Tag Archives: William S. Burroughs

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

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under filmmakers

By Night With Torch & Spear

Joseph Cornell is best remembered for his work with assemblage, often manifesting these works in neat wooden boxes.  Cornell’s fascination with the mundane every day objects of his pieces derive from their ability, when properly aligned, to emote a fantastic other-worldliness.  Cornell’s approach to filmmaking naturally followed along a similar vein.

By Night With Torch & SpearSometime in the 1940s Cornell assembled the film By Night With Torch & Spear (posthumously titled after an intertitle in the film), using found footage from the twenties of steel mills, Native American tribal dances, Egyptian camel riders and African tribes people.  Like his work with assemblage in sculpture, Cornell intercuts and manipulates the images of the film so that their correlation becomes seemingly organic.  The illusion of “like-minded” purpose between the parts of the film is so successful that the audience suspends all disbelief and accepts Cornell’s stream of consciousness as pseudo-narrative fact.

By Night With Torch & Spear opens with two minutes of various shots taken within a steel mill.  Cornell has hand tinted these images, turned them upside down and played them in reverse.  The effect of Cornell’s manipulation is simple yet startling.  An educational film has been transformed into a kind of science fiction fantasy by the likes of William S. Burroughs.  These scenes, once manipulated, force the spectator to evaluate the otherwise mundane actions of these scenes as something new and unnatural.  Typically, workers do not walk backward along the ceiling and sparks do not fly into molten metal, but in Cornell’s film they do.  This simple approach to tinkering with appropriated images has all the effects Cornell intends, leaving the audience to ponder these images on abstracted terms, divorced from their factual content and taken simply as light in motion with rythm.

From the steel mill, By Night With Torch & Spear cuts to South American tribe’s people dancing in ritual, silhouetted against a smoldering blaze.  The fire and smoke behind the dancers utilizes the audience’s well-established penchant for making visual associations with the effort to manufacture a narrative cohession.  Cornell takes advantage of the audience’s desire to segue the film into the organic world, cutting from the dancers to men on camels then to caterpillars feeding.  The footage of the camel riders and the caterpillars is shown in negative, in direct opposition of the footage of the dancers, both in presentation and the ratio of black to white.  This shift in By Night With Torch & Spear marks not just a transition into the outdoors, but to the natural processes of the “organic”.  In this way Cornell contrasts the basic mechanisms of organic and mechanic life forms or, in other words, a mechanical illusion of organic life.

The final shot of the film is from where the film gets its name.  A title card announces “by night with torch and spear” before cutting to a man with a torch throwing a spear into a shallow pool of murky water.  The hunter in this shot is presumably looking for food, repeating the function of organisms and machines to digest or breakdown materials.  And in his own way, Cornell has hunted for material, and is now asking the audience to digest it’s conceptual correlation and intersection.

Few filmmakers have been able to rival Cornell with an ability to totally invest new meaning and texture to images that are prefabricated.  Mark Rappaport’s films of the nineties that utilize the found footage technique (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From The Journals Of Jean Seberg) are intrinsically tied to the position of the images in their historical and cultural context.  Others, such as Jean-Luc Godard, have created entire films out of one single image by incorporating overlayed text.  What Cornell does defy is the cinematographic tendencies of both his contemporaries and successors by employing a mode of “revisionist” thinking that is wholly indebted to Dadaism.

By Night With Torch & Spear

Like the dadaists and surrealists, Cornell sought to realign the fabric of reality in film.  However, Cornell chose to continue his obsessive practice of assemblage as a means to unravel the reality with which he had become frustrated.  Dali and Bunuel shot their own films, becoming the undisputed authors of the images in their films, where Cornell worked conceptually, authoring only the montage and its implied associations.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Jubilee

Jubilee (1978) was Derek Jarman’s much anticipated follow-up to Sebastiane (1976), and like Sebastiane, Jubilee was shot on a low-grade color film stock with shots composed to evoke the classic paintings of the Renaissance and the portraits of the Dutch Masters.  But Jubilee, a natural progression in visual style, is a much more explicitly political film than Sebastiane, not only satirizing post modern interpretations of the necessity of art, but also political institutions such as the London Police Force, media moguls, and Fascism.  With the “punk” movement in full swing across Britain, Jarman sets about scrutinizing contemporary London from the vantage point of Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), the representative of all the traditional English values and morals.

The plot, episodic in nature, begins with Queen Elizabeth I summoning the angel Ariel, with the aid of her occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien), to see into Britain’s future.   In the future, the film follows the exploits and interactions of Bod (Jenny Runacre), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Wilcox), Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Angel (Ian Charleson), Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and Kid (Adam Ant).  This cast of characters epitomizes Britain’s “punk” generation, from their need for destructive rebellion to their Warhol-like ambitions for super stardom.  The character who exercises the most power in this nightmare is media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett), whose very name is a “punkish” pun.

Presumably, the “future” action of Jubilee is a comic prediction on how things will turn out unabated; the end of “merry” England.  The “future” action seems to take place only a few years in the future from the start of the film’s production in 1977.  In this hostile environment of murderous policemen and punk rockers, Jarman manages to photograph London to look like Hiroshima after the bomb, a decaying landscape of urban development and decay.  Aesthetically, Jarman is setting the stage for his greatest cinematic achievement, The Last Of England (1986), that will consist exclusively of such visuals, employed again to juxtapose the contemporary Britain of Thatcher with the “England Of Old”.

