Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Now It's Dark: The Films of David Lynch" at SIFF Cinema: April 14 - May 14

Recent years have seen touring retrospectives of central figures from the late 20th Century in the New German Cinema movement "Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road", and the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, with "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien". The landscape of American independent cinema of that decade would have an altogether different topography without the work of it's great sculptor of atmosphere, David Lynch. Referred to as "the greatest director of his era" by The Guardian's 2007 panel of critics, topping their 40 artists listed as having defined the last quarter century of cinema. His bold feature length entry of 1977 "Eraserhead" became one of the most influential midnight movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Playing in arthouse and independent cinemas late-night screenings alongside Jodorowsky's "El Topo", Water's "Pink Flamingos", Sharman's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", and Romero's "Night of the Living Dead". More than a cult and underground phenomena, the film earned him the attention and funding of Mel Brooks and assistant director on "High Anxiety", Jonathan Sanger. Sanger became a champion of the young director, presenting him the working script adaptation from Sir Frederick Treves and Ashley Montagu's  "The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences" and "The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity". Distributed by Paramount and Universal worldwide, while independently funded, "The Elephant Man" would become Lynch's first studio feature film.

Working with an exceptional cast of professionals was also a first, the film's central characters of Joseph Merrick and Frederick Treves, portrayed by John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins respectively, remains among both of the actor's most notable roles on film. While Lynch sourced Peter Ivers for the soundtrack for his first feature, and John Morris for his sophomore effort, the director's hands-on approach was already evident in the film's sound design and audible palette colored by it's pervasive atmosphere of ruin. Not limited to his boldly experimental freshman effort, this looming industrial underworld buried beneath the facade of everyday existence remains one of the reoccurring themes throughout the totality of his work. Time Out London spoke with the director on expressing this theme through the period setting of his second feature and personal scouting of the locations and shooting of key scenes in Liverpool Street Station and Butler’s Wharf in Southwark; "I always loved smokestack industry, and I love towns or cities that have grown up around factories. So here is Victorian England, and I don’t know this land, but I know factories, I know this is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so that side of it resonated with me. Then one day I’m standing in East London Hospital. A derelict hospital, but it still had beds in the wards. Thousands of pigeons, broken windows, but long, glorious hallways, fireplaces, all the details. I’m there in the hall looking into a ward and a wind entered me, and I was back in time. I knew it: 100 per cent. Victorian England. And I said: “Now I know it. No one can take it away from me.”

One of the stranger of all the twists in all the director's turns of fate was to come in the wake of "Elephant Man"'s critical success. The most popular film franchise of the 1980s helmed by George Lucas, had turned the spotlight on Lynch for him to direct the third installment in the Star Wars trilogy. He declined, citing Lucas' comprehensive vision of the fictional universe would allow for very little in the way of space to express his own. Soon after, another notable science fiction property would come the director's way in the form of Dino De Laurentiis licensing Frank Herbert's epic, "Dune", in the wake of it becoming available following the now legendary aborted project from Alejandro Jodorowsky. In a 1985 interview with the German periodical Tip Filmjahrbuch, Lynch details De Laurentiis' approaching him with the project and the source of his personal conceptualization of Herbert's universe; "This is how it happened: I went to Venice, just for an afternoon, to see the Piazza San Marco. Dino De Laurentiis bought me a book, which inspired all these things... A book about Venice. It inspired the idea, that in the world of "Dune" a Renaissance had taken place thousands of years ago, and this renaissance had been very powerful and far-reaching. And people built beautiful machines; they were so well-constructed, that they remained intact until now, the time, when the story begins. Of course this melange gives the humans certain mental abilities. But they need machines nonetheless, and these machines were built before discovering the "spice" Melange. This world is not a world of machines, but they are part of it." Final cut for "Dune" was in the hands of Universal Studios rather than its director, and the film remains a subject rarely broached by Lynch to this day.

