Lost Highway

(USA 1997)

I watched David Lynch’s Lost Highway on my iPad on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Rochester. The one thing I strongly recommend is that it be viewed on the big screen, or at the very least on a flatscreen television. Quite simply, the visuals here are far too beautiful to see in an abridged format. And frankly, the visuals—sets, colors, costumes, actors, props—are the best part of the film.

The second thing I recommend is that it be watched under the influence of something—booze, pot, or better yet, prescription drugs.

This begs a question I’ll just answer: Lost Highway is fucked up—thrillingly so. The whole things starts with a videotape of our unlucky hero, saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), murdering his wife (Patricia Arquette), who in an alternate universe is having an affair with Madison’s younger alterego, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The married couple has no memory of this murder. Neither party seems aware of this wrinkle in time and space, either. The connection lies with two people: demanding gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) and creepy-ass flour-faced Robert Blake in what must be his most frightening role as The Mystery Man, a pallid ghost straight from a silent movie or a video by The Cure.

Lost Highway isn’t my favorite David Lynch film. However, it’s intriguing and vague enough to keep me thinking about it. I’m not sure what to make of this one—but I’m also not sure I care enough to do the work to figure it out. Maybe someday, definitely not today. The star cameos are enough for now.

Interesting fact: Lost Highway features the final film performances of Blake, Jack Nance, and Richard Pryor. Who knew?

With Alice Wakefield, John Roselius, Lou Eppolito, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Giovanni Ribisi, Marilyn Manson, David Lynch

Production: October Films, CiBy 2000, Asymmetrical Productions, Lost Highway Productions LLC

Distribution: October Films (USA), Polygram Filmed Entertainment (UK), Rialto Film AG (Switzerland), RCV Film Distribution, Cinemussy (Spain), Senator Film (Germany), Atalanta Filmes (Portugal), Edko Films (Hong Kong), NTV-PROFIT (Russia), Artistas Argentinos Asociados (AAA) (Argentina), AmaFilms (Greece), New Star (Greece), Sandrew Film (Sweden), United International Pictures (UIP) (Australia), Warner Brothers (Finland)

134 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C+

http://www.davidlynch.de

Eraserhead

(USA 1977)

I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.

The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.

Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.

Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.

I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.

In 2004, the United States Library of Congress deemed Eraserhead “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch

Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films

Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)

89 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de/head.html

Inland Empire [A Woman in Trouble]

(USA/France/Poland 2006)

“What the bloody hell is going on?” asks Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) at one point during Inland Empire, David Lynch’s last (so far) full length feature film. It’s an excellent question, one that anyone watching this three-hour nightmare no doubt has already wondered by this point.

Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, an elegant actress up for the lead in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, due to start shooting very soon. A strange Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who lives “just up the way” drops by her California mansion one afternoon and casually but ominously brings up a murder in the film. “That’s not part of the story,” Nikki tells her visitor, who insists she’s wrong and throws a tantrum right there in the sitting room, screaming about “brutal fucking murder” and an unpaid bill. Annoyed and visibly freaked out, Nikki has her butler (Ian Abercrombie) remove her.

Nikki gets the part. Some weirdness happens, and the film’s director (Irons) tells Nikki and her rugged costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) that the film is supposedly cursed: it’s a sort of remake of an old Polish movie called 47 that was never completed because of a double murder on the set. The actors are upset but they agree to proceed with production despite the producers’ lack of transparency.

Meanwhile, Nikki is falling for Devon. The narrative gets weird here, ping-ponging back and forth between Nikki and Devon and their characters, Susan and Billy, as well as Susan’s husband, Smithy (Peter J. Lucas), who knows something is going on. Billy’s wife (Julia Ormond) proves to be a character of interest of ever increasing importance, bleeding into another seemingly unrelated subplot about Sue Blue (Dern), a rough and caustic Hollywood chick who finds herself pregnant. The problem is, her husband (Lucas) is sterile. And just who are all these hookers hanging out with Sue, smoking and dancing to “The Loco-Motion” in her living room?

