The sun that never sets: welcome home

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Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

In John 11:44, Lazarus emerges from his tomb, once dead, now alive. On the periphery of this charged narration is the uneasy Martha, who protests that regardless of whether or not Christ can bring her brother back from the dead, she has smelled the stench of his corpse for the past four days while grieving. The scene ends with unfinished business, suspense, as the narrator describes the man with a cloth around his face, and linen around his feet and hands, leaving our imagination to the decomposing Lazarus underneath. In this story even a miracle performed by ‘the resurrection and the life’ will result in the continuation of an old body that can’t help but wear the marks of its death.

The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back proposes a twenty first century form of resurrection in a new body, without the scars of death and rebirth. In it, the grieving Martha converses with a digital echo of her deceased fiance, before ordering his synthetic replacement. Before long Martha rejects the android because he is too Ash-like to be new, but in his desire to please her lacks the messy specificities that would make him convincingly human. Martha realises that she would rather grieve an absence than accept a reproduction of her loved one. She would rather he stunk, and stayed in the ground. When the narrator of the Gospel of John returns to Lazarus, they once again push his sister Martha to the periphery. We do not get to see whether she is still disturbed by the reappearance of her decomposing brother, or whether she has accepted him as an improvement over the alternative, which is grief.

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Late capitalism can’t produce many new ideas any more, but it can reliably deliver technological upgrades.
-Mark Fisher

In December 2015 a duplicate version of a much loved film from the 1970s emerged, polished to seem new by virtue of its very familiarity. Like Ash from Black Mirror it was uncanny, a replica, but rather than provoking a sense of revulsion, fans and critics declared the franchise ‘fixed’. The original film was already a ‘postmodern anachronism’, so widely loved for the way that it re-presented familiar fantasy and adventure forms to its audience in a novel setting, that being space. What The Force Awakens ‘fixed’ was the franchise’s anachronism: series creator George Lucas made the decision to defamiliarise the series through an iconoclastic prequel run that not only tempered accepted mythologies and relationships, but still looks and feels like nothing else in cinema. The celebrated replica work of 2015 returned the property to ground zero, aligning a toxic fanbase unwilling to let go with the noble rebels fighting for a better tomorrow. The act of indulging one’s nostalgia, one’s demand that things never change, that things have to go a certain way, was by the film imbued with an infectious heroism, and thus the heroic thing was to return home- it is in effect an empowered act of forgetting.

The blue rose does not occur in nature. It’s not a natural thing. The dying woman was not natural. Conjured… What’s the word? A tulpa.
-Twin Peaks: The Return

In The Force Awakens’ two follow ups, the metaphor of Lazarus/Ash became literal in the form of uncanny replicas of aging and deceased actors: to hell with mythology, to hell with cinematic algorithms, with enough money time will turn backwards and corpses will regenerate and perform the dances we request. With enough money even death is not the end. The name and physical likeness of a person, a real person, can be owned by a company operating at the behest of a compulsively amnesiac audience. The twenty first century replica gives audiences the ability to forget, to repress new and undesirable truths, as it steps forward with synthetic versions of the deceased, all of whom were and will forever be unable to change, unable to stink, unable to die, unable to rest.

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No one can make us leave this house
-The Others

Heralded by cutesy reunion photographs, Twin Peaks: The Return released its first episode in May 2017; a punishing, aggressively alienating return to a familiar place that twenty five years on seemed like anything but home. A generalised nostalgia for nineties artefacts in the twenty first century had long turned the show into something safe and homely, whether the individual ‘remembering’ this past was alive when it aired or not. The show in its time operated through a pressurised nostalgia that on the surface could only deny its own, and every other, sense of contemporaneity. For its original audience it was a dense pastiche of televisual familiarity that felt like a lifetime’s worth of someone else’s memories flooding into the viewer and submerging them in amniotic fluid. That the series was about and not a peddler of this condition was underscored by its central trauma- its return to the past, its nightmarish familiarity, was used to inch us closer to and simultaneously deny an unspeakable horror both cosmic and domestic. This willingness to speak of contemporary experience through a desire to return to some fictional past marked the work as very much of its time- its newness then made a particularly resonant fetish product now. A nostalgic mode for something about a past nostalgic mode.

