The Straight Story – 5 – The Elephant Man

Eraserhead (which by the way, I am very excited to see on the big screen this coming Saturday – it’s a pastime of mine to see theatrical screenings of favorite movies when they’re around) was a cultural hit upon its release even, not exactly having to wait decades for its cult phenomenon status. It had notoriously gotten midnight screenings all across the nation and even inspired the legendary Stanley Kubrick in the middle of his production of The Shining (hearsay claims that Kubrick made his cast and crew for that film watch Eraserhead to get in the right sort of mindset for his own horror story).

But how Eraserhead really kicked the career of David Lynch further into gear was by catching the attention of a man named Stuart Cornfield. Cornfield was already in the business under the wing of Mel Brooks, the notorious comedian of The Producers and Blazing Saddles fame. The 80s for Brooks, though, were in the little yet distinctive presence of darker, more serious work that he would be executive producing for his company BrooksFilms. While films like The Fly were more blatantly horror, this particular film was bordering that genre in a manner.

I mean, after all, Lynch is coming off of the success of a horror film. And it could only have been suspected that he would stick to his guns for now on his sophomore feature debut, but it’s astonishing in this case just to how much of a degree he’d stick to those guns and how well they work for themselves. But more on that in a moment…

Cornfield and Lynch began to correspond and the two of them got on quite well to the point of Cornfield offering to help Lynch produce another one of his pet screenplays, the time titled “Ronnie Rocket”. But, of course, “Ronnie Rocket” was doomed before production could even begin as Lynch trouble even describing it to potential financial backers and with humility scrapped the project. So Cornfield, insistent upon working with Lynch still, sent Lynch four separate scripts for him to consider directing and Cornfield would then go up to Brooks and ask that Lynch be allowed to helm that project.

And so after going through all four scripts and Brooks himself seeing Eraserhead and absolutely loving it, we ended up with The Elephant Man‘s production and release in 1980. The film was a commercial success and while it is arguable that The Elephant Man was Lynch’s only film to be as subdued and “normal” as most mainstream pictures, it is absolutely undeniable that it is Lynch’s first picture to enter that cinematic mainsteam. It earned the most Oscar nominations of Lynch’s career and returned a considerable interest in the true-life case of Joseph Merrick.

Interestingly, the movie refrains from referring to Merrick in the film as Joe. No, the man who has the grotesquely enlarged cranium and the tumor-like abnormalities all around his body is referred in the film wrongly as John Merrick (an unrecognizable John Hurt, both in voice and in physical appearance). Merrick was found in a freakshow in Victorian England and be-friended by Victoria Hospital surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) as Treves dedicates his life to studying Merrick’s condition. Merrick in the film has spent a considerable amount of his lifetime being exploited by the master of his freak show, Bytes (Freddie Jones). Once Treves takes responsibility for Merrick himself, Bytes is dismayed at losing one of his attractions and swears to take Merrick back eventually. This promise threatens to undo all of the man-making self-discovery Merrick gains once he actually discovers dignity and humanity in his life.

This transformation from fearful beast to man is provided by Hurt in a manner that I wouldn’t exactly call the most sympathy-grabbing performance by its own right, but considering even the simplistic and muffled expressions Hurt provides through his multi-layered make-up can tell us how Merrick feels and in turn how we are supposed to feel, I would give it at least a remarkable standing. Hopkins himself does well enough to command the scene when he needs to be the emotional anchor – namely of either fascination, sadness, or anger – and yet give the stage to Hurt when most necessary.

But that’s fine for the two lead actors to warm up the atmosphere because for the most part of the film, as a matter of fact, Lynch takes to utilizing his usual coldness and – save for the bookends of the film which hold their own dreamlike manner – sneaking in moments of bizarreness and surrealism. In fact, it’s a lot easier to attach The Elephant Man as a companion piece to Eraserhead than expected, even if Eraserhead holds ambiguity by its neck while The Elephant Man is one of Lynch’s straightest stories.

