Monday, August 31, 2009

Stardust Memories (1980) A Film by Woody Allen

Stardust Memories opens in the style of European angst-ridden art cinema, presenting, quite uncharacteristically for an early Woody Allen film, an elongated silence aboard a train where Woody himself sits blankly amidst a crowd of sick, sad souls he believes are staring at him. The train begins moving, Allen grows paranoid and bangs on the walls to get out, and eventually he finds himself and the passengers trudging a deserted plane littered with heaps of smashed car parts, quiet with the exception of the solemn wheeze of the wind and the caws of the circling crows. The scene is unapologetically fraudulent of both Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, two of Allen's most cherished directors; precisely, it is an homage to opening scenes from two of their works, respectively: 8 1/2, where Mastroianni's character is trapped inside a car in a traffic jam, and The Silence, where the young Johan travels on a train to an unknown destination (at least figuratively), the rhythmic exchanges of light toppling over his face much like they do to Allen's and his fellow passengers. This unexpected repose jarringly concludes to reveal silhouetted film producers bickering about how the aforementioned sequence is too pretentious, too arty, and that it ventures into that tired territory of art reflecting anguished state of minds. Of course, they look at it in an unfairly reductive manner, for the sequence, which proves to be test footage for the new film by comic director Sandy Bates, is actually one of those moments of touching homage in Woody Allen's career, and it succeeds marvelously. That it's so compelling despite its brevity, and that the jabbering, half-witted entertainment heads respond to it so negatively, speaks both to a central conflict in the film and Allen's rebellious stance.

This conflict deals with Bates' desire to flee from the satirical comedies that made him a filmmaking icon and move towards richer, more mature pieces of art that reflect reality and human suffering, while his audience insists he remain a purely comic genius. Trouble is, Bates doesn't feel funny anymore; there's no passion to compel him forward with the type of works shown at his popular retrospective. Imbued with a bit of Bergman's own life (the retrospective takes place on a bleak seaside), Sandy Bates is clearly a doppelgänger for Woody himself at this point in his career, although that certainly doesn't imply that Allen ceases to be funny, only that he's growing distressed by the widespread reduction of his filmmaking to mere comedy. Bates is frequently reminded by his omnipresent fans that they especially enjoy his "early, funny ones," and it's an obvious reference to that favored adage of Allen's early admirers. While Stardust Memories often times shares much in common with the very films these fictional fans allude to, it's also one of Allen's most outspoken attempts at cinematic art rather than just a slapped-together, one-off comedy romp.

A vivid example of this artistic ambition is Allen's structural play in the film. Rarely in his career does he venture out of his comfort zone, which is mainly straightforward narratives, but here he aims to adopt the extemporaneous weaving of past and present, reality and fiction, and memory and dream that is not only specifically reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2, but also more generally of the films of Godard, Bergman, and Antonioni. Bates' confused, casual interest in three woman – his emotionally feral ex-girlfriend Dorrie, his current French lover Isobel, and an intellectually earnest young brunette he meets at his retrospective – is depicted in an atemporal manner, the three figures fusing into the film at random times to illustrate the feral, immediate nature of Bates' desire. Not only does this uncertainty in romantic affairs contrast strongly with Allen's head-over-heels devotion to women in films like Annie Hall and Sleeper, but it lines up evenly with the common arthouse treatment of the modern woman in the 1960s as beautiful but distant and enigmatic. The assembly line of raucous fans begging for autographs or artistic explanations – who more often that not look directly into the lens as we adopt Bates' perspective – frequently set off unexpected detours to completely different scenes to emphasize the need for escapism, a concept that directly recalls Mastroianni's impotent director in 8 1/2. Allen shifts between these moments with surprising efficiency and impact, suggesting a director with a capability to do more than just tell one-liners.

What do all these intertextual references add up to? Well, I think they're little more than Allen's warmhearted tributes to the cinema he loves. Many cite the film as an especially insubstantial or solipsistic for Woody, and they're not entirely wrong. But what's so striking about Stardust Memories is the way it distills so many of the heavy European arthouse concerns into measly hour-and-a-half running time that boasts all of the sharpness and nervous energy expected of Allen's filmmaking. Stylistically as well as structurally, the film pushes the boundaries of Allen's work; experimental tactics routinely break up a more formal approach, such as when Dorrie, played perfectly by Charlotte Rampling, breaks down in front of the camera via close-up, a frenetic series of fourth wall explosions meant to remind us of Liv Ullmann's camera address in Bergman's Persona. Similarly, in an earlier scene, Allen provides a long close-up of the blond Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) as she pulls her hair back, mirroring another shot of Bibi Andersson in the same film. Stardust Memories' most poignant achievement though is its ineffable mood, which lasts with the viewer in a way that his loose comedies don't: the feeling of mortality and insufficiency breezing through with the lightness of the crows in the opening sequence, and of the attempt to grapple with warm memories during an irritatingly impersonal event.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009) A Film by Quentin Tarantino

As those who know me may well be aware, I often times have a difficult time refraining from a round of Tarantino skepticism. Problematically though, I think that some of my reservations - which are all too often seen as bashing - only mask the fact that I truly do enjoy many parts of his films. His latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is yet another distinctive piece of Tarantino - referential, sanguine, irreverent, moody, and pulpy - which ironically means it's actually a rehashing of everything in film history that is not a product of Tarantino. He's a trumpeter of movie lore, a human of embodiment of guileless cinephilia, and to what extent his films are personal reimaginings of his influences or just broad, cartoonish "Where's Waldo?" games is a separate question. Inglourious Basterds is in love with its own fluffy movieness, which should be expected, but what so frequently is absent behind this reverential facade is humanity. Although Tarantino's films are all about blown-up, outsized emotion and technique, it's somewhat out of line to blow up criticisms as well, so I'll try not to navel-gaze.

The film is told in chapters, which gives the impression of a literary attitude right from the opening title card that braces us for an ensuing fable: "Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France". However, beyond this schematic structuring device, there is nothing more that is literary in the film besides Tarantino's characteristic love of words. The first chapter takes place on a farm, where Nazi colonel Lans Handa (Christoph Waltz), famously deemed the "Jew Hunter", arrives with a pack of soldiers to investigate the home of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), one formal stop on Landa's ongoing Jew hunting path. One girl in the Jewish family hiding at the LaPadite's, Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent), makes an escape, running for the hills as Landa temperamentally pulls his gun back and lets her go. This should come as no surprise given the generally goofy and nonthreatening demeanor he's introduced with, a personality that is skillfully handled by the multilingual Waltz.

Subsequent chapters detail Shoshanna, a few years later, running her aunt and uncle's beautiful independent cinema which was indebted to her following their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. A Nazi hero, film buff, and film star, Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), naively falls for Shoshanna even in the face of her immediate dismissal of him, an affection that leads to Zoller's attaining of Dreyfuss' theater for the Nazi premiere of "Nation's Pride" (a fake Eisenstinian Nazi empowerment film directed by Eli Roth, who plays the notorious "Bear Jew" in the film). On the other side of the war are the Inglourious Basterds, a gung-ho group of Jewish Americans led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, speaking in a weird Tennessee drawl) who thrive on the scalping of Nazis. (Pitt's gleeful, unabashedly caricatured performance is one of the consistently reliable sources of entertainment in the film.) In a web of spy activity involving the German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a select team of Basterds make their way into the eventual screening of "Nation's Pride", intent on blowing the place to bits with dynamite and killing the most powerful Nazis once and for all. Little do they know how closely their plan reflects Shoshanna and her negro projectionist's, which involves their own, personally produced revenge film (to act as an addendum to "A Nation's Pride") and a pile of nitrate film.

