Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Crank 2: High Voltage" Trailer

Here it is...the trailer you've all been waiting for!!! Well, maybe not, but there is something fascinating about this series, you've got to admit. This sequel especially reminds me of this film I saw a few years called Nowhere Man about a guy who wakes up and discovers his penis has been "stolen." Rather than attach an artificial one, he seeks out the men (and woman) who took it from him. It wasn't well made enough to be as fun as it sounds, but I'm hoping Crank 2 is. Crank was some sort of fun, but had too many down moments and, oddly enough, not enough narrative adrenaline to keep it going for its short running time. I'm keeping the faith that Statham can take the energy to 11 for this one and make it...electric.

Crank 2: High Voltage Trailer - Watch more free videos

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Necessities of Life?

Editor's Note: An earlier (and quite similar) version of this review appeared at The Film Experience.

by James Hansen

Canadian filmmakers not named Denys Arcand have never done well at the Academy Awards. Since the Foreign Film Oscar has been awarded, Canada has been nominated four times; three of the four films have been directed by Arcand. Canada won the award for Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions in 2003, was nominated in 2006 for Water, but failed to win the award. With the “snub” of Arcand’s Days of Darkness last year, perhaps there is some sort of turning point for Canadian Oscar movies in the future. Luckily for us, the Academy appropriately did not recognize that turning point this year. Although Canada got dangerously close to bucking the trend this year with Benoit Pilon’s The Necessities of Life – a classically egregious piece of Oscar bait that made the Foreign Film shortlist – there was at least some sort of saving grace when the Academy failed to nominate it. Nothing against Canada, but The Necessities of Life is exactly the kind of sentimental (and completely out of touch) foreign film that Oscar usually goes for and that they desperately need to start rejecting.

With about two seconds of character development and random shots of the Far North landscape, The Necessities of Life bounds from dramatic cliche to dramatic cliche throughout the course of its narrative. Taking the 1950s tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North as its starting point, the film follows Tivii, an Inuit who is forced to leave his family when doctors discover he has the disease. Tivii is shipped to a sanatorium in Quebec City where (stop me if you’ve heard this one) he is isolated from his family and unable to communicate with anyone in the predominantly French speaking region. Wind the crank of this formula and out comes the entire checklist of Serious Things To Cover When Reflecting On Death, Life, Communication and Family. Run away. Refuse to eat. Be force fed by nurses. Spit food out. Lead your own march to death.

Funny thing is, all of this is just the first half of the movie. Unconvincing as all of that is, the film does a 180 when Tivii’s nurse brings in an sick orphan, Kaki, who speaks Tivii’s language. Immediately, Tivii’s perspective on life brightens and voila! No more TB. What to do then? Fight the authorities in an attempt to adopt orphan, just as orphan gets progressively weaker. Done, and done.

Besides being extremely familiar material, which inherently makes it a little weaker (or, at least, puts it in a difficult position), Pilon’s direction does nothing to give the story any sense of urgency or importance. (This is a similar predicament to that of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which is mostly able to work something fresh and exciting about the classic genre material). Tivii loves his family and wants to return to the plains, but the film only shows the family briefly and the land in random cut aways. Nothing establishes any mild reason for us to care, so why should we? Though Natar Ungalaaq does all he can playing Tivii, there just isn’t enough around him to sustain any kind of emotional energy. It all falls flat. From the ground up – script, acting, direction – The Necessities of Life is wholly unconvincing, utterly insipid, and blazingly reductive.
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Deja-Vu Melodrama: An Iconographical and Iconological Analysis of "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"

Editor's Note: As you will notice, this is quite a long essay on many aspects of Chantal Akerman's masterwork which has reopened this week at Film Forum with a new 35mm print. This article investigates and discusses specific details about the film, including the possibly shocking ending (if you don't know what's coming). While this essay may help inform a first viewing of the film, it includes "spoilers" of the events that take place in the film – not that there are really that many. Just wanted to warn everyone going in. JH

by Maria Fosheim Lund

The purpose of this essay is to investigate what I shall claim is a liaison between Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and the melodrama. Multifarious by nature, Jeanne Dielman consequently resists being “shoehorned” into any specific category, genre, or mode, thus the aim here is not to force an overdetermined prefix onto the film, but rather to highlight its critical potential as it engages in a larger sociopolitical and aesthetic discourse both with and via the melodrama. By analyzing the structure of the film, together with its use of mise-en-scène, the focus in the first part of the essay will be on elements the film appropriates from the melodrama, and how the relationship between the melodrama and Jeanne Dielman can be characterized, via investigating to what degree the film can be defined as a generic pastiche. This iconographical analysis will further compare the film in relation to the framework of the Hollywood family melodrama, as defined and explained by Thomas Elsaesser in his article "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama."

The second part of the essay will focus on different levels of critique inherent in the filmic text of Jeanne Dielman, by focusing on three such critical discourses I believe the film engages in. The first, and most basic level of critique has to do with the relationship between Jeanne Dielman as an “avant-garde” and/or “modernist” film and its attitude towards the traditional and commercial art institutions and industry— in this context the Hollywood industry and specifically the Hollywood family/domestic melodrama. The second and third levels of critique will be investigated in relation to the film’s ambiguous ending, through looking at the pre-determined socio-political framework inherent in the melodrama: the bourgeois framework, which defines much of the realm of the (Hollywood) melodrama. This aspect will be highlighted through a discussion of the film’s relation and approach to the happy ending, where further the feminist potential of the film will be researched though looking at different feminist interpretations of the film. Finally, these aesthetical and political discourses of Jeanne Dielman will be brought together and considered in relation to the ideological schematics and categories of Comolli and Narboni’s canonical 1969 essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.”

Melodrama and the structure of Jeanne Dielman
Jeanne Dielman of the film’s title is a widow and a housewife/homemaker of the petite bourgeoisie in Brussels, who lives alone with her teenaged son Sylvain, and earns her income through prostitution, accepting a different client in her apartment every afternoon. Over the course of three days in diegetic time, the film depicts in great detail the quotidian routine and platitude of the protagonist’s life, a routine that consists of conducting banal household chores. As Jeanne Dielman with small, precise gestures and minimal effort peels potatoes, shines her son’s shoes, prepares dinner or brews coffee, the camera continually keeps her in medium close-up as she spends large parts of the day in the kitchen. There is further an absence of the shot-reverse-shot editing technique found in classical Hollywood continuity style, as the protagonist is constantly to be found within the static frame, or in two-shots with her son. The shots varies between being long—often longer than two minutes—and consequently constitute whole scenes or sequences, rhythmically interrupted by intervals of shorter shots, as Jeanne paces back and forth between the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and back. Most of Jeanne’s actions are depicted in real time, with no edited cuts or ellipsis, so for example when Jeanne peels potatoes or takes a bath, it will take three full minutes both in the diegetic and real time—everything is literally done as well as enacted. A notable exception to this convergence of diegetic and real time happens as Jeanne welcomes her daily male customer into the apartment, and leads him to the bedroom which she has carefully prepared by letting in fresh air and putting a white towel over the bed covers. In these events the camera does not follow Jeanne into bedroom as it has done earlier, but rather lingers in the hallway, and through ellipsis and progressively darker lighting, the passing of time is marked. Extremely little dialogue is uttered in the film, with the exception of hasty conversation at night—as Sylvain is in the habit of interrogating his taciturn mother about sex and sexuality—often in relation to his deceased father; when Jeanne formally greets her male customers, and lastly brief exchanges of dinner recipes with her neighbor.

