When a new episode airs in these happy days of peak television, a now familiar pop-cultural ecosystem springs into action: a cascade of ironic and/or incisive tweets, tidy episode reviews and recaps, perhaps some conspiratorial Reddit rumor-mongering. But “Part 8” of Twin Peaks: The Return proved not so easily digestible — surging with wordless, experimental imagery, intimations of cosmological enigmas, and a disturbing boldness, the then newest entry into David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved series was immediately hailed for raising — or least deranging — TV’s bar, the peakiest of all. Much of it unfolding in black-and-white and without dialogue, “Part 8” twists up abstract stretches of uncanny cloud tunnels and dissonant sandstorms with comparatively straightforward (but no less cryptic) snippets of a terrifying frog-fly creature, a slumberous radio broadcast, and sooty ghosts jittering outside a smoldering, ramshackle convenience store.
Whether you watched the episode, which premiered on June 25, or were simply one of the many who noticed the day-after daze (like headlines declaring, “With a Surreal Flashback, Twin Peaks Rewrote the Rules of TV, Again”), the sense that something very wonderful and very strange had slithered onto television was hard to shake. And while many were going through the more ordinary episode postmortems with “Part 8” (aka “Gotta Light?”), the folks over at New York’s Metrograph cinema did what they do best and promptly organized an appetizing film series.
Running August 31 to September 3 — ending just in time to allow viewers to dart home and catch the final two episodes of The Return — Gotta Light? brings together some Lynch works (Eraserhead and the requisite Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), a nuclear-boiled noir (Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly), a documentary on the apocalyptic H-bomb tests carried out by the US in the Pacific (Radio Bikini), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (Twin Peaks‘s “The Zone” and “The Red Room” together at last!), and at least one non-surprise (2001: A Space Odyssey). Joining these feature-length films is a quartet of programs of avant-garde shorts. Surprisingly, and a little disappointingly, Lynch’s shorts from his art schools days do not make an appearance, though some well-chosen selections from Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, and others avant-garde luminaries do.
A film series dedicated to one episode of a television series is — without going overboard — fairly unprecedented, but the idea seemed to be in the air. From the get-go, numerous write-ups of “Part 8” followed a similar path, noting the influences or similarities of the episode with Kubrick’s 2001 as well as the avant-garde works of Conor and Brakhage. Noel Murray of the New York Times even ended his recap with a suggested viewing list that included the works of Peter Tscherkassky, specifically Outer Space and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, the former of which is also included in Gotta Light? Seeking answers is largely a fool’s errand in Lynch’s work, but finding complements is far more fun and informative.
There’s a lot to like in Gotta Light? Knotty and associative, the series avoids the pitfalls of being an exhaustive survey, content to give more food for thought than figuring it out. For even the non-Lynch or Twin Peaks fan, there is a lot to enjoy. Those into 1950s atomic paranoia are especially in luck: the death wish of the A-bomb era pervades many of the feature-length films, particularly Kiss Me Deadly, a nihilistic whats-it revolving around a what’s-in-the-box mystery. There are also many more experimental shorts on the bill than at the average film series, where the norm hovers around zero. Unless you’re visiting Anthology FIlm Archives or an art museum or gallery on a good day, the likes of Brakhage, Tscherkassky, and Gehr seldom go up on the big screen and rarely in arrangements resembling Gotta Light?‘s looser thematic groupings — programs boasting titles like “Doorways,” “Thickets,” “Secret History,” and “Operation: Crossroads.”
If you can only make it to one short program, try to catch “Shorts Program 1: Doorways.” Takeshi Murata’s Infinite Doors turns the Price Is Right’s ebullient prize revelations into a pathway of unceasing rewards and absurdist consumption. Methodical and mercurial, Gehr’s Serene Velocity warps a prosaic university hallway into a fidgety, indomitable, uncertain entranceway. Excellent works by Brakhage, Conor, and Pat O’Neill round out the mix.
Metrograph deserves some real credit for making this series happen. Within a short, two-month window, they put together arguably the best “if-you liked-‘Part 8’-then-you-should-see-this” list and then got ahold of the prints, many of them 35mm and 16mm. Not to add another entry in the endless “Cinema is Dead” (or not) saga, but here is a theater doing what no one else has done or perhaps could do. There’s still life somewhere in the dark and it’s not just on Twin Peaks.