Archive for David Lynch

Damn this sand! When will it ever end?

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2021 by dcairns
Dave Bautista

I fondly recall my sister telling me about seeing David Lynch’s DUNE with her boyfriend of the time, who was the worst at following movie plots, and kept up a constant stream of “Who’s that again?” throughout. DUNE is, I guess, fairly challenging to the narratively-challenged.

No such issues when Fiona and I traipsed over to the Vue Ocean Terminal (former the Ster Century, or Monster Sanctuary as we called it) to see Denis Villeneuve’s version. Just a sigh of “That was so BORING, I thought I was going to fall asleep,” from Fiona at the end.

When DV’s BLADE RUNNER sequel came out and tanked, I think I said “I guess we won’t get to see his DUNE then.” But maybe the contracts had already been signed and couldn’t be broken? Or maybe those strange people at Legendary Films just wanted to see what he’d do with it.

For purposes of this article I will, like everyone else, pretend John Harrison’s TV miniseries doesn’t exist, even though I met JH and both his stars and they were all very nice. Haven’t seen the show.

Stellan Skarsgard

The new DUNE suffers from Roman Epic Syndrome, where you have a very far-off culture to portray and it makes it hard to humanize the characters so we can get involved emotionally. It’s not actually a problem for the culture to be very different from ours, but it’s a problem for the characters to lack recognisable behaviour. In Old Hollywood the denaturalising of the performances was actually a deliberate policy, born of some kind of crazed belief that ancient history and/or the Bible require a particular performance style, declamatory and wooden, exemplified, indeed apotheosised, by Chuckles Heston in DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS. So that when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in, was it QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what era, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” asked Ustinov, reasonably. On BEN-HUR, there was a lively screenwriter’s debate about which was better, “Is the food not to your liking?” or “Don’t you like your dinner?” The former won out. It is not any more genuinely ancient-world than the alternative.

Lynch’s DUNE is plagued by several problems: by taking no heed of the demands of running time when he wrote it long, and then allowed for further improvisations when shooting, lengthening it more, Lynch saved up a problem for the edit which slammed him badly. The rough cuts of ERASERHEAD and THE ELEPHANT MAN had been very long, so he thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but those movies have pretty sparse plots. DUNE has all these damn FACTIONS. If you cut one scene you have to shoehorn the exposition it once contained someplace else. Hence all those internal monologues, where even comparatively minor character like Max Von Sydow whisper their thoughts to their chums, the audience. Going hand-in-hand with this is a palpable panic and loss of confidence, so that some of these VOs are spectacularly redundant, insulting and alienating: Francesca Annis leaves the room, thinking her son will be killed; she comes back and sees him alive; looks relieved. And her voice on the soundtrack helpfully remarks: “My son — LIVES!” Which is also an unsayable line.

Villeneuve’s DUNE, like Lynch’s, begins with an info-dump, and it’s a far less charming and arresting one than Virginia Madsen’s starfield piece-to-camera in the Lynch. It throws in some battle scenes (one day we’ll see a version of Frank Herbert’s book where we don’t see Arrakis until Paul does) and I bet most audiences don’t absorb a tenth of the info dumped on them, too busy admiring the pictures. But, generally, the new film is less anxious for us to understand things, which is good. “As writer, you must deliver your story points,” said Herr Wilder, “but the elegance with which you deliver them is the measure of how good you are.” Or words to that effect. The Villeneuve doesn’t fall prey to Lynch’s clumsinesses.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have ANY of his eccentricity, which is what makes the Lynch film lively and engaging. I found myself missing Kyle MacLachlan’s bluff heartiness. I really felt, even though it was oversold, that his Paul Atreides really LIKES his buddies in House Atreides. With Timotei Shalamar, I’m not even sure he likes his mom.

Timotei Shalimar and friends

Lynch’s gallery of grotesques pop out of the screen: only the Emperor is a stiff. Kenneth McMillan (who we recently enjoyed in Salem’s Lot), Paul L. Smith, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Alicia Witt… When Sting, who was quite prepared to play his shower scene nude, was asked to wear a golden eagle codpiece, he refused. They wore him down, but he eventually agreed to paste the bird to his junk only if he could play the part as the kind of guy who WOULD wear a crotch-accipitrid in the shower. And they LET him. Patrick Stewart, one of the less lurid performers, nevertheless goes into battle clutching a tiny pug. Freddie Jones has a scene, only included in the various unsigned extended cuts, has a scene at the end that’s heart-breaking and bizarre. Nothing in the new film stirs the empathy.

