Living Inside a Dream: The Art and Films of David Lynch

26 April 2015
David Lynch portrait

David Lynch in Los Angeles, August 2014. Photograph: Just Loomis.

On Thursday 26 March 2015 at 7pm, I presented a one-hour special on David Lynch and the David Lynch: Between Two Worlds exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The special was broadcast during the Max Headroom show on radio station Triple R (3RRR 102.7FM). I discussed Lynch’s career as an artist and a filmmaker, played some of the recorded audio of Lynch speaking at the exhibition’s press conference, and played some of the music that Lynch has either helped to create or used in his films.

Below is a full transcript of the special, and the original audio is available via Triple R’s Radio On Demand service and here:

Blue Velvet

When David Lynch first heard Bobby Vinton’s 1963 cover of ‘Blue Velvet’ he found it schmaltzy and not his cup of tea. Sometime later he heard it again and that time he saw ‘green lawns, red lips… at night’. Then came the idea of a severed ear. And then ants. This was the genesis of the 1986 film Blue Velvet; the film that for many defines Lynch as a filmmaker, along with the cult television series Twin Peaks, which may or may not return to our screens in 2016. When Blue Velvet premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival Lynch got to dance with Giulietta Masina, the wife and muse of Federico Fellini. Fellini is one the filmmakers, along with Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati among others, who Lynch has at some point cited as an influence. Fellini’s nostalgic, surreal, affectionate and satirical vision of Italy certainly makes him something of an artistic predecessor to Lynch whose films cast a similarly fond, but critical and cautionary eye over America.

The image of the green lawn and red lips, the story about dancing with Masina; such anecdotes are often all the information that any interviewer has ever drawn out from Lynch during his 50 year career as a visual artist then filmmaker and more recently musician. Lynch is not being deliberately belligerent or obtuse, he just doesn’t like explaining his art as he told the sold out crowd at the Concert Hall at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane on Saturday 14 March 2015. Making his first and only ever public appearance in Australia in a one hour In Conversation event with film critic David Stratton, Lynch explained that while he thinks it’s beautiful that people analyse and critique his films, he feels it’s not up to him to explain his films because ‘a film should work on its own’. He’s thrilled that his films are so discussed, debated and open to interpretation, saying that ‘When things get abstract… there’s room for many interpretations’.

With perfectly styled silver hair, dressed in a black suit, black tie and white shirt, and making a reference to coffee in the first five minutes of the In Conversation event, Lynch characteristically looked like so many of the characters he has created for the screen, including FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, a role he played himself. He spoke deliberately and politely, but with the reassuring intensity of a determined schoolteacher who wants nothing more than to share their passion and insight with their students. Often he would squeeze his eyes shut and chop the air with his hands as if he was concentrating on delivering the most honest and pure answers possible. Right before describing the pigeon shit on the set of The Elephant Man he asks the audience to excuse his French.

Lynch was in Brisbane for the opening of the David Lynch: Between Two Worlds exhibition, which is on display at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 7 June 2015. The exhibition consists of paintings, sketches, photography and sculptures by Lynch as well as samples of his work in other media including animation, comic strips, web videos, music videos as well as the film and television projects he is best known for. As the exhibition’s curator José Da Silva explains, the idea behind the exhibition is to introduce audiences to Lynch’s work as an artist and to link his art to his films. Lynch did begin as a painter; he’s been a prolific artist his entire career and before making any films he was a painter. At the GOMA media conference, which was held the day before the In Conversation event, Lynch was asked about his background as a painter and how it all began.

My father would bring home paper from the office that was going to be thrown away, and it had the blank side at the back. And I would draw and I liked to draw knives, guns, airplanes, and my favourite thing was the Browning Automatic Watercooled Submachine gun. And I love to draw, but I had this thought in my mind that when you grew up you couldn’t do those things. I was in the 9th grade in Alexandria, Virginia, on the front lawn of my girlfriend’s house and I met a kid who was going to private school – I met him for the first time that night – and I was talking to him and he said his father was a painter. And at first I thought he might have been a house painter and then he said, no, fine art painter. And a bomb went off in my head and from then on all I wanted to do was be a painter. And I still really basically… all I want to do is paint. But that’s how it started.

In 2007 the exhibition The Air is on Fire at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, France, was the first comprehensive presentation of Lynch as a visual artist and even came with its own custom designed industrial soundscape that visitors could play as they pressed buttons found among the artworks. Between Two Worlds isn’t as exhaustive as The Air is on Fire, but it does contain very carefully chosen pieces, including works done since the Paris exhibition, in order to best represent Lynch’s most prevalent and compelling artistic themes. And rather than having all the artwork arranged chronologically, they are displayed thematically, although the three themes chosen by Da Silva do roughly reveal the chronological development across Lynch’s film career.

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Man On Wire 1998 / Archival gelatin silver print, 27.9 x 35.5cm / Courtesy: the artist / © David Lynch

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Man On Wire 1998 / Archival gelatin silver print, 27.9 x 35.5cm / Courtesy: the artist / © David Lynch

The first theme is ‘Man and Machine’ and speaks to Lynch’s fascination with the way that factories and the human body are both in a constant process of creation, transformation and decay. Lynch’s father was a research scientist who worked in agriculture, exposing Lynch to a scientific perspective of decay and disease in the natural world. His mother taught English and encouraged self-expression so at the age of 19 Lynch went to art school in the industrial city of Philadelphia, a city that at the time was in decline and filled with fear, hopelessness, crime and sadness. Lynch has described his time in Philadelphia as terrifying, thrilling and one of the biggest influences on his career.

Philadelphia, I always say, was my biggest inspiration. I went there at the very end of 1965 and I stayed there until 1970 and it was a very sick, corrupt, filthy, fear-ridden city with insanity and fear and negativity in the atmosphere. And at the same time I really loved that city. There was a mood in Philadelphia that I caught and it stayed with me. And it’s a mood of a kind of a factory town. I fell in love with the architecture – these row houses and the proportions of these rooms, and the colours they would use and how it would conjure a mood. And the city really made me dream. It was a beautiful experience.

The intertwining of nature and industry is throughout so much of Lynch’s art and his films. Then there are various works made from food and left to decay as well as pieces such as Chicken Kit (1983) where a dissected chicken is accompanied by instructions on how to reassemble it, as if it were a model aeroplane kit. Included in the exhibition are paintings of factories, selections from his photographic series documenting abandoned factories from around the USA and Europe, not to mention his 2007 lithograph ‘Factory at Night with Nude’. As he tells us during the In Conversation event, ‘I love factories and I love nude women’. Here’s some more from the media conference where Lynch talks a bit further about the things he loves:

I love smoke and fire and machines, and these factory buildings make me dream. I love oil-impregnated earth – I don’t know why, but I love it. So many things I love are not necessarily good for the environment, but they’re beautiful in another way. Now the factories are little, they’re very efficient, all the machines are tiny, and they don’t make the same sorts of sounds. I’m sure they’re more powerful, but they don’t appear to have any power. So it’s a little bit depressing to me. I don’t know what will come of it, but I do get a lot of inspiration from people’s behaviour and the absurdity of the problems we have these days. I kind of like the problems – I don’t like people suffering – it conjures ideas, people’s behaviour.

