To Stream Or Not To Stream

Hey, here’s some generic movie-themed clip art!

Lately, there’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the impending demise of physical media. Sales are plummeting, the popularity of streaming services just keeps going up, yadda yadda yadda. And while it’s certainly true that there are fewer places than ever to buy (or especially rent) DVDs and Blu-rays, I was curious about how actual consumer desire stacked up against the reality of media consumption.

So yesterday, I tossed a question out upon the social media winds. It was a simple question, one we all probably ask ourselves several times a week. What do you feel like watching right now? The only stipulation I added was it had to be something you could conceivably watch. So, no lost movies (like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight), no future movies (like Avengers 4) and no unmade or imaginary movies (like the alternate reality where David Lynch lost his mind and said, “As a matter of fact, George, I’d love to direct Revenge Of The Jedi for you. Sounds like a hoot!”)

I ended up with a list of some 80 movies from all across the cinematic spectrum. Classics both new and old, cult favorites, foreign movies, you name it. (Pat yourselves on the back, folks. You have excellent and eclectic tastes in films.) Surprisingly few people wanted to see something currently in theaters (of those, Deadpool 2 was the clear favorite…sorry, Han). And, perhaps not surprisingly given the Electric Theatre’s reputation for spotlighting movies not available on DVD, a handful of people tossed out movies that simply aren’t available except on VHS or in the vaults of the Library of Congress (yes, I want to see The Day The Clown Cried just as much as you do). Even with those outliers and ignoring individual formats that some people specified (we don’t all have access to 70mm projectors and even if we do, we can’t usually control what screens on ‘em), this seemed like a pretty good control group to see where and how movies were available.

I checked all the big streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and FilmStruck). I dug around for both physical and digital availability. I even checked premium add-on services for channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz, as well as underdog digital library Hoopla (available for free if you have a library card from many major cities). The results were somewhat surprising.

The big loser turned out to be Amazon Prime, followed closely by Hulu. Of the 80 movies I checked, Amazon Prime had exactly one (the 1998 Minnie Driver obscurity Uncorked, also known as At Sachem Farm). Amazon’s usefulness goes up slightly if you add a premium channel like Starz but even then, the results aren’t great. Hulu fared only slightly better with two titles (The Matrix and Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Not that these services don’t have movies worth watching. Both definitely do, particularly Amazon Prime, if you’re willing to dig. But if either of them happen to have the specific movie you want to see when you want to see it, it’s probably just a coincidence.

I wasn’t really expecting too much from Hoopla and it delivered on those low expectations, although they did have a couple titles (Barefoot In The Park and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). Hoopla’s a strange animal. I’ve watched a number of documentaries on the service, as well as a handful of B and C-list catalog titles. The most surprising thing about Hoopla’s library is the relatively large number of live-action Disney movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Stuff like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the Apple Dumpling Gang saga. Even Disney short changes these movies, which is probably how they ended up on Hoopla. These titles aren’t exactly easy to find in stores (and, for the most part, not really worth owning unless you’re a hardcore Disney collector), so personally, I think it’s kind of cool that they’re available to check out here. Hoopla’s a great resource for e-books, audio books and music but they’re definitely still playing catch-up in the movie department.

As for Netflix, the mighty king of all streaming…well, kinda sucks. They only had four titles on my list: Burn After Reading, The Godfather, Inside Man and L.A. Confidential. Some of these other movies used to be on there and may well be again someday. But that does you no good if you want to watch them right now. This, of course, is one of the biggest drawbacks to streaming. Stuff comes and goes and it’s a colossal pain in the ass trying to track anything down. I have a Roku and you’d think the search function on there would help with that. You would be wrong. There’s nothing out there that provides a comprehensive and accurate search across all streaming services. If you want to find your movie, you’ve got to search all sorts of places individually. Ain’t nobody got time for that (except for me, evidently, while writing this article).

The biggest blind spot in most search engines is FilmStruck. This is a problem because they’re definitely a player, coming up with no less than 9 movies on my list. Good ones, too. I knew they’d have Criterion titles like Seven Samurai and Before The Rain and TCM-certified classics like Casablanca. But I was surprised to discover Dersu Uzala, Network, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, The Producers (the original, not that musical remake thing) and Cameron Crowe’s Singles. If you’re truly interested in movies and not just TV shows and original content, you should definitely consider adding FilmStruck to your lineup.

