The Unknown Girl

This is the first movie from the Dardenne brothers that I’ve outright hated.  I was starting to feel weary of them before seeing it.  Okay, I get it: no music, handheld photography, people riding around on mopeds, moral and/or spiritual parables.  I would say Rosetta is very good, The Son is tremendous, and The Kid with a Bike is decent (finally some variation in their style), while L’Enfant is overwrought and their other stuff is forgettable.  The clearest antecedent of The Unknown Girl in their body of work is La Promesse, which is also a wankfest of white guilt.  In La Promesse, the son of a man who exploits migrants insists on keeping a promise he made to one of his father’s victims on the brink of death to protect the man’s family.  In The Unknown Girl, a white doctor refuses to open the door for a black woman seeking help in the middle of the night, and that woman–later revealed to be an undocumented immigrant– is killed the same night.  The doctor becomes hellbent on discovering the woman’s identity and the truth of what happened to her.  The film tediously follows her around town as she reveals herself to be an astonishingly good detective who immediately encounters all the key players through pure happenstance and gradually guilts them into revealing what they know.  Surprise: everyone has failed the dead woman.  The final revelations are convoluted yet predictable and in no way justify the amount of buildup that precedes them.

The Unknown Girl is overflowing with smug moral narcissism.  It imagines that it’s a moral achievement to seek closure for oneself as a complicit middle class white person through extensive wallowing and empty symbolic gestures.  Situate this film in the contemporary political context and it just becomes unbearably cloying.  The title of the New York Times review of the film is “The Hard Road of Decency in The Unknown Girl.”   I don’t think this is intended as sarcasm (the review is positive), but taken as sarcasm it hits the nail on the head: this film finds moral triumph in ineffectual self-flagellation as a response to atrocity.  It’s like Haneke’s Cache without teeth.


When I was growing up, I was obsessed with the horror section in my video store.  I would walk up and down the aisle and look at all of the grotesque cover art that promised something beyond my imagination. These movies were forbidden and mysterious. My friends and I rented every single movie in that aisle—the more ridiculous and nasty, the better. Shoddy B-movies became beloved favorites that we quoted constantly. Every once and a while we’d stumble into a great film. I still remember how the original Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre cut through the noise when I first saw them. They stunned and captivated me.

I miss real horror movies. Most modern horror films lack originality and commitment. They aren’t exciting or dangerous. If it’s not the bland franchise movies at the multiplex then it’s the over-serious art house releases that critics say “reinvent the horror genre” but are actually meant for people who don’t even like horror (I’m looking at you, It Comes at Night). The only standouts last year were The Witch, Don’t Breathe and 31. Everything else I could live without. I was not at all interested in the new It movie when I first heard about it. I assumed it would be yet another entry in the endless stream of PG-13 horror reboots, remakes and sequels.

The Lititz Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania posted a Facebook message after finding red balloons tied to sewer grates around town. The playful message made national news and freaked out the teen girls who executed the prank. When I saw this story on the news, I got really excited that a little red balloon tied to a grate got everyone so worked up. It felt like an urban legend come to life but it came about organically, not as a marketing ploy. Once I got the sense that this movie was already permeating the national psyche I really hoped it might turn out to fit into the great American Nightmare tradition in horror – horror that taps into something deep and dark in our cultural subconscious. I looked a little deeper and saw that the cinematography was done by Chung-hoon Chung, who shot nearly all of Chan-wook Park’s films, including Oldboy and last year’s masterpiece The Handmaiden. SOLD.


Early in the film I was reminded of the Netflix series Stranger Things, which pays homage to Stephen King and is steeped in 80’s nostalgia. I liked Stranger Things but thought that the nostalgia was too front-and-center. What’s surprising about It is the way that it subverts its nostalgia. It shows the ugly side of 80’s childhood. It’s not sanitized. It examines cruelty and bullying in a painful way that cuts right through the cuddly version of the 80’s that mainstream film and television trade in. The casual homophobic slurs, racial violence and communal slut shaming that occur in the film are jarring and disturbing. This aspect of the time period is rarely depicted in genre film, and it’s very effective here. The stark portrayal of cruelty isn’t one-dimensional: it also serves to bond the characters in a poignant way and helps the audience feel for the crew of misfits at the center of the story.