The film presents and depicts Jeanne’s routine in great detail, and the same actions are to a large degree repeated every day. In the same way that the film invests a lot of time in establishing Jeanne’s routine, it spends close to the same amount of time on the unraveling of this routine. It is a about halfway through the films’ running time, then, and correspondingly close to halfway through the three days of the film’s diegesis, that Jeanne’s first “mistake” is made, and she finally but unwillingly disrupts the routine she so carefully seems to have organized and imposed on herself1. This first rupture happens as Jeanne during the afternoon of the second day, as usual, goes to put her hard-earned cash in the porcelain soup tureen that stands on her living room table, but forgets to put on the lid, which is her usual habit. Jeanne discovers this mistake later in the evening, as Sylvain gets home from school, and puts the lid back on. And so, throughout the following day—which is the third and last day of the film’s narrative—everything really begins to unravel around Jeanne Dielman and her routine massively falls apart—beginning with an undone button in her robe, shoeshine spilt on the sleeve of her night gown, and then her schedule becomes displaced as she arrives at the post office too early, then at her regular café too late. When she returns to her apartment that afternoon, she discovers that has received a gift from her sister that she barely has time to open before her male client of the day arrives, and she hurriedly hides the gift—a pink nightgown—under her bed, leaving the pair of scissors she opened the parcel with on the dresser.

Here then, for the first time in the film, the camera follows Jeanne into the bedroom with the customer, and the film finally reaches it’s climax—literally—as Jeanne unexpectedly has an orgasm. Also for the first time, the camera is positioned above Jeanne, who is laying on her back on the bed, with the client on top of her. The film then cuts to Jeanne sitting in front of the mirror in her bedroom, which reflects the customer dozing off on her bed, and as Jeanne finishes buttoning her blouse and straightening her skirt, she gets up, grabs the pair of scissors, exits the frame, then suddenly reappears in the mirror frame as she plunges towards the man, stabbing the scissors in his throat and consequently kills him. In the next and last scene, Jeanne quietly sits in the dark by her dining table, vis-à-vis the soup tureen, for seven whole minutes—hands and clothes bloodied.

The film operates with several codes and elements from the Hollywood family melodrama’s vernacular and structure, which is perhaps signified to the fullest through the film’s mise-en-scène, and corresponds to Thomas Elsaesser’s claim that the “melodrama is iconographically fixed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the bourgeois home and/or the small-town setting” (62). Interestingly then, in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, even the title of the film, which gives the full address of the protagonist, fences the character in, and defines her within a very limited and ineluctable sphere: the bourgeois home. For Elsaesser, this signifies the iconographical framework of the melodrama, but as I shall argue in the following, it is also the iconological framework in Jeanne Dielman, that the film explores and critiques from different angles.

Inside her apartment, Jeanne is surrounded by quotidian objects, each assigned a very specific function, not to mention a specific place in the apartment where it belongs, as Jeanne meticulously and compulsively puts everything back in the right place after having used the object, so that the dish used for breakfast is immediately cleansed before re-using the same dish for lunch, and the tote bag is emptied and hung up on the hook above the sink after grocery shopping. In a similar way, Jeanne Dielman has her own defined place in the apartment where she belongs—the kitchen, where she spends most of her time seated at the kitchen table preparing meals, or standing by the stove waiting for potatoes to boil or coffee to brew. Also confirming Jeanne’s designated place in the kitchen is the color schema of the film, which operates with a palette of grays, greens, browns and blues, and Jeanne too becomes a part of this mise-en-scène when she puts on her blue and gray checkered kitchen apron and consequently in a chameleon-like way becomes a completely integrated part of the environment—the kitchen sphere, from which she cannot be separated but is completely absorbed. However, not only does the mise-en-scène define Jeanne Dielman within this atmosphere, but as we have seen, the cinematography too. Jeanne is constantly in the frame in medium close-up throughout the film’s running time, with the exception of the moments when she moves between rooms. In this sense, the film is doubly confirming Jeanne’s role within the four walls of her home, both through the camera framing, and with the mise-en-scène. Together, these elements underline the extremely defined boundaries of her existence.

The films’ use of excess is another element of the film that corresponds to the melodrama, and in Jeanne Dielman this is first and foremost an excess of time signified through repeated gestures, actions, and routine. As we have seen, the film uses diegetic time synchronically with real time, and scenes that would normally only be referenced or hinted to as an off-screen event in a commercial Hollywood melodrama, is instead played out from beginning till end—then recycled and accumulated, such as the preparing of meals, doing the dishes, drinking a cup of coffee, et cetera. Elsaesser explains that in the melodrama there is: “an intensified symbolization of everyday actions, the heightening of the ordinary gesture and a use of setting and decor so as to reflect the characters’ fetishist fixations” (56). In Jeanne Dielman it is this strict routine and schedule that functions as the “fetishist fixation” of Jeanne in the film, and consequently the intensification and accumulation of these “ordinary gestures” presses the narrative and the character towards as resolution, as her surroundings and routine will become increasingly problematic and suffocating, (elements which will be further explored when discussing the film’s ending in later parts of the essay).

Jeanne Dielman and pastiche
As we understand how Jeanne Dielman employs much of the structure and vernacular of the melodrama, it is however clear that the film is not a typical or conventional melodrama in itself, as it displaces and negates much of the generic conventions of the genre or mode. Ivone Margulies in her book Nothing Happens, has articulated Jeanne Dielman’s appropriation of the melodrama as such:
Jeanne Dielman continuously evokes the feeling that its narrative spreads over, selects and recombines elements of another, fully constituted narrative. The film seems to stretch over a conventional narrative and to displace its melodramatic affect, otherwise conspicuously absent, into banal and mundane gestures. At times, an action like brushing shoes, or waiting for water to boil for coffee, seems to take on the dramatic intensity of one of those incidents in a 40’s Hollywood melodrama when someone slaps someone’s face or waits anxiously for a lover (84).

As becomes evident with this quote, there does not exist any specific pre-text for the pastiche, but rather a whole decade of Hollywood melodramas. In this sense, the nature of Jeanne Dielman as a pastiche must be characterized as highly palimpsestic, as it is layered over a whole subgenre of melodramas—the family and domestic melodramas, by appropriating certain elements of the melodrama such as the bourgeois milieu, the female heroine in a claustrophobic setting, and her repressed sexuality, while other elements are negated or displaced like the excess of emotion, the negation of melos, and more. In this sense, the film can be understood as a generic pastiche of the family/domestic Hollywood melodrama, as it pastiches the framework of the melodrama more than quoting any specific film. In addition, I will here suggest that the film is a simulacral pastiche: a copy with no original, which effectively allows the film to simultaneously establish a strong relationship with the melodrama, while also critiquing and subverting it, as it is neither too close nor too distant from it. Thus, in concordance with Richard Dyer’s assertion that: “pastiche reminds us that a framework is a framework” (177), Jeanne Dielman highlights both the qualities that correspond to, or negates the melodrama, and the framework and structure of the melodrama itself becomes important because the pastiche must always remind its audience that it is one step removed from that which it pastiches.

If we consider the film a generic (simulacral) pastiche of the Hollywood family/domestic melodrama, perhaps pastiche as it is utilized in this context lies closer to the postmodernist definition of the term as advocated by Frederic Jameson, who places the pastiche close to the parody (Dyer 157), like Jeanne Dielman here seems to have chosen the family melodrama as its “generic cliché” (Margulies 85). For example, elements that points towards parody are: the constant allusions to the Freudian Oedipal-conflict, as Elsaesser points out was employed extensively in the Hollywood family melodrama (58). In Jeanne Dielman, this element is close to being ironical and comical, like how the relationship between Jeanne and Sylvain—mother and son—is articulated through overt references to the Oedipal drama, as when Sylvain expresses anger towards his deceased father for using his phallic “sword” on his mother, and the question of the (law of the) father and patriarchy becomes central, as Sylvain’s relation to his mother is fundamentally characterized by his oscillating between wanting to be like, or unlike, his father (Nowell-Smith 71). As the film echoes the structure of the melodrama and plays with our expectations towards the genre as suggested by Margulies, the overt emphasis on the Oedipal conflict seems like a fundamentally parodical element of the film. In this sense, the film seems to be masquerading itself as a melodrama, which is to say that the film ironically poses as a melodrama while at the same time is clearly aware that it is not, which it signals through employing several aspects of the melodramatic framework and vernacular, while at the same time exaggerating some of these aspects, while displacing or negating yet others. And so, by making a detour to photography and the artist Cindy Sherman, I will illustrate and exemplify in what way Jeanne Dielman is a parodical and simulacral pastiche of the melodramatic genre or mode.

