Monday, 17 December 2012

Directors: DAVID LYNCH

There’s just one thing to say as a preface to this reviews. Whenever I happen to think about David Lynch, I end up concluding that very few artists have managed to make oddness so disarmingly appealing and appeal so confusing, so disturbing, so damn odd.

The Short Films Of David Lynch (2002/compilation)

Obviously, no true fan of Lynch would feel content until he sees where it all began. And it did with a bizarre (yeah, like I needed to mention that) one-minute cartoon called Six Figures Getting Sick (1966). What you hear is an intense sound of a siren and what you see is a sequence of six loops showing exactly what the title suggests. It’s not much, really, but you have to admire the self-confidence and the clarity of Lynch’s distorted vision. The two things you would need from this collection, though, are The Alphabet (1968) and the absolutely indispensable The Grandmother (1970). These odd, hypnotic monstrosities have Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive and even Twin Peaks quietly bubbling in their blood cells. They are so good they make me totally disregard 1974’s brief and unpleasant The Amputee (which is somehow too much and too little at the same time) and 1988’s dreary, half-hour long The Cowboy And The Frenchman that looks uninspired and way too predictable. Overall, though, the collection is essential: like any other Lynch, it is just dripping with the man’s great love for cinema. And, what is perhaps even more important, it makes you experience quite a bit of that love, too.


Eraserhead (1977)

This might sound strange, but, with the obvious exception of The Straight Story, this could be David Lynch at his most lucid and, dare I say it, basic. Because let's face it: Eraserhead is a very simple, very familiar story. It’s just that it comes with all those twists, bells and whistles that make up Lynch’s inimitable, unsettling style. Still, if you pay attention, you will see that it’s that same family dinner, same crying babies, same temptations we can all recognize. So in a way, the film presents a crude, stripped down version of David Lynch. It’s here that we can best understand why we find his films so disturbing and so inescapably emotional at the same time. For all its deliberate ugliness and apocalyptic, Kafka-esque estrangement, Eraserhead is a very… humane story (next time he would expand on it even more). Art was surely pushed to its darker limits here, but as long as it can be this engrossing and aesthetically satisfying, who would really mind? The style is raw, granted, but it’s already there. I’m not sure I would recommend it as a good starting point (The Elephant Man would make more sense), but, well, you just never know with Lynch.


The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch’s freak show continues (and this time it’s literally a freak show). There are actually quite a few things The Elephant Man shares with Eraserhead: for starters, it’s no less disturbing. It was also shot in black and white and the surreal element (downplayed though it is) is also very much present. However, this is certainly a much more balanced, mature work. The difference between the two films is akin to the transition Christopher Nolan would make from Following to Memento two decades later. This time money was no object, the crudeness of the debut was dropped; Lynch actually cast people like John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, and, to top it all, he based the film on a true story (of Joseph Merrick). As ever, Lynch shows himself as a master of artistic juxtaposition: almost unbearable humiliation and physical deformities are interlaced with some of the most touching scenes captured on screen (the episode in the doctor’s house never fails to move me to tears). Obviously, for all its brutal realism, Lynch’s phantasmagoric vision filters every word and every gesture, and brings the whole thing to some of the most effective endings I’ve ever seen. A very powerful study of human cruelty, The Elephant Man turned out to be Lynch’s most successful film (praise-wise) ever. It is also one of his absolute best.


Dune (1984)

Well, not much to say here. Dune was that notorious science fiction mess that was a commercial flop as well as an artistic failure. Some might claim that Lynch’s style is all over this thing, but while that may be true (it is, to an extent) – this film is still a remarkable, totally inexplicable lapse of taste. Never before and never after did Lynch look so hapless and so all over the place. I just choose not to notice Dune ever happened. And I refuse to rate it. Sporadic (or should I say coincidental?) flashes of Lynch’s true self notwithstanding, this is just very poor.


Blue Velvet (1986)

This proves that whatever happened in 1984 was an unfortunate misstep. Blue Velvet is of course a classic. It’s desperate, it’s sinister, it’s actually quite repulsive on occasion (though never in a gratuitous, unjustified sort of way), but all that darkness exists side by side with the disarming innocence of love as well as Lynch’s lush, engrossing stylishness (the title song we hear throughout the film is the sort of classy delight he would later replicate in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive). Future agent Cooper Kyle MacLachlan plays a fairly straightforward, unaffected young man who accidentally walks into a world of cryptic criminals, psychopathic perverts (Dennis Hopper’s over-the-top performance is unforgettable) and a woman who happens to be in the midst of it all. Isabella Rossellini’s tortured, humiliated elegance is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen. But it is all worth it. Cruelty and perversion and love give way to an ending both moving and exultant. You really can’t accuse David Lynch of taking style over everything else: your tears at the end are genuine. And they are not caused by death or depression. For once, they are actually caused by love.


