Best of the Decade Derby: David Lynch is okay, but he's no Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some historical context:

Tuesday, February 11, 2003, 3:30 PM - Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, NY

3:30 PM can't be right, but that's what's listed on the schedule I have, so I must have taken a late lunch from my day job to watch this.   I wonder, did I even come back to the office?   Did I leave my computer on to feign my presence in the office?   What I remember is watching two Thai women and the Burmese man they are illegally harboring marking time through several mundane errands, appointments and obligations.   Yes, I escaped from white collar banality to watch third world banality.   45 minutes of this pass before me.   And finally, with all obligations fulfilled and provisions set, they finally get in their car and embark on a getaway to the Thai equivalent of the Catskills, at which point the opening credits roll to a blast of pop music, and I cried out "Yes!"   How many times do you get that moment where everything comes together, not just the meaning of the movie but its relevance to your life?   For me, it was this irreconcilable duality between my daily demands and the idyllic existence I was trying to formulate -- and have been for the last 5 years -- as a wage slave moonlighting as a career cinephile.   To live as an average young person is to live in a world that has made us numbly compliant to our own exploitation at the service of global capitalism, whether we be illegal migrant day laborers or overqualified computer drones.

What is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's prescription for our ailment?   A day in the country, an eternal balm.   Sounds like the kind of mystical opiate that Karl Marx railed against, and yet Weerasethakul depicts it in such a natural, inventive way, that our alibis for 21st century creative fatigue melt away.   He seems to say that all it takes is to observe nature and draw strength from its infinite mystery -- though he acknowledges that such transcendence is fleeting, and that the disappointments of the world are waiting at a moment's distance, an everyday horror into which we must dive headlong.

2006 New York Film Festival:

What David Lynch promises in Inland Empire, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century delivers. Again, it is a film that defies easy summarisation; basically it is another A.W. diptych, the two halves comparing life and love in a rural and urban hospital. The film manages to be both inscrutable and hypnotic, enigmatic yet ravishingly beautiful in its handling of visuals, rhythms and human interactions. It manages to occupy a number of contradictions at once: terrifying in its environmental creepiness yet funny in the shaggy, laid back behaviour of his characters, schematic yet spontaneous, natural and realistic yet self-conscious as an act of filmmaking, concerned about the conflicts between modernisation and the environment and the physical and spiritual well-being of the people around him, and yet the film is never pushy or preachy, just always watching and listening. His camera almost always seems to place itself in a non-assuming position, whether in close up or long shot – quite a few times his characters’ backs are turned away or they’re talking off-screen. He’s making the rules up as he goes, just going with what feels right, and having a blast doing it. I’ve rarely encountered a film with a filmmaker so innately in tune with his intuition.

Interestingly, both films share a similar ending, a kind of musical number, but I think the comparative effects are totally different. Lynch is closed, looking inward into his own reservoir of ideas, whereas Jo takes inspiration from the activity bustling in the world around him.

I don't think I set out, Armond White-like, to make Apichatpong Weerasethakul the corrective to David Lynch; it's just happened that way through seeing their most recent films in contradistinction at the New York Film Festival, and this week seeing Blissfully Yours following Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire (I still need to track down a copy of Syndromes and a Century; I'm not as eager to rewatch Tropical Malady or Mysterious Object at Noon, which are fine films but in my mind aren't "best of 2000s" caliber). As documented in this three party play-by-play viewing of Inland Empire, there are certainly a number of smart things to say about what Lynch may be up to in that film. The thing is, I found a lot of those smart things going on in rewatching Blissfully Yours, and presented in a way that feels more genuine, more organic, more beautiful, more true. An indulgence in non-narrative or anti-narrative. The attempts of people to escape from the dehumanizing industries of consumerist capitalism, specifically the entertainment industry (in Lynch it's the cruel politics of Hollywood film production; here it's factory work, with a girl painting the eyes on an endless array of Bugs Bunny toys).

There's also a good deal of game-playing in both films, not just by the directors but by the characters. Laura Dern gets to play several characters and part of the pleasure of her performance is in watching her feel her way through each one, an experience that must have been adventurous and torturous for her in alternating measures. Similarly, one thing that struck me rewatching Blissfully Yours is how much putting on and pretending there is among the main characters: in the first scene, they lie to the doctor in order for her to treat an illegal immigrant; later, we see them lying to get off work to pave the way for their jungle romp; by the end, we get an amazing sense of how this outing amounted to these three characters convening to act out their individual fantasies, before giving way to a bittersweet, dissolute flow of life's next chapter. I'll have to carry this insight the next time I go on a picnic, group excursion or even a party; thanks to this movie I'll see my social gatherings as collective productions of individual intentions commingling together. This isn't a cynical observation, just one that makes for a new sense of awareness to how one lives their life. (And not to be an asshole, but I'm not sure what Lynch has to offer in that department).

