The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980) movie poster

director David Lynch
viewed: 05/07/2018

Back in 1980, when The Elephant Man was released, I was 11 years old. And I don’t know exactly how much I knew about it, I certainly didn’t know who David Lynch was yet, but I wanted to see it. And I remember a friend’s mother wouldn’t let us go see it, instead making us go see The Private Eyes (1980) starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. Oddly enough, both films were rated PG. I obviously bore a grudge over this as I’m recounting it nearly 40 years later.

I did eventually see The Elephant Man, probably on HBO at some point. I’m still trying to figure out if it was my first David Lynch movie or whether Dune (1984) was. Not that it matters to anyone but me.

The Elephant Man is an interesting counterpoint to Eraserhead. Shot in a similar gritty black-and-white, featuring shadows and industrial imagery with occasional moments of stark surrealism, it’s a much more typical biographical narrative film, and in many ways as conventional as Lynch ever got, until his much later The Straight Story in 1999. It’s also Lynch’s most conventionally acknowledged and appreciated by the Academy, garnering 8 nominations in its day.

David Lynch is a national treasure, whether the nation treasures him or not. And The Elephant Man is an excellent oddity of his oeuvre.

Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977) movie poster

director David Lynch
viewed: 04/28/2014

He may be all about transcendental meditation now and have forsaken cinema, but David Lynch, from the very get-go, has been an outsider master film-maker.  And I’ve come back around to him myself.  Well, actually, for about the last 10 years or more he’s actually solidified into one of my all time favorite film-makers.  I had gone through a period of liking him as a teenager to being really annoyed with him circa Twin Peaks, and quite frankly, I hadn’t seen some of his earliest films in decades.

Case in point, Eraserhead, one of the consummate “midnight movies” of the 1970’s-1980’s, a kind of heightened level of intentional weirdness that tended to blow minds sober or inebriated.

And I think it would blow minds just as much today, particularly to the uninitiated.

It’s the far out black and white nightmare, where everything is weird, nothing makes sense, nothing really gets too explained.  There are the miniature man-made chickens that ooze black goo, the “baby”, the lady in the radiator, the whole manufacture of pencil erasers.  It’s a bleak industrial retro future hell and there is no explanation to discern why when or where anything is.

In reality, it’s a surrealist terror of sex and parenting, of soul-destroying loneliness, and individuality.  Surrealist, perhaps with the capitalization.

And you know what?  It’s freaking brilliant.  An amazing, amazing film.  When I first saw it, I was 16 or so and it was probably the weirdest film that I’d ever seen.  I’m sure that I didn’t “get” it really.  Maybe I “got” that you weren’t supposed to “get” it necessarily.  It’s an idiosyncratic vision, yet universal in its disconnect and weirdness.  This time through it, I was amazed.

The baby is insanely amazing.  I guess the secrets have long been kept about how they achieved the effect of the strange thing.  I was struck how this film would be part of a baby parenting terror show with  Jan Švankmajer’s Little Otik (2000).  With a little one in a crib nearby, you might run out and stab yourself with scissors rather than face the nightmare of parenting.

The film also called to mind the universe of Andrei Tarkovsky’s fantastic Stalker (1979), which takes place in a similarly deformed future world.  Another film that has some complete sense of the unreal within the real world, a decrepit future from our decrepit present.

Many, many thoughts, really.  A final one would be that I watched this film streaming from Hulu Plus on my new Roku device, one of the “tipping point” films of finally crossing over into the contemporary technology.  Though the disc is on Criterion, or was, it was no longer available on Netflix.  I’d been wanting to see if for some time, and now, I have.

Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 11/20/09

As part of my personal retrospective of the films of David Lynch, I watched Mulholland Dr., one of his finest films, one that had everyone talking in 2001 when it came out about what really happened in the movie.  It’s kind of funny, really, how confused everyone was by the way the film twists, the lack of clarity given to a definitive version of “story”, and the elusive segments and red herrings and mystery.

