Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Filth: Issues 1 and 2

In 1994, ten years ago, Grant Morrison began the comic book series The Invisibles, which concluded in 2000. I've been over that series countless times, and it gave me hundreds of ideas to think about. Incredibly layered, with great characters, dazzling concepts, and spectacular action, it's my favorite story of all time, any medium. Well, in June 2002, he began his most important series since The Invisibles, something that would continue his "sigil trilogy," as well as further explore the cosmology created in The Invisibles. I read the series as it came out in monthlies, and then did a reread last year, shortly after the last issue came out. But, it's been a year since I touched the book, and after picking up the trade, I felt it was time to return to the world of The Filth. So far, I've read the first two issues, but already it's a series awash in interesting concepts.

The Filth is a deconstruction of the fantasy world of The Invisibles. Over the course of Volume I, Morrison realized that what was happening to King Mob in the book was happening to himself in real life. So, starting with Volume II, he made King Mob into an even cooler assassin, gave him a girlfriend, and better clothes. Morrison had turned King Mob into a fantasy figure of what he could be. In the first pages of The Filth, Morrison completely deconstructs this figure, and presents us with an alternate version of the archetypal Morrison bald hero. Greg Feely is stuck in a depressingly real world. When we first see him, he's being laughed at by kids as he buys porn, spends the night home alone, except for his cat, then heckled by his boss at work. Feely is essentially cutting the cool out of King Mob, and placing him into this pathetic world. During 'Black Science II,' King Mob is shown an image of his worst nightmare himself overweight, sitting on a couch, watching TV, and that's exactly who Greg Feely is.

However, Morrison doesn't make Feely an entirely unsympathetic character. He retains a part of King Mob's more sensitive side. When Mob confronts the magic mirror in 'Black Science I,' all his worst memories come rushing back to him: "When Jacqui left me, when my cat died." All that Feely has is his cat, Tony. It is that emotional connection that keeps him going through all the crazy, bad stuff that happens later in the book. Tony is Greg's anchor to reality.

One of the most important things about The Filth is the concept that we cannot eradicate darkness, instead we have to confront and try to use it for our advantage. This is explicitly represented in the story of Soon Li. "She wondered if intead of trying to kill diseases we could befriend them. She dreamed that personal I-Life helpers could eliminate disease and repair damaged tissue. Here are I-Life microbots pacifying a throat cancer cell and persuading it to evolve into a non-malignant helper T-Cell." This one page encompasses the most important theme of The Invisibles, the idea that we have to befriend people until they beg for mercy, it's love as a weapon.

We all have to be like I-Life, and confront the darkness. This is why the book has such an aura of nastiness. Right from the title, you can tell this isn't a pretty book, it doesn't have the pop sheen of most of Morrison's work. Instead, it's got a very nasty, organic feel, with a constant focus on bodily fluids and nasty sex. Greg's porn obsession, the porn that is delivered to Greg's apartment, which features "White men with black dicks...fucking your wife." That about sums up the flavor of the series, it's concerned with nastiness that exists beneath humanity. The garbage filled waters the dolphins swim through, the bizarre orgy Simon has over the bonsai planet, necro-pornography and much more to come. The Hand works out of the crack, and that describes both the fact that the stuff they deal with has fallen through the cracks of society, and the fact that they are basically dealing with the shit of the world.

Ok, so it's a nasty world, one Greg discovers when he confronts Miami in his shower, naked except for a combover, a pretty nasty image, that recalls Aphex Twin's Windowlicker video, with its juxtaposition of the attractive and the repulsive. After meeting Miami, a colored liquid leaks out of Greg's nose, something we eventually realize is the liquid formula for Greg Feely. Miami is trying to de-Greg Greg and return him to his previous state, as Hand superagent Ned Slade, except Greg sticks, and is clearly reluctant about being Ned. After being used in issue two, he quits, an indication that perhaps the parapersonality Greg Feely is the real one. Except, that Greg is being replaced by a double who is exactly like him. Ned, formerly Greg, is forced to look at a new Greg getting ready to take over his life, and with him, a new Tony. Ned threatens the new Greg, and saves Tony as a result. To him, the feelings he feels for Tony are real, and are unique to this Tony, they could not be replicated with a double.

