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The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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The Kitschy King Of New Germany

“The cinema of postmodernity suggests a society no longer able to believe fully its received myths (the law of the father, the essential goodness of capitalism, the state, religious authority, the family).  Yet it is also unable to break with these myths in favor of a historical materialist view of reality.”-Christopher Sharrett

Der Tod der Maria Malibran

If we accept Sharrett’s de facto definition of a postmodern society, we will find it realized in the paradoxical network of Metz’s cinematographic langue as employed by West German filmmakers beginning in 1966 and continuing through to 2016 in many respects (particularly with Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy).  West Germany was the pinnacle of postmodernism.  Shame, guilt, fear, and the necessity of economic rebirth mandated a national amnesia.  As if German identity had been on an extended hiatus between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1950s.  Desperately, post-WWII West Germany came to define itself through appropriated American popular culture and the myths and folklore of Bavaria.  Sharrett points out, rather astutely, that the myths of a postmodern society are no longer useful as myths, for they carry no true belief.  Thus, this is the paradox of Young German and New German Cinema.

Two generations of German filmmakers mined the past, realigned, and redressed it in a series of films whose intention was to debunk these mythic accounts with the intention of centering them on the contemporary desire to define the “self”.  The “self” of such films is typically an outsider, a superman of sorts, a homosexual, an immigrant, or a woman meant to represent that which is German.  Werner Herzog does this explicitly in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Heart Of Glass (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder also employs a similar tactic in Die Niklashauser Fahrt (1970).  Other German filmmakers asserted a new “Germanness” by aligning in opposition to American culture as opposed to Germanic myth, such as Wim Wenders.  The most explicit champion of a “New German” identity could be found in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his films.

Unlike a majority of his counterparts, Syberberg does not restrict his films to the traditional narrative three-act structure.  Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) and Karl May (1974) are epics dependent upon a synthesis of opera, set design, rear projection, performance, and cinematic montage.  In the history of the cinema, no other filmmaker can lay claim to having constructed Eisenstein’s proposed synesthesia on such a spectacular or massive scale.  Syberberg’s postmodern strategies juxtapose signifiers representing the immediate German past and the contmporary, pursuing their contrasts to the point of an implosion of meaning, as if he were wiping away cobwebs, unmasking denial, in a celebration of German identity and German cinematic heritage (a heritage, as for Herzog, rooted in the works of Pabst, Lang, and Murnau).

Syberberg and Fassbinder represent two of the most renowned names of German Cinema.  Though, beyond Germany itself, little is known of Werner Schroeter who represents an aesthetic forerunner to Fassbinder and Syberberg.  Both filmmakers have acknowledged Schroeter as a significant influence on par with that of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in shaping the “alternate style” of New German films (a style opposed to the realist and the literary traditions as exemplified by the films of Helma Sanders-Brahms, Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff).

Syberberg’s spectacles of a postmodern synesthesia invariably have their root in the visual language of Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (1969) and Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972).  The plasticity and expressionism of Schroeter’s set pieces are clearly echoed in Syberberg, as is Schroeter’s use of auditory cues lifted from Wagner and Verdi.  Likewise, Fassbinder’s kitsch codification of histrionics within the context of classic German Romanticism are also born out of Schroeter’s films.

The need to define “self” that unifies the films and filmmakers of New German cinema across differing styles and approaches is also evident in Werner Schroeter’s films.  However, Schroeter’s films find that identity in the “self” reflected.  That is to say that the individual “self” of a character is found in the definition of that “self” as reflected by another character.  A communal quality permeates Schroeter’s early features.  Bands of outsiders, banished for their sexuality or race, or crimes, congregate in groups, creating a substitute family (a hallmark of John Water’s early films as well that also focus upon gay and outsider cultures).  This renders Schroeter’s films in opposition to the maladjusted families that threaten “self” in the films of Fassbinder and other German filmmakers.

Schroeter’s short films also have an outsider focus with a historical preoccupation.  His filmic meditation on Maria Callas is obsessive in its fetishization of the film’s subject.  This fetishization carries over into the long close-ups that begin  Der Tod der Maria Malibran.  The beauty of unconventional beauty is Schroeter’s most personal preoccupation early in his career.  In this way the very landscape of Schroeter’s psyche becomes part of the structure of his films, a singular anomaly in the canon of New German Cinema.