This uncoils for two and a half hours, and most of the time Tarantino is only scantly progressing the plot, instead luxuriating in his own nihilistic tics. Most scenes last several minutes past doing their job narratively, so Tarantino fills the dead air with protracted scenes of human interaction or over-the-top violence. One in particular sticks out bluntly: in a basement party celebrating the birth of one Nazi soldier's boy, von Hammersmarck, as a gorgeous spy, enjoys silly drinking games with the men. Two Basterds are furtively at the party as well, and through Tarantino's coy direction, where characters slowly bounce rhetoric back and forth, the scene eventually builds to a stand-off involving three guns pointed directly at the testicles of three men. By all means the sequence is rambling and does not feel substantial enough to warrant the rapid, explosive bloodbath that it inevitably culminates with. We know what's going to happen, but Tarantino delights in sensory overload regardless, just like in the opening when after a length of tense interrogation between Landa and LaPadite, the camera descends below the floorboards to reveal the Jews hiding beneath it. I'm not saying that such sequences don't involve a great amount of humor and idiosyncratic staging, but I am questioning Tarantino's need to indulge so heavily. A similar annoyance is forged when the film presents random stylistic devices - an electric guitar noise that introduces titles for characters posed in freeze frame, a sporadic narrator who seems more fit for a shitty parody in the Scary Movie lot - and then abandons them just as easily.

Considering it is somewhat widely acknowledged, to say that Tarantino's films smack of gimmickry is redundant. The director himself accepts this as readily as he proclaims through Brad Pitt's final dialogue that the film is his masterpiece. Inglourious Basterds is no exception; as a vastly revisionary World War II period epic funneled into a pulpy western a la Sergio Leone and a Germanic melodrama in the vein of Pabst and Fassbinder, the film's bizarreness, conceptually, is central to its success or failure. On one end of the stick, this blueprint, which treats the Holocaust with lighthearted, playful vengeance, is sure to offend many, while on the other, you have to appreciate Tarantino's willingness to upend the conventions he's working under, and his ability to provide a consistent air of comedy to a topic that is most typically portrayed with grave solemnity. I believe in the latter, because I prefer not to let morals or proper manners get in the way of a film's integrity as a film. By contrast, Inglourious Basterds' tone is refreshing and spunky, and stands beside the hysterically self-indulgent and minor Kill Bill films as Tarantino's boldest conceit yet. Although it lends itself to a highly modular affair which sometimes plays like a chain of short films cycling around the same event, most of them are very entertaining, and sometimes hilarious.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)

Released in 1967, cushioned by the simultaneously produced Made in U.S.A and the subsequent La Chinoise, Jean Luc-Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her represents a crucial transition in his career, the moment when he most blatantly abandoned cinematic narrative tradition in favor of a more contemplative immediacy. From this point on his films steered ever closer to mere reflections of his own personal outlook at the time of their geneses, be it political or artistic. It's in no way a subtle transition; while Two or Three Things claims to tell a day-in-the-life story of a workaday housewife cum prostitute on the side, one can tell by Godard's literal interaction (some would say intrusion) with the film - he narrates the whole affair in a whispered dialect, sometimes even mocking his own "narrative" - that this is anything but the fun 60's genre riffs he became iconic for, even at their most unconventional. Two or Three Things is quite simply a collection of ideas and ruminations, all of which are, to some extent, responses to the newly instituted project of modernization under the idealistic government of Charles De Gaulle.

It is, of course, De Gaulle who set in motion a vast revamping of Parisian society in the late 60's, churning out high-rise apartments on the outskirts of Paris to accommodate for the transforming cultural center. Such a movement spawned intense economic hardship, forcing a populous of women, like Juliette (Marina Vlady) in the film, to take up prostitution as a complement to their low-income occupations. Godard cites hard proof of this phenomenon - an anonymous letter in response to an article on prostitution in the French newspaper "The Shooting Stars" - as the basis for the film, in which the woman wrote an intensely personal passage that was coincidentally also a scathing indictment of the social situation, lamenting, "that's the way of the world." The film is less specific to this end. Indeed, Juliette's acts of prostitution are never shown, only implied, and when she is in fact in the room with one of her many clients, Vlady spends most of the time talking to herself, beating around the bush so to speak, while Godard's camera dispassionately pirouettes around the room observing objects. Two or Three Things is more speculative, using the prostitution conceit as a mere passage through which to communicate about the larger concept of prostitution in a more metaphorical sense, the way in which every citizen "prostitutes" themselves in one manner or another in order to survive financially, and also the more slippery concept of the landscape itself as a prostitute through advertisement, language, architecture, and images.

Godard's not necessarily condemning the situation as much as he is simply reacting to it. He is not interested in passing judgments, but rather is excited by how the situation opens up possibilities for meditations on consumerism and anything that falls under that umbrella, such as the impossibility of communicating without language despite the stranglehold language frequently creates, the power of perception, the nature of objects and people, and the future. In an attempt to reach this wide philosophical plane, Godard creates a homogenized milieu where the cold cosmopolitan buildings, the people who inhabit the film, the omnipresent signs, household objects, and random foliage are all of equal importance. Furthermore, Julette's story is no more valid a subject than Godard's own interspersed voice-over, the other women Juliette encounters in her bouts of window-shopping, or the observant interludes of poetic imagery Godard presents. The tactics of narrative cinema - story, score, traditional aesthetics, even character - are completely eschewed. The central figure is equal parts Juliette and Marina Vlady, which Godard makes perfectly clear in the beginning when he directly addresses her as both, and her husband, who works translating radio talk, is profoundly astray from the attributes necessary to form a character: personality, goals, intuition, meaningful dialogue. The humans in the film are concepts, and rarely, despite their stylized performances, do they break free from that.

One can forgive Godard for this absence of character because he makes up for it by giving the rest of the film personality that is all its own. Two or Three Things is loosely divided into segments which begin with footnotes, basically close-up shots of magazine titles or slogans (some of many instances of mere wordy detritus in the film). In each segment, Godard obtusely expands on the distinctive footnotes, sometimes commenting on the action, purposely removing us from the action, or fiddling with it. In one memorable scene during a segment which purports to discuss the interaction of languages and images, he ruminates on the nature of using certain words or pictures to describe events by showing from several different perspectives Juliette's meeting of her husband at a car wash. As we watch this little red car scramble around the setting, not unlike the sped-up ploys of silent comedy, Godard is essentially asking us, "from which perspective is this event truer or more objective?" More famously, Godard zooms in on the swirl of a cup of black coffee in a cafe while musing on how things separate and come together again, while the bubbles do quite the same. The camera adamantly hangs on this image, an obvious detour and literal visual entrapment from the surrounding "story", just as it does shortly thereafter to the leaves on a tree and more repetitiously with panoramic shots of the modernizing landscape, the pervasive construction sites and tall gray buildings.

Shot as usual in wide Technicolor by Raoul Coutard utilizing vibrant primary colors, Two or Three Things often is more pleasing visually than it is intellectually. Godard's ramblings, while most of the time thoroughly interesting and provocative, sometimes come at such a rapid pace that they get lost in translation, leaving us to marvel at the sights. The film is just as fascinating when Godard's hands are removed somewhat from the material, as in an extensive scene towards the end, reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Slacker, that takes place at a café and lacks Juliette altogether. In long, static takes (this aesthetic, which pervades throughout Two or Three Things, is antithetical to the kinetic jump-cutting of Breathless), Godard shuffles between random conversations occurring at different tables in the room, all while the annoying racket of a pinball machine persists and two holy fools quote sporadically from a heaping pile of books. Godard is doing much the same as these two in Two or Three Things, letting his referential, speculative racket seep into the many excurses along the way, although his is far more invigorating, and provides both a fragmented snapshot of Paris under Gaullian rule and a daring precursor to his following essayistic films.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Alexandra (2008) A Film by Aleksandr Sokurov

Of the three films I have seen by the acclaimed Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, his latest, Alexandra, is without a doubt the most masterfully orchestrated, an eloquent juxtaposition of wartime desolation and maternal compassion set at a Russian army outpost in Grozny, Chechnya. It details the arrival and eventual departure of a young captain's grandmother, Alexandra, who pays the unexpected visit to the 132-degree landscape to reconnect with her grandson Denis whom she hasn't seen in seven years. Their meeting, in keeping in line with Sokurov's continuing evocation of familial dynamics as passionate and quasi-erotic, is marked by great tenderness, the busy occupational killer completely, and surprisingly, enthusiastic and accommodating towards his grandmother's presence. So too are the rest of the wandering soldiers at the camp, individuals who are just as much the focus of the film as Alexandra and Denis. As the film progresses devoid of any oppressive authoritative figures, Sokurov peels away the soldiers' manifest toughness to reveal their boyish qualities and, most significantly, their muted, internalized appreciation for the contradictory motherly figure who roams between the barracks exhaustively but with command, acting as a cautionary symbol for "Mother Russia".