It should come as a surprise to no one that most of the movies on my list were not available on any streaming service. The older the movie, the less likely it was to show up. But the news isn’t all great for the you-can-pry-my-discs-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands crowd. Of the movies that were available on DVD and/or Blu-ray, almost all of them are also available to buy or rent digitally. There were just over a dozen that you can only get on disc. Granted, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other titles like that out there but the tide is definitely turning.

Look, nothing would have pleased me more than to run this little experiment and be able to say, “Ha ha! Physical media is the only way to go! Toldja!” But the reality is, that’s just no longer the case. I am a collector by nature and will continue to add discs to my library for as long as I’m able. But I’ve also embraced the digital age. I’ve long been an advocate for releasing obscure catalog movies on DVD but my concern was never primarily about the physical object. It’s about availability. As long as you have access to something, I don’t really care all that much what form it takes.

I’ve heard all the arguments against digital downloads and probably made most of them myself at one time or another. Some of them are incontrovertible matters of taste to do with the tactile sensation of holding an object and seeing it on a shelf. No question, that is of great importance to a lot of people. But some of them are also a little tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory based. Can a studio just revoke your digital license at will and disappear a movie from your digital library? Technically…sure, I guess. But has that ever happened to you? In my experience, it’s more likely to be the opposite scenario. I’d be more than happy to delete that copy of Fantastic Four from my digital library. I can guarantee I’ll never want to watch it again. But now it seems I’m stuck carrying it around for the rest of my life like a bad tattoo you had done on an all-night drunk.

Here’s the bottom line. Say you’re sitting around at home, thinking, “I’d really like to watch Movie X.” If you really, really love Movie X, you should own it, on disc if possible or, if you don’t like clutter or can’t be bothered to move from the couch, on digital. Both are equally valid. But if you don’t, your options are limited. Once upon a time, you could have gone to the video store and rented it but those days, for better or worse, are largely behind us. Relying on streaming services like Netflix is worse than a crapshoot. The odds are heavily stacked against you finding Movie X at the exact moment you want to watch it. But if you’re willing to rent or buy it digitally, your odds just got a whole lot better.

Streaming services have, by and large, failed to fulfill the promise of putting the entire history of film at your fingertips. They have their purpose but, as I’ve argued before, they’re a replacement for cable television, not video stores and libraries. The only way to ensure your access to Movie X is by purchasing it for yourself. And increasingly, that doesn’t have to mean owning hundreds and hundreds of discs. The future of home entertainment is not going to come with an eject button. As long as our access to these movies continues to increase, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Not That You Asked…Some Thoughts On Twin Peaks: The Return

And now come the think-pieces.

(Note for those of you new to the internet. This piece will be discussing David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return {or Season 3 or whatever you want to call it} in its entirety. This will include what are popularly referred to as “spoilers”. If you are invested in this show but have not yet watched all eighteen episodes, you may not want to read this.)

From the very beginning, to be a fan of Twin Peaks has involved a certain degree of frustration. Not merely tolerating it but actively thriving upon it. To truly appreciate the show, you had to love mysteries more than solutions. When a show’s co-creator admits in interviews that he has little to no interest in solving the murder mystery at the root of the proceedings, you should realize that frustration will be woven deeply into the fabric of the program.

Over the years, Twin Peaks has frustrated its viewers and fans (two groups that shouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive but kind of are) in a variety of ways. A lot of viewers got frustrated and jumped ship when the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer was still unrevealed at the end of the first season. Others became frustrated over the course of the second as the show became more esoteric and eventually rambled its way through a bevy of subplots (Ben Horne’s Civil War obsession, the DEA’s investigation into Cooper and, most notoriously, James Hurley’s dalliance with wealthy abused femme fatale Evelyn Marsh) that mostly went nowhere. And everyone who stuck around for the season two finale was frustrated by a series of escalating cliffhangers that were unlikely to ever be resolved.

All this frustration arguably reached its apotheosis in 1992 when the few remaining die-hards went to see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Never forget that despite its recent re-appraisal by fans and critics, FWWM was a major disaster when it first came out, despised by virtually everybody who saw it. People were frustrated that it was a prequel focusing on the murder of Teresa Banks and the last days of Laura Palmer instead of a continuation that would provide some resolution to the series. They were frustrated that beloved Special Agent Dale Cooper was relegated to a relatively minor (and somewhat baffling) supporting role. And they were frustrated to learn that over an hour of footage, including both material featuring some fan favorite characters as well as stuff that actually helps you make some degree of sense of the damn thing, had been cut from the film.

