Tag Archives: David Lynch

Arrakis me quick: my four Guardian features on the 50th anniversary of Dune

18 Jul
Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society's 50th anniversary edition of Dune

Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society’s 50th anniversary edition of Dune

When I was a kid, I packed a book in my lunchbox every day: always science-fiction or fantasy. To this day when I smell bananas I think of spaceships. I’d get so wrapped up in a book I’d read it not just on the bus, but walking along the street to the bus, like people do now with phones. I got through so many sci-fi books that one day I found I’d read the library dry. I just went back and started re-reading them all.

Recently, I found a purpose for all this useless knowledge: the Guardian commissioned me to write a series of articles about Dune, for the Folio Society’s special 50th anniversary edition. I hadn’t just read the book five times as a kid – I’d won a Mastermind-style contest at prep school with Dune as my special subject. So writing the intro piece, about how Frank Herbert had initially been rejected by 23 publishers, was a blast.

I also had to compile and review 25 top works of sci-fi and fantasy. I found I had read all but two of them (and with those I had seen the films), which simplified research somewhat. Nice to have my misspent youth coming in handy.

But my favourite piece was an idea I had, that they weren’t sure about until I wrote it: a travel guide to Dune, written as though for the discerning intergalactic traveller of the future.

Throw in a picture gallery and interview with Sam Weber, the amazing illustrator of the Folio Society’s prestige edition, and you have one of my favourite commissions of recent times.

I’m only sorry I didn’t get to write about the Dune film. But I did interview David Lynch a while back, and you can read that here.

If you’re a Dune fan, I hope you enjoy these articles – just click the links above. If you’re not – why not?!

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Virgin America’s Blah Airways film: 5 good reasons to watch six hours of tedium

21 Oct

Virgin America’s epic new in-flight film is intended to be six hours of unremitting tedium, in order to demonstrate how dull any plane journey that is not with Virgin can be. Instead, Have you been flying BLAH airlines? is strangely fascinating. I’ve been mesmerised by it today, which is perhaps taking procrastination to new depths.

It’s filmed in real time, on a plane, with a cast of dummies. Mannequins, that is. Long periods of silence are interrupted by a meet-cute in-flight film-within-the-film with interminably banal dialogue on a communal screen too small to be seen, or by the ruminations of terminally dull fellow passengers, or by a passive-aggressive steward enquiring with hostility barely concealed beneath a veneer of politeness why a passenger hasn’t drunk the coffee he brought.

Here are five things that make it great:

— The blankness of the mannequins. It’s said that when Richard Burton first worked with Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra, he complained to the director that while he was giving it his all, she was doing nothing, and the film would be a disaster. The director agreed – but not in the way Burton expected. He showed Burton the rushes, and Burton saw that Taylor was wonderful, luminous, carrying a scene with a single raised eyebrow – while the stage-trained Burton seemed on screen a terrible ham.

Similarly, Clint Eastwood has said that his drama coach used to shout at him, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Billy Wilder once made Jack Lemmon retake a scene 20 times, each time saying “That’s great, but just take it down a notch or two,” until Lemmon burst out, “If I take it down any more, I won’t be acting at all.” Wilder smiled, and said, “Finally, you’re getting the idea.” And a young actor working with Robert De Niro for the first time asked him for tips. The great man thought awhile, and said, “Try not to blink”.

The point is that, on film, less is more. Through the director’s use of lighting and music and framing, the audience will read onto a blank face an enormous depth of emotion. After a while, these mannequins start to seem like wonderful actors.

— The sinisterness of the implied. We are so used to periods of calm and banality in movies being juxtaposed with scenes of horror and violence, that I spent a lot of the film on the edge of my seat. It felt like something awful was always just round the corner.

— It’s totally out to Lynch. David Lynch is the master of the unsettlingly banal (click here to read my four-part interview with Lynch), but this tops him. I spent five minutes staring at a seat-back being rocked back and forth, back and forth, with squeaking noises. It later turned out to be a child – a rather grotesque grinning mannequin child – but had it turned out to be a backwards-talking dwarf I would not have been in the least surprised.

— It shows how powerful the score can be. At one point driving, energetic music begins, and it totally changes the mood of the film. It turns out to be from another passenger with leaky headphones, but you half-expect Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson to burst through with a gun.

— Boring dialogue can be really funny. Tarantino is the master of this: think conversations about foot-rubs, European burgers, or Madonna songs. My favourite bit in the Virgin film is the diatribe by the dullest passenger on how terrible it is there is too much choice in modern life – so many things on the Starbucks menu when you just want a coffee.

That’s one of my obsessions, too. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit in Alex Cox’s Repo Man when they go into a corner shop, and on the shelves are rows and rows of tins all labelled “FOOD”, and in the fridge, cans all labelled “BEER”. Sometimes, when I’m feeling overloaded, I’ll go into a pub, and just ask for beer. They say what kind, and I say “beer”. Even as to whether it’s lager or bitter, I say “beer”. They eventually give me something. It always tastes good.