The sound design, supervised by Lynch himself, is leveled at a point that impressively attacks the audience when we need to be in shock with where we are at moments like the carnival and the opera house close to the end, jarring intrusions of air billowing in the sky, and such, yet also deliberately holding a stillness in the room when we need quieter moments of contemplation between Treves and Merrick. That’s not even to say enough about Stuart Craig’s production design for the film, which makes brick alleyways in the back of Victorian England and train depots look like the most industrial nightmare you can make out of such a time and era and touched upon by Freddie Francis’ black and white cinematography (with a lot softer lighting this time around and less contrast than his previous work on Eraserhead) and that turns the metallic and artificially monstrous character of England up to 11.

Francis’ work also, like the sound design, ends up the servant of two masters when it holds a lot more novel scene compositions like holding Merrick to share the same frame as a caged dog or providing an empty space to accompany Merrick as he attempts to get past the pain of falling asleep and so many more obvious and overt notions of the struggle to being a man that Merrick has to go through. Hell, once the movie goes full on “Angry Mob from Frankenstein” mode (a move you really would have had to have never been aware of these types of pictures to not have seen it coming), Lynch, Francis, and company just try as much as they can to make the film resemble a Universal Classic Horror film and it sort of works, but once again, it jars in the middle of the humane emotional arc.

Ah yes, and the makeup (created by Christopher Tucker after Lynch kept trying to give it a go himself). The makeup is the part I am honestly most contentious about kind of and I know that the public opinion is not that way. Hell, the makeup sort of made Oscar history by causing an outcry in how the makeup was neglected recognition by the Academy and so the Oscar for Best Makeup was invented after this. So, people like it. And I don’t think it’s flat out bad makeup.

It’s just the main thing that gets in the way of our thoughts of Merrick. Not in the grotesque manner of its creation, but in the fact that it kind of feels like one of Lynch’s own horror tales dedicated to making Merrick scary-looking rather than allowing Hurt ability to express himself through any facial means, through movement of his mouth, almost through speech even (when Hurt talks… it sounds like he’s talking through a mask, really). It makes Merrick more of a cartoon than he has to be for the sake of serving the master of Lynch’s appetite for unreal content and presentation.

Basically, Lynch is less concerned with making Merrick a fleshed out human being with his own emotional struggles and psychological pitfalls, since that heavy lifting has to be passed between Hurt, Hopkins, and the screenplay by Lynch, Christopher DeVore, and Eric Bergren. And while it paces itself along as much as it can to juggle the character arc of Merrick and the battle to keep him out of a cage, it never seems quite able to make those two factors become sides of the same problem and so there’s so much screentime we feel could be spared. The movie is by no means a complete bore, but it could have been shorter and the story could have been more carefully made to present the faults of Merrick’s life and treatment altogether without feeling like a cheat.

Still this storytelling neglect instead of atmospheric satisfaction does not detract from the engagement of Merrick’s tale, it just makes The Elephant Man seem like two separate films that interrupt each other once in a while – a horror story where the monster is the victim of the humans, and a dramatic tale of a man overcoming his unfair physical adversities in all manners. It still works. It’s still serviceable. For all these things, The Elephant Man at once stands on its own legacy as a dramatic picture yet doesn’t exactly go snug into the Lynchian canon. It is simply that sort of showcase of skillsets Lynch made that he clearly couldn’t provide previously since he was making Eraserhead instead an expressive piece of art.

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At the Edge of Sin

I’ve been on and on about how much I enjoy Timbuktu, but I never actually took a moment to sit down and write a review on it.

So, here I am, sitting down and getting that through – now that it is somehow considered a 2015 US release rather than a 2014 one (did… did Miami transcend time? Or did my local theater just say jog on to release dates? Whatever, I’m glad I saw the film anyway.)

By the time Timbuktu was made, Abderrahmane Sissako was already sort of making a big deal as one of the major African filmmakers to break through into Western favor and, like the late great Ousmane Sembene alongside him, it came a lot from criticizing subversion and oppression in African nations from all fronts: legislation, religion, invasion, etc. Sissako also deserves a space in my personal canon based on his devotion to 35mm for the making of his pictures. I know that it really is a dumb thing to heighten one up based on that at this point (I am personally on neither film or digital sides, but insistent that they both have their purposes), but it still warms me to see a filmmaker who is not Spielberg or Nolan and obviously needs to make the budget for film stock et al. to actually pursue the format.

