Lynch’s “Surreal” Universe: Genre or Artists’ Movement?

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS

 

“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”       -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist

 

Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynch’s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

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                                                       Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film like Eraserhead, to a later work like Blue Velvet, or in any general summary of Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”

As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:

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Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik

But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?

Lynch has come to be known for his “surrealist films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed ‘Lynchian’, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”

But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?

Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.

Only three films were actually ever designated “exclusively surrealist productions,” created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s Un chien andalou.

Though not necessarily “better” than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien Andalou is undoubtedly “different” than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou “flaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was made…the genre ‘narrative feature film’, and the genres of the contemporary European art film…Buñuel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather ‘a desperate appeal to murder.”

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Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artists’ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis Buñuel wrote, the group sought “to explode the social order, to transform life itself,” an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.

Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:

whitehorse                        Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walks with Me      Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

 

Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, has called himself a “militant surrealist.”And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him “one of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,” and cites Surrealism only as “a major influence” on Švankmajer’s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Švankmajer’s participation in an actual group a notable link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqGAZgtDiBU

The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera’. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.

Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynch’s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artists’ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Breton’s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Deren’s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artists’ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.

It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.

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Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com

Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.

Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be here but always elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. Whether Fire Walk with Me explodes any staid order, I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.

 

August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.

 

 

 




“My Violent Movie About Kindness” : Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America

November 6, 2013 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS

Dark comic of yore, Bobcat Goldthwait came to Bloomington, Indiana, last week, to do stand-up at the Comedy Attic, plus lectures around screenings of two recently directed films—the blistering cultural satire God Bless America, and  Willow Creek, a Bigfoot found footage horror flick. About God Bless America, Goldthwait said to a small Halloween evening crowd at the Indiana University Cinema: “I wanted to indict rather than parody.

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Photo courtesy: collider.com

In God Bless America, a society teetering on the edge of cultural decay is declared in faux-reality series like Dumb Nutz, and a mock-up of American Idol called American Superstars, where the grotesque imagery of “reality” bombards sensitive, exasperated main character Frank’s tiny living room. Frank—played by Joel Murray—is a character, Goldthwait admitted, “most of my friends say is me.” Frank’s world is a right-wing mash-up of “9-11-2001 – Never Forget” license plates, American flags, radio heads screaming in military troupes’ defense, Obama in a Nazi uniform, and, most importantly for Goldthwait’s agenda, Sound Bites: meaningless perpetrators of a shallow society, where “No one talks about the personal or important,” but only about what was on TV the night before, regurgitating. Such is the timbre of Frank’s non-specific office drone environment, where he is assaulted with water cooler chat so disgorged he at last declares: “A shocking comment has more wit than the truth,” before unfolding his stapler, aiming it like a gun at his docile co-workers, and asking, “Why have a civilization anymore if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?”

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Photo courtesy: collider.com

Frank’s day only gets worse. Corporate higher-ups, citing a “No Tolerance” policy, after eleven years of employ, fire him for sending flowers to the receptionist. His next visit is to the doctor who, while informing Frank he has an inoperable brain tumor, takes a cell phone call, unleashing a painfully privileged litany, something about a newly souped-up car. Frank proceeds home. Against the endless wails of an infant next door, he sits couch-ridden, sipping beer, sobbing, yet again before the enormous boob tube, where teenage “reality goddess” Chloe rails at her father for buying her the “wrong” brand-new car, dropping the gem of a line, “You’re not listening to me. You’re talking to the cameras!” At this moment, Frank’s own phone rings, his estranged eight-year-old mirroring Chloe in her lament of the horror of her own mom having bought her a Blackberry instead of an iPhone. Frank hangs up, retrieves a pistol from a shoe box, steals his sobbing baby-wielding neighbors’ yellow Mustang, and drives to “reality goddess” Chloe’s high school. Unabashedly, in broad daylight, he shoots her.

Witness to the killing is sixteen-year-old Roxy, disgusted schoolmate of Chloe, played by Tara Lynne Barr, who couldn’t be happier with Frank’s murderous deed. The misanthropes team up, donning throwback garb à la Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on a nationwide killing spree aimed at obliterating the thoughtless and digitally absorbed—from people who take up two parking spaces, to boobs who take calls in the movie theater, Frank and Roxy unabashedly eliminate the American unkind.

The barefaced fact of Frank, a middle-aged man, running around the country alongside sexy, sixteen-year-old Roxy comes to the fore as the duo shops for bandit garb in a thrift store. “Frank,” asks Roxy, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

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Photo courtesy: collider.com

Frank’s response: “I refuse to objectify a child. Fuck R. Kelly! Fuck Vladimir Nabokov! Fuck Woody Allen! No one cares if they hurt other people.” Roxy’s response is deflated, sulking, as she attests to the absurdity of the duo carrying on as “platonic spree killers.”

I was reminded of this particular exchange during the Q&A session following the film, when Goldthwait, in response to a question as to his rationale behind casting Barr as Roxy, said, “When she came in to read, she didn’t play it too vampy. Other actresses were sexy, coquettish, doing the Lolita thing. Tara was wearing overalls.”

This all made me think of a discussion in a class I’m in, where we read “researched” fiction and poetry. Recently we discussed Nabokov’s Lolita as a historical work. Nabokov, in his essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” attests the novel’s inspiration as a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, “after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

This statement, coupled with the book’s stunning linguistic mastery, has always made me see Lolita as being about far more than pedophilia—far too complicated to be reduced to a dangerous text condoning child rape, or in some cryptic manner portraying Humbert Humbert as enviable. My sense has always been that Lolita, in pointing so blatantly and grotesquely to pedophilia, deflates its taboo. I have also secretly believed Nabokov’s choice to set the novel in America as a bit of a nod to the States’ sexual repression. He knew American readers (and publishers) would sexualize Lolita, characterize her, to quote Goldthwait, as “vampy,” in control of her own pre-adolescent, seductive powers, a self-aware temptress in her own right:

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Photo courtesy: biblioklept.org

My class’s discussion digressed: a fellow student called Lolita “the “rape-iest” book he’d ever read, likely responsible for subsequent generations of rape culture. Questions swarmed: what should the academy include in its required reading lists? Should a progressive, Queer revaluation of texts chuck away Lolita for good?

I am fascinated with the conflicting views America projects upon “Lolita”—vampy actresses too young and seductive for their own good, adolescent temptresses in need of righting by an ethically firm, middle-aged Frank. Despite this brand of righteousness, sexual tension percolates every hotel room of God Bless America, Frank stubbornly refusing to share a bed, Roxy urging him on (as in Lolita, Frank and Roxy roam amongst cheap motels of the Eastern U.S.). An uncomfortably paternalistic extended scene features Frank teaching Roxy to shoot teddy-bear laden trees, prepping for banditry:

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Photo courtesy: hitfix.com

This is not to discount that God Bless America, assaulting and unforgettable in its depiction of a screen-sutured society obsessed with reality TV (scathing, not quite like anything I’ve seen before), renders Frank and Roxy’s joke that they’ll “move to France and start a goat farm,” wildly appealing. Goldthwait’s wit is wise, his declarations pristine, his intent earnest. And there’s nothing more cringingly American than Frank’s final words to Roxy, before detonating her, himself, and the entire studio audience and performers of competitive singing show, American Superstars: “I do think you’re pretty.”

August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.