Friday, July 31, 2009

Blue Velvet (1986) A Film by David Lynch

David Lynch's first three features, albeit sharing several elements, were each distinctly singular films. They were made under different circumstances, with Lynch's motivations shifting spontaneously from artistic inner sources to oppressive external forces. It was not until Blue Velvet that Lynch would start hitting a stride of consistency, not only in terms of production but in the tone of his work, a streak that remains alive today. With Blue Velvet, Lynch began looking in at America rather than simply making films that are set in America. Utilizing a touch that seems both personally inflected and artificially calculated, he establishes a hygienic small town rife with clichés - red roses and green lawns set against romantic royal blue skies, policemen waving as they ride down the street, little children playing in their yards - only to implant it with the bizarre, hyperreal dreamscape of his imagination. This is the first time Lynch weaves this specific trick, and it is something we still see in his most recent films: the penchant for genre-busting. For the first ten minutes or so of the film, everything tells us we are viewing an average small town mystery. Lynch hits all the right notes, right down to the naming of the characters (the angelic blond high-school girl as Sandy (Laura Dern, with shades of Laura Palmer), her football star boyfriend Mike) and the nowhere-but-anywhere feel of the microcosmic American suburb. Then a disembodied human ear is found in a field.

Jeffrey Beaumont, played by Kyle Maclachlan in a role that seems a tryout for his subsequent turn as Cooper in Twin Peaks, is the innocent young claimant of this ear. He takes it to the police but is told to remove himself from involvement. Jeffrey becomes uncontrollably suspicious, determined to fill in more pieces to the puzzle he began. He enlists the Police Investigator's daughter Sandy, who shows interest as well but not to the degree that he does. Despite this, she stays by his side throughout the proceedings, simultaneously out of a perverse curiosity regarding the expanding mystery but perhaps more so out of a fascination she has with Jeffrey, even to the dismay of her boyfriend. Jeffrey's courageous investigation leads him into the foreboding apartment of the femme-fatale, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a local night club singer who croons night after night the alluring Doo-Wop single, "Blue Velvet", which comes to be the primary visual and aural motif of the film. Dorothy is mixed up with a gang of evil, mysterious men whom Jeffrey witnesses firsthand.

Such a plot sounds prime for some old-fashioned, conventional sentimentalizing. This is what Lynch wants. When Sandy asks Jeffrey "You like mysteries that much, don't you?" after he reports to her a whole bunch of tomfoolery, she could just as well be asking Lynch the same question. He likes them so much that he's willing to ride a thin line between self-parodying schmaltz and the dichotomous, sinister world he forges. Scenes involving a pirouetting camera as Jeffrey and Sandy kiss at a party, or when Jeffrey picks up Sandy in his shiny red sports car from school, a swarm of impressionable girls staring wide-eyed at him, are supposed to clash heavily with the dark material in the film. Dennis Hopper's portrayal of Frank Booth, a maniacal, unpredictable, sadistic sexaholic, is the embodiment of the sheer gravity of Lynch's willingness to take us to the shocking extremes of his chosen genre. The first time Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothy's apartment, he witnesses from her tinted closet Frank as he has his way with the submissive Dorothy, sucking violently on a hospital mask and screaming at her to not look at him. His eventual discovery of Jeffrey, whom he hitherto deems "neighbor", sends the film into its most Lynchian territory, via a "joy ride" to hell that recalls the transformative use of open road in Lost Highway. In Blue Velvet though, it's a matter of transitioning between genres rather than realities. Several of Frank's pawns encircle Jeffrey, whispering confusingly unfinished inside jokes to him while more Elvis-like music reverberates in the background, a scenario that exemplifies Lynch's use of obscure comedy.

Another line that Jeffrey and Sandy habitually fall back on is "it's a strange world, isn't it?". The main problem with the film is that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Lynch's philosophy is actually any deeper than these words, spoken out of the naive mouths of simple folk. The first time I saw the film, I was suspicious of this, a phenomenon Ben Livant hits on the head in an article over at Cinemania: "All of the seedy stuff is merely juxtaposed against the red fire engine with the dalmatian dog, not really intertwined, stapled together for the fun of making a Siamese twin out of a dichotomy, not dialectically related to create a new thing of value." The perfection juxtaposed with the degeneracy seemed too convenient, too easy. Upon second viewing, I found that the pull of the surface pleasures was too strong to worry about this flaw. Granted, Lynch's application of genre tropes has become more refined as his career has progressed. Blue Velvet stands as his initial juggling of this concept, and it is an oddly compelling piece of work indeed, with a memorable atmosphere and cast.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Elephant Man (1980) A Film by David Lynch

The Elephant Man came as a significant departure for David Lynch when it was released in 1980, being only his second feature following Eraserhead. With several big names involved - Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Hurt (who only became more widely acknowledged after the film's success), and even comedy staple Mel Brooks as the executive producer - the film stood as a big break for Lynch, an opportunity to reach a wider audience following his independently produced debut, which barely broke out from the midnight movie crowd. And although some of the recognizable abstractions of Eraserhead remain fairly intact in The Elephant Man, at heart, they only cushion what is a fairly meat-and-potatoes plot rather than working to primarily elevate the film. Furthermore, the film's story, which on the outset was a difficult sell, is actually quite in line with many "serious" Hollywood dramas, given its somewhat shrill "triumph of the human spirit" undertones. John Hurt plays John Merrick, "The Elephant Man", a man deformed at birth from a mother who was struck by an elephant. He lives miserably under the ownership of a freak-show proprietor until a doctor and anatomy professor working in London (Anthony Hopkins) discovers him and takes him under his wing in light of Merrick's chronic bronchitis. The professor, Frederick Treves, thus battles with his patient's well-being, his own conscience, and eventually the greedy underbelly of London, forever marked by Merrick's previous owner.

