55 Nicolas Cage Performances, Ranked by Cage Factor

I define “Cage factor” as the distinctive quality that Nicolas Cage brings to the table.  I am not ranking these performances according to how good they are, I am ranking them according to how fully they embody what it is to be a Nicolas Cage performance.  I haven’t seen some of these movies in a very long time (25+ years in some cases).  I did look at some clips to remind myself, but if you think I underestimated something let me know so I can revisit it in full.   I do have a few notable blindspots (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bangkok Dangerous, Birdy), but I’ve seen the bulk of his oeuvre.

55) Left Behind

The movie is unwatchable.  I made it 10 minutes and did not detect any appreciable Cage factor.

54) 8mm

Cage plays it straight, but more generally: fuck this movie.

53) World Trade Center

Here he’s in prestige picture plain vanilla mode.

52) Frozen Ground

Demoted this one a few slots because John Cusack outshines him.  Terrible movie.

51) City of Angels

This exceptionally shitty remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire shouldn’t exist.   Cage doesn’t help it at all.  Little or no Cage factor.

50) The Cotton Club

I haven’t seen this in a very long time.  If I remember correctly, he plays a very small role as a gangster with a dash of Cage factor.

49) Rumble Fish

Another one I haven’t seen for a very long time.  Another small performance with mild Cage factor.

48) It Could Happen to You

Not totally without Cage factor, but this is more the Rosie Perez show.  Not a good movie but it’s not the worst romantic comedy out there.

47) The Weather Man

There is some mild, understated Cage factor, particularly in the archery scenes.  Not a good movie.

46)  The Rock

Here’s he’s in full movie star mode.  Mild Cage factor.  I like the movie.

45) Lord of War

Not a great movie.  If you’re interested in the subject matter check out my friend Max’s documentary The Notorious Mr. Bout.  It does have moderate Cage factor, but nothing remarkable.

44) Guarding Tess

Now we are starting to get some real Cage factor.   Weird performance as a secret service agent.  Bad movie.

43) Gone in 60 Seconds

Another one where he’s in movie star mode, but it has appreciable Cage factor for sure.  The movie’s fine for what it is but the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds is vastly, vastly better and you should watch that instead.

42) National Treasure

Treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates!  This is Mildly Campy Cage: he rattles off obscure facts and steals the Declaration of Independence.

41) The Family Man

I have affection for this movie.  It’s like a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life, where a selfish asshole gets a glimpse of what life would have been like if he had started a family.  Significant Cage factor.  He definitely made this more interesting than a more typical romantic comedy leading man would have.

40) Red Rock West

John Dahl western noir.  I haven’t seen this in probably 20 years but I remember it very fondly and I’d like to revisit it soon.  I recall Dennis Hopper stealing the show but it has legit Cage factor.  This is more the stoic, badass Cage with a Texas accent.

39) Dog Eat Dog

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  Paul Schrader’s best at least since Auto Focus.   It’s a wild ride, but it loses points because Willem Dafoe out-Cages Cage.

38) Kick-Ass

He’s is on a leash here but it can’t not have some Cage factor when he plays a vigilante named Big Daddy who trains his daughter for vigilantism.

37) Honeymoon in Vegas

I don’t recall that I liked it very much, but I need to revisit it.   I believe it has medium Cage factor for the most part but he goes berserk a couple times.  “I’LL BE ARRESTED?! PUT IN AIRPORT JAIL?!”

36) Seeking Justice

Strangers on a Train meets Death Wish.  One of a series of recent crime-themed B movies he’s done; it has the mildest Cage factor of the bunch.

35) Fire Birds

It’s like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, except it’s Nicolas Cage flying a helicopter.  Wacky performance.  I loved the movie as a kid.

34)  National Treasure: Book of Secrets

He turns it up to 11 a couple times.  “Going to detain a blighter for enjoying his whiskey?  Bangers and mash.  Bubbles and squeak.  Smoked eel pie.  HAGGIS!!!!”

33)   Windtalkers

Super wacky movie, with lots of screaming and yelling from Cage.

32) Stolen

Another of the recent B movie wave.  He’s America’s greatest bank robber, trying to go clean, but the bad guys kidnap his daughter and force him to steal 10 million dollars in 12 hours.  It’s very entertaining and he leans into the Cage factor pretty hard.

