Modern Auteurs: David Lynch

David Lynch isn’t exactly modern. He’s been making films since the late 70s. However, he’s one of my favourites, and he’s modern enough. Lynch started out as a painter, but began experimenting with film in the late 60s. He was given a grant, and with it he created his first feature length film, Eraserhead in 1977. Eraserhead quickly became a cult classic, catching the attention of Mel Brooks (yes that Mel Brooks). It was Brooks who gave Lynch his big break with the film The Elephant Man (1980). That film earned Lynch two Academy Award nominations: for directing and adapted screenplay. From there, Lynch went on to become one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. So distinct, in fact, that the term “Lynchian” was coined to describe his style.

Lynch’s films tend to be dark, surreal, and frightening, but with dashes of bizarre humour. It can be off-putting to some, but riveting to others (see this infamous debate over Blue Velvet). Lynch often likes to explore the underbelly of the American dream. Small towns (or big cities) are cheerfully shown, then layers are stripped back to reveal disturbing elements. Many of his films can be difficult to get through as they don’t usually follow conventional movie rules. There can be scenes that pop up that don’t appear to fit with the film. There can be random extreme close ups of objects. A lot of seemingly random things happen in Lynch films. However random they may seem, though, they work. They work with a sort of dream logic that Lynch is famous for. Lynch has stated that he often doesn’t think of the meaning behind his work, preferring to operate on feeling. It’s a dangerous system to be working with, but Lynch is able to pull it off.

His combination of craft and concept is probably the main reason he is so successful. His concepts provoke, while his craft is undeniable. Being a painter, it comes as no surprise that Lynch shoots his films immaculately, and puts a lot of thought into what goes on in front of the camera. He also pays a lot of attention to the sound design of his films – not just the score, but the sound. There are very few other directors that put so much effort into the way their films sound. And Lynch’s films sound great.

Lynch also posses a very distinct personality. This personality, coupled with his film work, has made him into a sort of icon in the filmmaking community. Much like Werner Herzog, Lynch has a larger than life persona that makes him all the more fascinating (his story of meeting George Lucas is incredibly entertaining). His charmingly unique personality has made it easy for him to transition into other mediums with success. Most famously, his television show, Twin Peaks, was a phenomenon in the early 90s and is still one of the most important television shows ever made (X-Files certainly wouldn’t exist without it). More recently, Lynch as found some success in the music industry. He also continues to paint and sculpt, while also dabbling in still photography. So, you could say David Lynch is a bit of a Renaissance man.

So, where should one start in Lynch’s oeuvre? Here’s my rundown:

Where to Start:

Blue Velvet (1986) – Lynch’s first major film that is all him. He was given complete control, and it shows. This is a must for any film fan. It still remains controversial to this day.

Mulholland Dr. (2001) – A fascinating puzzle of a movie. One of, if not the best, Lynch film. Lynch again explores the underbelly of the American dream, but this time in Hollywood.

Where Not to Start:

Inland Empire (2006) – Three and a half hours of David Lynch experimenting with story and with digital filmmaking. Definitely a must for any Lynch fan, but a very bad place to start without seeing any of his previous films.

Dune (1984) – Lynch’s first and only attempt at a big budget blockbuster. Studio interference and other problems ultimately sunk the film (Lynch refuses to discuss it), but it still remains a fascinating entry in Lynch’s filmography, and a fascinating sci-fi film in general. I’m a fan, but it’s not the best representation of Lynch’s work.

Deep Cuts:

Wild at Heart (1990) – Lynch’s bizarre, delirious riff on road movies and The Wizard of Oz. Incredibly strange and filled with memorable characters (Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru being perhaps the best).

Eraserhead (1977) – Bizarre, dark, and creepy. Lynch’s first film is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

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The Horror…The Horrible State of Horror

Well, it’s October, so it’s time for the obligatory article about horror films. Now, I’ll admit I’m not the biggest horror fan, and I’m sure hardcore horror fans will disagree with my assertion that current horror films are terrible, but, in my mind, they are. Granted, I’m not overly familiar with all the foreign horror coming out now, but in terms of North America, the genre has become, in my mind, nothing more than torture porn or found footage films (or a combination of both). And that’s just sad.