Twin Peaks (TV series) (1990-1991)

Simply put, Twin Peaks is the greatest TV series ever made. There’s no competition, really: in the face of such blinding brilliance everything else just pales, falls to pieces and fades away. There may be numerous reasons for such a rare combination of artistic and commercial success, but in the end it all comes down to the fact that the format allowed Lynch to show off one of his greatest strengths: characters. Something he has always been so good at. Well, obviously there’s a murder. Murders in fact. A detective story. A mystery tale. A romantic comedy. Drama. Elements of sci-fi and horror and God knows what else. It works on so many level. And yet the foundation of it all is really this appealing mess of maniacs, freaks, local beauties, transvestites and (maybe) good people that never for a single moment threaten to be shallow or one-dimensional. You know them – or at the very least would very much like to know them. In many ways Twin Peaks is an attractive, more accessible expansion of Blue Velvet, the focal point being the evil in a largely peaceful community. Imagine the vibe of Mulholland Drive crashing into the world of The Straight Story. Irresistible. Some say it gets worse, soap-operish towards the end of the second series – but I don’t see that. It may lose a little steam and freshness, but it never runs out of ideas, great acting, weirdness or that wonderful music. Plus, it’s deep in the second series that you witness what may well be the most amazing declaration of love ever captured on screen. And the ending is, well, something else.

(I should note here that this was the brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, and the whole thing involved a whole range of different directors – but this is such an inescapably Lynchian experience that you should never really be in doubt…).


Wild At Heart (1990)

Contrary to what American critics had to say about this one, Wild At Heart wasn’t bad. It was just crude. Deliberately, expressively, cartoonishly crude. Every character is either a pervert or a psychopath, and the performances (as well as the actual scenes) are so overblown, so over the top that you struggle to find at least some subtlety amid Christmas addicts (a worthy addition to Lynch’s catalogue of disturbing and loveable freaks, file between the Log Lady and The Cowboy) and women smearing their face with pink lipstick. Speaking of performances, they are mostly good. Apparently the actors were told that there’s nothing to hold back; anything goes. Particularly good are, of course, Nicolas Cage (Sailor) and Laura Dern (Lula), who play two carefree, charmingly vulgar lovers who go on a wild road trip full of sex, partying and speed metal. Which is all good clean fun were it not for Lula’s mother who had already hired a hitman to kill Sailor. There are numerous flashbacks, but the plot is actually pretty basic. It works, in this case. The film is sprinkled with Lynch’s delicious symbolism (all about cigarettes this time), and features one of the most bizarre and bizarrely effective rape scenes ever. Like Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy, Wild At Heart is so technical and cartoon-like, it doesn’t really reach you emotionally. Still, you will love the irresistible slovenliness of the whole thing, Cage’s hilarious facial expressions and body language and that utterly outrageous ending… God this is crazy shit.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Anyone who’s watched and loved (same thing) Twin Peaks the TV series would pin great hopes on Twin Peaks the movie. Only natural. Never mind that some characters didn’t feature and some actors actually refused (or were reluctant, as in MacLachlan’s case) to take part. Plus, let’s admit – however exciting Laura’s story may be, prequel wasn’t really what we wanted. After the ending that looked as bizarre, rushed and confusing as it was brilliant, we all lost the remaining shreds of cynicism and class and just wanted to know what would happen next. Fuck snobbery and elitism: we wanted a sequel. And – no, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me doesn’t really work that way. There’s one fleetingly disturbing (though not too surprising) line you will clutch and hang on to, but that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s all Laura’s show. Twin Peaks is an electrifying psychological thriller that drops all TV conventions (real swearing is allowed) and gives you the darker, colder side of Twin Peaks characters (and that, yes, that includes agent Cooper). I’ll admit to being slightly annoyed with the new Donna (and how could you not be annoyed when the new actress has neither the presence nor the looks), but the film is still a powerful, lush, exhilarating experience that is quintessential Lynch. Very Mulholland Drive-like in its atmosphere and menacing, hypnotic intensity. Believe me: once you realise the nagging feeling of disappointment was inevitable, you will love this. Like I say, classic Lynch.


Lost Highway (1997)

After a five-year hiatus David Lynch just had to release something that would split the critics as well as the viewing audience. Lost Highway is by no means an easy film to watch, and nor is it Lynch at his gripping best (in fact, one could make a case of it being only a precursor, only an apprentice job paving the way for Mulholland Drive), but its calm, quiet, sinister surrealism will slowly, reluctantly suck you in and make you enjoy what could be Lynch at his most brutal and graphic. And the thing is – Lost Highway is actually quite exciting to watch. There’s meat and a good story behind the measured but unsettling tone of these two narratives that inevitably roll into one. I can certainly see how some could lose patience with the overwhelming stylishness and the story that demands perhaps too much imagination. Still, there’s this to be said about Lynch: the man’s vision is so powerful that you do understand, in a twisted and perverted way, what he is getting at. You feel the bizarre cohesion, the supernatural logic in scenes that were only (I’m guessing here) driven by Lynch’s artistic intuition. Suddenly the lush image of a spider makes sense, you feel genuinely moved by that Lou Reed song, and you find yourself in awe of the white-faced man and the weird telephone conversations he provokes. Lost Highway shows what Lynch does with surrealism, and why his surrealism works: 30 minutes into the film, he invents a man and inserts him into the only reality you see. So that you have to believe it – you just have no other options. Then he shatters it all to pieces. So yeah, it’s confusing – albeit in a very natural, beautiful way. Just don’t make it your first Lynch experience; it truly is for the devoted bunch.