So it came as no surprise when the recently concluded Showtime revival introduced an entire summer’s worth of frustration to Peaks viewers old and new. But a lot has changed in the years since we were last in Twin Peaks, not least of which is the way we engage with television. These days, the water cooler has moved online. Each and every television show worth discussing (and quite a few that aren’t) is given an online post-mortem, recapping the events of the week and giving fans a place to congregate, theorize and speculate. I followed a few of these for Twin Peaks: The Return and I was amazed to see that the level of discourse and criticism rarely rose above that of Homer Simpson: “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

The Return seemed to defeat the week-by-week analysis method of television criticism. Even something as simple as recapping the events of each episode ultimately proved futile as entire weeks would go by where seemingly very little happened. But without knowing where any of this was headed, the vigilant recapper would gloss over a scene at their peril (“Meanwhile, Andy and Lucy have a heated discussion over what color chair to order…”), resulting in some absurdly detailed articles that somehow still managed to miss the forest for the trees.

But despite all the virtual ink spilled over The Return, very few people attempted to analyze it at its most basic level: as a piece of motion picture storytelling (whether you consider it to be cinema or television is up to you). In other words, what about this thing actually works and what doesn’t? Everyone seems to have collectively decided that David Lynch is above such things. Whatever he’s doing can’t be discussed in terms of traditional filmmaking. Frankly, that’s a crock of shit. Regardless of whatever other artistic pursuits he chases down, Lynch is still a filmmaker, working with a script, actors, a crew and all the other stuff everybody else works with. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, your initial response to his work, whether it’s positive or negative, is based on how it works as a movie, not as some esoteric puzzle that requires 60 minutes of transcendental meditation a day to decipher.

Now don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I felt that Twin Peaks: The Return worked beautifully. I certainly wouldn’t call it a disappointment. If anything, it was much better than we had any right to expect from such a belated follow-up. But it’s worth taking a look at what worked and what didn’t work here because I feel far too many people are reacting as though every minute of these 18 hours was an unassailable masterpiece. Twin Peaks has never been perfect and it does the show, David Lynch, Mark Frost and all involved a disservice to pretend like it is.

But before we look at what we got, I’d like to express my disappointment at a few of the things we didn’t. You can’t really criticize a show for not giving you what you want, especially this one, and this really isn’t criticism. This part is just the whining of a longtime Twin Peaks fanboy.

Sheriff Harry S. Truman/The Man from Another Place – I don’t know what happened that Michael Ontkean and Michael J. Anderson couldn’t be persuaded to return to Twin Peaks, whether it was something personal, health reasons, money or something else entirely (probably money…it’s usually money). Whatever it was, their absence reverberated throughout. Ontkean’s Truman was the heart of the original series, an audience surrogate who guided us into the strange world of the Black Lodge. Likewise, he was able to ease Cooper (and us) into the every day weirdness of Twin Peaks that was simply business as usual for him. The relationship he and Cooper forged over those two series was a key element in Twin Peaks’ success. As much as I love Robert Forster (more about him later), he was no substitute for Ontkean. But at least he was replaced with another human actor. Anderson’s Man from Another Place, a.k.a. The Arm, evolved into a tree skeleton with a blob of flesh on it. Of course in the Twin Peaks world, this evolution actually makes more sense than Harry’s job being taken by a previously unheard-of brother but still. Anderson was one of the first iconic, indelible actors who helped define the look and feel of Twin Peaks. Without him, The Return didn’t feel quite the same.

Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley – I may be the only person who was hoping for a return visit from Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland’s characters from Fire Walk With Me. Sutherland’s Stanley was a long-shot. The forensic specialist was newly paired up with Desmond to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, maybe a test run arranged by Director Gordon Cole (Lynch) to see if he could handle a Blue Rose Case. It’s safe to assume he didn’t pass the audition. But Isaak’s Desmond disappeared without a trace, just like Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) and Coop. If Jeffries could come back despite Bowie’s death AND we could make time to catch up with former DEA Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny), an amusing but peripheral character, surely we could have spared a thought for poor Agent Desmond.