Alexandra, inevitably, has more to do with politics and patriotism than most of Sokurov's work, but at the same time it seems restless in its pursuit to avoid polemic. A contradiction, yes, but the film is subtly loaded with them. Case in point: the lack of bloodshed or violence. It's rare that a film centering around war does not include at least one gunshot, unless one counts Alexandra's shooting of a blank during her brief tutorial with Denis in a sweltering, claustrophobic tank. Through Sokurov's remarkably tactile approach of using detailed close-ups and heightened sound design, guns merely become emblems of hostility, rashness, and unnecessary violence, not weapons. Moreover, the relentless grind of the army camp - the forthright hum of the tanks, the collective clicking of guns, helmets, and boots - extends this quiet metaphor. At one point immediately following a scene depicting two soldiers as they discover Alexandra and watch over her for a few minutes, we are shown a lovely distant shot of a flaming hill at dusk. There is no implication of who witnesses this image, so how better to assign its meaning than as an abrupt reminder on the director's part of how far away he wants to keep the usual episodes of violence and terror that normally staple themselves onto a "war film".

The film is instead rife with love and humanity, and Galina Vishnevskaya's evocative, unobtrusive expressions are immediate proof. Vishnevskaya is already a Russian cultural icon as an opera maestro, and Sokurov's previous documentary, Elegy of Life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, respectfully places her and her cellist husband as subject. She has dabbled with dramatic arts invariably, but that in no way limits her obvious power here as a screen presence. Although her physical body is weary and burnt out, evidenced by her repetition of the line "it's stifling", or "i want to sit down", she claims that her soul can survive another lifetime. This presents itself as another contradiction: wiseness and pride placed aside physical deterioration. Her hair is gray and knotty (we see this intimately when Denis braids it), her skin wrinkled and thin, but her intellectual and moral strength bursts through. No wonder the elderly face is often said to carry the weight of history in it, because Alexandra manages to let every wrinkle communicate. Vishnevskaya herself lived through the blockade of Leningrad and subsequent years of tumultuous Russian history. This inconspicuously makes itself apparent; Alexandra expresses her deeply held beliefs about the futility of war and the importance of family with near impatience and disgust, but she never becomes bludgeoning.

One of the interesting elements of Alexandra is its simultaneous sensuality and mundanity. In setting the film amidst the ruins of Grozny, Sokurov casts real Chechen locals in some scenes, such as when Alexandra peruses a dusty marketplace and meets an elderly vender who invites her into her apartment for tea, or when she is lead back to the barracks by a young Chechen boy who shamelessly asks her to free his people as if she's some prophet from a faraway land. The camera is unassertive but eloquently observant of the locals, giving the film an almost ethnographic scrutiny. All of this lends a cinéma vérité quality that contrasts the vaguely dreamy atmosphere that Sokurov has honed in his career. Aleksandr Burov's cinematography, which brought a similar look to Father and Son, relishes in desaturating the milieu, giving it a measly spectrum of khaki brown and green, and while it lacks the fuzzy porousness of Father and Son's images, it nonetheless creates something that is otherworldly. The languorous camerawork, unconventional editing, punctuated acting, and hypnotically tangible soundtrack also add to Alexandra's sobering remoteness.

Free of the sort of portentous dialogue that often peppers Sokurov's films and detracts from their purely visual moods, Alexandra is consequently his most accessible and consistent work. Sokurov is at his best when he refrains from saying too much literally, which I think is what differentiates his latest from something like Father and Son, specifically. The film is less of a story than a nondescript slice-of-life, a distilled situation given exacting attention in order to extract its peculiar significance. It's an oddly lilting and indirect anti-war film, and this is likely Sokurov's real achievement.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I'm Not There (2007) A Film by Todd Haynes

Bob Dylan made an album in 1964 called "Another Side of Bob Dylan", which suggests there are only two sides. However, as Todd Haynes understands and displays with startling freshness and conviction in I'm Not There, there are actually almost an immeasurable number of "Bob Dylan's", for he is changing from moment to moment, one of the most ephemeral and elusive icons in American music. Such qualities inform the film's succinct title - which is pulled from a song off of Dylan's basement tapes - implying that the Dylan the public thinks they know is most likely a step ahead of their perception. Haynes has made a career out of paying homages to recognizable forms (Sirk-influenced melodrama in Far From Heaven, early horror film in Poison, and the Antonioni-esque suburban exploration in Safe) while simultaneously re-imagining them. Here he utterly dissects the traditional biopic and manages to forge the same uncertainty regarding the Dylan legend that is so central to his figure by creating a visual collage featuring six different actors embodying different eras of Dylan's life.

Chronologically, they are as follows. Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, a young African American wunderkind with immense reverence towards his idol Woody Guthrie as well as the musical influences that he has grown up immersing himself in: Depression-era Jazz, blues, and Deep South country. As the teenage Dylan, Ben Whishaw plays Arthur Rimbaud, the introspective poet in Dylan whose entire screen time is spent in a white interviewing room musing enigmatically on life and art before the baffled journalists. Christian Bale takes a turn as the early troubadour folk singer Jack Rollins who, after being brought into the world by another singer named Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore as Joan Baez), transforms into a political voice for the common man. The film's finest performance comes from Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, who completely burrows into the brief window of time (1965-1966) in Dylan's career when he shocked the world with his turn to electric and became a flamboyant, complex, slippery, substance-abusing pop star. Heath Ledger's scintillating appearance as the embittered egoist, the has-been, and the romanticist with wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) then gives way to Christian Bale again as a washed-out born-again preacher. All of this culminates with Richard Gere's Billy the Kid, a more recent, Americana-influenced Dylan, looking like a hero of the Old West, a portrayal that inhabits the most hallucinogenic episode of the film.

As much as this may paint a linear picture of Dylan's turbulent life, I'm Not There does not end up so tidy. During the last ten minutes of the film, Gere's Dylan ruminates via voice-over: "It's like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow, all in the same room. There's no telling what can happen." Essentially, this is the blueprint the film adopts stylistically. Haynes shatters the biography of Bob Dylan into a temporally unpredictable mosaic that leaps from one time period to another with rhythm-snapping immediacy. It does not do so in a typically hyperlinked manner, where the chaotic flow of the story simply functions as a primer through which to investigate a straightforward narrative. There is no master plan here in terms of the film's "narrative", no satisfying end result; instead, Haynes builds upon his own kinetic energy with associative, poetic links, the overarching theme being Dylan's unexplainable urge to be non-conformist, to not fit comfortably into any musical trends, to not give easy answers, and to live freely without the constant repercussions of his musical fame. Moreover, Haynes gives each alcove of time its own stylized milieu: Quinn's segment, shot in crisp black-and-white, plays like a hybrid of D.A Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall technique in Don't Look Back (1967) and a more socially observant, refrained portrait circa Fellini's 8 1/2; when Jack Rollins is detailed, the film becomes a talking-head, musical faux-documentary complete with seemingly archival photographs of Rollins with Fabian; scenes involving Billy the Kid adopt the contemplative Western tone of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which included an acting role by Dylan himself) and an even more Felliniesque, dreamlike excursion into a small town filled with masked children.

In capturing the excitement and gusto of a musical career, Haynes also plumbs the stylistic skill-set of Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most lively and energetic of all filmmakers. Godard's influence is seen on numerous occasions, starting with the general spunk of the camerawork, its unsparing use of micro close-ups, and the film's propensity to "jump-cut" into new biographical territory. Also, I'm Not There's refusal to conform to one particular storytelling technique - vacillating between documentary, introspective film-essay (set to Kris Kristofferson's deadpan narration), and normal cinematic narrative - mirrors both Godard's conceptual playfulness and Dylan's chameleonic nature. More specific examples of Godardian persuasion also make themselves apparent: Quinn's explosive "plugging-in" at the Newport folk festival begins with a figurative shot of him and his band-mates shooting rifles at the audience, which quite bluntly riffs on a famous Godard tic ("a girl and a gun", Cate Blanchett being the girl), and especially the film's opening title sequence, which utilizes simplistic typography with inventiveness and even flickers "I'm Not There" on and off to create different words.