Both directors also use ambient sound to memorable effect, except that here again I state a strong preference: whereas Lynch uses a wall of white noise and synth chords to generate three hours of menace, Weerasethakul uses the teeming chorus of cicadas and frogs to convey an immersion in nature that's both meditative and hedonistic, tranquil and sensual.  Maybe it can be chalked up to what kind of film I prefer, but there it is.

When I think about both artists, I also think about that maxim someone once said about art being "whatever you can get away with." What amazes me about Blissfully Yours is just how little happens in terms of plot and incident.  It takes a good while to see how the initial, somewhat dissheveled sequence of scenes adds up to the brilliant catharsis that happens at the midway point - a lot of it is in adjusting to the. But every moment gets milked for all its worth, and every moment builds together into a strange paradox: a film that is both linear and alinear, that threatens to dissolve in the vagaries of a moment, then solidifies in the lucidness of another; that expands and contracts, that breathes.  I suppose the Lynch apologists could say the same for their film in their own way.  To each his own.

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Inland Empire

Starring me, Ryland Walker Knight, Daniel Kasman and a six pack of Beck's. Some context: Until today I've only seen Inland Empire once, back at the 2006 New York Film Festival - and my review was decidedly mixed. Not a few of my friends consider it one of the landmark films of the decade, and so a few of us got together to see if seeing it with them could persuade me. The result: I do have a greater appreciation for the film, because it does have some genuinely stunning moments and is trying to do things that no other American film to my knowledge is attempting. It may also be considered the first major work of cinema in the era of YouTube. I wonder if this film would be just as affecting if each scene were a stand alone clip on a website that allowed you to play them in any order, endlessly.

I like it more now than I do Mulholland Dr., which I also recently rewatched (my third time, first since its theatrical run) and found is like a sexier, more attractive warm-up act to Inland Empire, strung with the same liabilities of broad caricature and loose assocation, almost like skit comedy.

Here's the play by play, with Ryland's and Danny's comments color-coded:

0:01 - Ambient groan and white noise. Opening images - a projection of light (searchlight, film projector?) and the needle of a phonograph. Recordings of light and sound. As with Mulholland Dr. I feel Lynch can get away with anything so long as he has the ominous aural wallpaper going in the back. He could have footage of a bunny farm and make it come off as creepy. Speaking of which...

0:05 - Rabbits - a parody of domestic banality? The safe room of conventionality turned into a nightmare rabbit cage?

This does look better on DVD than it did in a theater. It probably looks even better on an iPhone.

0:08 - Lynch's second foray into filming in a foreign language, expanding on what he did in Mulholland.

0:11 - To what extent is this film a comedy, and what is he trying to do with the comic - the rabbit sitcom (putting menace into a comic setup), the awkward uncomfortable rhythms of the dialogue between the Polish lady and Laura Dern (putting comedy into a menacing setup).

Ryland: "I find this movie really funny. His company's name is Absurda, which invokes both comedy and horror."

0:13 - Discussion about the film - the film that we are about to watch? - between Polish lady and Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Heavy foreshadowing.

0:14 - Apocryphal story - "an old tale" about a little boy who went out to play followed by Evil. Leering, garish close-up, further uglified by DV imaging. David Lynch without the makeup mask of celluloid.

0:17 - "Actions do have consequences, and yet we do have the magic." "If it was tomorrow you would be sitting over there." The disorientation of language.

0:22 - Marilyn Levens' talk show - "Where Stars Make Dreams and Dreams Make Stars" - jackal industry feeding on manufactured intrigue of its own making. Hollywood = eating your own shit.

0:25 - Script reading - rehearsal.  A fiction of a documentary reading, practicing the performance of emotions. "Are you crying?" "Yeah?" But she's not. Continuing the interest in rehearsal and performance from Mulholland Dr.

0:32 - Disclosure that the feature film in production, High on Blue Tomorrow, is a remake of an unfinished Polish film, 4-7. Layers of fiction continue to accumulate.

After 30 minutes, what do we have?

