a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Three Short Features by Two Unsettling Filmmakers Named David

By "short features," I'm of course referring to films that are longer than my official cut-off point for shorts -- that being 45 minutes -- but aren't quite your standard feature length, and that would be somewhere around 78 minutes or so. Instead, these three pics hover around that abstract area of 45 minutes to 78 -- not quite long enough to be hurled in theaters but not short enough to play in a festival of shorts. But, yes, they're still features. Good. We're all on the same page.

The shortest of these is Industrial Symphony No. 1, a 50-minute (46 sans credits) TV pic made by David Lynch during the 1989-1990 period when he was shooting out material -- including Twin Peaks -- at a surely exhausting clip. In fact, Industrial is little more than a filmed performance -- a stage show/performance art piece with its focus kept conveniently small. (The stage belongs to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House.) Subtitled The Dream of the Broken Hearted, the piece, for lack of a better word, kicks off with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern adding an addendum to (let's assume) their Sailor and Lulu characters in that year's Wild at Heart; over the phone, Cage obliquely breaks up with Lulu, with the only statement close to explicitness being "it's not you, it's us." Confused and depressed, Dern immediately mutates into regular Lynch diva Julee Cruise, and the film turns to the stage. As much Lynch's work as composer Angelo Badalamenti's, the performance indulges in their usual schtick: Cruise sings songs that are an unsettling combination of '50s dreamy pop and minor keys (with jazz beats a la Peaks thrown in). Meanwhile, her solipsistic warbling is complimented by floating men, pyrotechnics, choking ammounts of fog, indescribably hideous beasties, television crews, falling dolls, and, as ever, Michael J. Anderson's dwarf. It's easily the most direct and simplified thing Lynch has ever done -- that is, apart from The Elephant Man -- but it's also his most sustained effort; you get what they're doing -- her sadness is invaded upon and exploited by the media and vaguely diabolical intruders -- but you feel it in your gut anyway. Count on Lynch to make performance art -- which I think is what it is -- look terrific.

As for the early features of David Cronenberg -- namely 1969's Stereo and the following year's Crimes of the Future, seemingly inexplicably released on the DVD set for his rarely-seen/-talked-about Corman-esque racing pic, Fast Company (which I'll get around to soon) -- they represent something like the rosetta stone for the rest of his work...but then every film is a rosetta stone for Cronenberg. All of Cronenberg's films appear to compliment eachother; if you don't see what's so hot about Videodrome, a viewing of Naked Lunch or The Brood (to randomly name two) might shed some light on the ways in which it waxes McLuhanesque on the TV Age, and vice versa. But, then, David Thomson exclaimed that Videodrome was in essence a lesson on how to watch his movies -- how to follow his bizarre structures, which follow through on theories he has on mankind wrestling with, and often being destoyed by, biological advances. (For me, it was Dead Ringers, but whatever.)

In Stereo and Crimes of the Future -- both of them staunchly underground films and both clocking in at the very odd length of 65 minutes -- Cronenberg is still tackling these advances on a psychological level. A wannabe-scientist turned wannabe-novellist turned filmmaker who wasn't a huge fan of films, Cronenberg was first obsessed with telepathy, only here his mind-readers don't indulge in the battles that crop up in Scanners. In fact, Stereo's not even remotely gory.

Disguised as an imitation of one of the medical research films of the era, Stereo focuses entirely on five of a fresh, and distincly larval form, of telepathics. Sequestered in one of Canada's icy college campuses for a study -- we're told that some of them have believed so much in the experiment that they've not only had their larnyx's pulled, but the part of their brains that produce words have been willingly removed -- the five subjects of his film undergo experiments with social life and even aphrodisiacs, with results both very awry and very clinical. It's a film of nothing but ideas -- literally: with the budget mostly regulated to the B&W 35mm stock, there's absolutely no diagetic sound, and what non-diagetic sound there is consists of people reading from their very thesis-paper-y theories on what has transpired. It's a rare, and very fatigue-inducing, kind of experience: long stretches of utter silence interrupted by sudden bouts of narrated platitudes. It's Marguerite Duras taken to a whole other level of uncomfortableness, only the material's heady, written by someone who's read abstract theories on science more he's gulped down other films. The lesson, of course, is: you don't need to have ever watched a film to make one.*

Meanwhile, I flat-out don't get Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg adds color stock, a dearth of goofy sound effects -- wheezes, buzzes, bleeps, other onomatopoeias -- and an actual storyline, though it keeps Stereo as a rough blue-print: the subject matter's generally the same and there's some attempt at crafting a mockumentary. This time, something called "Rouge's Malady" is the disease, though the only thing it seems to do is cause bizarre obsessions in its infectees -- like collecting socks. It's just as hypnotic as Stereo, but there's actually something going on here; there's even a boffo climax involving a cult of pedophiles who, in a largely woman-less world, want to impregnate a four-year-old girl who's entering puberty prematurely. What can I say? My closest guess is that it's a portrait of a future world that's gone quite a bit mad, with our protagonist on the lest leg of his sanity. Shrug. I need to do some research and watch it again -- even a viewing of Videodrome can't unlock this one. But at least I'm intrigued, which, come to think of it, is a stronger reaction than the one I had to eXistenZ and Spider.

Impenetrable or not, Future -- as well as Stereo -- has gobs to say about other Cronenberg films, especially if you're in the camp that thinks him no more than a purveyor of gore and shocks. It's interesting to think of Cronenberg the way that his early fans did. In his half-widdling book David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance, Peter Morris talks of being blown away by these two decidedly non-gory films and cringing when Cronenberg informed him that he was making a straight-up horror film. That turned out to be Shivers, which took his abstract ideas and planted them in the epidemic genre. But doing the reverse -- i.e., looking at these early pics after seeing him work in the horror genre -- proves that his work is explicity heady, and that he just happened to find himself working excessively in the horror genre. Any genre will do; he's arguably the most radical thinker of all filmmakers. But that's pretty simplistic -- sort of like Cronenberg 101. With a taste for Cronenberg comes a wish to understand each of his ideas, to break them down and analyze them, even if that results in a college-level term paper. That's what seeing Stereo and Future does to you: it makes you want to turn into a collegiate. Be very afraid of us Cronenberg-heads.

Speaking of which, if some of us are still sulking over his aborted Basic Instinct II -- cringe ecstatically at the thought of what he would drudge up in the erotic thriller phylum, particularly when he's bragging that it would've been "awesome" -- his next film appears to be an adaptation of London Fields, scripted by Martin Amis himself. Again, cringe at the thought...

*Not a foolproof concept: no less a luminary than Agnes Varda debuted with 1954's La Pointe Courte, which, while often called the first French New Wave film -- or the one that inspired the rest of them anyway -- gained nothing from Varda being no more than a non-film-literate photographer at the time. In fact, it's like Hiroshima, mon amour as written by someone who's not Marguerite Duras** but is just as chatty. Also, Phillipe Noiret is in it; I don't like him.

** That's two Duras references in one entry. Can you boast such a feat?


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