Interspersed between all this is yet another triangular subplot set in 1800s Poland: a cheating wife (Karolina Gruszka) learns that her husband (Krzysztof Majchrzak) plans to kill her lover (Lucas). And just to keep thing interesting, Lynch throws in “The Rabbits,” a spooky sitcom about a family of…rabbits. Actually, actors in rabbit suits (one of them has the voice of Naomi Watts). Later, Sue somehow ends up in their living room.

Probably his most indulgent film, Inland Empire is the kind of thing I imagine most people associate with David Lynch: a surreal trip through the subconscious, the imagination, alternate universes, and time that starts out with a discernible plot but disintegrates into seemingly disjointed events, actors playing multiple characters, bizarre and vivid imagery, random upbeat pop songs, and a creepy score by Marek Zebrowski. Flashes of Lynch’s usual sense of humor pop up here and there, but for the most part this is a dark and somber film about betrayal, loss, and karma. Perhaps its strongest aspect is its overriding sense of dread, and the worst thing about is that it’s impossible to tell whether the scary part is coming or has already arrived.

Inland Empire is surely a horror film. I imagine not many people getting into it, and most even being turned off. Length and structure—or lack thereof—aside, it’s not an easy film to watch or understand, and frankly I’m not entirely sure I grasp what the whole thing is about. Indeed, different characters say “I don’t understand” over and over, and Devon/Billy tells Grace/Susan a few times that she isn’t making sense. A common thread that ties the multiple plots together eventually emerges, but I get the impression that this is merely a heap of undeveloped ideas Lynch assembled into one big project.

Still, I found myself mesmerized all the way through it. The ending, where Sue’s fate plays out over the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is dowright distressing. In a way, it’s also beautiful. Lynch offers a lot to chew on here; I’ve gone over it multiple times since I saw it. I have my theory of what really transpires in Inland Empire, and someday I’ll watch again with an eye toward backing it up. It won’t be anytime soon, though.

Post script: I had the pleasure of seeing John Waters speak in the afternoon before I caught Inland Empire. Needless to say, it required a major shift in gears.

With Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd , Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, William H. Macy, Leon Niemczyk, Nastassja Kinski, Monique Cash, Latrina Bolger, Fulani Bahati, Ashley Calloway, Erynn Dickerson, Jovonie Leonard, Jennifer Locke, Helena Chase, Nae

Production: Absurda, Studio Canal, Fundacja Kultury, Camerimage Festival

Distribution: Ryko (USA), 518 Media (USA), Absurda (USA), Studio Canal (International), Mars Distribution (International)

180 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.inlandempirecinema.com

http://www.davidlynch.de

Blue Velvet

(USA 1986)

Who hasn’t seen Blue Velvet? Even though David Lynch was already established by the time it came out, it’s the film that introduced me to him. I saw it once or twice in late high school or early college, definitely on VHS. The River’s Edge was the only comparison I had, and that was a weird film but…not on the same level. I found Blue Velvet totally watchable because it’s very dark, very sexual, very fucking weird, and very voyeuristic.

That was then, this is now: Blue Velvet is still all of those things, but I don’t remember it having the sense of humor it does. It’s curiously funny. It marks the start of Lynch’s style as we know it: not just surreal (he had already done Eraserhead), but macabre and perverted underneath the innocuous and mundane premise. Lynch sets up his narrative in pieces that refer back and forth, like a moving puzzle. It’s brilliant, and it’s a formula that’s served him well.

Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear on the ground, bugs crawling all over it. A local college kid turned stalker (Kyle MacLachlan) proves a bit too curious when his minor obsession with a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) leads him into a sadomasochistic nightmare that neither he nor we viewers can turn away from. The whole bizarre and sordid story goes full circle back to where it started: that ear. 

Dennis Hopper as Frank, the gas-huffing sociopath who ends every sentence with the F-word, colors the mood here. None of it would work, though, without Rossellini’s vulnerability, which is crucial. 

