Friday, August 31, 2012

The Carlsons are in Sweden

Yesterday Stephen Carlson (Hypotyposeis) landed in Sweden to start his richly earned post at Uppsala University. He is a post-doctoral fellow in pre-Constantinian Christianity, and a supreme gain for the Swedes. I wish Stephen and his family the very best.

And speaking of Swedes and nihilism, tomorrow's blogathon feature is, appropriately, Ingmar Bergman.

Thom Stark on Idealism and Nihilism

Amidst his anti-Republican postings on Facebook, Thom Stark waxed philosophical and landed this gem:
"I'm an idealist, but also a cynical nihilist. We should know and do what is right, not because it's going to make a lasting difference to the world, but because tragedy is truth, and there is no tragedy where there is no effort to resist. To be human is to resist; to be fully human is to watch everything we've tried to achieve crumble to ash as we destroy ourselves. Not until everything is destroyed is our human experience complete. Believe if you have to believe, but the outcome will be the same for everybody. The only question is whether you tried or gave up. Knowing we're going to fail is not an excuse to give up. Because the question isn't whether or not we're going to conquer our animal nature. We certainly are not. The question is whether or not we're going to resist despite it. That potential to resist, however hopeless the cause, is what makes us what we are. Will we be human, or just another animal? The answer to the second question is in our DNA. The answer to the first is in your very real, very imaginary soul."
This marriage of idealism and nihilism isn't far from my own outlook, and carries two implied imperatives. One is the long defeat, or the inevitability of evil/destruction despite our drive to do good. It's a Ragnarok eschatology, if you will, that urges moral behavior even knowing it won't make a lasting difference, only a temporary holding action. Lord of the Rings, for instance, is saturated with such hopeless heroism: Sauron was defeated, but the end of the Third Age was about everyone's defeat -- the failure of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. In our world, the long defeat translates into more gritty realities, such as environmental sovereignty and the immorality hardwired in our genes.

The other imperative is tragedy, and I'd be surprised if Stark wasn't familiar with playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote: "The tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth. It is the meaning of life and the hope. The noblest is eternally the most tragic. The people who succeed and do not push on to a greater failure are the spiritual middle-classers." While I have no desire to seek out failure or tragedy (what fool would?), and while I'm confident that I fit the definition of a spiritual middle-classer, intent isn't the key. It's the plain result of tragedy, which is the garden of wisdom; it forces things on us we'd not take otherwise; it shrinks our learning curves exponentially; it's the ultimate extension of the pivotal truth, "no gains without pains".

Finally, Stark points to the "real and imaginary soul". Imaginary, because it can be neither seen nor proven, and may not even exist. Real because it feels real regardless, and drives us accordingly. Stark should expend more energy in these quarters, and perhaps a bit less redundantly bashing fools like Mitt Romney.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

David Lynch: From Best to Worst

This month's blogathon feature is David Lynch, the director most responsible for showing me film's unlimited potential. I'm finding these lists to be a good exercise for the way they force reassessments. For a long time I've said that Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are Lynch's unrivaled masterpieces, but now I see clearly that Fire Walk With Me is his best work, and wonder how I could have ever thought otherwise. So here's David Lynch from best to worst, 25 years after I was baptized into his noncomformist dreamscapes.

Update: See also Carson Lund's rankings of Lynch.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 1992. 5 stars. Awarding this the top slot invites a flame war. It has an awful reputation, in fact some consider it the nadir of Lynch's career. I think it's an absolute masterpiece, though I used to think otherwise when judging it as a Twin Peaks prequel. The key is to get a distance from the TV show, because it effectively stands alone. It's Lynch's darkest and most emotionally hurting film, more so than even Blue Velvet, containing scenes in Laura's bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is never answered (the TV series makes pretty clear it's the former), though I like the ambiguity. And the ending pays off lovely, where after a repugnant life on earth and her thoroughly degrading final hours, Laura gets her angel in heaven. It actually brought tears to my eyes. Fire Walk With Me is a brilliant horror film and emotional character piece in contrast to the TV series' focus on town dynamics, and as such it's an intensely personal film. Mark Kermode also thinks it's Lynch's #1 masterpiece and makes an excellent case as to why.

