Sunday, November 22, 2015
The films of David Lynch are full of doors, portals, ways into other (usually dark) worlds. In Twin Peaks, the woods are a conveyance into the mythical White and Black Lodges; in Mulholland Dr., it's a puzzle box that sucks the naive Canadian actress into depravity; something beyond my ken happens in Lost Highway that transforms a middle-age sax player accused to murdering his wife into a young mechanic. In Blue Velvet, the film that arguably laid the groundwork for what we now call Lynchian, it's an ear. Passing through a scruffy field, coming from visiting his stroke-felled father in the hospital, Jeffery Beaumont, while searching through the scrub for stones to throw at an old shed, finds a severed ear acrawl with ants. The camera corkscrews into the dark curves of the thing, and we and the characters are seemingly along for the ride, falling through the thin rime of All-American civility into the sea of chaos beneath.
Blue Velvet introduces the tropes and images that Lynch will spend about two decades sorting through. Before Blue Velvet, he gained notoriety for his avant garde parenthood panic, Eraserhead, which brought him to the attention of Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. A Best Picture Oscar nomination was enough to give the mainstream some confidence in Lynch, though a stutter in that confidence lead to meddling and Lynch's next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's massive Dune, was a muddled flop. Arguably, the stink of that expensive boner saved Lynch's career, curtailing any interest mainstream investors might have had in him. Dino De Laurentiis had faith enough in Lynch that he gave him carte blanche on his next film and, though he wouldn't put it into the contract for fear every subsequent director would demand it, he gave the director final cut. That level of freedom made it possible for Lynch to pursue the sort of intuitive filmmaking he would come to be known for, where the planned film is always vulnerable to the unplannable randomness of the making process.
Triggered by Bobby Vinton's 1963 performance of "Blue Velvet", the image of a severed ear in a field, and the odd desire to hide in a girl's closet all day hoping to witness the clue to a mystery, Blue Velvet was not immediately beloved, but eventually struck a chord thanks to its juxtaposition of traditional Americana (white picket fences, lawn care, AM top 40 classics) with bizarre seediness (languid night clubs, sadomasochism, amyl nitrate abuse). This tension between light and dark, polite reservation and manic bombast, sort of became Lynch's calling card, but it also falls in line with spate of myth challenging that was occurring in 80s culture at the time. That squeaky clean image of post-war America, the lawns as well kept as the haircuts, the home appliances as rounded and shining as the boat-sized cars in the carports, had been offered as proof that the deprivation of the Depression and the catastrophic horror of the second world war had been overcome through American exceptionalism and sticktoitiveness. Of course, this was a case of dressing for the job you wanted, not the job you had. Underneath that veneer, America was still roiling with political, racial, and moral angst. The attempt to exorcise that repression throughout the 60s and 70s lead back to another false front with the materialistic conservatism of the Reagan era of the 80s. The illusion of 50s prosperity came to be viewed as halcyon days of the country, and what better way to harken back to that veneer than to have a 50s movie star as your president. It might seem odd company, but the weirdo Blue Velvet became one of more than a few films such as Polyester, Back to the Future, and A Christmas Story to both celebrate and criticize the myth of the 50s, which was not fitting quite as snugly in the similarly deluded 80s.
Lynch is maybe the most successful purveyor of these national contradictions because they're thrillingly at work in him. An Eagle Scout from Missoula, Lynch carries over that healthy, confident can-do curiosity to areas that most people would prefer to keep hidden. For a time, Lynch found his perfect avatar in Kyle MacLachlan, who, in Blue Velvet and later Twin Peaks, oozes grinning, clean-cut, innocent inquisitiveness. And the more innocent the protagonist of a Lynch film is, the greater the drama of their possible corruption. If Lynch's work from Lost Highway onward seems less accessible, the absence of that innocent avatar might be the reason. Finding the severed ear, Jeffrey (MacLachlan), possibly an Eagle Scout himself, does the right thing and brings it to the authorities. That's where Blue Velvet might have ended if not for the police chief's angelic daughter Sandy (the still teen-aged Laura Dern) cluing Jeffery into the scuzzy side of their quaint Lumberton, specifically a sultry nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) she believes might have something to do with this whole severed ear business. Jeffrey and Sandy, brimming with pluck and flirt, put on their detective caps like kids playing around after school. Satisfying Lynch's own animating desire, Jeffery sneaks into the vamp's closet and spies in a way that might call to mind a certain hotel owner with a penchant for birds. Like the world of warring ants that's revealed when the camera explores in the well-tended lawns of the American paradise, Jeffrey's looking closer uncovers a corrupt, violent, and depraved world teeming beneath placid Lumberton.