How’s Annie? – This one really irked me. Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) provided the whole reason Cooper went into the Black Lodge at the end of the second season in the first place. And as we glimpsed in Fire Walk With Me, she’s still in there. The fact that neither she nor her captor, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), were even mentioned in The Return felt like a disconnect to me.

(EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that Annie did indeed get out of the Black Lodge at the end of season two. I forgot about that. It’s also confirmed in a deleted scene from Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces showing her in the hospital. Mea culpa on that one, although I stand by the larger point about how nobody even refers to her or Windom Earle.)

As much as I would have liked to see all of the above turn up in The Return, I knew full well that none of them would be appearing before the first episode even aired. Considering the intense veil of secrecy surrounding the show’s production, it’s a bit surprising that Lynch released a complete cast list well in advance of the premiere. That information turned out to be 100% accurate, with no surprise omissions or red herring inclusions. It was the only scrap of information we had in the months leading up to the premiere and it was a far more effective teaser than any trailer or clip could be. It told us everything and nothing at the same time.

Even armed with this knowledge, one of the biggest question marks hanging over The Return was how Lynch and Frost would deal with the large number of prominent cast members who had died over the past 25 years. Apart from Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the constant presence (felt if not always seen) of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), no one member of the cast seemed to have any more or less importance than another. It would have been fairly simple to acknowledge these passings with a nod and a line, or even ignore them entirely, and move on.

Instead, The Return’s resurrection of its late actors and treatment of death in general became one of its greatest strengths. Who could have predicted that Phillip Jeffries (originally Bowie, now an enormous steampunk kettle voiced by Nathan Frizzell) or Major Briggs (Don S. Davis, who died all the way back in 2008) would be key players in The Return? And yet, these revivals never came across as cheap, exploitative or crass. They were all deeply reverent, a tacit indication that no one other than these men and women could embody these characters. The touching dedications at the end of each episode served as a fitting, final goodbye.

In many respects, saying goodbye seemed to be the entire point behind The Return. Part of the reason the second season cliffhanger proved so frustrating was that we didn’t know at the time that it was the end of the road. Sure, the writing was on the wall as ratings continued to drop but that episode was never meant to be a series finale. It just became one by default after ABC pulled the plug.

In the years since, Lynch may have realized how much he underestimated our need for closure. That isn’t the same as resolution, something The Return steadfastly refused to provide. But watching The Return, steeled with the knowledge that whatever happened, this was probably the end, was a much different experience than watching that second season finale all those years ago. This was particularly true in the series’ second half. Our last glimpse of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), together and happy at last, or Margaret Lanterman’s (Catherine E. Coulson) heartbreaking final call to Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) felt like the end of a long road. And when Cooper says, “See you at the curtain call” to Cole and Diane (Laura Dern) in Episode 17, it felt like an acknowledgment that the folks who brought us Twin Peaks would finally be getting a chance to take a long-overdue bow.

What then are we to make of the fact that the curtain call never quite materializes in Episode 18? In the end, we’re left with Dale Cooper (or really, I guess, “Richard”) and Laura Palmer/Carrie Page, MacLachlan and Lee, the two constant presences, standing alone on the street in front of what used to be (or maybe will someday become) the Palmer house, asking “What year is it?” The episode works as a powerful visualization of the nostalgic impulses that drove this series, as a thematic epilogue to Twin Peaks in its entirety, and even as simply a tone poem exploring the quixotic urges inside Cooper’s quest to avenge and retroactively “save” Laura. But it’s a far cry from the traditional victory lap we usually envision as a curtain call. And how does it function within the overall narrative of Twin Peaks? Is there meaning here or is it completely inscrutable?

There’s certainly enough to unpack in this episode that I’m confident that it’s scrutable, given enough time, analysis and careful reviewing. But I’m less sure that’s the case with the series as a whole. Many of The Return’s best moments came in its second half, following the astonishing high point of Episode 8, 60 minutes of nonstop I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-on-American-television mind-fuckery that only David Lynch could have delivered. Prior to that episode and even in several that followed, there were several blind alleys and detours that simply didn’t work. What’s astonishing is that The Return’s strengths overshadowed its weaknesses to such a degree that we all just kind of forgot about them.