2. Blue Velvet. 1986. 5 stars. This film was my introduction to David Lynch, back when I was transitioning from high school to college, and it was my best friend who actually warned me against it. He loved disturbing movies as much as I, but he sure didn't like Blue Velvet; in fact he despised it as much as Roger Ebert, whose legendary TV review is still talked about today and contrasts with Entertainment Weekly's awarding it the 37th Best Film of all Time. I'm with EW. But what's fascinating is that this dramatic polarization, which I experienced personally, emerged when it did: the '80s were the worst decade for American cinema. (Seriously, how many films from 1983-1989 hold up today?) Blue Velvet seemed to oppose the faddish malaise with an insistence on aesthetic that matched its transgressive content. It takes the rot-under-the-small-town theme and injects heavy doses of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yes. But around all the suffocating depravity is worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters.

3. Mulholland Drive. 2001. 5 stars. This almost ties at #2, which I've seen as many times (namely, too many to count). If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the exact moment Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It crowns my list of dream-themed films, parading a brilliant understanding of projection in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a starry-eyed Hollywood star, and she gets off great lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane's life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it's one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film. I feel completely like I'm Diane/Betty when I watch this, though I have few commonalities with them. The best scene is the lip-synced Llorando, which precipitates the intrusion of reality at the two-thirds point; it makes my blood sing, it's that powerful.

4. Eraserhead. 1977. 5 stars. If this film is about parental fear, then maybe it's why I got a vasectomy. And I'm not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps us in a uniquely dreadful atmosphere, and the walls keep closing in. It's interesting how Kubrick and Lynch tend to work in opposite directions, one's stories leading to head-trips, the other's head-trips building to stories if you can make sense of them. I've even read that Eraserhead's tadpole-baby is the antithesis of Space Odyssey's Star-Child who smiled down on humanity's technological progress; tadpole-baby rages against humanity, a diseased product of our industrial "progress". What I still want to know is the Old Testament text which suddenly hit Lynch like an epiphany and cemented his vision for the film; to this day he refuses to come clean about it. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, perhaps the most existentially spiritual book of the bible, and I can indeed see why Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. Not only is it his most profound work, and his most unnerving, it's also his purest tuning of the dream-consciousness style he's known for.

5. Lost Highway. 1997. 4 ½ stars. This one is more moderately underrated, but still too much so, and I remember wanting to shoot Siskel and Ebert for giving it two thumbs down. There are shades of all the masterpieces here: the atmospheric horror of Eraserhead, the small-town suburbia (and underground sexual deviations) of Blue Velvet, and the character reinventions of Mulholland Drive. The best parts are the start and finish, the Bill Pullman parts, showing an insanely jealous man who kills his wife out of phantom fears, then resurfaces when his dream-identity breaks down. In reality, his wife had been doing something probably innocent, but he sees gangsters and porno films under every rock. The German voice-overs to the porno shots are so creepy they're terrifying -- as much as the initial murder, also seen on video. When he comes full circle at the end and rings his own doorbell, announcing what he (and we) heard at the start, the cycle is set in motion again, implying that in his attempt to escape reality, he becomes permanently imprisoned in denial. That's what the "lost highway" is, and while not exactly a masterpiece, it's still a work of art.

6. The Elephant Man. 1980. 3 ½ stars. With a moral structure and even sentimental thrust, The Elephant Man isn't especially recognizable as David Lynch, but it's a fine piece of work nonetheless. Instead of a surrealist dreamscape, this is practically a documentary. But the subject is gross enough to be out of a nightmare: John Merrick (1862-1890), who was so deformed that his parents rejected him and he became a traveling-circus freak. Also, there is some of Eraserhead to be obliquely found here, most notably in the theme of birth mutation, a horrifying concept that was clearly on Lynch's mind at this early stage of his career. The Victorian atmosphere with smog and clanging machinery is reminiscent of Henry Spencer's industrially polluted world. If The Elephant Man waxes melodramatic at points, it also preserves a wonderful ambiguity about Merrick's caretakers: Bytes' treatment of Merrick was horrible, but he arguably loved him, if in the way we love our pets. Treves' humane approach is the one we more approve, but ultimately he's using Merrick for his own benefit.