The first issue ends with the appearance of Sharon Jones, someone whose body has been taken over by Simon, "the world's richest and most perverted man." She serves as a camera for Simon, and is completely under his control. At one point do we cease to be ourselves? The body of Sharon is gone, and she's been replaced by the mind of Simon, so she she more Sharon or Simon?

One of the best pages of the entire series is in issue two, where Ned stares out into the murky waters and ponders his existence. "This has to be Hell or some Tibetan Bardo experience. And I keep thing...if I was going through some sort of weird after-life purgatory, would I know it?" This ties into David Lynch's movies Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, which explore those very questions. There's a really interesting series of panels where we see Greg in heat vision, x-ray vision and negative vision. Which one is the real Greg? The ending exchange is brilliant. Miami asks Greg, "Everybody needs you to be normal...can't you just act it?" To which Greg responds "Act? Act? What's my fucking motivation?" Is Greg now playing the role of Ned, or is Ned still stuck in having to play the role of Greg, so that being Ned becomes a role? This ties in with The Invisibles idea that you can control reality through action, if Greg starts acting like Ned is supposed to, does he become Ned?

The I-Life tie in with many of the themes later in the series. One of Morrison's favorite concepts is "as above, so below," and he is constantly playing with the difference between individuality and collective thought. In interviews, Morrison has discussed the idea that just as I am not just a bunch of cells, when the cells work together, they become an entity known as "Patrick Meaney." The cells alone could not do what I do, but together they become something more. Morrison presented the idea that each person is like one of the individual cells in the body, and that when we join together, into the supercontext, we can become some kind of new entity. He feels that humanity is now in its larval state, and will eventually leave a cocoon and become a completely new entity, the journey from caterpillar to butterfly. The I-Life are what it would be if each of our individual cells has consciousness. The humans try to use them for assassination missions, but that doesn't work. Instead, they work for their own survival, as when they consume their founder Dr. Soon. With the creation the bonzai planet, the I-Life have their own world, just like the Earth. As above, so below.

What the I-Life creatures do to the Hand investigators sent in to regulate them is idiotize them, make them into "retarded children." They have taken away the functions of higher consciousness, so these people are now just a collection of cells, rather than the higher thought functions. Later, the I-Life take over Sharon Jones, and turn her into the bio-ship Sharon Jones. This is a literalization of the idea that we are just a carrier for a bunch of cells. The I-Life use Sharon Jones as a vehicle to travel around in. In some ways, this is what all humans are, just a vessel for cells to travel in.

The issue ends with Ned confronting Spartacus Hughes. Ned beats him because Spartacus was expecting a better foe, the "real" Ned Slade as opposed to someone who is just acting like Ned Slade. When Spartacus Hughes dies, he says "Anyone can be Spartacus Hughes," which is explained later when Spartacus turns up in a different body. Spartacus is just a parapersonality, a role to play, much like Ned Slade is.

As he is dying Spartacus sees an entire civilization of I-Life in front of him, an image that parallels what Greg sees in the puddle of milk towards the end of the book.

So, Greg confronts LePen, and says that he wants to know what he was before he was Ned, to which LePen responds "what was your face before you were born?" The real person is irrelevant, all that matters is the role you've been programmed to play. That's why Ned choosing to quit represents such a rupture to status: q.

So, that's the first two issues. Lots of interesting concepts, and even more to come.

Related Posts
The Filth: Issue 3 (12/20/2004)
Seaguy (4/9/2005)
We3 (6/22/2005)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Twin Peaks and Buffy

This was an essay I did for the final for my TV class. Check it out, it doesn't go too far in depth, but it's got some good stuff.