Horror films were always trashy, and, to be frank, they are usually seen as a lower form of filmmaking (not always the case, but usually). However, there’s something particularly awful about today’s obsession with torture porn. My problem isn’t with gore – gore can be great – my problem is with how it’s used. Filmmakers lean on it as a crutch, thinking that the gore itself is frightening. They forget that what makes a horror film great are the scenes leading up to the killings/mutilations/etc. The key word here is “tension” (here’s a masterful description). To make a film truly scary, tension needs to built through atmosphere and (surprise!) caring about the characters. Mindlessly killing off self-centered teenagers can be entertaining for a little while, but it ultimately doesn’t lead to much. (This may seem blasphemous to some, but one of the films that started the mindless killing of teenagers, Friday the 13th, is a terrible film. The whole Friday the 13th series is grossly overrated, and just plain bad). Taking time with your characters and allowing tension to build creates much more satisfying scares, and a satisfying film overall. Thankfully, the Saw franchise seems to have stopped and Hostel is long over. So, maybe the whole torture porn thing is dying out. I can only hope so.

What seems to be gaining momentum, however, are the found footage horror films, the most obvious example being the Paranormal Activity franchise. The first film was kind of clever and had some decent scares – and it made a ton of money. And this is where it went wrong. Studios saw how much it made and how little it cost, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon. Now, Paranormal Activity 4 is being released. The studios are trying to squeeze every last penny about this very limited franchise. And limited is what it is. Like I said, the first one was all right, but you can only go so far with this type of film. After a while it just becomes boring. The shooting style gets annoying and the scares get repetitive. More importantly, studios now know they can invest very little into a horror film and get great returns. This doesn’t bode well for any filmmakers looking to make a horror film with much of a budget. I can only hope that audiences begin to lose interest in Paranormal Activity soon.

But surely there must be some good modern horror films? Indeed there are, but they’re a little harder to find. Like I said, I’m not the biggest horror fan, so I’ve only really come across a few (suggestions welcome). Given my little knowledge of the horror genre, the only (North American) filmmaker that I really enjoy working in the horror genre today is Ti West. With House of the Devil and, more recently, The Innkeepers, West is making some good old-school horror. I’ve heard people deride his films as boring, but I think those people (like too many unfortunately) suffer from a sort of A.D.D. West certainly takes his time, but it’s time well spent. He gives you plenty of scenes to get to know the characters, and he subtly ratchets up the tension throughout his films. The explosion of violence at the end of House of the Devil is almost cathartic from how tense he makes the audience up until that point. Sometimes having nothing happen is a lot more frightening than a huge body count.

Unfortunately, West is about the only modern horror filmmaker that I know of and like. I appreciate the fact that he’s trying to keep his films classy. Sadly, his films don’t get a ton of attention from mainstream audiences. And, sadly, that’s the case with a lot of great filmmakers in any genre. So, again, the root of this problem really lays at the feet of the audience. Studios cater to the wishes of the masses, and the masses don’t want great films. So what’s a cinephile to do? Support good films in any way you can and hope for the best.

Here are a few suggestions for some Halloween viewing (this is not a best of, just personal favs):

Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter

The original and the original only (sorry, but nice try Rob Zombie). This set the template for the slasher film, and, in my opinion, no slasher film has lived up to it. This film is iconic. A regular watch for my every Halloween.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Roman Polanski

Another classic. Slow moving, atmospheric, and brilliant.

The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick

In my opinion probably the best horror film ever made. Stanley Kubrick was at the top of his game here. From his revolutionary use of the steadicam to his bizarre, frightening imagery, and overwhelming atmosphere, Kubrick created one of the most re-watchable horror films ever.

Videodrome (1983) – David Cronenberg

Maybe not technically “pure” horror, but probably my favourite Cronenberg film, and definitely freaky. Long Live the New Flesh.

The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter

Another classic from Carpenter. Amazing film. The makeup effects alone are worth the watch. Plus, Kurt Russell’s just badass.

Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott

A great sci-fi horror film. Ridley Scott does an amazing job with atmosphere, and the cast is stellar.

Some others:

The Fly (1986) – Another Cronenberg masterpiece.

The Exorcist (1973) – Classic, obviously.

Psycho (1960) – The original slasher film.

Let the Right One In (2008) – The American remake is not bad, but the original is still best.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) – Werner Herzog’s take on the classic Nosferatu.

Eraserhead (1977) – Maybe not technically a horror film, but freaky as all hell. Almost any David Lynch film could really be watched as a horror film.

28 Days Later (2002) – Danny Boyle’s great modern zombie film.

And, of course, the a fore mentioned Ti West films: House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011)

Modern Auteurs: Quentin Tarantino

What more can really be said about Tarantino? The guy’s already a legend. His first two films created an unbelievable amount of imitation. His fast paced, pop-culture filled dialogue and nods to exploitation films are still trying to be replicated by both professional and student filmmakers to this day (sometimes making me rue the day Tarantino first put words to paper). However, Tarantino’s style is simply inimitable. Try as they might to write witty banter and steal shots from Hong Kong action films, no one can touch Tarantino’s genius – and genius is what it is.