The blend of nature and machinery is pronounced in Lynch’s early film career when out of a desire to see his paintings move he began making short experimental narrative films. One of these films was The Grandmother in 1970, where the creation of life was represented as being mechanical and plant-based. Then in 1971 Lynch moved to Los Angeles and began working on his first feature film, which he would finish 6 years later in 1977. Inspired by his experiences in Philadelphia and clearly expressing deep anxieties over having recently become a father, Eraserhead is set in an otherworldly space dominated by factories and warehouses where a deformed man pulling giant levers inside a shed represents the creation of life. At the centre of this industrial world in Henry Spencer, a hapless and awkward young man who is not at all adjusting well to the responsibilities of parenthood. Lynch informs the audience that he identifies with Henry, but he is not him. Henry was played by the late Jack Nance, who appeared in nearly every one of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996, including playing the much loved Pete ‘She’s Dead, Wrapped In Plastic’ Martell in Twin Peaks.

If Lynch were able to find the most potent nightmares possible within the factory world of Eraserhead, in the mechanised world of London, England, during the Industrial Revolution, he found tremendous beauty in The Elephant Man, the sad and moving film about a man in the 19th century whose extreme deformities were originally exploited by a travelling freak show, before he found his way into the care of the staff at the London Hospital.

As Lynch tells it, he was part of a creative team who were pitching the project to the recently formed production company Brooksfilms, a company created by Mel Brooks to allow him to produce films that wouldn’t be associated with his reputation for comedy. The rest of the team successfully pitched and were hired, but Lynch was an unknown. So a private viewing of Eraserhead was arranged for Brooks with Lynch to wait outside the viewing room until the film was finished. Lynch was sure that would be the end of that, but when the film finished Brooks burst out of the theatrette and said to Lynch, ‘I love you, you’re a mad man’. Lynch would later describe Brooks as ‘an abstract thinker’, which of course is the highest compliment possible coming from Lynch.

Lynch describes working on The Elephant Man as a ‘baptism of fire’, but recounts that once he stood in the setting among the old hospital beds and imagined himself present in 19th Century London, he was able to feel complete ownership over the material and that confidence made the film possible.

Lynch has been a practitioner and advocate of Transcendental Meditation for the past 40 years, using it to travel deep within himself to tap into a pure consciousness that will deliver true happiness and a treasury of ideas. The deeper a person can go within themselves, the more powerful, abstract and pure the ideas will be and remaining true to these ideas without restrictions is what drives Lynch artistically. As he says, ‘Any restrictions is a sadness and can kill creativity’. Lynch spoke at length at both the In Conversation event and the media conference, about Transcendental Meditation and its importance to him.

I’ve been doing Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for 41 years. I’ve been meditating twice a day, never missed a meditation in those 41 years. Transcendental Meditation is a mental technique, an ancient form of meditation brought back by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for this time. Transcendental Meditation is not concentration, it’s not contemplation; it’s a unique meditation in that it allows you to dive within – all the way within – and experience the unbounded eternal ocean of pure consciousness, within each one of us human beings. And when you transcend and experience that ocean of consciousness…POW… it’s an incredible experience and every time you experience it you infuse some of that and you really truly start expanding whatever ball of consciousness you had to begins with. Tied to consciousness is intelligence, creativity, happiness, love, energy and peace – all positive within. And you start growing that positivity – those qualities – the side effect is negativity starts to lift away. Stress and traumatic stress, anxieties, tension, depression, hate, anger, fear – all this starts to lift away. And it’s like a huge weight lifting.

So it affects not only your work, but your whole life and all your relationships. It affects everything in a beautiful way. You’ve got more energy – people are so fatigued these days and there’s so much negativity, so much hate in this world. Let them dive within. Another name for that ocean of consciousness within is Ātman, it’s a Vedic word meaning ‘the self’ – know they self – that’s right there. Another name for that deepest level is the Kingdom of Heaven – ‘First seek the Kingdom of Heaven that lies within’. It’s all there within us. And this technique gets you there, first time, every time, and it’s easy and effortless. It’s a beautiful, beautiful blessing this thing. And the answer is, yeah, it really affected my life and my work!

The Elephant Man was Lynch’s first Hollywood studio film. The second and the last studio film was Dune, which he went into knowing that he wouldn’t have final cut, but assuming it would work out okay in the end anyway. It didn’t. Not according to Lynch anyway. When asked during the In Conversation event if he wanted to say anything about Dune, Lynch replied ‘not a lot’.

An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sprawling cult science-fiction novel, Lynch’s version of Dune actually has considerable merit. Lynch’s realising of the mutated Spacing Guild and the incredibly grotesque scenes involving Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s doctor treating the sores on his face fit into Lynch’s preoccupations with mutable bodies. The production design is stunning and for at least the first half of the film it conveys a lot of the novel’s complex ideas in an engaging and intelligent way. But it is also a film that has been clearly cut up and rearranged by somebody other than Lynch and his frustration with it and desire to simply chalk it up to experience are very much on the record. Later when asked about creative freedom Lynch said, ‘I’ve been free since Dune’.

But Dune should also be credited for starring the then unknown actor Kyle MacLachlan, who would go on to star in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Dune was also produced by Dino de Laurentiis who would then produce Blue Velvet. Despite disagreeing with so many of the choices de Laurentiis made on Dune, Lynch still regarded him as a friend and had a lot of respect for him. But for Blue Velvet, and every film Lynch worked on since, he would insist on having final cut. When asked how he got final cut for Blue Velvet, Lynch answered, ‘I asked for it.’

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Woman with Dream 2007 / Lithograph on Japanese Bunko-Shi paper, 66 x 98 cm / Courtesy: The artist / © David Lynch

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Woman with Dream 2007 / Lithograph on Japanese Bunko-Shi paper, 66 x 98 cm / Courtesy: The artist / © David Lynch

The second theme explored in the Between Two Worlds exhibition is ‘The extra-ordinary’ where everyday objects and experiences are made strange or beautiful or terrifying or mysterious. This is David Lynch at the GOMA press conference, speaking a bit about dream logic:

I’ve never really gotten many ideas from dreaming – night-time dreaming – but I love daytime dreaming. I love to sit in a chair and dream about things, and go on a daydream and sometimes ideas come when I do that. I always say I love the idea of dream logic – how dreams can go, and how even though they’re very abstract, you can understand them. So this dream logic is something I really like to think about.

The opening sequence of Blue Velvet contains images and scenes direct from how Middle America is idealised to be, before the camera plunges into the dark undergrowth to show a whole other world of insects working away. This was Lynch’s experience as a child; growing up in an idyllic suburban environment in a stable family, but underneath the white picket fences, blue skies and green lawns was a darker underbelly.