Knowing how the film came about, initially a pilot film for a new television series to follow his Twin Peaks show, a pilot that was abandoned by the studio, never picked up.  And after a year of finagling, Lynch got backing from Studio Canal, and re-wrote the film to have a conclusion, shooting new material, driven by the loss of some elements, and making the film a complete internal experience.  You can kind of see this as the film turns about 4/5 of the way in, and the characters take on different roles, re-cast, much as Lynch did the film, into a different narrative, but one that takes elements from the first one.

Lynch wouldn’t want an explanation, other than perhaps, the explanation of the story from the perspective of any one individual viewer.  There isn’t meant to be a singular coherent explanation.  Is the first and most of the film a dream, a dream before dying, of a jilted lover having hired a hitman to kill her former lover?  And what is the mystery in the first segment, the bulk of the film?  Who is “Rita” the amnesiac who finds herself in Betty’s aunt’s apartment?

Lynch is absorbed with Hollywood, with Los Angeles, as he carries over into Inland Empire (2006), a world echoing heavily of its past, of the Hollywood myth of starlets and stardom versus the reality of filmmaking requiring the “selling out” of one’s ideals.  The apartment where so much takes place is a decorous deco era complex, and it’s even managed by a former movie star Ann Miller, though it takes someone familiar enough with film history to put that piece together.  It’s a frightening, darkened room, where people are duplicitous, the world reeks of death, an ominous dream, a clandestine nightmare.

David Lynch creates a vision unlike any other filmmaker in the world, perhaps.  His voice and style and subject matter, while diverse at times, is one that is uniquely American, yet utterly a-typical of America’s mainstream.  His films achieve the power of visions, of dreams, that move and reveal themselves in memory, images, sensations, fear and in this case, tragedy.

It’s little wonder that Naomi Watts became a star after this film.  Much like her script reading as Betty, the would-be starlet, evoking great power from her performance, wowing the crowd in the room, Watts’ Betty swings an arc, and ends with the types of tragedy of smaller lives, of jilted love, of murder and suicide.  As if the bulk of the film is a last, frightening dream, envisioning her world through a strange refracted lens, yet finding the tragedy nonetheless, it’s quite moving.  Much like the pair of women, moved to tears listening to the staged version of a Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, it pushes us to tears, the beauty, the sadness, the loss.  And even the display of facade in the performance, it’s all a pretense, an illusion, like cinema itself.

I’ve noted that Lynch’s films have seemingly gotten stronger and stronger and I would argue that they have held up pretty well overall, too.  There is no list of the most important directors in America, in the world.  Or actually there are lots of those lists “Best Films”, “Best Directors”, aggregated opinions attempting to set a rating to a broad spectrum of art and entertainment.  What I would say is that no such “list” means anything, and even my personal feeling about Lynch’s work is still just that, an opinion.  But I do believe that he is more an artist, more a visionary, than most.  He makes remarkable films, and I hope that he makes more.

Lost Highway

Lost Highway (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 08/28/09

I have to say, David Lynch has become one of my favorite directors.  I would have been embarrassed to have such an opinion perhaps in the 1980’s, being such a cult figure and so specific and intentionally loopy.   But the years have been kind to Lynch.  He continues to evolve as a director and his work, while dated in certain aspects, is remarkably poignant and powerful.

I’d seen Lost Highway in the cinema at the time it was released, over 10 years ago.  I vaguely think that I may have seen it more than once at that time, though I can’t recall.  What is amazing, is the vividness of the imagery: Robert Blake’s frightful whitened face, the churning yellow median stripes in the road as the camera speeds through the dark, Patricia Arquette’s voluptuousity.  The whole film was like revisiting a dream, like it was a nightmare that I’d had, and was re-experiencing it.

