Films I loved in July 2015

3 August 2015
Amy Winehouse in Amy

Amy Winehouse in Amy

I went into Amy knowing next to nothing about Amy Winehouse and figured that if director Asif Kapadia could make me interested in a racing car driver, as he did with his excellent 2010 documentary Senna, then he could also do so with Winehouse. I was not wrong. I found this a revelatory film and was stunned at how talented Winehouse was as a singer, but also as a lyricist, which is something the film is keen to ensure we don’t forget. That then makes the tragedy of her descent into self-destructiveness and eventual death all the more heartbreaking, especially knowing that it was something she predicted would happen early in her career. Kapadia’s technique of only using archival footage creates a powerful and complex portrait of Winehouse, which expresses her vibrant personality and astonishing talent. It is ultimately a sad and even angry film, but it also pays tribute to her brilliance. I feel the better for finally being aware of who she was and what she achieved.

Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly in Women He's Undressed

Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly in Women He’s Undressed

The other excellent documentary released in July is Gillian Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed, about the Australian Academy Award-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly, who worked in Hollywood throughout the classical period designing costumes on films such as Casablanca, An American in Paris and Some Like It Hot. Largely unknown in Australia, this is an overdue testament to his life and his work, as well as a commentary on the difficulties homosexual men faced in Hollywood during the era. The very stylised sequences where actors playing Kelly and key people in his life appear in theatrical settings and address the camera directly, work very effectively to express his larger-than-life personality and career creating beautiful illusions. The end result is a surprisingly moving film about a very talented and influential Australian who is a key part of film history.

Channing Tatum as 'Magic Mike' Lane in Magic Mike XXL

Channing Tatum as ‘Magic Mike’ Lane in Magic Mike XXL

One of the biggest surprises for me this year is Magic Mike XXL, a film I had no idea I would enjoy so much. While the original Magic Mike was something of a social commentary film that was more melancholic than raunchy, the sequel is far closer to being the type of film the original was marketed as – and that works out just fine. Structured as a road movie and bursting with the spirit of classical Hollywood backstage musicals, this is a film about the joys of camaraderie, performing for the pleasure of others and being on the receiving end of those performances. It’s unashamedly a film that caters to the female gaze – and distinct from the far more common male gaze – not just in terms of what is being looked at, but how it is being looked at. The pleasures of looking and being looked at are mutual and the power balance is equal, resulting in a joyous film.

Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

I’ve been a fan of most of the films in the Mission: Impossible series, with the last film from 2011 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol being my favourite. So I was thrilled that the latest instalment Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation continues the same exciting blend of spy film intrigue, heist film suspense and action film stunt work and spectacle. The whole cast are great, but Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust is especially good as the mysterious double agent who holds her own with Ethan physically and intellectually. The main action set pieces are exciting and inventive, and the film balances its real-world seriousness with the sense of fun that comes with the gadgetry and over-the-top situations that distinguish the series. After Mad Max: Fury Road, this is easily my favourite of the current blockbusters. And if nothing else, Tom Cruise still looks great running in a suit.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in June 2015

5 July 2015
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out

The 15th film by Pixar Animation Studios, Inside Out is not only a huge return to form after the recent disappointments, but one of the studios best films yet. It’s an extremely entertaining and sophisticated film that physicalises the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind while she is going through a period of emotional upheaval. Similar to Toy Story 3 it taps directly into the universal experience of growing up where the way we think and relate to the world changes, and because of those changes there is a degree of transformation and loss as we let go of things we cherished as children. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting, and the film celebrates the complex emotions that work within all of us as we get older and discover that it is okay and even useful to sometimes feel sad.

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd is an excellent example of how to tease out the modern aspects of an older text (which itself was very progressive to begin with) in order to make it accessible and relevant for contemporary film audiences. Carey Mulligan is possibly even better than she has been before with her outstanding portrayal of Bathsheba Everdene, expressing a wealth of emotions and thoughts in the slightest gesture or expression. The decision to focus the film on Bathsheba’s friendship with Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) – one of three suitors who offer her marriage – is a wise one and allows a wonderful undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension to simmer throughout the film.