31)  Rage

Yet another recent B movie.  He’s yet again a reformed criminal whose daughter gets kidnapped, except this time they kill her and it becomes a revenge movie.  Considerable Cage factor.

30) Drive Angry

This is more the stoic, badass Cage.  It’s so much fun.  “I told you I wanted sugar.”

29) Next

Underrated high concept action thriller with strong Cage factor.   He’s a Las Vegas magician who can see two minutes into the future.  Hijinx ensue.

28) Trespass

Another recent B movie.  It’s a Straw Dogs sort of thing, with Cage as a bourgeois milquetoast pushed to his limits by home invaders.  Strong Cage factor.  I like the movie.

27) Knowing

This is Next’s fraternal twin.  Exceptional camp.  He’s an MIT professor who figures out that a string of numbers in a time capsule correlate to major disasters, and the worst disaster of all is yet to come.  He brings the Cage factor hard.

26)  Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Less Cage factor than the first Ghost Rider movie, but a better movie.   You still get plenty of flaming motorcycle Cage howling.

25) Trapped in Paradise

“This whole time… you stand there…. with this ‘who me?’… expression… on your FAAAAACE!”  Zany movie, great comedic performance from Cage with very strong Cage factor.

24) Valley Girl

Early Cage, super legit.  He’s doing like an out of proportion comedic James Dean thing.  It’s great.

23) Outcast

This is a godawful movie and it takes far too long for Cage to reappear after an early introduction, but when he does finally show up it is truly something to behold.

22) Joe

This is a great performance by any standard.  It’s more sincere, not campy, but it’s pure Cage all the way.   He’s brooding and explosive.

21) The Trust

The Cagiest of his recent wave of crime-themed B movies.  Crooked cops rob a bank vault.  Extremely bonkers.  “OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT!”

20) Kiss of Death

Barbet Schroeder’s loose remake of the 1947 noir classic.  He’s not the lead but when he’s onscreen it is balls to the wall.   He bench-presses a stripper.

19) Bringing Out the Dead

One of my favorite Scorsese movies.  He’s a strung out ambulance driver plagued by hallucinations.  It’s less zany/bonkers and more weird and nuanced, but it’s pure Cage.

18) Amos and Andrew

This is due for reappraisal.  Race-themed satire, with Samuel L. Jackson as an educated playwright who moves into an upscale neighborhood and becomes a victim of police harassment.  A cop has Jackson’s house surrounded, thinking he’s a burglar, but when he realizes his mistake he has a hoodlum played by Mr. Cage break in and hold Jackson hostage to generate a cover story.  But Cage and Jackson realize that the plan is to kill them both so they become an odd couple team.  Extreme Cage factor throughout.

17) Adaptation

Just revisited this.  It holds up well.  Bonus points because he plays twin brothers.  It’s very offbeat Cage (more in the hyper-neurotic vein), but the Cage factor runs strong.

16) Face/Off

It was hard to rank this one.  The first act has some extremely hardcore, top ten-caliber Cage factor, but then after the face swap Cage’s performance becomes more mundane and the primary pleasure is Travolta’s Cage impression.  It’s a delightful movie, if a bit overlong.

Edit: I underrated this one, and when I get around to updating this list it will move up. Here’s what I didn’t get the first time around: once Cage becomes Travolta, his performance gains fascinating meta-Cage factor. He’s doing an impression of Travolta doing a Cage impression.

15) Ghost Rider

So much Cage factor.  I mean, he plays a daredevil who enters into a Faustian bargain and turns into a flaming skulled spirit of vengeance that incinerates the souls of evil men.

14) Matchstick Men

If he’s not losing it, he’s on the verge of losing it.  “PISS! BLOOD!” This is a sui generis performance right here.

13) Leaving Las Vegas

A more serious turn, but still bonkers.  He slurs his speech like he’s playing a village drunk.

12) Peggy Sue Got Married

Completely and totally batshit.   He brings a version of his Vampire’s Kiss madness into a movie where it’s completely out of place.  A non-Cage fan watching this movie must wonder “WTF IS HE DOING???!”

11) The Wicker Man

Neil Labute’s Wicker Man remake…. there’s no reason for it to exist except Cage factor.   It takes a while for him to let loose, but when he does, it’s transcendent.

10) Con Air

Con Air is one of the greatest American action movies, period.  The cast is stellar across the board, but Cage is the centerpiece.  He’s pure fucking hero.  “Put the bunny back in the box!!!”

9) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

The single most ridiculous accent anyone has ever done.

8) Moonstruck

I have an enduring soft spot for Moonstruck.  Cage is a one-handed, opera-loving, Italian-American baker who becomes obsessed with his brother’s fiancée (Cher) and sweeps her off her feet.  He takes romantic passion to absurd heights.

7) Snake Eyes

One of the most underrated American movies of the 90’s, I love it with my whole heart.  De Palma opens with a virtuoso 20 minute unbroken tracking shot where we follow corrupt cop Cage through an arena in the minutes leading up to a boxing match.   The shot culminates in a political assassination, and De Palma spends the rest of the movie showing us how all the assumptions we made initially were false and the whole thing becomes an autopsy of the way we watch movies.  Cage’s performance is cocky, frenetic, and totally awesome.  He has a golden cell phone.

6) Deadfall

There is no reason to watch this movie except Cage factor, but the Cage factor is nuclear.  There’s nothing else remotely like it in existence.

5) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

This is his most lurid performance, as a crack-smoking, sexually deviant corrupt cop.   I don’t think the movie is as good as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but the Cage factor is top five for sure.

4) Raising Arizona

Nic Cage does Wile E. Coyote.  The film is a comedic masterpiece and it’s overflowing with Cage factor.

3) Wild at Heart

Where to begin?  This is Nicolas Cage lightning in a bottle.  But that’s just a very small part of why it’s so great.  If you haven’t seen this, just watch it.  “This is a snakeskin jacket, and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”

2)  Army of One

Criminally neglected 2016 comedy– easily the funniest movie I’ve seen since Role Models.  It’s based on a true story: he plays a Trump supporter-type who hallucinates a message from God and travels to Pakistan to attempt to single-handedly capture Bin Laden (armed with a katana).  The Cage factor is over the damn moon.

1) Vampire’s Kiss

It’s not even close.  Vampire’s Kiss is the alpha and omega of Cage factor.   His aggressively weird, repulsive vision of yuppiedom rendered American Psycho obsolete years before it was written, and that’s just the first act.  Once he starts hallucinating that he’s a vampire it becomes a category 5 hurricane of Cage factor.

Twin Peaks: The Return part 16

First of all: LAURA DERN!!!  I don’t think I need to elaborate on that.

When I checked in with my brother last night after we had both seen the episode,  we realized that we had taken the ending very differently.   I haven’t read any recaps or commentary yet, so I’m not sure how others took it.  He thought that Audrey’s arc was a Mulholland Dr. or Lost Highway-esque dream narrative, whereas I thought that the final revelation was that she is a tulpa.  So far, we know that Diane and Sarah Palmer are both dark tulpas (as was Dougie before Coop’s return), and the Laura in the black lodge is a light tulpa.   What I got from that glorious, glorious Diane scene was that when a tulpa has been made of an individual, that individual’s consciousness is trapped within and can emerge under certain conditions.  For Diane, seeing Evil Coop’s text somehow enabled her real consciousness to take over briefly.  It seems that when the Sarah Palmer tulpa was in the liquor store and heard voices in her head, what she was happening was the real Sarah Palmer was struggling to come out and cry for help.  My reasoning for thinking Audrey is a tulpa is twofold: we now know for sure that she was raped by Evil Coop, and so it sounds like he did the same thing to her that he did to Diane.  Also, I thought that last image was a representation of the real Audrey’s dormant consciousness flirting with awareness.  I assume that the Sarah Palmer tulpa was actually made by Leland Palmer and not by Evil Coop, which would explain a lot about how she behaved in the original series (in particular, why she wasn’t more aware and protective of her daughter).  I also see my brother’s point though: there are lots of reasons to think that the Audrey’s Dance scene at the roadhouse was the culmination of a Lynchian dream.

In any case, I hope people who have been impatient about Dougie and angry about what’s happened to Audrey realize now that they should have trusted Lynch.  Even if you don’t like Dougie (which I still can’t comprehend), this payoff absolutely depended on the long development leading up to it.   “Dougie sure is talking with a lot of assurance!”   I’m just bubbling over with joy thinking about Cooper’s loving goodbye to his new family.   “I’m your dad.”   And I never would have guessed that Lynch would resurrect James Belushi so magnificently.  Inspired casting.

The Jerry Horne payoff!  The shoot out!

The contrast with the abiding trashiness of Game of Thrones actually made me appreciate Twin Peaks more.  It was like having an 80 minute fast food appetizer before being served the best entrée of your life.