The film is focused on dualities.  In the beginning, Bill Pullman is a saxaphone player, whose wife (red-headed Arquette), he suspects of cheating on him.  In the meantime, videos are being dropped at his doorstep.  Surveillence of their house, progressing inside, further each day.  Eventually, the nightmare evolves that the video flows into the bedroom and we see Pullman covered in blood and screaming, Arquette dead on the floor.  Though he denies the crime he is sent to death row.

Inside, during a bizarre transformation, Pullman is gone.  Now Balthazar Getty is in the cell.  No one knows how he got in, not even himself.  They release him back to his family, his job, and his girlfriend (a personal favorite of mine, the gorgeous Natasha Gregson-Wagner).  But Getty is dazed, everything is strange.  It’s like he has just woken up and is trying to understand.  And then in drives the sinister Mr. Eddy and his girlfriend, a blonde Patricia Arquette, with whom he takes up a torrid affair.

So, there are two Arquettes and two actors who play two characters who are somehow one and the same. The film is split, almost down the middle, in their screen time.

But the creepiest thing through the whole film is Robert Blake.  He approaches Pullman at a party and as he does, all other sound disappears.  He tells Pullman that he knows him, that they met at his house, that in fact, he is at his house right now.  He gives him a cell phone to prove that he is.  Blake considered the character to be “the devil”, and while there’s an easily-read reason for thinking so, the character is something far less defined.  Is he a representative of the dark side of the soul?  Are Pullman/Getty innocent or guilty of murder?  Why are they connected?  Are there really two Arquettes?

He delves further into psychological dualities in his film Mulholland Dr. (2001), in which he shoots some scenes in the same locations.  Unlike Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., though I liked it a lot, is more like a dream forgotten for me.  I have it at home to watch.  I will be writing about it soon.

Lynch is a master.  Though self-indulgence is his weakness, the darkened side of reality is his world.

Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 05/02/09

Deciding to revisit some older David Lynch films, for some reason, I decided to start with Wild at Heart, a film that I don’t think I’d seen in at least 15 years.  Well, the really freaky thing about it is realizing that the film is almost 20 years old.  Jesus that makes me feel old!  I remember going to see this when it came out in 1990 with a bunch of friends, all upped and excited about Lynch at the time.  I don’t remember thinking overly highly of it, though.

Adapted from writer Barry Gifford’s novel, Wild at Heart follows Sailor (Nicolas Cage, still very much a cool guy) and Lula (Laura Dern) as they run across country in both escape and in seeking something, their freedom, perhaps.  Sailor had served time on a manslaughter charge, and Lula’s mother (Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) is trying viciously to do anything to keep them apart, even calling in help of an old mobster lover to put a hit out on them.

The story is very much about this idealized love that Sailor and Lula have, a very sexually-charged love, a love that is tested by the violence, cruelty, and psychosis of the world, but ultimately a love that endures and succeeds.  But the world is indeed a sick-ass place, populated by creeps and demons, half-sane old people, and car wrecks.  It’s truly Lynchian.  Perhaps it’s one of those things that has come to signify such a term.

The film itself endures well, in my opinion.  Cage, channeling Elvis Presley, and rocking out to speed-metal, mixed with Dern’s tall, lean body and piles of curly blond hair, an innocent among the crazed and depraved.  The energy is there in spades.  It’s not entirely surprising that this film won the Palmes D’or at Cannes that year.

The thing that really failed to click for me in the past, which is still so heavy-handed and prominent is the The Wizard of Oz (1939) themes.  While the highway West is their “yellow brick road” and Ladd is clearly portrayed in visions as “the wicked witch”, it’s an obsessionist influence that is a tad questionable.  I mean, it works largely, in symbolism and in its own inherent Surrealism, a popular cultural embedded mix of imagery that is easily gleaned.  But still.  It’s one of those “buy it or not” aspects of the film, that back in 1990, I didn’t buy.

