Favorite Albums of 2019

This year Sturgill Simpson dropped an album so good I haven’t made it more than a couple of days without revisiting it since its release.  For what its worth he’s crafted my personal Album of the Year for 2019.  Everything that follows is in no particular order:

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SOUND & FURY – Sturgill Simpson: This album (and its accompanying music video/anime epic) surprised the hell out of me.  Sturgill is one of the present-day country musicians who reignited the genre for me and made me learn to love it again, and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was one of the albums that got me there.  Hearing SOUND & FURY with its crunchy guitar, bruising drums, ominous synths and apocalyptic lyrics showed me an artist that can’t fathom being stuck in a prepackaged category, and by pushing the boundaries so fearlessly he created an album that’s an instant classic.

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Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken (Aesop Rock/Tobacco): The first time I saw Aesop Rock live was in 2007 at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado.  His opener that night was Black Moth Super Rainbow, a band I knew little about.  By the time the show was over I had experienced one of the best concerts I’d ever attended at that point, and it’s still one of the better ones in my life over 12 years later.  After that tour Aes appeared on Tobacco’s (of BMSR) solo effort Fucked Up Friends on the song “Dirt,” but I never dreamed they’d find each other again and form a super group of sorts.  Malibu Ken is a dream pairing of delightful weirdos I’ve idolized for years and this album is infinitely re-listenable.

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Social Cues – Cage the Elephant: These guys have been making great music for years.  They haven’t produced a bad album yet and Social Cues may actually be one of their strongest to date.  You can hear when someone is pouring their heart into a project and this is a clear instance of artists who aren’t holding anything back or taking the spotlight for granted.

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Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs: Jack White is a busy guy.  Between his solo work, drumming for The Dead Weather, running a successful record label and vinyl pressing facility, and taking time to support a politician who he believes might actually do something, I didn’t expect to ever see another Raconteurs album (which is probably my favorite project of his outside of The White Stripes).  Not only did he get the band back together to release their first new album in over a decade, they made that new album count.  The songs are tight, eclectic, and memorable.

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Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (Phoebe Bridgers/Conor Oberst): To distill a tangent I’d like to revisit at another time, I subscribe to the school of thought that rock and roll continues to thrive because its very definition is fluid.  I also believe that sub-genres within rock and roll are what keep it alive and well (despite boring music critics proclaiming it’s died every single year).  Indie rock is as mainstream as its ever been (making it an ironic genre tag these days) and combining two champions of the indie world this year gave us a predictably fantastic record.  I’ve really liked Conor’s work in the past, and pairing his voice with Phoebe’s makes for pure audible bliss.  They’re both masters of lyricism as well and the stories they tell are beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching.

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Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey: Whenever I hear Lana’s voice it’s like a tangible thing you could fill a bathtub with and just float inside of dreamily for hours.  She’s always been a good songwriter too, but NFR is next level.  She even makes a Sublime cover sound fresh.

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Lux Prima – Karen O and Danger Mouse: As I’m writing this, I’m noticing a theme.  When two great artists collaborate they tend to create something I really enjoy.  Both of these musicians have a laundry list of accolades to their respective names, but pairing up with one another created something different and novel.  Like Danger Mouse’s previous partnerships with James Mercer (Broken Bells), CeeLo Green (Gnarls Barkley) or Daniele Luppi (Rome), teaming up with Karen O produced one hell of a soundscape.  Recently I’ve found myself falling back in love with shoegaze (the dreampop emergence has made that easier than ever) and Lux Prima has a spacey quality to it that I love.

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Igor – Tyler, the Creator: Tyler’s been great for a while but this album is currently his opus.  His humor and wit doesn’t take a backseat completely on Igor, but he made something much more personal and raw than his previous releases which made me keep coming back to it over and over throughout 2019.