Ryland: "I don't think it's an informational kind of film. I don't think it's part of his vocabulary. That might be the trouble behind understanding the "genre" of this film. Simply avant-garde play of light, affectations and moods. I think the first time I saw this, by this point I was thinking that it was explicitly about interpretation. And it's setting up all these signs for you to interpret in any number of ways. But it is going to provide a network of significance, and there are several things that will keep popping up for you to pay attention to how and when. There's an intuitive kind of architecture to the film. A lot of it is just the face - dreams, and faces. It's all about cinema as a dream, dreams as cinema. It's not even a syllogism, it's all a bunch of links. It's really easy to write it off as an art school wank job: dumb rabbit suits and stuff, making fun of sitcoms but not really. And projections - that's the first image, the projector coming on. And how does an image project itself and how do you project onto it.  "You look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you."  Merleau-Ponty's variation: "The image palpates you as much as you palpate the image" - there's an actual physical ecounter between you and what you see, your eyes literally touch what you see. It's manifest in all the close-ups of the face, they're pure expressions and confrontations that you are forced to read.

Kevin: "I admit I find those close-ups bothersome, garish, tacky. But that could be the point; Lynch isn't relying on conventional forms of aesthetic beauty to earn the appreciation of the viewer; quite the opposite. He's confronting expectations of forms in order to challenge them.

Ryland: "Definitely. Keith Uhlich likes to bring up that one of the first thing Lynch shot with this camera was something called "A Room to Dream" - messiness and smudginess gives you a lot of space to project onto it, what you want to see as much as what you do see. And he wants to activate that kind of encounter. It's a different tactic than something like the pure stimulus of something like Paul Greengrass, or the duration of Tarkovsky."

-----

0:36 - watching the scene with two new characters, police interrogator and woman confessing to intentions of murder with a screwdriver lodged in her abdomen. Works as a stand alone short - makes me wonder how this film would work as a website hypertext where scenes could be clicked on individually and you could watch them in any sequence. That may very well be what this film is truly working towards; one thinks if Lynch wanted to go all out he could leave behind any trace of linear narrative.

Freddy: "There's a vast network; an ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits." An incredibly disjunctive monologue, bits from three conversational threads spliced into one.

0:42 - music is less pronounced than in previous films. No Angelo Badalamenti this time, instead very subtle and gradual chord progressions with little or no melody. There's no music credit other than a music consultant. Ryland thinks Lynch may have composed some of it himself.

0:44 - Ryland laughing at the comic bit between director Jeremy Irons and "Bucky Jay" the lighting tech (voice played by Lynch).

0:47 - We're entering the shooting of scenes. Don't find the scene being shot in the film within the film terribly interesting (some parlor conversation between would be adulterers) - but there's some intrigue between the actors afterwards that's interesting because there's been plenty of advance warning that Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) is a cad, and true to form he plays the role - Nikki Grace replies "I'm sure you know a cute little Italian restaurant tucked away" - but she can't help but go along, seemingly unable or unwilling to change the script - in a film that is trying to fuck that up thoroughly.

0:55 - Brilliant move - adultery between the film's characters and the actors have been crossed up. Subsequent love-making scene is unclear which layer of fiction is being represented until Dern brings up a flashback, but they're talking in Southern accents as if they were their characters.

1:00 - Sign on door "Axxon - N" - recalling voiceover in the beginning which described "Axxon - N" as the longest running radio show in Polish history.

1:02 - we are now through the looking glass - Nikki goes through the Axxon N door and walks into the rehearsal scene from half an hour earlier.  She gets chased by Devon Berk into the orange interior of a house which may be a set -she calls out after Billy (the character Devon plays in the movie).

1:05 - walking through a house (of fiction?) - towards a bedroom with a man turning off a light. Rhythmic palpitating beats in the soundtrack.

1:09 - now we're in a light and shadow play, flashlights in the dark, Laura Dern surrounded by whores (or the women that Justin Theroux's character has already slept with?).  This may be the first truly amazing moment of the film.

1:12 - looping back to the beginning of the movie (black and white, girl speaking in Polish) layers of film's established realities collapsing upon each other.

1:15 - Next day? Breakfast, an unwinding clock and a hole burned through fabric and through another layer of story... More Polish. Old scratchy recording of audio matched to color footage - of what? Performance, historical incident? Theater?

1:20 - Reprise of the rabbits - and now dark spaces, setting the table for Laura Dern's centerpiece monologue. "A lot of guys change. They don't change but they reveal. They reveal what they really are. It's an old story."

