Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Three Films

David Lynch is dismissed as often as he is praised for his self-stated "intuitive" style of film making. We believe, as he seems to want us to believe, that his films are essentially uncensored, unstructured indulgences of his undisciplined imagination, of which the filmmaker himself has little genuine understanding. This is why some critics brush off his work as "self-indulgent", and even fans sometimes view him as some sort of bizarre idiot-savant.

Don't be fooled. David Lynch is one of the most deliberate and restrained filmmakers working in Hollywood today, and his latest, Inland Empire, is possibly his greatest film yet. But, before I explain why I think this film is so monumental and wonderful, I'd like to address this oft-propagated view of Lynch as some unthinking conjurer of the subconscious.

Filmmakers love to bewitch us, and the best of them have a certain sadistic element to their personalities that causes them to enjoy the fear and uncertainty they inflict upon their audiences. Such filmmakers also understand the masochistic nature of the passive audience; we go there, into that dark space, to surrender control, to feel lost for a while, and then to be guided back to the light by the authoritative hand of the storyteller to whom we have entrusted the full focus of our conscious attention. Hitchcock - one of Lynch's great heroes - understood this, and understood also (as most certainly does Lynch as well) that his role as a filmmaker did not and could not involve explaining the mysterious and bewildering labyrinths he worked so hard to build. Once, when asked if there was any "symbolism" in North by Northwest, Hitchcock replied, simply, "no...Oh yes! The last shot - the train entering the tunnel after the love scene between Grant and Eva-Marie Saint. It's a phallic symbol. Don't tell anyone." Of course, Hitchcock's films are among the most tightly constructed in the history of cinema, and are as such are full of symbols, but we would have been disappointed if, at any point, Hitchcock had come forth and, like some zealous film professor, disgorged into the plain light of day all the analytical machinations that went into them. He cared enough about our experience in the theater to preserve the purity of that experience, and he knew that the disarmingly affable persona which he presented as his public face was the best preparation for us to be thrilled and shocked by his films.

Lynch works the same way. Not only do his films have overtly Hitchcockian qualities in ways too numerous to count, he, like Hitchcock, expertly talks himself down and deflects any possibility that he will help you understand his work. This is not pretension - quite the opposite. He respects the experiences of the viewer enough not to ruin it with his own "explanation" of it - something which would in fact come to him quite easily, but which would ultimately spoil our experience of his films. It is his humility before the audience that prevents him the easy-self-indulgence of explaining his own work. Only among the best filmmakers do you see this public restraint; think how often we've seen Hollywood's second-tier talents on Charlie Rose, going on at such great length about how brilliant they are, and how quickly that becomes tiresome.

The reason for this roundabout arrival at the actual subject at hand here - my interpretation of Inland Empire - is that I want you, the reader, to know and believe that there is something specific to be interpreted here, and that I am not just indulging in my own cleverness. I do in fact believe Inland Empire to be more than just a clever, well-constructed film, but also a very important one. This is a film with something to say about who we are as culture.

SPOILER WARNING The "inland" referred to in the film's title is our imagination, and the "empire" is Hollywood. This is a film about how our minds have been conquered, colonized, and subjugated. It is a film which burns with a great deal of anger and resentment, but which also offers hope. It is probably Lynch's most personal film, as well as his most moving. Although many have no doubt argued that much that occurs in the film is arbitrary, there is in fact a very clear narrative which can be navigated without too much difficulty, if you start from the right place, with a properly calibrated compass.

The single most important thing to realize about Inland Empire is that the plot is elliptical, not linear. We are not to look for a beginning, a middle, and an end, but rather an inside and an outside, and understand that the passage of filmic time represents the passage through the outer to the inner layers, and finally back out again. The film is essentially spiraling through a collapsing orbit. The "outside" of the film is seen at the very beginning, then end, and at certain moments throughout - it is the young woman who sits on the edge of her bed, watching television with tears in her eyes. The innermost layer is that dark living room inhabited by the family of humanoid rabbits, seem to populate the set of a haunted sitcom, in which lines of noninflected, humorless dialogue are punctuated at random moments by a crude laugh-track. The plot of the film - in which Laura Dern stars as an actress in a film-within-the film, a supposed remake of a failed German project whose "cursed" set led to the deaths of its leading actors - takes us methodically and hauntingly through the many layers that lead from the sad, lonely viewer to the empty machinations of the sitcom. Included in these "layers" are the film making act itself, as well as various symbolic representations of the "actor's journey" including the merciless exploitation of their own psyche in the formation of a character, a process the film repeatedly and explicitly likens to prostitution.