For most of television’s history, the television drama was an exclusively male dominated form, featuring male protagonists in male-oriented genres, like action or cop series. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, new shows began to combine traits of existing drama series, with those of a traditionally female oriented genre, the soap opera, traits like serialization and a strong focus on the emotional lives of characters. Both Twin Peaks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer combine a traditionally male-oriented genre, the action or cop series, with heavy use of soap opera elements. In meshing the two genres, the series embrace a new type of storytelling that has more in common with art cinema or a novel than with a traditional TV series.
Twin Peaks was a fusion of two traditional television genres, the male oriented cop drama and the soap opera. The show fully embraces genre conventions of each. The main character, Dale Cooper, is an FBI agent, who, over the course of the series works with a local sheriff’s department to solve the murder of Laura Palmer. While the serialization of the investigation is unusual, the setup is classic television. Sheriff Truman and the rustic Twin Peaks police department bring to mind The Andy Griffith Show. Cooper’s adventures in investigating the murder would be at home on traditional cop shows. He questions all the people who knew Laura, finding out new information from each person. He goes undercover in the first season finale, and during a stakeout succeeds in capturing a prime suspect in the murder. The investigative techniques used by the characters are typical of television cop series, but the serialization of the investigation makes it unique.
However, the show has another dimension that is pure soap opera. The series’ focus on many different characters within a single town recalls day time soap operas like Days of Our Lives. The writers are unapologetic about their adoption of soap opera conventions, as shown by the show within a show, Invitation to Love. The introduction of Laura’s identical cousin, Maddie, is both a stereotypical soap opera plot, and recalls an early female-oriented program, The Pattie Duke Show. Also, the show’s intensely serial nature is directly descended from soap opera. Every episode is continuous, and plot threads routinely stretch on for ten or twelve episodes. So, the series uses a soap opera structure as the backdrop for a serious police investigation, with the characters’ personal lives and conflicts viewed through the lens of a cop show. In this way, the creators are able to have a show with the gravity of a cop drama, but the continuing emotional development of a soap opera.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer also fuses two traditional genres together. On one level, it’s an action show, about a girl fighting vampires, but on another level it’s a relationship drama, that frequently strays into soap opera. What Buffy does is use the action conflicts to physically represent the emotional conflict of the characters. This is first done successfully in the second season when, after sleeping with Buffy, Angel loses his soul and becomes Angelus. In the following episode, “Innocence,” Buffy and Angel fight, and through their fighting, Buffy attempts to work out her emotional issues with regards to the new Angel. So, while the fight is a necessary element of an action show, it also serves a soap opera element, a physical representation of the characters’ emotional problems.
Another scene that uses fighting as a way of working out emotional issues is Buffy and Spike’s fight in “Smashed.” For an entire season, Spike had been in love with Buffy, but she had resisted him. In “Smashed,” he finds out he can hurt her, and they fight each other, however, as they hit each other they gradually begin to kiss, and eventually have sex, the implicit message being that for Buffy and Spike, sex and violence are the same urge. The scene represents the way the show turns violence into an act of communication between people. Because Buffy is the slayer, and so many of the people she deals with are superpowered, they engage each other through physical violence rather than traditional discussion. Buffy and Spike relate purely on the level of violence, something she makes explicit when she says, “Well, I do beat him up a lot. For Spike that's like third base.” By basing Buffy and Spike’s relationship on physical conflict, the writers are able to incorporate the action elements into the soap opera plots.
Because Buffy is an action show, it has to have a fight scene in each show. But as the show goes on, the fight scene moves to the periphery, and the soap opera elements become more prominent, a trend that culminates in the sixth season. While most seasons are driven by a fight against “the big bad,” such as fallen God, Glory, the sixth season is driven purely by the personal problems of the characters. In addition to this, it is the most serialized season, a heavily soap operatic element. The main villains of the season are a trio of geeky people Buffy went to high school with, who have just as many personal problems as the heroes. All the plot developments revolve around traumas within the group. Buffy, who had been resurrected earlier in the year, has to deal with the fact that she was pulled out of heaven, and now “lives in hell” as a result. Xander and Anya deal with anxiety over their upcoming marriage, and eventually with the consequences of their breakup, a storyline reminiscent of soap opera. Willow struggles with her breakup with Tara, and her subsequent “addiction” to magic, an arc that culminates when she turns evil and attempts to destroy the world at the end of the season.