Do you think that if you were falling in space… that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
-Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Even at the time efforts were made to guard against this fate: series closer Fire Walk with Me systematically re-framed familiar locations to destabilise their televisual comfort, and ventured into the previously off-limits space of Laura Palmer’s private life and home. Where the show was often content to suggest, the film sincerely attempted closure, plumbing the depths of its misery and offering catharsis in death so as to allow its audience to grieve. It marked a now-time, a break from the spectral past. When people called on the creator to comfort them, to bring their loved one back to life, he simply rolled the boulder aside and showed them the carcass. Regardless of Fire Walk with Me’s twenty something year old cadaver, however, the time since has been one of intensified pop cultural amnesia: intellectual property resurrections are routinely expected, and nostalgic simulations of ‘a time’ (any time) are embraced uncritically. Whether we account for the widespread success of such an aggressively mediocre work as Stranger Things as an escape from some present trauma (as some have done), or as a cynical regurgitation of a postmodern ‘end of history’ (as seems obvious) is up for more intelligent people to decide. The very fact that Twin Peaks: The Return is about this desire to return to something that should be over (and indeed never really existed) is what makes it feel like one of the few television shows aired in recent memory that could be described as contemporary.

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How can a house, just a collection of bricks, wood, and glass… have that much power over people?
You’ve never been there.
Well, that’s true. But see, neither have you, not for a long time. And I think if you were to look at it today after all these years, empty in the woods, you’d find it’s not a monster. It’s barely even a house. It’s a carcass.
-The Haunting of Hill House

If Abrams rolls back the boulder and digitally projects new faces on old bodies (and Edwards, living faces on aging and dead bodies), Lynch reveals the scene exactly as he left it twenty five years ago. The opening, the resurrection, evokes a sense of horror in the creator more Victor Frankenstein than Jesus Christ, as his monster, his Lazarus, stumbles forward more lonely and hideous than he ever could have imagined. The town and its inhabitants have all entropied, lost their familiar ticks and rhythms, and where there is similarity there is a fearsome new sense of the uncanny. Without the veil of nostalgia, even the once comforting residual forms now appear hyperreal in their march toward rigor mortis. What is interesting is that Lynch finds new life in the various stages of death and decomposition, and this comes into conflict with what he understands to be the unnatural parading of dead bodies. Even at his most audacious he expands or perhaps narrows the scope so that the work says more about what was always there. It would be too easy to confirm a nihilistic end of history, so the show works to resolve the question of how contemporaneity might look and feel when our desire to forget the new and return to a fictional past is stronger than ever. In the modernist tradition the director looks back to lost and archaic forms (early cinema, early animation, mid-century abstraction) in order to open avenues for future experimentation, and to force the viewer into confrontation with the wasteland of the present.

While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet.
-Mark Fisher

Fisher cites Berardi on nostalgia products and the de-eroticisation of culture, to say that in the twenty first century we are both exhausted and overstimulated, and so repeatedly seek a surface twist on familiar satisfaction. Lynch toys with this desire throughout Twin Peaks: The Return, slowing the show to a mechanical lurch, and offering doppelgangers in place of the familiar. For sixteen hours the audience awaits the moment that Agent Cooper will become Agent Cooper, but for sixteen hours we are stuck with the vacant Dougie Jones and evil incarnate Mr. C. Far from immediate satisfaction, it takes four or five hours for the viewer to realise that we will probably not be getting our protagonist back in the form that we remember him. Housed within the town of Twin Peaks we notice something awry when we go to see Sheriff Truman only to be told that he’s out fishing. This subversion of audience entitlement to time is humorously punishing, as we are used to only being served what is narratively valuable, that being what will service the next ‘and then’. Often the characters in a film do the waiting for us, as communicated through the truncated passage of time in a montage or dissolve. When a character in Twin Peaks: The Return says ‘You will have to wait,’ however, we know that this is directed at us too. The audience loses their privileged position in the narrative work, and is left to endure the passage of time, to trawl through data and turn what’s encountered into valuable moments, important connections, meaningless frivolity- at no point will it be revealed which is which. Even Waiting for Godot made waiting the action; Twin Peaks: The Return makes waiting waiting. When we have waited long enough (early on, before this funereal pace is established), we come to find an altogether different Sheriff Truman in the form of Frank. Whereas Kyle MacLachlan’s face appears across Cooper and his doppelgangers, Robert Forster’s rugged warmth could not be more different to our memories of the shaggy haired, oval-faced Michael Ontkean. Most affectingly there are no holograms, no dialogue replacements across its living cast, but instead real life dying people, aging in real time on screen. Rest in peace Catherine E. Coulson and Miguel Ferrer.