Villeneuve likes underplaying, and casts good underplayers, and attains a consistency Lynch doesn’t even seem to value as a goal. With the result that, though we get a Paul who’s convincingly teenage (he’s around the same age MacLachlan was, but slighter), we don’t meet anyone we’d like to eat dinner with. Rebecca Ferguson gets some actual emotion into it, and Javier Bardem shows actual star intensity, briefly waking things up. Stellan Skarsgård, a sort of grudging, inward-aiming actor, is a very dull substitute for the illustrious McMillan, who made intergalactic scheming while unplugging the hearts of twinks look like THE BEST FUN.

“I was so bored by those dream sequences…” Fiona complained. And they are boring, in the Villeneuve, even though they’re full of ACTION. But it’s action that doesn’t mean anything to us yet. I wouldn’t have thought prophecy could be as tedious than backstory, but apparently it can amount to the same thing. The Lynch film’s prophecies were shot by Frederick Elmes, his ERASERHEAD and future BLUE VELVET DoP. “We had one of those crisis meetings and I told them,” said Freddie Francis, DUNE’s veteran cinematographer, “that if Freddie Elmes shoots another frame of film I’m quitting. They didn’t fire him, though, they kept him around shooting drops of water.” But, with all respect to FF, who was old-school experienced and super-talented, Elmes’ epic drips are among the film’s most memorable images.

Villeneuve’s future dreams ultimately cheat the audience by NOT coming true, not really. It’s a bigger swindle than the time-shift of ARRIVAL, which works emotionally but is dirty pool, playing with the audience for no reason except to kick us in the heart.

Villeneuve’s big advantage over Lynch is that he gets a longer runtime to tell half the story, so he’s not forced into the damaging compressions that occluded his predecessor’s vision. He doesn’t always use his time sensibly, though. The character of Shadout Mapes appears in both films, and her entire role is to get nearly killed by a flying needle, then genuinely killed by a big knife. Oh, and in this version she gives Paul’s mom another knife. Why is this cleaning woman included? I sort of like the democratic instinct that would make a cleaning woman a character in a space epic, but you might as well also feature an Arrakis dogcatcher, the House Harkonnen’s PR guy, a Fremen dishwasher, and I’ll commend you for it IF you find anything for them to do.

Lynch’s DUNE, like most of his movies, looks awfully white, and Villeneuve corrects that in multiple ways, though most of the POC are dead by the time we’re told “This is just the beginning.” His film has scale (although the ornithopters can’t help but look tiny), great design (though tending to the monochromatic), it’s beautiful to look at. But I find I prefer most of Lynch’s faults to most of Villeneuve’s virtues.

They are brothers.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2021 by dcairns

Hello everyone. Mrs Shadowplay here, with a review that should have come out four months ago when Edgar Wright’s THE SPARKS BROTHERS was first released in the UK. But then I kept procrastinating, and procrastinating and procrastinating until it was nearly Halloween. Best get on with it then.

Finally, in the year of our lord, 2021, during a heatwave, Sparks receive received their due after 50+ years of producing innovative, unique pop music. And it’s all due to director Edgar Wright’s fanboy enthusiasm. I can only congratulate him on his good taste. Reading this opening, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This is going to be an entirely biased review isn’t it?’ And I can only reply (telepathically) with a whole-hearted, ‘Yes it is.’

Ever since the Mael Brothers caused a playground sensation with their first mind-bending appearance, or should I say ‘manifestation’, on Top Of The Pops in 1974 with the extraordinary This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, I’ve been transfixed by their art pop antics. They may have reinvented themselves many times over but they are still essentially Sparks; uncompromising and eternal.

Just to prove that Sparks’ music really is imperishable, I showed this legendary televisual incarnation to a friend in his early twenties and his written response was, ‘Oh my, that track ROCKS!’

I think my young friend would have been shocked if I’d then gone on to tell him that they were kept off the No 1 slot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love. “I wonder where The Rubettes are now?” muses Russell ‘Cutie-Pie’ Mael. Don’t by fooled by their sweetly oddball demenour, these guys have teeth and claws. Ladies and Gentlemen, here are Sparks’ mortal enemy, The Rubettes. It was falsettos at dawn but ultimately history has proved our boys the winners. (Although maybe I woudn’t have minded so much if it was Mud’s Tiger Feet. I will now defenestrate myself out of shame)

So, who are they? “We are brothers,” they helpfully inform us. They say some more stuff but their mystique remains. “What use is a two hour twenty minute documentary on a band that doesn’t completely penetrate their appeal?” I hear you ask (I wish these entirely fictionalised voices asking me questions would leave me alone). Well, that’s kind of the point of Sparks and the reason that they’ve survived the vicissitudes of time.