The focus on the everyday and small details result in some of the more recent digital experimental works on display in the exhibition, where tiny details from existing photographs and paintings are magnified. But mostly this concept of finding the unusual in what was presumed normal is used by Lynch to exaggerate the mundane to generate droll humour or uncomfortable horror as in both cases the viewer is seeing something recognisable but in a way that is unfamiliar. Within the exhibition are samples from two of the 2002 web series Lynch developed – the crude animation Dumbland and the sitcom/soap opera Rabbits where all the actors are dressed as giant Rabbits. The family unit and the format of the shows are recognisable, and their strangeness provides laughs and uneasiness.

The focus on things not seeming to be the way that they are is most potent in the image of the house that occurs in a lot of Lynch’s artwork with titles such as “Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House” (1988), “Someone Is In My House” (2014) and “I Take You To My House (2013), which depicts an aggressive looking man carrying a vulnerable and naked woman. For somebody who is so against explaining his films, many of Lynch’s paintings are surprisingly literal with their overly descriptive titles that are usually painted directly onto the canvass, often with other pieces of explanatory text. However, it seems to be part of the childlike quality he gives to his paintings. The end results suggest the terrified perspective of a child who doesn’t understand what they are witnessing.

The ideals of the happy nuclear family unit and the family home as being somewhere safe are frequently undermined in Lynch’s films often through the way he portrays violence against women. And that violence is predominantly from men and in Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks television series and film, that violence is portrayed as not external, but from within the community. In Blue Velvet the violence comes from Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), in Twin Peaks it comes from a whole host of members of the community who engage in acts of domestic violence, sexual assault and murder. The truth behind the show’s central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer is so confronting that Lynch was compelled to make the sort-of prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) to explore the issues without the classification restraints of television at the time.

While The Elephant Man was a success, it was Blue Velvet that delivered Lynch mainstream attention. For all its darkness and disturbing subject matter, it is still a film filled with likeable characters, an intriguing mystery and that offbeat, droll and weird quality that became known as Lynchian. It established Kyle MacLachlan as Lynch’s leading man, and it was also the first time Lynch would work with actors Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. It was also the beginning of Lynch’s musical relationship with composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise, and all three would soon work together on the soundtrack of Twin Peaks.

During the media conference Lynch was asked what is his favourite collaboration with Badalamenti.

‘Laura Palmer’s theme’, I think. Angelo can write some of the most beautiful, beautiful music, but Angelo also is fairly lazy. I like to think Angelo could go down into his basement to his keyboards and write music everyday, but he doesn’t do that. So he needs some pushing and when we work together I sit next to him – I’ve also told this story a bunch of times – but it’s the way we work. I sit next to him on the piano bench or near him, and I talk to him in words to conjure a mood in him, and he plays my words. And if I don’t like what he’s playing, I change the words. And it just goes along like that. And then he’ll catch something and this one day he… he had an office (he doesn’t have it anymore) he had an office across from Macy’s department store in the centre of New York City. And this office was a small apartment. He had no furniture in it. It was terribly drab. I was a depressing little place. And he just had a Rhodes keyboard and the cheapest little cassette recorder, and he’d sit there and I was talking to him on this day in this little office, and he caught a thing.

He caught a thing and started playing. And I started falling in love immediately, but I didn’t know where it was going to go so I couldn’t fall out. But I didn’t fall out. And it kept getting more and more. And I kept falling deeper in love, and it kept getting more and more. And this thing just flew out of Angelo. It was amazing! It was so beautiful. And I started crying, it was so beautiful. Angelo didn’t really understand. He said, ‘David, what is the deal, I don’t… I don’t… it’s not that special I don’t think.’ I said, ‘Angelo, it is special’ and later he kind of agreed.

After seeing Blue Velvet, television executive Tony Krantz pursued Lynch to get him to work with Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost to develop a television series. Lynch had no desire to work on television, but as he’d worked with Frost on a couple of projects that never came to fruition he agreed to meet with him. During this meeting they had the image of a dead girl and that’s where it all started. Lynch made the pilot for Twin Peaks like a film and subsequently treated every episode like a mini-film, elevating American television to new heights, not just in thematic complexity, but also in production values. It is difficult to imagine any of the long form adult dramas that are now binge watched and endlessly discussed on lunch breaks, without Twin Peaks paving the way first.

The dead girl that Lynch and Mark Frost came up with was Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) the popular high-school prom queen whose murder attracts the attention of the FBI. Throughout the investigation into her death not only do the dark secrets of the town get exposed, but also the series gradually introduces supernatural themes concerning a shadow place to our world. Combining characters and storylines lifted from soap operas, sit-coms, detective stories, science fiction, and horror, Twin Peaks was initially a huge hit and embraced as the ultimate example of post-modern hipness. Although in hindsight, much of what may have once been considered ironic could possibly have been sincerity all along. Within each episode there are plenty of scenes and situations the express Lynch’s belief in and hope for family, friendship, love and community. Here’s Lynch now, talking about love:

Well, I had a girlfriend in nursery school, but I don’t remember her too well. And in the second grade I had a girlfriend named Alice Bower. On time we went on a school outing. This was in Durham, North Carolina. All he kids in the second grade… We had a teacher named Mrs Crabtree, just like in The Little Rascals, and we rode in the back of a flatbed truck to a dairy and Alice and I held hands. It was so fantastic. At the dairy we got these small bottles – real thick glass with complicated snap-off tops – of thick unbelievably great tasting chocolate milk. That was a wonderful outing.

And as for the 3rd season that was presumed to be happening in 2016, 25 years after the second season was cancelled? Lynch and Frost have been developing the scripts for the past for years, but Lynch wanted to make it clear that there are no guarantees at this point.

During the early 1990s, around the time of Twin Peaks, Lynch was extremely busy, working on Julee Cruise’s first two albums, staging the musical play Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted, with Cruise and Badalamenti’s music, developing other short lived television projects and continually creating visual artwork. He was approached by his producer friend Monty Montgomery, who wanted Lynch to take a look at a novel by American writer Barry Gifford that Montgomery wanted to direct. Lynch soon realised that this was something he wanted to direct so Montgomery became a producer, Lynch cast Laura Dern whom he knew from Blue Velvet and Nicholas Cage who he considers fearless in the lead roles of a wildly in love couple on the run and the result was Wild at Heart. An ultra-stylised road movie filled with black humour, violence and pop-culture references to Elvis and The Wizard of Oz, it is was both booed and applauded when it won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Lynch would later cast Monty Montgomery as the mysterious cowboy in Mulholland Drive as well as arrange and produce a 1988 album by Montgomery’s then girlfriend/now wife Jocelyn Montgomery. Based on the compositions of the 12th century writer, philosopher and mystic Hildegard von Bingen, Lux Vivens: The Music Of Hildegard Von Bingen incorporates Montgomery’s haunting vocals with Lynch’s dark soundscape. Despite producing and writing a lot of the lyrics for the Cruise albums, Lynch regards Lux Vivens as his first major music project that was born out of his collaborations with Badalamenti. Through Badalamenti Lynch got to know musicians and developed a love for being in the studio, so built his own studio and started experimenting with sound. He’s since collaborated with other musicians such as John Neff, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, Lykke Li and Chrysta Bell, and in the past few years has released his own solo albums, Crazy Clown Time in 2011 and The Big Dream in 2013. And yet as Lynch tells us while in Brisbane, ‘I am not a musician and I am not a singer, but I do make music and I sing.’