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In League With Dragons – The Mountain Goats: These guys never seem to stop working.  They never seem to lose their ability to make a great album.  John Darnielle’s vocals never seem to lose their impact whether he’s singing black comedy, personal tragedy or existential desperation.  When they drop a new record it never seems to stray too far from my mind.

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Pony – Orville Peck: This album is now my official go-to for anyone who tells me “I like all kinds of music, except for country.”  It’s hard to put Orville 100% in a box listed as “country,” but it’s without a doubt Pony‘s most obvious influence.  That being said, his incredible vocals and luminescent songwriting should turn the stubborn heads of even the most outspoken haters of country music.  Pony is one of the best of the best in 2019, and it’s an album I get sucked back into often.

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Hyperspace – Beck: Leave it to Beck to drop something great just before the year’s out.  He’s 14 albums deep now and if you can describe his music style succinctly I’d love to hear it, because he dabbles in every genre you can possibly imagine (and usually excels at each one).  His last album, Colors, was an excellent straight pop album that showed the alt-rock anti-folk hero can shoot into the mainstream any time he wants.  Hyperspace feels like a natural extension of Colors, but even over dance beats and atmospheric synth it’s clearly a melancholic breakup album at its core.  Beck has long admired Pharrell Williams, and his slick production on Hyperspace makes the album sound like The Neptunes taking a crack at rewriting Sea Change with flashes of Midnight Vultures peeking through here and there.  He even brings Sky Ferreira, Chris Martin and Terrell Hines into the fold for dashes of collaborative brightness, but he doesn’t flaunt them; their additions sound necessary and inspired rather than gratuitous.  Hyperspace is another concept of proof that Beck is one of the most innovative and exciting artists out there, still holding that distinction after a quarter-century of creation.

Mandy: Tragedy, Revenge and Closure in Two Acts

If you haven’t seen Panos Cosmatos’s 2018 film Mandy, stop reading this immediately and go watch it.  It’s one of the best films of this decade, it’s quite possibly the greatest role Nicolas Cage has ever said yes to, and I’m about to extrapolate and ramble on about how amazing it is with a whole pile of SPOILERS.

Still with me?  Cool.  Let’s nerd out.

Mandy can be unpacked in about 100 different ways, and I’m no film critic, so I’m going to scratch the surface of what calls out to me most profoundly.  If by the end of this you’re inspired to watch it again, fantastic, this movie should be watched numerous times.  It’s visually stunning, atmospherically manic and unnerving, and emotionally enthralling.  I feel drained every time I finish watching it, in the best possible way.

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Mandy is perfectly split into two distinct acts.

The first half of the film establishes a couple of complexities: 1) Red and Mandy are deeply in love and emotionally invested in one another. They have their own little corner of the world with everything they need in their own personal paradise; 2) Personified Evil is brewing and threatening to destroy this paradise.

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I’ll touch on themes later on, but for now I want to examine the movie at relative face value.

During Mandy‘s first act there’s a constant feeling of anxiety and foreboding.  It’s obvious to us as viewers that something terrible is going to happen as we bounce back and forth between Red and Mandy’s perfect relationship and the unnerving Manson-esque “Children of the New Dawn” cult hanging around the Shadow Mountains.  When Jeremiah and crew spot Mandy walking alone through the forest, we can immediately decipher that his gaze isn’t one of passing admiration.  The lingering close-ups of Mandy’s face as the van drives past her let us know that Jeremiah is obsessed.  This sickening feeling is reinforced when we see the lengths he’ll go to possess her.

Jeremiah’s right hand man, Brother Swan, calls upon the terrifying Black Skulls to help him obtain Mandy for his master.  From the moment we see him produce the ocarina-like talisman to summon the Black Skulls in all their leather-clad, S&M biker glory, the movie plunges into literal and metaphorical darkness.  The supernatural horror of these demons abducting Mandy is followed by the real horror of her being drugged and coerced into the cult’s inner circle.  Jeremiah believes he is God (or at the very least a god) and he’s certain the new apple of his eye will naturally fall in love with his power and influence.

