08 April 2015

No one can hear you dream: Ray Pride listens for the secrets to David Lynch's "Lost Highway"

"Lost Highway" may be David Lynch's best, most Lynchian film yet. Dark and disturbing, unrelenting and unsettling, gorgeously made, sizzlingly sensual yet coldly fatalist, it shows Lynch ever more determined to escape the shackles of narrative convention, even after four years of being unable to get his projects financed. In its fever-dream orchestration of incident, sound and music, Lynch has made a musical. After you've seen it, you find yourself humming—in your sleep.
Almost twenty years ago, in college, I talked to Lynch on the phone. "Eraserhead"'s reputation had begun to grow, but it had no distributor and the campus film society wanted to show it. I can still remember Lynch's gee-whiz voice on the phone, every bit the "Jimmy Stewart on Mars" Mel Brooks called him after they worked together on "The Elephant Man." This time out, I fell victim to Lynch's PR-fade, missing chances to talk to him at the Sundance Festival and over the phone. It may be all to the better: In interviews, Lynch is notoriously elusive, wanting never to pin down meaning, symbolism or directorial intent, but fond of saying things much like his characters would, such as that he's "lost in darkness and confusion." On the night of "Lost Highway"'s premiere in Park City, Utah, Lynch whirled through his own party on a cushion of hellos and smiles, his graying hair a constructivist event, spiky on one side and strangely curled on the other. Much like the furniture he's constructed for his characters to languish against in "Lost Highway," Lynch seemed as much artifact as flesh.
After seeing "Lost Highway" four times, I've found it more and more haunting, open to equally nightmarish interpretations each time. "Lost Highway" is the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who has a world of trouble boiling through his head over his feelings for his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette)—jealousy, madness, rationalization, some large thing. Whether taken as fantasy or nightmare, Lynch's revisionist noir yarn is as pungent as a punch in the face, as quixotic as revisiting a lost love; it's essentially a romantic tragedy, tinged with a deep undercurrent of sadness and hurt. Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford use minimal means in trying to convince us that Fred could transform himself into another person out of his emotional pain; the amazing surfaces that the former painter composes while working through the plot are nothing short of ravishing. And yet... is the story banal, riddled with psychological clich├ęs, or grandly mysterious?
A sometimes-overlooked element in Lynch's mastery of mood—evading the subject of traditional narrative coherence entirely—is the use of sound. Robert Bresson once wrote that "the sound film invented silence," and Lynch intuitively understands the use of the pause, of silence, of distant, indeterminate noise. My interpretation of the mobius-strip structure of "Lost Highway"—you may want to stop here if you want to be surprised—is that Fred Madison is caught in a nightmare he can't wake from, a sexually paranoid dream in which his wife has sex with every man she meets. As Madison becomes more paranoid, his personality splits into several characters—young stud Balthazar Getty, who meets a woman much like Renee; old goat Robert Loggia, who possesses the second Renee already; and Robert Blake's Mystery Man, an enabling id-creature with eyes that burn into your soul.
Sound's the key. For twenty minutes, the tension between Fred and Renee grows. In a chicly furnished house of dark, interminable hallways and strange, impossible portents, the couple are cocooned in their unspoken disharmony. One morning, a dog begins to bark. Fred becomes upset—"Who owns that damn dog?" (Much as one's dreams can shift focus based on external stimulus.) I ran that idea past Bill Pullman, who grinned, "That damn dog. Uh-huh. Tell me more." Like the loopy line the late Jack Nance had in "Wild at Heart," "My dog barks... late at night... sometimes," this seems to be the moment that the nightmare begins—the moment when the outside world begins to impinge on the claustrophobic space inside Fred Madison's head. Pullman smiles. "David isn't much for interpretations, but he might like that one."

There's a pattern of sound cues that build on this idea throughout the film. Lynch takes credit as sound designer, but entrusted much of the job to a newcomer, supervising sound editor Frank Gaeta, who's gone on to other films on the basis of his work here. "David had very specific ideas about what the movie should sound like," Gaeta told me. "For a car crash, he would mouth the sound for me. 'Man, David,' I said, 'Let's just record your voice!'"
Lynch's instructions were specific. "I want to hear bubbles and gristle and the weight of the body pulling down on the bone," he told Gaeta, who got the job after cutting the sound on two scenes—Loggia's gangster berating a tailgater and a close-up of a moth banging against a light bulb. "Once I did that, he loved it," Gaeta said.