As a result, Timbuktu lends itself to some heart-stopping gorgeous shots in the Mauritania landscape that plays at being Mali for the time being. I would be hard-pressed to name a particular lake as the central setpiece of Timbuktu, when so much of the film takes place within the city itself, but it is definitely the place where the cinematography by Sofiane El Fani is showed off best – light reflecting on the edge of the water in a sharp edge, a wide range of space with which to capture several different actions at once, and in a particular moment, even split the audience’s eye to look in two separate directions at once without even trying to be as overt as the famous rig-split shot from Goodbye to Language 3D. In the meantime, when the film does return to the city, it is dedicated to making the buildings feel as gaunt and pale and sapped as the souls of the characters trapped within the occupation of Ansar Dine, while having a bleached touch to its set design to bring some visual heat to the scenario within.

Timbuktu is indeed a little bit of a mosaic narrative (though not entirely) of lives trapped within the Ansar Dine regime, the real-life Islamist militia that occupied Mali. At once portrayed as hypocritical buffoons that still have some danger to them as a local religious bullies, Ansar Dine is making characters are suffering for the slightest of actions – from not wearing gloves to refusing to involve themselves in an involved marriage. It’s even got the local Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) peeved, especially when slight moments show Ansar Dine’s disregard for basic Islamic manners and courtesy to others, trying desperately to salvage the public’s freedoms while also clearly attempting to avoid a bullet to the head. Hell, one of the most humorous yet shocking moments is where one of the Ansar Dine members listens to citizens of Timbuktu playing music praising Islam and the man who discovers it is stuck in debate with his boss Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri) whether or not to still punish them. And while the punishment is tastefully far from exploitative – mostly relegated to cutaways and off-screen space, it’s nonetheless immensely repulsive and hard to watch in its severity. I think one of my favorite things about the year of 2014 has been how much audience reaction I’ve been able to witness and one of them was the collective gasp made from the only impact we see during a stoning.

In the meantime, far enough away from the central city to feel isolated and almost peaceful but still nearby enough to make the wise protests of his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) to outright move camp relevant, rancher Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) finds knowingly limited solace with their daughter near one of the most beautifully shot rivers I’ve seen on film against the constant possibility of Ansar Dine expanding where they now live. It’s especially not aided by Abdelkarim and his ward constantly roving about to visit and spy (Abdelkarim proves to be an especially terrible driver among his other obvious faults and yet it gives him one of the more human moments early the film).

Anyway, I’m sure by now, it should not be too much of a surprise to too many readers that I would be connected to this sort of story by its portrayal of Islam and Islamic extremism in a land that is already not in much of a great position. But Sissako doesn’t seem so focused on that factor to have made the film exclusively tailor-made for people like me. Drowning the town in the many prohibitions we see ends up being the tangents to allow all the different themes Sissako includes in the film – regret, dignity, horror – to become immediately accessible, while also complimenting the shots by El Fani to give a real lifeless feeling of the town being sapped of all its character and culture.

A living, breathing requiem for its city under its circumstances and astounding work of character building in the end, Timbuktu has still remained my favorite film of 2015 (since now I have to count it as that I guess… dammit) so far 1/12 of the year in. It’ll probably be surpassed since it’s not perfect (the final few moments get its narratives all up in a tangle), but that will not put down just how eye-catchingly gorgeous the film is, even in spite of all the suffering it is forced to capture and portray.

Mommie Dearest

One of my biggest immediate observations is how Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s hairstyle in Xavier Dolan’s 2014 Cannes Jury Prize winner Mommy makes him kind of look like Justin Bieber to me. I wondered if this was a deliberate choice to make his character, Steve Depres, a recent release from a juvenile psychiatric hospital, a little bit more dislikable.

It seems like I’m reading a bit too much into that mere hairstyle, but the truth is that a lot of Mommy telegraphs itself – from the 1:1 aspect ratio selected to the instantly recognizable soundtrack of popular music – so much as a film that I certainly want to believe that there is more underneath to dig and read. As it maybe turns out, there kind of is.