It's interesting to see how Lynch revisits the theme of birth deficiency in such a different situation. Whereas Henry's baby in Eraserhead arrived in a strictly lyrical, immaterial manner, Lynch gets right to work detailing Merrick's mother's backstory, underlining the film's progression as a logical one. The opening montage poses a series of fragmented images detailing the mother's incident with elephants, an episode that is horrific and enthralling and most importantly, one of the more stylized in regards to the film as a whole. Without ever showing the mother again, albeit through Merrick's allusions and his sacred framed portrait of her, Lynch has given the viewer the luxury of understanding his deformation. One of the finest moments in the film is a dream sequence which is introduced directly by a swooping camera movement over Merrick's sleeping body, which then gives way to a mosaic of nightmarish images containing back-alley industrial workers and tons of smoke. Everything, from the sound design to the more expressionistic camerawork, tells us we are viewing a dream. This is something we rarely receive in Lynch's work, that privilege to engage without constantly wondering where reality and allusion intersect.

Therefore, The Elephant Man is Lynch's pursuit of a Hollywood message drama with an intent not to devalue his skills with mise-en-scene. In several spots the film becomes academic and labored, most specifically when Treves is integrating Merrick into the hospital environment while a handful of authoritative figures struggle with the idea of taking in an incurable against the hospital's guidelines. The scenes progress with melodramatic weight as The Elephant Man transforms rapidly from a grunting monster to a kindhearted, elegant soul. Anne Bancroft makes a cameo as a notable London theatre actress who treats Merrick with compassion, and thus triggers, along with other admirers spawned by the local newspaper, an important question in Treves: has he sinned by becoming just as exploitative with Merrick as his previous owner? Lynch extends this question but does not answer it, one of the more admirable choices when placed aside some of the saccharine tendencies that film has, like giving Merrick such saintlike innocence, treating all foes not with depth but as greedy, drunken ignoramuses, and providing the overtly uplifting moments with traditional dramatic cues.

Notwithstanding these occasional narrative blunders, The Elephant Man is a work of cinematographic excellence. This is the second time I've seen the film (the first time under proper circumstances) and I remembered it as having a clunkier, more retro look than it actually does. Truth is, Freddie Francis' lighting and camera techniques are sophisticated and modern. Moreover, the film has great range of contrast rather than muted grays, which are what I remembered. With these visuals, the elongated London hospital hallways have more in common with Eraserhead's shadowy walkways than expected. Also, the relentless fog in the darker areas of London where the freak-show owner deprives Merrick makes it seem like Lynch's Philadelphia is the neighboring town. John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins do tremendous jobs in their roles, Hurt bringing out humanity from beneath a grossly deformed, tumor-laden exterior, and Hopkins sustaining an aloof but tender disposition throughout. The film is an uncommonly modest effort from Lynch that has won the hearts of audiences that have scoffed at his more personal works.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Quiz, Courtesy of Dennis Cozzalio

Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has recently created a great quiz regarding movies. I thought I'd join in, so here are my on-the-fly answers to the 38 questions, although there were many I could not answer due to a lack of familiarity with the subject.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
A more appropriate question seems like "favorite Stanley Kubrick film". I cannot rank them, but nonetheless 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove make up my top three.

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
The trend which is loosely, and somewhat shamefully, entitled "contemplative cinema": European and Asian slow-burners that favor quiet observation of the world to the bombastic debauchery of most contemporary media. Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsein, and Abbas Kiarostami are the big names.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

4) Best Film of 1949.
Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
Most certainly. I cringe when I hear people vaguely describing a film as interesting mainly because it had "realistic" cinematography. This is not to say that the style has ceased to be necessary, as it often times is applied with great results.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon, a delightful film I saw as a child which is actually almost completely dialogue-free if I remember accurately.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
For now, the film that immediately springs to mind is Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), even though it's less of a drama and more of an elliptical, dreamy exploration of wartime's negative effects. Also, although it does not fall within the allotted time frame of 1950-1970, I am insistent upon mentioning the tremendously moving Japanese animation, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), even though it too is an anti-war film.

10) Favorite animal movie star.
The sadly underused, adorable baby fox in Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the titular donkey in Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, and Flike from De Sica's Umberto D.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
The fact that the outlandish, absurd, unbelievable plot of Michael Bay's Armageddon (1998) ever made it to the big screen.

12) Best Film of 1969.
Ahh, a great year for cinema. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is the most sprawling achievement in my mind, but who can deny how grateful the film community must have been to experience Woody Allen's directorial debut, Take the Money and Run?

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theater: Brüno. DVD: Eraserhead.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
The British Film Institute's magazine Sight and Sound is always informative and enlightening. Online, Ed Howard of Only the Cinema provides some of the most fascinating, long-winded discussions of films I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Also, Dan Jardine of Cinemania brings a witty, irreverent, stream-of-consciousness prose to some thoroughly engaging material.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Fellini's La Strada (1954).

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006) and Nuri Bilge-Ceylan's Three Monkeys (2008).

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
With David Lynch on the mind so much lately, his TV series Twin Peaks seems a great example, as an explosive dissection of the television soap drama.

21) Best Film of 1979.
Once again, I must hand Tarkovsky the top prize for Stalker, although Herzog's version of Nosferatu the Vampyre was outstanding.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977).

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
That wretched old homeless man behind the diner in Mulholland Drive (2001), or Samara from The Ring (2002), who somehow makes a terrible film legitimately creepy.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
I still need to verse myself in Coppola's work.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
I'm having trouble thinking of one situation where a film could have possibly benefited from a sequel.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
The brief sequence in Godard's Contempt when the man shoots an arrow across the schematically painted walls.

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
I have never heard of this man.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
I have not seen enough to answer comfortably. After all, Woody makes about a film a year.

31) Best Film of 1999.
Three works by filmmaking giants: Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick), Fight Club (Fincher), and The Thin Red Line (Malick).