Cindy Sherman developed a series of photographs named Untitled Film Stills in the mid-1970’s, in which she poses in front of the camera dressed up in costumes, imitating conventional female stereotypes in Hollywood films where the housewife-character from the melodrama recurs. However, these photographs are not replicas of any pre-existing film (stills), they rather play with the memory and familiarity of the audience with the melodrama, by operating with a clearly recognizable iconography. Like Jeanne Dielman then, Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills never refer to any specific film, actor, or character, but the composition of the images, and the mise-en-scène is fundamentally recognizable—much like a déja-vu—so that the question of the referent will always be evoked. However, there is no specific referent in existence, and the images rather exist as monadic signs. I would assert that this is also the case with Jeanne Dielman, which through its agency of being a generic and simulacral pastiche is heavily referencing the melodrama, but to pinpoint specifically what it pastiches becomes difficult, as there is no single scene, line of dialogue, or part of the mise-en-scène which implies a referent, or an original. Instead, it is the memory of the melodrama that is evoked in the spectator, from seeing the pastiche, and experiencing a déja-vu.

Critiquing melodrama from the inside-out and the outside-in

As a simulacral pastiche of the melodrama, Jeanne Dielman draws attention to its structure and framework by negating or displacing several elements of the melodrama, while enhancing yet others. In this sense, by employing the structure and vernacular of the melodrama, Jeanne Dielman succeeds in critiquing the genre or mode, both from the inside-out as well as from the outside-in.

Remembering that Jeanne Dielman is an “avant-garde” and “modernist” film, we understand that this critique and foregrounding of the film’s structure and technique is in large part inherent to its “avant-gardist”/“modernist” nature, and that this critique will be directed towards the institutions and definitions of established practice, as well as negating the dominant cinema (Smith 399). In this context, the Hollywood family melodrama is the dominant cinema institution that is criticized. One element of critique in Jeanne Dielman is expressed via negating conventions of Hollywood film, which first of all is manifest with the length of the film, which is more than double the length of the mainstream Hollywood film. Elsaesser points out how the Hollywood melodramas needed to be compressed as a “commercial necessity” (52). As an avant-garde film, however, the same commercial conditions and/or conventions do not apply, and in Jeanne Dielman, the length of the film is foregrounded to accentuate the false narrative efficiency of the family melodramas, as they leave out the very elements that Jeanne Dielman chooses to highlight—namely the platitude and banality of the protagonist’s routine, life, and existence.

The cinematography is a further critique of the conventional film “language” in Hollywood melodramas, as it refuses to film Jeanne in close-up, or show her point of view. Instead, we see her in medium close-up, in an open frame, and are never allowed her point of view. Another element the film critiques and subverts is the film’s use of excess. However the excess of time in Jeanne Dielman does not correspond directly to the melodrama’s excess of pathos and action, or even melos, it is cosequently a fundamentally different use of the pattern of excess than found in the conventional family melodrama. This gap as well as others, between the melodrama and Jeanne Dielman as an avant-garde film, opens up for a critical discourse of the melodrama, and it is especially the ending of the film that have sparked fruitful discussions of the film in film theory.

Feminist and political critique
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in his article “Minnelli and Melodrama” defines the melodrama as a fundamentally bourgeois form—made for and by the bourgeoisie—creating a sphere where no social power exists and where characters can really only occupy the middle ground (71). Jeanne Dielman both incorporates and foregrounds this class construct and its relationship with the melodrama as a generic pastiche. The claustrophobic framework of class and genre conventions that belong to the realm of melodrama becomes accentuated in the film’s denouement, and questions whether a happy ending is really possible according to the genre or mode. In the elongated ending of the film, which starts with the protagonist’s mishaps and miscalculations and further accelerates into a total disintegration of her routine and schedule, the narrative slowly presses towards a resolution as Jeanne’s ineluctable situation with a life consisting of—and dominated by—quotidian objects and strict routine has finally crowded in on her, becoming more and more complicated and excessive. Ernst Bloch discusses the happy ending in relation to capitalist and socialist societies in his book The Principle of Hope, and writes:
“The consciousness reaches the other side in a mediated way, enters into the struggle for the happy end, which already senses itself, almost announces itself in the dissatisfaction with what is available. The discontented person then sees all at once how bad capitalist conditions are and how urgently the socialist beginnings need him” (444).

Here, Bloch’s writings can be transferred to Jeanne Dielman who signifies “the discontented person,” dissatisfied with what is available for her within the capitalist-bourgeois sphere she inhabits, and therefore already envisioning a “happy ending” for herself—even if it might be in despite of herself. In addition, the feminist text of the film adds another dimension to the dissatisfaction of Jeanne Dielman, underlining her repressed situation, as she is probably forced into prostitution to make money in a society that defines her role within the domestic sphere where her capitalist responsibility is to consume goods, but not participate in the profit-making side of capitalism. Instead, as a widow with modest means whose first obligation is to take care of her son and run a representative household, not being able access the male-dominated job market freely, has had to find alternative ways of earning money: hence prostitution. Jayne Loader describes her as such: “[Jeanne] is presented as an automaton, geared for maximum efficiency and functioning perfectly, a victim of both the domestic science movement and the petit-bourgeois Belgian culture that produced her” (330).

In the essay “Classical Hollywood film and melodrama” E. Ann Kaplan writes: “for feminists, melodramas open up space prohibited by the so-called classical realist film text, which is restricted to oppressive patriarchal norms” (278). Here then, it becomes interesting to consider how various feminist critics have interpreted the ending of the film differently, and how they evaluate to what degree Jeanne Dielman “opens up space.” Feminist critics Jayne Loader and Claire Johnston represent two opposite poles in their evaluation and interpretation of the film with its ending. Johnston approaches Jeanne Dielman from a semantic and psychoanalytic point of view in her essay “Towards a Feminist Film Practice: Some Theses,” which builds on Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and asserts that the film signifies a repressed sexuality with the main character, which in the ending erupts like a parapraxis in the moment of jouissance. For Johnston, the murder of the male client functions as an “annulment” of this pleasure and takes place to restore the symbolic (patriarchal) order (326), and she further evaluates that this ending has positive connotations for feminism, as it has succeeded in underlining the artificiality of the patriarchal language and the Symbolic Order (326).

In contrast to Johnston, who summa summarum evaluated the film and its ending as a successful critique of the dominant patriarchal cinematic language, Loader in her essay “Jeanne Dielman: Death in Installments” reads the same ending as a capitulation to the same patriarchal language, by turning to violence in the film’s ending. As Loader points out, both Jeanne and Sylvain are victims in this film, but as Jeanne willingly accepts her victimized position she is consequently responsible for the victimization of her son, through conserving the traditional patriarchal values (333). Therefore, the murder cannot be a total act of liberation for the character, because it does not express a rebellion towards patriarchy per se. Instead, for Loader, the murder symbolizes the monstrosity of Jeanne, as she is willing to go to extremes to have autonomy in the only sphere possible: the home (334).