For the past few years, child star-turned-director Xavier Dolan has become another golden boy for Cannes (in the absence not-really-a-Nazi-but-not-really-a-genius-either Lars von Trier), proving to be inspired by all sorts of director’s styles – Heartbeats calls back on Wong Kar-wai, Laurence Anyways on Stanley Kubrick -, ambitious both in versatility and visual stylizations, and prolific… by his current age of 25, the dude has made five features. The fifth is what we’re on about.

The other major thing about Dolan is how much he wears his personal heart on his sleeve. His first film, I Killed My Mother, was confessed as being semi-autobiographical and, given how its primary themes are Mommy Issues and Homosexuality (Dolan is openly gay and you probably would have figured that out just by watching one film of his – which I do recommend you do, since all of them exempting Tom at the Farm and Mommy are on Netflix), it appears that those two things impact his life so much that pretty much every film he made since has had one or both of those themes announced loudly.

You can probably guess which the hell Mommy focuses more on (though there is just a hint of the other one too).

But in actually tangible literal matters, Mommy‘s focus is on the relationship between Die (Anne Dorval) and her volatile 17-year-old son Stevie (Pilon). When the film begins, Stevie is being picked up out of the juvenile home Die originally dropped him in as a youth. The reason for this sudden ejection is due to Stevie having set another resident on fire (who lives) and it’s flat-out dropped that is not the first violent incident Stevie has had but it is the most severe yet.

A few minutes with aged-yet-sultry Die and, while she is obviously a bit more functional than her erratic and unrestrained son, it’s very clear where Stevie got his vulgarity, lack of foresight, and confrontational attitude. At once, it becomes clear that the two of them both deserve each other and yet are the worst things that could possibly happen to each other. From the beginning of Stevie’s return into his mother’s life, sparks fly around between light banter of a frankly adult manner and then suddenly a shockingly violent moment of flying glass, fists flying, and hiding in closets.

At the end of this heavy and frightening confrontation, the injured Stevie gets himself in the care of their neighbor (whom it seems Die has been eying) the shy and reserved Kyla and suddenly these three enter a friendship together that gives practically everyone involved a bit more fresh air to feel involved…

Everybody feels a bit more free…

But all the while, that one moment of violence from Stevie lingers in the memory and threatens to erupt once more. And then more problems come in the frame that make this situation turn a bit more asphyxiating for Die and Stevie, who were – for maybe the first time since Die’s husband/Stevie’s father died – gaining peace of mind.

Anyway, the mommy issues that Mommy talks through are pretty much transparent and the sole thematic anchor it seems to have as a film that goes beyond the idea of self and “being an island”. But this comes again from how Mommy telegraphs itself and the two most apparent ways that it goes ahead with doing that.

If you’ve heard anything about Mommy, you’ve heard about its aspect ratio. It’s an unusual one, particularly if you’re only used to Hollywood blockbusters in 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. You’ll be used to those horizontal frames. Mommy is 1:1. That’s an absolute square, but compared to the regular preferences of aspect ratio, that feels less like a square and more like a vertical camera phone video. Those black gaps looking bigger than they actually are. And it helps emotionally. You don’t need to be too literate to figure out that this unusual shape is in fact to compress all of the heavy emotions that Dorval and Pilon carry in their performances (especially Dorval who shines out most – then again, the film sort of gives her more to work than Pilon, as the script seems to at times try to craft Stevie as this unstoppable yet one-note force of rage) as well as to add to a form of visual claustrophobia for the audience to share Die and Stevie’s overwhelmed state at all the madness around their own mad selves. It also lends for the two of the more memorable visual moments of the film where it gives itself in to a self-awareness of its composition – both of them the most famous scenes of the film as far as I know – but not quite as impactful to me as its shocking and sobering, yet in retrospect, inevitable finale. I mean, 25th Hour did it first, but hell if Mommy didn’t do it so much better, with its lack of romanticism and harsh insistence that we stay and watch the whole ordeal.

Unfortunately, the other manner in which it telegraphs itself obviously is not as forgivable. The film’s soundtrack is made up of popular music from the 90s onward like “Wonderwall” and “Born to Die” that, while I do like those songs on their own merits, the lyrics themselves start to spell out literally what emotions and thoughts the characters are meant to be believed to have and so it comes off as insultingly manipulative and very unconfident in both its visual storytelling and its actors themselves. It’s a real turn-off.

