Archive | January, 2014

Great Scott! It’s Back To The Future on stage!

31 Jan

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I am returning from the future to let you know that the latest film-to-stage spectacular has become a massive hit. I’ve been keeping this news secret until today’s official press announcement, but Back To The Future has its world premiere as a musical in London in 2015 to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary.

Once upon a time, Hollywood employed the sharpest stage writers and adapted the best plays into films. Recently the traffic has been in the other direction. Mama Mia!, Legally Blonde, Dirty Dancing, Ghost, Sister Act, The Bodyguard, The Commitments, From Here To Eternity, Spamalot and, from March, Fatal Attraction; and those are just the names at the tip of my tongue, no Google required. But Back To The Future is the greatest of them all.

First, it’s a perfect script: smart, funny, appealing to all generations, not too clever-clever twisty-turny but enough so to keep the geeks (like me) happy. “Why is everything so heavy in the future?” asks Doc of Marty McFly’s favourite expression. “Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

Second, the musical element is built-in, not tacked on. Marty dreams of being a rock star, and ends up inventing rock ‘n’ roll when Marvin Berry’s brother hears him play and calls up his brother Chuck to have a listen.

Third, skateboarding! Fourth, cool car! Fifth, flux capacitor! Sixth… well, it’s Back To The Future!

I’ve been on the Back To The Future ride in Universal Studios, with its newly recorded video link from Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. That was super-fun. The musical is even funner (yes, that’s a word).

I know. I’ve seen it.

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In the psychiatrist’s chair: six revelations from David Lynch (interview part four)

29 Jan

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What follows is self-contained, but there’s more good stuff to the interview. Click the links to read parts one, two, and three, or for a review of his current photography exhibition.

Despite the recurrent obsessions on display in his patently f***ed-up films, David Lynch has never undergone psychoanalysis. “I went one time,” he explains, “and I asked him if it might affect my creativity. And he said, ‘David, I have to be honest with you, it could.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m happy to meet you, but I have to go.’”

I tell him that in that case I’m going to play psychiatrist, right here in this Paris hotel suite. I’m going to give him six words – connected with key imagery from his films – and he has to tell me the first thing that comes into his head for each. Surprisingly, Lynch agrees. The results are strangely revealing…

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1. “Fire.” I’m thinking of Lynch’s trademark close-ups of cigarettes (above); the blaze that haunts Wild At Heart; the burning cabin in Lost Highway; the very title Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But what’s Lynch thinking? Fifteen seconds elapse.

“Well, it’s… It’s kinda…. It means different things in different situations. When I just think about fire, it’s so pure, I don’t think about anything else.” And then, shockingly: “When you said it, I was picturing being in it.”

Your first student short was of heads throwing up and catching fire, I add. “It was the reverse, actually. But the elements water, earth, air and fire, it’s no accident that we really like those things, and things get reduced down… Fire is so magical. There’s a texture to it that occurs nowhere else. And controlling something like that… It wants to get bigger if it can, and then you’re very worried that one will go out! With me, I always think about magic, the unexplainable.”

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2. “Jazz.” Lynch works very closely with his composers, though it must be said, Bill Pullman in Lost Highway (above) is the least plausible jazz saxophonist ever seen. There’s hardly any pause this time: “Freedom. It’s like no constraints, an opening, and then barriers going away and lifting and breaking and experimentation and… it’s like attempting for something.”

brain 3. “The brain.” Each Lynch film out-grosses the last on brain injuries; in Eraserhead the hero’s head is made into pencils; The Elephant Man is killed in his sleep through the sheer weight of his head; Blue Velvet has the shot cop briefly still standing, brains exposed, like a faulty electrical appliance; in Wild At Heart Sherilyn Fenn wanders about in shock after a car crash, holding her brain into her cracked skull (left), while asking if anyone’s seen her hairbrush; Lost Highway tops the lot by burying a glass coffee table in a man’s cranium.

“Well, um…” Nineteen seconds go by. I wait. Then: “The brain is just like a plate but the nervous system and the mind is, ah….” Fully 27 seconds of silence as he furrows his brow comically like a boy at examination time. “It’s the thing that traps us and ultimately frees you.”