A third reading of the film’s ending, then, is done by Ivone Margulies in her book Nothing Happens. Margulies is fundamentally skeptical towards psychoanalytic readings of the film, as it for her seems dangerous to assume that the unconscious of the character can be made “cinematically visible,” and further warns against reducing the film to its climactic murder scene (95). Instead, Margulies reads the murder as a narrative necessity, as the film is using a narrative cliché which demands a resolution (98). However, for Margulies it is impossible to argue either for or against whether “Jeanne acts through a monotonous, routine, nonintelligent movement – automatically – or instead of her own will – autonomously” (99). Important to remember then, is Linda Williams explanation that “the female hero [in melodrama] often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions” (Williams in Margulies, 1996, 85).

Perhaps these various interpretations of the ending will always co-exist, in addition to possible other readings. In this sense, characterizing the ending as either happy or unhappy is difficult, if not impossible, as the film oscillates between the two, and therefore occupies the same middle ground where Nowell-Smith places the characters of the melodrama, with the lack of social power to go beyond its determined framework, even if the dream of achieving a happy end, as Bloch suggests, will always be present. Therefore, according to the genre conventions of the melodrama, the protagonist exists within an overdetermined situation, fenced in by the social, political, and economical framework of the (petite) bourgeoisie, that forces the protagonist to realize what is on the other side of the fence: the happy ending—and pushes the protagonist into a struggle for it—while at the same time disallowing the protagonist to fully achieve this happy ending, but instead allowing for an unhappy happy ending—the middle ground between the two alternatives.


Having highlighted the different levels of aesthetic and political critique at work in Jeanne Dielman, it becomes interesting to consider the film in relation to the heavily influential essay by Narboni and Comolli from 1969, contemporary with the film itself. For Comolli and Narboni, all cinema was inherently ideological, or an expression of the dominant ideology. The question was only to what extent the film was aware of this fact itself, and how it approached the ideological system it functioned within. According to this idea, the authors developed a system of categories and arranged films according to their (critical) approach to the dominant ideology.

As Jeanne Dielman operates with an ideological critique on (at least) two levels—both politically and aesthetically—or on the level of the “signified” and “signifier,” as Comolli and Narboni writes, the category (b) seems to summarize neatly the potential of critique inherent in Jeanne Dielman. According to Comolli and Narboni, for a film to belong to this category, the film must engage in a double action, attacking the ideological assimilation of the film on two fronts, namely on the level of both the signifier and signified. The latter here means “dealing directly with a political subject” (816), which Jeanne Dielman quite frankly does through tackling both a feminist and (bourgeois) political subject-matter. On the level of the signifier, it is an attack of the dominant form, which is implied, and which we also have seen that Jeanne Dielman does, through its pastiching and appropriating the melodrama, while at the same time critiquing this genre or mode from within.

And so, via this iconographic and iconological analysis which has investigated the Hollywood family melodrama’s vernacular and framework and its liaison with the avant-garde film Jeanne Dielman, I hope to have illustrated how the film ultimately succeeds in analytically critiquing the melodrama genre or mode—from both the outside and inside—by employing certain tropes and structural codes of the melodrama, while at the same time subverting and negating several of these same elements. Reading the film as a simulacral and generic pastiche of the melodrama, the relationship between the melodrama and Jeanne Dielman allows for an understanding of how the film can be defined as a copy with no original. Finally, by pastiching and appropriating elements from the melodrama, the film opens up an arena for several layers of critique, both on an aesthetical level, as well as on a political level in relation to the film’s ambiguous ending, which ultimately illustrates how the film corresponds to the category (b) of Comolli and Narboni’s ideological classification system.

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Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. "Minnelli and Melodrama." Home Is Where the Heart Is.
Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987.
Pravadeli, Veronica. Performance, Rewriting, Identity. Chantal Akerman's
Postmodern Cinema. Torino: Otto Editore, 2000.
Smith, Murray. "Modernism and the Avant-Gardes." The Oxford Guide to Film
Studies. Eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lynch Week- INLAND EMPIRE Discussion

We want to start off this final post by again thanking everyone for joining us this week and making Lynch week such a success. Next time, we'll plan a little more advance to get even more posts and more writers involved, but all of us here were thrilled at the response and hope to keep seeing more comments, questions, and discussions in the comments – whether in Lynch posts or other reviews.

For our final post in the official Lynch week, we decided to do something we've never done here before: a real conversation! Well, real enough. Although our proximities to one another do not allow for podcasting, an email conversation is the best we could do. But we are writers, so we probably put our ideas down on paper a little better anyways. After the break, our discussion of Lynch's most recent work INLAND EMPIRE. A lot of people (including all of us) were/are baffled by the movie in many respects, so we tried our best to work through what this movie is, how it works, and why we all responded to it how we did.

More than any of the posts this week, though, we really want to keep this conversation going in the comments. Post your questions, your thoughts, your responses. Hopefully we can get a solid discussion going! So chime in, enjoy the discussion, and come back and visit! Become a follower (link is on the side)!

What the fuck is this movie?

JACOB: Good question! It's sort of a love story/Hollywood exposé/history of Polish sideshows/cranial map/prostitutes a-go-go/revenge thriller...with a heart. I can't really say what it is. But it seems more like a study of tone than a film with a "real” narrative. There's such a palpable dread hanging over most of the film. Even if the "story" stops making sense, the tone is always there to guide the viewer further into the darkness.

JAMES: I sort of ask this question as a joke (and stole it from the most recent issue of Cinema Scope) but I think its sort of the daunting question that lingers over most analysis of the movie. I won’t call it a “film” because that implies the format and one of the leading questions in academic film studies is one of format. Thus begins the questions that this movie brings to the surface, whether through its narrative or production process. What makes INLAND EMPIRE wonderful, whatever it is, is that it dares to be as expansive as it is. I know this probably causes a lot of frustration for viewers who aren’t into the aesthetic or don’t give themselves to the experience. This isn’t a hit at those viewers, or the movie even, but its something that makes the movie constantly challenging and difficult to get a complete grasp on. For the most part, I tend to decide for myself what I think the movie is, and then love hearing other theories, but its never a point of annoyance. Just part of the fun. I actually disagree with Jacob that its all about tone though and that there isn’t a real narrative. For me, its just as invested in narrative as any of Lynch’s film works. There are more narrative threads here (its like a 3 hour version of the last 30 minutes of Mulholland Drive, in many ways) but I think there is plenty to follow, buy into, and become invested in outside of the demonstrative tone.

BRANDON: For me, INLAND EMPIRE is like a Gestalt optical illusion – you know, the ones where the drawing looks like a rabbit AND a duck at the same time, depending on emphasis. All of the parallel narrative and crisscrossing plotlines beg the question, "Which one is the actual reality?" Unlike Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE never reveals this information. Instead, the audience is left with a puzzle in which what might seem like an allegory for one reality might actually be THE reality, which finds its metaphorical expression in a complimentary narrative layer. The movie presents a sort of narratological ouroboros in which every subplot contains strains of other subplots and in which the distinction between one subplot and another is a matter of leaning to one side or squinting harder – the plot doubles over on itself, examining itself, undoing itself, like the mythological serpent. INLAND EMPIRE is in constant rotation and the only way to pin it down is for the viewer to stabilize him/herself, creating a sort of North Star by which to navigate. However, the tricky part is that there are just as many versions of INLAND EMPIRE as there are places to stand still; from every vantage point, the film is altered, different, enriched or refocused or skewed.

JACOB: Brandon, what was the viewing experiment you tried with IE at the Belcourt when I made you watch it twice in a row? Something along the lines of dozing off to wake up during random scenes?