Lynch considered Molly Ringwald instead of Laura Dern and Val Kilmer instead of MacLachlan. Thank goodness it happened how it did; what a different film Blue Velvet would have been. For a movie that relies so heavily on nuance, that could’ve ruined Lynch’s career. It didn’t. 

With Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green, Fred Pickler, Philip Markert, Leonard Watkins, Moses Gibson, Selden Smith, Peter Carew, Jon Jon Snipes, Angelo Badalamenti, Jean Pierre Viale, Donald Moore, A. Michelle Depland, Michelle Sasse, Katie Reid, Sparky

Production: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 20th Century Fox (UK), Transmundo Films (Argentina), AMLF (France), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Concorde Filmverleih (West Germany), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan)

120 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

Wild at Heart

(USA 1990)

“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”

—Sailor Ripley

 

“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”

—Lula Pace Fortune

 

“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.

I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.

An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.

Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.

OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.

As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.

Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.

What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.

Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.

With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films

Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)

125 minutes
Rated X (alternate version)

(Music Box) B

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de

Mulholland Dr.

(USA/France 2001)

“No hay banda, il n’est pas d’orchestra. It is all an illusion.”

—The Magician at Club Silencio

The perfect opener for a retrospective on its director, Mulholland Dr. is an inimitable film that’s really hard to write about. You can look for answers online all you want, but even after seeing it multiple times you still don’t know what happens in it.

Not unless you’re David Lynch. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though.

I’ve seen Mulholland Dr. maybe three times, and I’m not sure. I have my theories. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares? As with any of Lynch’s best films, the draw to Mulholland Dr. is that it’s a puzzle. He makes you work to solve it, or at least try to. He gives you just enough to go on but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. At points, he gets you so frustrated, you lose patience and you hate him. But you don’t want him to stop. It’s artistic sadomasochism.

What began as a project for television is a mystery mindfuck tailored to the big screen. Dreamlike, hypnotic, and erotic, Mulholland Dr. is visually demanding and aesthetically worth every minute. The premise is deceptively simple: perky and wide-eyed blond actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and bumps into beautiful young brunette Rita (Laura Harring), who can’t remember who she is after a car accident on Mulholland Drive.

As the two set out looking for clues to Rita’s identity, Lynch throws in a bunch of random characters, muddled subplots, and perplexing events. The narrative arc he puts us on comes to an abrupt halt with a small blue box the girls acquire at a night club. This is where Lynch pulls the rug out from under us.

Mulholland Dr. is definitely a love story—one fraught with competition, petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and ultimately murder. Lynch’s trademark sense of humor flickers here and there, but this is still dark stuff. I see Mulholland Dr. as a denouncement of Hollywood and all its ruthless superficiality. It’s a town that eats you up and spits you out.

Motifs of filmmaking, commerce, ego, vision, and of course the color blue stand out. Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” is beautifully forlorn and eerie. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Deming’s cinematography, which makes Mulholland Dr. shine.

Sadly, Lynch hasn’t done a proper film since 2006. He’s the one living filmmaker whose work I miss the most. Mulholland Dr. is a testament to why: like the street where it takes its name, this film is twisting, treacherous, and ultimately breathtaking.

With Jeanne Bates, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Daniel Rey, Justin Theroux, David Schroeder, Robert Katims, Marcus Graham, Tom Morris, Melissa George, Mark Pellegrino, Vincent Castellanos, Rena Riffel, Michael Des Barres, Lori Heuring, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tad Horino, Missy Crider, Melissa Crider, Tony Longo, Geno Silva, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Lafayette Montgomery, Kate Forster, James Karen, Chad Everett, Wayne Grace, Rita Taggart, Michele Hicks, Michael Weatherred, Michael Fairman, Johanna Stein, Richard Green, Conti Condoli, Lyssie Powell, Scott Coffey

Production: Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc., Canal+, The Picture Factory

Distribution: Universal Pictures

147 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.lynchnet.com/mdrive/

Raw [Grave]

(France/Belgium 2016)

“An animal that has tasted human flesh is not safe.”