From the Vault: Streaming Recommendations vol. 1

Amazon Prime

Breakdown

This is a 90’s genre masterpiece.   It’s a highway update of The Lady Vanishes, with a great Kurt Russell performance.

Suspiria

Horror fans already know this one.  It’s the most iconic of Argento’s earlier works.  Don’t expect much of a narrative: this is all about mood, elaborately staged deaths, and one of the greatest soundtracks of all time.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 40th Anniversary

If you haven’t seen the 2014 restoration of the greatest horror film ever made, you’re in for a treat.  It preserves the raw, grindhouse aesthetic but really pops off the screen.  Many previously washed out visual details have become legible, and the surround sound mix is more immersive than ever and highlights the incredible score.

Netflix

The Fury

After De Palma’s success with Carrie, he was thought of as “the telekinesis guy” and was asked to helm this Kirk Douglas project.  It’s a very different beast than Carrie: it integrates the telekinesis theme with a Jamesonian paranoid geopolitical aesthetic.   It’s a pretty divisive movie, often considered by De Palma fans to be one of his best, but also widely disliked.  I personally can’t relate *at all* to anyone who dislikes it.  It’s an overwhelming pleasure for me.  Pauline Kael famously wrote about the ending, “One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.”

Hellraiser

I assume most people have seen this, but this assumption has often proven incorrect.  Definitely, definitely, definitely see it if you haven’t.  It’s lightning in a bottle, with an alternate S&M dimension and no sympathetic characters.  Clive Barker’s three masterpieces  (this, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions) are unlike anything else in the cinematic horror genre.  His imagination is truly one of a kind.

Late Phases

Old-fashioned werewolf movie, with a blind military veteran as the protagonist.  I love it. With its legit practical effects (!) it stands head and shoulders above all the shitty CGI werewolf movies that we’ve been inundated with since CGI became a thing.

The African Queen

Back in the days before streaming, I used to watch this pretty much every time it was on Turner Classic Movies.  You’ve got salty old riverboat captain Humphrey Bogart and overbearing church lady Katherine Hepburn, you’ve got a WWI adventure story, and you’ve got a classic screen romance.  I pressed play the second I saw that it had appeared on Netflix, and it was as comforting as ever.

Cold in July

Trigger warning! Super dark, extremely compelling, twisted, unusual revenge movie starring Dexter and the late, great Sam Shepard in one of his last film performances.

Hulu

Altered States

Ken Russell’s hallucinatory 1980 freakout has aged well.  This is one of the boldest, most original studio films of the era.

Kaboom

Latter day Greg Araki pastiche.  Really fun and super weird. It’s hard to say too much without giving away plot points, but it’s a like a combination postmodern college sex comedy and cult sci-fi sorta thing.

Pontypool

Weird as fuck high concept chamber horror.  An apocalyptic zombie virus spreads through… certain uses of language.

Ghost Rider

Wildly underrated.  If you feel like freebasing some Nicolas Cage, this is your movie.  The sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, is less campy but also great.  It has less Cage amazingness but Neveldine and Taylor’s virtuoso kinetic style is on full display.

The Mangler

Undervalued Tobe Hooper classic with a delightful Robert Englund performance.  Hooper’s manic-hysterical aesthetic plus a demonic industrial laundry machine.

The Witches

A damn kids’ movie, directed by legendary avant garde British auteur Nicolas Roeg.  I loved it as a kid and I love it even more today.  I’m not a parent so I don’t really know but it seems to me like the shift towards sanitized, feel good kid’s movies is an awful development.  So many movies I watched as a kid gave me nightmares and kept me up late nervously wondering might be in the closet, and it was wonderful.  This was definitely one of them.

Buried

Ultra tight high concept thriller. Ryan Reynolds buried alive!

In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter’s Lovecraft-inspired surreal mindfuck.  It holds up very well 20+ years later.  This one should be accessible to people who don’t generally love horror.

13 Assassins

Takashi Miike genre extravaganza.  One of two remakes he did of 60’s samurai movies.   A team of 13 elite samurai confronts an army of hundreds to assassinate the shogun’s sadistic half-bother.   It has that Miike touch of ultra-depravity, but it’s also a rousing and  immensely enjoyable few-against-many action spectacle in the tradition of The Seven Samurai. 