JAMES: If that actually occured, its very classically Godardian. I think he said that he preferred watching movies out of order (just another way to break from the capitalist structures pushed upon him by The Man, man!) If I remember the story correctly, he preferred to watch a couple reels in a row (say 3 and 4) and then come back later to see 1 and 2, and onward with 5 and 6 at a later time. There’s also a famous story from the history of NYFF where Godard sent reels of a film unmarked just so the projectionist would play them in a random order. Can’t remember which film... Anyways, it'd be an interesting experiment to try with IE, but I think after you've seen it a few times that might lose some of its effect. If you did that at the Belcourt, though, I'd love to hear how it made the film work...

BRANDON: Attempting to maximize the irrational, associative dream logic of the film, I did indeed purposefully take naps during the second part of a back-to-back screening at the Belcourt. I remember hearing the film vividly throughout my slumber, in fact, the intensity of the sound design awoke me multiple times during my experiment. As my eyes would open slightly and I would drift in and out of attentiveness, the movie, which was fresh in my mind, would bleed into my subconscious's permutations of its moods and plotlines. I awoke several times in a dazed stupor, having to re-acclimate myself to the dark and the screen. It was a lot like being lost and then passing into and out of different realities. The whole thing was a lot like how I would imagine it might be to actually exist in the INLAND EMPIRE universe.

CHUCK: I like Brandon’s image of the “narratological ouroboros,” as I believe it gives us a good visual representation of the sort of karmicrecapitulations found in INLAND EMPIRE’s narratives. But this does not mean Lynch’s experimentation should be chalked up as an artistic indulgence, as some critics have suggested. Instead, I would argue that the film’s deconstructive, cyclical, self-reflexive structure meshes well with its investigations of cinema, performance, and spectatorship. Even when the film fails to cohere to the plot-logic causality of classical cinema, it does so not as an aesthetic extravagance but as a means of critique. The film dismantles classical diegesis and the structure of narrative cinema in order to make the seams and sutures of the medium more visible. The film also accomplishes this by breaking down many of the binary structures of cinema and Hollywood: spectator/spectacle, performance/reality, authentic/inauthentic, etc. In this way, the movie matches medium with message. As in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, INLAND EMPIRE uses these metatextual tactics for an explicit purpose—not just for shock value.

I would also be remiss in failing to mention Laura Dern’s daring and bravura performance, which anchors the film with a raw, emotive core even during its most chaotic and oblique passages. I would even argue that her performance ranks up there with Maria Falconetti’s work in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC as my favorite female performance in all of cinema. And I assure you, there is no hyperbole in that statement.

What do you think of Lynch's turn to digital? What does it add or take away?

JACOB: Lynch's defense of his switch is generally something along the lines of "Yes, film stock is beautiful but there's a separate kind of beauty inherent in the digital technology." So he seems to be switching one beauty for another. While it may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the lush photography of "Mulholland Dr." it's still beautiful in its own way. Plus, if the digital technology gives Lynch the opportunity to quickly produce more work or try out experiments that would be too costly on celluloid, then he can go forth with my blessing.

CHUCK: As Jacob said, the digital technology used in IE frees Lynch from the expense of celluloid and gives him more room for experimentation. I would also argue that the film’s harsh, grainy digital photography can be viewed as the perfect fusion of form and content. While the lush cinematography of Mulholland Drive simulated the look and feel of a mythic, classical Hollywood (an image the film challenges and critiques), Inland Empire shows us a more raw and fragmentary representation of Los Angeles—a city full of the grunge and grime and darkness shined over with the false narratives of Hollywood cinema. Filled with murky, hazy, dirty nightmare images, IE goes beneath the surface of Hollywood glitz and glamour, presenting an image of L.A. as a near-apocalyptic wasteland. If MD visualizes Hollywood as both mythic and artificial, then IE explores the sordid, decayed underbelly of Hollywood—the dirty world that exists outside the motion pictures and is often hidden away from us. Both films attempt to dismantle the myth of Hollywood, but they do so very differently.

JAMES: Very much agree with Chuck in terms of the look of the film. Even if his doesn’t look as “pretty” (which, I remind you, is a subjective term) as MD, its precisely because what IE is wouldn’t make sense with the look and feel of MD, just as Eraserhead or Elephant Man wouldn’t work in color and Dune, Blue Velvet, etc. wouldn’t work in black and white. As a precise visual artist, the look of the films always match what the film is going after, whether that be the tone, story, whatever. Some people don’t like grain and they want the picture clean and that is perfectly fine. But it is impossible for me to imagine IE working in such a manner. It is so much about the grunge, interiority, and darkness of the spaces and places that it seems totally disparate from the purposefully sunny view of LA in the first two-thirds of MD. That world (and view on life and Hollywood) has no place in IE so why would it be shown that way. Plus, Jacob is right about it opening the possibilities of shooting and experimentation for Lynch. Hopefully the lack of restraint doesn’t lead to an extreme self-indulgence, though, as some have feared. Some people thought that aspect killed IE, but I found the experience abundantly alive and enthralling. As long as that keeps happening and Lynch doesn’t suddenly turn into Clark/Korine/Wes Anderson/Barney, then I’ll be ok. (Jacob- the Barney slam is just for you). While IE certainly has a lot of “personal” indulgence of sorts, it still less than those would-be great directors and their insolent love of themselves. Lynch’s films allow the viewer a leeway that opens so many possibilites and refuse/refute the criticism of self-indulgence.

BRANDON: I personally have no problem with Lynch being as self-indulgent as he wants. I don’t necessarily watch Lynch for political or social relevance. I watch for something more interior, more universally relevant, which I think he might be able to express more plainly and unabashedly with the freedom of digital filmmaking. I’d rather watch David Lynch hardcore navel-gazing than just about anything. As for the aesthetic limits of the digital shift, I’m kind of wary of it, namely because I feel like Lynch’s commitment to digital work may preclude him from exploring other ideas because they are more suited to film. It’s sad to think that David Lynch will never make another movie on film, though I certainly adore INLAND EMPIRE. Either way, I trust him to make something beautiful.

JACOB: While James removes Matthew Barney's nuts from his vice grip, here are some recent Lynch shorts which might serve as examples of the experimentation Lynch has been involved with as of late.


The Boat

What's up with Lynch's re-use of material from his website?

JACOB: This probably isn't the official answer, but Lynch seems to combine ideas in a piecemeal fashion. I'm pretty sure the "Rabbits" series had already been produced when he started shooting scenes for what would become Inland Empire. Why he decided to combine them I couldn't say (which is a pity, because I've constantly been curious about their inclusion). Maybe his next work will feature an animated segment starring the Angriest Dog in the World.

CHUCK: Although we have this image of Lynch as a calculating perfectionist, he is, in many ways, one of the most improvisational filmmakers around. Like the stuffed, clearly artificial robin puppet in Blue Velvet or the shot of Twin Peaks’ Killer Bob peering through the bed frames, much of IE seems to come from an organic, improvisational process. In many ways, IE reminds me of Burroughs’ cut-up method, where textual fragments are arranged randomly in order to create a new, unexpected, usually anti-rational creation. While I don’t think IE should be seen as pure “cut up”—it is far more unified and cohesive than those experiments—the way Lynch splices his central narrative(s) with images culled from his digital experiments does summon up the same illucid, extemporaneous spirit of a surrealist cut up.