Beyond Lynch's precise idea of how a film should sound as well as look, Gaeta credits the director with one unusual practice—music by Angelo Badalamenti, Barry Adamson, and a "drone" composed by Trent Reznor were all there in advance. "I was doing sound effects around the drone," Gaeta says, "So you can't tell the music from the sound effects. I could be in the key that Trent was in; my effects could be tonal." Since most scores are composed at the very last moment, this is an incredible rarity. "Sound is usually atonal. I was purposely trying to hit the key the music was in. And that gave us a beautiful marriage of sound and effects." [Originally published 11 October 1997.]

03 April 2015

REALLY BAD BOYS, July 17, 2003

If it weren't for Entertainment Weekly, whole chunks of pop culture would remain but rumors to me. For example: The last multiplayer shooter game I found myself playing introduced me to the pleasures of being repeatedly slaughtered by an 11-year-old with a wicked post-braces smile. Vincent D'Onofrio's supposed to be loopy-cool in some show or another and Jerry Bruckheimer's become a big success at splashy television as well. I finish this week's EW, I feel like I understand the alternate dimension.
Still, sometimes I feel like I should be getting a little bad television under my belt now and again, finding myself forgiving slapdash comedies that the average viewer would be peeved after having tossed $8 or $10 into the campfire for. Despite some modest echoes of Ye Olde Miami Vice in its makeup, Bad Boys II doesn't remind me of television at all. But if anyone wants a colorful illustration of the psychosis of big-budget movies that fully explore the sensibilities of its run-amok auteurs, hooboy, I can't imagine seeing anything nuttier or more nihilist than this in a long time. Some colleagues suggesting going back and catching Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle, which was co-written by two of Bad Boys II's credited screenwriters.

11 March 2015

PONETTE (1997, France)

"Ponette" aches with emotion. It's a true revelation. While I've seen only a handful of Doillon's earlier features, his interest seems to lie in the burn, confrontation, the aftermath. (The face, the shout, the slap.) Four-year-old Victoria Thivosol received the best actress award at last fall's Venice Film Festival for her performance as a child of utmost self-absorption. After the death of her mother in a car crash that occurs before the film begins, Ponette chooses to live in her own world, fashioning her own mythology from the information she is given. This overalls-wearing, wrist-in-a-cast, full-pout-mouthed believer is embodied by Thivosol with heartbreaking emotional authenticity. To a father's blunt "Mommy is dead," what more is there to say than "No! She's flying with her magic mirror." She is not obstinate. Simply, she believes, and patiently awaits her mother's return. Doillon is patient as well, fashioning from many close-ups and a child's natural impulses a transcendent portrait of sorrow and loss, of the bewilderment the world has to offer. There are subtleties beyond Doillon's loving regard for Thivosol, such as, in an early scene, leaving the hospital in a car with her father, we see the landscape rushing forward with the rear-view mirror revealing similar greenery spinning vertiginously away from us. In a field, a boy and a girl play clumsily at kisses and comforting. Ponette rages at her doll, then comforts it. She hears that her mother is with Jesus, then waits for the pair to visit. She waits. She waits. We watch, grateful, mesmerized, moved.

07 July 2013

Lesbian Cheek: BOUND and the Wachowskis (1997)

Lesbian cheek
Asking Chicago's Wachowski brothers how they became attached to "Bound"

If you were to come across a hot and humid movie that could fairly be described as a cross between the work pulp purist James M. Cain and "lesbian sexpert" Susie Bright, you might be reluctant to believe it was written and directed by a pair of taciturn, married, heterosexual brothers who write and live in East Rogers Park. But Larry Wachowski, 31, and Andy Wachowski, 28, are the devious minds behind "Bound," a sultry slice of noir gamesmanship that boasts clever twists, crackling flirtations, smart, assertive camerawork, and a believable, sensual sexual relationship between two women.