I'm Not There is unlikely to illuminate Bob Dylan the artist anymore than what little is already known about him. At the same time, this is not what it's after, and Haynes has explicitly stated this. By giving the film an expressionistic bent through its many Dylan embodiments that are quite unapologetically astray from the actual Dylan, but rather projections of his mindset at their respective times (the Woody Guthrie-inspired childhood is the perfect example, where Dylan is literally black as a result of his largely African American influences), Haynes has managed to sidestep a conventional portrait of an artist in favor of an exploration of artistic expression in general and how its fulfillment can dog a person. It is a daring and compelling film, and although it sometimes takes on too many ideas all at once without regards to clarity and conciseness, it often does so for a reason. Bob Dylan is a confusing public figure, and it is foolish to try to know him outside of his outstanding oeuvre. I'm Not There admirably does justice to this fact.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov) A Film by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is one of the most monolithic tales ever made centering on art and the life of a painter, yet we never once see anyone carrying out the task. The film, set in 15th century Russia against the backdrop of Tartar invasions, follows the wanderings of the titular figure around the destitute pre-revolutionary landscape. He, Andrei Rublev, the great icon painter and monk, is one of Russia's most significant historical and cultural staples. Yet Rublev only figures tangentially into the equation in the finished film. Amidst a populace of bearded, long-faced men doused in wool robes, Rublev frequently meshes into the locale, sometimes even confused by other characters. It is not until Rublev mistakenly murders a man during the Tartar catastrophe that envelops the cathedral of Vladimir and therefore takes a vow of silence that he manages to delineate his presence among the crowd of austerely Christian, art-obsessed peers. A cataloging of the artistic process, it becomes evident, is not what Andrei Rublev is after; rather, Tarkovsky places emphasis on the holy necessity of art, its ability to shape a culture and mindset, and how its existence is plagued in the face of oppressive authorities.

Tarkovsky himself dealt with a fair share of the latter whilst getting the film produced and distributed. Andrei Rublev is a famous example of the dominance of Soviet Communism over personal artistic statements, bushwhacking its way through several years of censorship episodes, denied screening repeatedly at Cannes until it was eventually given an unfavorable nod at 4 AM on the final day. The film was first exposed internationally in the early 70's, and still it was met with shaky critical reactions. At an unwieldy three-and-a-half hours, Tarkovsky weaves together eight chronologically discontinuous chapters in a remarkably cogent tone of silence, natural sounds, quiet operatic music, and extended musings on art, religion, and history. This is, perhaps detrimentally in many instances, a stark and uncompromising vision. The film is more ascetic than most of Tarkovsky's work and is, by virtue of its historical rigorousness, rambling narrative, and painstakingly detailed, lugubrious scenes of human interaction, often a chore to get through. Most films, even those that lack narrative, offer something at their core to compel the viewer to move forward - an undefinable mystery, a hint at payoff, a guileless energy on the part of the filmmaker - and its not that Andrei Rublev lacks this ineffable quality, but its very difficult to detect.

Ultimately, what kept me hanging on in the film's opaque, intellectually unrelenting structure, was the scattered bouts of inarguably beautiful sequences. A practice of witchcraft held by nude, torch-bearing pagans at dusk, the opening prologue detailing a man determined to the chagrin of his fellow soldiers to take flight on his own sketchily wrought hot air balloon, the shockingly brutal and arrhythmic attack of the sneering Tartars on the monastery, a contemplative afternoon in the bleached cathedral where Rublev refuses to paint "The Last Judgement", the visual mirror of this scene when snow falls on its now corpse-littered floor, and the final chapter when a mad young boy leads a horde of men through the physically demanding process of building a bell. Tarkovsky's signature use of poetic imagery is less ubiquitous, but no less affecting: spilled paint oozing into a river, a slow motion image of a horse rolling around in grass, a young boy descending into a flowing stream after being shot with an arrow. What also comes across in each frame is Tarkovsky's immense sincerity and his true belief in the film's themes - pantheism, cultural divides (between the secular and the mystical, the male and the female, and inactive and proactive lifestyles) and faith among them. After all, Rublev himself can be viewed as Tarkovsky's surrogate, struggling with the same crises, both politically and spiritually.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

INLAND EMPIRE (2006) A Film by David Lynch

While INLAND EMPIRE may be the most inscrutable, impenetrable, incoherent, even aggravating film of David Lynch's career, it is certainly the most significant. With it, Lynch has made a massive unspoken statement on the power of cinema as an art form: there is no right or wrong, and that the pairing of sound and image can be beautiful even stripped of narrative causality or commercial aesthetics. Lynch does not merely fiddle with the mechanics of both; in fact, they're not even on his plane of thought anymore. There's little that grounds INLAND EMPIRE to film at all, other than the fact that stretches of it revolve around Hollywood and that a camera created it. Still, Lynch does not use a film camera, but instead makes the transition from the cumbersome medium of film to the expedience of digital, from the grain to the pixel, from shooting a scene to being "deeper inside the scene". But even then it is not just the swift import of digital that he is after. Had this been the case, he may have moved to the Red camera, as Steven Soderbergh (for Che) and Roy Andersson (television commercials and supposedly his forthcoming feature) have, in which case a look of sleek quality could be obtained under convenient working conditions. For Lynch, the fuzzy coarseness and magical permeability of digital is his prerogative, so he descended to the level of a consumer camera, the Sony PD-150, with which the musty dreaminess of early silent cinema is regurgitated in a new light.

Lynch's roots are as a painter, and he cites his early shorts as the most conscious extensions of his painting, but INLAND EMPIRE may be the better example. He first came upon the need to work with film when he decided that a plant in the dark was not sufficient enough a work of art without the sound of the wind's rustling of the leaves. This penchant for extracting the sublime out of prosaic objects is rampant in Lynch's latest; lamps, walls, hallways, light-bulbs, and the human face are all given exacting and lengthy attention, and their employment within the frame is always malign, foreboding, and drenched in a foggy palette that is at times reminiscent of runny watercolor paint. The video quality runs from relatively clean and sharp to muddy and harshly pixellated, so much so that under low light situations the image becomes difficult to read, allowing "room to dream". What Lynch means by this typically vague statement is that one has to attempt to decipher what's inside the frame, and this becomes a compelling idea in itself.

This aesthetic, which stands as the most assured and seductive statement with the new media to date, is utilized for Lynch's most free-associative film yet. The rate at which it vacillates between its several shards of narrative is entirely dependent upon Lynch's uninhibited psyche. It's as if through transcendental meditation he has discovered a new way of filmmaking, of acting spontaneously upon ideas buried deep within himself without regards to coherence. INLAND EMPIRE revolves around Laura Dern's showstopping performance; her various selves consist of an established Hollywood actress named Nikki Grace, a haggard prostitute with a band of singing and dancing whores who shift their locales (icy Poland, cosmopolitan LA) with the snap of a finger, and a Southern adulteress named Susan Blue, the character Nikki is starring as in the film On High in Blue Tomorrows aside Justin Theroux's ladies' man Devon Berk. There are connections to each of Dern's embodiments, but as the extra-dimensional labyrinth unfolds, it becomes uncertain which portrayal is ostensibly "real", or if any are. Dern's Nikky/Sue however is not the only enigma to sort out, for there is also a historical figure, a seemingly deceased Polish prostitute (perhaps the star who died in the first attempt at On High in Blue Tomorrows, thus setting the supposed curse on the film) who stares periodically throughout the film at a television which shifts from static to Nikki's "real-time" experiences to an absurd soap drama with life-size rabbits as the droll protagonists. Furthermore, Nikki's suspicious Polish husband seems to hold links to both the past and a current troupe of threatening Polish circus workers.

If you're attempting to decode the film's mysteries, there's more. Atop this baffling narrative, there are a great portion of visual and aural rhymes that scatter throughout. Different characters repeat the same portentous lines in different portals of time, the mysterious phrase "axxon n" shows up on walls during many of Nikki's dimension-swapping moments, and Grace Zabriskie has some sort of preternatural bond with everything that happens, evidenced by her soothsaying arrival at Nikki's mansion in the beginning of the film. Nikki tells her that there is no murder in the script for On High on Blue Tomorrows, but Zabriskie's character creepily insists that there is indeed "brutal fucking murder". She then goes on to give an anecdote about a boy who walked through a door and "evil was born", and a girl walked through a door and got "lost in the marketplace". If Nikki's ensuing bouts of extemporaneous shifts in time and place are likened to a marketplace, there are perhaps enough motifs in the film to account for each item in the marketplace.