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy does exactly what I like a biopic to do, which is to focus on a specific period of time or incident (in this case two periods of time) to give an impression of the person rather than attempting to portray their entire life. In this case we get a snap shot of Beach Boys leader and co-founder Brian Wilson through the period in the 1960s when he was recording Pet Sounds and the period in the 1980s where he met his second wife while under the dubious care of a psychotherapist. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack are excellent portraying Wilson, and the film is extremely good at conveying Wilson’s fragile mental condition, especially through the use of sound. A surprisingly moving film with a perfect edit to cut from the final scene to the credits.

Raúl Arévalo as Pedro Suárez and Javier Gutiérrez as Juan Robles in Marshland

Raúl Arévalo as Pedro Suárez and Javier Gutiérrez as Juan Robles in Marshland

The big surprise for me this month was the Spanish murder mystery Marshland, set in the Spanish deep south during the country’s transition to democracy after the end of Franco’s fascist dictatorship. While mood and stylistic comparisons to the television series True Detective are very much justified, it is also thematically aligned to the television series Top of the Lake as well as recent films The Secret in their Eyes and Mystery Road (and the many other television and film detective narratives that have come previously). All are texts where the central murder investigation uncovers dark and disturbing issues that lie at the very heart of the community involved. This is intelligent, engaging and fast-paced storytelling that is enjoyable as both a cynical whodunnit and as a parable for a dark period of recent Spanish history.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

And finally, prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney once more impresses with Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief where he investigates the history of Scientology and by using extensive testimonials from many former members presents a compelling and convincing critique of how it operates today. Of particular interest is how the film explores the relationship between Scientology and Hollywood; most disturbing is the evidence presented concerning the way the organisation attempts to silence and discredit anybody who speaks out about them or chooses to leave.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I was absolutely delighted to be invited back onto the excellent monthly podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates for their June 2015 episode where I got to discuss the films of David Lynch.

Films I loved in May 2015

8 June 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

One of the most exhilarating action films in a very long time, Mad Max: Fury Road keeps plotting and CGI to a minimum in order to deliver one inventive action sequence after the other in what is basically a giant chase scene that evokes the finale of Mad Max 2 (my favourite of the series). It is also a thematically rich film, presenting a nightmarish vision of the patriarchy at its most grotesque, destructive and possessive, building on a lot of the perverse iconography of the previous films. Tom Hardy makes the iconic Max Rockatansky character his own, but the film belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and both actor and character more than earn the right to be front and centre of the film. Director George Miller proves just how smart, progressive and  well-crafted action films can be. It’s going to be hard settling for anything less for a very long time.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

One of the keys to what makes Ex Machina such an enthralling film is how deftly it changes focus thematically from being a Blade Runner-style musing on what it means to be human, to something closer to The Stepford Wives. A futuristic spin on the Bluebeard fairy tale, Ex Machina is a parable about the industrialised commodification of the female body, blending imagery that is both sensual and uncanny to constantly challenge the gaze that the audience have brought to the film. After writing so many great and varied science fiction films for a little over a decade, it’s exciting to see Alex Garland emerge as such a confident director. The cast is excellent, but Oscar Isaac really stands out as the manipulative and passive-aggressive Nathan – a hipster post-gamergate variation of the Alpha Male misogynist. This is a rich and smart film that is designed to provoke contemplation well after the end titles have finished.

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Both accessible and ambiguous Clouds of Sils Maria is a multilayered film that references everything from German mountaineering films to contemporary superhero films; weather formations to philosophy. Similar to Birdman (despite being very different films) it’s about an older actor trying to accept the fickle and ruthless nature of the film industry, and includes debates about high versus low art, the pursuit of legitimacy, and the blurring of fiction and reality. Easily one of my favourite Olivier Assayas films, it features Juliette Binoche as Maria, a woman appearing as a different character in a remake of the film that once made her famous, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the rising star who has been cast to play her original role. Both Binoche and Moretz are excellent, but the real star of the film is Kristen Stewart as Maria’s loyal and protective personal assistant, who also acts as confidant, friend, symbolic daughter and symbolic lover to Maria.

