Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Church of Cinema: Lost Highway

In the spring of 1997, my life was changed forever.

In the spring of 1997 I was out of high school, and doing nothing but lounging around and hanging out with my friends, working the occasional odd job for a temp agency here and there for spending money. Larger and more verifiable changes would be coming in the fall and winter, after I started going to college and began to expand my horizons past my basement apartment in my mom's house. And yet the spring of 1997 marked an important shift in both my perception of the world and my habits within it. Most of the time revelations are seen in hindsight, people rarely recognize life changing moments as they happen. But this time I did.

In the spring of 1997, Lost Highway came to town.

Lost Highway may seem like an odd film to lionize as much as I'm about to, especially considering it's reception, which ranges from outright hatred to bored indifference. A hardcore David Lynch fan is unlikely to point out Lost Highway as a pinnacle of his career, but to me it was an honest to god life changing event. In 1997 I had seen nothing like it, and I was completely unprepared for the film's dark world of sex, crime, doppelgangers, time shifts, mysterious men and dangerous women and just pure weirdness. Lost Highway opened my eyes to a whole new world of film that I didn't even know existed, and it shaped the course of my cultural cravings for, well, just over a decade now.

But let's back up for a minute.

Like I said, in 1997 I was still living at home, and while I watched several movies almost daily for this year long period, my tastes had not yet been defined. I was devouring everything I saw, but not really processing it. I'd like to say I enjoyed foreign and arthouse films, but really I was a blockbuster fan. I liked spectacle, and that's what I went for at the video store. That was on it's way to changing in '97, but I was still pretty blind to the world of cinema past whatever was in the horror or new release section of the local video store. I came to Lost Highway because of the involvement of two people. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails produced the soundtrack and contributed two songs, while Marilyn Manson had a brief, brief cameo late in the film. Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails carry with them some pretty negative and embarrassing connotations, but both bands were big in my personal high school life, so when I began reading about this new film both of them would be connected to, I became interested.

At this point I know I'd seen an episode of Twin Peaks; I'd flipped over to it one night because you couldn't open a single publication in the first two years of the 90s without hearing how great the show was. But I was too young, and came to the show too late, so it made absolutely no sense to me and I never returned(I would later, and that obsession would grow and deepen to almost Star Trekian proportions). I'd also seen Dune, but I only had vague childhood memories. My point being that I had no real idea who this David Lynch guy was, but several people in bands I liked had cited him as an influence, and he was spoken of in terms that made me feel as if I were somehow depriving myself by not seeing his films.

When Lost Highway was released, it took a few months to reach Alaska, because at the time there was only one theatre that ran arthouse films; the Capri. I miss the Capri immensely, even though I only saw a handful of films there. It was a tiny, tiny place with a postage stamp screen and some pretty dilapidated chairs. But what it lacked in luxury it made up for in style. There was a cafe attached, with some chairs and magazines, and a collection of old lobby cards and posters for sale. The place exuded a love for cinema, be it underground, foreign, old-time Hollywood, or unapologetic junk(Hitchcock posters shared the same space as DC Cab advertisements). Also it was the only place in Anchorage you could see movies not put out by one of the major studios unless you wanted to wait for video. When the Capri got Lost Highway, I made sure I was there on opening night. And then every other night of the one week that it played. Each night I went with another friend, and each night we spent a few hours discussing the film and each night we had another theory as to what it all meant, and what had actually happened.

I can cite some specifics, but I don't know how well it will describe the film. Fred Madison(Bill Pullman) is a man apparently unable to express any emotion in his daily life, as he lives in a large home with his beautiful, distant wife, Renee(Patricia Arquette). The only time he perks up is when he's on stage playing the saxophone at a smoky nightclub. He and his wife speak in monotone sentence fragments with each other, disconcertingly direct without actually saying anything of meaning, and they have passionless sex. The two begin receiving a series of unlabeled VHS tapes that contain footage of their house, each successive tape becoming more and more intrusive, finally showing footage of a distraught Fred lying amid the scattered body parts of Renee. Fred has no memory of this, but is still sentenced to death for her murder. One morning, when the guard checks on Fred, he finds instead Pete(Balthazar Getty), with a nasty bruise on his head. No one can explain how Pete ended up in the cell, or where Fred went, and the film never fully explains it either. The clues are there, but the answer isn't.