The conflict of the past versus the present is one of the mainstays of British counterculture as well as the “punk” movement.  Jubilee epitomizes “punk” in film, and became the blueprint for a dozen like-minded films such as Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s pseudo-documentary on The Clash, Rude Boy (1980), and Ulli Lommel’s films with Andy Warhol Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and The Blank Generation (1980).  Episodic narratives about media corruption and rebellion were the mainstays of Jarman’s imitators, of which the only film that seems to be moving in a new direction is The Blank Generation, which exhibits Lommel and R.W. Fassbinder’s affections for melodrama and Hollywood classicism.  Rather quickly this approach to youth targeted underground filmmaking was commercialized by MTV, and would manifest itself later in a distilled version as Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1987).

In its moment, Jubilee was shocking and controversial, not just for Jarman’s visual comparisons of British authorities with Nazis, but also for the frank depictions of homosexual intercourse and police violence.  Of all the “punk” films that followed, Jubilee is the only film with a clear political perspective and filmic style that can claim to form one cohesive aesthetic whole.  Jubilee’s suppression at the time of its release is not surprising given the political turmoil in England at the time. But such blatant censorship only strengthened the resolve of the counter-culture, propelling Derek Jarman into a sort of messiah position in Britain’s underground and queer cultures.

In order to better understand the context and significance of Jubilee, one must take into account a number of influential figures upon both Derek Jarman and the British underground in general.  Figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Nicholas Ray all figure into the cinema of Derek Jarman rather heavily.  Consider William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy (The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express and The Soft Machine), whose primary focus is the corruption of man by a vast influx of new information and technology, that gives way to a grim future akin to an orgiastic homosexual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984.  These texts are indispensable to Jarman, who will employ Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique on the soundtrack of The Last Of England.  Through all three of Burroughs’ novels, the television set is an object of menace, just as it is a means for Borgia Ginz to control the youth population in Jubilee.

David Bowie’s influence on the “punk” movement is immeasurable, but to Jubilee more exclusively, Bowie’s influence can be pinpointed to the years 1972 and 1973 of his career when he assumed the persona of Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie’s invented character embodies campy high fashion and a fame seeking self-destruction.  These two character traits outline the trajectory and concerns of the characters Kid, Crabs, and Mad in Jubilee, just as they coincide with every struggling musician’s ambitions to some degree.  The difference here is the “camp” that Jarman pushes to excess in his performers, so that each becomes a terribly funny and self-aware parody of themselves.

The “campy” quality of the performances is indicative also of the circumstances surrounding the performers themselves.  Like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman (also a painter) surrounded himself with a group of outlandish individuals who would hang around his studio space.  From this collection of individuals, Jarman cast many of his short films, and a number of roles in Jubilee.  The influence of Warhol in this fashion is typical; underground filmmakers, without many professional connections, are reliant upon Warhol’s tactics of casting his friends and hangers-on in his films.

The final major influence on Jubilee is the least expected, Nicholas Ray.  Jarman infuses his film with the devices in Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to evoke the “youth in trouble” sub-genre.  Slow panning shots that build tension are a mainstay in each film, as is the adoption of a family unit by a group of friends.  Bod and her gang of girlfriends are an appropriate “punk” perversion of the James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo family unit in Rebel Without A Cause.  Jarman repeatedly calls the audience’s attention to the parallel with his use of the color “red” in interior shots, recalling the deep Technicolor red of Dean’s jacket in Ray’s film.

Color and form themselves are exciting components that are essential to Jarman’s visual style.  A painter first and foremost, Jarman’s obsession with the human form in the work of Caravaggio is infamous.  Beyond Jarman’s biopic on the painter, Caravaggio (1986), Jarman implements Caravaggio’s compositional style into many of the shots in his films.  Most often, Jarman will employ Caravaggio’s strategy of highlighting the human form by lighting them against a black backdrop.  The effect not only directs the viewer’s focus, but also conveys a sensuous longing and desire.  The tactic described above is used numerous times in Jubilee; most notably during the first interior at the castle of Queen Elizabeth I.

All these stylistic influences from the counterculture and Jarman’s passion for the Baroque represent individual signifiers that run throughout Jubilee to form a post-modernist cinematographic complex.  This allows not just for a diverse sensory experience, but also an intellectual one.  The prowess with which Jarman addresses each component is often overlooked by audiences and critics alike; the “camp” and violence overshadow the heavier themes at work in the film.  Yet, this appears to be the precise mode that Derek Jarman wishes Jubilee to function in.  Consider Dick Hebdige’s observation in his book Subcultue: The Meaning Of Style: “the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstar”.  Hebdige has described glam rock as “extreme foppishness, incipient elitism”, the exact connotations Jarman tries so hard to avoid in his filmmaking style.  The “camp” and violence in Jubilee is simply a means to reach the British “every man”.  The loftier issues Jarman addresses are meant to linger in the background, working subliminally on the film’s audience so as not to isolate or condescend.  I would therefore argue that such a device is not a detractor from the film, but a necessity.

The kind of manipulation and cultural understanding to execute a seemingly simple yet infinitely complex film like Jubilee speaks to a maturity critics were not willing to recognize in Jarman when Jubilee was first released.  Perhaps the campy violence made it a film that was easy to dismiss, or perhaps it was Jarman’s open homosexuality that prevented serious critical evaluation..

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films