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4. “The bed.” In The Grandmother, Lynch’s best early short, a lonely boy grows a grandmother from a plant on his bed, on which she later dies; Wild At Heart contains a number of heroic sex scenes (above). Complete silence for 48 seconds. What part of “first thing to come into your head” does he not understand? Then Lynch giggles like a schoolboy to whom one has whispered the word “sex”. “It’s sort of like… A bed is used for many things, but it really is a closeness to death.” Pause. “And birth, too.”

red curtains5. “Red curtains.” I’m thinking of the afterlife/limbo of Twin Peaks (left); how in Lost Highway the camera moves over red curtains like a spaceship exploring a strange planet. Immediate response. “Curtains are both hiding and revealing. Sometimes it’s so beautiful that they’re hiding, it gets your imagination going. But in the theatre, when the curtains open, you have this fantastic euphoria, that you’re going to see something new, something will be revealed.”

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6. “The outside.” This is where Jeffrey finds the severed ear in Blue Velvet; the woods are where all the weirdness happen in Twin Peaks (above); there’s the Lost Highway itself. I tell Lynch I’ve read that he was terrified of the outdoors as a child. Immediate response. “Right, I did have a period of that. I really like captured space. Even great vistas are okay because I see some edge. But the word ‘outside’, it’s uh, too random. I lose a bit of control with that word.”

And yet your dad worked for the Department of Agriculture. “My father was a woodsman, yes. And wood has played a huge role in my life. So I like building things out of wood, I like chainsawing, I like the smell of the wood, I like the look of a tree, particularly my father’s favourite tree which was the Ponderosa Pine. The wood is… everything all the fairy tales made you feel.”

Karma chameleon: David Lynch on death and rebirth, interview part 3

28 Jan
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Natasha Gregson Wagner with Balthazar Getty in Lynch’s Lost Highway

Click the links for part one and part two of the interview. My review of David Lynch’s current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery is here. Lynch and I are playing a game of “hot or cold” to get to the truth about Lost Highway…

Back to split personalities. All your films deal with the duality of good and evil, often fought out internally. The Mystery Man in Lost Highway seems, like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, a straightforward embodiment of evil, the dark side. (Lynch cocks his head like a bird to indicate “cold”.) Um. Or is he a Creature From The Id, summoned up from Bill Pullman’s subconscious? (Lynch nods.) Is that warm? “Yeah.”

One bit I really like in Lost Highway is where Getty transforms back into Pullman, when they’re making love in front of the car headlights in a bright white light, like at the end of Fire Walk With Me where the angel descends. So is this a kind of angelic visitation? (He’s nodding, saying uh-huh, but as if he’s expecting more.) So I don’t know where that goes exactly… (Lynch laughs, and doesn’t help out.)

Okay. You’ve said before you believe in reincarnation. Is it anything to do with Karma, the wheel of life, with rebirth? “It could be.” Then: “You know there’s, ah, all sorts of symbols of beautiful transformations, like the cocoon into the butterfly. So it makes you wonder, you know, what is this transformation we’re going through?”

So there is life after death? “Aaah, I think so. I think it’s a continuum.” So what’s it like? (He laughs.) Not a room with red curtains and people talking backwards, then? “That would be kinda beautiful to me.”

So the blackest, most depressing thing about Lost Highway is that Bill Pullman can never die. He’s trapped in this time loop, doomed to repeat his murders and mistakes for ever and ever. “Well, maybe not forever and ever, but you can see how it would be a struggle. Yeah, that’s it.” (Lynch looks uneasy. He’s given away too much!)

So it is that Buddhist notion of reincarnation, that you can only get off the wheel to Nirvana after thousands of years? “Exactly.” So there is light? Pullman could be released if the film carried on? “Oh yeah. Sure. It’s a fragment of the story. It’s not so much a circle as like a spiral that comes around, the next loop a little bit higher than the one that precedes it.”

So there you have it. I think I’ve come as close here as any human can to the central idea behind the film.

I have one more game to play with Lynch; but first, I need to ask him about the accusations of misogyny and pornography that have dogged him ever since Blue Velvet. I have up my sleeve a book of film noir reviews by Barry Gifford, author of Wild At Heart and co-scripter of Lost Highway. Written in 1988, before he started working with Lynch, it describes Blue Velvet as “One cut above a snuff movie. A kind of academic porn. I can never imagine things as depraved as those that occur here, and I’ve always thought I could get pretty low in that department. Pornography, as such, simply bores me. So this movie isn’t for me, yet it seems somehow important and worth discussing.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

“He says it’s not for him?” Lynch responds when I read this to him. “I’ll never work with him again.” He’s joking, of course…

Lost Highway certainly reopens the debate. It features Patricia Arquette being screwed from behind and made to strip at gunpoint, only to discover that she enjoys it. Lynch counters that that’s just the way the character happens to be. Certainly, his male characters are even more passive, and no less sexually screwed up. It’s more perhaps that Lynch’s own sexuality was imprinted in the ’50s, with his fetishistic fondness for sweater girls in high-heeled shoes with lipstick like a gash of blood. It does seem suspicious that a man who went out with Ingrid Bergman’s daughter (Isabella Rossellini) for several years also cast Natalie Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, in Lost Highway – wearing a tight ’50s sweater with nothing underneath it, as you can see when she takes it off in a car.