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Mandy of course is much stronger than all that.  You could argue that she knows she’s not making it out of her home again alive.  She scoffs in the face of her assailants; she laughs directly into Jeremiah’s face at his cheese-ball god complex and his overconfident sexuality.  Mandy’s defiance emasculates Jeremiah so much he loses all composure, changing from a self-assured prophet to a petulant child who isn’t getting his way.  Mandy’s last breaths are spent showing this weak monster that he will never have her, that she’d rather die than give herself to someone so pathetic.

The outcome is that Red loses the most important person in his life, and he has to watch it happen in graphic detail.  His reason for living is burned out of existence before his eyes while the ones responsible watch and revel in his devastation.

The first act of Mandy is essential.  It sets up the rules of the world we’re viewing.  It keeps you on edge just long enough to make you fervently crave a reprieve from the cruelty.  It sets up the rewarding payoff of Red’s vengeance in the second act.

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The exact midpoint of Mandy is the inexplicable “Cheddar Goblin” commercial Red sees upon freeing himself and going back into the house.  Cosmatos places this scene strategically, directly after Red sees the last ashes of his beloved Mandy blown away in the wind.  The commercial sequence is so bizarre and surprising it’s almost impossible to do anything but laugh.  After the emotional exhaustion of watching Mandy meet a horrible death in front of her lover, Cosmatos lightens the mood memorably.

Act two is for fist-pumping. Red’s full of rage, vodka, cocaine, and some kind of tainted netherworld mercurial LSD.  Let the bodies hit the floor.

Red dispatches the Black Skulls like a martial-arts superhero with a variety of weapons.  One gets lead-piped into a bottomless pit.  The next (one of the more disturbing and terrifying creatures in the whole film) gets a box cutter tracheotomy.  Then Red is free to find his crossbow (the aptly named Reaper) and his shiny chrome battleaxe.  He uses both to pick apart the last poor bastard before lighting a cigarette on his flaming, severed head.  If you’re not hooting and hollering at the screen after that you need to check your pulse.

Red then goes down his hit-list of the “Children of the New Dawn” members.  Brother Swan meets an extremely satisfying (and disgusting) end.  A chainsaw battle with another cultist marks one of the most intense fight scenes you’re likely to see in any film.  Mother Marlene and Jeremiah get their comeuppance in a dungeon labyrinth.  As soon as Red finishes Jeremiah with his bare hands you can visually see the release on Red’s face.  There’s nothing left for him to do.  He punished each and every person who took Mandy away.

The final sequence flickers back to the tinges of sweetness that peek out throughout the film like little plants in the cracks of a concrete structure.  Even after all the visually arresting colors and environments, the buckets of blood and gore and pure unadulterated testosterone, the core of this film is a love story.  Red learns what so many people have learned before him: revenge can’t bring someone back.  He looks longingly into the past and our heartstrings are pulled along behind his muscle car as he drives into the purple horizon.

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Mandy is a metaphor for loss.

Look at Mandy as an allegory.  Red is a quiet man living a quiet life.  It’s hinted at throughout the movie that he’s dealt with past trauma and perhaps overcame alcohol and drug addiction.  The tender scenes between Red and Mandy further emphasize that they are codependent on one another.  Mandy dealt with trauma of her own (as shown explicitly in her story of the starlings).  These two found their reason for living and it was to take care of one another and live peacefully away from the loud, confusing world.  At one point Red frets about living so far off the beaten path and Mandy pushes back; she likes their isolated life.  Ironically it’s this isolation that ends up being their downfall, and even more ironically Red felt it coming.

Take Mandy’s death as literal (outsiders committing a heinous crime) or completely metaphorical (she dies in any number of ways we aren’t meant to know) and the outcome remains the same.  Mandy is taken away from Red too soon and too cruelly.  She is his rock and his reason for the straight and narrow.  He is not a slave to his addictions; he works a nine to five and comes home to his lover.  He’s happy.  Then suddenly he’s lost.