INLAND EMPIRE can be read as a lot of things: "a woman in trouble", the encapsulation Lynch so adamantly sticks by, a comment on the morphological nature of film acting and becoming lost in the role, another indictment of delusional Hollywood, an exercise in time as a continuum, or an elaborate nightmare housed in the mind of a deeply regretful woman (the Polish woman in front of the TV). I don't think that there is any such succinct interpretation of the film though; there is too much complexity to come at in a narrative or allegorical mindset. The film is best appreciated as a purely avant-garde work that washes over the viewer chillingly. Lynch knows how to suffuse commonplace moments (Nikki wandering through a film set or down a hallway in broad daylight) with frightening purpose, accompanying the entire film with pitch-perfect sound design, either the shrieking clamor of violin strings, the characteristic low hum of all of his films, or an array of magnificently placed musical cues, like Beck's "Black Tambourine" or Lynch's own "Ghost of Love". The rabbit sitcom is another story, but jibes with the whole film's teasing undertones even given its modularity. Call it self-indulgent, but don't deny its cinematic importance and destabilizing mood.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mulholland Drive (2001) A Film by David Lynch

In many ways, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was a summation of his career when it was made, the addition of any set of themes, images, and intertextual references into one composite whole. Similarly, it allegedly stands as his final work on celluloid, as he has now transitioned into the more nebulous realm of digital video. It is, then, perhaps fitting that with it, he ransacks the history of cinema, not always specifically but broadly, paying impulsive tribute to the recognizable traits of Hollywood movie genres more exhaustively than ever before. Furthermore, the film is largely about Hollywood, a Los Angeles-set exploration of the dream-machine, the naive thirst for stardom, and the cruel machinations of the entertainment business. Lynch targets these ideas from a characteristically obtuse angle, recontextualizing Lost Highway's doppelgänger technique but also twisting its focus on jostled identities into a flip-flopped dream, deceptively straightforward at heart rather than ourobouric.

A hopeful young actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) is the victim of these Hollywood fantasies. She comes to Los Angeles to take a stab at an acting career, staying in her aunt's vacant apartment. When she gets there however, she discovers the place is not empty, for it houses the amnesiac woman who stumbled off Hollywood's hills in the first ten minutes of the film following a brutal car crash. In Hitchockian manner, this woman (Laura Elena Harring), a voluptuous brunette, handpicks the name Rita for herself when she sees it on a Gilda poster on the wall. Contrary to rational logic, Betty is not unsettled by the creepily silent, blank-slated Rita. Alternatively, she assists her in a Nancy Drew-style investigation into Rita's real identity, leading her enthusiastically into the puzzle even when it suggests noirish tomfoolery - Rita's purse contains wads of cash and an inexplicable blue key. A rotting corpse is eventually discovered in the apartment of a certain Diane Selwyn, the lone name that Rita can remember, prompted by its sighting on a waitress' pin.

During the search for Rita's identity (no pun intended, but this also takes on metaphorical undertones in several instances), the film treads over all sorts of brief pastiches channeled from genre clichés. In a subplot, a pompous young director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) lives through a day worthy of screwball comedy had it been given more comic emphasis. First, his creative freedom is ripped from him by a behind-the-scenes corporation bent on making an unknown actress, Camilla Rhodes, play the lead role in his movie. Then, after the production is shut down, an ominous phone call like those in Lost Highway tells Kesher's production assistant to send him atop the hill for a meeting with "The Cowboy", a quick, hackneyed foray into the western. Kesher also comes home to his wife cheating on him with the electrician, which turns into a run-of-the-mill revenge sequence topped off with fist-fighting. In another subplot, a clumsy hitman sets off a string off mishaps when he mistakenly shoots through an office wall at a woman not part of his gig, a hilarious shoot-em-up coincidence that feels spliced out of Pulp Fiction. Despite the banality and familiarity inherent in these scenes, Lynch makes them strangely discomforting by fiddling with the atmosphere slightly by adding one of his visual tics (buzzing lights or lamps partly illuminating red walls) or transforming the expected dialogue into something oddly strained and seemingly symbolic.

We discover that this is all because "Betty" is living a Hollywood movie, a bloated fantasy littered with the generic references one might expect would be floating around in the mind of a hopelessly determined wannabe. It is no flaw in the direction that the first hour and forty-five minutes of the film come off as hammy and unlikely. Despite this though, Lynch supplies everything with a dose of off-kilter menace, either through the use of Angelo Badalamenti's moody droning soundtrack or his penchant for larger-than-life caricatures, so it's given the uncanny tone of a dream. Like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive relies on a central dichotomy, this time of reality and the dreamlike construction of it. Naomi Watts' ability to actually act eventually wallops the viewer when she performs in a rehearsal for a part in a melodramatic scene aside a veteran actor. This is also more or less a turning point in the film, the moment when Watts' character's overacting topples over first into heated erotica and then hard-boiled realism. The final section of the film is a startling shock of reality featuring Betty, whose name is now Diane Selwyn, as a worn-out, embittered loner denied by her lesbian infatuation - the successful actress and love object of Kesher, Camilla Rhodes (Harring again) - and left with the inevitable remains of an unsupported go-get-em attitude: a neglected, lowly production worker. Naomi Watts, with her dynamism and complete understanding of Lynch's purpose, makes a case for herself as one of America's finest actresses.

Perhaps an even more substantial turning point in the film is the Club Silencio sequence, which takes place in the middle of the night after Rita wakes up in a trance-like state whispering Spanish phrases: "No hay banda...Silencio". Betty and Rita take a cab to a deserted theater downtown, and their entrance is viewed from a creepy, distant trajectory across a naked alleyway (with the exception of blowing papers), a shot which then chases them inside only to be denied entrance before the doorway. The lively jolt of the camera forward suggests a hidden observer, like the grotesque vagabond from behind the diner who is introduced earlier in the film, but it also simply underlines the subtext of the coming scene: all is illusory. Although an audience is aware that there are real humans behind a work of art, it can still be moving. This is the case for the bizarre stage transposition that takes place, where a mysterious showman staunchly urges that "there is no band, no is all an illusion" before giving way to a singing performance by Rebekah Del Rio in which she faints halfway through and the heartrending pierce of her voice remains intact. The theater soon fills with fog and sputters with spotlights, piling on the weirdness as Betty convulses in her seat. This is the most beguiling, thrilling, moving sequence Lynch filmed since parts of Eraserhead, and I can hardly make it out without getting chills, if not tears. Betty and Rita leave it with the discovery of a blue box seemingly fit for the key from Rita's purse.

Lynch tosses around several overt nods to classic doubling films throughout this section of the film; a screen-filling overlap shot of the two woman's faces in bed echoes Ingmar Bergman's Persona, while Rita's application of a blond wig to closely mirror her savior Betty reminds us of Hitchcock's Vertigo. What's most interesting is how these manifest themselves so bluntly amidst an otherwise vaguely referential affair. One wonders whether Lynch actually self-consciously chose these riffs, or if he too is a victim, like Betty, of cinematic influence. Nonetheless, they resonate perfectly in the context of Mulholland Drive, adding an ever more complex dimension to Betty and Rita/Diane and Camilla's congruence in Diane's mind. Diane lusts so strongly after her object of desire that she projects herself into a dream in which the two of them are passionately in love and are perhaps two halves of the same person. Moreover, she puts the subject of her humiliation (Camilla's fiancé, Adam Kesher) through a troubling domino of events.

