Sunday, December 20, 2015

David Lynch: The Man from Another Place

Dennis Lim’s new critical biography of David Lynch, The Man from Another Place, deftly conveys the meaning of the adjective lynchian by presenting a brief chronological account of the director’s work and its attendant criticism.  Rather than attempting to eagerly proffer interpretations of Lynch’s films, Lim instead offers a steady gaze at Lynch’s growth as an artist of all manners who is captivated by beauty, horror, texture, and dream logic.
Lim frequently mines details from Lynch’s life that illuminate his films.  For example, Lynch’s father’s job treating diseased trees and insect infestations provides an origin for the trees and teeming insects of Blue Velvet and an in-joke from the set of Eraserhead provides an origin for Twin Peaks’ Log Lady.  However, Lim doesn’t spend too much time concentrating on these details, instead letting them become a part of the larger mythology surround Lynch rather than a simplistic explanation of his work.

What Lim does that is so much more interesting is reveal the ways that the culture’s understanding of Lynch springs largely from individual engagements with his seminal works.  Lim treats neither Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, nor Mulholland Drive as definitive works, but instead reveals the ways that cultural and industrial conceptions of those works and others allow in-roads into new projects that frequently befuddle the world at large until a critical re-examination can spring up years later and a new definition of the term lynchian can arrive.  That ABC throws money at a Lynch television series not once, not twice, but three times (Twin Peaks, On the Air, Mulholland Drive) only be to progressively dismayed and confused when each product fails to meet its conception of a David Lynch TV series is but one of the many moments that Lim’s book draws attention to.
As a critic myself, I must admit that my own initial engagement with Lynch was through his 2001 film Mulholland Drive, a film I checked out unwittingly from a local library.  As a result, my conception of the term lynchian involves puzzles, dreams, old Hollywood, and the rupture of the seam connecting the audible and the visual.  But re-watching Eraserhead this week revealed to me the poverty of this focus – an understanding that misses Lynch’s fascination with the bleak and bizzare and his films’ surreal emotional logic, that is less of a puzzle to be solved and more of an alternate world to enter, an important part of the term lynchian that Lim observantly notes.

That so many of us know Lynch, only to be befuddled by engaging with a different part of his corpus, suggests much of what makes his continual resurfacing such an intriguing part of culture.  With the impending arrival of new episodes of Twin Peaks, I find myself less excited about returning to the land of damn good coffee and more intrigued by what new world he will conjure for us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


In Elena, Andre Zvyagintsev patiently watches the banal evils as they unfold.   Not afraid to let the shot or the silence linger, he waits, letting the small moments of brutishness or selfishness establish themselves.  He seems to want to let us know that this is the day to day, that this is what we have learned to put up with. 
The film’s opening sequence follows Elena’s morning routine as she prepares the house and breakfast so it is ready for her husband Vladimir when he awakens.  The camera allows us access to so much of the minutiae of the morning ritual that when Elena makes Vladimir’s bed after he awakens and then he immediately throws his dirty pajamas on top of it, we cannot help but see that he treats her as his servant. It is no surprise when later we find out that they met because she was his nurse when he was hospitalized for appendicitis.
Zyvagintsev does not highlight this moment.  There is no reaction shot that makes sure we know how Elena feels.  The next shot is her patiently waiting for him, the breakfast she has prepared laid out on the table.  Perhaps there is no reaction shot because there is no reaction.  This is every day for Elena.
What else is day to day?  Vladimir leering at a woman in the gym as she works out.  Elena’s son Sergey drinking beer and waiting for his mother to bring him money to pay to take care of his family.  The giant nuclear power plant filling up the whole window of Sergey’s apartment.  His son Sasha playing video games and waiting for Vladimir to pay to get him into college.
Elena seems to be our one moral character – selflessly caring for a family that only contains children.  She hardly complains as she cares for Vladimir, Sergey, and Sasha.  When she kills Vladimir after he explains why he is writing his will so she will get a smaller inheritance than his daughter, it feels shockingly out of character.  But it is not – Elena has done what she needed to do to survive for the whole film.  It just so happens that much of that lines up with traditional conceptions of morality.

This is the world  Zvyagintsev wants us to see – the one where morality is convenience.  The one where doing evil is just what we had to do to stay comfortable.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut, is a living film that reveals the vast number of dead films that inhabit the cinema.   As Kaufman’s film evolves over the viewing experience, I could not help being struck by how many films do not regard each moment of their running time as an opportunity to become something new.  These films inhabit a cinema of death – superhero films that live and die as superhero films, gross-out comedies that live and die as gross-out comedies, prestige pictures that live and die as prestige pictures.  Kaufman’s film finds it place in the cinema of life along with the pictures of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.

To dissect the features of these films and categorize them is an act of murder – a willful dismissal of each film as a conscious being consistently choosing how to exist as it hurtles towards its termination.   Synecdoche’s plot could be summed up simply: aging theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) attempts to stage a performance that is not a sliver of life but instead life-sized by creating an exact replica of New York on a soundstage populated by actors.  But such a plot summary misses the instability of space, time, and tone throughout the film.  When the film opens, it feels grounded in our world – Hoffman’s Cotard stares into the mirror as the radio speaks to him about autumn, the time of the year when we have decided what will we be and in so doing prepare to die.  But moments later, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) checks their daughter’s poop only to reveal that it is neon green.  Perhaps, this world is like our world but heightened or exaggerated?  Minutes go by and this assessment seems to be the case until Cotard’s love interest Hazel (Samantha Morton) enters a house that is on fire, a fact that the realtor acknowledges as part of what makes its price a bargain.  Is this movie now surreal?  Who knows? Who cares? It seems emotionally appropriate, a lively decision this movie can make at this moment.

