Moving Pictures
May 28, 2024, 06:29AM

Teenage Dreams So Hard to Beat

I Saw the TV Glow, Neon and A24 in Indywood, and what's possible seven years after Twin Peaks: The Return.

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Last week marked the seven-year anniversary since Twin Peaks: The Return began airing on Showtime. Coming in with a two-hour opener split into two parts, The Return was the first new “film” people had seen from David Lynch in over a decade and while it initially confounded many, it didn’t disappoint to most because it introduced something new. The Return rejected the nostalgia of the reboot era that had dominated 2010s television after the two major prestige tentpoles, Mad Men (2007-2015) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), had wrapped earlier in the decade. At times, The Return felt as imbued with their images as it did with the seminal early-1990s show it was nominally returning to. These influences by-and-large find themselves in the Dougie Jones sequences, where a near-catatonic Kyle MacLachlan teases the audience time and again with a return of his icon Special Agent Dale Cooper while being caught in between white-collar corporate affairs and stark yellow deserts and suburban developments infested with organized crime. The Return isn’t just an aesthetic development for Lynch, but is him and co-writer Mark Frost exploring the way media has changed in the 25-odd-years since there series began.

There has been talk online of two recent films finally showing the waves of The Return’s influence on cinema more broadly: Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast (2023) and Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow (2024). The first I don’t really buy, and I’ve written before about how I don’t see The Return’s influence in The Beast beyond certain digital aesthetic inclinations and a general sense of pace. Instead, I think The Beast has much more in common with Lynch’s L.A. Trilogy, and any of its thematic explorations that are informative towards contemporary life and cinema are held back by diving into territory that Lynch has already thoroughly wrung out and moved past. Schoenbrun’s film, however, has more claim to this.

There are, first and foremost, the immediately clear visual influences—much like The Beast—with a sometimes “Lynchian” mise en scene that has characters unnaturally staged within the frame, giving an off-putting aura to a character’s place within an environment. Then there’s the structural devolution from a state of somewhat-realism into pure fantasy, punctuated by a pause in the story for a musical performance, not unlike the total break that happens in Part 8 of The Return after a Nine Inch Nails concert at the show’s aspatial and atemporal music venue and local dive, The Roadhouse. At the center of I Saw the TV Glow’s runtime, the film's lead, Owen (Justice Smith), meets at a bar with his old friend Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who’s been missing for almost a decade. Maddy’s prodding Owen about the show they used to watch together, The Pink Opaque, with neither acknowledging that the bar they’re in shares its name with the one from the series. Maddy’s insistent it’s not just a show, it’s real—Owen can’t seem to believe it. Owen’s thinking, “Where has his friend been? Why is she insistent that she's been living inside a TV show?” But the audience thinks, “Why isn’t he connecting her with all the strange occurrences lately? Why is he refusing the surreal reality he keeps finding himself in?” In the background, a Julee Cruise-esque Sloppy Jane song gives way to a thrashing original track by King Woman. This lynchpin to the story is pure Peaks.

The following sequence is total Schoenbrun, though: Maddy takes Owen back to their high school, where a large inflatable has been set up in the center of the gym (where in the opening of the film, a young Owen was playing inside a parachute in the colors of the trans pride flag). Lines and words run across Maddy’s face as she gives her sermon to Owen, with more glowing forms abstracted flowing behind her. As the camera zooms out, it's revealed to be projections of the stars and their constellations, maps hidden in plain sight that take their mythic shapes when one knows how to look at it right. Owen refuses what Maddy is telling him once again, just the same as how he chose not to follow her when she told him he was going to run away and that he should come with her. But reality keeps blurring, and what she told him—about how memory and the show bleed together, how the real world feels less real than the show, how there’s truths hidden beneath the surface that are repressed to the point of suffocation—seems more and more true. But Owen can’t accept it, choosing the passivity of being buried alive instead of the pain of confronting the truth.

When classifying something as post-The Return, it’s important to think about how much The Return emphasizes it’s deconstruction of televised media and our interactions with it. This is fundamentally from a specific generation’s hindsight, though—the one that was the first to really grow up in the realm of TV. That is to say—while Twin Peaks is a generation-defining show for Gen X, it’s a piece of media made by Boomers. Schoenbrun is a millennial, the generation who was sold the Boomer nostalgia—one for the lie of a neon-soaked, mall shopping spree 1980s, which in reality was a fascist myth covering up the banal wood-paneling, violent loss of labor rights, AIDs epidemic, and the beginning of the end of true social mobility in the United States. Millennials weren’t the first generation to use the internet for expression, but they were the first ones raised by it, have it embedded into their social lives from a young age.

The social space of the internet—or, perhaps, the psychosis of it—has been an interest of Schoenbrun’s from the start: their first feature-length project was A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018), an essay film tracing the Slenderman mythos from obscure forums to local news moral panic. The retreat into media, it would seem to Schoenbrun, is a desperate one—both a haven and a trap. Nostalgia informs growth and hinders it. When Owen revisits The Pink Opaque on streaming, a show he’s watched over and over again on the tapes that Maddy recorded for him, it seems completely different than what he remembers: it’s childish, benign. It doesn’t have the extremity of violence, the intensity of a central relationship, the implied queerness of what he remembers. It makes it seem like what Maddy had told him might be true—that what they thought was the show was really their memory all along—but Owen moves forward without accepting it, staying sleepwalking rather than really giving thought to such a world-ending, revelatory question.

Even more than I Saw the TV Glow is a post-The Return work, it is post-Stranger Things, post the Boomer-nostalgia slop that’s been sold to a new internet-raised generation. Something I realized while watching it, and I don’t mean this derisively, is that I Saw the TV Glow is a movie for teenagers. A serious one. A film that takes teenagers seriously and wants them to see a serious movie that makes them think. It’s the movie that I imagine Schoenbrun wished they’d seen when they were a teen staying up late watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Maybe seeing Phoebe Bridgers doing a live-ish performance in I Saw the TV Glow would be a similar experience for today's kids as seeing Sharon Van Etten was for me in The Return—I may not “get” Bridgers’ music, but the real target audience for TV Glow probably does.

This specificity is important: like the greatest piece of trans cinema, The Matrix (1999), the specificity of its themes have led to a universal quality to the film, and it’s likely that I Saw the TV Glow will receive a similar “modern classic” moniker (albeit at a smaller cultural scale, both from its independent roots and the growing obscurity of cinema as a whole right now), with its specificity as a trans narrative able to reveal universal truths to broader audiences (in a red letter year for trans cinema, no less—I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Willow Maclay and Caden Gardner’s Corpses, Fools and Monsters in my mailbox).

In the Indywood studio war that’s developed between A24 and Neon, I’ve started to realize that Neon, with its distribution of the last five Palme D’Or winners and emphasis on serious arthouse and established auteurs, is the more adult of the two. And, again, I don’t mean this derisively, but A24 is the distributor/studio of the younger cinephile, of the emerging. None of Ari Aster’s films have worked for me, and despite the incredible texture to them, Robert Eggers’ films have never held up on rewatch, but both, along with much of A24’s roster, have gotten a lot a young audiences more into cinema as an art, and I can’t fault them for that.


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