What about the clown, you ask? Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is the one truly excellent thing about the original It miniseries. Curry’s Pennywise scared the shit out of me and my siblings as children and we would frequently play games where we had to battle It (whom we imagined was hiding under our beds or in the closet). He stood with Freddy Kruger and Candyman as one of the most terrifying boogeymen in my young mind. Bill Skarsgård does an admirable job of updating this character for the 21st century. Curry played Pennywise as an angry and hostile clown who loved to play tricks and generally be a dick. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a sinister creature playing innocent and that fake innocence makes him scary. He’s a salivating wolf in sheep’s clothing just waiting to bust out and eat some kids. He plays Pennywise as more unpredictable and unstable in a way that connects the character with distinctively modern anxieties. The only thing I’d complain about is the use of digital effects to show his ferocious movement. These effects are distracting and don’t add anything—I almost always favor practical effects in horror.

It did not disappoint me. It was bold, inspired, and had teeth. So many sequences were full of dark imagination. Chung’s images are refined, clean and deeply creepy, and they stand out in comparison with the recycled and worn out aesthetics that are typical of most recent horror films. This is top shelf stuff. It is terrifying and fearsome when it wants to be, but also funny and melancholy in an endearing way. This is pop filmmaking at its best.



Filmstruck diary, vol. 1

I am loving Filmstruck (the streaming collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection).  It’s not complete by any means (Hulu had a larger selection of Criterion titles) but I don’t mind that.  A little bit of narrowing down and curation steers me to titles I otherwise might not watch and thereby expands my horizons, whereas if they had everything under the sun available I would ironically be more likely to stick with my narrower preconceived agenda.  Filmstruck has definitely helped me spend my film-viewing time more productively: more world classics, fewer forgettable new releases.   I decided to keep a little diary of the titles I watch.   It’s hard to go wrong with such excellent curation so most everything has been great.


I had actually never seen this before.  I try to save one or two films by great directors so I have something to look forward to.  I was saving this and finally decided to pull the trigger.  I quickly realized that this is where the Dardenne brothers bit their whole style from.  I was thoroughly awestruck by the film.  The money-begets-evil premise, borrowed from the first half of a Tolstoy novella, might have been unbearably trite in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  Bresson takes it to an unexpectedly feverish and dark place.  Of course the execution is immaculate.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson)

Early Bresson.  The Cocteau dialogue is a great pleasure, and you can see Bresson’s style developing.

Mouchette (Bresson)

Staggering masterpiece.  A companion piece to Au hasard Balthazar.  I realized that the ending of Fat Girl directly quotes a central scene here (trying to be vague to avoid giving plot points away to people who haven’t seen either or both).

Lone Wolf and Cub series (6 films, multiple directors)

The shogun’s executioner–an invincible swordsman– is betrayed and becomes a rogue assassin along with his young son.  I had only seen the dubbed American recut of the first two movies, Shogun Assassin, which is garbage compared to the Japanese versions.  I enjoyed these movies so much!  I wish there were 20 of them.  Tarantino quotes this series extensively (unsurprisingly).   Each of the six movies has a distinct quality, ranging from eerie spirituality to raunchy exploitation, and they are all fantastic.  I love that any time someone questions whether this is an appropriate situation for a child, Ogami’s explanation is simply, “My son and I walk the demon way in hell together.”

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura)

Hadn’t seen this.  Fucking loved it.  Wow, did I love it.   It made it clear to me how much Sion Sono (who I am a big fan of) gets from Imamura.  It’s about the relationship between the occupying American military and the locals (particularly the yakuza) in postwar Japan.  This movie is at a fever pitch from start to finish, but there’s a definite crescendo.  Spinning overhead shots, pigs everywhere.  I was particularly struck by the way the American Navy is portrayed—like cartoonish barbarians in sailor suits.

Death Race 2000 (Bartel)

An utter delight as always.  A high point of the 70’s cult aesthetic.

Sisters (De Palma)

I’m a De Palma superfan so of course I love this.  Lurid, hyper-stylized Hitchcock pastiche.  It’s an immature work, but not in a bad way.  It feels like he’s overflowing with ideas and has no restraint.

Le Samouraï (Melville)

One of my favorite movies ever.  I see it as a keystone of the great tradition of movies about a man (or woman) who lives by a code.  Since the last time I saw it I’ve thought a lot about the ways that Jarmusch paid homage to it in The Limits of Control and Ghost Dog, and it was interesting to revisit it in that light.