A fact that always manages to surprise me is Mulholland Drive's television pilot origins. I am extremely grateful for the network's denial of it though, for I think it caused Lynch to focus on the project with greater intensity, intent on bringing to the screen something that would succinctly visualize the story he was trying to tell. Had the pilot been accepted, Mulholland Drive may have become another Twin Peaks, releasing shockwaves of visceral moments but also being plagued by the fruition of slightly uninteresting backstories. The feature-length format allows these instances to be briefer and more potent, emphasizing their existence as Hollywood hodgepodge. After all, the film is very much about film, its power to influence people, and its unique ability to delight even in the face of trite surfaces, so it works best as a film. It also works as the greatest and most emotionally debilitating film of Lynch's career since his debut feature.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Straight Story (1999) A Film by David Lynch

When a current Disney film is made, it's usually by a chameleon director with the ability to shuffle sensibilities at random and take on stories that are not necessarily their own. This is why it's a shock thinking about the fact that David Lynch, an esoteric artist, has made his stamp on the Disney canon. 1999's The Straight Story is a humble road movie about an elderly war veteran named Alvin Straight who rides his John Deere on a month-and-a-half pilgrimage from Iowa to Wisconsin to reconnect with his alienated brother Lyle, a recent victim of stroke. The story is based on the real life of Alvin Straight, and if you've seen any of the webisodes in The Interview Project, a cross-country getting-to-know-you exercise undertaken by Lynch's Absurda Production Company, you'll notice that Straight looks as if he's one of the subjects of the project. It is this interest in simple folk, people who are just trying to get by, that links Disney and Lynch's set of concerns. Lynch loves grizzly spirits beaten down by life but without submission to it, and also old-fashioned Americana types (his short The Cowboy and the Frenchman is a blatant testament to this fact), which is ultimately what lifts The Straight Story from being just another middlebrow Disney throwaway, and more like a paean to life and the kindness of the human spirit, as a true Disney film should be.

Yet it is not just joy and happiness that infuses the film; Lynch refuses to cloak life's hurdles by adhering to sentimentalism. Alvin is a tremendously mournful character, and he tinges the entire affair with a potent sense of our own mortality, as he puts himself through thick and thin in his poor physical state (he has to walk with two canes), adamantly undergoing his somewhat dangerous travels on a lawnmower that perpetually runs the risk of crapping out. At the same time, Alvin is no miserablist. He yearns for reconciliation with his brother who he became estranged from, a problem he diagnoses as such: "Anger, vanity, you mix that together with liquor, you've got two brothers that haven't spoken in ten years." In traditional road movie fashion, he meets several characters along the way, offering them a slice of his own world-weary wisdom. Alvin is remarkably in tune with the pleasures of life, the things that really count, like his mentally retarded daughter Rose, the only of seven surviving children he is in touch with. Rose herself has been through great hardship; due to her condition, authorities took her children away from her, leaving her to live with Alvin.

The story sounds maudlin and typical, but Lynch does not go down that route, instead paying lovingly close attention to the humanity, crafting an elegy to youth that breathes with the rhythms of the Midwest. It's uncharacteristic of Lynch to be as restrained and lyrical as he is in The Straight Story. With the help of his longtime cinematographic collaborator Freddie Francis, the film carves a poetic monument that feels closer to the work of Terrence Malick than it does to Lynch. Between the sequences where Alvin makes human connection, there are extended reposes set to pastoral folk music that simply watch him as he travels down the open road at 5 mph, sandwiched by vast corn fields dotted on the horizon by small farms or villages. The camera glides slowly at high angles, respectfully paying tribute to the American landscape with a warm, yellowish color palette. In more traditional Lynchian fashion, there is little explanation for Alvin's motivations, nor is there any sort of payoff when the film reaches its inevitable denouement. The film lets us slowly understand Alvin as a man, and Richard Farnsworth's performance does great justice to this technique. Loads of poignant expression is visible, even through his scraggly white beard and beneath his omnipresent cowboy hat. While The Straight Story is unexpected from Lynch, it proves that yes, as well as being visually and conceptually stimulating, he can tell a moving story with honorable restraint.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lost Highway (1997) A Film by David Lynch

Identity has always been a thematic undercurrent in David Lynch's career, either its displacement (Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet), its confusion (the titular character in The Elephant Man), or its realization and fulfillment (Kyle MacLachlan in Dune). Not until Lost Highway however was this subtext explored so acutely and abstractly, and it stands as the preface of what has become the style of his late career (also including Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and the myriad of video works he has dished out), which has moved even further towards enigmatic, moebius strip narratives. Lost Highway is a vastly underrated psycho-thriller, dense in its construction and immensely rewarding with its aesthetic choices.

The narrative is split into two parts that are ostensibly unrelated. In the first, Lynch presents a slow, tense study of martial dissolution set in an ultramodern, box-like flat in the suburbs. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is an emotionally severe, constipated free-form Jazz saxophonist who approaches an intercom in his household one day and hears an unidentified voice saying "Dick Laurent is dead". This is the first in a series of bizarre interruptions into Fred's supposedly stable life. His relationship with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is claustrophobic, unromantic, and bitter, evidenced by his silently hostile disposition when asking her if she'd go to the club for his show that night, and the passionless sex that ensues later. The two begin receiving cryptic videotapes on their doorstep, which Renee initially writes off as simply Real Estate videos until subsequent tapes reveal the camera entering their household and eventually observing the couple in their sleep. At a party held by a man Fred is suspicious of for his involvement with Renee, Fred is approached by a clown-like character (Robert Blake) vaguely titled "The Mystery Man" in the production notes. He informs Fred of his presence in his home at that very moment, ordering him to call the house for assurance. The day after, Fred once again receives a videotape, this time detailing him viciously slaughtering his wife, which comes as the abrupt finality of the initial half of the film.

Fred is placed on death row, where he undergoes severe mental suffering before eventually his physical state is swapped for that of a young mechanic named Pete Dayton, a curiosity that baffles the guards and triggers the release of Pete. The film then takes the form of a noir thriller, showing Pete with a troubling connection to the local mob lord, Mr. Eddy. The roots of their relationship are unclear, but his negative impact on Pete's life is without question. Mr. Eddy has a moll, Alice Wakefield - significantly also portrayed by Patricia Arquette, only this time with wavy blond hair rather than straitjacket brown - who, after seducing Pete in hyper-generic femme fatale fashion, reveals herself to be longing for freedom from her expansive seedy ties. Pete becomes entangled in a string of potentially threatening situations, both serious and minor, involving Mr. Eddy, his own neglected girlfriend, Alice, and the components of her pornographic double life.

The stories eventually connect themselves, and in doing so, present the possibility of there never being a separate character from Fred in the first place. Lost Highway is ultimately a brooding psychological puzzle inspired by the phenomenon of psychogenic fugue, an incredibly rare occurrence that involves the subconscious creation of an entirely distinct personality following a traumatic incident as a means of escape. Inevitably though, the strain of reality gradually imposes itself on this fantasy world, explaining the reappearance of Patricia Arquette (an extremely sensual reminder of Fred's heavy guilt), the man at the party with links to his wife's hidden personality (likely the explanation for Fred's murder in the first place), and the Mystery Man. In this sense, Lost Highway's separate halves are split, to a degree, into the literal and the metaphorical. Pete's story is largely Fred's creation, and so to are characters such as The Mystery Man, the most salient embodiment of evil in the film, who appears whenever a shift in personality, reality, or identity is on the verge. He also is closely related to the lost highway (a symbol itself that stands as a metamorphic entity) and hides out at a shadowy cabin in Death Valley which is always introduced by one of the most compelling images of the film: a protracted reversal of the fiery explosion of the cabin.

There's also a great amount in the film about the recorded image and its relation to reality. It becomes clear that Robert Blake's character is supposedly the person behind the video tape conundrum, but this is only what it seems on the surface. If The Mystery Man is an extension of Fred himself, the tapes are actually his own transmissions from the subconscious, if you will. This premise is reminiscent of Cache, although Lynch's film is not interested in the employment of personal and political history as in Haneke's, instead using video strictly as a piece of mental hardware. The same voyeuristic shots that track with Fred through the dark corridors of his own living space arrive on the videotapes as grainy black and white footage, asserting itself as the evil recesses of his mind that he prefers not to venture into. It is no surprise that he says himself when asked by the police if he owns a video camera, "I like to remember things my own way...Not necessarily the way they happened." This is underlined by the new reality for himself he thus creates.