The Willow plot in season six takes a soap opera convention, the addiction plot, and plays it out on a grander scale. Starting with season two, Willow had used magic, but in the beginning of season six, Tara breaks up with her, due to overuse of magic. This sets up the episodes “Smashed” and “Wrecked,” where she bottoms out after a binge that leads to Dawn getting hurt. She is “clean” for a while, and reunites with Tara, but Tara gets shot by Warren, which sends Willow over the edge. She uses magic to rip the skin off of Warren and kill him, and then proceeds to attack her friends. Eventually, she decides that the pain is too much, and tries to end the world, only to be saved by Xander, her closest friend.
By comparing the end of the Willow arc to a similar story on Six Feet Under, we can see how Buffy takes soap opera conventions and plays them out using the tropes of an action show. Six Feet Under uses soap opera conventions, without filtering them through an action show lens. In Six Feet Under, after Nate’s wife goes missing, presumed dead, he goes on a drinking binge, allows himself to be beaten up, and contemplates suicide, only to be stopped by his ex, Brenda. These episodes feature the exact same emotional beats as Buffy, but show how it would be done if Buffy did not have the supernatural and action elements as a part of its premise. Nate’s contemplation of suicide and Willow’s attempt to end the world are the same desire, filtered through each show’s specific lens. In the end, both characters find comfort with an ex-lover, who helps them through the pain they are feeling. Buffy uses many soap opera conventions, notably extreme serialization of character conflicts, but filters them through an action show lens, creating a hybrid of traditionally male and traditionally female oriented form.
The dream sequence is a trademark of art cinema, notable for valuing visual expressionism over narrative clarity, something that television is not known for. However, both series feature episodes set almost entirely in subjective dream worlds, episodes that represent the series transcending their genres, and creating a new kind of television. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this episode is “Restless.” The fourth season finale, it breaks with the action show tenet that the season finale should feature the culmination of an action plot, such as in the third season finale, “Graduation Day II,” when Buffy and an army of students fight a massive snake demon who was formerly Sunnydale’s mayor. The action climax is in the previous episode, and the season finale is concerned with the characters. “Restless” features four separate dreams, one for each of the series’ main characters. While the dreams are loosely connected, and there is narrative build throughout the episode, the primary focus is on exploring the mental state of each character through a variety of filmic techniques used to represent the world of dreams.
Whereas the traditional TV dream sequence is either designed to service a specific plot point, or to be a source of comedy, these dreams are designed to replicate the feeling of actual dreams, with a variety of random elements, ignorance for narrative rules, and no clear narrative drive. The episode seems to be far removed from soap opera tradition, with its lack of narrative development in the episode; however, it actually takes the serialization of the soap opera to the extreme. Rather than just having to be aware of the ongoing plots, we have to know the character’s mindsets dating back to the first season to understand what is happening. In Willow’s dream, we see her in the clothes she wore in the first episode of the series, and dialogue from that episode is repeated. A dedicated viewer will realize that the dream is discussing her fear that she is still the geeky character of the first season, a fear that is implicit in her actions throughout the series, but most explicitly represented here. This sort of continuity demands an attention to subtext that is not generally demanded by the soap opera. Restless serves as a coda for four years of the show, and brings together many of the character subtexts that had been developing over the series’ run. This episode is not an exception in demanding the viewer be familiar with intricate details of the characters’ personal lives, and that tendency is one element that shows how the series takes traditional soap opera characteristics to the extreme.