Pete is released, because there's no real legal reason for him to be on death row, and he goes home. His parents and girlfriend make some cryptic statements about 'that night', but they won't speak about it, they only say that he was with a man they've never seen before. Pete works at a garage, where he's become the favorite of over the top crime boss Mr. Eddie. Mr Eddie's girlfriend Alice is also played by Patricia Arquette, and she and Pete begin a very dangerous and very passionate relationship. I'm going to stop my description there, because to go further will not really explain anything, and will ruin some of the bizarre happenings still to come. And really, if you haven't seen the film I haven't done it justice. It's like a fever dream version of Vertigo(the film has more than a few allusions to the Hitchcock classic).

The film is full of mysteries, and piles enigma on top of enigma. Is the man in white face(Robert Blake) that exudes such creepy menace with Fred at a party the same man who was seen with Pete the night he ended up in jail? Are Alice and Renee the same woman, or are they two separate women that both men see as one? Did Fred switch places with Pete, or did Fred become Pete? You can come up with any number of theories, but none of them will be completely satisfying. Some reviewers have stated the movie is going for style over substance by not clearly defining it's world, which I don't see at all. Lynch's films have repeatedly put the focus on the mystery, not the answer. His original plan for Twin Peaks was to never solve the Laura Palmer mystery, but instead focus the show gradually on the town's other residents. I think this is key, in that decoding Lost Highway isn't the point. The point is to get lost on the journey.

After watching the movie several times with several groups of people, I eventually happened upon a theory that made the entire movie make sense, in a loose, figurative sort of way. I began to believe that the entire film was Fred/Pete in a fugue state, along the lines of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge. The idea was that the night where Fred became Pete was actually the night Fred was executed, and that the entire next part of the film was him trying to escape into a fantasy life where he's young, passionate, and desired by women. That fits, mostly. There's a few glitches in there, most notably the actual end of the film, but it could all be explained away. And that stuck with me for a few years. And I actually began to enjoy the movie less when I thought I had figured it out. Luckily that didn't last.

I recently rewatched the film, as it had finally come out on an acceptable North American DVD(the previous Canadian disc was pan and scan), and I tried to ignore my old theory and watch it again with fresh eyes. And I loved it. I saw that the fugue state theory doesn't really hold up. For one it makes everything in the movie- all of the clues- meaningless. The characters who repeatedly pop up in key scenes are now suddenly merely coincidence, and all of the doom-infused foreshadowing really doesn't matter at all. Some cynics may think that's the joke, that Lynch was merely pranking his audience, but I think otherwise. David Lynch is so specific in every little thing he does(although making room for some happy mistakes, like the inclusion of Bob in Twin Peaks), from building many of the props himself, to set design, framing, delivery and dialogue, that I think it all really must add up to something. But I also think he's removed a few clues, or obscured them deliberately. Like I said, the point isn't to know, but to wonder.

David Lynch is a director I've always felt I understood emotionally more than I've understood him intellectually. I can't dissect his films with a clinical eye and speak about them completely critically, but I always feel like I'm on their wavelength. His movies speak to some part of me that I haven't yet fully discovered, but that still affects me. I may laugh, cry, or become absolutely terrified of his films, but I may not be able to pinpoint exactly why.

As a film, Lost Highway may have it's faults(though you'll have a hard time convincing me of that), but in my life it's grown to something more. It symbolises the turning point where I stopped passively consuming entertainment, and began to hunt down the hidden gems. David Lynch was actually the first director where I began to understand what a director really does. I began to seek out films by certain directors, and I began to notice their individual techniques. I began to study films, notice things like writer or director or even director of photography. I began to ask what it means, or maybe just what it means to me.