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It’s time. There’s some fear in letting go.
-Twin Peaks: The Return

That the work is sprawling is constantly underpinned by the fact that it often feels like a waste of time. It follows the three Coopers and emulates their perception of time in its telling- the first is rich in texture and experimentation as well as generous in sentiment, the second a deliberately inert parade of inconsequence, the third a brutally methodical series of horrors fleshing out what happened and is happening in a world that should have been left alone. Only the first of these is natural, but the others, the blue roses, are the ones that the twenty first century audience demands. If this century is one of exhaustion and the exhaustive search for instant stimulation, these modes of time (being perpetually out of time, the expectation of instant time wasting) must be considered as one of the reasons that our sense of presence is forever dissolving. Twin Peaks: The Return is emphatically present in its treatment of time, and its treatment of the dead and dying. The familiar are old ghosts in what we can’t quite write off as a ghost town, as a new generation of broken people emerges to take their place. We feel out of time, left out, the world has moved on, and yet we wait and wait for our return, our closure which never closes, our home that’s always there, always open, waiting for us.

Laura: Where are we going?
Cooper: I’m taking you home
-Twin Peaks: The Return

This staging of disappointing and disturbing doppelgangers within a work that is itself a frustrating and disturbing return home (blue rose, doppelganger, Lazarus) is an assault on the value of familiarity (anachronism) and time (efficiency), both of which are bound to value in creative (imitative) works and labour in the twenty first century. The work feels distinctly of this century because it is as exhausted as we are, but in refusing to look back it begins to feel infinite. We begin to imagine away, without, better, and worse. By the time the viewer settles into thinking about futures, however, we are reminded why we came here. Unnervingly it is what we perceive to be our best intentions that bring us back to the central trauma, implicating us and our desire to save those who we feel we have failed, our inability to let the dead die. Suddenly we are empowered to crawl through different universes to find the one we most like, the one from back then, the one we remember, and we find what we want and we drag it home with us so everything can be like it once was. The air runs sticky when our Cooper finds a new Laura that he can turn into the old one. Kidnapped, a flush cinematic veneer suffocates the images and transforms them into something we hold to be recognisable, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘I’m taking you home.’

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No one can make us leave this house
-The Others

The traditional ghost story is one where a haunted place will use a person (with whom we identify) to repeat its past against their will. In Twin Peaks: The Return we take on the perspective of the home, of the ghost seizing the individual’s agency to have them re-perform what we’ve seen and what we want to happen again. In forcing Laura to re-learn her trauma, to re-experience her death, in order that we keep the past from ever being buried, the spectator fulfills their ‘compulsion to repeat’ that which is no longer. Fragmented layers of broken time, non-time, counterfeit or artificial time, merge in an abnormal representation of place signifying time sadly lost and time rightfully buried. The Haunting of Hill House episode The Bent-Neck Lady finds a similar conclusion from an alternative angle. In it, Nell decides to confront her past, empowered by the belief that the house that haunts her family is a stand-in for an unhappy time. ‘It’s not a monster (…) it’s a carcass’ her therapist tells her, and Nell approaches the house repeating these words. Like Laura she is returning home, and like Laura this return forces her to re-witness her own trauma and re-experience her own death. Whereas Lynch puts us in the perspective of the ghost-house manipulating Laura’s agency to reenact our nostalgia, Flanagan offers a subjective enactment of Nell becoming seduced by the promises of hers: she is haunted not by visualisations of things that went away per se, but by the absence of the things that represented what for her could have been a future.