JAMES: "Rabbits" was definitely completed before IE began. I’m not sure when the decision was made to include it, but I really love how it works in IE. I actually prefer it vastly within the realm of IE than on its own. It adds another layering to the levels of viewing/watching someone else (or yourself) that run throughout the work. The canned laughter and sitcom-y style positioned in the first half hour with the crying Polish woman who strives for some kind of connection (as made clear in her ultimate connection with Nikki/Sue near the end). She’s kind of a mini- Man in the Planet. Constantly watching and reacting, but seemingly never completely connected or associated what it otherwise going on. All of this plays back into the extemporaneous spirit that Chuck highlights. Aside from "Rabbits", there is a far less known reference; that being the inclusion of Axxon N. If I recall correctly, it is the room/theater where Nikki/Sue ends up auditioning for the man with big glasses and sees herself on screen. Back when I was a member of Lynch’s site, Axxon N was advertised as an upcoming series and I remember it having quite a similar image to the one that ended up being the smoky lips on the IE poster. Axxon N never was released as a series, so my guess is that it melded into IE when Lynch began to develop it a little further. Lynch has said IE started with the 14-page (single spaced) monologue that Laura Dern was to deliver. Perhaps thats what Axxon N was, and, if so, I was certainly thrilled to see it in full form in IE. That monologue is one (of many) highlights the movie has. Even though this may be a form of toying with something he had previously been playing with, its as fresh as ever.

BRANDON: Great call on the Burroughs reference, Chuck. I ALWAYS think about that when I watch INLAND EMPIRE. It’s interesting that we define “Rabbits” and other previously released material as work that is “re-used” rather than considering them as stepping stones on the way to larger projects. I feel as if the work Lynch put on his website and dispersed during his initial digital experiments was never really intended to be viewed as polished or finalized (otherwise, why not put it on a DVD or attempt a more official form of distribution?). Instead, the website work served more as a sort of brainstorming, preliminary dabbling which online subscribers were privy to and which enabled Lynch to receive feedback on his efforts. More than anything, it seems that Lynch was giving greater access to his creative process by utilizing enhanced technology and online tools. As James speculates, some of the earlier projects were potentially included in the INLAND EMPIRE conceptualization or were absorbed into them as the project took shape, growing out of Lynch’s experiments. Additionally, on a meta-textual level, the previous existence of “Rabbits” online links INLAND EMPIRE to a narrative structure that is web-like and associative, playing out like a joyride down the rabbit hole of internet search engines and clickable hyperlinks, weaving in and out of the story. Jim Emerson describes this aspect of the film, writing:

In this sense, you might say, Inland Empire is a digital film, through and through. Not because Lynch shot it with the relatively small Sony PD-150 digicam and fell in love with the smeary, malleable and unstable texture of digital video (where the brightest Los Angeles sunlight can be as void and terrifying as the darkest shadow), or because the first pieces of the movie were digital shorts he made for his Web site before they grew and crystallized into a narrative idea. Inland Empire unfolds in a digital world (a replication of consciousness itself -- hence the title), where events really do transpire in multiple locations at the same time (or multiple times at the same place), observers are anywhere and everywhere at once, and realities are endlessly duplicable, repeatable and tweakable. This is a digital dimension where, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, there's no difference between ketchup and paint and light and blood: On the screen, it's red.

JAMES: I meant to suggest that re-use is the wrong thing to call it (since the material works so well, and most of it is expanded from its original form). Whether I did or not, you cleared it up and hit the nail on the head. As for Emerson's comments, I'll be interested to see if Lynch continues to work with the PD-150 or if he goes to more advanced digital cameras. We'll have to wait and see. I would tend to think the specific camera may vary depending on the project, but, as always with Lynch, anything can happen.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lynch Week- We Are All Made of Lynch

As devised in the comments yesterday, today we highlight the work of other writers around the internets who have also shown an outpouring of critical dedication to the work of David Lynch. I would love for this to be a monumental link list of a ton of critical writing on Lynch, so if you have written a piece that you would like included on this list, send me an email at and I'll be happy to add it to this Lynch link roll. Thanks especially to all the new visitors to the site. We all really hope you'll stick around and become regulars!

There is at least one more Lynch post on the way this evening tomorrow, focusing on some major questions that are predominant in INLAND EMPIRE, and there may be a couple more next week as we unofficially extend the week. There won't be Lynch every day but there is certainly plenty left to talk about.

Let's start the roll of great Lynch writing after the break. For posterity's sake (and in case people run across this post at a later date without finding the other articles), I am including what we have written this week as well as the other Lynch writing that is out there. Once we get more and more links added, perhaps I'll restructure this and separate the links into the specific Lynch work. Let's make that happen! Send me your links!

James Hansen- Mulholland Drive Is Cinema

Chuck Williamson- Commercials As Art?

Jacob Shoaf- Hear The Call of Eraserhead

Brandon Colvin- Inhabited By Intuition (On Twin Peaks)

Out 1 Film Journal- INLAND EMPIRE Discussion

Thomas Britt @ Bright Light FJ- Death, Excess, and Discontinuity (on Lost Highway)

Tony Dayoub @ Cinema Viewfinder- Review of the new DVD of Lost Highway

Ed Howard @ Only The Cinema- Films I Love: Mulholland Drive

Erich Kuersten @ Acidemic- The First David Lynch movie? The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

Erich Kuersten @ Bright Lights FJ- Book Review of The Impossible David Lynch

Jeremy Richey @ Moon in the Gutter- The Last Crush (Memories of Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks

MovieMan0283 @ The Dancing Image- Individual Analysis of the majority of episodes in Twin's really an amazing undertaking

MovieMan0283- Blue Velvet

Movieman0283- Lost Highway

Movieman0283- Inland Empire

Nathaniel Rogers @ The Film Experience- Kissing Betty/Diane
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Friday, January 23, 2009

Lynch Week- Inhabited By Intuition

by Brandon Colvin

What truly separates the work of David Lynch from that of other filmmakers is the director’s incredibly apt intuition. Whether through transcendental meditation or his constant diet of cigarettes and coffee, somehow Lynch has acquired an uncanny knack for visually and aurally divining the power and beauty of images and scenarios in a way that defies the reductive task of analysis or explication. It is this particularly intuitive aspect of artistic creation – Lynch’s greatest contribution to cinema – that enables Lynch to find his way through the surreal depths of his works. Many are tempted to throw psychoanalysis or other systematic ideologies at the auteur’s seemingly obscurantist oeuvre, quixotically attempting to rationalize with words a magic that can only be communicated and understood in images: one that is unshakable once experienced. When I watch a Lynch film, I am almost always moved, challenged, and disturbed in unusual ways – often without understanding why or how. I suspect I would find (and have found, in the past) any attempt at an objective critical exploration of Lynch’s canon limited because that sort of examination forgoes the importance of the irrational, the ineffable in Lynch’s work, which serve as the strobe-lit, smoke-machined factories of the moods, textures, and mysteries that characterize the director’s most stunning achievements; not the least of which is his much lauded metaphysical small-screen soap opera, Twin Peaks.

Understanding and appreciating Lynch’s gift for intuitive narratives and images depends on the viewer’s willingness to inhabit and be inhabited – a truth that is most perfectly demonstrated by Twin Peaks, the lengthiest and most geographically-defined project Lynch has ever put his brilliant mind to. Entering into Twin Peaks is the closest I’ve ever come to partaking in a world beyond day-to-day reality. Absorbing the atmosphere, built steadily over episode after episode, I watched the entire series on DVD in a month’s time and felt myself slowly slipping into the intuitive mode of Lynch and his primary collaborator on the series, Mark Frost. Not only was I being sucked into the show, the show was leaking out into me, for reasons I’m still unsure of, as if it were a form of merging inhabitation or irrational possession. There are moments in Twin Peaks, as in nearly all of Lynch’s work, that strike decidedly esoteric chords with different viewers in ways that are absolutely idiosyncratic and utterly ungraspable. Puzzlingly impactful moments like these are the reasons I return to Lynch and, especially, Twin Peaks. And now, I’d like to share one of these abstract, ineffable instances – one that consistently has a strange and powerful effect on me every time I see and hear it.