 

Twin Peaks: Part 12

Frustration is endemic to the television serial.  One of the great joys of the serial is the way the viewer’s interest is propelled forward by cliffhangers and unanswered questions.  We all know the feeling of “oh shit, there’s a new Breaking Bad tonight!”  There’s tremendous pleasure in the cycle of being frustrated by a cliffhanger, having thoughts of anticipation building towards the next episode, and finally sitting down for the big revelation.  Sometimes a show will tease you: postpone the awaited event or answer a question with another question.  Skillful play with audience expectations can be deployed to great effect.

Lynch has made this dynamic a theme of Twin Peaks: The Return, and in part 12 it reaches a fever pitch.  A brief perusal of the internet indicates that a lot of people couldn’t stand it.  I’m not surprised.  He takes it so far that it reminds me of Haneke’s Funny GamesFunny Games is an anti-thriller that aims to punish its audience for their blood-thirsty genre expectations.  It shows us none of the action but all of the suffering.  There’s a 7+ minute scene of someone who’s been shot bleeding out on the floor.  I deliberately went to see the English-language version of Funny Games primetime Friday night at the big multiplex with as large a crowd as possible, because the audience reaction is the whole point.  I was not disappointed.  During the above mentioned 7+ minute scene, complete strangers in the audience started fighting with each other openly.  One guy stood up and threatened a group of teenagers that he would “stick all their heads up their asses.” Well played, Haneke.

In an analogous way, part 12 was anti-television.  God, where to begin.   The episode was entitled “Let’s rock,” which is an iconic line from the original series (spoken by The Arm).  Multiple storylines have built a good head of steam and we are getting close to October 1st in the show’s timeline, when we have been led to believe that the shit will hit the fan.  I think everyone expected an eventful episode.  I’ve even heard that Lynch and Frost deliberately leaked that this would be the most remarkable episode yet (someone leaked this, but we don’t know who for sure).  What we got instead wasn’t merely an audience tease; it was an all-out assault on our expectations.   The clearest way to make this case is to consider the way Audrey was reintroduced.  Sherilyn Fenn is listed in the show’s cast; we knew she would show up sooner or later.  I had seen various online comments this last week: “We’re getting down to the wire and so many things still need to happen!  So many characters haven’t even shown up yet!”   There was a lot of hope circulating that maybe Audrey will finally appear.  The show has been brutal about withholding gratification.  Basically none of the fan favorites from the original series are seeing heavy play, and when they do show up, it’s not in the way the audience wants them to.  When we finally get to hear Coop say “damn good cherry pie,” it’s overwhelmingly sad.  Audrey’s reintroduction goes beyond withholding, and approaches open hostility.  Lynch brought her back in the most abrasive way possible.  Her hen-pecked husband Charlie sits over a pile of work and complains about being sleepy while she angrily berates him because he’s not being helpful in tracking down her missing lover, Billy.  We don’t know any of the characters mentioned.  The scene goes on FOREVER.  Charlie makes a phone call (rotary dial, of course), there’s a big info dump, and we only hear his side of it.  He says “unbelievable, what you’re telling me!”, but then refuses to explain what he was told.  Audrey has a conniption.  My favorite line is when she yells at him to look in his crystal ball and find out where Billy is, and he replies, “Come on, Audrey, you know I don’t have a crystal ball.”   She emphasizes “You have no balls!  That’s why I’m in love with Billy!  That’s why I’m FUCKING Billy!”   And then when we do finally get to the roadhouse (where Audrey intended to look for Billy), instead of some kind of exposition of what’s up with Audrey, we switch to two entirely new characters talking about other characters we haven’t met.    I was cackling at this point.  Again: my reading is that he’s taken a structural feature of television serials in general and blown it up to the point of absurdity.  We love to be teased a little by a good TV show.  Lynch takes it past the breaking point several times over.

Another great scene involves Lynch himself and French actress Berenice Marlohe (she was a Bond girl in Skyfall).  Lynch often gets accused of various forms of misogyny.  I think that these critiques are ill-founded, but I’m not interested in litigating the issue right now.  A frequent accusation is that he likes to dress women up like 50’s pin ups and ogle them.  In this scene, he literally ogles Marlohe (in a pin up getup) for two solid minutes.  As for the episode as a whole, in this scene Lynch is really aggressively leaning into his critics.  Oh, you don’t like that?  You mean you don’t like it when I do THIS?!