32) Favorite movie tag line.
No one should care about these.

33) Favorite B-movie western.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
Kōbō Abe and László Krasznahorkai, whom Hiroshi Teshigahara and Bela Tarr, respectively, work in sacred sync with.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
Vali Kerekes as the bar singer in Bela Tarr's Damnation (1987), Rebekah Del Rio in the "club silencio" sequence of Mulholland Drive (2001), and the (Mongolian?) flutist in Guy Maddin's Saddest Music in the World, although some may consider this film a musical, no matter how bizarre.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
I'd say both, but above all else, he is a hilarious entertainer.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, and Manny Farber.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eraserhead (1970) A Film by David Lynch

As the Eraserhead DVD turns on, a curious screen entitled "TV CALIBRATION PAGE" presents itself before we can even get to the menu. It includes a set of directions on how to properly set both the brightness and the contrast on the television set, and also strongly advises the viewer to take all feasible measures to darken the room of viewing as much as possible. This small but substantive gesture alone does something to prove why David Lynch is, in my own words, "the most singular, important filmmaker and artist working in America currently". It is this act of insistence on Lynch's part to bring something to the film before it even begins, to discard any ideas one may have of using Eraserhead as just a "Friday Night Movie", and more like a cinematic experience that takes faith and dedication on the viewer's part, that sets Lynch apart from the crowd. He believes so much in the potency of cinema, its unique ability to offer up a "dreamworld", that he will go this far to insure that the film is being screened in its most ideal format. Essentially, it is being seen in the manner of its truest origins: the editing table.

Eraserhead is the first David Lynch film I ever saw, and to this day it remains on my short, exalted list of great feature debuts in cinema. Taking place in a seedy Philadelphia industrial town, it documents the life of Henry (Jack Nance), an apprehensive printer living in a ramshackle apartment room seething with mangy plant material, dirt, and all matters of unidentifiable detritus. On his nightstand is a pile of this very rubbish, topped with a puny, leafless tree. Henry's days consist of nothing more than trudging in and around the smoky, defunct industrial buildings, stepping in puddles, opening up his cuckoo clock, and, in subdued pleas of desperation, sprawling out on his bed and staring into his radiator. One night he is invited to his girlfriend's house, ominously named Mary X, to have dinner with her and her parents. Mrs. X confronts him about his supposed intercourse with Mary, and follows by informing him of the premature baby waiting to be picked up from the hospital. Next, Lynch brings us back to Henry's apartment, where Mary tends to a grotesque infant lying on a desk, something like the mutated cousin of Spielberg's E.T. The baby whines incessantly, Mary and Henry fight over who takes care of it, the two lie in bed, restless and loveless, and eventually, in a fit of exhaustion, Mary becomes fed up with it, leaving Henry to his own devices.

This is, for the most part, the extent of what happens on the surface of Eraserhead, but it comes far from doing a bang-up job of describing the film as a whole. The remainder of the film is padded with nightmarish interludes of Henry's illusions and dreams, and to anyone who is mildly familiar with Lynch's work, it should be obvious that this is where the real magic lies, and also where Lynch gives the greatest emphasis. Henry is an extremely anxious character living in a hell from which he sees no way out (the brick wall which becomes his view of outdoors does little to help), so he longs for escapism. Granted, his escapes from reality are marred by his own wariness, thus they are menacing. Inside his radiator exists a miniature theater that is home to a singing and dancing woman who is by turns angelic (she is bathed in bright light) and demonic (her bulbous cheeks are scarily immobile as she taunts Henry by stepping on the sperm-like objects that fall from the rafters). She also appears to represent the dangerous allure of suicide, courting Henry with a song she sings about how everything is fine in heaven, set to an extraction of the distant, reverb-laden organ music that invariably creeps into the soundtrack. At one point Henry enters the radiator and tensely approaches the woman onstage, only to have her disappear. Shortly thereafter, he ducks away behind a black curtain on the side of the stage, where his head is flung off and replaced by that of his premature baby, a succession of images which eventually gives rise to the sequence from which the film gets its title.

There are also times when the source of these episodes is more elusive. For instance, the film's opening sequence is an abstract, distended reverie involving cosmic imagery. The first frames show Henry's face - frozen with the same hyper-sensitive expression he wears throughout the film - superimposed over a crude rendering of the moon. Lynch then presents an outstanding series of tracking shots that rove over the intricate textures of the moon, which are substantially more eye-catching because they are shot in lovely black and white. It is perhaps no mistake that later, shots of Mary lying in bed look strikingly similar to lunar landscapes, with the organic roll of the sheets bearing a resemblance to the mountains and craters of the moon. The opening sequence also includes a foreboding shot of a sort of Sisyphean figure mechanically pulling levers while gazing out an empty window beside him, a man, covered with epidermic imperfections, who appears to live inside the moon, his levers seemingly controlling the universe. This figure returns a few times throughout the course of the film, provoking shock in Henry.

As much as Eraserhead lounges in these kinds of otherworldly stretches, it is really a film about a basic human emotion: fear. Fear of parenthood mainly, but also fear of adulthood, fear of infidelity, fear of seriousness, fear of insignificance. In this sense, Henry and Mary's baby is the physical manifestation of Henry's fear, all the more revolting given the extremity of his fear. Because Henry is premature, not one bit prepared to handle the stresses of having a wife and leading an adult life, his baby is premature. Therefore, when the baby cries, it eats away at Henry like a cancer, positing the mounting power of anxiety. Henry is also tempted by the sensuous woman who lives across the hall when she supposedly locks herself out of her apartment late at night. The scene when she invites herself in and deftly, mysteriously offers herself is handled with great skill by Lynch, one of those rare moments in his work when a scene gains all of its tension from grounded drama. When the two begin making love and the woman spots the mutant baby, the bed turns into a jacuzzi of thick, whitish liquid, a sexually charged reminder of Henry's infidelity as they begin sinking in. Henry's immediate surrounding are constantly viable to change given his conflicting inner states, a sentiment that is reprised when he later sees the woman with a new man across the hall and his head transforms back into his baby's.