“How the hell did THAT come out of the cornfields of Kansas?” said someone who’s name I can’t recall at the moment. He was refering to the unique, luminous Louise Brooks.

A random screengrab of Louise Brooks for you all to enjoy.

The same could be said of Sparks. How the hell did Ron and Russell Mael come out of the sand and surf of California? They seem so European in every way. It’s no surprise that’s where their main fan base has been, most significantly, the UK, where they were dubbed “the best British band ever to come out of America.”

What on earth were these, these…THINGS? They were more like cartoon characters than real people. It’s fitting that Wright frequently resorts to animation to tell the unfolding saga of ther lives. They’re also a bit like superheroes. Ron has the power to stare down the barrel of a lense with such focused intensity that he can levitate objects located on the other side of the screen, and Russell has the supernatural facility to mess with the molecular structure of the human body with the spooky range of his voice. In other words, Sparks can make you float in the air while changing you into a werewolf…If that’s your idea of a good time.

The hyperactive visual style of Wright fits them like a glove. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I can’t think of a better director to wrestle them into a documentary format. The film’s been criticised by some for being too long, but how on earth are you going to do a whistle-stop tour of the life and times of the Mael brothers and not have it run at nearly two and half hours? Yes, it does sometimes feel like a ticking-off of each album in their discography. Yes, you do wonder why Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt are talking heads in it just because they’re fans, but these are such minor quibbles they’re barely worth thinking about.

One slower section really made me sit up, take notice, and unexpectedly moved me. Christi Haydon, a talented designer and performer, who had worked with Sparks in the mid 1990s, bursts into tears when talking about their wilderness years after their film project, Mai The Psychic Girl folded. They were suddenly faced with possible extinction. I use the word ‘extinction’ because Sparks really are like a living, breathing, singing being unto death. Haydon’s response seems entirely genuine and it’s a shocking counterpoint to the joyride that’s gone before.

But Sparks are unstoppable. They were back in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins. Many people believed them to be a brand new band, and they were placed in the unusual position of being accused of ripping off the very groups they helped inspire in the first place. I’d be looking at The Pet Shop Boys, then swiftly looking away again and going on my merry way. I’d stop and have a long, friendly chat with Erasure because Vince Clarke and Andy Bell are more than happy to acknowledge Sparks’ influence on them.

This video, directed by Sophie Muller, showcases their interest in film (they each took separate film courses at UCLA). Their music often has bombast and cinematic scope.

And they kept on, writing the opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009), in which the Swedish auteur is corrupted by Hollywood, based on their own abortive film experience with Mai The Psychic Girl, until chance encounters led to collaborations with Franz Ferdinand in 2015 (collaboration being something which allegedly doesn’t work) —

and Leos Carax in 2021.

ANNETTE is an opera about a deeply flawed, probably insane male stand-up comic and his strange, singing prodigy of a daughter. This time the Maels are on screenwriting duty (shared with Carax). One of my favourite lines, said just before a huge stadium event involving said prodigy, goes, “Nerves are to be expected. She is, of course, a baby.”

This gives me satisfying David Lynch vibes but is also typically Sparksian, with its elements of absurdist humour and revealing psychological insight. In fact there are many commonalities between The Sparks Brothers and Lynch. Both are American Avant-Garde artists whose roots are firmly planted in Europe. Both, despite being passionately non-conformist, have attained popular acclaim.

Another thing in Sparks’ favour is that they knew how to hit back against mediocrity, with cutting wit, at silly, short sighted decisions by programmers and recording companies. Remember how I told you they had teeth and claws, back in the mists of time of this article? Well, here are some examples of Sparks sharpening them:

During the late 80s, Sparks released a single, but the record company wouldn’t shell out for a video to promote it, so when appearing on a breakfast tv show, Sparks leaped into action with their own form of civil disobedience. This involved them fashioning a tv set out of cardboard and putting Russell’s head inside it to sing the song. This is highly reminiscent of Frank Thornton as The BBC in Richard Lester’s bleakly surreal masterpiece, THE BED SITTING ROOM.

Sparks briefly owned The BBC in 1994.

Luckily, they had allies: Jonathan Ross had Sparks on his show to perform Dick Around after the BBC had banned it from radio air play. The letter of complaint they wrote utilising the phrase ‘dick around’ as many times as humanly possible is wickedly clever and funny. Then again, I may have imagined this response. When I went looking for it online I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I DID find were perfectly reasonable grievances about the Beeb Beeb Ceeb’s decision. Has Ron been using his super powers to implant false memories into my brain? *looks around uneasily*

Again in the 80’s, their record company were at a loss as to what to do with them. They suggested they write “music that you can dance to.” This was the result.