…but home is nowhere
-AFI

Fisher’s criticism of Star Wars’ formal nostalgia belies the fact that Lucas openly worked from Joseph Campbell’s ‘single great story’ to build a world over and above its mythic central narrative (as well as the ways that the director destabilised his own mythic storytelling with his prequels). It is however a perplexing thing to have grown up after the original films were released, but to consider them already familiar, wholesome, on first encounter. An inherited nostalgia not through the release of imitative works after the fact, but through the very pastiche constituting the original. Similarly it is helpless longing for the bleary nostalgia of nineties television through Twin Peaks, itself a parody of nostalgic longing, and for the freewheeling pre-mobile phone days of BMX adventures that we didn’t experience at some point in the nineteen eighties. Although Star Wars was already nostalgic before there was a nostalgia for Star Wars, those still coming to grips with time in the twenty first century were effectively born into a non-time of compulsory longing for someone else’s non-past. A sun that never stops setting. The seduction of the past (not necessarily our own), of our inability to imagine anything beyond it, is at the core of the Kingdom Hearts videogames.

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Baby, baby
Ain’t it true
I’m immortal
When I’m with you
But I want a pistol
In my hand
I wanna go to
A different land
-PJ Harvey, Big Exit

The announcement of Kingdom Hearts as a cartoonish crossover between Disney cartoons and the Final Fantasy series was a surprise following the consciously mature Final Fantasy X; so too was the fact that rather than relying on the sheer collective pull of nostalgia for both companies’ intellectual property, Tetsuya Nomura delivered a game to the same high standard as the rest of the Final Fantasy series. Playing through it, it is impossible not to get the sense of a nostalgic drift from the Disney worlds, much like with Star Wars and the Twin Peaks original series. It is difficult in one’s childhood to differentiate newer Disney films from older ones, as the sheer volume of Disney merchandise, of Disney films being played in other peoples’ houses, makes it feel as though Disney has always been around, will always be around, is as universal as the human need for oxygen, but somehow also exists entirely for you and your family’s comfort. Where Star Wars and Twin Peaks blurred the affective past into delirium, Kingdom Hearts puts each past summoned into sharp relief, and each resurrected past brings with it a plotted specificity of the player’s own life. Playing the game, one might remember the first or last time one watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, or events surrounding the trip to see Tarzan, or which cousin made everyone watch One Hundred and One Dalmatians every day of that one family holiday.

If the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past.
-Sans Soleil

What is so peculiar about the game is its pervasive sense of melancholy. Of course when we arrive in Wonderland we are struck with fondness for a past as it’s activated through visual and audio mimetic nodes, but the game refuses the reenactment of familiarity (as The Force Awakens does), and the fantasy of getting more from what is closed (as Twin Peaks: The Return teases). Where Final Fantasy X utilises an illusionistic approach to space, visualising horizons and impossible vistas on non-traversable walls, the level designs in Kingdom Hearts appear stage-like, finite. Fabrics and Méliès-esque painted mattes reinforce the notion that these filmic artefacts cannot be altered or expanded upon: rather than resurrected worlds, it feels as though we are revisiting our memories, with all of the spatio-narrative limits that entails. Strangely these imaginative parameters make the work feel more alive than other games’ simulacrum, and the recurring emphasis on our inability to change the past makes it a pensive exercise in revisiting the past from a clearly grounded present. Some familiar characters encountered are outright desolate, while those who aren’t are strictly present as the kind of spectral memories we take with us into the future: whenever Sora discovers that it is the Heartless from his present hiding behind villains of the recognisable past, the sound of the game drops out and with it the fabric of the impression.

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Welcome home, Nell
-The Haunting of Hill House

As Nell dances with her deceased husband and receives all of the love and happiness that her family denied her growing up, we recognise the stickiness of the scene as a descent into madness. If Leyland Kirby’s Everywhere at the end of time series could be used to score any popular moving image work this year, it would be this one. The moments before the penny drops in Twin Peaks: The Return are the same, as Cooper triumphantly returns Laura home, as we the ghost have our way, before we remember what our idea of home means for her. It is in these moments that the Disney Star Wars comes to mind- in The Haunting of Hill House as an exchange between Nell’s warm fantastical home and its actual dilapidated carcass- in these films as a series of projections on, if not a carcass, then an old theme park the owner long deserted. As long as the projectors don’t fail, as long as the replica says the right things, then the stench can be ignored as we descend into a long amnesia.