—Father

To borrow a phrase from Morrissey, meat is murder, which is a lesson that goody-two-shoes strict vegan Justine (Garance Marillier) learns the hard way when she goes away to join her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), at veterinary college. Like a lot of young people away from home for the first time, Justine is lost and wants to fit in. She’s she’s got her work cut out for her: she’s nerdy, sheltered, and a total virgin.

Like a lot of other schools, the upperclassmen at this one have a hazing ritual to break in newbies. It’s pretty aggressive. Prompted by her sister, Justine goes along with it without objection—that is, until she’s pushed to eat raw rabbit kidney (never mind the blood splattered all over her and her “fresh meat” first year classmates). Alexia is the one who ultimately cajoles her to eat it; it’s nasty and it makes Justine sick. Not long after, she develops a gross and severely itchy rash brought on from food poisoning.

Soon, Justine finds herself craving meat. Her impulses are irresistible. First, she eats raw chicken. Then her own hair. Eventually, she works up to human flesh—after developing a fetish for car crashes, of course. As she gives in to her carnivorous urges, her lust for her cute and easygoing gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), gets stronger—and Alexia appears to be turning into a greater and greater adversary.

Screenwriter/director Julia Ducournau has a lot on her mind here: peer pressure, body image, sexuality, sibling rivalry, the food we eat. She’s gutsy, and for the most part her risks pay off. It’s not the same story, but Raw has something in common with Goat (https://moviebloke.com/2016/09/24/goat/), another histrionic college drama that gets at kids, tribalism, and cruelty. Raw is very Lord of the Flies. Ducournau paces the story well and picks interesting things—a bikini wax, a horse being sedated—to make us squirm.

I love Ducournau’s sense of humor: it’s dry, icky, and sadistic. The indignation of Justine’s parents over a piece of sausage in her mashed potatoes when they’re eating in a cafeteria as the film begins brilliantly sets up what follows. Marillier seems to have some fun with her role, playing Justine as a creepy, awkward junkie who maybe bites off more than she can chew. Rumpf has fun with her role, too, playing Alexia as a Heathers-like mean girl. They do a nice job working the love and the hate in their relationship. Smartly, they’re both restrained, carefully steering clear of camp.

Visually, Raw reminds me a lot of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but it still has its own unique look and feel. There are a lot well done scenes here—one under Justine’s sheets, another on a campus plaza with a horde of students moving like zombies, and another at a rave in a morgue all stand out in my mind. Cinematographer Ruben Impens uses lots of bright colors that work nicely with all the dim light to make the school look like a nightmare or a drug trip. There’s a definite sense of this not being real.

Raw is bloody and gory, but nothing here made me want to pass out or call an ambulance  (http://www.indiewire.com/2016/09/raw-tiff-2016-toronto-film-festival-pass-out-cannibal-julia-ducournau-1201726575/). I liked it, but I have one beef: I wish it was a little less predictable.

With Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Jean-Louis Sbille

Production: Frakas Productions, Petit Film, Rouge International, Wild Bunch, Canal+, Ciné+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), La Wallonie, Bruxelles Capitale, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), VOO, BE TV, Arte/Cofinova 12, Torino Film Lab

Distribution: Wild Bunch (France), O’Brother Distribution (Belgium), Focus World (international), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Singapore), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (UK), Monster Pictures (Australia)

99 Minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

http://focusfeatures.com/raw

http://www.rawthefilm.co.uk

The Reflecting Skin

(UK/Canada 1990)

“Sometimes horrible things happen quite naturally.”