The Church of Cinema: A Preamble

I love movies, obviously, and I love my home entertainment center. I love DVD(and, slowly, I will come to love Blu-Ray), and I love popping a disc into the player in the wee hours before I go to bed at night. But above all, I love going out to the theatre. I don't do it as often as I once did, or as often as I'd like. Partly that's due to the consequences of having an 8-5 job, a child, bills, and a healthy ongoing relationship. But it's also partly due to the changing theatre experience. And yet, despite the fact that theatre chains are charging us more for less, and all major chains now play television commercials and military propaganda advertisements-sometimes under the guise of an exclusive 'short film'- I will continue to treasure the theatrical experience above the home theatre experience. There's just something to be said for surrounding yourself with strangers in a dark room while this fantasy plays out in larger than life scales, knowing that for those few brief hours you are connected with the people around you in your emotional responses.

Our local arthouse theatre, the Bear Tooth Theatre & Pub, which isn't quite an arthouse theatre but plays arthouse films more than any other movie house in the state, is a wonder. Great seating, tables or booths, a balcony, a restaurant on site with the best pizza in town, and a bar with locally brewed root beer, cream soda, or alcohol. All for 3 bucks a movie(they make their money back on expensive, but worth it, food). Heaven, right? Well, sometimes. Part of the problem, in fact, the main problem, lies in the audience. I love going to a movie and getting involved in the audience experience, but when you give people beer and pizza at a movie, they start to feel too much at home, and the Bear Tooth has the most vocal audiences in town. And not in a fun, Rocky Horror way, but in the way that they loudly talk to their friends, or forget to turn off their cell phones. This is something everyone has dealt with while out at the movies, and I for one have decided to not put up with it anymore. If you find yourself in a theatre, and your cellphone goes off, and you answer it, or if you have in depth conversations with your friends about what boys at school you think are cute, don't be surprised if I walk over and very politely ask you to 'shut the fuck up!' I do not tolerate people at the theatre who think they're at home. And so far this has not been a problem, most people are so shocked by a stranger saying anything to them about their bad habits that they apologize and spend the rest of the film in silence. I urge you to try it. You don't have to be mean, as I sometimes am, just quiet and insistent.

My other problem with the Bear Tooth is their increasing dependence on DVD. It used to be that all of their 'classic' films(every other Monday) were from old touring prints, complete with scratches and sometimes faulty audio. But now they have a DVD player, and use that as their primary projector when it comes to older movies. And they don't even have to be older films. Is there a foreign film currently touring the arthouse circuit? Well, if the Bear Tooth is playing it, it's likely the imported DVD version, which often has less than suitable subtitles, and has the added problem of occasionally freezing or shutting off.

I had an argument with a projectionist friend about this recently, saying that I preferred film prints, with all of their defects, over a DVD copy I can just watch at home. This is why I stayed home instead of venturing out to watch Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead, two of my favorite black and white horror films. That, and the drunken Tooth crowd is not always very friendly to B-movies. My argument was that I actually kinda like the scratches and missing frames. They add character to an old film that's been around the block a few times. Her rebuttal was that, as a projectionist, she hates to see any imperfections on screen. I think I won the argument when we saw The Shining on Halloween(at a different theatre), and it was an old print with plenty of glorious imperfections.

[At this point I need to acknowledge that I might be a bit unfair in my portrayal of the Bear Tooth. It's a wonderful establishment and I look forward to going there every chance I get. My disappointment comes from how great the place COULD be, in addition to how great it already is.]

