Monday, April 30, 2012

Essential Viewing, Part 1: The Classics

            I've given a lot of thought recently to the films I would teach if I had control over a film studies department. What films are most indicative of greatness? What products stand out as the most innovative and original and important? The problem that some may have with academia is this idea that there are canonical works of art that all people must appreciate. You have James Joyce and William Shakespeare on one end of the spectrum, and then you've got Nicolas Sparks and Susanne Collins somewhere on the other end.

          What makes one side more important? What makes one end of the spectrum essential to literary studies? Of course it's subjective. What pleases me won't always please you. But we can certainly appreciate innovation and explosive creativity over formula. But, as happens so often in our culture, sometimes that formula is used so effectively that the product is every bit as good as that of the innovators'.

          Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this. Maybe I should just give it to you straight. If I were the head of a film studies program, these are the films I would require of my students. This is the first part of my Essential List, where I will be giving you some of the essential classics.

          What makes a classic movie a classic? I suppose it has to be old, perhaps made before 1960, and I suppose it has to be respected by critics and audiences. Moreover, a classic film needs to be innovative and timeless. Watching a classic film today needs to be every bit as riveting as it was at the time of its release (of course, this sometimes requires the context of the time to be understood by the viewer).  So, based on these criteria, here are some classic films that I would consider essential viewing for those who are interested in film studies.

The General (1926)

          Buster Keaton's The General is a marvel of filmmaking. Watching Keaton perform those stunts without any kind of safety is, in my opinion, even more impressive today than it was back in 1926. We no longer have Vaudeville acts in the city that perform these kinds of physically demanding stunts. Sure, there's Cirque Du Soleil, but there are still safety measures implemented into those routines. Keaton, when he runs up and down the train and narrowly escapes death, is doing it for real. He risked his life for his art and his comedy, and watching him on screen is endlessly fascinating. It's a tragedy that he died in poverty. He is one of the great early geniuses of cinema.

Metropolis (1927)

          This list isn't going to linger in the silent era for too long, but I do believe that this era has a lot to teach modern filmmakers. Now I'm not going to a rant about shaky-cam or formulaic action films, but I do think that the silent era, more than any other time, was completely devoted to the story of an image. The composition, the staging, the blocking of the actors--it is all so crucial in a silent film. I love how unbelievable Fritz Lang's world really is in his silent masterpiece Metropolis. I've not seen a single dystopian film that doesn't have some sort of nod to this film in its production design. Sure, the pacing is a bit wonky, and, yeah, the story is a bit silly by today's standards, but you don't see visuals like these very often. And when you do see them, they owe it all to Lang.

Grand Illusion (1937)
          Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is often credited as his masterpiece, but I've always been more partial to Grand Illusion. There's just something about a great prison break narrative that gets my gears grinding. What I like most about Renoir's film is its excellent use of silence. The film begins as a straightforward narrative about soldiers who are captured and imprisoned behind enemy lines, but as the film goes on, it becomes more and more evident that the film is a beautiful love letter to those who sacrificed their lives in the war. We realize that there is no true honor in war, and that there is no real escape.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)
          Where would we be without the Italian Neo-Realists? For starters, the French New Wave wouldn't have happened nearly as fast as it did. Robert Bresson wouldn't have had much of a career, seeing as how Bicycle Theives was his inspiration to get into the business (and also gave him the idea to use non-professional actors). Vittorio De Sica's classic tale of desperation, greed, and mercy is about as timeless as it gets. In post-war Italy, a man has finally been given a job by the state. He is ordered to buy a bike in order to do his job. His bike is stolen almost immediately, and so the man and his son go searching for the bike. That's it. You may not believe me, but Bicycle Thieves is one of the most emotionally devastating films I've ever seen. It is so raw, so personal, and so honest that I can hardly breathe when the man decides to take his fate into his own hands. It is a powerful film, and the fact that it started a filmmaking revolution is just icing on the cake.

Rear Window (1954)

          One of the most written-about films of all time sort of needs no introduction, but I'll do it anyway. Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of the most suspenseful movies I've ever seen. It's also, you know, infinitely interesting in its study of gender relations and surveillance. The entire film is shot from the point-of-view of a man looking through a bay window, and, somehow, it works. This is the film that proves Hitchcock's brilliance as a filmmaker and a master of suspense, and there is no way I could leave this film out.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

          A knight returning from the crusades is challenged to a game of chess by the Grim Reaper himself in Ingmar Bergman's classic film. This film is probably most responsible for the reputation that foreign films had in the mid-twentieth century. It's dark, introspective, moody, atmospheric, deliberately paced, and its ending is both confusing and disheartening. In other words, The Seventh Seal is an Ingmar Bergman film. What classics list is complete without Ingmar Bergman on it?