The embodiment of that chaotic depravity operating beneath the America idyll is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), the amyl nitrate-huffing, lipstick-applying, blue velvet-obsessed madman. In early Lynch, good and evil exist in extremes, in their purest individual states. In subsequent films, the dichotomy will mingle and become muddy, but especially during MacLachlan's time with Lynch, the risk is always that pure good will be corrupted by pure evil -- evil, it seems, is incorruptible. And, indeed, as Jeffery becomes mixed up with Dorothy Vallens, as he samples the sex and violence of that world, he comes close to becoming a denizen of it. As Sandy -- who got him into this mess in the first place -- jokes, "I can't figure out if you're a detective or a pervert."
In some ways, David Lynch became David Lynch with Blue Velvet. It was here that he met Angelo Badalamenti, who would define the askew noir soundtrack of Lynch's worlds, and it's here that we first see the imagrey of the divided road at night, the luffing velvet curtains (in blue and red), and the guttering flame. The access points in Lynch's later films are, as far as the narratives are concerned, literal doorways which lead to literal transitions and transformations. But in Blue Velvet, the descent into the severed ear is a figurative entry point into the dark. In a larger sense, though, it is does make for an almost literal entry point into the work of Lynch. And, like his protagonists, the viewer, whether they pass through or are sucked through, usually come out changed.
"It had to be an ear," Lynch said about the severed part. "An ear is wide and, as it narrows, you can go down into it. And it goes somewhere vast..."
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Franchising horror is dicey. On the one hand, it would seem to be good for the fan culture, with the expansion of mythology and expansion of merchandising giving Fangoria subscribers endless content to watch and buy. On the other, for a genre that's animated by the unseen and the unexpected, shedding too much light on something that operates best in the shadows would seem counterproductive. I mean, who likes walking through a haunted house when all the lights are on?
An 80s kid, I knew who Freddy Krueger was without having seen any of the Nightmare movies. His immolated face and knife hands, along with Jason Voorhees' hockey mask and machete, were as culturally recognizable as Mickey Mouse's big-eared silhouette. Freddy's origin story – a child murdering janitor who was burned alive by avenging parents – had certainly been overshadowed by his saucy quipping by the time the talking Freddy doll went to market. Parents sending their kids out trick-or-treating with their grandpa's old fedora and an approximately coloured striped sweater weren't thinking twice about the costume choice. When I did get around to seeing the movies at the odd birthday party or sleepover, they mostly seemed like a gore-veiled excuse to see boobs in the pre-Internet world. I don't think any of us eleven-year-olds were particularly frightened of or entertained by the movies. They were bad – but horror movies were supposed to be bad as far as we knew.
As with most franchised horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street was never meant to be a franchise. Producer Bob Shaye famously buffaloed Wes Craven into ending the movie with a question mark and, given that he'd given up his ownership of the Freddy character to help finance the initial movie, Craven had no say in the wise-talking glut that would follow. A return for the third movie was a high point in the series, but most of the integrity of the original premise and the original character was duly exhausted in just a few movies and a few music videos and one hotline later.
An academic who jumped ship to make a better living directing pornography, Craven eventually broke into the B movie mainstream with Last House on the Left, some pretty shocking, brutal fare that gained a lot of traction thanks to its It's only a movie campaign. A few years later, The Hills Have Eyes carried on in the capture-and-torture vein. Though A Nightmare on Elm Street is tame compared to Craven's first at-bats, the violent depravity of the director's early work thrums under its surface. While Jason Voorhees is a bluntly driven revenge monster, Fred Krueger – we find out halfway through Nightmare – grows out of specifically repugnant soil. Freddy's backstory comes off like a Craven film from the 70s: The murderer of over 20 kids (elements of molestation were dropped from Craven's original script due to a contemporary news story), Krueger was caught but loosed on account of a flubbed search warrant. The parents of the town took matters into their own hands and burned Krueger alive. While the later movies will get into some pretty laborious explanation of Freddy's whole history – that his mother raped by 100 maniacs and he made pacts with some dream demons or something – how Krueger went from evil janitor to boogeyman is not the concern of the original movie.