Maybe I'm just being an elitist snob, unwilling to accept this newfangled digital revolution, but I can't help it. I'm always going to prefer seeing a movie on film stock, much the same way that old music fans can't let go of vinyl. And in fact, I think there's a reasonable explanation for this preference. Scratches in the film remind me of my childhood. They remind me of watching horror movies on TV in the days before I could handle them, when every cheesy rubber monster or skeleton on strings sent me under my covers and probably scarred me for life. Even now, as a jaded adult who complacently sits through some of the most horrible gore, a simple skipped frame or scratched negative gives me a whiff of childhood terror. It's why I enjoyed Grindhouse so much. Particular Planet Terror which got the feel of those old late night horror movies down just as well as the overall look. And that viewing of The Shining still had the power to scare me. Part of it was the scratches, and another part of it was the crowd. It was a small crowd, but everyone there was caught up in the same sweeping waves of terror.

And I remembered again why I can't use a bathroom with a closed shower curtain.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Pull List

Every week I buy a small stack of comics. It can range depending on each week, but I'd say it's an average of 6 or 7. It's also, primarily, the only reason I'm holding on to my job at the comic shop now that I am gainfully employed full time elsewhere. Comics are getting more expensive, and although their still a few bucks each, that starts to build up when you look at what I buy monthly. And yes, I am cutting back. Here's a small sampling of my most recent purchases. I bring these up because it was a pretty good couple of weeks, and I think these comics would be of interest to people who read my blog.

Stephen King's Dark Tower: The Long Road Home #4(Of 5)
Script: Peter David, Art: Jae Lee & Richard Isanove
As I wrote awhile back, I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Stephen King's Dark Tower series. On the one hand I find the early books to be long winded and exceedingly dull, full of aimless wheel spinning. On the other hand, I really dig the first novel, and I found the final 3 books to be exceptionally entertaining, despite a few embarrassing missteps(the weird, out of nowhere Harry Potter references were cringe inducing). The first comic series, Gunslinger Born, was pretty faithful adaptation of Wizard & Glass, the 4th book(the comics will be tackling the story chronologically, not by the release date of the books). The oddly distorted art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove, along with Peter David's writing, which can be hard to get into if you aren't used to the speech patterns of King's characters, gave the whole book the epic tone it deserved. Now we're into the second series, which picks up directly where Gunslinger Born left off, and is showing us a part of the story not really mentioned all that much in the book. It gives the writer a bit more freedom, and it's safe to say he's using every bit of it he can. I'll have to wait until the final issue hits next month to make any real judgment, but so far I'm not sure I like all the new changes. It was already established that this series is a reinterpretation, and not a strict retelling, but I can't quite divorce the story of this comic from the one in the books, and something in me keeps balking at most of the changes. I figure eventually I'll get over it, and nothing has happened yet that actually contradicts the book, so I guess it could go either way.

Giant Size Astonishing X-Men #1
Script: Joss Whedon Art: John Cassaday
So it's finally here, the final issue of Joss Whedon's incredible Astonishing X-Men run. The series was an immediate hit with fan boys, who quickly turned on it when the publishing schedule became... irregular to say the least. But shipping delays aside, the book has been consistently hilarious and emotional and epic, basically what you'd expect from a Joss Whedon project. It's saying something that Whedon has finally made me accept that Cyclops might have the makings of a true badass after all. The story line is supposedly in continuity, meaning that the events in this series have affected the overall Marvel universe, but it's also been entirely self contained, meaning that the Marvel universe hasn't affected this story at all. Bringing together plot threads that Grant Morrisson brought up in New X-Men, Whedon has mined some terrific storytelling opportunities that have been largely ignored by the rest of the Marvel universe. And here it all comes to an end. A bittersweet, entirely awesome end. I had chills. Warren Ellis is set to take over this title soon, and I love Ellis, but I honestly don't think I want to see another writer continuing this team's adventures.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8 #15
Script: Drew Goddard Art: Georges Jeanty
Speaking of Joss Whedon, things at his flagship property just keep getting better. Drew Goddard's arc, which garnered attention from the news media when Buffy had a lesbian tryst with another slayer, concludes quite spectacularly here. It's odd that my favorite moments in the series have mostly been by people other than Joss, when the exact opposite is true in the television series. While this issue gets a bit over the top in an enjoyable, but completely silly way with, say, the giant Mecha-Dawn in Tokyo, it pays off with Andrew's geekgasm as he watches from a rooftop. The ending to this story line is anything but neat and tidy, with some pretty doom infused foreshadowing, and some serious emotional content familiar to anyone who's seen the show(hint; when the characters are happy, bad stuff is about to happen). Any fan of the show should be picking this up.
P.S. Favorite moment of the issue; Willow's exchange with Buffy: And, just so you know, I never wanted to sleep with you either.