Touch of Evil (1958)

          That brilliant opening shot, the groundbreaking sound design, the excellent performances, the strange and surreal narrative. Everything works here in Orson Welles' (yes, I said it) best film. Working in a genre that many feared dead and cliche, and working with material that many felt to be sloppy and too controversial, Welles took the "maverick director" approach to filmmaking and did whatever he wanted to do with his money to make the best film he could make. The cinematography here is ambitious and unbelievable. You've never seen a movie shot quite like this. After the film was completed, the studio re-cut much of the footage and released the film in a, as Orson Welles put it, castrated state. Years later, the studio released the film as it was originally intended. Scary, dark, strange, and perfect.

The 400 Blows (1959)

          Some may call Breathless the French New Wave film that started it all, but it isn't. Francios Truffaut's 400 Blows is a fascinating, daring, and remarkable film. It doesn't self-consciously use the jump-cut to make a statement about French youth, or use its formalistic rule-breaking to try and change the way we see cinema. Instead, Truffaut's film is rugged and individualistic. The style folds over its protagonist. The protagonist is the film. The editing, the hurried camera-work, the quick pacing. This is all a part of the character as he struggles to get attention, to break out, to become his own man. Antoine breaks the rules because he hates them. The rules have made him unremarkable, and he has a statement to make. The film's final, haunting image reminds us of the unknown future in front of all of. It's a spellbinding work of cinema.

There are plenty of other classics that I love and cherish, but I find these to be the most essential for a beginning film studies student. What am I missing from the classics (per my criteria)? 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Misinterpreted: Wild At Heart

          Roger Ebert, before he decided that he liked David Lynch after all upon the release of Mulholland Drive, found Wild At Heart to be a wildly unbalanced, tonally confusing, and offensively violent failure of a film. Ten years later, Ebert praised Inland Empire for the exact same thing. He called the latter a bold, ambitious vision that few directors can achieve. I'm glad that Ebert appreciates Inland Empire for all of its idiosyncrasies, but it feels unfair that Ebert would wait until Lynch is almost universally loved in the world of film criticism before he started giving the director the benefit of the doubt.

           In his reviews for ERASERHEAD, Blue Velvet, and Wild At Heart, Ebert criticizes the way Lynch's movies don't explain themselves. He acts as if Lynch has no big plan for his films, and that they are just random moments of style that amount to an empty experience. He criticized Blue Velvet for its sexuality, ERASERHEAD for its dense imagery, and Wild At Heart for its violence. He said it was a director pushing buttons for the sake of controversy, and that Lynch's films are full of hate.

           Not to sound dramatic, but there are people who believe that Huck Finn is a racist novel because there's racism in it. Just because something depicts cruel acts of humanity, this does not mean that that product endorses cruel acts.

           Yeah, Wild At Heart is violent. It begins with Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) beating an African-American man to death in one of the most shockingly violent scenes I've ever seen. Sailor, our hero, committing such acts of violence so early in the film is indicative of the kind of journey Lynch is taking us on.

           Sailor is not a hero. He is young, impulsive, passionate, and free. He represents the dream of 1950's youth--the invincible, endlessly cool lover who will do anything "for [his] girl." He is Elvis and James Dean rolled into one. From his snakeskin jacket to his oiled hair, he is the epitome of style.

           In a sense, Sailor is the embodiment of what Ebert accused Lynch's films of being--good style, easy on the eyes, but, ultimately, empty. To call the characterization of Sailor broad-stroked and lacking of any subtlety is not a criticism, but an observation. His violence, his raw sexuality, his hatred--these are all elements used to describe an ideal. And, as the movie continues, the viewer should come to realize that the film does not like Sailor. The film wants Sailor to change, but he can't. How can he? He's an ideal. He isn't a real person.
          You could say that I'm reading the film this way because I love David Lynch. You're probably on to something. Once I commit to a filmmaker or painter or singer, I am fiercely committed to that artist and love what he or she does. However, with Wild At Heart, I think there's a good argument for my reading of the film.