Eika KatappaHistorians such as John Sandford may relegate Werner Schroeter to the footnotes of New German cinema history, but Schroeter’s actual importance is critical to understanding the dialogue between the avant-garde and the mainstream in German cinema as well as the linear trajectory of influence.  Werner Schroeter’s cinematic standing is perhaps better understood beyond the confines of Germany.  Schroeter’s “outsider” persona, the homo eroticism of his work, and the repertory nature of his productions are the German equivalent to either Jack Smith or Andy Warhol.  Whilst his highly personal mode of filmmaking along with the camp elements of his visual style are akin to the 16mm features of Derek Jarman.

Personally the experience of watching Der Tod der Maria Malibran was shattering in both its beauty and its poetry.  It is perhaps the most moving cinematic experience since I first saw Kenji Mizoguchi’s Yōkihi (1955).  So I would like to conclude by quoting Werner Schroeter himself.  He better than most can find the proper words to articulate the effect truly substantial art has upon the spectator, which, needless to say, is Schroeter’s primary motivation and the source of his “Germanness”.

“It would be absurd to argue that the desire for beauty and truth is merely an illusion of a romantic capitalist form of society.  Without a doubt, the desire for an overreaching, larger-than-life wish-fulfillment, which we find everywhere in traditional art, which by all means includes the modern trivial media such as the cinema and television, signifies a need that is common to every man; for his all-too-definite appointment with death, the single objective fact of our existence, is an a priori forfeit of the prospect of tangible happiness.” (Werner Schroeter, Der Herztod der Primadonna, 1977)

-Robert Curry

 

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Lynch & Gifford’s American Dreams

Wednesday was David Lynch’s 70th birthday.  Popular culture’s favorite scary oddball is a senior citizen and hipper than ever.  Due to popular demand, more than anything else, Lynch and original co-creator Mark Frost will be reviving Twin Peaks as a new series in the 21st century.  This highly anticipated event, along with Lynch’s birthday last Wednesday, have spurred an abundance of write-ups about Lynch’s films, focusing predominantly upon the show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and his films Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001).  But in all of this Lynchmania there has yet to be any considerable recognition of his collaboration with author Barry Gifford; a collaboration that, for David Lynch, dominated the mid-1990s.

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart

Barry Gifford’s first forray into the “world” of David Lynch came when Lynch adapted Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart into a feature film in 1990.  Though Gifford did not participate in Lynch’s adaptation of Wild At Heart, there is a clear syncopation of preoccupations between these two artists.  If Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a synthesis of “coming-of-age” story with noir thriller then Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart similarly transplants the Romeo & Juliet archetypes into a post-modernist Beat context.  Lynch and Gifford’s works both thrive on their mutual insistence that their narratives take place in a timeless America; an America that is both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the nihilist present, whilst neither being truly here nor there.   What is in my mind the most significant of the numerous similarities between these artists is their desire to subvert every expectation established by the genres from which they draw upon.  Blue Velvet clearly gives evidence to this, but in Gifford’s case I would site Night People or Sailor’s Holiday over Wild At Heart.

Oddly enough, the trends cited above as being the defining aesthetic concerns of Gifford and Lynch do not actually apply to Lynch’s version of the climax to Wild At Heart.  It has become one of those famous anecdotes about the director considering that it flies in the face of his usually morbid sadomasochistic sex operas that he should rewrite the ending as a happy one.  In Gifford’s novel Sailor and Lula do not come together in the end, rather they diverge paths, each too unfamiliar with the other to truly confront their would-be status as a family unit.  However Lynch’s “happy ending” is not derived from the filmmakers own personal desire for narrative closure or reassurance.  Instead it seems to originate in the film’s concern with the mythology of mid-twentieth century American popular culture and coinciding signifiers born out of Hollywood in the form of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (a pantheon of Gods and legends not dissimilar to that of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith or Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).  This subtext of Lynch’s Wild At Heart exists in the novel, though the legends that formulate Gifford’s allusions are almost exclusively literary, born out of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs and Mailer.  For each artist this retrospective catalogue of America’s shared consciousness provides a historical context into which Sailor and Lula are thrust forward, sensual monoliths of late 80s culture.