All these years later, though, I think Lynch is one of the most interesting American directors of the late 20th Century and onset of the 21st.  And this film is fun and powerful and both disturbing and beautiful.  Perhaps it’s the most hopeful of his films.  Some might argue that the ending has such a artificial sort of set-up, with the good witch inspiring Cage to run back and sing “Love Me Tender”, his own signifier of undying love and marriage, being the over-the-top happy ending.  But the bottom line is that their love is an idealized love and they are characters that one hopes for and wants to see happy.  It is Lynch testifying to the power of love in a monstrous world.  Sometimes the good and innocent do succeed.

Lynch

Lynch (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. blackANDwhite
viewed: 01/23/09

What does the mind of an artist look like?  What is the state at which the threshhold of genius is crossed?  What separates genius from non-genius?

Lynch is a documentary, loose and often as opaque or non-sequitur-like as many of the thoughts and creations of its subject, filmmaker/artist David Lynch.  Much of the film is shot in and around the production of his fantastic 2006 film Inland Empire.  Much of the film is about the creative process, or at least the creative process which Lynch employed throughout the production of that film.

The film doesn’t try to delve, even if that were possible, into the interiors of David Lynch’s mind.  Rather, the viewer is right along side of him, seeing how he operates in a multitude of media, when dealing with the actors both on set and on the phone, cutting holes in walls, making objects, and free-wheeling his sense of set design, camera usage, and narrative.  The cogs are turning constantly, and he’s a bit of a tsar, commanding his assistants around and making fun of people on occasion.

The film’s direction is credited to blackANDwhite.  The IMDb doesn’t even list a director.  According to Netflix, the director is Søren Larsen.  But maybe that is sort of the point.  The film is really not about its own construct but rather the process and art and artistry of David Lynch himself.  There are even some allusions to the possibility that there are coming sequels to this documentary, with the DVD even featuring “teasers” for them.  Who knows?

I am a dedicated appreciator of David Lynch.  I’ve followed his career since the 1980’s and was completely amazed by Inland Empire.  I think it’s his best film.  I think his work has gotten stronger and stronger since his Twin Peaks days.  And I think he’s a very American filmmaker, perhaps a true voice of a generation.  Of course, in my sensibility about what that statement means is not only is he literally American and focused on America as much of his subject matter, he is also unique.  Not so “oft-imitated, never replicated” as just out there in his own fully unimpeded-upon space.

Well, even with this being my attitude and appreciating the artistry of the filming and freedom in Lynch, I wasn’t utterly blown away by it.  It’s a film for people who would be interested in doing a ride-along with Lynch in his day to day.  Seeing “the master” at work, in his elements, creating masterworks, even.  There is much to be gleaned.  But you have to be a gleaner.  You don’t get much handed to you here.  Which is fine, suits its subject well.  Just nothing powerful or as radically strange as Lynch’s films, or Lynch himself.  Quite a character.  And an artist.

 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 01/13/08

David Lynch, I think, is one of the most important American directors of his generation.  But because I never really followed the television show Twin Peaks, I never got around to seeing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, also perhaps at the time remaining within the backlash that came at him from the popularity and character of the tv show.  Lynch always walks the sublime line with at least one foot treading perpetually in the absurd.  And while it was surprising that the popularity of his visions was at all possible, he also found himself ranging into indulgence of these visions and indulgence of more out-and-out humor.

The film, which went into production not long after the television show was canceled, was made to be a prequel and yet something to answer the questions left open at the end of the show.  And when it was released, much as the show had fallen into rapid disfavor, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was lambasted by critics, booed at Cannes, and probably set back Lynch in ways that ultimately might have helped him develop as a writer and filmmaker.  It was panned big-time.  But then, not terribly long after, the film was re-visited, and more positive reactions developed.  Perhaps the backlash at the film and the show had been too shallow, and somewhere within the film was something more interesting.

Well, beyond all that, I never felt that I would ever slog through all 2 or 3 seasons of the show to catch up enough to care to watch the film.  But after my growing appreciation for Lynch’s more recent films (Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)), I have felt compelled to explore this feature film, at least from the standpoint of one only mildly aware of the show’s mythologies and characters.  So, in watching it, I came fairly ignorant of the closures and loose ends.  Which may or may not be a problem.