         It becomes clear early on that the film is a loose (and I mean loose) adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz, complete with a good and bad witch and a road onto which the heroes must journey. Now, let's think about The Wizard of Oz for a second. What is Dorothy? Is she a character lovingly designed with subtlety and nuance? No, she's the ideal little girl. She is innocent and sweet and cannot stand when other people are hurt. Like Sailor, she is a representation of a dream. She must be read this way for us to invest in her story.

       Now look at Sailor. He is 1950's America (a subject Lynch never really seems to stray from), and he represents every ignorant, hateful, alienating aspect of the decade and what it represents. Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) is in love with his spirit. He is a go-getter, a fighter, a man who fully believes in his own convictions, and for the duration of the film, these convictions all center around her.

          Lula is the way people of Sailor's ideal view women. She is the pinup, the codependent, the passionate virgin looking for adventure. Her obsession with Sailor is poisonous. It infects her life and her relationship with the outside world. She very literally goes to the edge of the Earth to keep Sailor in love with her. You see that picture up there? Lula spends approximately 80% of the film in a position very similar to that one. Most of her dialogue is the exclamation "Sailor!" She is not a real person. She can't be. She is a type, just as Sailor is, and when Lynch puts both of these types into the same room, they explode.

        The rational world cannot handle these extreme examples of 1950's idealism. They are embroiled in a tragic romance not unlike Bonnie and Clyde, or the lovers in Terrence Malick's Badlands, or even Romeo and Juliet.

         What sets them apart from these other tragic love stories is that they are aware of their own story. From the earliest point, it becomes clear that Lula and Sailor are knowingly and willingly becoming entrenched in a tragic love affair. They are exhilarated by the knowledge of their own demise. Each time Sailor gets in a fight, or drives his car too fast and too dangerously, or lights up a cigarette, Lula smiles and screams with glee. Only true love can burn so bright. Only true life must be ejected from this world. Only true love can inspire the monsters to attack.

          As in The Wizard of Oz, the journey of the hero is tested. In the case of Wild At Heart, the hero is Sailor Ripley, and the journey is his path toward enlightenment. For Dorothy, her true test was a fight against the Wicked Witch--a woman who hates where she is from and what it represents. The witch represents, for Dorothy, the way that she may end up if she doesn't change her mind about her family and her home. She may end up alone in a tower, hating everything that's content.

         For Sailor, his Wicked Witch Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). Peru is the end result of what Sailor is slowly becoming. He is impulsive to a fault--exploding into violence at the smallest whim, and his sexuality is so strong that it is hostile. Peru is mean and closed-minded. He is a dark example of arrogance and brute strength. He knows what he wants and he gets it with God on his side. Sailor sees himself in the man. He knows that, if he doesn't watch out, he will become Bobby Peru.

        Wild At Heart is a fable. This is not one of David Lynch's complex dissections of the human identity. It is a morality a tale, a pretty straightforward one at that, and it uses its Wizard of Oz imagery to guide viewer in his/her understanding of it. The film is often considered a misfire, despite the fact that it won the Palm D'or at the Cannes Film Festival, because of its unusual tone and bizarre sense of humor, but I find it to be one of the director's most enduring and interesting films of his career.

        If you've never seen it, definitely give it a look. If you've seen it before and you are shaking your head at the lengths I will go for my fanboy passions, then you should watch it again. Perhaps you'll change your mind.

How do you feel about this movie? Let me know in the comments. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Underrated: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

          If you've been following this blog for any reasonable amount of time, you should know by now that I adore the films of David Lynch. Of course, this should come as no surprise, as a film lover obsessing over David Lynch is about as common as finding somebody who watched Seinfeld in the '90's. Even though my love of David Lynch is nothing special, I would say that my love of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is definitely something that turns heads.

        This is because a lot of David Lynch fans are really only allowed to like a handful of his movies. These are the movies that get written about endlessly by critics for peer-reviewed journals. You know the ones: Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, and, to a lesser extent, Lost Highway and Eraserhead. Blue Velvet is especially well-liked amongst cinephiles. College professors like to crowd around and discuss the many sexual and psychological implications behind the movie. They argue over the intentions behind the film's soundtrack's juxtaposed qualities, that final image of the robin's manufactured esthetic, the performances, etc. Blue Velvet was released at the perfect time for a lot of the more highly-regarded film academics working today. They were my age, as it were, and when you're my age, you are very easily won over by style, creative invention, and artistic risk. Blue Velvet had all of this.