As Laura Dern's Niki goes deeper and deeper into this subconscious realm, she is pursued by a nameless killer, whose meaning in the film is his very meaninglessness. No, this is not some cheap tautology; consider how many films use "the device" to create suspense in an otherwise shallow plot-line. Here, the device is a kind of faceless beast, a blank shadow which we fill in with our own preconceptions and fears, and it is the moment at which this beast is killed that viewer is finally liberated. If the killer is a symbol of something here, it is a representation of the Hollywood mechanism itself - the undying, meaningless fear of power that traps us within endless iterations of an empty formula.

This is an anti-Hollywood film made by a man still enamored and awed by it's many enchantments (it would not nearly so interesting or effective otherwise - Lynch's sense of conflict about his chosen profession is what makes this film so wonderfully genuine). This is a film which pukes and bleeds, literally, on the Hollywood Walk of Stars, and still delivers a happy ending, with song and dance - and means it. And it works. Brilliantly.

Another film which I came to recently - all too late, since it has been on DVD for while - is Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Briefly, this is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent much of the last ten years of his short life amongst a population of grizzly bears in a remote, uninhabited section of Alaska. His love for these animals was deeply reverent, even spiritual, not to mention quite insane (in other words, we are deep within classic Herzog territory). Treadwell routinely slept alone in the grizzly's habitat with out any weapons for protection, and a bare minimum of camping equipment. He walked with them, touched them, and spoke to them as if to another human (or, perhaps, as if to a god). He was an educator and an activist, who appeared in venues ranging from the local elementary schools to Late Night with David Letterman, to speak on behalf of the "endangered" bears, even though the consensus amongst even other conservationists was that the bears were not under any threat at all. Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, both died during one of their expeditions, when a chance circumstance caused them to stay later into the autumn than they were accustomed, and an unfamiliar grizzly, made hungry and temperamental by the approaching winter, mauled them to death and ate them.

During the last few years of his life, Treadwell kept a video diary of his expeditions, and through this extensive footage, along with interviews with Treadwell's friends and associates (though he did not have many) Herzog ravels together an extraordinary discourse on man's relationship to the natural world.

"I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder." Herzog, in opposition to Treadwell's hippie conceits, intones these words over footage of Treadwell bemoaning the death of a friendly fox, itself a victim of another hungry bear. What impresses me here is how this film, deliberately and overtly reveals so much about Herzog's own preferences as a filmmaker, and how his avowed existentialism seems to lead, not to cynicism, but rather a kind of humane sympathy for his subject. Furthermore, it has led to his sense of responsibility as a filmmaker and as a member of human society - his belief that certain boundaries should not be crossed.

The existence of such boundaries is a recurring theme in this film. It shows up most prominently in Herzog's observations of Treadwell himself. He notes that the realm of the grizzlies was, for Treadwell, something of a self- discovered Eden, a place where human an animal spirits co-exist without boundaries. Perhaps the greatest emotional core to be found in Grizzly Man is the thrilling dialectic that occurs as the viewer seamlessly and repeatedly sees the imagery through Herzog's eyes, then Treadwell's and then Herzog's again. We quickly realize Treadwell's foolishness - the essential characteristic of Eden is that we can never return - and yet we also see, through some of Treadwell's astonishing footage, how tantalizingly close that dream does at moments seem. In one heartbreakingly beautiful sequence, Treadwell films himself running playfully through a field with a wild fox, and for a moment we truly feel that he has found his eden - and then the fox retreats, the moment recedes, and only then can we truly feel that Treadwell's end was genuinly tragic - and we can say so without a shred or irony.