The Straight Story (1999)

You just knew David Lynch had this sort of thing in him. That the world of Twin Peaks could actually exist without dead girls or dwarves talking backwards. Nothing surreal or slightly supernatural about The Straight Story, nothing behind the engrossing purple curtain. The film must have been the therapy Lynch needed: a deeply sincere, simple, straightforward film that is driven by its very naked, powerful simplicity. All in the title, really. Alvin Straight travels a long way on his land-mower to see his brother Lyle... and that’s about it. Which may seem like a sufficiently preposterous, typically Lynchean proposition – except it isn’t (even though everything about the film betrays the familiar style). It’s not preposterous, it’s not bizarre, this time it’s just touching. Nothing leaves a sour, sinister taste in your mouth. Like one of Somerset Maugham’s better stories, “Salvatore”, The Straight Story proves that the most plain narrative, the simplest of stories (as well as characters) can become both inspiring and truly engaging. This was a breath of fresh air, Lynch’s tribute to American province and good human nature. Next came Mulholland Drive, and all the lucidness was gone. Of course, I could say that The Straight Story is a great film, but that would sound somewhat demeaning. The Straight Story is a good film. Just a genuinely good one.


Mulholland Drive (2001)

Nothing to hold back here: Mulholland Drive is the greatest movie ever made. It has it all: style, wit and imagination, all in perfect balance, all brimming with Lynch’s uncanny love for what he is doing and what he is so good at. Every shot, every shade of lush, luxurient colour provides you with aural as well as visual delight. Thrilling, perplexing, eyeball-piercing experience. Just don’t let them scare you away: Mulholland Drive is weird, but it’s not the sort of masturbatory hallucination that Inland Empire would be (not that Inland Empire was bad or anything – of which more later). And when you realise that all that highly addictive madness makes perfect sense(it does), that it is all amazingly gettable and you don’t even need any of those clever clues provided by Lynch, that there is not a thread hanging loose in the entire film, your admiration becomes boundless. For the enigmatic Cowboy, for Connie Stevens’ adorable “Sixteen Reasons Why I Love You”, for the overpowering episode in club Silencio, for the hilarious ‘triple murder’ sequence… God, there are just too many memorable scenes here. It may get disturbing on occasion (Naomi Watts had to go through a lot here), but it never runs out of ideas or immaculate taste (music, acting, dialogue, etc.). For me, the undeniable, engrossing peak for David Lynch.


Inland Empire (2006)

Even if this is the ultimate Lynch experience, I guess ‘mindfuck’ would be the word. With the sole, self-conscious exception of The Straight Story, David Lynch had never been particularly fond of directness and clarity, but Inland Empire shows him take his artsy, artistic hallucinations to a whole new level. Little could prepare us for a family of anthropomorphic rabbits or a group of topless ladies discussing their breasts. Still, nothing too shocking for those who’d been with Lynch all this time. Inland Empire is where Lynch drops all the remaining conventions of cinematic expression and lets his instinct, his sheer imagination drive the whole thing. One bizarre sequence after another (it certainly helps that the film’s first 40 minutes are Lynch's greatest ever), you find yourself helplessly drawn in, helplessly trying to pick up the fragments of meaning slovenly scattered around your feet. And god does it hang together miraculously well!.. In fact, if you pay attention, you might at some point trick yourself into thinking you actually got inside Lynch’s twisted, perplexing but strangely consistent mind. The fact that you want to sit through three long hours of David Lynch doing his version of Finnegans Wake, shows that Lynch has totally fulfilled himself as an artist. Inland Empire is a sprawling, electrifying mess of a movie that will be rediscovered again and again. Apparently there are people who would be eager to tell you that they know exactly what is going on here, and it is for these wonderful people that I quote the final paragraph from Wikipedia’s synopsis of Inland Empire

Nikki is then seen back home, triumphantly smiling at the old woman from the beginning of the film. The concluding scene takes place at her house, where she sits with many other people, among them Laura Harring, Nastassja Kinski and Ben Harper. A one-legged woman who was mentioned in Sue's monologue looks around and says, “Sweet!” Niko, the girl with the blonde wig and monkey, can also be seen. The end credits roll over a group of women dancing to Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" while a lumberjack saws a log to the beat. 



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