1:27 - A harem of fears - women talking both cheaply and comfortably about their bodies, their daily business of sex - confronting Laura Dern with everything she's afraid that's cheap about who she is and what she desires (a-list actress attracted to playboy lover = self-debasement) "The Locomotion" - running train, lining up for sex

1:31 - domestic scene with unidentified man (husband from before but looking more low class) expressing dismay at Dern's pregnancy

1:32 - Rabbits again - a marker of conventionality? domestic setting, sitcom culture - from which Laura Dern's character is oriented on the outside - trying to call in ("Billy"?)

1:35 - alternating again with Laura Dern's unnamed trailer trash girl, continuing her epic monologue - heroic, strong, angry, trashy but dignified. The film's center of gravity in terms of humanism and true narrative (realer than the meta-movie layering). But again, it's a performance and as much of a fiction as everything else. And there's a look in Dern's eye like she's taking the piss (not unlike those "Unforgivable" videos on YouTube: storytelling that's out to push buttons)

1:39 - Ryland: "This Polish girl's line is a direct quote from an Erich von Stroheim movie (Queen Kelly?) that's being projected in Sunset Blvd, with those same lines showing up. It's a quote from a movie within a movie from another movie within a movie."

1:50 - We're back in the film within a film - though dramatically not feeling much at stake here. Susan Blue is at Billy's house, exposes the affair in front of Billy's wife. All the crazy effects (vertigo rack focus, a guy in a car talking Evil Dead gibberish) feel kind of laid on thickly.

1:56 - cool shot of Dern in the spotlight culminating in what Ryland calls "one of the most terrifying facial closeups in cinema history" - for me, something is flailing, either the film (overreaching for effects) or me in my ability to lock into what's going on.

2:00:15 - very cool.

2:02 - I think this whole Polish business is just not really working for me - not finding the scenario compelling in its own right, let alone as something that informs what's going on at the other layers of story. There's a neat graphic match dissolve from the Polish thugs to the rabbits - point being?

2:04 - I'm wondering if part of my problem is that I'm not as invested in certain genres being referred to by this film (crime, mystery, horror) in such a way that I'm impressed by how it's supposedly tearing them apart.

2:06 - Apparently Lynch has been watching Peter Tscherkassky.

2:09 - Gotta give Laura Dern credit for uglifying herself to the max on this one.

2:11 - Lynch's sociological comparison of street prostitutes in early 20th century Poland and early 21st century Los Angeles: more garish close-ups and leering looks between laughing veteran whores at the hapless neophyte.

2:15 - Now the trailer trash husband is speaking Polish - tease.

2:17 - Gorgeous shot of Dern, strands of blonde hair lit aflame in the oversaturated light.

2:23 - "Color palettes in his earlier films are like Edward Hopper paintings. But this is so ragged, it's robbed of beauty."

2:27 - Kasman is having too much fun listening to this Japanese chick talk about her friend in Pomona. "I can totally write an article about how this scene is new territory for Lynch, like a new humanism." His favorite scene in the movie, next to the end credits.

2:30 - Dern is giving a career performance in this movie, but I feel like in this death scene Dern is being upstaged by the supporting cast here. Weird blend of camp artifice and documentary authenticity. "No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love."

Daniel: "I feel like one of the weakest aspects of this film is the film within a film.  Also disappointed that Jeremy Irons doesn't get more to do."

Ryland: "I love how space dictates time in this film."

2:36 - Ryland channeling Slavoj Zizek: "The image sees you!"

2:38 - Infinite convergence.

Daniel: "This film is taking discrete, unconnected things and finding intuitive connections between them."

Daniel: "I remember a quote by Naruse late in his career when he said that he wanted to make a movie with no sets or other cast, just Hideko Takamine against a blank screen. And I think that's what Lynch is after here."

Ryland: "It isn't even about feeling. It's about inhabiting a space."

2:41 - I'm feeling this movie a lot more now since the "death scene" - these silent sequences with Laura Dern walking through a movie approach pure abstraction. But I could do without the horror movie music - it burdens the sequence with too much genre baggage.

2:44 - Daniel: "Lynch and bad Photoshop were made for each other."

2:48 - Layers of spectatorship - the two protagonists (Dern and Polish chick) - a big confrontation between two characters who have parallel stories but know nothing about each other. And lesbian kissing. Makes sense in a somewhat intuitive level though emotionally effecting in only an abstract programmatic way.

Daniel: "I think digital is what Lynch has been working towards his whole career. Because all this speckled pixilation. It can't accurately represent everything that's in front of the camera, and that's all that's he's about. So that the experience of watching the film is as unstable as the story itself."

Daniel: "Argento and Lynch borrow something from Hitchcock: ambiguous point of view - you're never sure of what the perspective of the film is being focalized through."