From a dramatic standpoint, the vagueness of Krueger's monster story gives the character a metaphorical freedom that gets lost in his subsequent outings. The germ of the idea comes from newspaper articles Craven read about South Asian youths in America who were going to great lengths to stay awake. They were terrified of their dreams and when their bodies eventually shut down and forced sleep on them, they died. It turned out that many of the afflicted youths were refugees of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge horrors, and some psychologists attributed the trauma to survivor's guilt. In Nightmare, the town's parents answered violence with violence and a dream killer is ostensibly the outcome, killing kids where their parents can't protect them. Krueger is inherited trauma, a sort of curse passed down through the generations. In Nightmare, trying to protect your kids is futile, even detrimental. Indeed, one mother's drastic attempt to protect her daughter by barring the windows and doors only serves to trap that endangered daughter. In the end – or at least in the end before the producer's open ending – Nightmare is a sort of fairy tale that promotes self-reliance and ownership of one's own fears.
Krueger only has about seven minutes of screen time, most of which is spent in the shadows, the rawness of his burns glinting. At first, his kills are such that it's not obvious a dream demon is responsible. The first – which makes for a Psycho-type switcheroo, where the character set up to be the main character is nixed early on – gets pinned on the victim's boyfriend. When Freddy kills the boyfriend, that death gets chalked up to a suicide. It's when a belly shirt-wearing Johnny Depp gets sucked into a bed that then eructates a Shining elevator's-worth of blood that we get some sense of the death spectacle that will go on to define the franchise. But on the whole, Nightmare is effective on account of what it holds back or obscures.
Freddy has become so prevalent that it's tricky to hermetically watch the first movie. If you haven't seen it since some long-ago sleepover, you might have lumped it in with the dreck it spawned – much of which is fun, but I wouldn't say good. 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street sits on that dividing line between when Wes Craven was a gritty exploitationist and when he became a "master of horror." A surefire way to cleanse your palate is to think of Nightmare not as a Freddy movie, but as a Wes Craven movie. The series itself makes a big – though inconsistent – deal about how Krueger's victims can either give or take energy away from him depending on how much they're willing to fear and take him seriously. If you can forget about all the Freddy merchandise, put him back in the shadows, you should be able to see what was so good about the original that made it worth ruining.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
A few calendar pages back we showed the documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, a look at the intelligent, passionate, pissed off, and unstoppable women who propelled the equal rights movement of the late 60s. They knew the status quo had to change and actually believed that it could change – that they could change it. And they spun the world like a damned top. But for all those triumphs, the doc ends on a contemporary downer: more than forty years later, so many of the achievements of that time and those people are still being confoundingly rescinded, rights that had seemingly been won are turning out to be just loans that need constant renewal.
In Grandma, Lily Tomlin's Elle feels like she's just come from being interviewed for the above-mentioned documentary. A respected and widely-anthologized poet and a feminist in her prime, Elle has been reduced, in the eyes of most people around her, to an eccentric crank. She's a veteran who fought in a different sort of war; still alive but mostly invisible in the changed world she contributed to. We meet Elle just as she breaks up with her younger girlfriend and not long after her granddaughter Sage visits, needing help paying for an abortion. Broke herself, the two set out to raise the $630 before Sage's 5:45pm appointment.
The comedic set-up is that Elle is an out of touch curmudgeon, railing against modernity. But as Elle and Sage drive around town, shaking money trees to cover the procedure – which is a non-issue in the film – it becomes clear that grandma's righteous grouchiness is not your run-of-the-mill septuagenarian opposition. The fact that Sage's choice to have an abortion is not a dramatic element of Grandma points to the actual underlying drama of the film. Sage's freedom of choice, the fact that the cost of the procedure and not the procedure itself is the animating conflict here, is thanks to the strife and sacrifice of Elle and all the women like her. But now, two generations later, the pugnacity required to spurn on such epochal change sticks out like a pissed-off thumb in the changed society.
Except change, as both She's Beautiful When She's Angry and Grandma tells us, is never final. It needs to be constantly held and defended, and, sadly, every new generation needs to be made aware of the work required to hold the ground achieved by their grandmas.