Still overall, Mommy has proven to be another impressive bit of work from a filmmaker who is constantly in the mood to try bold new things, very much deserving of the Jury Prize it shared with Goodbye to Language at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Andre Turpin and Dolan have taken cares to create very stunning and beautiful Lubezki-esque visualizations (although there are moments in the film where they apparently don’t seem to be as aware of the aspect ratio as they should be and we’re going “what the fuck are you trying to show us?”), Dolan has written yet another empathetic plea for flawed human beings who need to be heard, directed the product to come as way too larger-than-life for us to be able to sit through without exploding like Stevie and… oh fuck, did anybody else just realize what that meme that kid’s last name is?

Fuck, now that’s going to be on my mind for the rest of the week.

Got Damn, Do the Critics Kind of Hate Me.

It’s not nearly as ideal to finally have a review of Michael Mann’s latest film Blackhat so long after it had been completely run out of theaters almost immediately after its poor opening performance. But I did see Blackhat and I did want to talk about it and thankfully there is one matter that will certainly keep Blackhat a relevant matter alongside Jupiter Ascending, the other subject of this review.

They both got heinous reviews. Both are at 30% and 22% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a bit disconcerting since they are arguably my favorite releases of the year that I have seen so far (Timbuktu takes a higher point than them but – as some of you recall – it gained a spot in my Top 10 of 2014 list, but due to a very perplexing fact… that apparently it premiered here in Miami before New York City… I would kind of concede to calling it a 2015 release. But my brain is still hurting from that fact.). And I honestly don’t think I can say they aren’t trashy or that their screenplays are not in fact sloppily written – which is precisely the case for both films – but I just couldn’t bring myself not to enjoy either film.

But first, let’s go ahead and tackle Blackhat since it’s clearly the one that nothing much can be further said for it now that it has disappeared from theaters.

Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay opens with two unbelievable cyber attacks made between two of the bigger superpowers in the world – The Mercantile Trade Exchange is hacked into and certain numbers are meddled with that probably would make sense to me if I had any clue how stocks work, while in the meantime, a Hong Kong nuclear plant is affected enough to straight up explode. By the power of computers. Yeah.

But of course, due to the severity of these attacks, the Chinese government and the FBI pin heads together in the form of military cybercrimes investigator Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), who brings along his similarly cyber-gifted sister Lien (Tang Wei), to investigate the code used alongside tough fed officers Barrett (Viola Davis) and Jessup (Holt McCallany). It becomes immediately revealed to Dawai that the code was co-authored by him and his former roommate at MIT, Nick Hathaway (the rainbow-American-accented Chris Hemsworth), who is currently imprisoned for carding. Dawai implores that Hathaway is a necessary addition to the team and, after arranging his release, the five members of this team go on a patchy run around the world to find and stop the source of these crimes before he goes on to cause more havok.

Ok, so it sounds banal, but I did already acknowledge that. It’s a movie with Transcendence amount of fascination/fear of technology and doesn’t seem to pay off that fascination with either immediately understandable babble about what our heroes or villains are doing with said laptops or any true understanding itself of that. The only true anchor to the storytelling plays in both its relentless global chase that it leads its characters on, in a somewhat less autonomous romantic subplot (without divulging the characters involved, I don’t think you need to guess very hard who the hell it is), and the vast scope of the film (we get various moments of cross-cutting scenarios). Foehl doesn’t make matters easier by somehow allowing all of those factors to weaken the screenplay – the frenetic pace of the film leads to us somehow feeling like moments were way too easily glossed over and that the audience missed something and the movie should go the fuck back, the scope further incites this jumping of plot, and the subplot kind of demands to a third act that almost is quick to completely neglect focus on characters it blatantly deems disposable to the conflict. But damn, here I still am tearing apart the screenplay without taking a moment to at least address why I liked Blackhat so much.

In spite of its suspension, Blackhat‘s story is not nearly as batshit as Jupiter Ascending‘s. But then again, that would be due to the nature of the tales. Blackhat is not entirely realistic, but is at least devoted to this reality. Jupiter Ascending is in its own little world.