As much as this cursory exegesis does for the film on a narrative level, there's still a wealth of complexity at the core of Lost Highway that is best left unexplained. In fact, Lynch strongly advises against the interpretive process, preferring for the "room to dream" to be left intact. What's most important in the film is its uniquely spooky mood. Lynch's use of sight and sound in the film is so in sync, so complimentary, that it creates an experience of almost physical as well as emotional involvement, with the body tightening and relaxing during scenes of simmering tension and brief comic pauses, respectively. It is this distinctly cinematic atmosphere that takes full emphasis, dwarfing the sometimes vague and mannered dialogue. Nonetheless, each line spoken in the film rings with latent meaning, or at least for the purpose of stylistic heightening, as in one scene when the fiercely sarcastic Mr. Eddy calls Pete and repeats to him with a resilient sneer on his face: "I'm really glad to know you're doin' ok." (Robert Loggia's caricatured yet exhilarating performance is one of the finest in the film). Because of these menacingly original qualities, Lost Highway deserves more than the label of "pretentious" that is all too often slapped upon it, for it is a riveting, mesmerizing transitional piece for Lynch.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Premonition Following an Evil Deed (1995) A Short Film by David Lynch

In 1995, several internationally acclaimed directors were offered a chance to shoot a 55-second film using the original camera of the Lumière brothers, the French duet responsible for the dawn of cinema. Three restrictions were imposed - time length, eschewing of sync sound, no more than three takes - in order to approximate the look and feel of the brothers' pioneering cinematic works, given the context of a century of cinematic maturation. Despite the breadth of intriguing names involved, the results in the completed documentary are somewhat stale, with a few exceptions, namely David Lynch's micro-masterpiece, Premonition Following an Evil Deed. His entry towers over the rest, if only for the uncontested devotion to creating something that would provoke and engage rather than using the opportunity simply for experiment, or, even worse, self-fulfilling cuteness. The film progresses as follows: a middle-aged woman in dismay, a dead woman on a lawn before policemen, a cryptic sequence where zombie-like creatures in a steamy room boil naked women in tubes, and policemen entering a house to inform the dismayed woman and her husband of, presumably, the dead woman shown before. In a way, it's a mini procedural drama, reminiscent of Twin Peaks, but is at once completely elusive. Who is the murderer? Who is the victim? The title provides some assistance, perhaps placing the mother as the murderer of her own daughter while subsequently being haunted by malign images of guilt. In the end though, it's as just as much a smoke and mirrors act as Lynch's best work, where he teases you with possibilities of finding a solution but ultimately intends only for the viewer to be swept up by mystery. Premonition Following an Evil Deed, a monochrome fantasia that hearkens back to the wonder of early motion pictures while keeping in line with a modern, abstract sensibility, does exactly that.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dune (1984) A Film by David Lynch (or is it Alan Smithee?)

If one were to apply some sort of numerical system for rating the consistency or artistic similarities in David Lynch's oeuvre, it might look something like this, with Dune being that fat, bulky outlier in no man's land. The last project the film community expected Lynch to partake in following his initial two features was the adaption of Frank Herbert's colossal saga, Dune, a 412-page novel now and then declared as one of the greatest sci-fi epics ever written. Lynch condensed this into a three hour epic of his own which targets the grand tradition of Star Wars but lands somewhere altogether different. Taking into account the harsh critical bashing that is often lobbed at the film - not to mention the dispensation of it as "A Film by Alan Smithee", the official pseudonym used in Hollywood when a director wishes to disown his project - Dune stood before me as a brutish task. As a Lynch "completist", I knew I had to see it, but could have easily watched something else before it. Well, now I have indeed seen it, and it certainly is a confusing enigma, an undeniably bizarre sojourn into big-budget filmmaking for the otherwise self-motivated artist.

One of the greatest mistakes the film makes (to distinguish from a mistake Lynch makes, because it is difficult to say with the finished product what was the studio's addition and what was Lynch's) is in the first ten minutes, when a didactic narration accompanies Herbertian paintings of galactic scenes, the rapidity of which strands the viewer in left field. The narrator, who sounds like an indifferent, drunken Gene Hackman, fires establishing information at us about the Dune universe, the desert planet, the three sparring planetary houses (House Atreides, House Harkonnen, House Corrino), the gargantuan worm that lives beneath the desert and harvests a certain spice that induces eternal life, and also a bit about the tapestry of individuals. Duke Leto Atreides is the good in the universe, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a bile, tumor-laden, flying obesity, is the evil. The Duke's son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is destined to become heroic but must first stave off an unnamed traitor he is informed of. The supporting narration - seemingly a reason to make comprehensible that which is skidded over in Lynch's kinetic storytelling style - returns variably throughout the film, providing more and more dense information in a slapdash manner. These were likely manifested as extended descriptions in Herbert's novel that required rereading.

Another device frequently used in the film that requires prerequisite knowledge of the book in order to make sense of it is the slew of internal monologues spoken in portentous whisper. Paul is the heftiest purveyor of such confusion; when faced with a difficult situation, he resorts to his conscience, gasping lines like "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration." or "He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing.", and also connecting occurrences to celestial meanings regarding "the second moon...", "the spice...", or "the voice...". However, one cannot say that the film is from the point of view of Paul, because several other times throughout Dune we hear the same device utilized for Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, the Duke, and Piter De Vries, a bushy-eyebrowed deceiver of Atreides, to name a few. Lynch's use of the internal monologue here is haphazard and listless, providing us with combating modes of thought that echo in the mind as they do on the soundtrack. It is uncertain what kind of grasp the "director"/studio-heads have over the project, for it seems a beast as unpredictable as the massive, spike-mouthed worms that seethe beneath the desert planet, and the result in an inchoate blob of sci-fi schtick.

All narrative inconsistencies aside, the film has a special kind of visual allure that spawns not out of calculation of tone but rather out of a certain gaudiness inherent in the special effects work. Dune is the kind of film where the illusion of reality is shattered when it becomes blatant that action sequences are taking place largely in front of green screens. This is visible when Paul lassos the worm and lands on its back, when space shuttles hover smoothly over planetary surfaces, and when crew members are shown from the inside of their flying devices. Scenes like this back-peddle through cinema history to a point where Kubrick's 2001 is undeniably superior. But believing in the action is not what counts; it's often an enjoyment just to marvel at the artifice. Also, the costumes and sets are spectacularly elaborate - albeit relatively plastic-like on the outset - so that there's frequently something within the frame to pick out and stare at when the drama goes haywire. Unfortunately, the color seems to have been mildly drained out to a putrid brownish.

The film is a classic case of heavy studio interference. Lynch apparently shot a great amount more than what is seen in the finished product. It's arguable whether or not any more length or personal vision would have enhanced this film; it seems more likely that it would augment the already tedious nature of the current version. Despite this, there are several times when the film rushes through segments, most crucially the finale, which boasts Paul as a hero but does not accompany his stature with filmic grandiosity. The narrative has its best moments when Lynch slows down the pace, such as when Reverend Mother Ramallo tests Paul's strength through a miniature box designed to infict mental suffering. Dune only occasionally stumbles over a recognizably Lynchian element (the brief dream sequences involving dense superimpositions with ominous hands), and when it does it is largely unsatisfying, like a lazy reprise Eraserhead's cosmic imagery. One leaves the film with a bad feeling, both for having witnessed such a grueling, incomprehensible film, and also for thinking of the great amount of sets, talent, and labor that went to waste.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) A Film by David Lynch

Following the widespread success of the television series Twin Peaks, the powers that be thought it necessary to tack on an obligatory prequel film, essentially a detailing of Laura Palmer's final weeks. Undoubtedly, Lynch's enthusiasm regarding the show was probably running close to empty given the amount he had to wrestle with television executives, which perhaps explains the indolent, free-for-all wackiness inherent in the film version. What many expected as an explanatory piece, Lynch does not provide, instead deepening the ambiguity of the series by piling on more and more symbols, Black Lodge enigmas, and non sequiturs. It's an oafish mess of a film, yet it is not without its pleasures, as it attains the sort of mystery that only Lynch could find in such a campy premise.