Monday, October 5, 2015
Infinite Jest was published twenty years ago. Its reputation as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius hasn't really flagged since. But with a book that huge and that seemingly difficult, the catch will always persist: is it the book's reputation that's famous, or the book itself? Is it the idea or the deed that's so revered?
This was Dave Wallace's concern from the get-go; he'd crunched the simple numbers. A book that wide and deep would necessarily take a little while to navigate and the bombastic reviews and raves that came tumbling immediately out did so with a speed that implied the reviewer or reader hadn't had enough time to really read it. For someone who wrote out of a want to connect, the idea that someone's connection with his writing was surface and frivolous was a serious bummer. The End of the Tour is a dramatization (based on life) of both that want to seriously connect, to be believed and understood by another person, and fear of superficial connection and understanding.
Young writer Dave Lipsky had a new novel that flopped when he took a job reporting for Rolling Stone. The exact opposite happened for Wallace. Infinite Jest came out and was immediately declared the best book ever. Wallace welcomed Lipsky along on the last leg of his book tour, and that interview, which took place over a few days in Wallace's house, his classroom, hotel rooms, rental cars, and the back of bookstores, became the subject of Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and The End of the Tour.
Early on in the interview, Wallace expresses concern over the future of technology and entertainment – the concerns of Infinite Jest. He foresaw, rightly so, that everything would get so slick and efficient that it would become "more convenient to sit alone". In this light, The End of the Tour – while about many things – is a sort of celebration of the sometimes inconvenient but always rewarding act of sitting with someone else. The movie is almost entirely just Lipsky and Wallace (Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, who carry the film without a hint of strain) jawing and is never not compelling. As much as The End of the Tour is about David Foster Wallace, it's the animation of his want to connect, to plumb another person, to reach a point where you can find out about another person and allow them to do the same with you.
It's easy to imagine two people going through this process of discovery, but what the film doesn't really address and could never answer is whether or not one can do this with literature. Of course, that was Wallace's want for his 1000-some page book, and the concern that people are connecting with the notion of the book and not the work itself will always be around. You can get to know a little bit about Dave Wallace through Lipsky book, and through The End of the Tour, and through his probably most-read work, the pocket-sized speech "This Is Water", but it's not enough to trust the reviews and the legacy and the sample platters of his work. As Lipsky's girlfriend tells him, as he's rolling his eyes over the gushing press Infinite Jest is getting: "What if it is actually that good? You just might have to read it." Watch out watching The End of the Tour, you might just have to go and really, seriously read David Foster Wallace afterwards.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
The past season of Inside Amy Schumer felt built for shares and retweets and pins and whatever other way media caroms in the echo chamber that is the Internet. From a Friday Night Lights parody that hung a lantern on rape culture to an episode-long 12 Angry Men-style drama about whether or not Amy Schumer is hot enough to be on TV, the comedian and her staff seemed to be going out of their way to both address and subvert all the issues everyone with a Twitter account was either needlessly or – more importantly – justifiably having kittens over. If the comedy wasn't so good, if it wasn't so spot-on and hilarious, it might have seemed pedantic.
Trainwreck made for a sort of exclamation mark following Inside Amy Schumer's much lauded third season. The announcement of the film, though, the year before contextualized Schumer's relevance with the fact that star-maker Judd Apatow would be directing the film written by and starring Schumer. By the time the film was released, Apatow's involvement felt inconsequential, eclipsed by Schumer's acumen and momentum. Yet, the ad campaigns for Trainwreck were lagging behind. The poster doesn't use Schumer's name but includes the banner:
Chatelaine tracked the trend of burying the female leads in these comedies, instead using the cadre of male funny-makers as the bait. To slip into the minds of the studios, this move is probably for the purposes of delineation. A woman featured prominently on a movie poster – I'm imagining their line of thinking here – runs the risk of suggesting that that movie's a "chick flick" and scaring off dudes. Distracted by the prominence of male producers – The Guy or The Guys – dudes might be tricked into see a good, funny movie about a woman starring a woman.
Bridesmaids stands as an odd touchstone, where it dawned on culture that women could be funny. But there's a catch there. It wasn't that women as leads hadn't been feasible up until then. Broad venues just weren't being made available. The people ponying up the dough didn't trust that the ticket-buying public would watch a movie where a woman shit in a sink or in the middle of the road for comedic effect. But it turned out that people with money did like seeing that, and since Bridesmaids there's been an increasing trust from the studios in the bankability of women.