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Boy Lights Fire 2010 / Mixed media on cardboard, 182.8 x 274.3cm / Courtesy: The artist / © David Lynch

David Lynch, United States b.1946 / Boy Lights Fire 2010 / Mixed media on cardboard, 182.8 x 274.3cm / Courtesy: The artist / © David Lynch

I think a lot of Taoism is right on the money and all throughout time people have talked about this reality, that there is this field within. They may have used different words for whatever for the people they’re talking to at the time, but the reality is that – the truth is that – and many many cultures, many many religions, many many philosophies there have been many many people saying about this through out time.

The final section of the Between Two Worlds exhibition is ‘Psychic Aches’ referring to the shadowy hidden versions of our selves that embody our fear and aggression. It’s an abstracted self that is frequently literalised in Lynch’s work as a dark, sinister and unwelcome figure in both his paintings and his films. This malevolent version of the self is present in paintings such as ‘My Shadow Is A Monster’ (2011), ‘Please Go Away From Here’ (2014) and ‘Bob’s Second Dream (2011), which features severed body parts and a figure saying ‘Everything is fucking broken’. Several of the paintings feature a figure identified as Bob (Frank Silva), including a 2010 painting titled ‘Bob Lights Fires’ where the figure appears to be throwing matches, not unlike the demonic entity Bob from Twin Peaks was reported to have done to Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) when he was a young boy.

The nature of the character Bob in Twin Peaks fits in with the ‘Psychic Aches’ theme since he is the manifestation of ‘the evil that men do’. Rather than suggest that Bob possesses blameless men in Twin Peaks to inflict evil through them, he is a symbol for the collective horrors of male violence. Bob also represents the way that both perpetrators of horrific violence and victims of abuse are know to use forms of dissociation as a coping mechanism where they imagine themselves or their abuser to be somebody else. The idea is explored even further in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which seems designed to convey to the viewer the confusion, terror and betrayal of a family abuse victim. Bob also represents the potential for seemingly good men to also become violent and abusive, an idea that is strongly asserted in the devastating series finale.

The notion of the shadow self is even more pronounced in Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, written by Wild at Heart author Barry Gifford. While like most of Lynch’s films it is heavily open to interpretation Lost Highway contains three male characters who could all be fragments of the same identity. There’s Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who is Fred’s idealised or fantasy version of himself and there’s The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who like Bob in Twin Peaks is the figure who inflicts the violence that Fred doesn’t believe he is capable of.

With Lost Highway beginning what is now referred to as Lynch’s ‘LA Trilogy’ Lynch next took a detour from the types of films people had come to associate him with to make what he describes as his most experimental film. Like Wild at Heart, The Straight Story (1999) is a road movie, but there are not too many similarities beyond that. Based on the true story of an elderly man who travelled across America on a ride-on lawn mower to reconcile with his brother, The Straight Story is family-friendly and nostalgic. It’s the only feature film Lynch hasn’t written himself and he describes it as experimental for him as it was the first time he had to tease the emotional reactions out of the script, rather than his emotions coming first. As much as The Straight Story may seem like an anomaly for Lynch it possesses a strong degree of heartfelt sentiment regarding family, tradition and America, which is something that has been present in previous work.

Despite vowing to never again work in television, Tony Krantz once again convinced Lynch to do so, and the result was the pilot episode of Mulholland Drive. When asked about working with Australian actors Lynch was full of praise for the professionalism of Australian talent and their ability to be ‘straight shooters’. However, the person he seemed most enamoured with was Naomi Watts who got her break in Mulholland Drive playing one of the lead roles. As Lynch explains, at that time big movie stars didn’t do television, as they weren’t able to sign on for the lengthy period of time required to make a television series. As Naomi Watts wasn’t a big star at the time she was part of the pool of actors who Lynch normally didn’t choose from when casting for a film, but was available to him since he was casting for what he thought was going to be a television series.

It’s now well known that Mulholland Drive never became a television series and according to Lynch a big part of the problem was that the person with the power to green light the show, watched the pilot episode at 6am in the morning while standing up and drinking their coffee on the other side of the room to their screen. They hated it and they passed. When approached to turn the pilot into a feature film Lynch confessed to being in a rare terrifying situation of having zero ideas, but after using his Transcendental Meditation training and techniques, the ideas started flowing in and he was able to do the required additional shooting. As at least one year had elapsed between the pilot being made and the reshoots beginning, he had the additional challenges of no longer having many of the sets, costumes and props, not to mention some of the actors were no longer available. Despite Lynch’s claims about working best without restrictions, he worked under extreme restrictions with Mulholland Drive with the result being one of his most highly acclaimed films. It would also be the third film of his, after The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, which he would pick up an Oscar nomination for Best Director. And it launched the career of Naomi Watts and with a rare hint of pride Lynch states how happy he was to see her go on to do so much other great work and demonstrate that she has ‘the stuff’.

Similar to Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive is non-lineal, constantly blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and is highly open to interpretation. It also features a lead character who is split between two identities, both played by Watts: bright eyed aspiring actor Betty Elms fresh off the bus in Hollywood, and bitter failed actor Diane Selwyn who may or may not have murdered her lover. Lynch’s preoccupation with other worldly character or places that represent humanity’s darkest nature is this time reserved for Hollywood, the greatest illusory world of all that destroys far more souls than it makes dreams.

The fractured identity and Hollywood-as-exploitive-nightmare-factory themes were pushed even further in Inland Empire (2006), Lynch’s final narrative feature film to date, as much as it can be regarded as a narrative film. Lynch reunited with Laura Dern to take the lead role of Nikki Grace, an actor attempting a comeback by appearing in a cursed film. Nikki’s identity increasingly begins to blur with the character she is playing and then a subplot about a Polish girl is introduced. Lynch’s most open-to-interpretation film to date, it’s never too sure who is dreaming of whom. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the extent to which Lynch embraces digital filmmaking for Inland Empire. As the film began as a loose collection of scenes, many of which were originally shot for Lynch’s website on a low-resolution camera, Lynch committed to making the film on digital cameras and wrote scripts daily in response to what had been filmed the day before.

It’s a bold approach for a filmmaker who tells the audience in Brisbane that he doesn’t allow for improvisation and always sticks to the script in order to be true to the ideas that have come to you. Then again, Lynch also values ‘keeping a fresh eye’ and will always try to watch his films with an audience of people not connected to the film to gauge their reaction just by being in the same room with them. He is also open to accidents and surprises, and shares a wonderful anecdote from Blue Velvet concerning the use of the Roy Orbison song ‘In Dreams’. Dennis Hopper was supposed to sing the song in character as Frank Booth, but couldn’t remember the lyrics. So Hopper asks his friend, actor Dean Stockwell, to help him learn the song. They asked Lynch to watch one of their rehearsals where Stockwell lip-synched the lyrics and Hopper attempted to sing. Lynch loved what he saw and ended up changing the entire scene and writing a part for Stockwell in order to recreate that beautiful accident in what has become one of the defining scenes from Blue Velvet.