The latest project by the Wachowski siblings – who still have my heart after Cloud Atlas – Jupiter Ascending kind of feels like if Roald Dahl and Phillip K. Dick had a love child that ended up writing Twilight (I know the popular thing to claim is that Jupiter Ascending is Cinderella in space, but isn’t Roald Dahl the king of less overt Cinderella stories?). The beautifully alliterated name Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) belongs to a young toilet scrubber who is apparently of some importance to a group of siblings in the sky who each claim a stake in the galaxy after the death of their mother. The eldest of these siblings, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), has Earth within his cut of that inheritance, while the other two, Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) feel fine with their share, but would feel a lot better just cutting down Balem’s. And so the three of them are off to capture Jones, along with a hired gun who happens the wolf-man genetic hybrid Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). From this we end up being tossed in a similar chase as Blackhat, all around the galaxy to figure out why Jupiter seems so important to the Abrasax House and how can the Earth be made to avoid a very perilous fate.

Just as banal as Blackhat, just as patchy a screenplay too. The first act takes a mite too much longer than I would wish it to be before the action actually finally starts up. I would like the relationship between the Abrasaxes to have been a bit more in the forefront as something affecting the plot rather than their rivalry to just be character background (we receive only one scene with the three of them and only two where they talk about each other, otherwise). The treatment of oxygen in space is one of the more inconsistent things within Jupiter Ascending where the same character can survive a whole trip through space in one scene and then needs some oxygen. And Jupiter Ascending‘s pace feels like a ride that speeds and jolts on its own whim with no real conscience on how it affects the story. The biggest writing bit I can see people having a problem with is that Jupiter does not on paper make a very compelling everywoman, she’s unfazed by all the fantasy and calamity to her, with exception to the first major action setpiece – an outstanding and breathtaking sky battle that happens to still be IN FUCKING CHICAGO! She’s not even in Space yet.

On the last point, however, I can forgive that lack of wide-eyed overwhelming behavior since I had plenty of it to spare looking right around at the novel science fiction production design by Hugh Bateup recalling all the facets of science fiction that makes it just perfectly ripe for children of pulp fantasy magazines like yours truly to wrap themselves around. An adventure surrounded by color floating in the air, pleasantly accented by beautiful costuming by Kym Barrett that touches on each characters personality as a soldier, or a bureaucrat, or a worker, etc. and makeup design that, while looking uncomfortable (most obviously on Tatum’s face) brings to mind my favorite comic Saga (though God forbid that is made into a film).

Attached with a bombastically sweeping score by the always enjoyable Michael Giacchino, it’s just full of style and whizzing flavor to it enough to make me get over the terrible acting by everyone who isn’t Sean Bean (though granted, Redmayne seems to be the only actor trying… he just tries a bit too hard) and flawed screenplay. The movie flies past it and hopefully pulls you along with it so that you both gives those faults the same brush. It is the substance of a space fairytale with more of the attitude of Star Wars and less of the similarly designed but deliberately irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy. And Jupiter Ascending apparently suffers from the audience for not having that same principal of sarcasm to its space opera attitudes, but it doesn’t get that suffering from me. I mean, do I really want fucking moments of self-parody when I am involved in a scene where Caine and Stinger (Sean Bean) have to battle a fucking huge ship all on their lonesome in a ticking clock scenario as one of the large setpieces of the film? Not at all, it’s just way too intense and transfixing for me to care. I know that even allowing for all those concessions I was willing to leave with, it is in the end just a distraction of a film, but hey… anybody remember what I made my number one film of 2014? Anybody?

So, you know why I liked Jupiter Ascending a hell of a lot, but back to Blackhat? Well, Blackhat happens to hold the same principal to itself. Not as bombastic a style at all, but it is a film that dedicates itself to making the actions and scenarios in the film look as sleek as it can, in spite of not spending too much time imperatively pointing out the scenarios and making them as cohesively as the images of the film itself.