Ultimately, what lifts the film from becoming an entirely gloomy allegory on fear is the spastic sojourns into silly dark comedy. Henry's dinner with the X's is a telling example. Mr. X, an awkward, boisterous, endlessly quotable character, seems to have come from a separate film, like some lost episode of The Pee-Wee Herman Show. Starkly contrasting the solemn, vile, unpredictable mother, he makes an earnest attempt at getting to know Henry. His first speech comes from across the living room in the kitchen, where he enthusiastically asks Henry about his occupation, eventually taking the opportunity to boast about how he put up every pipe in the so-called "neighborhood", proving it by insisting that everyone look at the toll it has taken on his knees. The family then sits down to dinner - a proud recipe of chickens that are smaller than Mr. X's fists - and he makes unusually broad small talk with Henry, after which he holds a monumentally goofy face for an extended period of time. It is playful moments like these that make the film so diverse.

Eraserhead reportedly took several years to film and it was an ambitious, personally debilitating journey at the time for Lynch, who himself was struggling with the onset of fatherhood. Fortunately, he was able to fight the practical obstacles inherent in its production and create a film that is so focused in its vision and tone that it never once shows signs of letting up. Technically, it is absolutely brilliant. The cinematography is impressively detailed, with sinister patches of light selectively revealing certain objects in the interiors while the rest of the frame is left pitch black. The camera remains tense and poised, and frequently when the film enters dream logic, it will seek out these dark orifices to immerse the screen in black. Always though, the apocalyptic sound design by Lynch and Alan Splet will remain one of its most rewarding traits, a relentless industrial drone which ever so often is transformed into eerie musicality. It's a film I could probably write so much more about, but it is most honestly encapsulated as an utter masterpiece of unique vision in the cinema.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Early David Lynch Short Films: Six Men Getting Sick (1966), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970)

David Lynch's first venture into motion pictures came with his entry into a Philadelphia art and sculpture contest, Six Men Getting Sick, also entitled Six Figures Getting Sick, or Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). Each mildly altered title works as well as the next with the self-explanatory yet elusive short film loop, a one minute ouroboros involving six crudely drawn, hairless heads vomiting, distending the pipe-like organs leading to their hearts, and displaying grief over their physical states. As much as this appears to make up the material content however, it is difficult to state as fact what exactly does happen, or what its purpose is. It's certainly not a self-reflective piece for Lynch, as he seems to have had little discernible physical or emotional torment during the time of its making. Rather, it's simply the first stirrings of Lynch's penchant for warped, dour artistic content, and certainly foreshadows the kind of personal anguish experienced by the leading boy in The Grandmother, or Henry in Eraserhead. On a purely technical level, the film is something of an achievement, likely the reason for its eventual first prize at the contest. Lynch's illustrations are organic and bizarre, with lines that branch off in directions that seem at once fluid and unnatural. The burnished edges of the frame, the general rawness of the splattered white "blood", and the irritating police siren that repeats on the soundtrack also add to an unusually discomforting atmosphere that mounts and grates as the film loop persists, perhaps approximating the terrible physical derailment involved with sickness.

The Alphabet shows Lynch keeping with the disturbing, coarse style of Six Men Getting Sick, this time expanding on a story his wife Peggy told him about her niece reciting the alphabet whilst sleeping. In doing so, Lynch probably wasn't presenting himself as a good uncle figure. The animation/16mm mix becomes a terrifying fever dream, sure to evoke even worse dreams out of a young child than what was likely the case. In it, letters come alive, jittering around the frame with ugly energy, periodically bursting, shrinking, or bleeding like the heads in Lynch's debut. The animated frame transforms into the landscape of his niece's dream, pulsing with ever-growing cloud-like formations and dark edges. This is interchanged with footage of various parts of a woman's face - made up like Isabella Rossellini's character in Blue Velvet - as she whispers unsettling phrases, a minimalistic black and white animation with echoes of PacMan, and images of a reeling girl on her bed in what looks like a cavernous, dark abyss of a room. Once again, Lynch makes unconventional use of sound. Grating cracks, hisses, and whines emanate from the soundtrack, matched seemingly without motivation to the events onscreen. For instance, what sounds like a dying bird pairs up with the animation of a white ball ascending up a black corridor. This utterly irrational aural manipulation recalls the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and through it Lynch finds the perfect madness of nightmares.

Lynch's ability to shock and disquiet with his early style reached its zenith with 1970's American Film Institute-funded The Grandmother, yet another oddball mixture of animation and live action. The film was his longest piece yet at 34 minutes, and also his most dense, despite being wordless. Shot in a chiaroscuro gloom, it follows the experiences of a young boy in a black suit living in a Gothic, shadowy home with his two subhuman parents. In an attempt to shake himself loose from the stranglehold of his torrid, barking mother and father (a hyperbolic expression of poor parenting), he retreats to his bedroom, finds a bag of seeds, and plants what turns out to be a grandmother on his bed. This is Lynch's bizarre reworking of the age-old neglected child story, as well as his rebirth of the tree of life symbol; instead of using a tree as a marker for hope, out sprouts a grandmother who acts as the tender, motherly guidance the young boy lacks (his name appears to be Matt if the parent's slightly distinguishable growls do anything to indicate). The boy lives in a world that is quite literally black and white, rife with moral ambiguity and festering with unpleasant living conditions.