The episode also upends the demands of the action genre. The first three dreams feature some violence, but not the sort of action that is demanded by the genre. In Buffy’s dream, the obligatory action sequence finally appears, but it is shot from great distance, in slow motion and without sound, thus rendering the action sequence in the mode of art cinema, rather than in the traditional visual language of the show. After fighting for a while, Buffy tells the first slayer, her opponent, that she has had enough and is going to wake up now, thus denying the audience of an action payoff for the episode. Because the series is so intensely character based, the inclusion of the action sequence seems unnecessary, and despite the series’ firm presence in the action genre, this episode in particular has transcended the need for a traditional action sequence. This episode, with its ignorance of narrative rules, and reliance on subtext and visual metaphor seems to be a break from television tradition, but it does have one notable forbearer, an episode that the red curtains in Willow’s dream cannot help but recall, the final episode of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks’ last episode is set almost entirely in the world of the red room, a mentally subjective realm that may be part of a larger dimension known as the black lodge. The episode represents a radical reinterpretation of the type of narrative fulfillment one would expect from a cop show or a soap opera.
The episode begins with Cooper going in to the black lodge, to save his girlfriend, Annie, who has been kidnapped by Windom Earle. This represents a perfect fusion of the cop show elements with the soap elements. Cooper had been working on the Earle case for many episodes, and here at the finale, it dovetailed into his personal story. However, rather than providing an obvious sort of narrative resolution, David Lynch brings together all the symbolic elements he had been developing over the course of the series to create a surreal, mostly silent journey through the black lodge, that resolves the narrative in a completely unexpected way.
Much like “Restless,” understanding this episode requires complete knowledge of the series to date, in a way that goes beyond the typical soap opera. Cooper winds up in the same space as his dream from the second episode, and Laura says, “See you in twenty-five years,” which requires the viewer to realize, based on Cooper’s appearance in it, that the original red room sequence took place twenty-five years into the future. Leland Palmer reappears, as well as Maddie Ferguson, characters who had not been seen for fifteen episodes. This episode resolves a lot of the issues surrounding the series, but in an implicit way. To understand what occurs in this episode, the viewer needs to look back on previous episodes, and the movie based on the series, to piece together the cosmology that Lynch was creating. Along the way, many facts are left deliberately ambiguous, and the end of the series is extremely open, both elements characteristic of art cinema.
This episode completely subverts the tenets of the action genre. Rather than giving the audience a payoff in which Cooper battles Earle, Lynch plays everything out symbolically. Cooper confronts Earle, only to watch Earle have his soul sucked from his body by malignant entity Bob. Cooper offers his soul to save Annie, and rather than this sacrifice being enough to save her, it leads to the real Cooper being replaced by a doppelganger, who runs through the lodge, and ultimately escapes into the real world.
What Lynch has done in this episode is take a plot line typical of the work place drama, and twist it. On shows like ER and NYPD Blue, a character is frequently killed or written off after choosing a personal life over a work life. That is exactly what Cooper does in the last episode. Once Cooper is ready to commit to Annie, he is forced to sacrifice himself to save her, and symbolically dies when the doppelganger escapes into the real world.
So, what this episode does is take plot lines developed in the tradition of a cop show and a soap opera, and subvert the audience expectations for the resolution of said plots. Rather than giving the audience a straight forward duel between detective and criminal, we are given a surreal, symbolic battle that is as much about the director’s artistic vision as it is about resolving the narrative. In spotlighting the art over the story, the series becomes more like art cinema than anything traditionally seen on TV.
In conclusion, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twin Peaks bring together elements of the soap opera and the action series, and in the process create a new type of series, a highly serialized, art-cinema influenced novelistic TV series. In using soap opera conventions, the series do not only serialize plot, character and symbolic development is also serialized, to the point that characters become the focus, and the necessities of action or police investigation become background. Both series demand multiple viewings to understand the foreshadowing and implicit narrative development. In creating multi-layered, complex series, creators Joss Whedon and David Lynch develop a new type of television, one that is not designed for episode by episode payoffs, but instead to create a larger world, one that is slowly revealed with each passing episode. By using the series to tell one massive story, rather than many little ones, they are able to create characters and worlds with a depth that film cannot match, thus fully actualizing television as a storytelling medium.