As part of the contractual details of directing the film for De Laurentiis, Lynch was under obligation with the producer to direct two more films, the first of which was to be a planned sequel. In the wake of the film's poor box office and mixed critical reception this sequel was never developed beyond the stage of its initial script. The other was a more personal work. Developed from ideas that had been gestating as far back as 1973, and a screenplay that had been shopped around by the director since the late 1970s, De Laurentiis then became both its producer and distributor. Where other studios declined the screenplay due to its tarnished depiction of smalltown Amercan life, foreground presentation of violence, and strong sexual content, the Italian independent gave the director free reign within it's budgetary constrains and most importantly, power of final cut. This project would go on to be considered one of the most notable, and influential independent films of the 1980s. Not only a significant film within the independent cinema landscape of the decade, "Blue Velvet" earned David Lynch his first Academy Award nomination, and came to rank significantly within the BBC's 2015 global critical assessment of the 100 Greatest American Films ever made. Next month SIFF Cinema brings the restored print of this defining work in the Lynch canon along with six other features and the 2017 documentary on the artist's life as, "Now It's Dark: The Films of David Lynch". Running non-chronologically the month of April through May, the series begins with what the director endearingly refers to as his own personal "Philadelphia Story". A Philadelphia of perpetual gloaming ambiance, industrial ruin and decay. It's populace scratching out an existence through indecipherable patterns of domestic ritual in "Eraserhead"'s world of musically inclined radiators and innards-disgorging infants.

Lynch's intertwining of the lives of the historic figures of Joseph Merrick and Sir Frederick Treves, is to be screened in a rare print of "The Elephant Man" on 35mm. And the one birthing the other, his twinned projects for De Laurentiis, "Dune" and "Blue Velvet" will be presented in both new 4K digital restorations and on celluloid. The most recent in numerous documentaries on, "David Lynch: The Art Life" examines the artist's singular creative process through the lens of his multifaceted artistic endeavors. With beguiling charm, Lynch's personal (and psychological) philosophy are applied to the process of generating the paintings, sculptures, furniture design and music of this one-of-a-kind American original. SIFF's series concludes with the Los Angeles trilogy of films that have defined the director's recent work bridging the millennial cusp. Employing longer durations and expressly non-linear devices, this trio of works are as boldly experimental as they are traditionally cinematic. A film of halves, "Lost Highway" is a compelling, yet lopsided neo-Noir thriller from the late 1990's utilizing a split-persona structure which Lynch later refined to greater effect on his masterpiece, "Mulholland Drive". This second film stands as a pinnacle of all things that make the work of this American auteur great; an inscrutable mystery, a shifting and ambiguous tonal palette, high tension, visitations from nightmare worlds and subjective intersections between the beyond and the everyday mundane. As if in a dream, the protagonists of the increasingly unstable realitie(s) depicted in these contemporary noir find themselves enticed into realms of ominous portent on their journey to discovery.

Thom Anderson's once difficult to see licensing labyrinth, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" will remain the defining film on film in the City of Dreams. Yet there are few contenders in the way of dramas set within the glitz, grime and glamour of Hollywood that approach the body of Los Angeles as seen in the exploratory surgery of "Inland Empire". In a filmography of nonlinear, nestled, Borgesian structures and metaphysical dreamlike intrusions to the real, Lynch assembled his most expressly matryoshka vessel for "Inland Empire" in its amalgam of his own fictional cursed production and the mythic nature of some of Hollywood's greatest, lost and never-completed films. Lynch's film itself containing a contemporary variation on a Polish folktale in which a boy who, sparking a reflection after passing through a doorway, "caused evil to be born" by his doppelganger entering the world. In it's other facet it also tells of a girl who, wandering through an alleyway behind a marketplace, "discovers a palace". These two threads are woven into the production of the fictional film-within-the-film, titled "On High in Blue Tomorrows", which is revealed to be a remake of the folklore's original cursed vehicle, a German feature titled "47". The multifaceted, multilayered nature of the film as a film about film is possibly best encapsulated by Jim Emerson in his review for; "Inland Empire" presents itself as a Hollywood movie (and a movie about Hollywood) in the guise of an avant-garde mega-meta art movie. When people say "Inland Empire" is Lynch's "Sunset Boulevard", Lynch's "Persona" or Lynch's "8 1/2", they're quite right, but it also explicitly invokes connections to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining", Jean-Luc Godard's "Pierrot le Fou", Bunuel and Dali's "Un Chien Andalou", Maya Deren's LA-experimental "Meshes of the Afternoon", and others."