My take on the film is this: It is deeply indebted and devoted to the television show and much of the film’s narrative arabesques and extraneous characters bear significance in ways that one would not appreciate without knowing their significances.  That said, the story of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is played out in a largely complete fashion here, and in a way that communicates the story enough to appreciate outside of further connections to the television show.  So the film is perhaps halfway between the spot of needing the backstory and not, and perhaps that is what waters it down to an extent, waters down what is in other ways an emotional story of incest and the hidden world inside the prom queen with drug addictions and sexual exploitations.

The Surrealist aspects of the film probably play out more “Surreally” than they would if one was to understand the more complex tropes of the narrative featuring some psychic phenomena and “The Black Lodge” that unlike images and weirdness that can be read only in their impact, have more telling metaphorical and narrative importance perhaps.  Lynch has always been interested in the “underneath” of American life, as most clearly portrayed in Blue Velvet (1986), and that is at play here too.  But afterwards, he became more interested in a more explicit duality in identity, which also is at play here.

For a dedicated David Lynch afficianado, it’s well worth seeing this film if one hasn’t yet, even if you can’t be asked to watch the whole television show.  I think that Lynch’s experience in televsion influenced his work, pushing him more toward a more and less in the indulgences of his style.  And Mulholland Dr., I believe, was a failed television pilot, which took the buidling of the complex universe of characters and wound up trimming it back as it was reconstructed into the feature it became.  I am eager to see more of Lynch’s work.  I do mean it, he is one of the most important directors of his day.  And gladly his day is still going.

Inland Empire

Inland Empire (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 09/24/07

David Lynch has long been one of those divisive directors, not politically, or morally, but really around pretension and comprehension.  From his earliest days with his uber cult film Eraserhead (1977) through to his strange and beautiful Mulholland Dr. (2001), he’s really cultivated a “love him or hate him” persona and body of work.  Maybe there are some in betweeners out there, but I’d have to say, as I think has been said, that Inland Empire is only for those who are on the “love him” side of things.  For people who need closure, need to understand what is going on, need answers to questions, can’t deal with weird rabbits on television, or any number of open-ended images, narrative tropes, and general loose ends, this film is going to be a bit of a challenge.

I think that may be true for some more solid Lynch fans as well.  For me, I think it was pretty brilliant.

Like Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire is also very much about Los Angeles, more specifically Hollywood itself, the film process, the film industry, the whole mechanism of Hollywood, but also its inhabitants.  Also, like Mulholland Dr., it’s a mystery of a narrative, with recurring motifs and imagery, duplicate roles or double identities of actresses like a heavy duty deja vu.  It’s hardly a film that one can take in entirely in one viewing.  And there are aspects of the narrative that, as in Mulholland Dr., people will be scratching their heads and trying to analyze down to an “actual” story, the one that people imagine is beneath the storytelling, the things that really happened, looking for the key to unlock the specifics.  This worked for Mulholland Dr., people were talking about it all the time, trying to figure it out.  This one seems less friendly to that sort of urge for closure.

Interestingly, it ends on an upbeat note.  Is that a spoiler?  Does that happen in David Lynch films?

Since Lost Highway (1997), Lynch has been very interested in doppelgangers or dual personae, the person who is always split between two or more realities (or perhaps two or more dreamworlds).  In Lost Highway, the split splits the film.  Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Getty for some reason and Patricia Arquette is two people, too.  The split and duplicity in Mulholland Dr., which despite the fact that I keep mentioning it and remembering to have liked it quite well, can’t actually recall enough about the narrative to fully make a comment, the split happened to both Naomi Watts and Laura Harring.  In Inland Empire, it’s Laura Dern’s turn to split and comeback, share roles with previous actors, echo constantly back and forth through narrative turn after narrative turn.