So, Dave, ‘fess up: was it because you used to fancy her mum?

“I fancied Natalie Wood, sure, but that’s not why Natasha was hired. I met her and suddenly realised I’d met her 18 years before. I didn’t actually see her then, but her mother was eight months pregnant. It was when I first went to the American Film Institute, and they had a big party one evening, and Natalie Wood came out on the verandah.”

So it’s back to your cycle of life and birth?

“Exactly right.”

Another score. Lynch has certainly warmed up over the course of our interview. It’s time to put him on the psychiatrist’s chair, and play a game of word association…

Come back tomorrow for part four

A game of “hot and cold” with David Lynch: interview part two

27 Jan
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Robert Blake as “Mystery Man” in David Lynch’s Lost Highway

Though the next two parts of this interview are pretty self-contained, part one is here

David Lynch is unassailably up there now in the pantheon of great film auteurs. But when I meet him in 1997, his career is on the skids. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was booed at Cannes, where two years earlier Wild At Heart had won the Palme d’Or. His second stab at TV after Twin Peaks, On The Air, had been pulled after a few painfully unfunny episodes. In these circumstances, most people would choose a crowd-pleaser for their next project. Instead, Lynch made Lost Highway: brilliant, fascinating, but one of the darkest and least accessible of all his dark and impenetrable movies.

The first third is slow and sombre and pregnant with menace, as Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, married but separated by invisible walls, receive anonymous videotapes each morning that are filmed inside the house, penetrating further and further each time. Then we’re in another film entirely as Bill Pullman, on Death Row for the bloody butchery of his wife, metamorphoses inside the police cell into a young Balthazar Getty – why, we never really know. The baffled prison guards have no choice but to release him, and he steps out into a bright, ’50s-styled world where Patricia Arquette is also transformed, this time into a blonde-haired gangster’s moll who sucks him into danger, lust and finally murder again.

Things are further confused by a man known only in the credits as Mystery Man (above), Lynch’s most disturbing creation since Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, who also has a habit of being in two places at once. The film ends, in an infernal time-loop, exactly where it began.

That’s about all the plot that can be described. Along the way there’s hot sex and distant sex; a head-wound of epic proportions even by Lynch’s standards; and a gratuitously weird but very funny sequence in which crime boss Robert Loggia pistol-whips a tailgaiting driver while lecturing him on the highway code.

That’s the beauty of Lynch films: they are an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle hidden inside a maze. I try to ask Lynch outright what Lost Highway is about, but as expected I get this response: “It’s good to talk about some things, and some things it’s good not to talk about. I love more than to intellectually understand something, to feel an understanding of something.”

Right. Thanks a lot, Dave. But I’ve come prepared for this eventuality. Here’s what we’ll do, I say: I’ll tell you what I think this movie means, and you can tell me if I’m hot or cold. Okay? He’s tickled by this. Off we go…

Kyle MacLachlan once said that, when playing Agent Dale Cooper, he imagined him as Jeffrey from Blue Velvet grown up. Maybe the Bill Pullman character isn’t actually a different person from the Getty character; maybe he’s just the grown-up version? That’s why the second half seems so ’50s, because it indicates a shift back in time. And while Getty and Jeffrey both lusted after these doomed mystery women, Pullman has actually married her, and found that life with her isn’t all he’d hoped for.

Lynch nods like a dog in a car’s back window, almost rocking his head off during the bit about marrying the mystery woman. Is it my imagination, or are we both thinking of his now terminated relationship with Isabella Rossellini, whom he met while casting the part of Jeffrey’s doomed siren in Blue Velvet? But all he’ll say is: “Very good.” So, does that mean warm? “Yes, that’s very good.” Have you anything to add to that? “No.” Jesus!

Still, I’ve scored one hit, with another to come…

Click here for part three, where the real meaning of Lost Highway is revealed as David Lynch discusses death, rebirth, and why he got Natalie Wood’s daughter to strip off.