This mutual desire to employ their aesthetics as a means of contextualizing a fictional interpretation of the present through the guise of mass culture American history is at the heart of Hotel Room, a three episode miniseries Lynch and Gifford collaborated on that aired on HBO in 1993 (in actuality Gifford only wrote two episodes, the same two Lynch directed).   The premise of the show is born out of No Exit, restricting all of the episodes to the confines of a single hotel room.  Gifford’s off the wall idea of narrative reflexivity as well as the premise’s inherent necessities of space all seem to have influenced Lynch’s much later web-series Rabbits (2002).   Like Hotel Room, Rabbits again finds Lynch jettisoning contextual signifiers into the “world” of his fantasy, though without the contemporary dressings of Hotel Room, preferring a Dadaist sensibility manifest in unorthodox lighting, blocking, and gigantic humanoid bunnies.  Gifford’s contribution is almost singular to his career if the influence of these teleplays weren’t to be found in his novel Perdita Durango.  As is often the case with self-aware stage/television writing (remember Paddy Chayefsky?) the author often finds themselves emboldened by the physical restrictions of the medium to explore more subtle, if not existential, qualities in human nature.  In turn, this direction in Gifford’s writing of Hotel Room returns Lynch to the singular “nightmare” spaces of his earlier The Alphabet (1968), The Amputee (1974), and Henry’s bedroom sequences in Eraserhead, though with an intentional coloring of post-modernist irony.

The personal artistic innovations of Hotel Room marks a departure for Gifford in that, unlike Sailor and Lula, these characters exist in a single space, abandoning Gifford’s Romantic metaphor of car travel along American highways.  In fact the forward motion of Hotel Room is one of time.  The presence at the heart of the series is one hotel room, but this room’s journey through time serves as the testament of a silent observer, an observer that remains within the confines of Gifford’s two episodes apparently objective.  This complicates things immeasurably for Lynch in terms of the histrionic signifiers discussed above which he employs so readily in his visual designs, whose very use is born out of the filmmaker’s highly stylized and subjective world view.  Remarkably it would be this particular anomaly that marks the “tormented genius” of Lost Highway (1997).

pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Lost Highway: pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Could it be more telling that Lost Highway should open with David Bowie’s ferociously schizophrenic song I’m Deranged?  Or that the song should be married to an image that is the absolute visual summation of Gifford’s literary stylings?  I think not.  Nor should it be surprising that Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s only outing as co-screenwriters should also be the most brazen celebration of American Film Noir’s hyper-hetero culture.

And yet Lost Highway suggests the unorthodox narratives to come in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2007).  It presages a subtlety of characterization, a sort of minimalism, that would flavor Gifford’s Night People.  But superficially, if one were to watch Lost Highway for the first time, one would invariably be struck by the film’s obvious preoccupation with other filmic devices, primarily those best represented by Brian DePalma and Jacques Rivette.  In the case of Brian DePalma one finds the duality of the film’s female protagonist, once brunette and then blonde, or should I say housewife and then femme fatale.  From Dressed To Kill (1980) to Snake Eyes (1998) DePalma has been dramatizing the incongruities and polarities of the female as signifier in his often Freudian world of masculinity in jeopardy.  This device is implemented by Gifford and Lynch within the Balthazar Getty portion of Lost Highway to color the audience’s reading of the Fred/Pete character and the duality it represents as opposed to dwelling on the female duality which, to DePalma, functions as a potential means for masculine castration.

Jacques Rivette’s influence is, like Depalma’s, entirely conceptual as well as totally focused again upon the duality of two psychoses in the process of a merger (Fred/Pete).  But where Rivette is concerned with the philosophical from a similar vein as Robert Bresson, Lynch and Gifford implement a strategy that moves the device into the reflexive world of heightened genre mechanics (Film Noir).  Where Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) tackles the breadth of cinematic humanism in all of its potential Lost Highway prefers a harrowing journey into a genre familiar to mass audiences with the intention of exploring why it is audiences feel comfortable, if not fulfilled, by the sexual politics of Film Noir.