Lynch plays with landscape.  Doors open into new space after new space, they end up in a place they were before that was somewhere else.  The landscape, when not interior to the film set, is Los Angeles, which I read recently is key to the title of the film.  The Inland Empire is, as I have read, an area “east of Los Angeles”, but echoes back within the space of the film.  Maybe a better knowledge of L.A. geography would pay off in this analysis.  The rooms and buildings are of an older time, a period of Hollywood’s heyday but eventually spill out on to the famed crossroad of Hollywood and Vine quite explicitly.  Do I get what is going on here completely?  Hell no.

Shot on digital video, the film has an amazing look.  It’s as if Lynch rediscovered the camera and what it could do.  He uses all sorts of fade-ins and fade-outs, lighting techniques, framings, and controls the aesthetics to a “T”.  It’s quite beautiful, actually.  Very much so.  If there is one film that I regret not having seen on the big screen upon its release in recent years, this one tops the list.

The film contains some of Lynch’s strange asides, humor, and actors.  It’s nice to know that Harry Dean Stanton is still alive.  He started life as an old man.  He looks virtually the same as he did in the early 1970’s.  Kind of like Dick Clark.

I found the film quite stunning.  The cinematography and the flowing, spooky, frightening dream just pulled me along.  I committed to it, wafted along.  I had been afraid to see it for its length (nearly 3 hours) and its pace (slow), but in reality, I was really fairly rapt.  Lynch is a mixed bag for me in some ways, but I think that he’s actually perhaps has made his best film here.  I think he’s brilliant, and while his films are often flawed (to me), his vision is completely unique.  His world, his obsessions, his fascinations are mesmerizing and challenging.  And while I could not decipher the entirety of the narrative here for you even if I wanted to, I have to say, that is not what I necessarily need from a film.

The Straight Story

The Straight Story (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 10/05/02

G-Rated David Lynch. It is an interesting proposition. It’s even a Disney production. The result is an interesting mixture of Disney family-friendly entertainment and a clearly Lynch-ian interpretation of America.

This film presents a longer, more soulful look at the same small town America that Lynch portrayed as the surface world of his classic Blue Velvet (1986). Wherein Blue Velvet Lynch focused on the “other side” of the homey Americana of an Everytown, USA, and in which the small town world was a facade, his image of small town life that he offers in The Straight Story is a bit more “naturalistic” and is certainly a lot more “Straight”-forward than the narratives of many of his more recent films.

The title of the film, of course, implies this more uncomplicated (read: “straight”) narrative, as well as it’s fact-based origin, the true (read: “straight”) story of a 73 year old Iowa man, Alvin Straight (read: “straight” again), who drives his John Deere riding lawnmower across a couple of states to reach his elderly, infirm and long-estranged brother. For anyone who has most recently seen Mullholland Drive (2001) of Lynch’s films, would easily attest that this style, subject matter, and narrative approach is far less disjointed (read: “not straight”) than his other contemporary films.

The America of The Straight Story is not without its Lynch-ian weirdnesses. I mean, it’s about a man who drives his lawnmower across the country. There is the sort of trippy “mentally-challenged” speak of Sissy Spacek’s character and the “hidden” trauma of the WWII stories that Alvin trades with the other old timer that seem to offer at least hints of the darkness behind the simple facades.

Ultimately, though, this film is not about the weird, dark evils that usually fascinate Lynch. It’s actually quite the almost dewey-eyed tribute to the simple beauty of small town people and rather loving image of the Mid-West’s people and landscapes. At times, it’s almost sickly sweet…but for the most part it feels genuine and believable. Richard Farnsworth is excellent as Alvin Straight. Knowing how ill he was as he filmed this movie, his troubled walking and frailty are all but literal perhaps (I don’t know this for a fact).

Still, it’s a very interesting film, particularly from an autuerial perspective, one that places this film within the broader perspective of Lynch’s world view as played out in his collective work.