Of the three works that comprise Lynch's pre-feature-length career, The Grandmother does the best to anticipate things to come, or at least its immediate father, Eraserhead. The atmosphere of the film closely resembles that of Eraserhead, with its grid of ominous domestic settings, predominance of black screen space, presence of the organic amidst the orderly (the pile of dirt on the bed and subsequent appearance of the slimy grandmother recalling Henry's apartment with the alien baby and the ubiquity of plants), and use of sullen organ music. (Here though, the organ shifts variably from minor to major, usually providing an ironic counterpoint to the action.) It's also tempting to read the young boy as the childhood image of Henry himself; surely, the beating he takes from his parents could have resulted in a future fear of parenthood. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly revolting, presenting a series of spooky images that seem to have been created with the intention of sticking involuntarily in the mind of the viewer. Figures twitch with inhuman convolution, and so too does the camera at times, resulting in an eerie allegory that can't help but turn eyes and ears away.

Were it not for the young boy's unintentional discovery of tenderness in The Grandmother, Lynch's early works are almost entirely without humanity. As experiments however, they boast a termite-like ability (in the Farber sense) to dispose of and regenerate a wealth of creative aesthetic ideas. Lynch also displays for the first time his spectacular gift of forging unexplainable moods out of limited means, which in a way paves the way for his most recent film, Inland Empire. The three films undeniably provide a glance at the primitive stages of Lynch's artistry.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Lik Wong) A Film by Ngai Kai Lam (1991)

Today in mainstream, lowbrow action films, movement and viscera comes and goes at a fast pace, and blood and guts often follow in synchronicity. When a character reaches for his gun in a dark alley, he is bound to shoot. When a simmering femme fatale puts a knife to the throat of a fraudulent punk, she will most likely either slash his neck open or at least give it in a pinprick as a warning. But what often exists in these encounters is a dangerous sense that the actors don't have any dedication to their malign roles. Moreover, the construction of such scenes involve all the rigor and creativity of a chore. The directors behind the work have a predetermined idea of where they want to take their action aesthetically and narratively, so when fight scene after fight scene slips by on the screen, it seems as if they are merely getting on with it, creating the scenes for productivity's sake.

Such insistence upon proficiency and reliance upon tried-and-true technique is wholeheartedly absent from the Hong-Kong manga-inspired flick, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, a popcorn movie that is so gleeful in its bad taste and its joyous maximalism that it becomes viscerally draining in its own way. The film involves something about an excessively hostile prison, an imprisoned flutist named Ricky with superhuman strength, a "gang of four", which are the four outrageously subhuman masters of each prison sect, a romance between Ricky and his girlfriend, the vengeance of whom got him into jail in the first place, and oppressive authorities. Any attempt that the film makes at a statement on the abusive, corruptive nature of authority however, is ultimately undermined by the sheer absurdity on display. The story is so inconsequential, the characters so shred-thin, the scenarios so unbelievable, that any encapsulation of the plot remains entirely unnecessary. I still cannot, for the life of me, decide why a fat, greedy little boy shows up at the prison in the end with his domineering father to egg on all matters of violence and obsessive torture, and, echoing some ludicrous back-story that occurs offscreen, frighten the larger, more threatening inmates with his mere presence.

What makes Riki-Oh such a hoot to watch is the gung-ho attitude on the part of the filmmaker, Ngai Kai Lam, that permits him to obey this credo: "if it's shown fast enough, maybe people will believe it." Of course, this is never the case, and as a result we can identify the clearly discernible tin foil - meant to stand in for an iron door - that Ricky jumps through, the ridiculously doctored facial grotesqueries when someone's skin is slashed off, or the obtuse physical movements during fight scenes that don't, by any stretch of the imagination, seem practical. Every time Ricky punches an opponent, he tears clean through their bodies. In an act of desperation, one of his adversaries unravels his own large intestines to strangle Ricky. When all is said and done though, Ricky's outlandish physical strength is too much for his opponents. But simultaneously, via sporadic inner monologues and flashbacks that come so infrequently that they cease to be devices at all, we see that Ricky is really a gentle human being, resolute in his fight for justice. This is all narrative hogwash, but Ngai truly believes in it, and what he brings to the assembly line of blood and guts is not determined professionalism, but rather enthusiastic amateurism that delights in every second of fantastic cinematic realization.

The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Véronique) A Film by Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991)

The Double Life of Veronique is a film that hinges entirely on ineffable qualities: the interconnectedness of humanity, dual personalities, alternative realities, mysticism, sensation, attraction. That Krzysztof Kieslowski manages to meld what are perhaps some of the most difficult themes to convey through cinema into a light, tonally spectacular work of art is in itself an act of miracle. The film is best viewed as a phenomenological experience, an invitation to soak the senses in sight and sound purely, resist cognitive processes and the inevitable urge to deconstruct a linear narrative, and simply engage. It is, then, the fault of Kieslowski's that there does exist a smoke and mirrors act within the core of the film, a jumbled puzzle that requests putting together. At the same time, this puzzle is not so much convoluted as it is grounded in the very patterns of the film, solved best through resistance to the elliptical ebbs and flows.

The film tells an outwardly complex narrative, written by Kieslowski and his longtime script collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, of two young women who are existential copies of each other. Introduced first is Weronika, a Polish soprano. Weronika is a woman delighted by the simplistic textures of life; indeed, there a few better examples of female ecstasy in cinema as those of Weronika proudly finishing the final note during an outdoor choir practice while rain beats down on her face in close-up, or lifting her head joyfully as dust caroms off the ceiling wherein she deflected her favorite transparent bouncy ball. Furthermore, she has an unexplainable certainty that she is not alone in the world, that her pleasures and pains are being mirrored by someone else, and this notion is validated when she witnesses her doppelgänger boarding a bus in a market square amidst a public riot. Unfortunately, she is invariably discovering sharp pains in her chest, which eventually, when she persists at singing in a performance for a distinguished music school, claims her life.