“It’s all so horrible, you know, the nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse. One day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be past it. Your beautiful skin will wrinkle and shrivel up. You’ll lose your hair, your sight, your memory. Your blood will thicken, teeth turn yellow and loose. You will start to stink and fart, and all your friends will be dead. You’ll succumb to arthritis, angina, senile dementia. You’ll piss yourself, shit yourself, drool at the mouth. Just pray that when this happens, you’ve got someone to love you. Because if you’re loved, you’ll still be young.”

—Dolphin Blue

British playwright and occasional film director Philip Ridley’s first picture, The Reflecting Skin, is a wickedly devious bait and switch. It opens downright beautifully with seemingly precious eight-year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) walking through an unnaturally radiant golden field of wheat carrying a huge frog to his friends, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and Kim (Evan Hall), who are waiting for him on the side of a rural dirt road. The idyllic scene, which could be straight from a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting or maybe even a Mark Twain novel, immediately takes a seriously twisted turn when one of them sticks a straw in the frog’s butt and inflates it. The tone is set: as Ridley himself admitted, “the opening of the film deliberately dupes you into thinking you’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie, and then it suddenly becomes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with reptiles” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/). Ummm, yeah.

Poor Seth: his name rhymes with death, which is all around him and it’s tearing his world apart—he doesn’t even realize it. The adults in his life seem incapable of explaining any of it to him. He lives in a crumbling old farm house next to the gas station that his henpecked father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), operates in an isolated prairie town somewhere in Idaho (a fact I picked up from a state trooper’s uniform) in the 1950s. Maybe the town has seen better days, but probably not. A group of handsome greasers in a big black Cadillac comes into the station for a fill up. The creepy driver (Jason Wolfe) asks Seth a few weird questions and promises to see him soon before driving away.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The aforementioned frog was the unfortunate pawn in an awful prank involving one of the Doves’ neighbors, a glum and taciturn English widow with the spectacular name Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), a raving termagant obsessed with the smell of gasoline in her house, makes him go apologize to her. It’s a weird exchange: Dolphin relates that she used to burn cats when she was little and shows Seth a box containing her dead husband’s teeth, hair, and cologne before she breaks down, sending Seth running away with a harpoon. Soon after, Eben disappears. Seth blames Dolphin, whom he concludes is a vampire in part because she looks like the one on the cover of a pulp novel his father is reading. The police, particularly cynical Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons), think otherwise: they blame Luke because of a past transgression. Feeling backed into a corner, Luke eventually immerses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire.

Seth’s older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), comes home from the military, where he’s serving on a mission in the Pacific. Cameron meets Dolphin at the cemetery—a spark ignites, and they start spending time together. Seth is horrified when his brother tells him he’s sick: he’s losing weight, his hair is falling out, and something is going on with his teeth. Seth again blames Dolphin, who he thinks is turning Cameron into a vampire (although Cameron reveals what’s really going on when he breaks out a photo of a Japanese baby whose skin turned silver from an atomic bomb). After catching an intimate moment while spying on the budding lovebirds, Seth observes the guys in the Cadillac snatch Kim.

“Innocence can be hell,” is the last thing Dolphin says to Seth before she accepts a ride into town from the black Cadillac.

The Reflecting Skin makes a simple point: children will use their imagination to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. The story is told through Seth’s eyes, and his conclusions are often bizzare but he arrives at them using what little he has to work with (that whole deal with the fetus he finds in a barn and rationalizes is Eben—yuck!). As Ridley explained, “it’s a kind of remembered fantasy of childhood; it’s being told by an unreliable, possibly psychotic narrator; objects are used symbolically; there’s this huge kind of nightmare journey through one mythical childhood” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/).

The way he illustrates his point is fascinating. Everything about the story is horrible. With an approach worthy of David Lynch, Ridley takes a hodgepodge of characters—vampires, religious zealots, suspicious small town law men—and throws them into this weird mix of the macabre, sexual perversion, punishment, and subtle dark humor. His use of symbolism is liberal to say the least. The story is meticulously plotted: every character, scene, and little event is in here for a reason.