Certain miserable, wrongheaded bags of shit might see the increasing prominence of women as leads in popular culture as some insidious feminist coup. Certainly this most recent season of Inside Amy Schumer was pointed and scathing enough to make it seem like the show had an agenda, and if it did, it hit all its marks, generating tons of worthwhile conversation. But Trainwreck has little to none of Schumer's directed issue tackling. The Amy character – the titular trainwreck – is similar to many of characters that appear on the TV show, but the movie itself doesn't deviate that wildly from a strong, conventional comedy. Yes, the typical gender rolls are flipped, but that switch isn't played as revolutionary. For all the social progress Schumer has recently made with her show, the sheer regularness of Trainwreck – and I should stress that I'm not slagging the movie; it's a deft hoot – is in itself a triumph. Trainwreck isn't out to change the world, but with the movie Schumer occupies a strong and effortless place in pop culture. Needing to hitch what she's doing to The Guy or The Guys by now seems like a vestigial move.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Dramatically, hipster millennials – or caricatures of millennials, or caricatures of hipsters, because to imply that a portrayal of an age or cultural group is absolute is to cruise for a bruise – offer a unique challenge. Desire is the engine of traditional drama. A character wants something, reaches for it, and something or someone stands in their way. Conflict ensues, story is created. But what happens to drama when that desire is muddy or inarticulate? Millennials or hipsters, in the most egregious examples, suffer from a conflicting blend of apathy and hyperbole. If desire is absent or disingenuous, from where does the drama come?
Fort Tilden is seemingly simple. Harper and Allie meet a couple of guys at a party they're barely tolerating. Harper is a trust fund "artist" and Allie has plans to join the Peace Corps. They attach themselves to these guys' beach plans the next day with the promise of bringing along molly – aka MDMA. If we're charting the drama, their "want" is to go to Fort Tilden to meet these guys. The only thing standing in their way is their inability to function at the most basic level, to navigate from point A to point B. There are points where Harper and Allie start to feel like Vladimir and Estragon running late to meet Godot.
Harper and Allie are both light and scathing examples of a certain type of "kids these days," operating solely for the cachet of an experience rather than the substance. Sticking these two clueless, quixotic characters into a simple want/conflict trajectory makes for a surprisingly fun urban epic. It's hipster portrayal lands somewhere between the goofiness of Portlandia and the dark bleakness of The Comedy. In a way, the lack of drama becomes a generator of drama; the lack of any real conflict becomes true conflict.
Welcome back to another year of Guelph Movie Club, kids. It’s our monthly celebration of movies we love, movies we have to see again on the big screen. Our first show of the year screens at The Bookshelf Cinema October 1st at 9:00 p.m. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s barely October, so we’re counting it as our September show.
Just like the first days of school, let’s start off with some show and tell.
Item 1: Harrison Ford. Is he a man? Is he a replicant? Who knows?
Item 2: Blade Runner. Is it The Bookshelf Cinema Essential Cinema? Is it a Guelph Movie Club selection? Who knows?
Well, at least for Item 2, I do. It’s both.
Yes, this month, we’ll watch Blade Runner: The Final Cut as the Guelph Movie Club selection for September. But, it’s also serving double duty as the Essential Cinema selection. Movies are neat like that, aren’t they? On one hand, it’s a classic piece of cinema directed Ridley Scott based on the equally classic story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. It’s been critically acclaimed, dissected, and endlessly analyzed. It’s clearly worthy of a spot on the Essential Cinema list.
But, it’s also clearly a movie we love. Google “Blade Runner fan theories” if you don’t believe me. Seriously, I know someone who owns all 200 versions of the movie (OK, there’s four or something, but don’t quote me on that). So yeah, it’s also clearly our kind of movie. Be sure to check it out on October 1st at 9:00 p.m.
If you’re new to Guelph Movie Club, here’s how it works. At each of our screenings, we ask for suggestions. We turn those suggestions into polls. Those polls decide what goes up on the screen each month. Here's our spooky poll for Halloween. We'll announce the results at the screening of Blade Runner.
Which film are you publicly willing to wet your pants on account of?
Till then, see you at the movies.