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.