In Episode 14, entitled “Lonely Souls,” Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) killer is revealed (for those readers who don’t know, the premise of Twin Peaks is the investigation of the brutal murder of a popular, but troubled, Washingtonian high schooler: Laura Palmer). A massively important episode (one of a handful actually directed by David Lynch) and essentially the conclusion of the first half of the series – the latter half abruptly dropped in quality, often attributed to Lynch’s absence while filming Wild at Heart (1990) and his growing disillusionment with the show after production heads at ABC ordered the creators to reveal the mysterious murderer’s identity against Lynch’s will – “Lonely Souls” is breathtaking for many apparent reasons, but my relationship to the episode is defined by a very simple moment of atmospheric perfection.

Two young lovers, Laura Palmer’s best friend, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Laura’s ex-lover, James (James Marshall), rendezvous at the seedy local biker bar known as “The Roadhouse” – a site of more than one instance of metaphysical oddness. The couple, whose past is emotionally convoluted and hinges on a shared loyalty to the deceased Laura, sits in a booth as Lynch favorite Julee Cruise croons eerily onstage. Amidst their conversation is tucked one of my absolute favorite moments of the entire series, one that is positively seared into my brain. When Cruise ethereally sings, “I want you, rockin’ back inside my heart,” the scene cuts to Donna as she looks James in the eyes and lip-synchs the words to the song, her lips up-turned in a seductive grin and her face sparkling with an innocent sweetness. James’ reaction shot reveals his almost unresponsive countenance, an ambiguous Mona Lisa smile framed by his square jaw. Once the sequence cuts back to Donna, mouthing Cruise’s gentle chorus, her expression has grown considerably more troubled, almost sullen, while James maintains his cool stoicism. The brief exchange oozes with romanticism, sexuality, mystery, longing, distance, anxiety, and an underlying strangeness that manifests itself in James’ lack of engagement, Donna’s resultant worrying, and the pervasive reverberation of Julee Cruise’s melody. But, why? What about this combination of elements sparks my soul? What does it all mean? What is the grander purpose of this elegant scene, swirling with a multitude of unspecified relevance? To me, it doesn’t really matter. Most importantly, it just FEELS right. That’s where the intuition comes in. Similar to a scene that would occur later in Lynch’s career and which has a very similar effect on me – Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) lip-synching Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star” while performing at the rigged audition for The Sylvia North Story in Mulholland Drive (2001) – the brief moment Donna/James share affects me very strongly (must be something about beautiful lip-synching women that really gets me going).

Moreover, this exemplifies the value of an intuitive approach to understanding the universe of Twin Peaks, which Lynch advocates via the series’ protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), in Episode 2 (also directed by Lynch), “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” In “Zen,” Agent Cooper instructs the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department on the fine art of intuitive deduction, based on logic he developed in a dream about Tibet. Cooper says to his fellow investigators, “I also awoke from this same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a certain deductive technique, involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest levels of intuition.” The description of Cooper’s bizarre process (which involves hurling rocks at glass bottles in an attempt to discover the identity of Laura’s killer) provides an insight into how events in Twin Peaks should be perceived – a combination of reason (connecting the dots), physical engagement (watching and listening closely), and deep intuition (finding what feels right). The last one is certainly the most slippery, but also the most essential. The rewards of engaging one’s intuition when watching Lynch’s work are different for each viewer, but the potential for an involved, invested experience remains the same. By opening ourselves to the whims of our irrational attachments – whether they be lip-synching women or men with one arm – we are able to align ourselves with a viewing experience that rhymes with Lynch’s highly intuitive creative process, maximizing the value of his surreal masterpieces and unlocking doors to the most opaque regions of our own hearts – one reason why I always greet a Lynch viewing with both excitement and trepidation.

The question is, where will he take us next, and who will be willing to follow his/her own intuition down the rabbit hole?
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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lynch Week- Hear The Call of Eraserhead

by Jacob Shoaf

For the past five or six years, Eraserhead has been my go-to response when anyone asked what my favorite film is (and I’ve forced viewership on as many of those askers as I could). I won’t bore you with the details of my long history with the film (though feel free to ask about the French douchebag involved with my first viewing), but I do hope that I can impart at least some of the aspects of my admiration for this film to you which might enrich any subsequent viewings.

For those of you hoping that my talking about this film will finally shed light (distant screams) on what it’s “about,” then I’ll go ahead and apologize. After thirty-something viewings, I’m still not sure that I’m anywhere close to pinning down the narrative. If anything, I usually come up with a new theory every few viewings based on what I emphasized during the film (this time’s emphasis was circular shapes and characters being submerged into liquids). Feel free to theorize in the comments section.

With the exception of a planet which may or may not be within Henry Spencer and an alley which may or may not be beneath a stage in his radiator, there aren’t any open spaces in Eraserhead. Brick walls and generic industrial visages surround the characters. The closest thing to an open space in the film is the alley where Henry steps in a mud puddle. But as he’s surrounded by large buildings, this is hardly an open space. Lynch turns the industrial landscape into a nightmare world. By relegating the majority of its scenes to Henry’s apartment, he strikes something of an agoraphobic tone with the film. Once Mary and the “baby” (AKA-fetus) move in with Henry, he’s only seen outside one more time. From that point on, he hardly leaves his room. And the pressure closes in…

Particularly amazing in the film is its use of sound. Eraserhead is filled with typical urban noises one would expect from such an environment. As Henry walks to his apartment at the beginning and to the X residence for dinner, it sounds like he’s walking through a steel mill. This is a constant reminder of the industrial hell that Henry calls home. Some of the film’s sound effects are also particularly disconcerting. When Henry arrives at the X residence, he’s seated in the living room with Mrs. X and Mary. This is the only view of the room we get for about a minute, but the entire time there’s a sucking sound that’s barely audible over the industrial hum. It’s not until several lines into the scene that the source of the noise is revealed to be a dog suckling its pups. Another off-putting sound effect is heard when Henry and Mary are trying to sleep back in his apartment. There’s a shot of the window which shows the brick wall across the way. In the upper-left corner of the wall, a light is shone onto the surface. There is, of course, the omnipresent hum but it’s accompanied by distant screams as the light is put into place on the wall. When the light pauses, the screams stop. But when the light recedes, the screaming picks back up with the light’s movement. I don’t attribute any particular symbolic weight to this screaming light, but it certainly does add to the film’s already creepy tone.

In the post-dissection/giant fetus head scene, there’s a deep ambient tone that accompanies the image. In a theatrical setting, it’s the equivalent of the bass at a concert being felt in your organs. The film’s drone sounds like it’s made up of a discordant organ tone, some more industrial hum, and the diegetic sounds of the scene (namely the rapidly shifting location of the giant baby head and the light bulb blowing). It is loud and low creating a deeply unsettlingly feeling which would go well in just about any of the film’s contexts, but its use around the dissection scene and thereafter creates something of a transcendent yet terrifying effect. The same also goes for the film’s last shot. When The Lady in the Radiator embraces Henry (in the bright white light), it’s accompanied by what sounds like a large choir holding a beehive while their tea is slowly coming to boil. Particularly disturbing is when the film crescendos with silence. The sound builds and builds but then abruptly switches to an auditory lack as the film cuts to black. Listening to silence and staring at darkness after such opposed extremes seconds earlier is both daunting and a relief. It’s not until the credits finally come up and the muzack begins that an enormous burden is entirely lifted from the viewer allowing them to relax.