Instead of Cain's greasemonkey outsider coming into a dead-as-a-doornail domicile and being taken for a ride by a underhanded femme fatale, the outsider here is Corky (Gina Gershon) a lipstick-butch handyman who catches the eye of dolled-up Violet (Jennifer Tilly), moll of five-years to goombah gangster Joe Pantoliano. There are design feats in the Wachowskis' comic chamber drama that impress throughout, but it's the glow on Gershon's lips, the sultry that's the grandest accomplishment; hot enough, Gershon says, to have lesbian audiences treating her like "the dyke Elvis."

After their experience with the script of "Assassins," a film they were not allowed to take their name off of, they wanted to direct their own work. "Bound" was the script they turned out. So why lesbians?

"Um," Larry says.

"Ah," the younger, burlier Andy adds.

After an exchange of glances, Larry says, "Much of the movie is about surfaces and realities under surfaces. The main idea, the starting point for us, was that we would see this character that you would make a host of sexual assumptions about that would all be wrong."

Did having sisters help?

Larry, "Mom. Grandma."

Andy, "Our wives."

Larry, "This is my wife's favorite script of ours. When we started working on it, we said we'll have really cool female characters. "

Despite what some writers have said, this film just wouldn't work if it were about a man and a woman. "That's almost the same question that was asked by some of the major studios that we brought the script to," Andy says. "'If you change Corky to a man, you've got a deal."

Larry continues without a pause, "But then all the subtext is gone, the themes are gone, the dialogue is pointless. . People can say that it would be similar, but we're playing with conventions. Why do we have conventions and what are they? Everyone who sees the movie sort of understands the film noir genre, so we started playing with expectations ad assumptions."

"That's what the fun of the movie is for us. We said we didn't want to make that other movie, it had been done already."

Veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis had bought "Assassins" from the Wachowskis for "not very much money" and asked to see their next script. "You have to hand it to Dino. He's made a long career on taking chances," says Larry.

Andy takes on the gruff accent of De Laurentiis, "Now what you working on?"

Larry says, "He's this old Italian guy, can we just come out and tell him it's about lesbians? So we're hemming and hawing and like, well, it's sorta about this woman and this other woman..."

"Dino is like, the first woman, she is a lesbian? And the other woman, she also is a lesbian! We have a deal!"

But the process of casting took them aback. Andy says, "It was amazing. We thought we would write a really hard-boiled script for women. Usually men get these kinds of roles, and we thought we would have women lining up around the block to be in it. But that was not the case."

Andy adds, "I guess they would get to the sex scene and flip! It would go flying out the window. What matters is that pretty much, they're the same woman. The butch/femme aspect is very much yin-yang, two parts create a whole. We wanted the women to have elements of both sides."

Before making films, they had both dropped out of college. Their carpentry business was hard work, so they moved on to writing Marvel comics, including some Clive Barker titles. (They even wrote a couple of articles for Newcity.) Larry says, " We needed to find an easier job. We read Roger Corman's autobiography. We were inspired it. We said, let's make a low-budget horror movie. W showed it to some agents who asked us to write something more commercial. So we wrote Assassins. Originally, it was like Bound, it was dark, it was funny, full of weird metaphors. The main character is trapped in this unwinnable chess game. I tried to explain this to Richard Donner, and he said, "That's subtext! I don't care about that!"

Andy says, "The story was about eating the rich, and the consensus around Hollywood was, "Hey! We're the rich! Do you have anything else?"

How about the influence of Susie Bright? "We didn't really know Susie until after we wrote the script. But we had read her books and thought they were funny," Larry says." One of the lines that was really important to the idea of the script was this line she wrote, talking about lesbians, 'We also have stiff, incessant, probing sexual organs. We just call them hands.' We were like yeah! We'll eroticize hands. When we finished the script, we sent it to her. She really liked it. That meant a lot to us."

"The opinion of women we know always does," Andy adds.

A slightly different version appeared in Newcity.

16 June 2013

New links

Links to to new work here.