The film's first section is without question its most lackadaisical. Set somewhere around the region of Twin Peaks, it follows a previously unheard of FBI agent named Chester Desmond as he investigates the murder of a woman named Teresa Banks with a clumsy sidekick (Kiefer Sutherland). Lynch goes heavy on the lunacy here, offering up brief absurdist character sketches - like Harry Dean Stanton as a white trash murder witness - and unusual bits of secret agent insights: Desmond and his sidekick meticulously dissect an encounter with a zany woman dressed in red garbs introduced by Gordon Cole, the hearing impaired special agent played by Lynch himself. Once her body is found and returned to FBI headquarters, the two disappear without explanation. Then a portentous character played by David Bowie arrives in the offices, elicits a short burst of dream logic, and disappears as well, arousing suspicions that he was never there in the first place, although the security cameras tell otherwise. This is a confusing case of the eruption of mystery in everyday life, because Lynch never harps back on it, forgetting Bowie and the two investigators and even Special Agent Dale Cooper, the star of the television series who makes a brief appearance predicting Banks' murderer's next victim. That he predicts with such uncanniness the exact criteria of the next victim - a blond high school girl serving food at that very moment, to which Lynch cuts immediately to Laura working on "Meals on Wheels" - makes us wonder why Cooper could not have saved her, and by extension, why he drives into Twin Peaks with such newfound enthusiasm for the case when the television series begins.

In fact, one of the major flaws in Fire Walk With Me is its dissonance from the show, especially when it comes to characters. The most salient example of this is Laura Palmer's best friend, Donna Hayward. Lynch was unable to cast Lara Flynn Boyle, the firebrand who portrayed her in the series, so Moira Kelly takes over, but with this change comes a complete transformation of the character of Donna; in the show she is a strong individual, whereas in the film she is emotionally fragile, timid, and always looking for verbal confirmation that Laura is her "best friend". Laura - whose face permeates nearly every scene following the initial section - does not fit the esteemed sweetheart description that was so prominent in the show, for Lynch gets right down to business establishing her as a feral piece of work with sinister ties. Never do we see a hint of humanity in her eyes, even during the few times that she's seemingly speaking from the heart. Sheryl Lee's performance as Laura is spot on when dealing with cryptic erotica, but if there's ever a scene that calls for emotion, Lee muffs it and comes across awkwardly, ultimately leading to her inability to carry the film. Fortunately, Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, her self-feuding, antagonistic father, picks up the energy that she lacks.

Because the film only answers shaky questions that were already explained on the show, once can't help but think Fire Walk with Me is simply an excuse for Lynch to return to the mordant dreamworld of Twin Peaks, to revel in the perplexing imagery of the series once more. In tone, the film most closely resembles the final episode, with illusory interruptions left and right. The red room, or Black Lodge, is revisited frequently, although this time new characters arrive, such as a boy beneath a mask with an elongated nose, an old woman who constantly is pointing or offering pictures of empty rooms to Laura, and even a menacing primate. They are each curiously entrancing, but whether there is meaning to each individually is up in the air. Most disappointing though is the fact that their arrivals mean the omission of the giant and the butler from the series, and ultimately the abandonment of coherence. The film gains some life towards the end, once Lynch's (and Laura's) hysteria begins to take full force, but on the whole it never appears to have a raison d'être, making us long to get to the point in the story where we hear Jack Nance's character recite the famous words: "she's dead, wrapped in plastic".

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wild at Heart (1990) A Film by David Lynch

It has always been a mystery to me what was going through the minds of the jury at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival - an able one at that, with Sven Nykvist, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Fanny Ardant in the bunch - when they chose David Lynch's Wild at Heart as the Palme D'Or. As well as acting as another launching point in the flippant career of Nicolas Cage, the film toys with so many archetypes, references, and genres that it amounts to a scattered mess, loaded with shrill fragments and lacking any semblance of dramatic thrust. Lynch's love for cheesy, trailer-trash reworkings of vaguely 50's-esque milieus had hits its apogee when he made Wild at Heart, which is cushioned by the yokel-made The Cowboy and the Frenchman and his extensive Twin Peaks era. You can see some strands from these works laying loosely over the edges, but they are assembled in such a way that makes them uglier, soapier, and more clichéd.

Toothless hags, psychotic mothers pinned to their chairs, obese people wearing "Made in America" shirts, sausage venders who are pedophiles on the side: these are the types of people that you likely have no interest in meeting. These are also the kind of people that populate Sailor (Cage) and Lula's (Laura Dern) road trip in Wild at Heart. Out of desperation caused by Lula's mother's heated denial of her rebellious boyfriend Sailor, the fiery couple takes to the highway, constantly being swept away by their car radio, an endless repeat of deserted 50's bar rock. Sailor's interested in keeping his girl and his life, and Lula gives herself over completely to Sailor's gimmicky romance (Sailor frequently impresses her with his monklike devotion to his snakeskin jacket, his "symbol of individuality and personal freedom"). The central couple is the most tired attempt at symbolic archetype Lynch ever made; Sailor is a mix of James Dean and Elvis, and Lula straddles Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and "Like a Prayer"-era Madonna. Neither of them have that effervescent air of mythic American characters though, or perhaps they have too much, because their blunt overacting and lack of subdued physical expression only makes them laughable. Of course, this could be read as Lynch's intention, to push the parameters of histrionics to a point where the film would reach the terrain of intertextual meta-critique. Nonetheless, Sailor and Lula's inability to shut up and simply act natural for a moment aggravates on a level high above the storyline.

It is hard to believe, but there is a literary source to Wild at Heart: Barry Gifford's novel of the same name. There is something to be said about Lynch's knack for stranding a work so distant from its novelistic origins, the result of which must have excited Gifford, for their collaboration continued on to Lost Highway. But Lynch's cinematic realization of Gifford's material here is uninspired; he seems to have less interest in the story than he does in taping on goofy metaphors and discomforting vignettes. Some of the bizarre characters, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) specifically as a heinous, womanizing bandit that Sailor hooks up with, are right up there with the rest of Lynch's freaks, but their additions often feel meaningless and hollow, existing only to fulfill Lynch's desire for spastic narrative detours. The tacky allusions to Wizard of Oz are also fruitful, culminating in the grandly embarrassing finale of the film, but whether or not Sailor and Lula are journeying along the yellow brick road doesn't matter - the metaphor is totally arbitrary. Similarly, Lynch can't seem to let go of his characteristic fascination with fire as a dominant motif, but it too is stolid, incorporating itself as more of a fixation Lynch can't shake off rather than a fitting element. Admittedly, I have a hard time speaking this negatively about Lynch, but Wild at Heart struck me upon first viewing, and still to this day, as the nadir of his career.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Cowboy and the Frenchmen (1988) A Short Film by David Lynch

The Cowboy and the Frenchmen is an absurd, tongue-in-cheek short made by David Lynch as part of a television program called The French as Seen By..., which otherwise included shorts by Jean Luc-Godard, Werner Herzog, and Andrzej Wajda, among others. The film is probably the least intellectually demanding Lynch has ever been, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes place on the range where a troupe of cowboys (Henry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, Tracey Walter) spontaneously witness a Frenchman skidding down the mountainside nearby. They are unsure of who or what it is at first, Stanton's character "Slim" continually exclaiming "What the hell is that thing?", but their xenophobia eventually wears off when they begin searching his suitcase, unearthing baguettes, romantic pictures, french fries (of course, Lynch can't deny this joke), and all other matters of stereotypical French paraphernalia. The Frenchman's overall excitement towards America, specifically citing the Empire State Building, unites him with the cowboys for a night of galavanting around the stables, singing "home on the range" campfire style, and hitting it off with a few local gals.

Ultimately, the film becomes a no-holds-barred joke. Every chance Lynch gets, he hyperbolizes the already mindless caricatures; the Frenchman, with his beret, suit, and mustachio, does little more than stare like a puppy dog at his surroundings and swoon romantically to the tune of his journal, the cowboys shoot birds and snakes uncontrollably and repeat their orders dumbfounded, and the women wear high jeans while serving the men food or offering them someone to sleep next to. Lynch has a way of drawing his character's gestures out so that they become awkward or unnatural, and thus humorous. What really gives the film its goofiness though is the deliberately stodgy aesthetic. The video quality looks several notches below professional. Clumsy superimpositions, iris effects, and stagey dance sequences are all put to good use. An amusingly simplistic honky-tonk score fills out nearly every one of the twenty-six minutes. There is even a motherly shot of three woman harmonizing quick ditties over the landscape which is repeated frequently throughout the film. I wouldn't say The Cowboy and the Frenchman holds an important notch in Lynch's resume, but it at least stands as a testament to the variety of his material. You'll only walk away from it knowing one more thing: this is apparently the French as seen by David Lynch.