The Tribe

The Tribe

Although The Tribe only received a handful of screenings in Melbourne rather than a full theatrical release, I couldn’t not mention it. A Ukrainian film set in a specialised boarding school for young people who are deaf, the characters only communicate in sign language and there are no subtitles. The result is something I found quite liberating as the meaning of nearly all the scenes was communicated to the audience without redundant dialogue. The film style adapts to the film’s unique concept so that most shots are medium shots done in long takes in order to show the characters’ entire bodies, thus allowing the full range of body language to be expressed. Key events also occur during the film that are only possible if the characters are deaf. A tough and sometimes extremely confronting film about tribal behaviour, institutionalisation, exploitation and violence, I found this a mesmerising experience.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in April 2015

3 May 2015
Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders’s documentary about photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, co-directed with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has already become one of my all-time favourite documentaries. The Salt of the Earth demonstrates yet again how good Wenders is at using cinema to capture the spirit of another art form. The film puts Salgado’s photographs into both a historical and personal context, creating an intimate dialogue between Salgado and the audience in sequences where the reflection of the photographer’s face appears over works being discussed. Most powerful is when the content of the photographs overwhelms all other considerations and the film simply consists of the images and Salgado’s commentary, where he still today attempts to make sense of the inhumanity he witnessed and documented in his belief that, ‘everybody should see these images’. This is a profoundly moving film about a humble, kind and remarkable man who turned his passion for photography into a powerful humanitarian tool to alert the world about situations where humanity was at its worst, but to also celebrate humanity at its most resilient and beautiful.

Maika Monroe as Jay Height in It Follows

Maika Monroe as Jay Height in It Follows

I loved the dreamy and dread-filled atmosphere of teen-horror film It Follows. It’s an extremely successful pastiche of classic horrors such as RinguHalloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street that also seems to have been influenced by non-horror films Blue Velvet and The Virgin Suicides as well as Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole and the Slender Man internet meme. Set during an undefinable time period in American suburbia, it draws upon numerous primal anxieties surrounding sexuality, preferring to evoke and reference the treatment of gender in horror rather than explicitly commit to any clear statement of its own. Most effective is its cinematography where slow zooms, tracking shots and circular pans are designed to constantly suggest something in the shot that the audience and characters are yet to notice. This is the uncanny made beautiful and I was mesmerised.

Anne Dorval as Diane 'Die' Després in Mommy

Anne Dorval as Diane ‘Die’ Després in Mommy

The key to what made Xavier Dolan’s new film Mommy work for me was the symbolic family unit that forms between the titular mother, her troubled son and their neighbour – a woman who has lost of voice after years of inattention. The bond between the trio challenges notions of gender roles and the idea of fixed sexuality, which suits the film’s hyper-real and kitsch visual aesthetic in the way that evokes the traditions of melodrama and subversive cinema that Dolan draws from, from Douglas Sirk to Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Todd Haynes among others. The radical decision to use a 1:1 aspect ratio successfully gives the film a cramped and claustrophobic feel, allowing for moments of much needed respite where the aspect ration changes to express a sense of joy and freedom.

Jason Schwartzman as Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman as Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip

In interviews filmmaker Alex Ross Perry has cited novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth as major influences on his films, so it’s curious to note that the protagonist of Listen Up Philip is a brilliant young novelist who hates doing publicity and is an unpleasant, short tempered, arrogant, resentful and boastful bastard. I think the reason I found a film about such an unlikable person to be so enjoyable is because it functions as a darkly comedic exposé of cry-baby self-entitled men who believe their own hype and blame everybody but themselves for their troubles, imagined or otherwise. These are guys who will inevitably descending into a self-important misery spiral they have created for themselves, and witnessing this happening is strangely captivating.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

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.


‘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)’

‘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

Angelo Badalamenti

‘Mountains Falling’
David Lynch and John Neff

‘Roy Orbison’
In Dreams

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in March 2015

1 April 2015
Joaquin Phoenix as Larry 'Doc' Sportello in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Inherent Vice

I adored the twists and turns, endless stream of larger-than-life characters, paranoia, stoner logic, and melancholic social commentary found within Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. While the dense narrative was sometimes hard work getting through while reading the Thomas Pynchon novel it was adapted from, in the film I found it was liberating to regard the story as secondary to the atmospheric and playful mood generate by Anderson. I was more than happy to enjoy the film on a scene-by-scene basis and lose myself in the weirdness, comedy and sometimes darkness of every moment.