Related Posts
Angel: Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away (3/16/2005)
Ten Works That Changed My Life: Part II (1-5) (5/2/2005)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase II: Part I: Blue Velvet

Phase I of David Lynch's career saw some extremely interesting and completely unique films, but did it see a film that I would consider an unqualified success, something that's as enjoyable to watch as it is challenging to think about? No, but would that come in Phase II? Well, not quite, but his best film, and the beginning of Phase III, would not have been possible, artistically or commercially, without what happened in Phase II.

The beginning of Phase II, and the film whose shadow hangs over almost every other project Lynch has worked on is Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet lacks the outright surrealism of Eraserhead or Dune, instead it creates a new type of world, one which almost all of Lynch's future films could be placed in. Blue Velvet explores the distinction between a bright surface and a dark heart, as manifested in the town of Lumberton. In the first images of the film, we see a red rose against a perfect blue sky, above a white picket fence, followed by a smiling, waving firefighter passing by, leading to a kindly old man watering his lawn. However, the old man collapses, and the camera follows him to the ground, then delves underground, showing a mass of swarming bugs right below perfect green grass. No image more perfectly sums up the themes of this film, Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me or Mulholland Drive.

The film features a character who is probably closer to Lynch himself than anyone else in Lynch's oevure, and that's Jeffery, played by Kyle McLachlan. Jeffery is an all American guy, who clearly loves the culture of his Midwest town, and is perfectly at home in it. However, he is also fascinated by the dark world that exists just beneath the perfect suburbs, and as the film goes along he gets dragged into it. The amateur detective finds himself drawn into very real danger, most notably chronicled on his ride with Frank Booth and his posse. Jeffery's descent into hell, as shown there, is not unlike Donna's trip to the pink room in FWWM.

Blue Velvet establishes a ton of Lynch trademark elements. The idyllic small town, that seems to be situated out of time is one. The town has some 80s elements, but also feels remarkably 1950s, from the car that Jeffery drives, his goofy slang, to the clothes that Sandy wears. The town feels very old fashioned, and the way that the characters talk is similar to how Betty speaks in the beginning of Mulholland Drive.

Another Lynch trademark is the singer singing in a nightclub, into an old microphone and in front of red curtains. This is probably my favorite Lynch trademark. I love the way he uses musical performance, not just music in his work. Most films that use songs on the soundtrack do so as a shortcut to tell you what a character is feeling. Witness the "sad" montage in any romantic comedy. However, what Lynch does is show how the song affects the character, and thus there is a genuine emotional release. When Dorothy sings "Blue Velvet" and Frank cries, it tells us so much about the character. A similar scene occurs in Fire Walk With Me, when Julee Cruise sings "Questions in a World of Blue," and Laura breaks down, or later, "Llorando" in Mulholland Drive. The red curtains return quite frequently, most notably in Twin Peaks. The musical performance here recalls the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead.
And on a similar note, the lip synch performance into the lamp by Ben, besides being a phenomenal scene, is similar to the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive.

This movie also establishes Lynch's fascination with detectives, most notably amateur detectives. Jeffery's goofy enthusiasm at being caught up in a case is similar to Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive, or even James, Donna and Maddie in Twin Peaks. Lynch's later films also make the audience into detectives, having to piece together clues to find out what the film means. And, Jeffery is similar to Agent Cooper, to the point that Cooper could very well be a grown up version of Jeffery.

What else does this film establish in Lynch's world? It is notable for bringing together Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti would go on to score every future David Lynch film, and his contributions to Twin Peaks go a long way to defining the world of the series. It also is the first Lynch film to feature Julee Cruise, who would figure in some of the most important scenes in Twin Peaks.

While this in many ways is the archetypal Lynch film, it does have some differences. Frank Booth is a character unlike any other in Lynch's oevrue. Most Lynch characters are sealed up emotionally, but Booth is right out there, in a way somewhat reminiscent of early Bobby on Twin Peaks, or some of the people in Wild at Heart. However, Booth seems to be Lynch's most sustained look at evil, and the darkness within people. I find the character riveting, and compulsively watchable.

Another anomaly is how straightforward the story is. While there are plot twists, the reality of the narrative world is never called into question, as it is in almost every other Lynch film. It's very twisted concept wise, but Lynch does nothing to play with the form of the story itself.

So, that's Blue Velvet. It sets up Lynch Phase II quite well, with its 1950s small town feel. This is the film that leads into Lynch's greatest work, Twin Peaks, as well as lesser tale, Wild at Heart, as you will see.

Related Posts
The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase I(12/13/2004)
Twin Peaks and Buffy Essay (12/17/2004)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)
Lost Highway (3/19/2006)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Irreversible Changes

This article presents an extremely interesting concept. I'll let it speak for itself:

"Physicists call it entanglement, and it describes the state of two or more particles once they have interacted with one another. From then on, irrespective of time and space, a correlation will always exist between them. What happens to one will affect the other - even if they are now at opposite ends of the universe.

The word entanglement is really a misnomer. Some scientists use "non-separability" to describe the same condition. And the difference is significant. For if matter emerged from energy in the singularity of the big bang, it would seem to follow that all the particles of which it consists are in that state of correlation. They have not become entangled, but at the fundamental level they have never been - and can never be - separate."

What does this mean? I guess this would be a scientific interpretation of the idea that when people interact, a part of themselves is imprinted onto the other, and is carried on in that way. I've always held to the idea that you are the change you see in others. Basically, when you influence somone, and change them, they carry a piece of you with them. So, when you die, you are in fact carried on by all the people who remember you.