Interview and damn fine coffee with David Lynch, part one

26 Jan

With an exhibition of David Lynch’s photos now at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, and a special anniversary edition of Twin Peaks featuring additional material (possibly newly shot) planned for Blu-ray, this seems a good time to put together the best of a 1997 Time Out interview I did with the great man:

“Oh, my,” says David Lynch, as he walks into the Paris hotel suite. “Look at you all lollygagging around.”

Several things are strange about this:

1. The word “lollygagging”. Who says that? It sounds straight out of the ‘50s. That’s why Mel Brooks once described Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”.

2. Who “we all” are. Sprawled on a big hotel bed alongside me are David Lynch’s then 14-year-old son Austin, and either Adam Buxton or Joe Cornish of the “Adam and Joe” comedy duo (the second of whom would go on to make urban sci-fi comedy Attack The Block) and his film PR girlfriend, all watching Adam and Joe’s Toytrainspotting spoof.

3. It’s freakin’ David Lynch!!

His debut feature, Eraserhead, is so called because the hero gets decapitated and his head made into pencils. His only stab at a blockbuster, Dune, features a bloated, pus-boiled pervert, Baron Harkonnen, killing the terrified boy he is molesting at the moment of orgasm by pulling out the plug surgically fitted to his heart. [This is not, as I recall, in the original book]. Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear and gets much worse; Twin Peaks turns supernatural evil, serial-killing and incest into prime-time soap; in Wild At Heart Lynch cut graphic scenes of torture only after a hundred people had walked out of a test screening.

Lynch doesn’t need the torture, frankly. He is best at using the unseen and understated, a heightened banality coupled with an extraordinary use of sound, to create a terror of the unknown. His films inhabit a dreamscape where you cannot be sure what is reality and what is fantasy (never better than in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire), with backwards-talking midgets and red-curtained purgatories accessorised as standard.

We meet just before Lost Highway is released, in 1997. This is one of his most impenetrable films: not so much a “whodunnit” as a “whatthefuckwasallthatabout?”, it still gives the impression that behind the string of striking images there might just possibly be a narrative thread. I think I get pretty close to finding out what that is.

But Lynch is, frankly, a tough interview. He doesn’t like to talk about his private life, which is fair enough. But nor does he like to talk about or explain his work. What does that leave? Diet tips, maybe?

Yep, that’s exactly where we begin. Lynch once called sugar “granulated happiness”. So as Lynch pours me a cup of some Damn Fine Coffee, I ask, so, David, find any good doughnuts in Paris?

“I’m off the doughnuts,” he says; he’s 22 pounds lighter than he was. “I’m off bread and potatoes. On a diet, yeah. Of protein, vegetables, fruit, many good things. But you can’t combine it with things that trigger your insulin level to go up. When your insulin level goes up, it forms a hand, and the hand grabs the fat, and puts it in your body.” Miming this, he makes it so sinister that I haven’t eaten a doughnut since.

We move on to kids. Lynch’s daughter Jennifer wrote and directed her own film, Boxing Helena, aged just 19.  It’s about a woman whose limbs are cut off one by one by her adoring but possessive boyfriend in order to keep her by his side. Sherilyn Fenn played the lead after Kim Basinger walked off the project, for which Basinger was successfully sued for millions. Money well spent, imo. The film was so panned that Jennifer didn’t direct another for 25 years.

Jennifer was quoted as saying that even her dad found the film offensive, which takes some doing. I ask Lynch about this, and he denies it: “But it should perhaps have been a small film that found its way. The way it turned out, it just set her up for a fall.”

Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, made over a seven-year period, was about a father terrorised by a mutant baby that cries like a bleating sheep. It was directly inspired by his becoming a father to Jennifer. So… um… how did she react to that?

“Jennifer was eight when it was finished,” says Lynch, unperturbed. “She saw it. She was right there. Yeah, I think she got it…”

Read part two of the interview, in which I play a game of “hot or cold” with David Lynch to explain Lost Highway.

Journey into the art of darkness with David Lynch

24 Jan

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David Lynch’s exhibition of black and white photos at London’s Photographers’ Gallery is typically unsettling. Seen individually, each is a banal portrait of a post-industrial setting: a factory in Łódź, or a set of chimneys in Britain. But cumulatively, and particularly knowing Lynch’s films, they force you to start constructing a narrative in your head, to disturbing effect.

