Sunday, April 01, 2007

Director profile continued: David Lynch

Two weeks ago, I saw 3 David Lynch features over 2 nights. This time, I doubled that tally -- 6 features & short collections over 2 days. Since I saw Dune and Mulholland Dr. previously, I am done going through all the works of Lynch that I wanted to view. Now, I am throughly ready for Inland Empire.

So here are the films in order of viewing:

The Straight Story (1999): Rating 9/10

This has to be the most straight-forward (no pun intended) David Lynch film out there. In fact, if one didn't look at the credits, then one would never know that David Lynch was behind this work. Atleast Elephant Man included a few dream sequences which hinted at the director's familiar arsenal but The Straight Story is a clean and emotional journey. It was also the last work of Richard Farnsworth and this is clearly his movie from the first frame. Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, a man who undertakes a 300+ mile journey on a lawn-mower to see his brother, Lyle. Alvin has not talked to Lyle in almost a decade after a falling out, but after Lyle has a stroke, Alvin decides he needs to make this journey on his own terms to set things right.

We get to see the wide open road, beautiful fields & shining stars as Alvin makes his brave journey. Along the way, he encounters an interesting collection of people (a runaway teenager, competition cyclists, a deer-loving woman who is agonized by deers hitting her car on a weekly basis) and wins everyone over (except the deer loving woman who is in too much grief) with his straight forward no-nonsense approach to life. Personally, I am a sucker for journey films and this story is as improbable as any journey film out there -- it is based on a true story but even if it was not, that would not have lessened this film's sincerity. The Straight Story is well acted and leisurely paced so that we can soak up every minute of clean country air.

The Short Films of David Lynch (2002)

This diverse collection goes through Lynch's first animation feature, his first short and even has clips of a mini-tv show episode he did. Lynch gives us the background story before the start of each short and that is useful in giving a road map of his work. We can see how his first animation allowed him to get money to buy his own camera with which he was able to make future works, which led to him getting a grant and eventually headed towards his first feature. Also, along the way, we get to see elements which would feature in his latter films like Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr..

Six Men Getting Sick -- This 1966 quick-draw animation started it all for Lynch. Although the title tells all there is to know about the animation, Lynch's purpose with this effort was to experiment with moving pictures. The animation is basically a one minute segment repeated 4 times -- 6 men get their stomaches upset and throw up. The repeating annoying siren sound is highly distracting and combined with the images, achieves the intended purpose of causing distress and frustration in the audience. By today's standards there is nothing remarkable about the animation itself but this was his experimental effort back in 1966. It cost Lynch $200 to make this animation.

The Alphabet (1968, 4 min) This combination of animation and film gives the first glimpse of Lynch's recurring dream motif used in many of his works. The idea for this came to David when he heard of his wife's niece having a recurring nightmare where she repeatedly uttered the alphabets. So Lynch uses that to craft a semi-horror effort about a girl's constant torment with her nightmares. A significant technical leap forward from his first effort.

The Grandmother (1970, 34 min) This work was made with the help of a grant and marks Lynch's first feature short. A boy is abused and tortured by his parents. One day, he finds a bag of seeds in an unused bedroom in the house and plants the seeds on the bed -- the seeds grow into a weird plant which gives birth to a caring and compassionate grandmother. Is the grandmother real or a figment of the boy's imagination? Did the boy craft this scenario to escape his tortured life? One can see the seeds of Eraserhead in this short and even imagine that the boy would grow up into the lead character in that film. Also, the birth of the grandmother is accompanied by the plant oozing mud, similar to the blood and other liquids which gush out of the chicken and the baby in Eraserhead.

The Amputee (1974, 4 min) Nothing grand about this but just an interesting experiment. A woman is busy writing a letter and caught up in her emotions while a nurse is removing the bandages on her amputated leg. Suddenly blood starts gushing out from her wounds and even the nurse is at a loss to stop the flow. But the woman is so busy in her thoughts of jealousy and muted anger that she hardly notices anything. We are trying to listen to the woman's voice-over narration while trying to keep focus on the action happening in front of us. Eventually, the actions over the blood loss on her amputated leg takes precedence and we don't care about her letter or voice anymore.

The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988, 25 min) David Lynch did this mini-series after Blue Velvet and as part of a TV series called "The French as seen by..". Different directors were asked to interpret the French in their own way and Lynch managed to combine "two cliches" in one film (as per the producer's words). Harry Dean Stanton plays Slim, a stone deaf cowboy who notices a strange manly creature heading towards his farm. His two assistants capture the creature and they all try to determine what this person is. When they open this man's bag, they find items such as bottles of wine, baguettes, snails and some cheese. Still they are clueless to his identity. But when they pull out a plate of french fries, they finally figure out that their strange capture is a Frenchman. This short packs typical cliches and is amusing for the first 10 min or so but after that ends up being dry & dull.

Lumière and Company (1995, 52 seconds) In order to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the original camera used by the Lumière brothers, various film directors were asked to submit a film shot in the same manner as it would have been made in 1895. That meant using the original camera, restricted to a length of 52 seconds and using only synch sound and original light. Needless to say, Lynch packs a lot in his 52 seconds -- a noir style mystery & a strange lab with a naked woman in a cylinder. Unfortunately, I was unable to give this a second viewing but Lynch seemed to have used up his precious few seconds quite well.