Not that it’s a film without substance. The 1970 Californian setting in the shadow of the Manson Family Murders and during Ronald Reagan’s governorship offers plenty of indications that the hopeful dreams of the hippie movement had failed to materialise. Dark days were ahead and the film acknowledges the impact of heroin, the presence of neo-Nazism, the commercialisation of the counter-culture, and the increase of government surveillance on its own people. And not unlike Raymond Chandler’s classic Phillip Marlow detective character, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good man at the centre of it all, trying to do the right thing and help others, even at the expense of his own happiness.

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

The latest film by Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, is a devastating allegory for contemporary Russia, presenting the government as ruthless and corrupt, the church as being manipulative and conniving, and the general population as slowly sliding into hopelessness, brutality and alcoholism. This would be unbearable if it were not for the film being so beautifully crafted and so visually rich. The images of the decaying fishing boats, whale skeleton and church ruins provide powerful symbols of a great and glorious culture that now feels like a relic of the past.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook in '71

Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook in ’71

Similar to Paul Greengrass’s underrated Green Zone, ’71 is a thrilling action/war drama that also provides sophisticated insights into the nature of the conflict it is set during. The violence that occurs on the streets of Belfast during the period known as The Troubles isn’t just the backdrop for this film’s exciting action scenes; it is examined and explored with impressive complexity. As the young and inexperienced British soldier Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) spends the night trying to get back to his unit, his encounters with various other characters reveals how many different factions were involved in the conflict and how many people were caught in the crossfire.

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

In his directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, actor Tommy Lee Jones took a very critical look at issues of race in contemporary America. In The Homesman, Jones’s second film as director, he turns his attention towards the treatment of women in American Midwest in the 1850s. The result is a bitter deconstruction of western mythology and a savage condemnation of social attitudes towards women. Far from the idealised frontier taming narratives of classic westerns, Jones delivers a confronting and compelling story of a culture built on the mistreatment of half its population.

This month I also really enjoyed losing myself for three hours in the National Gallery in London via Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Wiseman’s unobtrusive filming style and strategic editing reveals the inner workings of the multifaceted institution, engages with discussion about the role of art in broader society and explores how people connect with art. I was also really glad to be see, via their online release, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (rather than watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which combines the original two films into a single condensed film). Him and Her deliver a moving examination of how perception and memory can be different in small but significant ways, especially when is comes to love, grief and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in February 2015

1 March 2015
Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastainas Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) works in an industry dominated by organised crime and yet refuses to live like a gangster in JC Chandor’s  A Most Violent Year, a film that refuses to behave like a gangster film despite bearing many of the characteristics of a gangster film. In some ways, A Most Violent Year is the film that The Godfather Part III wanted to be as it is about a man who aspires to run his oil-heating business legitimately, but whose connections to the underworld undermine him at every turn. Isaac even channels the energy of a young Al Pacino and the whole film, which is set in New York City in 1981, feels like a New Hollywood film, in particular the ones that starred Al Pacino and/or were directed by Sidney Lumet. However, I think Chandor is looking even further back to Elia Kazan’s films of the 1950s and 1960s, which were also character driven pieces that were considered realist at the time, and were full of social and political commentary. The shot of Issac as Abel standing on top of an oil truck echoes the shot of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront standing on the rubble heap. In both shots the Manhattan skyline is behind them in the distance, suggesting how both characters loom large in their small pocket of the world, but are still a long way from the life they dream of.

A Most Violent Year is most effective in its explanation for why Able is struggling so hard to achieve his goals despite working hard and maintaining a sense of honour and decency: he believes the myths of capitalism and the American Dream. He thinks honesty will triumph over ruthlessness and deceitfulness, and he believes fair competitions exists as opposed to an ongoing cycle of people just trying to screw each other over. As his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) tells him, he only has the success that he has because her father was once a powerful and wealthy criminal. Anna is the voice of reason in this world of moral compromise while Abel is naive. The tragic lesson of this sophisticated drama is that in the end its more important for many to plug the flow of oil than the flow of blood.