19 August 2012

Autoerotica: The glittering wreckage of "Crash"

David Cronenberg's "Crash," winner of a jury prize for "audacity" at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a fine translation of the singular character of J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel. In burnished, ornate, painfully specific prose, Ballard suggests a linkage between sexuality and the modern machine, between the unspeakable thrill of danger in our imaginative lives and the deadly potential of the automobile and its propulsive motion. James Ballard (James Spader) is a film producer whose dispassionate liaisons with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), a sculpture-boned beauty, are heightened through exchanging stories of their mutual, promiscuous adventures outside their marriage. After an accident in which the other driver is killed, Ballard meets the surviving passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), along with Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a sexually polymorphous crash fanatic who has become obsessed with the meeting of flesh and technology in what he believes can be "benevolent psychopathology." Wreckage, physical scarring, sexual encounters heightened by the proximity to danger—these are all esteemed. Yet Cronenberg has managed to make a stunningly beautiful film, one of perversely satisfying passion. Equal parts astonishing and horrifying, "Crash" is concise, keenly imaginative and deeply, darkly satisfying.
The events of the story begin thrillingly cold, with dialogue delivered in a hush of exaltation, mimicking the just-plain-wrong whispers of the dreamer's brain. While shooting in contemporary Toronto, Cronenberg has made a bit of timeless futurism of his hometown, the wet, wintry landscape sere and depopulated, a landscape emptied of all but forward motion.
Cronenberg's uncompromised intelligence is preserved in its current, uncut NC-17 form, despite the interference of Ted Turner, the Time-Warner vice president and former owner of distributor Fine Line features, who believes "Crash" may persuade teenagers to have sex while crashing their cars. In fact, Cronenberg's movie is an exquisitely calibrated metaphor for how fetish and obsessive behavior exclude the outside world and occlude perception of the rest of the world. "Are there more cars out there now?" the crash victims ask one another. The world is divided into those who have crashed and those who have not.
"The sex at the beginning is pretty dispassionate but it starts to fill with meaning," Cronenberg says, "which is really what they're looking for. They've already got sex, and they've even got kinky sex, so it's not that that's absent. It's meaning. Even though people think the movie is cold, I don't think it's cold. It begins cold but it gradually fills with emotion. It is subtle and it's not delivered the normal way it's delivered in movies." Besides an unusual narrative structure—for instance, opening with three sex scenes in a row that serve as characterization and plot—the characters are not normal audience identification figures. " With obsessives, those who are not obsessed are of no consequence," he says. "They're at best a minor irritation. The only reason Catherine counts, even though she's not had a crash, is that there is a desire there for them to reconnect and Ballard feels he's found the key. But until she's had her crash, she can't be part of the structure of the group or of him. She must find her crash." Without her initiation, their shared experience is meaningless. She remains outside his fantasy life. "It's absolutely faces in the crowd. People who you can't quite see behind the wheel of cars are not the people you are concerned with. There is a small circle of people who understand, the crash epiphany allows them to relate to each other. Everyone else is irrelevant. That's what the movie does as well. The rest of the world is just little shadows in the corners of the frame."
Sensation fills most of the frames. The mood and choice of details in "Crash" is as heightened as foreplay—touch, tactile—not only sex, but the way characters strain toward each other. "The whole movie is foreplay leading to the final scene," Cronenberg says. "Even Vaughn tracking Catherine with his car and touching her, nudging her car with his car is, in the context of the movie, even more intimate, really, than physically touching her. It's a real violation of the marriage."
Cronenberg's unnerving film has met much criticism, including the plaint that a series of sex scenes is not a plot.
He laughs. "First of all, how limited one must be to make rules like that. And how educated we have been into the Hollywood understanding of what narrative is and how it should be delivered. My answer was, 'Why not? Why can't it be?' A journalist said that the scariest thing about the movie was the lack of a moral stance. That was, I felt, also very indicative of what one expects from a Hollywood movie, but not necessarily what one expects from art. It was like a plot device that was demanded had been excluded and he was outraged! `Well, I'm glad you noticed,' I said, but it's really the subject of the film. There is no moral stance that you can take. That is the subject of the film. And if I impose my own artificial standards, then I'm completely spoiling my experiment, which is to let these creatures have their head and try to reinvent all of these things they're trying to reinvent. And I think that's the situation we really all are in as humans, That's the existential contract that we signed on birth, which we later look at and say, 'I can't believe I signed that!' That's all these people are doing. They say, 'OK, reality, meaning, morality, all of these things are our responsibility to invent and to force ourselves to believe in.' And if we don't? They aren't there."

Originally published in a slightly different form in Newcity, March 20, 1997.