Friday, January 20, 2012

Who Gabbed Laura Palmer?

Wise: Hi there, Werth.  

Werth: .esiW, ydwoH  

Wise: Um, what's going on?  Why are you dancing around in a red velvet suit and flashing a strobe light?  

Werth: !yadhtrib s'hcnyL divaD gintarbelec m'I  

Wise: Wait, is that cherry pie?  A snakeskin jacket?  And Richard Farnsworth on a tractor?  It must be David Lynch's birthday!  

Werth: Exactly.  And what better way to salute one of cinema's truly unique auteurs than to Gab about two of his best flicks?  

Wise: I'll grab a log and see if David Duchovny can still fit into a dress.  

Werth: It's hard to believe it now, but for his first studio film, Lynch avoided twisty mystery plots, ultra-violence and aliens and instead produced a heartbreaking, Oscar-nominated drama. The
Elephant Man (1980) is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (re-named John in the film to follow the real-life Dr. Treves' journal entries), a Victorian Era man who was horribly disfigured by a then unknown genetic disease. Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds Merrick (John Hurt) in a freak show where he is treated as a horrifying grotesque causing women to faint and righteous men to howl about "abominations."

Wise: Kind of like Melanie Griffith's plastic surgery.

Werth: Dr. Treves rescues Merrick from his abusive owner and puts him up in London Hospital where he discovers that this Elephant Man is actually an intelligent, curious human being who makes models of cathedrals and quotes the Psalms. But sadly, there is no Dumbo happy ending for Mr. Merrick—which is where Lynch's unique, dark style of filmmaking comes in.
Mimicking some aspects of his first film, cult favorite Eraserhead (1977), Lynch films his vision of Victorian England in black and white, making it dark, dingy and ugly. The filthy machines of the Indrustrial Age choke the air and chop up men and their souls, leaving madness, depravity, and contempt around every corner. But the world is not devoid of kindness.
Dr. Treves, hospital administrator Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), famous actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) and head nurse Mothershead (Dame Wendy Hiller) all discover Merrick's hidden beauty and attempt to nourish and protect him.

Wise: Dame Wendy is the hidden beauty in every film she's in. 

Werth: But Lynch doesn't limit himself to the traditional structures of a historical drama. Surreal nightmares and a beautiful visual daydream of the joy and escapism of theater are evidence of Lynch's evolving, non-realistic style. Sound design is overemphasized with clacking shoes, hissing gas lamps and screaming train whistles giving scenes an other-worldly feel. Even his editing skips ahead in time, cutting out details from scenes without losing their essence.
Roger Ebert, among other critics, accused Lynch of sentimentality, but Lynch is more restrained than most directors at dramatic climaxes. Many of the most gut-wrenching scenes are performed without underlying orchestration, allowing the realistic acting of this talented cast to tell the tragic story of a beautiful soul trapped in a monstrous body and an even more monstrous world.

Wise: That's part of what makes Lynch such a fascinating filmmaker: how intimately he observes the details of everyday life and how those same details can suddenly turn monstrous.  And nowhere is that slippery connection more apparent than in Blue Velvet (1986), the story of a small town boy, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who finds a severed ear in a field and discovers the sordid dealings beneath the idyllic surface of his hometown.  Along the way, he nearly loses his girlfriend Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), falls for the self-destructive allure of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and has to escape the machinations of gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).  

Werth: Not to mention showing off his tuckus!  

Wise: After his big-budget adaption of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune (1984) bombed at the box office, Lynch was relegated to the lower rungs of the Hollywood ladder until legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis gave him another shot (and a much smaller budget). 
Tellingly, the constricted circumstances freed Lynch's powers, and—away from the monstrous worms and overblown space fantasy—he is able to address more personal themes: curiosity, innocence, depravity, love, and violence.  

Werth: Sounds like the usual Friday night at Mel Gibson's house.  

Wise: The film isn't always pleasant to watch, but it's almost impossible to look away.  There's rape, murder and every other stripe of brutality you can imagine, plus Dennis Hopper's Frank may be one of the most compelling villains in film: a sadist who weeps at Rossellini's torch songs, tortures her, and then caps it off by huffing a mysterious gas from a hospital mask.  

Werth: All of that is great, but I still don't know whose ear is in that field! 

Wise: Maybe Mr. Lynch will let us know in next week's Film Gab!

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