Mystery Men

LOST HIGHWAY and THE NEW CENTURIONS. Two videos that kind of resonate with each other. In fact, maybe if you play them both at once you can get some kind of interesting conversation going.

The lynch film is, I hope, sufficiently well-known to most Shadowplayers as to require no elucidation from me, although I can report my conversation with its director during an Edinburgh Film Festival satellite hook-up interview conducted by Mark Cousins. The interview had been arranged with many warnings from Lynch’s people — “David doesn’t like to explain his work,” etc. So Mark was faced with the challenge of interviewing an acclaimed maker of enigmatic and surreal mysteries, without asking him to clear up any of the mysteries. Lynch appeared on the big screen, sometimes fading in and out myseriously as his voice continued twanging on, rather like Virginia Madsen at the start of DUNE. Mark, anxious about publicly quizzing the Great Man, had steadied his nerves with a drink or two. The first clip was played, showing Bill Pullman in the death cell mutating into Balthazar Getty, all mixed in with an image of a shack exploding in reverse. Mark’s first question: “So, what’s going on there?”

Lynch, despite the dire warnings, was affability itself and was quite happy to talk about the scene, without, of course, explaining anything. I remember he did say that he’d chosen to avoid digital morphing “Because it seems like everyone and his uncle is doing that.” And he talked about how the exploding shack was the result of a sudden inspiration which came to him while filming a later scene at that location. “I just got this image, so I called the special effects guy and asked what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”

As the audience were invited to ask questions, I knew it was no good to ask for explanations, but I did ask, since we saw the Mystery Man with a video camera, whether it was reasonable to assume he was the one who was sending Pullman VHS tapes at the start of the film. I also sneakily asked where he got the idea of casting Robert Blake. Of course, if you ask someone two questions, they get to choose which one to answer. He told me he cast Blake based on his Johnny Carson appearances. But he also said of the Mystery Man, “I don’t want to tell you who he is. He’s someone we’ve all met.”

THE NEW CENTURIONS is Richard Fleischer’s Joseph Wambaugh adaptation, dealing with the travails of LAPD patrolmen George C Scott, Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. Sterling Silliphant scripted, eschewing any overarching plot and avoiding traditional structural forms — it’s episodic yet oddly of a piece, and quite a superb piece of filmmaking. The above scene (with its gorgeous LA light) occurs after George C has retired and is at a loss to what to do with himself. I’ve cut it off before the end to avoid a gross spoiler. I always like to watch a violent crime movie set in a place I’m going to visit — I prepared Fiona for our New York trip by screening THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (version originale).

This post is somewhat inspired by the weirdness of talking to Fiona via Skype from LA, looking back into my flat from the other side of the looking glass.

The other day upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh how I wish he’d go away!

Robert Louis Stevenson

13 Responses to “Mystery Men”

  1. When you get back home there may be a tape on your doorstep. And watch out for changes in Fiona’s hair colour not to mention slick guys who own car repair businesses.

    (I’m secretly enormously jealous that you spoke with David Lynch)

  2. “Now, boys, don’t start your ramblin’ round,
    On this road of sin or you’re sorrow bound.
    Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
    You started rollin’ down that lost highway”
    -Hank Williams, ”Lost Highway”

    I have never seen the original but I am superfond of Tony Scott’s remake. He’s not a guy with any cred in these parts(save for Ignatiy Vishnevetsky) but that film is quite good.

    Great you got to interview Lynch. I tried to interview Skolimowski recently and all I got was to meet him briefly with him telling me I should have called earlier.

  3. Funnily enough, my hair colour is in a constant state of flux. Just to avoid any trouble, if the tape arrives, I shall immediately throw it on the fire. No sign of a slick car repair business owner yet, but if he arrives I’ll alert David.

  4. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the ‘exploding shack’ was an allusion to the end of Kiss Me Deadly!

    Isn’t the New Centurions the one with the prostitute with the razor blade in her teeth, or am I distantly remembering an entirely different film?(!)

    I try to do the thing of watching a crime film from a place I’m going to visit but it usually just ends up being Shopping!:

    – which just leaves me feeling more depressed about my upcoming trip!

  5. A consistent element of Robert Blake’s Johnny Carson appearances was his bad-mouthing of Hal Ashby’s Second-Hand Hearts — a sublime maudit in which he and Barbara Harris give exquisite performances.

    Barbara had quite a hard time during the shooting. She locked herself in her trailer and refused to come out. Her great friend (and mine) Anthony Holland would have to call her from wherever he was at that moment to talk her onto the set each morning.

    Her chief problem?

    She was convinced her leading man was trying to kill her.

  6. colinr – was the lady with the razor blade Pam Grier? If it was then I think you’re thinking of Fort Apache, The Bronx.

  7. I thnk that’s right, Alex and Colinr. The prostitutes in New Centurions are portrayed in a notably sympathetic light, and the cops openly question why the hell they’re supposed to arrest the poor working giirls. Scott’s solution to getting them off the streets is to pick them up in the van, buy them whisky, and drive them around until they’re too drunk to do their job.

    Kiss Me Deadly does seem like it’s floating around somewhere in the back of Lost Highway’s mind, and must surely have been the trigger that made Lynch think of the shack exploding. The fact that thee references happen unconsciously actually strengthens them.

    Somewhere on here I wrote a piece about Lynch’s cinematic borrowings: probably doing a search for Yojimbo will bring it up quickest.

    I didn’t interview Lynch, Mark did, I just stuck my hand up for one question (and so did Fiona, to ask about Ronnie Rocket. “Thanks for asking about him.”) If I’d had the job of interlocutor, *I’d* have certainly needed a whisky too.

    My host here in LA saw Blake on Johnny Carson taunting some guy he’d apparently beaten up, who he presumed was out there in the TV audience. “There’s nothing you can do about it because nobody saw it,” he said into the camera. Brrr.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    LOST HIGHWAY is a brilliant and genuinely disturbing movie. (Unlike BLUE VELVET, which tries very hard to be creepy but isn’t.) I worry that any explanation by David Lynch would just dilute the sublime enigma of it all!

  9. I wish people would give Barry Gifford a bit more credit for his collaborations with Lynch. Lost Highway is a combination of two dreams – one he had and one Lynch had. Examining his oeuvre (the noir reviews of The Devil Thumbs a Ride, the Sailor and Lula books, the screenplays) is to reveal an intriguing conversation with Lynch’s work that goes from revulsion to collaboration.

  10. Christopher Says:

    I lost track of the Robert Blake and his wife killing business and never fully understood the outcome…I guess I refused to believe such a thing..I’d always liked Blake,his appearances on the Tonight Show and Baretta,then as now,I didn’t care much for prime time TV,but I liked Baretta.

  11. Terrific actor. But slightly alarming human being. Not guilty, officially. Did the jury just hate the victim so much they were unwilling to convict? At any rate, his acting career seems to be over, which is a shame for the world.

  12. He seems to come from a similar place as Jack Nance. Given the overlap of real life with Lost Highway, I can’t think of an actor who would have been more likely to invite the mystery man over than Blake. The New Centurion clip was a fun way to connect the idea. A cop friend of mine loves this film.

  13. Cops tend to like Wambaugh’s stuff, it’s well-researched, sympathetic to their cause, but also shows the less salubrious side of police work. His non-fiction book The Blooding, about the first use of DNA evidence in England, is terrific too.

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