I used this when talking about the end of Blade Runner. At the end of the film, Roy bares his soul to Deckard, and it's almost like a piece of him moves into Deckard and lives on in Deckard's new understanding of the world, and the change he makes in his own life when he decides to be with Rachael and run away from the city. The concept was talked about jokingly in Seinfeld, when Jerry says (in reference to Susan), "She's not really dead if we find a way to remember her," leading to the creation of the Susan Ross foundation.

But, joking aside, I really believe that concept to be true. If you change someone's life, they carry a piece of you with them, and that's exactly what that article is talking about, the idea that each time we interact with someone, we become connected, and that connection never disappears. The whole of humanity is a web of connected people. We move through space and time, and make new connections, and when we die, those connections don't go away, since any interaction you have with people, changes both you and the other person.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase I

I'd consider David Lynch my favorite movie director. Even though Tim Burton and even Quentin Tarantino have done more movies that I really love, no one makes films that are more interesting to analyze than Lynch, and he also made the brilliant TV series Twin Peaks. What makes Lynch such an interesting director is the way that all his movies fall into a united symbolic universe. Most directors, you watch one of their movies, and it stands alone, but to really understand what Lynch is trying to say with his films, you have to see each of them, and find the connections between them. In this way, he conforms to the original premise of auteur theory, which is that a director's body of films is one cohesive unit, which develops similar themes in each of his works.

I'd divide Lynch's output into three eras. First is the Eraserhead era, second is the Blue Velvet era, and third is the Fire Walk With Me era. While each era includes a number of films, those three are most indicative of what he was doing at that time. There is crossover between the eras, but I feel like each is the mark of a significant change in his output.

The Eraserhead era consists of his early shorts (which I have not seen), Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune. This is his least interesting filmmaking era, or at least the era in which he made his weakest films, and it seems more removed from his later work than anything he's made after Blue Velvet. In this era, Lynch was focused much more on surrealism, and creating crazy images than on trying to tell a strict narrative.

One of the unifying tenets of any David Lynch movie is that the film's arc is emotionally based rather than based on a narrative. The end of Mulholland Drive is structured the way it is because it creates a coherent emotional arc, even if the narrative is muddled, and of all his films, the one with the least narrative is his first, Eraserhead.

To even describe the story of Eraserhead is tough. It's a film that is almost purely about symbols, and it exists in an odd realm that's not quite dream and not quite real. This could be said of a lot of Lynch stuff, but never more so than here. I consider the setting of Eraserhead probably the most bizarre setting of any movie. It feels like a completely alien world, and no one behaves like real people would. The really odd interactions of this film, notably the dinner scene, return in some of Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive also, but never to the extreme they are taken here. It's really discomforting to watch these people who can barely string together a sentence holding conversations.

The most critical thing to later Lynch movies is the Radiator sequences. A woman stands on a stage in front of curtains, looking on a black and white patterned floor, singing is an image that Lynch brings back in various forms in nearly all of his movies, most notably the red room and Club Silencio.

Eraserhead has a lot in common structurally with later Lynch works. It begins in a world that is very bizarre, but has rules, and feels like it could almost be real, it's just a little off. However, at the end, the movie becomes more and more mentally subjective. The entire final sequence seems to take place entirely in Henry's head, and much like the ending of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, features bizarre imagery and a general feeling of confusion for the viewer. Lynch packs the screen with bizarre happenings and you have to keep up.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between this and other Lynch works is the ending. Almost all Lynch movies end in a way that is very similar to what happens in Eraserhead. In Eraserhead, Henry meets the Lady in the Radiator and is taken to heaven, presumably having killed himself. He finds peace in a white environment, and all the trauma of his life is over. This pattern is replicated a number of times, in The Elephant Man, but more importantly in what three of his most recent films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. But, more on those connections later, suffice it to say, that for Lynch, the only way for a character to find peace seems to be in a form of suicide.

Anyway, Eraserhead sets the template for future Lynch works, but actually has very little in common with his more polished later films. However, his next two movies pick up quite a bit from Eraserhead. The Elephant Man is one Lynch's least Lynchy films. It's played fairly straight, with a rousing emotional narrative, and very little directorial excess.