As a result, Veronique, her French double, quits her singing career. She begins feeling a heavy grief for something which she cannot put a finger on. Her life as a music schoolteacher continues, but it becomes invested with routine because she is far too preoccupied by her otherworldly emotions. When a children's book writer comes to Veronique's school to put on a marionette show, she becomes infatuated by the glimpse she gets of the man via a reflection on the wall beside the stage. Once again, Veronique is able to see and feel that which is invisible to others, and her subsequent love for the puppeteer is a further inquiry into the enigmatic quality of Veronique's character, of her uncommon ability to harbor feelings for those things that she has no concrete certainty of, and of her omnipresent brushes against transcendence.

Both characters are played by Irene Jacob, a young actress who previously had only a minor part in Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Despite this lack of experience, Jacob shows an amazing ability to imbue her performance with multivalent gazes and quietly expressive physicality, sacred qualities that are most often only discussed when dealing with veteran actors. While she plays two sexually active characters, her true pleasure seems to always come from an outside source, a difficult complexity to convey. Late in the film, when she finally connects with the puppeteer through a nifty sound recording he sent her as a way of testing for a forthcoming novel the psychological likelihood of a complete stranger following a path to another stranger, the two have passionately emotional sex, but Jacob's intense expression seems to be out of the moment, as if she's really using the act as either a way of reciprocating her beliefs in coincidence or even connecting on a higher level with her deceased double (after all, the two make love in the same hotel room that Weronika's boyfriend said he was staying in earlier in the film). Rarely does a character emote so profoundly, and perhaps never have I felt so much love for a two-dimensional person as I do for Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique.

Kieslowski and his cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, the cameraman for his visually enticing A Short Film About Killing, are constantly finding innovative ways to emphasize both the mystical worlds of Weronika and Veronique and the inherent self-reflexivity of a film with such a title. Most discernibly, the film has a warm, soothing color palette of olive greens and deep reds. The colors rarely have specific physical beginning and ending points on screen, but rather flow together like liquids. The most telling example of this fluidity comes in an abstract shot that reimagines Weronika's death aside an amorphous red haze. In contrast, the exterior shots of Polish streets have a dullness in response to the green filter, as if the life has been sucked out of them. Such emptiness is not as extreme as it is in A Short Film About Killing, but it nonetheless provides a coldness to compliment Weronika's impending death. Also, glass becomes a central motif in the film, with the ponderous images of Weronika and Veronique frequently reflected against windows to suggest the more faint replica of themselves. Then there is the repetitious use of the aforementioned opaque bouncy ball, which reflects the world as in a silver globe. The camerawork has an impressive elasticity, jumping from eye-catching tableaux shots to abstract, dynamic micro images. Finally, the sound is designed to amplify minor details, completing the magnificent aesthetic which manages to achieve a sensually heightened world.

Kieslowski's film, though, when it comes down to it, does not need to be analyzed too thickly. It is determinedly metaphysical, and it curiously succeeds at transmitting the ineffable feelings of the unknown, of the indescribable attractions we all have towards others, and of an entirely separate reality existing on the opposite side of a thin piece of glass. Although it contains an occasionally contrived plot point (the ability of Veronique's friend to systematically remember that the puppeteer was a children's book writer and that she even owns one of his books), the overall rhythm it forges is too powerful to resist. Most importantly, it is a stunningly beautiful, palpably sensual piece of work, and one of the few masterpieces I dare to name.

David Lynch Blogathon

To me, David Lynch is the most singular, important filmmaker and artist working in America currently. With his oeuvre spanning uninhibited experimental oddities to mildly populist fare with mysterious, utterly unconventional elements, and with his unfathomable ability to gain a sort of unadulterated critical and creative freedom on nearly all of his projects, Lynch has come to nearly represent cinema as an art in the United States. And ironically, given his salient interest in Hollywood as an environment ("the air in Los Angeles..."), he has managed to continue a tradition of successful off-the-beaten-path filmmaking, variably expressing disinterest in the commercial efforts of The Machine.

Tragically, in this light, I have come to realize that I have seen nearly all of his films but have not written about them. It comes as quite a shock given the fact that his films have elicited perhaps more hardcore contemplation out of me than the films of any other living director. Therefore, from July 21st to August 15th, I have decided to activate a David Lynch Blogathon. I will be watching every one of his feature films sequentially, as well as taking into account some of the more unseen shorts. Of course, there is a small amount of his work that was difficult for me to obtain, so some have been left out, but I believe the pieces that I will explore owe a great deal to Lynch's sensibility in general. I have never participated in such a thorough and relentless investigation of one artist's career, so I am hoping that doing so will be a way to truly probe the mind of Lynch the artist, Lynch the entertainer, and Lynch the enigma. Below, I have listed the dates that I plan to write about each work, although the specific times of their publishing are subject to fluctuation over the course of their respective days. Also, anyone interested in joining in on the fun is encouraged to either leave feedback here on my blog, or even write about the films on your own blog. I'd gladly link to such articles.

7/21: Early Shorts (Six Men Getting Sick (1966), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970))

7/23: Eraserhead (1977)

7/28: Elephant Man (1980)

7/30: Dune (1984)

8/1: Blue Velvet (1986)

8/3: The Cowboy and the Frenchman (Short, 1988) and Wild at Heart (1990)

8/5: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

8/7: Premonition Following an Evil Deed (Short, 1995) and Lost Highway (1997)

8/9: The Straight Story (1999)

8/11: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

8/13: Inland Empire (2006)

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse) A Film by Catherine Breillat (2007)

Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress kicks off like a demure French period piece that will seem closer to reading Jane Austen than it will like witnessing Breillat's explicit sensibilities. In 19th century France, we see the prestigious elderly discuss thoroughly the romantic exploits of a young, penniless aristocrat named Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), whose impending marriage to a wealthy blonde, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), is somewhat marred by his ten-year connection to his Spanish mistress, Vellini (Asia Argento). Their conversations move in a heavily mannered fashion, steeping us in what is perceived as the ethical wisdom of the time, and Breillat's camera is chiefly a respectful, non-confrontational observer, serving the dialogue more than satisfying the opulent surroundings. Gradually however, once Breillat has established her milieu dutifully, giving it a classic, sedate period treatment, abstractions begin to seep into the material. Once we're ready to confirm that Breillat has put the provocative eroticism of her previous features behind her, something magical happens, and dark, conflicting undertones start jabbing their way tangentially into the material. It's like the otherworldly eroticism of David Lynch broke through its cage and snuck into a Merchant-Ivory production. And although these spurts arrive abruptly (see Breillat's jarring cuts to Marigny and Vellini making love on the floor or Vellini's vampiric lunge at Marigny's bullet wound), they never feel staunchly out of place.

