Tag Archives: Jim Jarmusch

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2017

Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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Filed under Autumn 2016

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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Filed under Winter 2016

Favorite Cult Classics That You Probably Haven’t Seen, Part 1

The term “cult classics” is used to describe films that, when first released, failed to find an audience but slowly gained a growing following either through midnight screenings (such is the case with the Rocky Horror Picture Show) or a home video release.  The effect of home video on the accessibility of this genre is immeasurable, and has led to a widespread popularity of the genre as a whole.  Yet, there are still a number of cult films that have failed to find a foothold in the public consciousness, remaining the favorites of a comparatively few cinephiles.  The purpose of this post, and the few that will follow, is to recommend cult films that deserve a place in the pantheon of cult film alongside El Topo (Jodorowsky, 1970), Barbarella (Vadim, 1968), Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977), Pink Flamingos (Waters, 1972), I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), Vampyros Lesbos (Franco, 1971), Zardoz (Boorman, 1974) and Driller Killer (Ferrara, 1979).

Lord Love A Duck (1966)

original lobby card for Lord Love A Duck

original lobby card for Lord Love A Duck

This is perhaps one of the most offbeat satirical comedies of the sixties, a film that attempts to and succeeds at lampooning both the teen sex comedy films of the day and the socio-political structure of American society.   The film, based on an Al Hine novel of the same name, stars Roddy McDowall and Tuesday Weld with Lola Albright, Ruth Gordon and Harvey Korman under the excessively campy direction of George Axelrod.  Despite a very talented ensemble cast, the most watchable part of the film is Roddy McDowall  (who refers to himself in the third person as Mollymauk), whose over the top theatrical performance coupled with Axelrod’s sense of modern architecture give the film a feeling of fantasy that could only be compared to Frank Tashlin’s work with Jerry Lewis.  And it is this air of fantasy that enables the film’s narrative; Allan (McDowall) dedicates a year of his life to make fellow high school student Barbara Ann’s (Weld) every wish come true even if it means murder, perfectly acceptable.

Straight To Hell (1987)

from left to right: Strummer, Rude and Richardson in Straight To Hell

from left to right: Strummer, Rude and Richardson in Straight To Hell

Just before directing his masterpiece Walker (1987) Alex Cox helmed this typically offbeat revival of the Spaghetti Western.  The film is the product of a failed charity concert film Cox was to direct.  But since all the acts had allotted the time in their schedules for the concert, Cox decided instead to make Straight To Hell.  This accounts for the rather unorthodox cast which includes Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Shane MacGowan, Grace Jones as well as actors Dick Rude, Sy Richardson, Dennis Hopper, Miguel Sandoval and a guest appearance by film director Jim Jarmusch.  The film has the kinetic energy and sense of danger of a lost weekend.  Along with deconstructing the Western genre at every turn, Cox also imbues the film with some of his own obsessions including coffee, wieners, and hardware stores.  The bizarre mix of talent and obsessive thematic plotting make this film the stuff of hipster heaven, but without any sort of legitimate following.

Free Enterprise (2000)

William Shatner as William Shatner checking out porn.

William Shatner as William Shatner checking out porn.

Free Enterprise is a film made by two trekkies about two trekkies about to enter their thirties and how they navigate their daily love lives and jobs with the hope of ascertaining happiness and fame.  And who better to guide them than William Shatner, playing a version of himself that no one had seen until then (going so far as to rap William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).  The film follows the narrative style of Swingers but derives its greatest pleasure from the inherent elitism of its referential dialogue, which is so faced paced and obscure it could give the Gilmore Girls a run for their money.  Yet, unlike most cult films, Free Enterprise is a heart felt romantic comedy, as unpretentious as it is obsessed with Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2014

Three Reasons To Watch Frances Ha

It was while working on Greenberg (2010) that writer/director Noah Baumbach began his relationship with Greta Gerwig.  Subsequently, the pair penned the screenplay for Frances Ha (2012) together, with Gerwig starring and Baumbach directing.  What is remarkable about Frances Ha is that for the first time Baumbach is able to remove himself from the autobiographical material of his earlier work and engage in a kind of filmmaking that challenges his aesthetic and gives a strong female voice to his particular brand of cinema.