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’ve never read anything by Mark Millar, but I really enjoyed Wanted and Kiss-Ass, which like Kingsman: The Secret Service are based on comics he’s written.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also directed Kick-Ass) it follows what has become a familiar Millar storyline, where somebody ordinary and a bit hopeless gets the chance to become extraordinary in a world filled with ultra violence. In Kingsman the ordinary person is Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), an unemployed English teenager living on a council estate. Under the mentorship of secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) Eggsy is given the chance to join the elite secret intelligence agency, the Kingsman. While the results are designed to be a parody and homage to some of the sillier films in the Bond franchise, the kinetic action and ridiculously high body count feels more like what a Bond film would resemble if Takashi Miike were the director.

While the violence is excessive and inventive, the real subversion is found in the narrative. The villains of the film are the 1%  – leaders of business and government who are happy to sacrifice the other 99% of the world’s population to maintain their lifestyle. And while the gentleman spy premise seems to initially exist to deliver the exploitive spectacle of the upperclass beating the shit out of the lower-class, the film soon establishes the notion that a gentleman is defined by a person’s attitude, not their class or gender. And as for the now controversial gag at the end of the film? It’s there to mock and highlight the absurd sexism of how so many Bond films end, but I don’t think the joke is particularly good nor does it suit the tone of the rest of the film. It’s a small detail and doesn’t overall detract from all the other giddy visual pleasures. The scene in the hate-group church alone is enough for me to want to revisit Kingsman again soon.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

There are several reasons why Selma rises above many other based-on-true-story films. Writer/director Ava DuVernay focuses on the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in Alabama in 1965, but places the events as just one chapter within the ongoing US civil rights movement. At the centre of the film is Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo), but the film also acknowledges the many other leaders and supporters of the movement. The film is set in the past, but DuVernay contains several moments, in particular the scenes between King and President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to draw parallels between the historical events and contemporary issues. Both the moral and pragmatic dynamics of the movement are explored, and instead of resorting to sentiment the film allows the events to speak for themselves.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

At first Citizenfour seems like a matter-of-factual and almost dry documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations to the media about the extent in which the  United States National Security Agency is spying on its own citizens. However, the moment when it becomes clear that filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras was one of the first people Snowden contacted and spoke to, and that Poitras taped those meetings that are now in the documentary, the significance of this film becomes apparent. The events Poitras has documented have since had profound effects on political discourse and debate surrounding the use of technology and personal liberties. Citizenfour reveals Snowden to be a rational and intelligent man who had wrestled with the decision to reveal his information and ultimately decided to sacrifice life as he knew it for the greater good, arguing that a government willing to sacrifice the freedom and privacy of its citizens ‘limits boundaries of their intellectual freedom’. By the end of the film we see scenes that suggest that the paranoid Cold War thrillers of the 1970s and the high tech surveillance thrillers on the 1990s were grounded in far more factual detail than imagined.

On a much lighter note, a couple of really fun films came out on home entertainment in Australia in February. The New Zealand film Housebound  is one of the best horror/comedies I’ve seen for a long time (I regard the equally brilliant What We Do in the Shadows as more of a comedy deriving humour from horror tropes than an actual horror/comedy).  Great characters, droll humour and an effective escalation of scares and gore; this variation on the haunted house story is terrific.

I also had a great time with the latest film by Japanese maverick Sion Sono, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? While Suicide Club and Love Exposure are still my favourite Sono films, this one comes a close third. A large ensemble of characters, multiple storylines and a hyperactive style, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? brings together a team of renegade filmmakers and rival yakuza gangs for a delirious and hilarious climatic bloodbath. Within all the chaos Sono is also able to express his fondness for the dying art of shooting films on 35mm, which is fair enough as even fake blood spurts look better on film than CGI blood.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I am thrilled and honoured to have recently been awarded the Ivan Hutchinson Award for writing on Australian cinema at the AFCA 2015 Film & Writing Awards, for my article ‘Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Thank you to the Australian Film Critics Association, all the writing award judges and Senses of Cinema.


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