Kaufman’s earlier script Adaptation (2002) directed by Spike Jonze is an obvious comparison.  While Adaptation is more clearly meta-fictional - a film ostensibly about a fictionalized Kaufman adapting Susan Orleans’s novel The Orchid Thief, both are focused on the way that artists have permeable relationships with their work.  Certainly, much was said about this at the time of Synecdoche’s release.  However, Synecdoche and Adaptation share a stronger kinship in the way their scripts consistently morph, becoming something new at a moment’s notice.  A simple plot description of Adaptation misses the way that both the world of Kaufman and of Orlean are not stable in the film, but consistently shifting to respond to plot developments with the barrier between them even sometimes collapsing.  More astute viewers most likely notice that this adaptation is what the film’s title refers to, not the facile process by which books are chopped up, assembled into scripts and filmed.

Synecdoche, New York is a magnificent film, but it is a film that is hard to comprehend. Its willingness to continuously choose what it will be makes grasping it difficult.  One wants to pause it and think through its plots, its characters, its world, but knows that when it resumes playing, it will branch off in a new direction.  Watching it can be frustrating, but perhaps that says much about our relationship with movies, the way movies are so much lumber for us to construct assessments and build experiences rather than branching objects we can only admire as we watch them grow.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

The Criterion Collection’s difficulty restoring Satayjit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy too aptly coincides with what makes this set of films so powerful: their grasp of the joy of life that is enmeshed with its very fragility. As the accompanying booklet explains, restoring the films became a priority when Ray was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1992 Oscars.  The films were flown to London to begin the process and then lost in a fire that destroyed a number of original negatives.   The story itself feels like a fourth film in the set – the promise of life immediately faced with its impermanence.  In a documentary contained in the box set, watching the negatives be opened to reveal only melted remains speaks with the same power as the deaths that punctuate the films.

Ray’s Apu Trilogy could easily lapse into bleakness; over its near six-hour runtime, its title character loses nearly all of those that he loves.  The fact that it does not speaks to Ray’s ability to gather plenitude from fragility and place it on film.  Apu’s most aching moments come not from its deaths, but from Ray’s naturalistic filmwork: a set of kittens crushed beneath Auntie’s bag, a young Apu shivering in the middle of a rainstorm, a strongman swinging weights, a manuscript showering out over a forest.  In all of it, one sees the ultimately futile struggle against space and time.

Criterion’s painstaking years-long restoration of these films bespeaks a commitment Apu continuously makes throughout the film – the commitment to find a new road and struggle on in the face of great loss.  His sister dead, he walks to watch the trains.  His father dead, he walks on to a new home.  His mother dead, he walks to the train to return to school.  His wife dead, he walks carrying their only son.  That Criterion could restore a can of charred remains and screen it around the world says much about their understanding of these films and why the life they contain is so valuable.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Closely Observed Trains

In the opening moments of Jiri Minzel’s 1966 film Closely Observed Trains, the young Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) stands between pictures of his grandfather and his great-grandfather.  Milos tells us through voice-over that his great-grandfather Lukas served as a drummer boy during the Prague Upheavals of 1848 and had his leg broken by student protesters throwing stones.  He collected a pension and spent the rest of his days drinking rum, smoking cigarettes, and harassing laborers.  Milos’s grandfather Vilem also evaded hard labor, instead taking up life as a huckster and selling his services as a hypnotist. We see Milos’s father, a locomotive engineer who retired at 48, sitting comfortably on the couch collecting a pension.  Jiri is proud to join his family’s line and his voice-over juxtaposed against humorous images of the men of his line feels ironic as if Minzel wants to satirize the foibles of military and civil service.

But, this moment is doubly ironic.  Minzel wants us to see this line of opportunists as both disreputably selfish and heroically selfless.  Milos’s grandfather stood up to the Nazi occupation, only to be killed by one of their tanks, and his father notes the arrival times of the titular trains carrying supplies to German troops.  He will pass on the information so that others can blow them up.  This line of men is simultaneously taking advantage of society’s offerings and resisting its darkest urges.

Minzel’s film deftly manages its tone – a dark humor that satirizes Czechs while also empathizing with their profound tragedy.  Minzel follows two plot strands: Milos’s quest to lose his virginity and the resistance’s quest to blow up incoming German supply trains.  Milos’s quest is juvenile and quixotic while the resistance’s quest is mature and honorable.  Minzel manages to not only maintain the tone of each strand, but sometimes even manages to swap them for great effect.

In one notable moment, Milos nervously backs down from a sexual encounter with his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendova), only to have the house they are staying at bombed from above.  As Milos leaves to go to work, he grabs his coat from a stand that is still upright in the midst of rubble.  The tragedy is comedy – Milos leaves for work more bothered by his sexual humiliation than the destruction of his town.  Later, Milos checks into a hotel, runs a bath, and slits his wrists.  Here, the comedy is tragedy – Milos’s sexual misadventures wound him so deeply that he seeks solace in suicide.

Menzel’s work continuously confronts our immediate critical impression of characters.  In Closely Observed Trains, lecherous and slovenly opportunists are the true heroes of WWII-Czechoslovakia.  They are the ones transforming the Nazis’ mechanical terror into joi de vivre.