The problem here, I think, is that David Lynch hasn’t been all that interested in narrative storytelling for a long, long time. All of his films have grace notes and superfluous sequences that don’t necessarily add anything to the forward momentum of the story being told. And that’s great in a single two-to-three-hour movie (although three hours is pushing it…overlength being one of several problems that sunk Lynch’s Inland Empire). But that kind of meandering becomes maddening over the course of 18 hours.

Did The Return need to be 18 episodes long? Absolutely not. As far as I’m concerned, if this had been a trilogy of movie-length episodes it would have been one of the towering television achievements of all time. First on my chopping block would have been, I’m sorry to say, Robert Forster and Candy Clark as Sheriff Frank Truman and his wife, Doris. I love both actors but Forster’s presence was too close to the heart of the series. He was never going to fit in entirely, despite his best efforts. The addition of Doris should have distinguished him more from his brother. But her few scenes, harping at Frank about minor offenses, felt like rehashes of stuff we’ve seen played out before between Ed and Nadine (Wendy Robie) or, for that matter, Pete and Catherine Martell (Jack Nance and Piper Laurie). If you’re going to go back to the well, at least come back with some fresh water.

There were plenty of other subplots that seemed to portend much but added very little, including Dr. Jacoby’s (Russ Tamblyn) new gig as podcaster Dr. Amp, most if not all of the goings-on at the relocated-for-some-reason Fat Trout Trailer Park run by Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), and the various relationships between Shelly the waitress (Mädchen Amick), her daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried), Becky’s cheating, drug-addicted husband Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) and drug dealer Red (Balthazar Getty). If you were paying attention to the credits on Episode 11, you were probably shocked to discover that the woman Steven was having an affair with was Gersten Hayward (Alicia Witt), youngest sister of Laura’s best friend, Donna. This seemed like it should be important. Turned out, it wasn’t.

Perhaps the worst offender in the Things That Went Nowhere Department was virtually everything that happened at the Roadhouse. Almost every week, in addition to some admittedly excellent but somewhat intrusive musical performances, we met a variety of locals, most of whom we’d never seen before and would never see again. Their conversations were intense, elliptical and full of references to people and events we didn’t know anything about. I found it easier to care about and become invested in the now-notorious floor-sweeping sequence in Episode 7. At least I knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Having said that, the best sequence in the Roadhouse makes me want to revisit the entire series and watch all of the scenes there more carefully. That’d be the arrival of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and husband Charlie (Clark Middleton) in Episode 16, culminating in the reveal of Audrey waking up in that white room. I’d suspected something was off about Audrey’s situation from the first time we saw her. The dialogue, the situation, everything seemed stilted, even by Twin Peaks standards. So when it turned out that her trip to the Roadhouse was possibly not real, it made sense. Now I wonder if everything in that location was unreal. There’s also the question of Audrey’s missing lover, Billy. His name comes up throughout the series in a few different contexts. I’d be willing to bet that if you could piece together a plausible theory about Billy, you’d get a lot closer to figuring out what’s up with Audrey.

What’s frustrating (there’s that word again) is that even if you did all that, it’d still just be a theory. I really don’t believe Lynch and Frost have given us enough information here to know what’s happened to Audrey. She’s only the most egregious example. You could say the same about many of the other minor characters. But considering what a popular character Audrey was/is…she was even a favorite of Lynch’s…her treatment in The Return stings more than a little. She deserved better.

But we, the audience, got exactly what we deserved. Maybe even a little bit more. After all this time, we now have 18 more hours of imperfect television to add to the 30 or so imperfect originals and one very imperfect feature film. Happily, the best moments of The Return can stand toe to toe with the very best work Lynch has ever done. That’s a remarkable achievement for a guy who seemed to walk away from filmmaking completely over a decade ago. If The Return isn’t as cohesive or consistent as one might like, that’s OK. Consistency was never Twin Peaks’ strong suit anyway.

This kind of years-later creative reboot is rare, perhaps because it’s so risky even with the original creative team at the helm. The X-Files wasn’t able to pull it off and they only had half a dozen episodes. Lynch and Frost came much closer to recapturing the magic of their original creation than most. They knew they had lightning in a bottle back in 1990. And if there’s one thing we know about lightning, it never strikes in the same place or in the same way twice. They had the bottle but they were smart to go chasing after a different storm.