It’s no damn secret to use that Michael Mann has, at least the past decade, had a real infatuation with digital cinematography and once again, it has returned to his usage. But this subject matter seems most appropriate – making its technological focus seem much more solid and making its physical real-world subjects seem a little bit less defined like the computer programs. I can’t think of any way Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh could have possibly pulled this off without the control digital cameras allow them, from grain to color all the way, it feels like how it was made, all the way down to twice within the first ten minutes watching the first among several little beelines through the inside of a computer as information is being passed down…

… until the end starts to belong to a very different film with now a really physical setpiece set in Jakarta that involves moving bodies unaware of what’s going on around them and men fighting against men – flesh and blood without being behind any computer screens. To watch the conflict expand in such a manner, that’s quite a headtrip for me (though maybe it’s because, by the time I finally saw it, I could only catch a midnight screening as one of only two times that were available. Damn this movie was launched out of theaters). Seriously, the Jakarta finale alone is worth the damn admission price. A friend of mine described Blackhat as if GoldenEye had taken itself a touch too seriously and I fully encourage that description. And it’s all the more fun for me in regards to it.

Let’s get something out of the way: Despite the title of this post, of course, critics did not give both movies a very cold reception due to a vendetta towards me (or the filmmakers really – Mann has been in the Golden Boy area for a while). I realize that it’s more obvious that I am injecting my own personal experience of the films as being style over substance and being better for it, and that even in that treatment of these as fluff pieces, they might not work.

But y’know what, fuck me for not taking either of these films seriously. If it worked enough to make me still enjoy Lucy, these absolutely less-dedicated works by filmmakers who nine-times-out-of-ten know what they are doing aren’t demanding any more than Lucy is. And I got a blast in the theaters in return.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with turning it off for a few hours.

The Straight Story – 4 – The Amputee

As I mentioned prior, Eraserhead took a great damn while to make (almost as much as I took to finally start this post… I had an extended period of despondency after witnessing two works of mine for this blog become lost, but I digress. I’m back in the saddle now), like five fucking years.

Those five years were growing with gaps in time where David Lynch and his crew ran out of funding for the time being and needed to start digging for more money. In the meantime, Frederick Elmes was enlisted by the American Film Institute to test out two different black-and-white stocks for the school’s usage. Lynch got ahold of this as a friend of Elmes’ and asked if he could create a short film for them to test out the stock with.

Thus, it would make sense that The Amputee, which became Lynch’s fourth short film (and arguably fourth film overall), would be entirely made up of one shot. Not just one shot, in fact, but one composition with little alteration, save for a character entering the frame to get placed in a certain position and then never moving away from that position anyway.

The Amputee featured a woman (Catherine Coulson, who also co-wrote the short) who was in a condition that left her as the title’s namesake writing a letter to her friend as a nurse (whom we are meant to believe is female, but it’s very recognizably Lynch himself that plays her) enters and tends to her stumps.

That’s it. The only dialogue comes in the form of voiceover recitation of the letter the Amputee writes.

It’s pretty fully experimental in its visual style, it’s just not abstract. It’s nothing really of too much personality for Lynch. It is a complete blank. It does its job solely as a test for the stock (with two different versions in existence) and nothing else is there to comment on beyond the form of observation.

We have a single light source off-screen leaving both brightness and blackness to compare and contrast between the items on-screen (the chair, the pencil and paper, the woman, the nurse, etc.) in consideration of different textures. In the meantime, the woman’s letter has some amount of that subtle extremity in tension that Lynch’s works usually give off. Calm storms of anger without the presentation of violence. It’s certainly a bit of a one-woman soap opera as she describes a date gone wrong at the beach, verbally sets up a love triangle (one that I would certainly entertain the idea that it is a false fantasy the woman is solely concocting for her own indulgence in a normal life), and even giving her own twist ending to her life.

Really, it’s about a woman who can’t go anywhere, so she lets her mind go places and the only way it can be transported is through her letter. It’s not that hard to read and it’s certainly not that demanding a watch either in each format. If I were more versed in stock detail, I’d probably note a big shift in the stock differences, but instead I am going to assume that save for an additional action by Lynch on-screen and possibly a change in frame rate between the stocks, the two shorts seemed evidently the same entirely.

But in the end, it was just a little project of Lynch’s and something to get his mind relaxed before diving into Eraserhead again.

Anybody else find it funny that Lynch’s daughter’s first feature just happened to also focus on fantasy indulgence and amputation?