I could hug them. I really could. But I’m afraid of Ron’s uncanny brain powers.

What’s been particularly enlightening and pleasing is reading reviews of this documentary by younger people (I’m 55 so shoot me!). The word ‘inspiration’ keeps coming up over and over again. Sparks never gave up. They never compromised. They were always completely themselves. They evolved but still retained their essential ‘Sparksness.’ They’re a perpetual motion machine animated by music and we should all be very, very grateful.

Gentleman (Edgar Wright), and Lady (Nira Parks), I thank you. It’s been a long time coming. I was grinning like an idiot behind my mask the whole time.

…and on the second day…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2020 by dcairns

Started to feel I wasn’t getting the most out of the online Il Cinema Ritrovato. This may in part have been because I wasn’t watching any films. But you see, I have a DVD of THE GRAPES OF WRATH so watching it streaming didn’t make sense to me, even though it’s well overdue a watch. So I’ve been looking at shorts, documentaries, interviews, masterclasses…

By some odd quirk the festival is streaming an interview with Dario Argento and a session on the restoration of FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, but not the film itself. For that you have to be in Bologna. The Argento interview was unsatisfactory from almost every point of view — a camera in Bologna filmed an auditorium with a screen on which you could see the Maestro and his interviewer, fuzzily projected, neither one of them being present, while a simultaneous translation talked over both of them. So we couldn’t really see Dario or hear him, and we got the gist of his words but he didn’t seem to have anything exciting to say.

His film, however, is very exciting, even in the unrestored version I have access to. I can’t think why I always assumed it was inferior to THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS and BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, it’s a worthy companion. The plot is completely barmy, full of unexplained lunatic touches, as when a blackmailing housemaid, waiting in a park for her victim, flees into an ever-narrowing cobwebbing passage. I admit I’m not personally familiar with Turin’s parks and recreation areas, but I have a hunch the shaggy DA is stretching verisimilitude here, as on a medieval rack.

We liked the idea of the gay private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle), but of course he’s played in a wildly stereotypical, swishy way — yet this was still progressive at the time, by the admittedly demented standards of the Italian genre cinema. He’s allowed to make a brief plea for tolerance, to solve the case, and to win pathos. And the killer has a traumatic backstory which imparts a little sympathy, perhaps more than the “hero” gets — the sullen-faced Michael Brandon is quite good, though, managing to maintain a core of credibility in the midst of some of Argento’s more head-scratching dialogue and characterisation.

The main thing, though, is that Argento has an extravagant visual idea to explore in nearly every scene, and they’re mostly cunning rather than just sucky. There’s something wonderfully eerie about the hero’s darkened apartment with the trees outside brightly floodlit and sussurating in a phantasmal fashion. This lad has promise.

*

An interview of the Taviani Bros under a tree did not elevate me, especially when long swathes of it were just the Bros staring blankly into camera as Gideon Bachman attempted to formulate a protrated thought.

My chum Craig McCall delivered a detailed exposition on dye-transfer Technicolor written by Robert Hoffman, which worked better than Dario’s appearance because Craig was actually in the room.

A session on the restoration of A BOUT DE SOUFFLE and THE ELEPHANT MAN offered little for non-pixel-pushers, but it was good to hear that David Lynch insisted on his HDR restoration being performed with a cinema screen as reference.

And then at last there was a PROPER film doc, Cyril Leuthy’s MELVILLE, LE DERNIER SAMOURAI, which weirdly discounts BOB LE FLAMBEUR and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE entirely and claims LE DOULOS as Melville’s first thriller, but is otherwise rivetting. It gets by with only sparse clips from the films, but just enough, and with a terrific wealth of archive footage of the man himself, and good new interviews with family members, Volker Schloendorff and Taylor Hackford. The stars are curiously absent, but the whole thing has a nice jazzy, nocturnal feel very suited to JPM’s cinema, and among the memories are striking moments — JPM screaming at Lino Ventura, captured on 1/4inch audio tape, and Delon, interviewed shortly after (a) falling out with Melville and (b) Melville’s death, talking about how they need to have a break before working together again. With extraordinary facial expressions, cognitive dissonance pulling the muscles this way and that — he KNOWS the man is dead, but he’s still considering working with him again after a suitable interval…

“You can’t love cinema without being a child,” says one of the assorted Grumbachs. Dario would agree, I think.

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET stars Dempsey; Margareta Nikolajevna; renowned curator Jacques Saunier; La regina di Napoli; Mme Quentin; Fanny Hill; and Bambino, the left hand of the Devil!