelation. This is the first long-form critical work I'd written since my MA thesis, so there's always the fear that you will not be up to the task. I wanted to do a good job because the film has meaning for me. 

Writing it deepened my admiration for Lynch's attitude to creating art: do it and move on to something else. If you want to return to your universe, go at it from another angle. What compels you? Do it even if it's unpopular. It's hard to play the long game, but time has proven Lynch correct in his approach to TP:FWWM. But are most of us willing to go through a career desert to stick to our principles? Sometimes we can and sometimes we can't. Of course, Lynch just turns to painting, or making music... or any of his many other creative outlets. Film is not his first mode of expression.

What approach did you take to writing about the film? Personal, subjective analytical, journalistic? Do you write about it in the context of David Lynch’s other work or mostly as a stand-alone work?

I looked carefully at what Lynch was doing in all his work leading up to TPFWWM, and when I was writing about the film, I also remembered to take it as an intact artifact. Yes, it is part of the TWIN PEAKS world, but it is an exceptional piece of art that exists at an angle to the original series.

I tended to engage with it on a visual/emotional level: what was on the screen and how did it make me feel? Nothing is on the screen is accidental. Lynch places everything exactly (he makes a lot of the props himself) - but that doesn't mean he understands why he does it. He's often trying to conjure a non-rational experience, so he trusts his artistic instincts without second-guessing how he achieves it... at least, that's my impression!  Plus, the soundscape of all of Lynch's films are hugely important and informative, so I also listened to what the film was saying that way. 

Did you start writing with a knowledge of what kind of book it was going to be, or did that come about via process?

Funny enough, often the structure will reveal something to you. I worked out I wanted an introduction, a section on Lynch, a section on his career up to TWIN PEAKS, and the largest section to be on TPFWWM. During this process I realised that this broke down nicely regarding the 'poem' in the film: 

Through the darkness of future's past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds...
'Fire walk with me.'

Each line became a subtitle for each section. And it fit.

I pondered the work for a long time before edging up to writing it. It wasn't written in a linear fashion... some sections prompted thoughts on previous sections, but mostly the TPFWWM part was written in one intense period. I pretty much isolated myself from the world (except for electronic communication) when I was writing it. It was just me, the laptop, and Lynch's work.

I read quite a lot of the published critical works about Lynch in the run-up to writing, but I paid more attention to Lynch's creative output, and his accounts of his career and work. I ignored most of the online outpourings.

I know how to write an academic text, but I wanted to walk the line of writing an accessible piece of work that was informed but not weighed down by research. I wasn't interested in tearing down other theories. I was hoping to open up and explore the film, not collapse it to one interpretation. The film pretty much defies that approach anyway.

One of your original works of fiction is a collection called TWISTED FAIRY TALES, and I can’t help drawing a connection between a work like this and a work like TPFWWM, which in some ways is about the inner life of a young woman, a girl, and the perversion or twisting of her innocence. Are you drawn to this film because it resonates with aspects of your own creativity, or inner life - or might it be the other way around, with Lynch’s work inspiring you?

The closest I can explain is that Lynch is one of the only directors who puts up on the screen how the world feels to me a lot of the time. That doesn't mean I've been in the violent horrors he often depicts, by the way, in case people are worried for me! It's a sense of recognition. Many films are enjoyable or challenging, but they are often disposable or forgettable (and there's nothing wrong with that, either). That's not how I experience Lynch's work - even those that are not entirely successful. 

Have you given thought to another film you might care to write about at this length? 

Yes I have, but TPFWWM would be a hard act to follow. There are so many layers to Lynch's films, and they are receptive to multiple viewings. I highly doubt I would take the same tack with another film project.

If I've learned anything from Lynch, it's "Don't repeat yourself."

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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