This phenomenon can perhaps be credited to Breillat's storytelling mechanics. Following the aforementioned setup, Hermangarde's grandmother (Yolande Moreau) confronts Ryno to gain insight on his relationship with Vellini, fearful that her granddaughter may be entering a faithless marriage. Ryno, convinced of his love for the petite Hermangarde, obliges, subjecting her to a long-winded account of his history with Vellini. Ryno's words are interspersed with flashbacks to this history, such detailed ones in fact that it comes as a surprise when Breillat positions the scene right back in the living room where Ryno and the intelligent grandmother discuss. Nonetheless, Breillat's temporal shifts are effortless; Ryno's entire story is told, from its fiery origins to its wanton disconnection, and the grandmother's dignified attention and perky ear for suspicion is never absent. She gives Ryno consent to marry Hermangarde, ushering in the third section of the film: the two elope, head to a peaceful seaside retreat (with shades of a medieval village), but Vellini remains attached, geographically and physically.

Marigny, with his plush skin and sizable red lips, and Vellini, with her distinguishable armpit hair and dangerous aggression, are both faintly androgynous figures, and it is their destructive physical relationship which is Breillat's main focus rather than that of Ryno and Hermangarde, which would have been the more conventional subject. (In fact, Hermangarde is rarely seen in the film, other than as a silent, enigmatic sweetheart.) In doing so, Breillat is taking the opportunity to challenge the sexual expectations under the established society as well as reverse the familiar storytelling angle. With Vellini's magnetic presence nearly hogging the screen, it is largely through her physicality and Ryno's reaction to it that we observe the French society. Argento is fearless with the performance, recalling the exoticism of Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. She vacillates between feral and inaccessible and sensuous and desperate, always however, remaining an outsider. Vellini does not subscribe to the restrictions of proper romantic love, at once scoffing at Ryno's description of Hermangarde as a prude. Ultimately, it is this female bravado that keeps Ryno coming back even through his marriage to Hermangarde, and that Breillat so passionately embraces.

It is tempting though to denigrate The Last Mistress according to its feminist stance. Breillat is clearly making a comment on the dynamism of woman, their ability to stranglehold a male partner so shamelessly, and also of the necessity for female freedom. Certainly, Breillat's task becomes much easier when she adds enough makeup around Ryno's dreamy eyes. Ryno and Hermangarde's marriage scene is telling along this line; two scriptures are read from the Bible, one expounding on the spiritual connection of a male and female in marriage, the other, spoken by the Priest, reassuring Man's place as the creator of life, and therefore of his dominance over the female. Argento's character skillfully breaks this credo, luring Ryno into her new getaway by the sea in a seeming attempt at indefinite closure for him which inevitably results in more sex (often times more like manifestations of convoluted modern art sculptures). Reading the film this way is certainly important, but mustn't be the only line of thought, for it gets in the way of some of the broader points Breillat makes about fidelity, dignity, order, and the individuality that lurks beneath oppression.

When all is said and done, there's more to praise here than to decry. That Breillat does not relish the makeup, hair, costumes, and sets in a historical drama, and does not reveal obvious beauty, is admirable. The camerawork is never ostentatious, but rather shines when necessary, such as when dotting Ryno and his horse against the distant sea line and the archaic houses. Some scenes even brush up against the avant-garde, which she handles tactfully. In particular, Ryno recounts to Hermangarde's grandmother one stretch of time that he and Vellini spent in the Algerian desert, where the two gave birth to a baby that was soon after bit by a scorpion. Beside a fire that extinguishes the baby, the two make love on the sand, Argento's reeling, naked body eventually framed against the crystalline blue sky. This scene has more in common with Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo than it does with the talky drama that the film opens with. The Last Mistress shines with these types of conflicting qualities.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brüno (2009) A Film by Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen

If cinema is an arena solely for the impermanent, a place where the here and now is celebrated in an uproarious, trashy fashion, as the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer sanctioned, then Sacha Baron Cohen's wickedly subversive mockumentaries may be today's holy grail. After 2006's Borat shook the nation with its monumentally touchy anti-Semitic content, Baron Cohen, the brain behind it all, has returned with another feature film starring one of his over-the-top characters, whom he first introduced in the HBO series, Da Ali G Show. Borat was a guileless Kazakh who was way out of step with the world, preordaining his own quasi-ancient sensibility with complete obliviousness; Brüno is just as blind to societal mores, but he seems more a premonition of some sort of futuristic, hyper-image-driven America, where common decency has totally lost out to impulse. What better time for his revelatory comedy to slap us in the face, when the country seems just a wink away from his complete and utter debauchery? In fact, this film may have been better suited to the title of Fernando Meirelles' film last year: Blindness.

This is not to say that the film, directed by Larry Charles, browbeats us into seeing the wrong in society. The intention is hysterics, not didacticism. People in the audience were laughing boisterously, and I suspect that less than half left the theater discussing the underlying politics of the film. Brüno unrelentingly releases shockwaves of sight gags, silly monologues, and stirring political incorrectness; it moves so rapidly that there is little time to ponder the vicious satire Baron Cohen is serving up. It is only now, as I'm writing, that I'm nodding my head and thinking of how deep and textured Baron Cohen's cultural commentary is. I think this is the way the film is meant to be experienced, and as a one-time experience to be sure.