Not Clayton… Not Clayton…
-Kingdom Hearts

If the first game had us confront our memories as memories, the opening act of its sequel examines a future without us or our memories in it, before eerily indulging them as fact. It sends future echoes of Twin Peaks: The Return into the realm of videogame sequels in that instead of giving us the characters we want, it offers up just-off doppelgangers of person and place. It even punishes the player by asking (not forcing) us to repeat mundane tasks for hours in order to arrive at something like narrative clarification. As the game starts ‘remembering’ us, our fragments of memory come digitally mutated, as if through bit rot, the byproduct of being left in some long forgotten server farm with a leak in the roof. The gruelling nature of the work, the lack of authorial promise where resolution and direction are concerned, has all the alienation of Dougie Jones repeatedly trying and failing to get through an automatic door, or Mr C. slowly working through complex schemes that go way above our head. And unlike the precious limited fragments of the first game, so full of evocation, these memories have begun to disintegrate along with the sense of there being a coherent remember, or teller.

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Must be nice to be home, right?
Ya know… something just don’t feel right
-Kingdom Hearts II

When our Sora becomes our Sora (like our Dougie becomes our Cooper), the game takes on a similar feeling of reunion to Twin Peaks: The Return’s penultimate episode, but unlike Lynch’s work which ends with a traumatic scream, Kingdom Hearts II maintains this feeling to inadvertently alienating ends. The stage-like levels of the first game are switched out for illusionistic walls promising infinite expansion, and the visits once out of sync with the canonical narrative of the films become their ghostly reenactments. The designs are stripped of life and textural specificity as well as compressed to rush the player in a straight line through the events of the films. It is the kind of depressingly fantastical wish fulfillment of Nell’s dance into trauma, made more disturbing by its perversion of personally felt Disney cartoons. Where the first game used them as an acknowledgement of individual memories through ubiquitous stimuli, Kingdom Hearts II empowers the player to seize their presence in these worlds, to account for a revisionist perspective of the films’ events, to make sure events play out the way people know and remember. Most texturally uncanny of these is Port Royal where the cartoon language of the game comes coexists with mimetic replicas of Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush (wrinkles and all!), but the most affectively nightmarish is in a blow-by-blow reenactment of Mufasa’s death according to the visual logic of a Playstation 2 videogame.

Said, you’re gonna find the world is smouldrin’
An’ if you get lost come on home to Green River
-Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green River

‘Uh-oh, there he goes again!’ a bird version of Donald says about a lion version of Sora who is offering the group’s services to a peripheral group, in this case so they might ask him to be king. The player has no idea why this is the kind of thing Sora typically does and will do again, because it is only now being established that this is a thing that he does and will do again. The trinity of the first game argued with and undermined one another, balancing their affection of this new group with their commitment to the old, but now he is positioned away from the other two in the frame, the leader and hero. It seems bizarre, and it is, but everywhere he goes the inhabitants endorse this image of Sora as the centre of everything, everything being rush job imitations of Disney films and Kingdom Hearts levels. It is clearly his fantasy, his Nell dance or Cooper reunion, his moment where everybody stops to say ‘Well done, Sora. We are so proud of you. And we’ve missed you so very, very much. Welcome home, Sora.’

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I have often seen the sea, on our Yorkshire coast, with that light on it. And I was thinking, Drusilla, of the days that can never come again.
-Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

It is not difficult to figure out why this is happening. The pull of Twilight Town is also what is so repellant about it. It contains echoes of the first game’s Traverse Town where it is always nighttime, but here it is perpetually twilight, reflecting the player’s own sense of melancholy as the sun sets on their childhood. Not only do we receive a cast of doppelgangers at the beginning of the game, but we find them relatable: Roxas and his friends are near the end of what they believed to be an endless summer holiday, and now the pressures of the real world are beginning to close in on them. The thing is that they will never confront this real world, nor will they ever see a new day begin. This is it. At only fifteen we are already feeling as though all the plans we made have been lost, forgotten, squandered, on our ceaseless march into an uncertain future. The image of a group of friends sitting and watching a sun that never stops setting, that in its colours stirs warmth and comfort but also announces day in day out that you are out of time, no matter where you think you are, you are out of time, is perhaps the most poignant of any discussed. These, after all, are the dreamers.

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