Negative emotions often figure positively in aesthetic experiences.  Sadness and grief for tragedy, fear and disgust for horror, etc.  I’ve argued that we should understand these negative emotions as elements imbedded within complex aesthetic experiences, and that an overall aesthetic experience can be attractive partly in virtue of one or more of its elements being painful or otherwise aversive.  I think we can understand the frustrations of Twin Peaks according to this model.  Frustration is an unpleasant emotion, but imbedded in the right context, it can be quite pleasant.   Television ordinarily plays with frustration by teasing our expectations.  I’ve been engaging with David Lynch’s art since I was like 12 years old (thanks, Dad).   Part of the pleasure of approaching the new Twin Peaks episodes for me is that I still really, truly have no idea what the fuck he’s going to do.  True aesthetic surprise is an exhilarating experience that’s all too hard to come by now that we’ve passed through the postmodern singularity.   Last night’s episode really, truly surprised me.  The frustration that the narrative engendered wasn’t ultimately unpleasant for me, because it fed into this feeling of exhilarating surprise.  Like, “THAT’S HOW YOU’RE GONNA BRING AUDREY BACK!  OMG!”    I get the sense that people with overly rigid expectations didn’t share my enjoyment, and I think that’s part of the point as well.  Much like Haneke, Lynch is showing open hostility to a certain sort of audience.   He’s punishing those looking for nostalgia.

Game of Thrones thoughts (spoilers)

I’ve had mixed feelings about HBO’s takeover of creative control of Game of Thrones since the beginning of season 6.  On the one hand, Martin is in most respects a mediocre fantasy writer and the show is generally much better than the books.  He writes great characters, but he falls prey to the classic middle-books fantasy trap of burning through plot too fast and then loading up on filler (too many new, uninteresting characters, hundreds of pages of people being on the way to places).   I’m also not a big fan of ultra-gritty fantasy, with constant talk of hard cocks and so on.  I’ll take Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson over Martin any day of the week.

But on the other hand, the special appeal of HBO’s Game of Thrones does depend to a large extent on Martin’s influence– in particular, his constant subversion of narrative expectations.  Killing main characters, people on a revenge quest being killed before they achieve revenge, villains falling to other villains rather than to heroes, etc.  That’s what makes Game of Thrones what it Is.   The show has a unique ability to make you feel truly terrible, and that’s 90% of its appeal.

I really did not like season 6 very much.   It was too crowd pleasing, too readily satisfying.  It was like they finally were off Martin’s leash and the first thing they did was distance themselves from everything that made the show distinct.  I hated, hated, hated the way they brought back Jon Snow.  It was like “oh you thought your favorite character was dead, PSYCHE!  He’s fine!”   It didn’t even make sense.  All of a sudden Davos, whose primary character traits are an excess of caution and an abiding distrust of black magic, and who barely knows Jon Snow, is all gung ho in favor of using black magic to bring him back.    I’m not necessarily against the idea of bringing him back– indeed I’m sure Martin planned  something along those lines– but a cardinal rule of fantasy and horror fiction is that if someone is brought back from the dead via black magic they are never the same.  They carry the taint of death with them in some way.  In the HBO version, it’s like he’s immediately back to his old self, no harm done.  The only point I see of him having died in the first place is that his resurrection feeds into some kind of chosen one narrative relating to the Lord of Light.  But c’mon, TAINT OF DEATH, PLEASE.

This week, however, Game of Thrones became Game of Thrones again.  That devastating sea battle, beautifully timed to interrupt a kiss between fan favorites and disappoint the shit out of everyone chomping at the bit for some steamy action, was a true Game of Thrones turn.   And then Theon’s moment of cowardice, after all the work the show has done to rebuild respect for the character, was brilliant.  The action film-making was on par with the best battle sequences we’ve seen from the show.  I also really appreciated the body horror in the earlier Samwell/Jorah scene.  Welcome back, Thrones.

From the first book of the series (which I read well before the show was produced), it’s clear that the ultimate conflict will be between the old magics of fire and ice.  The dragons vs. the white walkers.  The series is predicated on a structural irony, where the Shakespearean machinations within Westeros are the narrative focus but we are constantly reminded that they are quite insignificant in the scope of the larger conflict that is slowly closing its jaws around the Seven Kingdoms.  The failing of the books is that Martin exhausted the interest of the machinations well before he was prepared to drop the hammer.  The series did not fall into this trap.   It elided all that boring crap.  Now there’s a question of whether it can execute the finale without Martin’s source material.   This week is the first time I’ve felt optimistic about the prospect.