When Mandy dies some of Red’s first actions are to dive into substances.  He drowns himself in vodka during an initial manic outpouring of grief.  As he begins to fight his demons he tries every drug he can get his hands on.  His rage is channeled into destroying every memory of Mandy’s suffering.  When his demons have all been dealt with, Red reaches the elusive final step of the grieving process: acceptance.

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Mandy is a commentary on organized religion.

Religious imagery pervades Mandy.  The “Children of the New Dawn” have formed their own religion of sorts.  The followers of Jeremiah Sand will do anything he asks of them, regardless of its seeming insanity or cruelty.  Jeremiah is a messiah figure who shows two contradictory sides: omniscience and petulance.

Biblical scholars have commonly cited these clashing sides of the Christian God.  God frequently asks a disciple of His to prove how much they love him (such as Abraham being asked to sacrifice his own son) which should seemingly be a trivial issue for an all-seeing all-knowing deity.  Why does God care so much about what we think of Him?  Isn’t that level of self-consciousness a particularly human trait?

Jeremiah waxes poetic about how he has been gifted with the ability to have anything he wants and do anything he wants.  Yet when Mandy defies and embarrasses him he becomes vengeful and hysteric.  He’s reminded that he is not as powerful as he thinks he is and it takes him some time to rebuild the illusion.

Red is bound and gagged with barbed wire like some version of Christ on the cross.  If you somehow happened to overlook this parallel at first glance, the Children make it even more obvious when they use a talisman to pierce Red under his ribs (see: Spear of Destiny).

The whole of the second act even reads like Dante’s Inferno, with Red travelling further and further into Hell.  His final battles take place in a severely distorted version of a church.  Before descending into the labyrinth, Red takes a good long glance at what appears to be a Bible before comically tossing it aside with disinterest.

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Mandy is an homage to nerd culture, heavy metal, and Heavy Metal.

Mandy reads fantasy novels filled with wizards and enchanted gemstones.  She wears well-loved t-shirts emblazoned with Mötley Crüe and Black Sabbath album covers.  She transfers this love of all things 80s counter-culture chic into her striking artwork.  The whole thing reads like a clip from 1981’s Heavy Metal specifically, most assuredly when we get the morsels of the film that are animated in that very style.

I think there’s something to be uncovered about this as well when talking about the world that Mandy and Red live in, and possibly relating to any sort of theories about this being a purely metaphorical film.  Mandy prefers to live in fantasy, both in her hobbies and interests, and also in her real life.  Staying nose-deep in her novels and artwork, wandering through an untouched forest at will, swimming nude and free in a pristine lake; everything about her world seems too good to be true.

When Red sets out on his odyssey of carnage the film may not be animated, but it may as well be.  The scenes feature eye-searing DayGlo colors, architecture full of vivid geometric patterns, and bloody fight scenes that are normally reserved for gory anime films.  Every thing about the film’s second half screams “heavy metal music video” or “Heavy Metal: Part II.”

You could make the case that Red’s journey in act two is actually a journey through a world that Mandy created.  One of the more interesting pieces of “evidence” for this are the subtle re-callings we’re shown; my favorite speculation on this stems from Red’s tiger shirt/Mandy’s mythical tiger drawing/The Chemist’s actual caged tiger that doesn’t seem to serve any realistic purpose other than to look cool as hell.  Maybe there’s even a case for Mandy having taken her own life; Red fighting all of these demons is an allegory for coming to terms with someone important leaving his world, and he’s learning to grieve and forgive.  You could probably also make the (extremely tired and boring) case that he’s dead or dreaming.

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Mandy is a rare film that’s hard to watch AND harder to take your eyes off of.  

There’s a whole lot of beauty in all of this ugliness.