Inland Empire was ten years ago, but Lynch has continued to make short experimental digital films, visual art and music since then. He even directed a concert film for Duran Duran. And of course, there are those new episodes of Twin Peaks. When asked about how he knows when to finish a film he answers that while ‘nothing is ever really perfect, it is finished’. Given the extent of the work on display in Between Two Worlds it seems like Lynch is far from finished and despite his warning not to get our hopes up too high for a new series of Twin Peaks, it is clear that he’s not done with it yet.

One of the key lines from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is ‘We live inside a dream’ and it’s as good a way as any to understand and explore the dreamlike and mysterious world of David Lynch. Lynch is asked half jokingly if he thinks such a line is somewhat Lynchian and he replies that ‘it’s sort of the truth’. He says this with complete sincerity and commitment to the idea behind it. Now that’s Lynchian.

Yeah, I always say you go where the ideas lead you. So it’s all based on ideas that you fall in love with. You get fired up and you go do those things. So if you’re in love with a cinema idea, you do that and the difference is… films take a long time to make, so during that time you don’t have so many opportunities to paint or work in other mediums, but it’s all these fantastic things called ideas that drive the boat. And love.

Wild At Heart

David Lynch: Between Two Worlds will be showing at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, from 14 March until 7 June 2015.

Thank you Triple R for broadcasting the special, and thank you Ramona Telecican for supplying the audio from the press conference.

Content from this transcript was used for an article that appeared in The Big Issue, No. 481, 2015.

Playlist

‘Blue Velvet’
Bobby Vinton

‘Lumberton U.S.A. / Going Down to Lincoln – Sound Effects Suite’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Fat’s Revisited’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Up In Flames’
Julee Cruise

‘Eraserhead: Side A’
David Lynch & Alan R. Splet

‘In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)’
David Lynch & Alan R. Splet

‘The Elephant Man Theme’
John Morris

‘Prophecy Theme’
Brian Eno

‘Main Title (Dune)’
Toto

‘Dark Mood Woods / The Red Room’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Twin Peaks Theme’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Just You’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Wicked Game (Instrumental)’
Chris Isaak

‘O Tu Illustrata’
Jocelyn Montgomery with David Lynch

‘Rabbits Theme’
David Lynch

‘I’m Deranged’
David Bowie

‘Nostalgia’
Angelo Badalamenti

‘Mountains Falling’
David Lynch and John Neff

‘Roy Orbison’
In Dreams

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

26 March 2014
Mike Bishop as David Yale

Mike Bishop as David Yale

My article on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead for Senses of Cinema as part of their Key Moments in Australian Cinema series:

The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.

Head over to Senses of Cinema to read the full article

This article received the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2015 Australian Film Critics Association Film Writing Awards


Joss Whedon’s character archetypes: The Avengers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

2 May 2012

My latest column for Killings, where I compare Joss Whedon’s take on the Marvel superhero characters as they appear in The Avengers to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters:

Whedon is clearly a fan of the Marvel characters, and that is why he is able to write for them with such assurance and affection. He hasn’t changed the characters, but made them live up to their potential in the same way that he took characters from teen and horror films and made them so much more in Buffy.

Head over to Killings to read the full article and leave a comment.


The Art and Ideology of Walt Disney

25 March 2012

This article was written in response to the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition, which was on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 18 November 2010 to Tuesday 26 April 2011.

Tangled

Tangled

In 1937 Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al), the first ever full-length animated feature film. It was also full colour and the first ever film to use Disney’s new cel-animation technique to such an extraordinary extent. It was an enormous ambitious project that Disney had begun three years earlier and during its development Hollywood insiders referred it to as ‘Disney’s Folly’. However, despite the doubters Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made cinematic history and is still regarded as not only one of the greatest animated films ever made but also one of the all time great American films.

In 2010, 37 years later, Walt Disney Studios released its 50th feature length animated film, Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard). Based on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled is similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in that it is also an adaptation of a classic European fairytale; in fact both are based on Brothers Grimm fairytales. Tangled also had a three year production but this time the challenges faced by the artists were how to best utilise computer-generated and 3D animation techniques to create the characters and world of the film.

Timed to coincide with the 6 January 2011 release of Tangled in Australia cinemas, the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) is currently displaying the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition. Originally created for the New Orleans Museum of Art, Melbourne is the exhibition’s second location and on display are over 600 items from the last 80 years of Disney animation. Some of the rarely displayed treasures from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library include concept art, storyboards, maquettes (character models used by the animators to draw from) and original animation cels.

While the focus of Dreams Come True are the items from the Disney ARL, the exhibition also attempts to examine the fairytale origins of key Walt Disney Studio films in order to explore the rationale behind why the original European morality tales were changed so significantly for the animated films. As well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tangled the exhibition looks at some of the early short films that originated from fairytales plus other much-loved feature films Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi et al, 1950), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959), The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker 1989), Beauty and The Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) and The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009).

Unlike the Il Etait une Fois, Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time, Walt Disney) exhibition that was on display in Paris, France and then Montréal, Canada during 2006 and 2007, Dreams Come True is focused on presenting the evolution of artistic ideas from within Walt Disney Studios rather than looking too closely at external sources. While Il Etait une Fois looked at the inspiration that Disney and his artists found in painting and early cinema (with a fascinating examination of the German Expressionist influence on the Disney films), Dreams Come True predominantly looks at the stages in which the various characters and settings for the Disney films would change throughout production. This does provide for some fascinating insight into things like character development. For example, the early sketches of Snow White reveal that at one point she resembled an adolescent Betty Boop, which would have given the finished film a very different focus given the sexual nature of the Betty Boop character.

Another key difference between the two exhibitions is the design and layout. The French exhibition was a mixture of the objects with large wall props, atmospheric lighting and audio/visual content to create a range of moods and environments for the visitor as they passed through. On the other hand, Dreams Come True adopts a more traditional approach of simply containing artworks hung on coloured walls, objects in display cases and selected clips from the films played on screens dotted around the exhibition – some requiring headphones for small numbers of visitors to privately experience at a time and some playing publicly, which provides an effective soundtrack for the exhibition. A markedly different use of the ACMI screen gallery space to the recent Tim Burton exhibition, Dreams Come True is sparser but this does allow for larger groups of people to pass through the exhibition more comfortably.

The final difference between Il Etait une Fois and Dreams Come True that is worth commenting on is that while the French exhibition explored the various criticisms of the powerful Disney hegemony on popular culture throughout the world (even displaying subversive anti-Disney works of art) Dreams Come True carefully avoids such content. This is not surprising or unreasonable considering it is an exhibition curated by Walt Disney Studios and the exhibition does to an extent acknowledge the cultural impact of the Disney films in terms of re-packaging the fairy tale stories. Various quotes by Disney that adorn the exhibition walls grapple with this issue, such as the one stating, ‘The fairy tale film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern day equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages.’ Indeed, this quote displays the extent in which Disney openly embraced the idea that his versions of the fairy tales were to become the dominant ones for 20th century audiences.