Song to Song (no spoilers)

Song to Song is revelatory.  There’s something Malick has been trying to do for a while now, and I feel like he’s finally done it.

There are a number of tropes that are distinctive of his recent work: extreme angle shots, fisheye lens, aggressively subjective camerawork,  TWIRLING, bed sheets, couples chasing each other through sparsely decorated houses.  A lot of tomato critics respond with open mockery.   MORE TWIRLING FROM MALICK!  This doesn’t surprise me, really.  If you are unwilling or unable to engage with Malick’s recent work on its own terms, I can certainly see how it could come across as a parody of a pretentious art film.  Personally, I appreciate Malick’s not giving a fuck about what anyone thinks of the twirling.  He just keeps doubling down on it.

Song to Song reveals something deeper about what he’s trying to do with these tropes and also why many react to it so harshly.  He’s trying to capture private, intimate moments.  The sorts of things you only do when no one is watching.  This is very hard to do, because what makes a moment private and intimate is precisely its utter particularity and idiosyncrasy.  Romantic love is typically portrayed on film through more general representational categories.  To represent one character falling in love with another, a filmmaker might show the one surreptitiously watching the other doing something quietly remarkable, or might show the couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes , or might show the two triumphing over adversity as a team and then falling into each other’s arms.  The sorts of private, intimate moments that constitute the emotional progression of actual relationships are too peculiar, too uncomfortable, too illegible to be readily translated to the screen.  Song to Song is like 40% composed of exactly these sorts of moments, and I suspect that it makes a lot of viewers uncomfortable.   To engage with it on its own terms requires a level of vulnerability and openness from the viewer that many will be unwilling or unable to muster.  It’s just so fucking sincere.

I’m going to stay away from discussing too many details of the film.  I only just saw it yesterday.  Like all of Malick’s films, it needs to be seen more than once before one can even really begin to digest it.   I’ll say it’s clearly the best new release I’ve seen this year, and it’s better than anything I saw last year.  It bears a lot of structural similarities to To the Wonder.  I love To the Wonder, please don’t confuse me for a hater, but I would say this is much more fully realized work.  The acting is uniformly perfect, even Natalie Portman.  Michael Fassbender plays a sort of Lucifer character brilliantly.  Patti Fucking Smith is in the movie.  Iggy Pop is in the movie.  He films both moshing and twerking in full-on Malick style.

He says this is the last movie he’ll film without a script.  He’s got a war film coming out next. This I think corroborates my central evaluative thought: this movie is a culmination of this last phase of his career.  I am eagerly looking forward to watching it several more times over the next few months.

Reflections on Twin Peaks S03E08 (spoilers)

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It’s worth taking a minute to put S03E08 in a broader cultural context.  This week, Disney made news by firing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the new Han Solo origin film.  Lord and Miller are very distinct comedic directors who no doubt were putting an auteurist stamp on the film.  Disney claimed that they were fired due to “creative differences,” which is a euphemism for “they refused to produce something suitably generic.”  Who did they hire to replace them?  Opie.  Ron “Never Made a Good Movie” Howard.  This actually puts me in a bind, as I swore a solemn vow many years ago to never watch another Ron Howard movie, and yet I don’t see myself skipping a Star Wars movie, no matter how deliberately mediocre.

This scenario echoes the firing of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man in 2015.  They hired someone with a very distinctive artistic vision, and then fired him because he was making a movie that expressed that vision.  Warner Bros. confirmed all our worst fears this week when they came out and explicitly said that they are going to try to avoid working with auteurist directors who insist on final cut.  They want tighter studio control over the creative process, precisely so that they can calibrate their productions for maximum profitability.

It is against this increasingly dystopian cultural milieu that Twin Peaks S03E08 aired.  The show’s audience—including me—had been lulled into complacency by four straight episodes that more or less followed the same set of characters with very deliberate pacing, punctuated by moments of acute horror.  I think most of us expected a slight escalation but pretty much more of the same.  What we got instead was the most avant garde thing in the history of television.   I want to take a minute to really appreciate Showtime for facilitating the rapturous aesthetic experience I had last night.  That episode couldn’t have been cheap.  Maybe Showtime has some sort of long game business plan where word of mouth Twin Peaks buzz leads to lots of new subscribers who then decide to sample Homeland but of course get hooked (because Homeland is amazing) and keep subscribing even after Twin Peaks ends.  Maybe.  But I want to believe that at some level this is just old school patronage.  Some well-situated people fought to just let David Lynch do whatever he wants and these heroes won out over the bean counters.  This wasn’t a business decision.  This was service to humanity.   Or so I’d like to think.

