Robin Hood – Sneak Peak

Love it, Ridley Scott is bringing my (present) home town hero to live on the big screen again, and who better to play the tough man in tights but Russel Crowe. Yes, Robin Hood is re-visited for cinema entertainment as “Nottingham”. Judging from the picture’s released the other day it won’t be a modern day tale (no drunken hen do’s to rescue from market square, no taxes to take from the offshore tax dodging rich residents of The Park, and no depiction of the all too sad reality that Sherwood Forest is just a field in north Nottingham).

The BBC today has posted an interesting feature about this country’s obsession with this midland’s legend. With Alistair Darlings budget being deemed to be “taking from the rich to give to the poor” I’m guessing it’s a theme that’s still a hot topic today. You can read it here

Week 2 Lynchian Tone

David Lynch spent his childhood being raised in several towns across the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina, with an occasional visit to his grandparents in Brooklyn, New York. As a student he spent a portion of his early adult life in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This odd combination of small town America and industrial metropolis may well have influenced his work, and seems to be a good place to try and figure out what the “Lynchian tone” is.

Lynch was an Eagle Scout and occasionally joined his father, who was a US Department of Agriculture scientist on research trips. As an artist, Lynch would fuse the biological textures of the real world with his work, incorporating dead flies, moths and even a dead mouse into his paintings. After a successful art show where his animated film entitled “Six Men Getting Sick” (1966) received critical praise Lynch acquired funding to produce “the Alphabet”.

The Alphabet is a nightmarish short film about the fear of learning - the sin of knowledge that leads to corruption and the destruction of innocence. As a painter and photographer Lynch seems to have slipped into film making as a way to bring images to life - his first films had no dialogue and used unique soundtracks to express emotions - he’s also consistently reluctant to offer explanations of his films and to put his thoughts on paper. Hmmm …

The Grandmother (1970), his first funded film was produced from a $5,000 grant from the newly formed American Film Institute. This might be a good place to see what the ‘Lynchian tone’ is. Well, not being an expert I didn’t know, so I rely on what the tutor told us. “The Grandmother” is grotesque, surreal and sentimental – a narrative theme which is repeated in some of Lynch’s later work, it is also the first chance to hear the work of Alan Splet, the sound technician Lynch has worked with on many films. The film (again) has no narrative and relies on the score to set the nightmarish atmosphere. Splet uses natural sounds like thunderstorms while the boy ‘grows’ the grandma and distorted dog barks for the parents.

The boy is dressed in a suit, and stands isolated against his possessions in rooms with black walls. It’s surreal; it makes the characters look disconnected and their white faces look dream-like and stark in contrast. The boy’s suit serves to further disconnect him from his animal-like parents and also illustrate the formality of Middle American society. I think Lynch is hinting that the surreal infiltrates the normal; the subconscious lives with the conscious and we live in a world where dreams and reality are seamlessly merged.

I think this idea of inner/outer psychological experience is best expressed in the Terry Gilliam style animations Lynch intersects with the film. The animations tell the same story, but as a different media, they represent imagination or subconscious. In later films Lynch moves away from film/ animation to show this and works towards film/ film and even further with dual characters (Betty/ Diane in Mulholland drive). Mulholland Drive I think shows perfectly how conscious and subconscious lives together and are one way the ‘Lynchian tone’ resonates in his work.

The animation also suggests that all the characters were ‘grown’ in the same way the grandmother was. It highlights Lynches themes of the natural and artificial world merging – an idea Lynch illustrated in his paintings. He seems pre-occupied with the biology of birth, of botanic things ‘oozing’ and dripping and this is a theme we see in grotesque detail in the infamous midnight movie, “Eraserhead” (1976).

Lynch’s work has been described here as “uncanny”, “surreal” and “grotesque” where his nightmarish images are perfectly matched to a sweeping sound scape designs. The ‘uncanny’ is the best way to sum up Lynch’s work – this Freudian idea explains why everything we see makes us feel uncomfortable - it is darkly familiar, it awakens primeval, repressed memories, in other words, the inner hidden voice is given a very visible outer amplifier. Inner/ outer, repressed/ expressed, dreamed/ experienced, nature/manmade – there is a duality in Lynch’s work and this can be seen as the “Lynchian tone” in my mind.

Auteur Theory: David Lynch

What is an auteur? Well blame the French for this. Cinema critics of the 1950s were tired of the conveyer belt approach that studio directors had taken towards filmmaking. There were no distinguishable characteristics by each director - just formulaic, commercial pap which was churned out time and time again.