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Like director Whit Stillman, all of Noah Baumbach’s earlier films draw much of their narrative and their characters from his own life, particularly Kicking and Screaming (1995), Mr. Jealousy (1997), The Squid and The Whale (2005), Margot At The Wedding (2007), and Greenberg (2010).  As a result of Gerwig’s presence as a co-writer Baumbach is able to transform his experiences, distilling from them the essential and repackaging those experiences in a more fictitious narrative.  Gerwig must also be credited for giving a living organic voice to the film’s female protagonist, for up till now the women in Baumbach’s films have remained stoic and cold intellectuals who had disengaged from the people around them.

Thematically Frances Ha has more in common with Kicking And Screaming than it does any other Baumbach film (Josh Hamilton even makes a small appearance in the film) since its focus is on a character immediately after graduation.  But Baumbach’s latest meditation on post-graduate ennui is far more cinematically refined than it was when he first appeared with Kicking And Screaming.  The black and white digital cinematography of Frances Ha recalls the color palette of Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962), while the shot composition of interiors deliberately references the chamber dramas of Eric Rohmer and Andre Techine.  This homage does not fall into the trap of indicating a debilitating obsession with French film on the director’s part, but demonstrates instead the filmmaker’s ability to apply a specific national technique to an entirely American phenomenon of youth.

Frances Ha also marks a return to a more “mundane tragedy”, making it’s narrative center a series of every day events that when magnified become either tragic or comic.  This aligns Frances Ha closely with the early films of Jim Jarmusch, particularly Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986).  Baumbach is less dependant on moments of sudden change and violence to propel his characters, opting instead to allow the characters themselves to manufacture their own momentum with neuroses, ambition, greed and sexuality.  Thus Frances Ha negates many of the standard narrative tropes of contemporary independent filmmaking and achieves a more classical cinematic experience.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2013

Thoughts On Jazz, Chico Hamilton, New York & Sweet Smell Of Success

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell Of Success has become an American classic in the years since its initial release.  Much has been written about the films dark themes, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, Ernest Lehman’s script, and of course Burt Lancaster’s iconic performance in the role of J.J. Hunsecker.  So there seems little left for me to discuss.

However, few people to my knowledge have written very much about the films musical score.  I don’t mean the music of Elmer Bernstein, I’m referring to the cool jazz sound of The Chico Hamilton Quintet.  The band appears in the film, despite the fact that a feature length score by Hamilton had been rejected by the films distributor United Artists.  Fortunately, the score Hamilton composed and recorded is available on record.  The B-side to this treasure is a twenty minute long improvisation by the group on the themes established in the tracks on side A.

Hamilton’s score is fresh, and pulses with Big Apple energy, just as Sweet Smell Of Success does.  Unlike his contemporaries, such as David Amram, Hamilton’s work for film is not reliant upon orchestrations or lavish productions.  The arrangements in Hamilton’s score are sparse, aggressive, and ultimately direct.

There seems a clear correlation between Hamilton’s score for Sweet Smell Of Success and John Lurie’s jazz scores for the early Jim Jarmusch classics Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train some twenty five years later.  It’s become an established tradition in American cinema to accompany a New York based drama with a jazz score.  Is there any medium of music better suited to express the metropolis?

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012

Florida & Stranger Than Paradise

I recently journeyed to south Florida for the first time earlier this week.  All I really knew about Florida before making the trip came from Norman Mailer’s book Miami & The Siege of Chicago and Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise.  And I’d have to say, that from my own experience, Stranger Than Paradise captured the region’s atmosphere pretty accurately (Mailer’s book focuses on his own experience at a Republican convention, so I never anticipated any relevancy to my own journey).

But Stranger Than Paradise as a film captures something else as well, something far more pivotal to American culture as a whole.  The film places the New York hipster culture of the early eighties into the situations that defined the original hipsters of the Beat Generation.  By doing so, a severe contrast becomes apparent in the desires, needs and ambitions of Americans in the 1980s and 1950s.  For Kerouac, the trip across country was a spiritual venture unique and enlightening, for John Lurie’s character in Stranger Than Paradise it is a necessity in escaping boredom and routine.  Such a shift speaks of the overall psychology of our country, and just how much it shrank in the 60s and 70s with the advent of technologies that in Kerouac’s day were the stuff of dreams.  Jarmusch’s film is therefore bleak and dark, achieving a compassion for characters that are otherwise lazy do-nothing hipsters.

Let me conclude by saying that if you haven’t seen Stranger Than Paradise, you should.  If you’re planning to go to Florida, have an idea of what you’re going to do there first.  Otherwise, you’ll end up like Eva; bored senseless sitting in your motel all day.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2012