There was so much going on in this episode that I don’t even know where to start.  The White Lodge and Black Lodge apparently exist in an alternate dimension.  There is a long-standing “two worlds” motif in Lynch that began with his unproduced Ronnie Rocket screenplay, where electricity is in some manner the medium to pass between worlds.  We found this idea iterated in Lost Highway, where Fred Madison and Pete Dayton appear to switch places across parallel worlds through an electrical disturbance.   We get something similar in Mulholland Drive, with the waking world/dream world dichotomy.  The motif becomes very abstract in Inland Empire, but it’s still there.   Multiple Laura Derns.  Even in Blue Velvet you have the idealized suburban world/rotting underworld dichotomy.   Twin Peaks: The Return is shaping up like a summative work, where we are getting a more direct look at the nuts and bolts of the metaphysics that pervade Lynch’s whole corpus.

The idea doesn’t sound amazing on paper: the Trinity nuclear bomb test opened up a portal to the other dimension (or something like that).  (Edit for hindsight: electromagnetic pulse fuels an explosion of fertility in the Mother?)  But the execution!  Holy shit!  It would be impossible to overstate how incredible a sequence this was.  Again, part of what’s important here is that we were all lulled into complacency.  The show had established a rhythm and a rough trajectory.  The episode started out more or less on track.  Our expectations were reinforced.  Then we get a badass Nine Inch Nails performance in the middle of the episode, and all of a sudden all hell breaks lose and we dive into the heart of the mushroom cloud and get like 11 minutes of Stan Brakhage set to Penderecki’s infinitely haunting “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”  It felt like Lynch was making contact with Kubrick here.  For one thing, Kubrick uses several Penderecki pieces in The Shining for similar emotional effect.  More directly, there’s an obvious connection with Dr. Strangelove and also with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which continues in the following sequence where the Experiment—seen previously in the glass box—spews forth a bunch of evil spirits, including BOB.

We learn that Laura Palmer is a manifestation (or host?) of a spirit of light that is created in the White Lodge as a counterpoint to BOB.  This revelation is mind-blowing, even if the details are still very unclear.  It sheds new light on the tagline “It’s happening again.”  My inference is that just as the BOB spirit jumps from host to host, so too does the Laura spirit.  The BOB spirit continuously hunts the Laura spirit in her newest manifestation.  The predatory relationship between the dark, evil appetites that BOB embodies and the light and love that Laura embodies is represented as part of the spiritual fabric of the world.  BOB’s cyclical predation of Laura is a horror we unleashed through our collective monstrousness, reaching a crescendo with the atomic bomb.

And then there’s the Woodsmen.  The radio broadcast of “This is the water and this is the well…” reminded me of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.  I doubt there’s a deliberate connection there, but it was pretty vivid for me.  The audiovisual onslaught of the whole last part of the episode was enthralling.  I felt it in my bones.  It was nightmarish in the best possible way.

The soot-covered Woodsmen clearly evoke the blackened alley dweller from Mulholland Drive, about whom we are told in the Winkie’s diner scene, “he’s the one who’s doing it.”  One of Lynch’s most distinctive tropes is the byzantine web of shadowy figures pulling the levers of power behind the scenes.  In Mulholland Drive this is memorably represented through a bizarre set of characters holed up in weird little rooms relaying phone calls until they reach the kingpin figure, who is perched like a Bond villain as he awaits the call.  Or in Wild at Heart there’s the network of twisted assassins who commission hits with ceremonial silver dollars.  What’s emerging in Twin Peaks: The Return is a sort of origin story for the evil spirits that ultimately lie behind these webs of power.  It’s the soot-covered man in the alley–an agent of the Black Lodge– who’s really pulling the levers.

Sometimes Lynch’s shadowy figures are given motives—typically highly particular and very dark appetites, like Frank Booth’s mommy fixation.  But these motives are in a way just McGuffins.  What really drives these characters is the pure joy of evil, and BOB is the distilled essence of this drive.  Last night we witnessed his creation.  And it was the best thing ever.