Thursday, June 8, 2023

"Dreams & Nightmares: The Films of David Lynch" at SIFF Cinema: Jun 16 - Jul 6

Over the course of the next month, SIFF Cinema will be presenting a near complete retrospective of the major works of David Lynch. Encompassing ten feature length films, an essay film, and a anthology of short films, "Dreams & Nightmares: The Films of David Lynch", begins mid-June with the premiere of "Lynch/OZ". Following non-chronologically, the series sounds the depths and heights of one of the great auteurs of the 20th century, with "Mulholland Drive", "Blue Velvet", The Short Films of David Lynch, "Dune", "Wild at Heart", "Inland Empire", "The Straight Story", "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me", "The Elephant Man", "Eraserheard", and "Lost Highway". Viewed together, it is clear that the landscape of American independent cinema would have an altogether different topography without the work of it's sublime 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 feature film for a major studio.

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 recurring 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 enables the humans with 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." The final cut for "Dune" was in the hands of Universal Studios rather than its director, and the resulting 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 American life, foreground presentation of violence, and strong sexual content, the Italian independent gave the director free reign within its budgetary constraints 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 second Academy Award nomination, and came to rank significantly within the BBC's 2015 global critical assessment of the 100 Greatest American Films ever made. No discussion of Lynch's contribution to the language of cinema would be complete without his and Mark Frost's 1989 reimagining of the American soap opera. "Twin Peaks" struck a chord with the American consciousness of the late 20th century, reformatting television viewing itself into a serial artform. This being decades before such viewing would become the de rigueur of longform streaming tv. An equally dissonant chord was hit by the series' theatrical prequel, which delivered the dark and unexpurgated side of the "Twin Peaks" coin, one which many audiences were not prepared for.

Though Booed at Cannes and the target of frustrated Twin Peaks fans and critics upon its release, the film has since gained a reevaluation with context and distance, with pieces like Calum Marsh's "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Is David Lynch's Masterpiece" now increasingly more common. With the cinematic expansion of the series' narrative offered by "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me", and new context enriched by the even more experimental "Twin Peaks: The Return" miniseries of 2017. Since then many have returned to the prequel film with fresh eyes and decades distance, and found it to be less of a departure, and more true to "Twin Peaks" cinematic world and its concerns, making for an, "Anatomy of a Fascinating Disaster: Fire Walk With Me". A set of less successful experiments with genre and tone would come after with the adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel, "Wild at Heart", and a G rated family film for the Walt Disney corporation, in "The Straight Story". Yet these were followed by a trio of the most adventurous and satisfyingly substantial of his films, which employed longer durations and expressly non-linear devices, and proved to be as boldly experimental as they were 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 in what many consider his masterpiece, 2001's "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 "Los Angeles Plays Itself" will remain the defining exploration of film about 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 corpus 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 its 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 "Perpetual Evolution" of Lynch's art, as seen in this 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.".