The choral sound combined with the white lighting during the embrace give the scene a heavenly feel, but the entire time there’s that undertone of the other unpleasant noises building up. This is something like a variation on the ‘seedy underbelly’ motif that regular Lynch viewers are used to. In Blue Velvet, he shoes us the Pleasantville-esque suburbia and then the camera digs into the ground to find the bugs and corruption below. In Mulholland Drive Lynch shows the bright lights of LA from afar before taking the audience into their realm and revealing the hideous things they contain. This use of the motif is slightly different in that it’s entirely auditory and that it takes place in the last shots of the film. So while the oppression of the city environ has been exposed for the entirety of the picture, these noises refer to Henry. The image may look angelic, but there’s a harshness to the soundtrack that conflicts with what’s shown.

About a year ago, I was able to see a 35mm print of Eraserhead at a midnight screening at the Kentucky Theatre. Seeing it in such an ideal manner allowed me to consider one of my Cinematic Meccas pilgrimaged to. Despite the ass who gave a yell and fist pump at the fetus’ first appearance, I still consider this to be my favorite cinematic experience. If the chance presents itself for you to see a print of the film at midnight (or anytime for that matter), I can’t implore you enough to do so.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lynch Week- Commercials As Art?

by Chuck Williamson

As Jean Baudrillard predicted, the media images within our contemporary advertising culture have helped construct a “new technical order” where the subject interacts with and is dominated by a system of objects. If consumption has become the central component that unifies all social order and hierarchies, then commercials can be viewed as a medium through which the semiotics of capitalism are at their most concentrated and coercive. Commercials, for the most part, can be viewed as part of a unified text reproducing the sort of semiotic messages needed for mass consumerism to be sustained.

But this is not always the case. David Lynch’s commercial work infuses a vulgar, materialist medium with an aesthetic and cultural significance that, at times, goes against the foundation of consumerist culture. Singular in their cinematographic excellence, many of these commercials transcend the trappings of a sycophantic advertising culture, wriggling through the prenatal slime, birthed fully-formed as pure artistic products. When viewed within the context of the Lynch canon, these commercials—or short films, as they deserve to be called—cohere to the visual, narrative, and thematic groundwork established in the longer works. But these commercials are also daringly subversive. On the surface, each commercial constitutes an effective use of ad revenue, as they present visually appealing, diverting non-narratives that draw attention to specific high-end products. Nonetheless, this membrane-thin polish masks a more squalid, subversive core that attempts to dismantle the standard consumerist purpose of advertisements. These anti-consumerist, deconstructive commercials disrupt the semiotics of consumerism either through defacement, inversion, parody—whatever tools work best to dismantle the machine. These are more than just diverting bursts of surrealism—instead, we find ourselves staring face-to-face with some of Lynch’s most interesting and beguiling work.

In his 1992 Gio commercial—a moody black-and-white tone poem—Lynch laces his “woman in trouble” narrative—a recurring trope for the director—with the popular advertising convention of personifying the product as a beautiful woman. Gio, the avatar for Giorgio Armani’s fragrance, epitomizes the ice-cold androgynous beauty and couture glamour of the Jazz Age. Like Dorothy Vallens, she lives between the divide of public and private, foisted into the upscale social circles of polite society yet cloistered within a secret, internal world. The film introduces this contradiction in the opening shot, which shows us a front page newspaper story featuring Gio’s photograph. Encasing Gio within three separate “frames”—the photographic border, the newspaper’s margins, and the cinematic lens itself—the film immediately establishes her closed-off world as a prison in which she is contained, encased, and repressed. It further sets up this woman-in-prison motif through various superimposition effects, where the shutters of Gio’s Georgian sash windows slit into narrow shadows that resemble prison bars. Gio drifts into frame like a phantom, unsmiling and smoky-eyed, leered at by gazing partygoers, hounded by paparazzos and photographers. For her, the weight of fame is made only heavier by the confines of polite society and the lingering presence of the gaze—and even during her most intimate moments, she must stare pensively outside the cinematic frame to ensure that no-one is watching her, silently snapping photographs.

Gio’s eventual escape into smoky intercity jazz bars initially sets up the narrative thread of escape, liberation, freedom—a coherent and persuasive ad pitch that conforms to the predictable semiotics of consumerism. Initially, the jazz bar—filled with the fluidity, movement, and dynamism absent in cloistered high society—seems antithetical to the insular world from which Gio escapes. But when Gio’s reverie within the carnivalesque jazz bar is cut short by the intrusion of a team of trigger-happy photographers, the sequence’s fluid, verite cinematography winds down into a protracted, almost balletic slow-motion and the soundtrack’s manic saxophones turn into a doleful, mechanical synthesizer. Like the perfume itself, Gio is contained and forever encased within the glass walls of celebrity, made visible for public display, an object caught within the crosshairs of the male gaze. The photographers do not just capture her image, but they also “imprison” her within the dimensions of a picture. Full of ambiguity, her final gaze to the camera mixes sensuality with subordination, eroticism with acquiescence, and the hypnotic slow-motion cinematography simulates the stasis of confinement. Co-opting the clichés of modern advertising, the commercial inverts the colorful, “free-at-last” narrative, transforming it into a paranoid fantasy that links the product with isolation, confinement, and the loss of selfhood. Those final moments may appear to be nothing more than a semi-erotic photo-shoot—but in Lynch’s hands they become so much more.

This disruption of consumerist desires continues in his 2008 Gucci commercial, which takes the Gio ad’s “woman-as-product” analogue in a different direction. Purely non-narrative, this short film focuses exclusively on three stone-faced models who languidly dance in their paisley-pink boudoir to the repetitious beat of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Ideally, such an image might carry with it a degree of eroticism or sensuality, but the film foregoes titillation, instead choreographing the women’s dance moves in languid, hypnotic bursts that seem more hallucinogenic than sexual. Indeed, the constant dissolves and montage editing create a sensation of indefinable motion, where women’s bodies merge and movements blur into oblique, hypnotic waves. As these bodies fuse together into an impressionist tableau, strobe lights pulse throughout the room and a droning distortion throbs underneath the disco hit. By its conclusion, the film—now completely drained of its sexuality—haunts the viewer far more than any perfume commercial should. In a medium that uses sex as a surefire way to generate sales, the film dares to muddle all erotic signifiers, creating a haunting canvas where women—vacant, blank-eyed ciphers—dance into a phantasmagoric blur. If Mulholland Drive showed us David Lynch’s ability to generate eroticism, then this film demonstrates his ability to strip away these things altogether—ultimately distorting the product’s “sex sales” sign value.

These conventions are subverted even in commercials where the product figures prominently throughout. In his 2002 Nissan Micra commercial, Lynch mixes slick, sexy images of automobiles with a cold, blue-tinted dystopian setting that seems incongruous with the optimism of its sales pitch. As a pair of disembodied blue lips materializes in the sky and starts speaking in linguistic riddles, the commercial produces two dissonant messages: one that sells us on the Micra’s “modtro” qualities, and the other that repels us with the bleak, antiseptic Orwellian future that this car represents. Despite its surrealism, this film can be viewed superficially as a conventional commercial: well-designed, diverting, ruthlessly persuasive. But the commercial is much like the red-haired woman that looks on from a high-rise window: mysterious, aloof, and far more menacing than it initially appears. It’s not a radical work, but it is far more complex than it appears to be on its surface.

In a medium where a lesser filmmaker would coast on a collection of lazy visual tics and line his pockets with dollar bills, Lynch dares to use commercials as an outlet for creative expression—even if the message, ultimately, undermines the fundamental purpose of the medium. These commercials disrupts the convenient fantasy of consumerism, making visible its fictive core. Despite Lynch’s motives and intentions, the commercials become something more substantive than the usual assembly line of disposable, brightly-colored diversions. Not all of his commercials transcend their origins; some are chokingly conservative and highly restrained. But that is a small minority. In all, these “commercials” have been either maligned or ignored by cinephiles for too long—and I think it is time to start giving these things a closer look.
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