That is not to say that Lynch and Gifford are at all plagiarists, on the contrary, the addition of these motifs or concepts to the amalgamation of interests and devices that already compromise their recognizable style serve to better equip Lost Highway.  Consider Lost Highway as the polar opposite of Wild At Heart.  Wild At Heart championed a visual language of allusions that drew upon the Hollywood of Lynch and Gifford’s youth to articulate their own nightmare version of the American Dream.  Wild At Heart is akin to Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in this fashion.  But if this referential dialect represents a chic nihilism that has remained in constant vogue, then Lost Highway is most certainly a singular case for Lynch and Gifford.  The dialect of Lost Highway reprises the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, but thrusts it into the wider popular consumer context of the still taboo porn industry.  Wild At Heart had it’s yellow brick road, Lost Highway has its back room casting couch.

It is the porn industry that ultimately unites the dissimilar narratives and dual identities of Lost Highway.  Likewise, the pornographers are the villains (Mr. Eddy, a surrogate Frank Booth) as well as the whores with the heart of gold (femme fatale Alice Wakefield).  Here is perhaps where Lost Highway loses a good percent of its audience.  The cinema has proven time and again that an audience uncomfortable with the narrative environment cannot see the forest from the trees, so to speak.  For Lynch and Gifford this is clearly intentional.  Once the pornographic element of the narrative reaches its fever pitch the film breaks into a reprisal of the Fred narrative, a narrative that has, at this point, lost all tangible relation to how the audience understood it at the films outset.

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles in Lost Highway

The sum of all of these disparate elements couched in the familiar facade of Film Noir bring a closure to Lynch’s recent work.  1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me sought in vain to define the paradox of a girl like Laura Palmer in a town like Twin Peaks.  However Lost Highway gives the worlds of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet their antithesis which is no less than the dramatized duality of our ability to order and recognize images within a ready-made context whose aesthetic divisions are so intertwined, along with the narrative, that they contradict one another.  Lost Highway brings us the first Lynch film that works as a cycle, ending as it began.  This narrative trope clearly comes from Gifford’s early novels, offering audiences an ambiguous understanding of Film Noir precisely because Lost Highway contradicts every other mandate of the genre’s narrative conventions.  Therefore Lost Highway represents a maturity of the aesthetics that popularized Blue Velvet as well as a more sophisticated approach to surrealist narrative represented by Eraserhead and suggested by Hotel Room.

The first time I saw Lost Highway I was fourteen.  I had not read any of Gifford’s novels, but I had seen Wild At Heart, The Elephant Man (1980), Eraserhead, Dune (1984), Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  I remember being struck that Lost Highway did not feel very much like Lynch’s other works.  Upon reflection this is perhaps due to the fact that Lost Highway was photographed by Peter Deming and not Frederick Elmes or Freddie Francis.  Lost Highway, more than any other Lynch film in my mind, makes better use of wide tracking shots and blocking.  Overall the visuals are more formal, more like something by Michael Mann.  It was at a time that I was very much impressed by long takes with subtle camera moves, which explains my passion for Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979).  The opposite was true about my interest in Barry Gifford.  It was two years later that I finally got around to reading him, and it wasn’t even Wild At Heart, it was Sailor’s Holiday.  The novel is composed of three parts, each moving quickly with a vicious gallows humor and a strong penchant for sexual violence.  Yet, for my angst ridden teenage self, Sailor’s Holiday was reassuring, if not hopeful.  In my mind Sailor and Lula represented a classical manifestation of “true love”.  And it was this love that they shared that saw them through the violence and sleaze that is Gifford’s American dream.

This is what both David Lynch and Barry Gifford are about; the American dream.  They see its pitfalls, its contradictions and its ugliness for what it is (no matter in what genre it is expressed).  They know that the dream cannot survive without the good nor the bad.  The American dream is just a good narrative after all, with all of the grandeur, posturing and truth of fairy tales and myths.