The Dreams Come True exhibition begins by showing the different types of stories that Walt Disney Studios appropriated for their short animated films, which date back as far as 1922. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, we see on display artwork and excerpts from early animations based not only on fairy tales but also on fables (cautionary tales such as Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare), folk tales (exaggerated stories of real or mythical human triumphs such as the American John Henry stories), myths (such as Ovid’s story about King Midas) and nursery rhymes (which frequently contained political and social commentary). However, Walt Disney was predominantly drawn to the European fairy tales, which combined many aspects of fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes with magical and fantastical elements plus core moral lessons.

Disney certainly believed in the preserving the basic essence of the original fairy tales and the exhibition quotes him saying that, ‘The screen version must perceive and emphasise the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairly tale is founded.’ On the other hand he also states, ‘Literary versions of old fairy tales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time’. The various placards in the Dreams Come True exhibition that are used to introduce the artwork from the key films, discuss the extent in which the violence and horror of the original fairy tales were toned down by Disney. So how do we as modern audiences grapple with the idea that Disney changed so much of the stories to maintain his perception of their moral intent while making sure the resulting films would be as popular as possible?

In many cases the changes seem reasonable considering the brutal and sadistic content of the original stories that seemed more designed to make children neurotic rather than instil real values. For example, the cruel trials and tortures that Hans Christian Anderson subjected many of his protagonists to frequently evoke Old Testament-style morality where only through suffering and terrible sacrifice can one achieve spiritual superiority (Tatar 2002: 302). The modern Walt Disney Studios film The Little Mermaid is far more palatable than the 1837 Anderson version where the price the mermaid (named Ariel in the Disney film) has to pay for becoming human is to have her tongue cut out and endear unbearable pain while walking.

On the other hand, some changes seem naive such as changing the meaning of The Pied Piper story in the 1933 Silly Symphony short. The original versions of the Pied Piper story serve as a warning to children to not put their trust in strangers, especially strangers offering them temptations. In Disney’s Silly Symphony version the children are rewarded for following the Piper by escaping from labouring in the adult world to enter the magical Happyland. Removing the dark edge from the original variations of the story, where the children usually end up dying, Disney lost the important cautionary message behind this early stranger-danger story.

However, not all the changes that Walt Disney made to the original fairy tales were bad ones and in fact the act of adapting them to accommodate what he believed to be contemporary vales and attitudes was no different to what various other storytellers had done before him. The Brothers Grimm, for example, were so keen to preserve the sanctity of motherhood that in their versions of popular fairy tales, such as Snow White (Sneewittchen) and Cinderella, both published in 1812, they changed the original conflicts between biological mother and daughter to conflicts between a step-mothers and step-daughter (Tatar 2002: 80). So Disney was by no means the first to adapt fairy tales for audiences at the time as many of the versions of the fairy tales that may be mistaken as the originals or definitive, were accordingly adapted as well.

What is more of a concern is not that Walt Disney adapted the fairy tales by removing so much of the violence and horror, but how he used the stories to express his own values through the guise of family entertainment. His love for the magical fairy tale world also resulted in extremely questionable depictions of race, gender and class in a fantasy world where monarchical rule was frequently unquestioned and women, racial minorities and socially subservient classes knew their place. Walt Disney’s membership of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his allegiance with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), strongly indicated his conservative and fiercely anti-Communist beliefs, which are reflected in the idealised plutocratic view of the world in many of his films.

Even non-fairy tale Disney films reinforced the rightful rule by the privileged perspective, often demonising lower classes who dare to challenge the system. For example, the butler Edgar is the villain in The AristoCats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970) for simply acting against his mistress when she decides to leave her fortune to her cats instead of him, her loyal servant for several decades. Even Scar in The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) is motivated to commit his crimes due to his anger over his little nephew being first in line to the throne before him. Questioning, or even worse preventing, born-to-rule traditions is a major sin in the Disney universe.

Non-whites, or animals distinctively adopting stereotypical looks and behaviours associated with non-white races, are portrayed either as figures of ridicule or down-and-out characters who are happy in their poverty. The now rarely seen Song of the South, a 1946 feature film that mixes animation and live action, was criticised at the time of release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the ‘impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship’ in the way it depicts the happy-go-lucky kindly old slave character Uncle Remus in the Deep South in the second half of the 19th century (Cohen 1997: 60–68). Although sympathetic characters, the jive-talking crows in Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong et al, 1941) are an example of anthropomorphic animal characters perpetuating African-American stereotypes. It would not be until The Princess and the Frog in 2009 when African American characters were given lead roles as the heroes.

While The Princess and the Frog signalled a progression in the depiction of race for Walt Disney Studios, it still reinforces the myth of lower classes being happy in their place in class-base communities and the idea that one can only really aspire to greatness by either marrying into aristocracy or royalty, or discovering that one was aristocracy or royalty all along, as in the case of Tangled. Furthermore, this is also tied into one of the most persistent problems with the Disney films, the fairy tales in particular, where the young female heroes are frequently depicted as either aspiring to become a princess or can only find true happiness through becoming a princess.

The core message of Walt Disney Studio films of pursuing your dreams to achieve what your heart truly desires is a sound one but all too often the goal or reward is the unobtainable one of becoming royalty. Rapunzel in Tangled is yet another Walt Disney Studios lead character who begins as an unfulfilled virgin whose coming-of-age is signified by her getting married and (in her case) discovering that she was a princess all along. It is a very conservative depiction of what young women should aspire to.

The older Walt Disney Studios films are a lot more problematic as the agency is taken away from the young female heroes. Certainly in the case of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, the lead characters lose a significant amount of what agency they had during the majority of the film when the prince characters, who are mostly kept in the background of the narrative, finally turn up at the end and supposedly win the day by agreeing to marry the girls. At least from Sleeping Beauty onwards the princes started to become fully rounded characters who actively did something to earn their credentials, as opposed to simply showing up.

The goals of wealth and status may still remain but at least in modern Walt Disney Studio films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, the female protagonists are assertive and active characters, making far better role models than their more passive predecessors. The modern Walt Disney Studios films also give the females heroes far more empowerment than they did in the original tales. Female servitude was a big theme in many classic fairy tales and it is believed that some early versions of Beauty and the Beast were designed to prepare young girls for arranged marriages to older men (Tatar 2002: 58). The original Rapunzel stories reflected the practise of isolating or segregating women from the male population (Tatar 2002: 105).

Dreams Come True is a celebration of Walt Disney and Walt Disney Studio’s work producing short and feature-length animated films that have entered popular culture and the public consciousness so effectively. The exhibition fully succeeds in displaying the immense technological and artistic contributions that Disney made to animation and seeing so many items from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library is indeed a unique privilege. The exhibition also makes a convincing case for the versions of the fairy tales as told by the Disney films to be regarded as the versions most relevant to today. However, the degree in which the values of the Walt Disney Studio films reflect or shape social attitudes towards class, race and especially gender is a discussion that goes beyond Dreams Come True.