Smoke. Brick. Steel. Pylons. Peeling paint. Broken windows. Shadowy, inexplicable doorways, behind which you can’t help intuit a brooding presence. Snaking pipework – what gas or fluids do they carry? A wall of windows, some lit, some not, forming a geometric mosaic like a black-and-white Mondrian.

But the most striking picture of all, given all those that have gone before, is this one (below). We have had a succession of claustrophobic warehouse or factory interiors, all disused – abandoned after a radiation leak, perhaps; or one-time scenes of inexplicable workforce deaths; or currently used for the occasional kidnap, torture and murder. This is the only window on to the outside world in the whole exhibition, and it focuses directly on a single house.

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It’s hard not to feel like a deranged stalker looking out on a prospective victim. The perspective makes Father Dougals of us all — the house seems not so much far away, as very, very small. A dolls’ house whose inhabitants are of as little consequence, and there purely for the viewer’s sport.

Or is that just me?

I saw an exhibition of Lynch’s paintings in at the Galerie Piltzer in Paris in 1997. Again, they were individually unremarkable, until you realised that, cumulatively, they created a record of a crime scene.

Or was that just me?

Humans are meaning-creating creatures, the film guru Chris Jones has said. In other words, you don’t have to spell everything out for the audience when you make a film; the viewer will work hard to supply meaning to a scene in which little is said.

It works for David Lynch’s films, just as it works for his photography and paintings. Starting tomorrow, I will serialise my 1997 interview with Lynch, conducted for Time Out on the release of one of his most obscure and unsettling films, Lost Highway. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

What a wunch of bankers*: The Wolf of Wall Street

22 Jan

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Thank god for Martin Scorsese. Here he is, at 71, still making big, brash, riotously entertaining films that take on weighty American topics without fear of the controversy they will inevitably cause: in this case that wunch of bankers in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Loads has been written already about how immoral/amoral the film is, in not showing the victims of Jordan Belfort’s crimes; and how chauvinistic the film is, with its lashings of ripe female flesh and its rampantly misogynistic office culture. But all this is wide of the mark, because I think the real point is this: The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the finest examples of an “unreliable narrator” since The Catcher in the Rye.

Right from the off, it’s made clear that this film will be Belfort’s version of the truth. Not only does he provide the voice-over, in the first few minutes we see him driving a red Ferrari – only for that Ferrari to change to white as he informs us: “No, not a red Ferrari, a white one like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.”

This provides some of the funniest moments: particularly when, after a massive Quaalude bender, Belfort somehow steers his car home unscathed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical comedy here, dragging himself along the floor to the wheel, is what surely earned him his Oscar nomination; but the real joke is at the end of this sequence. The police come to arrest Belfort the next morning; confused, he exits his mansion to see the beautiful car totally destroyed, with the back wheel hanging off and bits of tree still attached to its dents. Only then does the film replay the true version of his drugged-up drive home.

Belfort clearly has no remorse for his victims, and nor does the film. Belfort has a predatory, proprietary approach to women, somehow still believing he treats his wife well until the moment she dumps him, and so does the film.

I don’t believe it’s the job of a film, or any work of art, to be socially responsible. The Wolf of Wall Street clearly isn’t; it’s much too much fun, and the consequences too inconsequential, to be seen as a cautionary tale. No wonder bankers are treating it as a “how-to” lesson, which is a problem for the rest of us: it is their world, and sadly we all have to live in it.

No, the job of art is to be true to itself, which this is, up to a point. The problem here is that, in providing only Belfort’s viewpoint, we get no closer to the real truth: what really motivated and drove his insatiable greed and ambition; or why his father, who worked for him, made no real attempt to provide a moral compass.

Oh well. This is, in bits, one of the funniest films of the year. Sometimes it’s in a frat-house way, such as the introduction of the preternaturally beautiful woman Belfort would marry: “I would f*** that girl if she was my sister!” says one colleague. “I would let her give me f***ing AIDS!” A drugged-up Jonah Hill (brilliant; could easily win Best Supporting Actor) simply whips out his schlong and starts masturbating in the middle of the party.

But often the humour is quite subtle. Discussing the hiring of dwarfs for an office game of dwarf-tossing (yes, this was a thing in the ‘80s), Belfort earnestly stresses that “safety is paramount”. He then elaborates: “I think we should have tranquilliser guns on standby in case the dwarves get mad.”

* With thanks to Neil Gaiman for the headline. Discussing the term “a murder of crows” many years back, he told me the collective noun for bankers: “It’s a wunch,” he said. “As in, ‘what a wunch of bankers’.”