-Robert Curry

 

 

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A Case For Transgressive Film

The films of the American avant-garde or Underground have always functioned as a cinema of opposition, a calculated subversion of the Hollywood mainstream and the cinematic devices it employed or propagated.  First there were the spiritual films of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas, followed by Stan Brakhage, who set out to reflect abstract philosophical and spiritual concepts by means of Eisenstein’s theories of montage, prompted by the then growing popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism in the West.  What followed was a serious investigation of the poetic possibilities of camp and ready-made signifiers that were the product of the popular culture of television and radio.  These filmmakers (Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Paul Morrissey, and so forth) were out to take camp into the taboo world of New York’s counter culture, wrought with junkies and homosexuals, dispelling the naïveté of Adam West’s Batman and The Monkees.  The seventies saw the advent of Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton’s structuralist films that dealt with minimalism and the philosophical readings of the single sustained image and an obvious backlash to the popularity of jump cuts in the mainstream cinema popularized by Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Arthur Penn.  But by the eighties the opposition had turned again to the popular mass media, employing the strategies and technique of MTV and Grindhouse movies to invent a cinema whose primary goal was not self-expression through opposition, but rather opposition as a means of expression.

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This movement was known as the “cinema of transgression”, and first found its voice in the late seventies on the New York punk scene in a series of zines featuring the artworks of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.  The validity of this movement was granted recognition from the elite of the underground by the early eighties with features in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and an appearance by Richard Hell in Zedd’s first feature (which owes a great deal not only to Jack Smith but also John Waters) Geek Maggot Bingo (1983).  The transition to 16mm film and VHS came quickest for Kern, who was a trained photographer and whose works remain the most vital today.

Kern’s narratives were often the product of collaboration with performance artist Lydia Lunch, who found tremendous inspiration in newspaper headlines about murder, suicide and rape.  The narrative devices of these short films have a shocking similarity to the drive-in rape revenge genre films popular at the turn of the decade.  Yet the swipe transitions, and the abrasive use of punk music recall the inherent artifice the filmmakers observed on cable television.  The violence and explicit sex of these films goes beyond exploitation, flirting with the snuff genre of pornography.  Where this dispelled much consideration by critics, to some it followed the basic pattern of the avant-garde, and spelled an intelligent fusion of specific techniques with even more specific content.  One could even argue that the transgressive film movement was heading in directions that didn’t seem that far off from the mainstream of the mid-eighties, and that even seem tame today when compared to what one can find on the internet.

Either way, one cannot ignore the necessity of the transgressive expression in its moment.  In many ways these films were more easily accessible to an audience in the eighties than they are today when we consider how quickly Richard Kern was able to transition from the underground to the mainstream with his Sonic Youth music video Death Valley 69 (1985).  It would be negligent not to observe that with Death Valley 69 Kern landed a spot on MTV programming, giving over to that which he initially opposed. Beyond this one instance the transition of transgressive tactics into the mainstream is much more subtle because it remains a degree removed from the mainstream.  Indeed the sexual violence of the transgressive movement would first be echoed in Todd Haynes’ film Poison.  It is a common mistake to assume films like Reservoir Dogs and Poison are the primary texts for the types of violence common in nineties American Independent films, negating any correlation, no matter how obvious today, with the films of Kern and Zedd.

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The ignorance toward transgressive film is partly due to the direction it’s leading auteurs took for their careers.  The most critically praised film director of the movement, Richard Kern, became a celebrity portrait photographer with strong dabblings in erotic art.  Meanwhile, Nick Zedd transitioned to DV tape and later HD, making films such as Elf Panties (2001) with Saint Reverend Jen that have found practically no public exhibition and only the most limited home video distribution.  Sensibilities have also changed, and the quiet spirituality of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage’s films is in vogue again amongst the avant-garde, and perhaps best exemplified in the confessional works of Bill Viola.  Circumstance has been working against the transgressive film movement since at least 1992, relegating their films, in terms of their appraisal as legitimate works of art, to the kind of cult status Robert Crumb endured during the late sixties and early seventies, before Ralph Bakshi launched him to national celebrity with his film of Fritz The Cat.

-Robert Curry

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