Bibliography

Cohen, Karl F, (1997), Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, McFarland & Company, Jefferson

Tatar, Maira (ed), (2002), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, WW Norton & Company, New York

Originally published in issue 61 (Autumn 2011) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

The book is never better than the film

23 March 2012

My latest column for Killings, where I look at film adaptations of novels, was published a couple of days ago:

The value of a novel adaptation is primarily how well it works as a film, and to a lesser extent, how well it expresses the essence of the source material rather than how well it mimics it. The book is never better than the film; the two are incomparable. It’s not reasonable to critique a film for not functioning in the same way that a novel does. A film may fail on cinematic grounds, but it should not be accused of failing on literary grounds.

Head over to Killings to read the full article and leave a comment.


The Movie Man: Martin Scorsese

4 February 2012

Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers who rival Martin Scorsese’s contribution to cinema. The 69-year-old New Yorker is part of the passionate and highly film-literate moviemakers (including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that started their careers in the 1970s during the New Hollywood era. These directors created the modern blockbuster and came to define American cinema.

Whether making gangster films, period films or biopics, Scorsese explores aspects of masculinity, identity and violence. His protagonists are often loners in a chaotic world trying to make sense of the madness around them, grappling with issues of guilt, penance and spiritual enlightenment. Nostalgia plays a big part in Scorsese’s films, but so do regret and loss. Many of his films end ambiguously, with a sense of irony or with the main character on the decline. Frequently working with the same crew, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker on almost every film, and the same actors (such as Robert De Niro and, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese is one of the few American auteurs, as his films can be regarded as a personal expression of his author-like direction.

Many of Scorsese’s early films reflected his childhood as the son of Catholic Italian immigrants living in New York. While attending film school in the 1960s he made a handful of short films before making his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It starred his then-preferred leading actor, Harvey Keitel, as a typically Scorsesesque troubled man. The film contained some hallmarks of his later films with its focus on Italian-American communities, life-on-the-street feel, and a rock soundtrack. Following Boxcar Bertha (1972), which he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973). This film announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note, and was the first time Scorsese worked with De Niro, capturing the stories, characters and atmosphere of Little Italy in New York City, where Scorsese grew up.

After his under-appreciated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a rare Scorsese film with a leading female protagonist (played by Ellen Burstyn), he made his masterpiece. Taxi Driver (1976) featured De Niro as an insomniac Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, who descends into violent madness. The film coined the phrase ‘are you talkin’ to me’, inspired the 1981 assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan and remains one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of paranoid psychosis. More importantly, Taxi Driver established Scorsese’s favourite techniques of using slow motion and fluid tracking shots to convey the subjective experience of his protagonists.

Reflecting his love of different cinematic movements from all over the world, a Scorsese film will often blend cinema-vérité techniques with the dreamlike imagery of avant-garde films. These elements were stunningly combined in Scorsese’s 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, with De Niro as the turbulent boxer Jake LaMotta. This black-and-white epic portrays masculinity at its most violent, reprehensible, pitiful and tragic. Taxi Driver might be the masterpiece, but Raging Bull is the definitive Scorsese film.

Between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull Scorsese made the homage to Hollywood musicals, New York, New York (1977) and a concert film of The Band, The Last Waltz (1978).

Throughout his career, Scorsese’s love of music is expressed on his soundtracks, which alternate between original scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Philip Glass and Peter Gabriel, and eclectic pop and rock compilations. He also produced the 2003 documentary series, The Blues, and has made documentaries about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home; 2005), the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light; 2008) and most recently George Harrison (Living in the Material World; 2011). He even directed the ‘Bad’ music video for Michael Jackson in 1987.

Scorsese’s 1980s films were slightly left-of-field ventures. And, with the forgettable exception of The Color of Money (1986; a sequel to the Paul Newman classic of 1961, The Hustler), they are fascinating. The King of Comedy (1983) cast De Niro as a struggling comedian trying to get the attention of a famous talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s Taxi Driver as a critique of showbiz. After Hours (1985) was a low-budget surreal comedy about a man in New York trying to get home one night. Of most interest was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a highly controversial film that depicted what Christ’s life may have been like if he didn’t die on the cross and lived as a mortal man. Despite accusations of blasphemy, the film remains an extraordinary examination of spirituality and faith.

In 1990, Scorsese made the gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. It’s classic Scorsese: violent, focused on the Italian-American mob, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, featuring De Niro among others, and full of iconic music and visual flourishes. Following his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with De Niro playing the vengeful former convict Max Cady, Scorsese made Casino (1995), which functioned as a sort of unofficial but far more violent follow-up to Goodfellas. The final ‘conventional’ Scorsese film of the 1990s was Bringing out the Dead (1999), where he teamed up with writer (and also director) Paul Schrader for the forth and final time after previously collaborating on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation. Dead was an almost black comic retelling of Taxi Driver, this time featuring an exhausted paramedic played by Nicolas Cage.

After Goodfellas, the two standout 1990s films for Scorsese were the less obvious The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, Innocence did not seem like a typical Scorsese film, but its New York setting and melancholic male protagonist, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), were Scorsese hallmarks. Likewise, a film about the 14th Dalai Lama initially seemed an odd choice, but Kundun displayed Scorsese’s command of using film style to convey the experience of a male protagonist in a world he struggles to comprehend. Just as Scorsese’s other religiously themed film, Last Temptation, attracted controversy, so did Kundun – this time from the Chinese Government, which wasn’t pleased about a film depicting the exiled Tibetan leader sympathetically.

The past decade has seen Scorsese repeatedly collaborate with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starting with the disappointing period crime drama, Gangs of New York (2002). The director–actor partnership with DiCaprio picked up in 2004 with the impressive biopic, The Aviator, about the notoriously reclusive film producer and aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes. In 2010 the pair worked together on Shutter Island, one of Scorsese’s most misunderstood films (the complex, subjective film style used to signal the true nature of DiCaprio’s US Marshal character was mistaken for giving away the ‘twist’ ending, which was in fact not a twist at all).

Scorsese’s 2000s peak came in 2006 with The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama, Infernal Affairs. Once more full of Scorsese’s trademark crime violence and psychopathic male characters, The Departed was a complex film about identity and loyalty. Some audiences were annoyed that Scorsese had remade a recent and much loved Hong Kong film, while others preferred Scorsese’s less melodramatic and more straightforward version. The Departed finally earned Scorsese an Academy Award for Best Director (he had previously been nominated five times).

The importance of what Scorsese has done for cinema cannot be understated. Not only has he made numerous American classics, he has also long campaigned for the need to preserve older films. He has made documentaries about American and Italian cinema, and is endlessly championing films from all over the world. He co-created the Film Foundation in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007 (both organisations are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films).