         It was no surprise that Twin Peaks, the "David Lynch TV show," became a huge critical hit upon its release in 1990. It was strange, funny, scary, dramatic. The "Lynchian" qualities of the show, you know, those strange things that nobody can really define, were mostly marginalized for the viewer. Yes, BOB is really scary. Yes, the owls ARE watching, but most of these absurd elements are treated with a tongue-in-cheek tone.

        The show works well on multiple levels, as a satire of late 20th century soaps, a murder mystery, a character study, and so on. And when something so original, so married to a particular style, becomes overwhelmingly famous, there is always going to be a certain resentment from the artist. All of a sudden, David Lynch was in a box.

          The show became so popular with audiences that huge groups of fans lashed out against Lynch for not revealing Laura Palmer's killer during the first season finale (Sound familiar The Killing fans?). He was under a huge amount of pressure from the studio to solve the murder and appease his fans. But, honestly, does Lynch ever do anything to please his fans? Does the man who gave us this scene really like to make his audience feel good?


          Lynch has gone on record as saying that revealing the killer (which I won't do here) was the worst thing that could have ever happened to the show. Even though, one could argue, that revelatory episode is one of the single greatest hours to ever broadcast on television.

         Lynch began to feel caged by his own sensibilities. The show was a runaway hit, and the fans had expectations that Lynch could not meet. His films always focus on the ambiguities of life, on the nonexistence of true identity, on the evil and the good that war within us. He is not so much focused on following expectation.

        To confirm my point, I would like for you to see his output. One G-rated disney film. One huge-budget sci-fi adaptation. One biopic. Several undefinables. A 16-minute Lady Dior commercial. A music album.

       He left the show halfway through the second season to work on another project. That project would eventually turn into the Palm D'or winning film Wild At Heart. Another David Lynch film that is remarkably underrated (more on that next week).

      And, after a prolonged (and mostly rambling) second season, Twin Peaks left the air-ways with a finale that raised more questions than answers. Viewers were, once again, pissed at a show that continued to subvert expectations and take true risks. You know, those qualities that made the show so successful to begin with.

     The fans were so vocal about their complaints that David Lynch was able to fund a film set in the Twin Peaks universe. "Hooray!" the fans said in rejoice. "We finally get to know what was going on with Dale Cooper at the end of that finale!"

      Wrong again. Dale Cooper has a cameo in the film.

As does David Bowie!
          The film takes place during the week of Laura Palmer's murder. For the film, Lynch injected a bucket-load more of surrealism into the mix and removed much of the show's tongue-in-cheek humor. And, since there is almost no Dale Cooper, the film is mostly anchored by a performance from Sheryl Lee, who does all she can to hold the film together with her limited acting experience.

         Fire Walk With Me is a mean film. There are no more playful scenes between the characters, no more quirky, funny one-liners from zany small-town folks. In fact, this is probably Lynch's darkest, most atmospheric effort of his entire career (including Inland Empire, let us not forget "The Locomotion"). The surrealistic qualities of the film lend it an otherworldly feeling. Everybody seems to be in on something that the audience never fully understands. The Black Lodge has much more significance in the film, and its use is absolutely puzzling for those who have not recently (or ever) watched the show.

          Allegedly, there is enough footage of the film for Lynch to release a second part, but he prefers the jagged edges of the finished product. He prefers its truncated scenes and frustrating need to keep things from its viewer. And, honestly, so do I. The film has a certain power to it.

          From the moment Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland become surprise protagonists to the moment where the photograph of the door reveals itself within the plot, I am hooked on this movie. I am constantly amazed by its artistic risk. For a film based on a beloved franchise with a huge built-in audience, Fire Walk With Me is definitely a financial and artistic risk.

          But perhaps the word risk is giving Lynch's intentions too much credit. The word risk implies that financial success was possible. No, this film bombed. It was strange, scary, dark, violent, ambiguous, and mean. There is a violence in this movie that cannot be controlled.

          To go into exactly why this movie is so scary is to give away the identity of the killer, but let's just say this movie goes places you rarely see in any movie, let alone a movie based on a popular television show.

       Maybe Fire Walk With Me is a tad disjointed. Perhaps the performances are a little stilted. And, yes, maybe the movie is a little too weird. But I am in love with it. I am in love with the integrity Lynch brings to the product. I am in awe of the way he subverts expectations, and I cannot possibly imagine a more fitting way for Lynch to leave the series behind.

[Note: Strangely enough, this movie is hugely popular in Japan. I don't even...]