Auteur critics wanted a new wave of cinema and argued the camera should be an instrument for art, just as the brush is for the artist. As a instrument, the camera should provide artistic integrity; the auteur should demonstrate technical mastery, a distinguished personality and provoke an interior meaning to their work. As such a group of select auteur directors deemed to meet these standards were born: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and in recent times Kubrick, Lynch, Tarrantino and Wes Anderson.

This might seem strange to today’s cinema audiences, after all many film lovers could name their favourite director - suggesting that most films have a distinct look and feel. But a director like Stephen Spielberg is not an auteur (debatable) - even though his work is distinct and has repeated themes it arguably does not stir an interior meaning. Also, his work is commercial successful suggesting a popularist approach to filmmaking and a willingness to be influenced by the financial ambitions of the studio. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spielberg films, I’m just playing devils advocate.

An auteur might be a critic’s dream, but what are the limitations? Withstanding artistic integrity and vision in an industry which inherently relies on a team (sometimes an army) of people to produce. Keeping their unique stamp on the finished work without turning out the same old recognisable tricks. And finally, the medium. Producing a cinematic masterpiece is reliant on the theatre – the sound system, the oversized screen, the darkness, and the all-encompassing sensory experience. Once taken into the home, arguably, the film is no longer the work of an auteur.

Critics seem to deem the cinema as the pinnacle and playground of auteur work, and assign only directors to be worthy of this title (not producers or cinematographers) so can TV create auteurs who are producers? Or is this a ‘lesser’ medium not worthy of true, artistic and critical acclaim?

Well, we discussed today how a director like Lynch consistently manages to keep a distinct identity within his work. In an interview he described the film making process as an abstract cloud of ideas. He maintains the vision and everyone working with him subscribes to this - they can makes suggestions (which might be included in the work) but their suggestions only work as part of this wider cloud of ideas which is gently floating through the process with him at the centre. Nice and direct.

As a trans media artist Lynch manages to keep a “lynchian” tone to all his work – it’s always distinctly his whether it’s TV, film or painting. He uses repeated metaphors (red curtains, mystery sinister figures), music (industrial, ambient soundtracks) and a unique directorial style (camera angles, disjointed narrative) to make this stamp.

We watched a 1-minute short Lynch created to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Lumiere Camera. 60 seconds of continuous filming with no edits, no sound (other than a dubbed on soundtrack) Lynch still manages to display extraordinary technical skill, style and authorship. The mark of a genuine auteur – to not have to rely on any one medium or additional people! It was a magical, engaging and eerie piece which even not knowing it was Lynch, you could make an educated guess by the tone and feel.

Sadly we were shown a “making of” clip which had filmed Lynch filming the short. Now, I’m not a fan of behind the scenes sections or even DVD director’s commentary to be honest. I prefer Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” approach to cinema going – I don’t need a director to tell me what their vision was, or how they created it – I don’t want it to influence my experience as ultimately it doesn’t matter what the director intended, it’s what I took away from it that counts.

The strange thing about films, which is unlike authorship in novels, is that with a book you don’t get the back-story – there isn’t an introduction which explains how Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles or what was happening socially at the time to influence him (well sometimes). Good thing too, it’s really got nothing to do with how you interpret the book, the story, the narrative. This is why I like Lynch, he refuses to help out the audience, he doesn’t offer explanation, he doesn’t care if you draw conclusions or flap about in frustration. I watched Mulholland Drive for the first time 2 days ago and it’s still going round and round in my head, that’s why I think it’s an auteur film – anyone got any explanations they want to share, then I’ll pleased to hear what you got from it!

“Poisonous Valentine for Hollywood” – Mulholland Drive

This week I start a new film course at the Broadway in Nottingham, this time the theme is David Lynch. Ouch. I could have picked Hitchock and studied movies with clear constructs and narratives which follow a logical path, but where would be the fun in that? So last night I decided to watch Mulholland Drive (2001) and get stuck into the surreal workings of Lynch’s mind and films.

For anyone who’s seen the film you may well have had the same reaction to me when it ended; WTF. Well, exactly, it’s no clear story. This morning I decided to seek the advice of professionals and hit Google hard. It seems to be fairly conclusive that most critics assign the narrative to be first a dream sequence and second a gritty reality of the characters.