The man loves cinema, which is what is so beautifully expressed in his latest 3D family film, Hugo (2011). Not only does Hugo celebrate the wonders of films from a previous era, it introduces a whole new generation to the joys of cinema. Unlike his many protagonists, Scorsese is not about to fade into obscurity. Indeed, he is making films that are as remarkable, inspirational and unpredictable as anything else he has done during his extraordinary career.

The Big Issue, issue 398Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 398, 2012

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Why I Adore Dogs in Space

18 November 2011
Dogs in Space: Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

I first saw Dogs in Space (written and directed by Richard Lowenstein) when I was in my twenties, some time in the late 1990s, about a decade after the film was released in 1986. It was a revelation. I’d never seen a film that felt so distinctively Melbourne in a way that I could recognise. Also, up until that point, I’d never seen an Australian film that felt so influenced by New Wave European cinema in its almost anarchic abandonment of traditional narrative structure. I had seen plenty of ‘worthy’ Australian art-house films (which I also love and cherish) but not something this playful and rebellious. It was instant love. I remember on at least two occasions introducing friends to Dogs in Space, and their response was always one of anger: ‘Why the hell haven’t you shown this to me before?’ they demanded.

And yet, Dogs in Space  is about Melbourne in 1979, when I’d only been alive for a few years. I’m not at all qualified to comment on the authenticity of what takes place in the film. It feels slightly exaggerated, but the testimonies in the 2009 documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food suggest that it’s not. What I did identify with was a spirit; the legacy of which I was experiencing at the time, living in share houses in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Like the Dogs in Space characters, I was a middle-class kid from the suburbs who was somewhat ‘slumming’ it – too old to live at home and too young to commit to anything that felt like a real job. And that’s what the film captures – the desire of youths to deconstruct themselves from mainstream society and rebuild themselves into something ‘real’, regardless of their background. Dogs in Space makes a point of reminding the audience that punk in Australia was a cultural movement embraced predominantly by the middle-class, but that didn’t make it any less charged or meaningful.

The film begins by defining how it situates itself within Australian culture. After brief 1957 archival footage of early Soviet space launches, which includes sending Laika the dog into orbit, Dogs in Space opens with a menacing shot of a beat-up car idling in the night. One of its very rough-looking occupants sticks his head out of the window and, in the most nasally Australian twang, snarls to an unseen passer-by, ‘Hey! Dog-face! Show us your snatch!’ The scene looks like it belongs to any number of Ozploitation films of the era, combining a Mad Max aesthetic with distinctly bogan pub rock culture.

Dogs in Space: Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

It’s a very specific image of Australian identity and one that is introduced at the start of Dogs in Space so it can be quickly shot down in flames. There are other faces to Australian culture and until then, and mostly since, those faces are not given much attention. These alternate faces are of course the punks of late 1970s Melbourne who are introduced in the film, camping outside a David Bowie concert. The car-load of obnoxious bogans screeches up to torment them, but are quickly dispensed with and sent on their way. This film is not for them, or those who identify with them. Instead it’s for a subculture that briefly thrived in inner-city student share houses and venues around Australia, whose legacy introduced and developed some of Australia’s most celebrated music.

The film’s title sequence then concludes with a slow approach shot of the film’s main setting: a run down house in Richmond filled with various occupants who are either living there legitimately, squatting, or simply hanging out. Over the top of the soundtrack different pieces of media float by: the opening titles of Countdown, a station identification for iconic Melbourne radio station Triple R and Molly Meldrum talking about the Bowie gig. The various characters who filter through the house are an assortment of musicians, political activists and folks just wanting to have a good time. They have sex, listen to music, take drugs and throw parties. One of them is even trying to study for his engineering exams.

The almost complete absence of a narrative allows the film to simply indulge in scene after scene of chaotic activity. Some characters we get to know, some are just fleeting fragments. Orchestrated long shots convey the energy and excitement of gigs and parties. Strands of music performances and conversations flow in and out of the film to make it a series of impressionist fragments that, once combined, make some sort of brilliant sense.

Dogs in Space soundtrackThe soundtrack, produced by Ollie Olsen, is one of my favourite film soundtracks from Australia or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It includes songs by Iggy Pop, Gang of Four and Brian Eno plus an assortment of songs from Melbourne’s ‘little band scene’. Many of the songs are played in the film by the original performers, including Marie Hoy (who delivers one of the greatest covers of Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers’), Primitive Calculators and Thrush and the Cunts. Then there are the songs sung by Michael Hutchence, lead singer of pop group INXS and the film’s star. Hutchence’s character in the film is based on Sam Sejavka from The Ears, so appropriately Hutchence performs a couple of Ears covers, including the titular ‘Dogs In Space’. However, the stand-out for me is ‘Rooms For The Memory’ as it’s a brilliant fusion of post-punk and pop, linking the period the film is set in to the period the film was made in, and making it a catchy and eventually devastating song to finish the film with.

And what about Hutchence, in what would sadly be one of his few acting roles? As the hedonistic, wild, self indulgent, magnetic and handsome Sam, he’s a bizarre Aussie Jim Morrison: reptilian, lecherous, pretentious and extraordinary. He is instantly recognisable as a creative genius who, through self-indulgence, is screwing up his life and the lives of those around him. You start off thinking Sam’s a bit of a prat and then get seduced by his carefree confidence and charismatic recklessness. This is all turned on its head in one of my favourite scenes when his mother shows up to do his laundry and bring him a hot dinner. Not only is his persona demythologised, but you also see the true extent of his selfishness and lazy sense of entitlement. And yet he is so confident, so carefree and so likeable, making him a wonderfully chaotic antihero to structure a chaotic anti-film around.

Dogs in Space: Luchio (Tony Helou) and Tim (Nique Needles)

Luchio (Tony Helou) and Tim (Nique Needles)

Then there is Saskia Post as Anna, Sam’s beautiful and tragic girlfriend who knows he is leeching off her, but can’t help being drawn back to him. Post provides the heart of the film, looking after the more vulnerable drifters who come through the house and being patient and tolerant of Sam, way beyond the call of duty. She radiates every time she is on screen with her combination of punk attitude and classical Hollywood beauty. The rest of the supporting cast are too extensive to mention and I latch onto somebody new on every viewing. However, I have a particular soft spot for Tim (Nique Needles) who looks so sad while pretending he was going to quit the band that have just kicked him out. I also love Chris Haywood’s cameo as the uncle with the chainsaw, and poor old Luchio (Tony Helou) who is trying to study for his exams amid the parties, band rehearsals, noisy sex and general mayhem – I once had a Luchio year.

Dogs in Space is one of the very few Australian films that reflects an Australian identity that I can relate to, even though it depicts a period and scene that I never knew. It’s affectionate and critical of Australia’s middle class punks; celebrating the scene while also providing a mournful coda for how it would all come to an end. Energetic, youthful, frequently hilarious and ultimately so sad, Dogs in Space is an Australian counter-culture classic to which I continually return, and introduce to new like-minded friends – who are inevitably annoyed that I haven’t shown it to them sooner.

Originally published here on the AFI blog.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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