The most Lynch element of the film is the opening sequence. It is a trippy montage of John Merrick's mother being trampled to death by elephants. After that, there's some traditional Lynch elements, such as the bizarre characters at the carnival, but it's pretty standard story. Where the film most resembles Eraserhead is in its look. Shooting in black and white, Lynch's Victorian England has much in common with the industrial dystopia of Eraserhead.

I'm not a huge fan of the film, because I feel it's a bit too emotionally manipulative. It's got great performances, but is one of Lynch's films that I would place outside of the unified Lynch-verse. It's well made, and was probably necessary for Lynch to do this in order to make the jump from indy director to known quantity, but when compared to his other films, this can't quite measure up.

David Lynch's Dune is a film that's widely seen as a failure, and it's easy to see it that way, because the story basically falls apart in the second half, there's very little character development, and the ending is rather abrupt, but if you look at the film from a slightly different angle, you can find Lynch in space, his most surreal film that isn't Eraserhead. I love the opening sequence, with Princess Irulan against the stars, giving a voiceover on the universe of this film. The image is quite similar to the opening of Eraserhead, with Henry floating along a backdrop of stars.

The whale creature that powers the ship seems to be taken directly from Eraserhead's radiator sequences, only much larger here. The grotesque flowing blood and general nastiness of the baron's ship recalls sequences from Eraserhead. My favorite parts of the film are Paul's dream sequences, filled with strange imagery, like a hand floating in space. These sequences don't do much to forward the plot, but they form the core of the film, bizarre images, in a film that is consistently filled with bizarreness.

My favorite thing about Dune is something that doesn't turn up in any of Lynch's other films, namely the individual voiceovers used to convey each character's thoughts. They are a great device for simplifying narrative exposition, and also allow you to get to know the individual characters better. What narrative coherence the film does have, it owes to these.

Like almost all Lynch films, the narrative sort of breaks down towards the end of this movie, but here it's not motivated by a character's deteriorating mental state, it seems like Lynch was taking his time at the beginning of the movie, then realized he was getting close to the end and had to sprint the rest of the way. Paul's relationship with Channi is barely touched on, and the ending battle is rather perfunctory. Time just seems to pass, and events occur without motivation or reason. It's easy to find fault with this, but in doin so, you can miss the merits that these sequences do have, and the way Lynch condenses huge amounts of story into a very short amount of time.

This film also features the debut of a lot of people who would become Lynch regulars. Kyle McLachlan appears in his first Lynch movie, setting the stage for the far more fruitful collaboration the two have in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Everett McGill appears here, setting up his role in Twin Peaks, same for Jurgen Prochnow, and Jack Nance returns, as he does in every Lynch film until his death.

So, what are the unifying characteristics of Lynch Phase I? A general surrealism, odd images, nasty liquid, worms, Victorian style architecture, and an uneven quality of film. These three films are all lesser Lynch, and merely serve as a springboard for the greatness to come in Lynch Phase II.

But, before that, it's interesting to speculate about what could have happened if Dune had become a massive success. Lynch was already writing the sequel, so that would certanly have been his next project. There's two ways things could have gone. One, Lynch completely embraces the Hollywood mainstream, continuing on the path that started with The Elephant Man, and Eraserhead remains a relic of a more independent past. I think Lynch would have still made strong films, with surreal elements, but he would certainly have never engaged in the narrative experimentation of Lynch Phase III.

On the other hand, perhaps Lynch would have become more of a Steven Soderbergh, alternating between big budget studio films, like Dune, and more personal projects. He could still have made Blue Velvet, and might have had an even easier time of it, due to the capital he would gain from the success of Dune. I feel like Lynch is not someone who would ever abandon his artistic integrity, and clearly, even in mainstream projects like Dune, he brings a lot of his sensibility. I could imagiine him being something of a Grant Morrison, dropping a great mainstream book like JLA, then going to make a brilliant original story like The Invisibles.

So, that's it for David Lynch Phase I. More tomorrow on 50s-retro David, the era in which Lynch went from good filmmaker with potential, to great filmmaker.

Related Posts
Dune (3/1/2004)
The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase II: Part I: Blue Velvet (12/16/2004)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)