Some naysayers may dismiss Tarantino as a mere copycat, appropriating scenes and shots from other movies and repackaging them as his own, but filmmakers have always been doing that. You don’t hear too many people leveling that complaint against Woody Allen, who’s made a career of borrowing ideas from Bergman and Fellini. Tarantino just borrows from trashier films. And therein lies his genius. He elevates what would be considered b-movie material into art. That is a hard thing to do, no matter how you cut it.

This post may be a little useless as almost everyone has seen the majority of Tarantino’s films, but I’m going to lay out a few of his best and a few of his worst (yes he made some not-so good movies).

The Best:

Pulp Fiction (1994) – Probably Tarantino’s best. Not only did it contain a few of the most quotable lines and re-watchable scenes of all time, he also resurrected John Travolta’s career and launched Samuel L. Jackson as a legitimate star.

Jackie Brown (1997) – Sometimes overlooked and under appreciated, Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most mature film to date. The relationship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster is handled so well, and realistically, it’s hard to believe it’s in a Tarantino movie. However, the nonlinear storytelling elements, the quotable dialogue, and the colourful criminal characters quickly remind you that this is, indeed, a Tarantino movie.

The Worst (though not awful):

Death Proof (2007) – Liked by some, panned by others, I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s enjoyable to be sure, but a weak offering from Tarantino.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) – Again, enjoyable, and filled with some great scenes, but it relies a little too heavily on genre pastiche.

Sidebar: The last decade or so has seen a bit of a slip in quality from Tarantino. His films are still great, but they’re becoming more and more centered around genre throwbacks. Granted, genre throwbacks have been present in every Tarantino film, but lately he seems to be leaning on them as a crutch. Tarantino is more than capable of making a masterpiece of immense importance (see Pulp Fiction), but lately he just seems to be screwing around for his own enjoyment. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to see him attempt something a little ambitious. I’m a little uneasy about Django Unchained, but will obviously still see it.

RANT: Is Star Wars Over Yet? Can it Be? Please?

I’m done with Star Wars. There I said it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the (well deserved) vitriol aimed at George Lucas. I’m sick of the petty geek squabbles over Han shooting first or Jabba being inserted into New Hope. I’m sick of seeing Yoda, Chewbacca, et al on geek-chic t-shirts and memorabilia. I’m sick of Star Wars some how being ‘cool’. And I’m sick to death of Star Wars references – both in pop culture and out on the streets.

Full disclosure: I am a Star Wars fan (or used to be, not sure where I lie now). However, it’s so ubiquitous now that it’s getting to be pretty annoying. Am I the only one is put off by the ‘coolness’ of Star Wars? Real fans should be fuming about this. Star Wars is being co-opted by the mainstream and being repackaged as “cute” and “vintage”. Shirts and handbags have Yoda or R2D2 on them. Running shoes now come in Storm Trooper editions. Yet most of these items are being worn by people who have barely seen the films, let alone have the slightest clue what a Rancor is. Star Wars is no longer about the films. It’s a kind of pop culture shorthand for showing that you’re hip to some of the more geekier things in life. And it’s a pretty lame shorthand if you ask me. It’s poseur geek, not authentic geek.

One of the reasons, I think, that Star Wars is still so prevalent in the popular conscience is due to constant references to it from other pop culture. Mel Brooks started it all off with Space Balls. TV shows such as The Simpsons then South Park sprinkled in references here and there. Family Guy then took it to the most obnoxiously obvious conclusion with a full on Family Guy version of Star Wars. All these things helped broaden the appeal of Star Wars, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem now is that everyone makes Star Wars references. Instead of being a cool nod to geekier viewers, it’s now clichéd and obvious (I don’t watch it, but I bet The Big Bang Theory gets a lot of mileage out of cute Star Wars jokes). Star Wars is, for lack of a better word, lame now.

Some of the blame for this can be leveled at George Lucas. It’s been seven years since Episode III, but Lucas keeps dragging the franchise back into the spotlight (probably because he has no other ideas) – from the long rumoured live-action TV show to the continuing Clone Wars cartoon series, and all the merchandise that goes along with it. However, a good amount of the blame lies at the feet of the fans. No matter how much fans bitch and moan about Lucas ruining Star Wars, they are the first ones in line to see anything Star Wars related. They then take to their blogs and immediately complain about Lucas being “all about the money” (when wasn’t Star Wars all about the money?) and sullying the good name of the Star Wars franchise. If you don’t like it, then don’t go see it! If Lucas stops making obscene amounts of cash from milking the franchise, maybe he’ll move on. The fans are enablers, and Lucas and them are engaged in a vicious cycle. Don’t you think it’s time to end it?