Brüno is a homosexual Austrian fashionista with sketchy national acclaim, yet he believes he's "the greatest person in the country". Like in Borat, something goes wrong on his home turf - in this case, Brüno, while sporting a new, totally velcro one-piece, trips over loads of material backstage before walking out onto the runway like a living hamper - which forges a drive in him to travel the world and gain fame. With his "assistant's assistant", he heads first to Los Angeles to become a movie star, then to the Middle East to solve a "crisis" (in a jab to the fashionable act of humanitarianism), and then back to the U.S. to convert himself to heterosexual in the southern states, a ditch effort that he believes will be his first step to fame. Along the way, he illegally adopts a little black boy (by sending him through the sub-deck of a plane in a box marked "fragile"), campaigns his grotesquely unappealing television show (which one of the television agents deems only appropriate for those with severe mental issues), and makes a brief stint in the army, a suggestion from his Jesus-loving gay converter. It has been criticized for taking much of the narrative structure of Borat, but what's successful should sometimes not be tampered with. Fortunately, the biting truths that Brüno reveals (those of homophobia, celebrity worship, parental neglect, religious fanaticism, and general bigotry) do not pale in comparison to Borat's.

Much of the reason why Brüno succeeds as a film comedy in its own right is its slapdash, documentary-like quality. The majority of the scenes are unstaged, which brings more forthrightness and shock to Baron Cohen's antics, of which politician Ron Paul, singer Paula Abdul, and Bono, among others, fall prey. Baron Cohen has been tried countless times by the people who appear in his films, simply because he often times gives them the bare minimum in information. Such reticence paves the way for better, more ecstatic responses. When scenes are staged, as in the film's final music video, which suggests Bruno may have gained the popularity he yearned for, the comedy suffers. Thankfully, Baron Cohen runs rampant around the film like an animal, providing us with repulsive, ludicrous, offensive, and utterly hilarious trash. Brüno and Borat prove there's nothing wrong with occasional trash, as long as you know what you're in for.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari) A Film by Yasuijiro Ozu (1953)

In a Yasujiro Ozu film, there comes a breath of fresh air towards the final act, some stroke of indiscernible life that pricks up our senses. Up until this point, his films drift weightlessly but rigorously through the lives of a group of characters, most often a family. It can seem ponderous and without direction, but once this aforementioned moment arrives, as it does in Tokyo Story, it instantly transmutes extraordinary depth into the preceding scenes, causing one to yearn to look back and redigest. Inevitably, this means that Ozu's films are best understood and savored upon second viewing, but this does not mean the soft, sobering, melancholy layers of feeling are absent during an initial experience. As with all artists, his work rewards emotional and intellectual commitment from the audience, and Tokyo Story, his most widely praised film, stands as no exception, perhaps even truer to this sentiment than most.

The film wades through typical Ozu waters: family relations, generational conflicts, and repressed emotions are central themes. His main characters though are a pair of old parents - Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama - visiting their children rather than a daughter struggling with the prospect of courtship, as was most frequently his subject. Shukishi and Tomi leave their rural town excitedly and with high hopes of learning of the independent successes of their children. Unfortunately, against the backdrop of an increasingly modernizing postwar Tokyo, their four surviving children (of five), are all maintaining busy separate agendas that disallow them from providing their parents with true hospitality. Ironically, a non-blood relative, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the young widow of their dead son, is the only dealer of kindness and understanding. In the face of concealed selfishness and thin attempts at bonding, the couple is eventually cast off to Atami, where they contemplate their children, their status as parents, and when they should return home.

However, in the film, guises do nothing to communicate underlying emotions, so the banal, somewhat stilted dialogue and gestures that are witnessed don't always seem to ring true. Shukishi observes how their children are "better than average", which is an awfully cliffnoted version of expressing the difficulty of coming to terms with the lives they have laid out for themselves, which, sadly, leave little room for filial piety. Later on, Shukishi and Tomi do catch the train home, but Tomi unexpectedly passes away upon return. This bludgeoning realization of mortality adds a powerful new dimension to the story (this is that moment I was speaking of) and sends the children into deep lament, racing to see her in the house that had previously been too distant to visit. Once again, even given the grave circumstances, truthful emotions are covered beneath the rituals that follow a death, the necessity of bringing along the mourning clothes, and the looming question of when it is acceptable to call it a day and return home. In one touching scene after all of the children have left, Noriko shares a moment alone with Shukishi in which she acknowledges his sorrow and expresses understanding towards his impending loneliness. After all, she too has lost a partner. Still, when Shukishi praises Noriko for being such an honest person, she has trouble taking it, condemning herself for being selfish and eventually holding back tears. In this moment we see the wealth of feelings that lie beneath Noriko's unrelenting smile, Shukishi's frequently muttered and plaintive "yes", and even the hustling narrow-mindedness of the children.

This repression is in line with Ozu's modest, nondescript stylistic approach. While his characters sort out their thoughts, he does not discontinue his static gaze as a token of respect to them as well as an invitation to the viewer to spot nuances in behavior that may point towards a broader understanding of the character. When a scene ends, Ozu lets us view the surrounding environment, its boats, train tracks, clothes hangers, smoke towers, and shops, to provide an opportunity for reflection. Ozu never bluntly asserts his position; he'd rather let the audience sort it out themselves, and the effect is pure. Never in Tokyo Story does something feel unrealistic. Instead, the film reveals the inevitable disappointments in life, the transience of all things, and the coldness behind the facade that is inherent in us all (Shukishi's neighbor states to him with a broad smile after Tomi's death, "you'll be quite lonely now, won't you?"). After all, Ozu's cinema is all about inevitability and how we must accept it.