Mystery Train (Jarmusch)

Hadn’t seen this in ages.  It’s fun, but a minor work.   It’s a quirky, Elvis-centric anthology film.  Joe Strummer is great.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)

I’ve seen this four times now.  It’s not a movie to approach lightly.  I made a huge leap this time in my understanding of the film.  I previously thought most of the segments were only loosely connected, but now I realize that they trace a very particular theme: Rublev’s initial inability to represent suffering or dark themes and the development of his ability to do so.  He first awakens to darkness through the events surrounding the Tatar raids (particularly the fall of the holy fool), and then his will to create is rekindled by the bell-making experience.

Pather Panchali (S. Ray)

Beautiful and devastating.  Lyrical portrait of life and death in poverty.  I haven’t gone any deeper than this into S. Ray but I intend to.  Big blind spot for me.

Party Girl (N. Ray)

I dig Nicholas Ray but hadn’t seen this.  His CinemaScope compositions are incredible.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)

Someone somewhere compared La La Land to this and it grossed me out and made me want to sit down with the real deal.   Don’t watch La La Land, watch this.

Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau)

Pure joy revisiting this.  I recommend it to every living person without reservation.

Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)

Hadn’t seen this.   Haunting movie about a young girl in Franco’s Spain who sees Frankenstein and starts to retreat into fantasy.   Guillermo del Toro clearly borrows heavily from this film.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates)

It kind of pained me to see Robert Mitchum as a rat but this is top shelf 70’s hard boiled crime cinema.  I hadn’t seen it.  Was very surprised to learn that Yates also directed Krull, which I’ve always had a soft spot for.

Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

I love this movie, and I’ve seen it many times.  I think the mistake a lot of people make is focusing too much on the theorizing about authenticity that takes place in the first half of the film.   I take the importance of the theorizing to be not its content per se, but rather the characterization it achieves and also the way it relates to the film’s overall structure.  This is not a didactic movie, though it could easily be mistaken for one.  I was particularly struck this time by how incredibly abrasive a lot of the acting is (purposefully so) and by the persistent visual focus on reflections.

Secrets and Lies (Leigh)

Hadn’t seen this since back when it came out .  It was probably the second Mike Leigh film I saw, after Naked.  It’s about a successful black woman who seeks out her birth mother and (much to both their surprise) finds a working class white woman.  I love Leigh’s work and this is no exception.  Brenda Blethyn is much shriller than I remember, which is hard to take but effective.  It’s a viscerally intense movie.

Viridiana (Bunuel)

Hadn’t seen this in a very long time.  Idealism crushed by depravity and vice.   This is essential Bunuel for sure.  It’s on the less flashy side for him but it’s thematically central.

Diabolique (Clouzot)

Hard to beat France in the 50’s for suspense movies.   This is one of the best.  It crosses into horror territory and was clearly very influential for Hitchcock.

Vampyr (Dreyer)

For me this rather than Nosferatu is the greatest early vampire movie.

Twin Peaks: The Return, Thoughts on the Finale

Edit: I added a couple additional thoughts about the narrative, marked by  an *

Some preliminaries:

I think there are at least three levels of interpretation that need to be attended to.  They don’t strictly supervene on each other: an interpretation at one of the three levels is compatible with multiple interpretations at the other levels.  But they are not totally independent: interpretation at each level does bear upon the other two.

The three levels are:

  • The 1990 Level: the narrative of the original Twin Peaks series, taken at face value, and the extension of this narrative in TP: The Return, which I take to be imbedded within but not identical to the new series.
  • The Lost Highway Level: I call it this not because of direct connections with the movie Lost Highway, but rather because of certain general features that TP: The Return has in common with Lost Highway. Lynch’s works that involve a multiple worlds metaphysics include at least the unproduced screenplay Ronnie Rocket, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks: The Return.  Of these, only Mulholland Dr. explicitly clarifies that one world is the real world while the other world is a dream world.  Lynch directly shows us a character going to sleep and then waking up, indicating that what falls between is her dream, and then gives us a concrete basis for understanding the dream as wish fulfillment (he does also boggle up the “real world” in various ways and introduce some ambiguities, but the interpretation of the film is clear enough, especially relative to Lost Highway and Inland Empire).  Lost Highway is arguably the film that most fully confounds the question of reality vs. dream.  There is an available reading that is parallel to Mulholland Dr., where the character murders his wife out of sexual jealousy and then enters into a fantasy where he is a virile young buck who saves her from exploitative circumstances.  But the film goes very far out of its way to confound this interpretation and leave us with no easy basis for separating reality from dream.  I think that TP: The Return pulls a Lost Highway: there is some reason for thinking that the entire 1990 Level is a dream, and then there is also some reason for thinking that everything outside the 1990 Level is a dream, and there is also reason for thinking that neither is fully a dream nor fully not a dream.  Audrey’s entire arc, for instance, as well as the “has anyone seen Billy?!” diner scene and everything that happens at the Road House beg to be taken at the Lost Highway Level.   “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and lives inside the dream.  But who is the dreamer?”  That’s an open question.
  • The Meta-Artistic Level: One thing that I think is happening in TP: The Return is that Lynch is summing up his career and revisiting the obsessions that permeate his work. My other posts have noted clear references to or connections with his other work.   Here’s the clearest way to make the case that this level needs to be attended to: the recurring use of the abbreviation “RR.”  Ronnie Rocket, Norma’s RR Diner, Rancho Rosa Production Company (Lynch and Frost’s company), Rancho Rosa Estates (the development where Dougie and Janey-E live).   I mentioned in an early post that my brother noted a connection that resonated for me between Dougie and M. Hulot.  Lynch has explicitly stated that Tati was a major influence for Ronnie Rocket, and it’s very clear that the “electricity as a means of transportation between worlds” trope from Ronnie Rocket has reverberated through Lynch’s career, most saliently in Lost Highway and TP: The Return.  At the Meta-Artistic Level, I think the 1990 Level is a stand in for his creative work, and the Lost Highway Level is a stand in for the practice of transcendental meditation that largely constitutes his creative process (the untethered level, which ideas emerge from and ultimately resolve back into).   As a basic guiding thought, within the 1990 Level think of Cooper’s quest to set things right as standing in for Lynch’s artistic obsessions, and (at the Meta-Artistic Level) think of the desolate final episode, where we step soundly outside of the 1990 level, as a melancholy acknowledgement that these obsessions must ultimately go unquenched.  Cooper can’t set things right.  We leave Cooper and Laura locked in an eternal still life, where she’s whispering in his ear, beckoning him to try harder.   NB, I also think the Meta-Artistic Level is reflected in the appearance of Monica Belluci as herself in a dream of the character played by Lynch himself.  “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream.  But who is the dreamer?”  At the Meta-Artistic Level, the dreamer is David Lynch, and also perhaps us, his audience.

I do not think there is a consistent, exhaustive interpretation of the 1990 Level available.  I have seen a few people complain that they were dissatisfied with the lack of answers and resolutions—not many though: it seems like most people loved the conclusion.  The people who make this complaint think that the 1990 Level is the only level, or at least fail to recognize that it is superseded by the Lost Highway Level.  The 1990 Level is like the central Balthazar Getty narrative in Lost Highway, sandwiched between the Bill Pullman bookends.  It is the primary narrative we engage with, but it is imbedded in a larger structure.  In both cases, elements of inconsistency or unreality within the imbedded narrative both signal its status as non-reality and open up connections with the larger structure it is imbedded in (both ways the larger structure intrudes into it and ways that it intrudes into the larger structure).

The thread that I am most interested in picking up from the 1990 Level and into the Lost Highway Level is the final arc of Diane and Cooper.  We never met Diane in the original series, and she is replaced by a tulpa for most of TP: The Return.   The real Diane emerges from Naido in episode 17.  I can’t remember where I read it but someone pointed out that ‘Naido’ is ‘O Dian’ backwards (and Janey-E got the ‘e’).  In the glorious central scene, after Freddy smashes the BOB orb, I take the overlay of Cooper’s face with the action of the scene to signal the encroaching collapse of 1990 Level into the Lost Highway Level.  “We live inside a dream.”