But there are other boundaries as well. This film, roughly half of which consists of footage shot by Treadwell, rather than Herzog himself, deliberately and overtly reveals so much about Herzog's own preferences as a filmmaker, via the latter's navigation of the boundary between Treadwell's vision and his own. And I am not just speaking here of his aesthetic approach, of which many obvious connections exist, but also Herzog's sense of a filmmaker's moral responsibilities. This comes through most movingly when we learn that sound from the moments of Treadwell and Huguenard's violent death was recorded on Treadwell's capped video camera. The details of this recording are recounted in some detail by the coroner who performed the autopsy on both victims. Through our imaginations, the darker hungers of the audience for sensationalism and "reality" are appealed to by this account. But, when Herzog himself visits Treadwell's old associate and friend Jewel Palovak, who holds the only copy of the tape, he listens to it on headphones, while we observe in silence (notably, this is the only moment in which we actually see Herzog, who narrates the film, and here he is turned away from the camera so we can see Jewel's face as she watches his reaction). After less than a minute has passed of the six-minute encounter, he bows his head and, visibly shaken, asks that the tape be shut off. "You must never play this tape," he tells Jewel. "I think you should destroy it." It's an incredible moment, because we realize we've witnessed a instance of moral rectitude that is never demonstrated by Hollywood. Herzog has shown us that film, beyond voyeurism, must also have a sense of what is sacred? There are certain lines must not be crossed (the notion of such boundaries, in fact, is central to the tragedy that is the subject of the film). His decision and advice are spoken not solely in the interest of Ms. Palovak, but also for the audience. Had any moment of this recording been included in the film , it would've overshadowed the shattered the delicate mood that has been established, and violated Treadwell and Amie's last moments for raw sensationalism. I don't think I've ever respected a filmmaker more than I did Herzog in that moment of the film.

The third film I'd like to mention briefly is Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood is another filmmaker who is easy to underestimate. To say that his films - especially his later work - are "understated" is itself an understatement. He is a filmmaker whose most treasured instruments are silence and emptiness. Eastwood deliberately avoids the kinds of things that most filmmakers, even the very best, strive for. He steers clear of crackling dialogue and tempestuous emotions as if they were landmines. Catharsis is avoided like the plague. Even in this, a three-hour film about Japanese soldiers making a last, hopeless stand in the face of an overwhelming American onslaught, there is not a single scene depicting camaraderie or male-bonding of any kind - and this is Japan, in WW2. Every narrative step is taken either by one man speaking alone with another man, or by one man acting alone. In a film where nationalism and love of one's god and country are at the very heart of the events which unfold, we are left to witness the inner struggles of a small handful of individuals, each in their own very unique state of loneliness, isolation, and doubt. And not for a moment does this ring hollow.

Eastwood, like Herzog, has a talent for restraint at odds with our expectations - programmed by Hollywood as we are for tears or nausea on cue. There is a moment fairly early on in Letters when, immediately following the first Allied bombing-run over the island, one young misfit soldier finds an officer apparently sitting casually outside the camp as the rest of the soldiers are fleeing for the interior of the hills. He puts his hand on the officer's soldier, and only then sees half of his face is missing. In most any other war film, this scene would've been milked for all its worth in shock- value, pathos, and tragedy. Here, we witness in this young soldier's expression that he has seen something which, for him, is utterly mundane. The scene plays through without provoking any emotional release from the audience at all - the event passes and is not dwelled upon. All of the most emotionally-loaded moments in the film are played out the same way - the capturing of an American soldier and the attempt by an officer to befriend him, the reading of his letter home after he dies from his injuries, a scene in which the aforementioned young soldier is nearly beheaded for insubordination, all of these moments play out in an unforced manner. The dialogue is almost deliberately banal. In the hands of any other filmmaker, this material would either be maudlin or boring. But Eastwood, gifted with the contributions of a first-rate, is in total control of the film's rhythm and tone. He Gives us the freedom to experience emotions in a way far more genuine than in most films - he allows them to slowly well up and emerge at unexpected moments. Thus, we witness the violence with a certain detachment, we see rage and suicide and it almost seems natural, a fact of normal life. And then, in one scene, a cheerful little song is heard through a tiny radio speaker, and it is devastating.

Ultimately, Eastwood's true genius here is to show us that, no matter whom we are fighting, or who we are fighting for, we ultimately do it alone. This is something we might expect of a western (and Eastwood has made many), but it is not exactly the direction usually taken in an American film about WW2, especially one directed by a California Republican. Others have noted how rare it is for an American filmmaker to take on WW2 in a way that sympathizes with "the enemy." But the true lesson here, of course, is to ask - if we are all going to battle alone, who is the enemy?

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