Blue Velvet (1986): Rating 9/10

I finally managed to watch this sublime effort in its entirety. Almost 10 years ago, I saw bits and portions of it. Back then I had caught some of the critical scenes in the first hour -- the severed ear in the field, Frank Booth's (Dennis Hopper) bizarre entrance to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) apartment. But now, all the pieces were tied up. The movie starts and ends up in a happy white picket fenced town. But between those scenes, we are introduced to a "strange world" where evil people lurk in the night-time. The film is really about the loss of innocence. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is an innocent young man who finds a severed ear in the field one day. He dutifully heads down to the police station and gives it a detective (detective Williams). But he is curious to know who the ear belongs to. Detective Williams tells him that he can't give answers as it is too early in the investigation. But the detective's sweet and innocent daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) gives a few clues to Jeffrey. From then on, Jeffrey's curiosity gets the better of him and leads him down a dangerous collision with Frank and the town's evil underbelly. Jeffrey & Sandy's innocent view of the world is changed forever and they are forced to grow up. Even in the end, when the nightmare is apparently over, Jeffrey may never be the same again. The dreamy music in the ending has shades of the music used in Naomi Watts dream episodes in Mulholland Dr. but in this case, Blue Velvet ends on a happy note and does not give any clues to any lurking evil.

Superb and brave performances all around with Rossellini convincing as the abused jazz singer, Hopper playing the perfect madman (a role he seems to cherish) and MacLachlan & Dern going through the range of emotions as they gradually lose their innocence. And the haunting title song is enchanting and inviting.

I really should have stopped my screenings here because it went downhill from here on....

Twin Peaks:Fire Walk with me (1992): Rating 5/10

The first sign of trouble appeared in the opening minutes -- David Lynch appeared playing a semi-deaf cop. He can't really act and his poor acting raised fears about the film's possible averageness. But that minor worry was temporarily put to rest as Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Isaak looked convincing playing two detective investigating a murder in Twin Peaks. However, all hopes of the movie making a full recovery vanished when Chris Isaak's character vanishes after he finds a green ring during his investigation. We next encounter Kyle MacLachlan as a detective who can enter a dream realm world and use that ability to solve his cases and predict future crimes. But after David Bowie makes a quick meaningless entrance, the movie really starts to sink. We are then returned to Twin Peaks a year into the future when another woman (Laura Palmer) will be murdered.

The second part of the film centers on Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The green ring makes its appearance in her story as well, as do some strange dreams. In a way, the green ring and the dreams have the same mystery appeal as the blue box in Mulholland Dr. but the problem here is that we solve the mystery too soon. Very early on, it is clear who the murderer is and what is going on. Yet, the movie continues to add subplots while slowing down to include needless scenes of nudity, drugs, alcohol and sex along the way. At a running time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, this movie was sheer torture to watch. The only positive is that mistakes in this feature and Lost Highway eventually led to a polished effort such as Mulholland Dr.

Wild at Heart (1990): Rating 4/10

It was a huge mistake to watch this film after Twin Peaks. I still can't believe this horrible mess won the main prize as Cannes. Sure, there are some worthy acting performances but the story is cliched. Or maybe it seems so in the year 2007. Right off the bat, the film's title rings true. A few minutes into the movie, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) kills a man because he threatened Sailor. Sailor is madly in love with Lula (Laura Dern) but Lula's mother does not approve. After serving his time in jail, Sailor and Lula escape on a cross country road trip. They pass their time having wild sex, talking and drinking. But Lula's mom wants Sailor dead and sends contract killers after them. And sure enough, there are some strange characters thrown in for fun, along with semi-nude women added as decoration. Yawn. Sorry, seen that.

Hotel Room (1993)

A 3 episode tv series with Lynch directing two efforts. All 3 episodes are set in the same New York city hotel room, #603, in different time periods. And in all 3 episodes, the same bellboy and hotel maid are used.

Tricks: Rating 8/10 -- This is the best of the 3 episodes. It takes place in 1969. Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) brings a prostitute (Darlene, played by Glenne Headly) to room 603. Just as Darlene is about to get undressed, there is a knock on the door. The unwanted visited is none other Moe's bothersome nemesis/friend, Lou. It seems no matter Moe says, Lou ignores him. And Lou is more confident and suave with Darlene than Moe. But things are not as what they seem and we are given some clues at the start to help us untangle the mess. The segment keeps our attention throughout and is well acted by Stanton.

Getting Rid of Robby (Director James Signorelli): Rating 6/10 -- Set in 1992, this one is at odds from the other two Lynch episodes. Sasha (Deborah Unger) and her two girlfriends gossip about men and relationships while Sasha waits to dump her boyfriend, Robert. But it turns out that one of her friends had a fling with Robert a long time. That leads to some arguments and a predictable climax when Robert arrives. Of all the three shorts, this one is brightly lit and much more playful in tone than the other two. Near the end, it attempts a darkish end but even that feels like more like a comic effort.

Blackout: Rating 7/10 -- Set in 1936, this one relies on an intense conversation between Danny (Crispin Glover) and Diane (Alicia Witt), a young couple who have come to New York because of Diane's medical problems. Danny is 22 and Diane is 20 and they two have been in love for 17 years. As they two talk in darkness because of a city wide blackout, slowly we are given clues as to the exact nature of Diane's medical problems. Not as impressive as the first episode.

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