Betty (Naomi Watts), a “gee golly wiz” girl from Ontario arrives in LA to stay at her Aunts Sunset Boulevard apartment, on arrival she finds the injured doe, “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), who’s suffering amnesia from a car accident the night before. In the process of trying to find out whom “Rita” really is and what the blue key opens Betty auditions successfully for a film role and the two women fall in love. Their story ends at the eerie club Silencio where on returning to the apartment with the blue box Betty found, “Rita” turns the key, Betty disappears and the audience are sucked into the black hole.

This section does seem dream like to me – Betty’s lines feel so “wholesome” and out of synch with those around her, her upbeat nature, her inability to feel fear, her extremely talented performance at the audition (smooth transition from naive girl to Hollywood seductress) all point to an idealistic attitude towards life. The beautiful “Rita”, a genuine 50s bombshell who’s dependant and submissive in nature, yet wiley and astute enough to work out how to break into Aunt Ruth’s apartment undetected. The fact the two girls are called Betty and Rita (harks back to 50s Hollywood), the easy way in which they break into Diane’s apartment and the fact they’re unfazed later that night by the horror of what they had seen. Lynch’s camera angles drift upwards as the characters speak (symbolising an out of body experience?) which gives the scenes a surreal edge, as do the winding (almost drunken) views of walking through the corridors of Aunt Ruth’s apartment.

The second half of the film depicts the sad, embittered life of Dianne (Naomi Watts) and her unrequited relationship with the cruel, beautiful and teasing Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). The audience sees her hung-over (drink and drugs?) tired and lack being awoken by the terrifying cowboy figure (twice, so we know things have gone wrong - his earlier warning to the director Adam, played by Justin Theroux) and in her morning stupor hallucinating that the Camilla has returned to her. Her sad tale at Adam’s party forces her publicly announce her failed movie dreams and re-live the broken promises by industry professionals while the twisted and successful Camilla openly taunts her (kissing another woman and fawning over Adam). The reality is Dianne works as a waitress and the vicious rejection she receives forces her hand to hire the assassin to kill Camilla, unable to live with her guilt she shoots herself. The camera angles change in this section too, no high angles (out of body style), no soft focus stylised close ups – rather the opposite, intimate, uncomfortable angles which show every imperfection.

Well, what about the old couple? Diane could be haunted by her own conscious, a failure to herself and her parents? Or are they simple demons in disguise? Are Betty and Rita the dream of what Dianne really wanted - her subconscious desire, her daydream? Or did everything really happen and all four characters exist together in some parallel universe?

Mulholland Drive is like the road itself, a winding, twisted route through Hollywood with some clear pointers and clues along the route, which, if you chose to ignore them do not stop you getting to your destination. Perhaps that’s the point, there are clues like the red lamp, the ashtray, the blue keys the people at Winkies but ultimately if you see them or miss them you’re none the wiser at the end, having reached the conclusion of the film with hopefully your own interpretation. I think it’s always a good film if you spend days afterwards thinking about it, and perhaps that’s the point as Lynch has never offered an explanation – maybe it’s one huge joke, made up as he went along like Twin Peaks to frustrate and tantalise the audience – the clues are not there to be sensibly analysed but rather to anchor the narrative with traditional repeated metaphors? Who knows?

I loved it; I need to watch it again but hopefully this film course will throw up some good insights along the way.

Best scene: the scary as hell club “Silencio” where we are told in several different languages that, “it’s all an illusion.”

In the Loop Film Sneak

Well, I’ve been delivered a treat this month in GQ (for work purposes, I’m not usually a fan of man mags) by reading an interview with political satirist and general comic legend Armando Iannucci about his new film “In the Loop”. In The Loop is a dry, honest and balanced portrayal of what happens in Washington. There’s no glamorous women, no noble presidents, no dramatic, witty dialogue and you won’t see a sniff of Rob Lowe or Charlie Sheen. No, this film appears to want to show the startling reality of political mechanics in America, the fact that decisions are made by fallible, frightened procrastinator who are just like the rest of us. A scary thought, especially when you realise the film is showing the decision making process in the lead up to a war in an “middle eastern country”. Well, I think Iannucci is keen to show just how involved the Brits are in the “special relationship” or how screwed Blair really was. I’m looking forward to seeing Peter Capaldi’s foul mouthed portrayal of a brash British spin doctor (definitely not Alistair Campbell!) and James Gandolfini’s pentagon general (I wonder if the Sopranos star will draw on his mob acting background to add fuel to the role?)

In the Loop is released April 17th 2009.