This is all underneath Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography, which is loaded with vibrant colors and a beautifully fine-tuned attention to detail: the vastness of the wheat fields, the crazy black hair of both brothers, the flies that are always present. Nearly 30 years on, The Reflecting Skin still looks arresting; in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. Nick Bicât’s heavy and haunting baroque-inspired score is a perfect fit. The overall result is wonderfully dreamy and surreal, yet we definitely sympathize with Seth—probably because we all know that childhood does in fact suck. He’s grounded in reality.

I would be remiss not to mention the acting, which is all around superb. I doubt this film would work with lesser talent.

A dearly departed old friend of mine introduced me to The Reflecting Skin in 1993 or 1994. I’ve never had an opportunity to see it on the big screen, which is a pity because this is one film clearly meant to be seen in a theater. For years, I had a shitty VHS copy and recently found it on DVD. It’s not an easy film to find, but it’s totally worth the effort.

96 minutes
Rated R

(Home via DVD) A+

Middle Man

(USA 2016)

“No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”

—Fatty Arbuckle

Lenny Freeman (Jim O’Heir) is a wussy ageing milksop who quits his job as an accountant to pursue a career in standup comedy after his mother (Barbo K. Adler) dies. The problems with his plan are numerous. For one, his idea of comedy comes from old radio greats of the 1930s and 1940s—hardly cutting edge or relevant stuff. Further, Lenny has led a sheltered life with his mother. He’s naive. He has no confidence. He isn’t funny. He isn’t particularly perceptive: he doesn’t quite get it when, say, he’s being insulted or threatened. To make matters worse, he’s never even performed for an audience.

Driving from Peoria, Illinois, to Las Vegas in his mother’s 1950s Olds, Lenny picks up a shady hitchhiker (Andrew J. West)— aptly and cornily named “Hitch”—who claims to manage comedians and offers to get Lenny on the very TV show for which he’s on his way to an audition. They make a contract, and Hitch takes Lenny to The Yuck Stop, a desert roadside club in fictitious Lamb Bone, Nevada, to test his material at open mic night. Spoiler alert: Lenny sucks, and the rough crowd is vicious.

Somehow, the corpse of the nastiest heckler (Danny Belrose) is inside Lenny’s trunk in the morning. Lenny thinks he killed him and spends all day in the desert unsuccessfully attempting to dump the body. Hitch pushes Lenny—unglued and soaked in sweat and blood—back onto the Yuck Stop stage, where he confesses to the murder. The crowd takes it as schtick, and this time loves Lenny. Thus begins a killing spree that benefits Lenny’s act more and more with each murder.

Screenwriter and first time director Ned Crowley is onto a good idea with Middle Man, an exploration of selling one’s soul for the spotlight. He references the Coen Brothers, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and perhaps in a sense Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I particularly love sick jokes and dark humor, and Crowley liberally applies both throughout. The execution here is uneven, though. The dialogue really shines, but some characters are disproportionately more interesting than others. Hitch’s motive is probably ambiguous on purpose, but it nagged me and got in the way of fully enjoying the film. Most unfortunately, main character Lenny gets old after awhile. Watching his confidence soar in a romantic subplot with his rival standup’s girlfriend, Grail (Anne Dudek), starts out well enough but soon fizzles badly.

Middle Man takes a decidedly sinister turn about 20 minutes before its ending, which is predictable and not as weird or harrowing as Crowley might have intended. Overall, though, this is a respectable debut that doesn’t take itself too seriously—that’s the most refreshing thing about it.

Screening followed by a live discussion with director Ned Crowley and actor Jim O’Heir.

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.middlemanmovie.com

Private Property

(USA 1960)

Private Property, a weird and fascinating psychological thriller written and directed by Leslie Stevens and shot over the course of five days in 1959, is the best film I never heard of. Believed “lost” for decades, a print was recently discovered in the UCLA film archives, restored, and shown for the first time in more than half a century just this past May at the TCM Classic Film Festival (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/2016-tcm-classic-film-festival-private-property-1960/)(http://filmfestival.tcm.com/programs/films/private-property/). It is, in a word, a treat.

Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) are two shady Southern California vagabonds who subsist by stealing, usually intimidating their victims into giving them what they want—orange soda, cigarettes, a lift to Beverly Hills. All it takes is Duke’s thinly veiled threats delivered in his cold, menacing manner and a flash of their knives. The boys are sitting on the sidewalk outside the gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway where they just scored some loot when Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), a beautiful kept housewife in a Corvette, pulls in to ask the attendant for directions. Duke is clearly intrigued by Ann, and he immediately hatches a demented plan to follow her and get Boots, a virgin, laid for the first time.

Ann unwittingly leads them to the Hollywood Hills, where she lives a seemingly idyllic life in a gorgeous home with her husband, Roger (Robert Ward), an insurance executive. Duke and Boots scope out the area and find an empty house for sale right next door to Ann. They squat there and spy on her from an upstairs window as she sunbathes, swims, gardens, eats, and comes and goes throughout the day.

In the privacy of their home, it becomes plain that Roger is more interested in work than in Ann, who not so subtly throws herself at him—splayed out on the living floor with her legs spread in one scene, and all dolled up in a negligee (no doubt from Frederick’s) in another—but can’t seem to get him to take a bite of her apple, so to speak. She stands in front of their bed and cries when she emerges from her dressing room ready for love one night, only to find him sound asleep.

Duke, who deduces that she’s unfulfilled, devises an introduction with Ann: he knocks on her door after Roger leaves for work and poses as a day worker looking for someone else’s house—the Hitchcock residence, of all places. He makes small talk about landscaping and offers to do some gardening work. The exchange sets off an unsettling connection that culminates in a bizarre lunch date in the back yard when Roger flies to San Francisco for the day.

Even with its flaws, I absolutely loved this film—it completely lured me with all it’s got going on. Simmering with sexual tension, ambiguity, and mystery, Stevens lets the plot unfold slowly, step by eerie step—very much like Hitchcock or, much later, David Lynch. It works: Duke is a psychopath, and watching him plot his next move made my skin crawl as much as it kept me glued to the screen. Boots is gay. His relationship with Duke is strange and undefined: it’s not clear whether they’re lovers, but Boots is definitely the submissive one. Roger is asexual. Manx, who has a sweet Barbara Eden thing about her and who was married to Stevens when Private Property was shot (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-leslie-stevens-1159807.html), brilliantly depicts the gamut of feelings Ann goes through: frustration, confusion, longing, hope, and loneliness. She’s a vulnerable character, and it hurts to watch her at times. Side note: knowing that Manx committed suicide a few years later makes her performance here all the more tragic (http://mobile.nytimes.com/1964/11/17/kate-manxactress-is-suicide.html). Ted McCord’s shimmering black and white cinematography and camera work add a ton of character to an already stylish and unusual film.

Promoted as “the boldest story of a planned seduction ever to scald the screen,” Private Property had to be scandalous in its day. It promises the kind of smut in a pulp paperback. It’s simultaneously groundbreaking—for its time, anyway—with its subject matter, yet surprisingly inoffensive. Sex is not shown—it’s all implied. Ann never says she’s horny—she shows it, for example, by rubbing along her neck the big phallic stopper of a huge perfume bottle and lying in bed with Duke’s belt under a towel next to her (oddly, she also puts his belt around her neck at one point). Profanity is whitewashed—in one of the film’s most ludicrous moments, an exasperated Duke utters, “What the flop?” He doesn’t call Boots “gay” or even “homosexual”—the closest he gets is something about finding a daddy.

The ending is disappointingly predictable, but it’s not so bad that it ruins the wonderfully suspenseful ride that brought us to it. From a historical perspective, Private Property stands as a seething criticism of post-War American values. It’s also got great exteriors of a long gone Los Angeles. I won’t forget this one.

79 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) A-

Private Property