Naido is brought over to Cooper and they touch hands, initiating her transition into Diane.  When we finally see Laura Dern, Cooper cracks a huge grin and walks over to her.  They immediately kiss like reunited lovers at the airport, with no concern for anyone else being in the room (and the whole menagerie, Jim Belushi included, is there).  Cooper asks, “Do you remember everything?”  “Yes.”  They seem content and resolved.  Cooper tells all his friends, “I hope I see all of you again.”  The superimposed Cooper announces, “we live inside a dream.”  Full Lost Highway Level achieved.  Fade to Cooper, Gordon, and Diane walking through a black space with Cooper’s face still superimposed, looking either confused or concerned or some other hard to pin down emotion (brilliantly ambiguous acting from MacLachlan).  The three of them reach a door (I think  in the basement of the sheriff’s station) that leads to the Convenience Store.   Cooper walks through: “I’ll see you at the curtain call.”  This leads him to Jeffries, who in turn opens a gate to the past, where he prevents Laura’s murder, fulfilling Leland’s request from the Black Lodge that he save Laura.

Edit: Twin Peaks let me hungry for more ambitious large scale works, so I’ve been working through Jacques Rivette (more on that in future posts).  I just watched Celine and Julie Go Boating (clearly a huge influence on Lynch, especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks), and there seems to be some reason to connect Cooper’s saving Laura with Celine and Julie’s saving Madlyn.  This would seem particularly relevant to the meta-artistic level of interpretation.  In Celine and Julie Go Boating, the events within the gothic mansion are a fiction within a fiction, and they keep replaying until finally C&J prevent Madlyn from being murdered, at which point the boundaries between the different levels of fiction break down and Madlyn joins C&J in the “real world,” as do the other Gothic characters, though frozen in a tableau.  This doesn’t obviously correlate with anything that happens in Twin Peaks after Laura is saved, but there seems to be enough of a connection to warrant further consideration.

The suggestion that has resonated for me the most here is that Diane is coming from the timeline where Laura didn’t die, and therefore Cooper never went to Twin Peaks and the two of them had a love affair.   Diane’s tulpa (in its moment of clarity) has already told us that she and Cooper kissed only once, which is part of what leads me to believe that she’s coming from an alternate timeline.  Her reunion kiss with Cooper is a kiss between people who fuck each other, not between people who have only kissed once before.  We must remember that Laura was created in the White Lodge as a counterpoint to the Mother’s spewing forth of all the evil spirits in episode 8.  At the 1990 Level in Twin Peaks: The Return, Judy is still a force in the world but it has been kept at bay.  Perhaps Laura’s death was a part of that.  In a world where Laura didn’t die, things may get really, really bad.  And perhaps Diane and Cooper make a plan in that world to cross over to the 1990 World at the point where Cooper goes back in time to save Laura and intervene.   He saves her again (otherwise they couldn’t have become lovers and made the plan and they couldn’t be there), but this time they proceed with a further plan, referred to as “Two Birds with One Stone.”  I did a little googling and there is apparently some reference to summoning the Mother (who is either connected with or identical to Judy) through sex rituals in Mark Frost’s Secret History book (which I haven’t read and wouldn’t base an interpretation on, but I am happy to take this nugget to support an interpretation that has an independent basis).    The notion that sex can summon the Mother/Experiment/Judy is certainly supported by the wonderful scene in the opening episode where the guy who watches the cube has sex with the girl who brings the lattes and we see the Experiment in the cube before it brutalizes them.   The sex scene between Cooper and Diane is one of the greatest scenes Lynch ever filmed.  I’ve seen it suggested that Diane’s covering Cooper’s face is explained by the fact that his doppelganger raped her.  On my reading, she is from a timeline where this didn’t happen.  I watched the scene closely several times and I don’t read her pain and her behavior as signaling PTSD.  She loves him.  She wants him.  She feels pleasure.  She kisses him even as she covers his face.  She also stares blankly into space, punctuating her vacant stare with grimaces of acute dread.  The two of them have already acknowledged that they should kiss (and enjoy it) now because things will be different once they cross over.   I think what’s happening is that she knows that she’s literally fucking him into another dimension.  She will emerge from the coital interlude as Linda, and he will be Richard to her, not Cooper.  She knows she’s destroying the version of herself that loves Cooper and destroying the Cooper that she loves.  She can’t stand to look at his face, but she also feels driven to express her love to him with these fleeting moments.

So what the Two Birds with One Stone plan entails is that Cooper and Diane somehow use this sex ritual to transition into an alternate dimension.  (edit for aftethought: perhaps Mr. C’s assault of Audrey and Diane is directly related to the sex ritual. Either he is trying to enact the ritual with them or he is trying to close Cooper off from doing so.)