Trinity #1
Script: Kurt Busiek Art: Mark Bagley
(Backup story art by: Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens)
The first issue of DC's new weekly comic, following in the footsteps of the excellent 52 and the overall average Countdown. Kurt Busiek left Superman to write this, and at the time I was a bit depressed, since his Superman run has been one of my favorite reads over the last couple years, but now, reading this, some of my sadness has disappeared. The focus of the series is apparently going to be Batman, Superman & Wonder Woman, the holy trinity of DC comics, as they investigate the meaning behind some cosmically ominous dreams. This storyline didn't do much for me, and Mark Bagley was great on Ultimate Spider-man, but is less than stellar here. He seems particularly ill-suited to drawing Wonder Woman. But then came the backup story, which runs concurrently with the main story but from a villainous perspective. This was much more intriguing, with some creepy glimpses into the possible future of the DC universe; one, showing Green Arrow clashing with Ragman over who gets to guard Gotham City, seems to tie into the currently running Batman R.I.P. story that Grant Morrisson is writing. I'll be picking this up next week, and hopefully the quality of the first story will rise to meet the standard of the second story.

Final Crisis #1
Script: Grant Morrisson Art: J.G. Jones
Forget what you've heard about this being a confusing let down, it's all just over reactive backlash against the hype. I found this to be a pretty solid affair, although much less flashy and bombastic than most DC 'events'. Most DC comic books require a PHD in comic book continuity to fully appreciate them, and either I'm picking this stuff up through osmosis, or this comic book is toning that down a bit. I didn't have to open up Wikipedia once! Ok, but ONLY once. The story seems to be following some of the other DC books I haven't been reading, like Death of the New Gods, but it's grounded enough in the main stories that I had no trouble following along. Grant Morrisson loves 70s comic books, and he resurrects a couple villains here that haven't been seen since. As a primer it might help to read Justice League of America #21 or DC Special: Justice League of America #1, both released last month, one reintroducing the pivotal character of Libra, and the other reprinting his only previous appearance, from 1979. He's a cool villain, and the possibilities look to be just the kind of cosmic psychedelia that Morrisson loves so much.

Kick-Ass #3
Script: Mark Millar Art: John Romita Jr.
And here it is, the entire reason I chose to write about comics this post. Kick-Ass has been enjoyable from the start, with lots of sickening violence and humor, with a character that probably describes just about every kid(or man stuck in adolescence) that reads comics. Or, at least the vast majority of them. David is kinda a dork, but not a caricature. He isn't unpopular or despised, he has friends, he just doesn't fit in with the cool crowd. It's a much more honest portrayal of teenage life than most comics even attempt. Plus there's lots of violence. Did I mention that? In his free time, David reads comics, and has become obsessed with putting on a homemade costume, grabbing a couple of bats, and prowling the streets looking for criminals to beat up. Usually this goes wrong, and he gets beaten up a LOT, but he keeps trying. He becomes an instant sensation when someone puts a video of him protecting someone from gang members on youtube, and suddenly he's adored by millions. He starts a myspace page that people with problems can use to contact him, as we see in this issue. Things go typically awry and David seems to be about to get his ass kicked again, until someone very unexpected arrives to save the day, and adds another dimension to the idea of dressing up in tights and beating up evildoers. My pulse quickened reading this book, and I have made it my mission to annoy everyone into reading this book. So go do it!