Misty day, remains of the Judgment

I’ve been a super fan of the original Silent Hill games since I discovered them in high school.  My friend and I went into a used game store when I was 14 or 15 and I bought a copy of Silent Hill 2 completely by impulse.  I went home to play it and got sucked in immediately.  It’s still my favorite game of all time. I’ve played practically all of the other games in the series (1-4 and Origins are terrific, Homecoming and Downpour are hot garbage) and seen the movies (the first of which is one half-step above hot garbage, and the second which is maybe the worst movie I’ve ever seen), but the characters and story in SH2 are unmatched.  I have yet to find anything that affects me quite the same way.

For years I thought about making a Halloween costume based off of one of the series’ most frightening monsters, Silent Hill 2’s red pyramid thing (stylized as “Pyramid Head” by fans).  I took the plunge this year, and not being particularly crafty I wasn’t sure how successful I’d be.  It actually turned out better than I planned:

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I started out by doing some research online.  A few kind souls had built this costume and made painstaking step-by-step instructions on how to recreate it.  I decided to take some liberties with what I found, partially so I could make it my own and partially because I wanted to see if I could improve on the formula with my own creativity.

I took the measurements for the head verbatim from a cosplayer’s instructional diagrams.  The pyramid itself is constructed of four separate panels which I carved out of heavy cardboard.  Most of the instructions I saw online recommended spray-painting the panels, but I decided to hand paint everything to try and make it look as close to metal as possible.  The photo above is early in the process after I painted each panel black, cut out the initial eye-holes and covered them from the interior in a rubber kitchen mesh (also painted black), and hot-glued the panels together.  The isosceles triangular panels in the back are measured out to be taller than the front panels, making the whole helmet rest comfortably over my shoulders.

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This photo shows the process a little further along.  By this point I had measured out a second layer of mesh to go on the outside of the helmet and over the eye-holes, both to further hide my head inside the helmet and also to work on making the helmet seem as industrial as possible.  You can also see the beginnings of the “rivets” and “pipes” which were hot-glued around the mesh area (those details were made from wooden crafting supplies).  I also added the sill to the bottom of the helmet with more cardboard and by using my own custom measurements.  I went completely nuts with the hot glue; as you can see with the paint applied to it, the over-glued areas started to look like welds.

Rather than copying the red pyramid thing‘s helmet from either SH2 or the films, I combined aspects of the two to make my own interpretation.

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Here are the completed pieces.  The helmet’s finishing touch was the rust-colored paint which I applied carefully with a coarse sponge.  This was actually one of the more nerve-wracking parts of the build because I was concerned I wouldn’t get the perfect shade; I wanted the coloration to resemble the red pyramid thing‘s helmet from the game, which looks like an amalgamation of deep rust and caked red blood.  It took me a good half-hour or more to mix the proper combinations of red, orange, yellow and brown paints until I was happy with the outcome.  The first photo shows how much this layer made the other accessory pieces pop (the “rivets” and “pipes” specifically) which I was really happy with.

I didn’t take any photos of the Great Knife while it was in progress, but it was a relatively simple build.  I actually decided not to look up a tutorial on the Knife and created it completely from scratch, basing it primarily on the game’s version.  I cut out two identical pieces of heavy cardboard into the shape I wanted and glued them together.  The two pieces combined with the hot-glue made the Knife quite sturdy.  I used a primer on the cardboard before painting it a metallic gray, which I created by mixing a little black paint with tons of white paint.  After that dried I painted the Knife’s edge white to resemble a sharpened blade.  I then used some costume blood on each side of the blade to create the drip effect.  Lastly I used a fine paintbrush and black paint to give the Knife its accents, scrapes and scratches.  I used electrical tape for the blade’s hilt.

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During the build I made notes as I went and tried my best to keep a checklist of what still needed to be done so I didn’t have to constantly repaint and re-glue things.  Organization of my thoughts kept me from going crazy trying to complete everything on the fly.