And maybe that’s at the heart of the movie’s curious appeal. With dozens of TV channels, endless programmes on demand, millions of videos on YouTube, and faster and faster editing in Hollywood films, all piling sensation onto sensation in the race to grab our precious eyeballs if only for a short few minutes, to watch something deliberately slow and pointless feels strangely refreshing.

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…

fire

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.”

jazz

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.”

bed

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.”

outside

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.

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?

Alan Moore channels David Lynch in his film debut

9 Dec
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Siobhan Hewlett as Faith in Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’s first short, Act Of Faith

 

The films made from Alan Moore’s comics range from the terrible, bearing no relation to the original beyond a shared premise (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine), to the not-at-all-bad-but-the-best-bits-are-lifted-straight-from-the-comic-so-what’s-the-point? (V for Vendetta, Watchmen). So it’s fascinating to see how Moore approaches writing for the screen himself.

I thought we’d never get the chance: even before he fell out terminally with Hollywood, back in 2002, I asked him to rate his five favourite art forms; cinema did not make the cut. But recently at the Prince Charles Cinema, following a fascinating interview (click here for the highlights), Alan Moore staged a screening of the first two of five projected linked shorts. His reluctant celebrity status has worked to his advantage this time: the fifth and final short recently raised £60,000 on Kickstarter — £15,000 more than they asked for, and many times the budget of most shorts (though a lot of it will go on the Kickstarter perks of T-shirts, DVDs and books).

For me, part of the interest is that both Alan Moore and the director, photographer Mitch Jenkins, are new to film. Both were quite upfront about this at the Prince Charles. “I’d never seen a film script before I got Alan’s,” said Mitch Jenkins. “Since I’d never seen one before writing one, I’m not sure you have even now,” quipped Alan Moore.

How would they fare, free of the “tyranny” of script structure classes and Save The Cat books?

The first short, Act of Faith, is an uncomfortable watch which has already provoked heated debate online about its sexual politics. [SPOILER WARNING: major plot points ahoy. But as you will likely see these two films only when all five are completed, I feel this only gives away the beginning.] A woman, Faith (Siobhan Hewlett), arranges to meet her lover, talking dirty on the phone. We follow her with almost painful slowness as she undresses and dons “slutty” clothes. She places plastic in her mouth, handcuffs herself inside a wardrobe, and settles down to wait…

… until her phone rings: her lover is frantic; delayed by an accident, he can’t get there in time. She wakes up to the danger, too late – and we watch as slowly, helplessly, handcuffed, she suffocates, alone.

It’s especially uncomfortable because for much of the 15-minute short the camera does not show things from her POV: we see her from behind, as passive voyeurs, then peering in at her from outside the wardrobe, unable or unwilling to step in and help her. It’s uncomfortable, too, because there is no clear message. Does she “deserve” to die for being (her words) a “slut”? Is she a damaged individual, showing how a cycle of abuse is endlessly self-perpetuated? Does the film demonstrate that the supposed feminine empowerment behind sexual experimentation can too easily turn to victimhood? Is this is a reactionary message in liberal (un)clothing?

Perhaps all will become clearer in subsequent films. But it’s more likely that Moore sees his role as a writer to pose the questions, not to come up with the answers. Certainly he’s a purist: “I have a kind of Khmer Rouge, Year Zero approach to film-making,” Alan Moore said at the Prince Charles screening. “Nothing which isn’t real, no special effects.” And, as he’s pointed out elsewhere, no non-diagetic sound, ie that the characters themselves can’t hear.

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Jimmy’s End. “I do quite like David Lynch,” says Alan Moore.

The second short, Jimmy’s End, is at over 30 minutes more artistically successful and more cinematically ambitious. A silver-haired gent finds himself in a strange bar in a strange part of town. It’s quickly apparent to the viewer, though not yet to Jimmy, that this is hell, or at least Limbo. “I never knew this was here,” he tells the barmaid. “Yes, you did,” she says, significantly.

The sound engineering is brilliant, with distorted jukebox music and endlessly ringing phones creating an unbearable tension as Jimmy wanders corridors graffitied with magical sigils, encountering a series of laconic weirdos – notably a threatening-looking clown who tells him, by the urinals: “I don’t tell jokes anymore. I just masturbate and cry. Usually at the same time.”

Faith, the woman from the first film, is here, too, in reluctant thrall to a devil figure, and Alan Moore himself makes a spectacular appearance as a god figure, in gold boots and white trousers, his gold-painted face haloed with frizzed-up white hair like Aslan gone Elvis, or a 60-year-old version of The Teletubbies’ sun-baby.

If there is a problem with Jimmy’s End (and there is), it’s that it’s not so much a homage to David Lynch as a wholesale steal.  Alan Moore made light of this: “I do quite like David Lynch,” he said at the screening, “however I would have to say the red curtains were Mitch’s idea. And the only film I can think of without any curtains is perhaps One Million Years B.C.

It’s not just the curtains, though, that recall David Lynch: it’s the eerie soundscapes; the latent menace; the gallery of grotesques; the slow pace and long takes; the red, red lipstick; and the very idea of vaguely cabaret-style waiting rooms that are suggestive of the supernatural.

Ah well. There are worse people to copy. And if you are going to make your film debut, why not dream big, and cut straight to kinky sex, death, and the afterlife?