David Auerbach, picking up from another commentator, has suggested in this fascinating post that the world containing Odessa and Twin Peaks that we enter in episode 18 is trap developed by the White Lodge to catch and destroy Judy.  That’s one way to take it.  I see another, though: what if this alternate world IS Judy.  Jeffries shows Cooper the symbol that Mr. C earlier pointed to and said “This is what I want” and refers to it as the place where Cooper wants to go.  Perhaps the reason there is a dead body in Carrie’s house is that Judy is trying to hide her from the Blue Rose Task Force.  She does explicitly say that she would normally avoid the FBI.

*Edit: a different thought: perhaps when the Fireman says in the first episode “it is in our house now,” he means that Judy is in the Richard and Linda world.   Perhaps Judy has taken up residence in the white lodge’s domain and has corrupted it and stayed to harvest the garmonbozia.  This is supported by the desolation of the world and the fact that the diner is called Judy’s.  (continued at the end of the post)

Tangent: What did Mr. C want?  I don’t have an answer, but I see two possibilities: he wanted to stop Cooper’s plan, or he wanted to somehow connect in a deeper way with Judy, perhaps by integrating himself into it or (the inverse) by integrating it into himself.  Perhaps he wanted to go into the Richard and Linda dimension and kill Carrie.   This requires some weird assumptions about the way the time travel loops work but these assumptions don’t seem out of bounds.

Returning to the main strand: so if the place where Cooper goes actually is Judy, some version of Laura is trapped there.  This is a version that Cooper saved from being murdered by her father, but who then somehow became trapped in another life in the dismal alternate version of Odessa, TX.   So what is Cooper’s goal in bringing this version of Laura to the home where she was raped repeatedly by her father and otherwise tormented?   We can infer that it is the final stage of Two Birds with One Stone.  When they are about to walk away, she looks back at the house.  He asks her, “what year is this?”  She thinks for a moment.  She hears Leland’s voice (or is it Sarah’s?) faintly calling, “Laaaauuuuuuura” and lets out a scream for the ages.   Electricity flashes.  Everything goes black.  Show’s over.   Epilogue: she’s whispering  into Cooper’s ear.

The implication seems to be that Laura’s recollection somehow destroys Judy: the alternate world they are in.  In the piece linked above, Auerbach suggests that it’s a garmonbozia overload.  I think that’s plausible.  Recalling Laura’s origin as the White Lodge’s response to the events following from Trinity, it could be the case that Laura was from the beginning a bomb meant to destroy Judy, if only the right set of circumstances could align.  These circumstances are oblique, but I think it’s significant that Judy has trapped her in such a way as to hide from her who she really is (she’s living as “Carrie”).  Also notice that she’s got a dead body in her house and she explicitly says that she would normally avoid FBI agents– perhaps a way in which Judy is trying to hide her from the blue rose task force.  Somehow or other, perhaps through garmonbozia overload, the key to destroying Judy is Laura becoming conscious of herself as Laura within Judy.

What are the two birds, and what is the one stone?  I don’t know.  I think we have to address that question firmly at the Lost Highway Level.  If Lynch wanted it to be clear, that would have been easy to achieve.  One thing that I think is clear is that Cooper doesn’t find exactly what he expects in the world where Laura is Carrie.  Things don’t go according to plan.  Is it a success or is it a failure?  He certainly doesn’t save Laura, but does he willfully sacrifice her or is it rather that something goes wrong and the ending is both a success (Judy is destroyed) and a failure (Laura is destroyed)?  Are Judy and Laura the two birds while he is the stone?  Are he and Judy the birds while Laura is (supposed to be) the stone?  I’m not convinced that things worked out as he planned.  He did, after all, hope to see everyone again at the curtain call.   I don’t think these questions have definite answers.  They must be embraced in their ambiguity.

*(Edit: I do think it’s ambiguous but the best I’ve come up with, riffing on the Auerbach story,  is that the two birds are the White Lodge and Black Lodge and the stone is Laura.    If “it is in our house now” means that Judy is in the white lodge’s domain, perhaps the idea is to seek a Pyrrhic victory: detonate Judy through a garmonbozia overload, sacrificing the white lodge in the process)

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


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


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.


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.”


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.


Altered States

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


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.


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.


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.