While I was building the helmet and blade, I also worked on the other pieces of my costume which were much, much easier.  I purchased a white butcher’s apron, butcher’s meat cutting gloves, and a white painter’s jumpsuit.  Because I live in Colorado and it’s a universal law that Halloween falls on a week when it snows, I wanted the jumpsuit so I could wear heavier clothing underneath to keep warm.  My girlfriend had the brilliant idea to tea-stain the apron and jumpsuit (we simply boiled up a handful of tea bags, let the clothes sit in the tea overnight, and let them dry outside afterward), and the final touch was using costume blood to splatter on the clothing to complete the red pyramid thing‘s grisly appearance.  I already had a pair of chunky work boots to complete the ensemble.

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Everything came together well.  My extremely patient, extremely artistic partner took plenty of nice photos of my creation when it was finished (more of them are on my personal Instagram).  The weekend before Halloween, when all the best parties were taking place this year, there was plenty of snow in the forecast as always which added to the Silent Hill effect.  My buddy also dressed up as James Sunderland so I had someone to terrorize.

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I had a total blast putting this thing together and the reaction from others made it even more fun.  It’s definitely inspired me to craft some other ideas in the future.  It also helped me take first prize at a costume contest this year!

I’d like to thank the Academy.

We live inside a dream

Twin Peaks: The Return was the best piece of visual art I’ve ever seen.

Critics have described the last decade and some change as the “Golden Age of Television” which is pretty undeniable.  I’ve found myself gravitating toward television more often than films in large part due to the medium’s capacity for telling a compelling story.  A film has to tell a self-sustained story in about two hours or less, and even the longer ones rarely go past four hours.  Sure there are sequels and prequels, but more often than not even these films are required to produce a story that is easy to follow regardless of your knowledge of the expanded universe it is set in. Television is kind of a final frontier in the quest for a fresh way to create long-term emotional storytelling. Budgets have gotten larger, seasons come more frequently (typically once or twice a year, as opposed to a few years in between for a film series), and there is always more that can be expanded upon due to fewer constraints and the ability to gain a larger viewership in the age of “binge-watching” on streaming services that virtually every home subscribes to.  There’s also the option to watch a small chunk of a story, ruminate on that portion, and come back for another helping at your own leisure.

David Lynch and Mark Frost blurred the line between television and film with The Return. Lynch himself described The Return as an 18-hour film.  Because virtually no one is going to sit still for 18 hours to watch a movie (and in order to build the hype and mystery needed to keep the momentum of this event going), it was split into 18 one-hour pieces that played each Sunday night through the summer of 2017.  Lynch was adamant that this would not be a “binge-watch” scenario (though it will almost certainly be that way for some, now that all the episodes are available) and even scoffed at any one who would dare watch these episodes on a phone or tablet.  This was meant to be seen on as big of a screen as possible, digested slowly over time, and the viewer was urged to keep their mind completely open and their mouths sealed shut as the events unfolded in front of them.

As a huge fan of the original Twin Peaks (humorously enough, one of the first posts I ever made in this blog was years ago when I first discovered the show) I was excited, but also extremely nervous, when the new season aired.  Like anyone who loved the original run I wanted more, but there have been so many poorly executed revivals/reboots in recent years I was unsure of whether or not something 25+ years in the making could be brought back from the dead and made interesting again.  What ended up occurring was something so sublime and beyond its time it actually casts a shadow across the subject matter it originated from and dwarfs it in comparison.

The Return was Lynch’s finest work to date and it’s not blasphemy to wonder if it’s the finest work of any director in my lifetime.

Part 8

(Found forgotten in the draft folder from 9.8.17; last edited on 11.04.19)


damn good coffee

I started watching Twin Peaks on Netflix about a week ago.  I realized how much I enjoyed the show when I noticed I had watched an entire DVD (around three hours worth) in one sitting.  I’m not even through the first season yet and I’m already depressed that they ended it after two.  What a trippy masterpiece.