7. The Straight Story. 1999. 3 stars. I suspect that Lynch danced with Disney just to show the world he could do G-rated. His family-friendly film is based on the true account of a 73-year old man who drove his, yes, tractor-style lawn mower all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin, in order to visit an ailing brother. Which means it's a slow-paced odyssey, taking us through rural Midwest towns populated by the sort of endearing characters we see (on the surface, at least) in most of Lynch's films. We keep waiting for the NC-17 sideshows, but The Straight Story stays out of the netherworld and dwells on tranquility -- extended rests between the snail-paced road travel (the lawnmower doesn't putt over 5 miles/hour), and scenes of vast corn fields. Think Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, with its beautifully slow camera glides over yellowish landscapes, mix in light doses of small town culture, and you've got The Straight Story. It's a decent film, and a refreshing exercise for a director who usually revels in the dark and sordid, but nothing exceptional.

8. Inland Empire. 2006. 2 stars. If Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway are underrated gems in the Lynch canon, Inland Empire is the most bloated and overrated. It basically recycles the seedy mystery plots of Blue Velvet and the identity-blurring of Mulholland Drive, but with a sense that Lynch was just throwing darts. He admitted that he wasn't even working from a script, and it shows: unlike Mulholland Drive which balanced ambiguity and explanation perfectly, Inland Empire traces crazy-8's non-stop. To those who respond that this is much the point, I call the critic's competence into question. When all you really have are non-sequiturs and pseudo clues, that's called spitballing, not artistry. I wanted to like these parallel stories of a "woman in trouble", not least for Laura Dern's ferocious performances, both as the actress and the damaged prostitute. And there's no denying the aesthetic. But Lynch seems to have been intent on simply making the longest feature possible (it's over three hours) with no substance behind the surrealism we love him for. The result is a kaleidoscope, little more.

9. Dune. 1984. 1 star. This steaming pile of manure by rights belongs at the very bottom, but I'll cut Lynch a sliver of slack since I think any director would have failed with Dune. (Also, I retain a special hatred for Wild at Heart -- but more on that below.) Half the novel is inside people's heads, and Herbert had such command of inner turmoil that it's where the story's true excitement is. Lynch tried his best with internal monologues, but they're frankly abominable, and no one wants to watch stationary characters process thought for long periods of screen time. On top of this, the characters never come a fraction to life as they do in the book, and events whisk by criminally fast. Dune may not be Lord of the Rings, but it needed more than two hours to do it justice. But as I said, I think it was doomed regardless, which is why even the 4-hour TV mini-series years later was scarcely an improvement.

10. Wild at Heart. 1990. 1 star. Some might accuse me of a jaded perspective, going into my second Lynch film expecting another Blue Velvet. I remember that summer of 1990 too well: it was a late night showing at the crummy Premiere 8 in Nashua, and only two others were in attendance, a woman to the left of me, and a guy all the way down in front as crazy as Dafoe's Bobby Peru; he laughed like a hyena all the way through, at all the sick parts -- hell, he was practically part of the show. But that lunatic made me wonder if that's exactly what Lynch was doing as he filmed this travesty: laughing at us and just having fun. Wild at Heart is the product of a genius who's not applying himself. And I've revisited it enough times to be confident of my objective distance from that loopy experience at the cinema. The dialogue is a joke (Nicholas Cage's "this here alligator-jacket is a symbol of my individuality" is exemplary); the transgressive content gratuitous (unlike Blue Velvet's); the Wizard-of-Oz imagery obtuse. Lynch was taking the piss on this one.

Next month: Ingmar Bergman.