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On Limitations and Lynch – Premonitions Following an Evil Deed

At this point, the insight that limitations are often the makings of great art has crossed the gap into becoming truism. Single locations, shoestring budgets, or amateur actors have yielded great results within the realm of filmmaking. But rarely do these restrictions ever materialize as mechanical. The Dogme 95 movement springs to mind, emphasizing handheld camerawork and natural light as requirements, but these prescriptions lessen the burden on the operator to encourage experimentation before mandating restraint. In terms of a perfect example of obstruction breathing life into film, one exhibit towers above all others — David Lynch’s Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. A 55 second short part of the Lumiere and Company anthology film, the film was shot on the anachronistic cinematograph camera, given three takes to get any given shot, using only natural light, barred from shooting synchronous sound, and an arbitrary mandate that once the camera starts, the take must be finished out. Through this chaste framework, Lynch was able to translate his ideological project into silent tableau vivants, creating a work both succinct and purposeful, an true outlier in the Lynchian corpus.

The assault of images within Premonition are so convoluted it almost evades explanation — police approach the body of a dead woman, a worried housewife in a kitchen, a woman distressed arising from a bed, men in a hellish factory setting engaging in steampunk sadomasochism, brought full circle by the police emerging into the kitchen of the worried housewife. Lynch distilled down to his most pure essence, this image assault can be unpacked with the director’s auteurist mission statement of “I love factories and nude women,” assembling a greatest hits of imagery throughout his career. The opening of police happening upon a brutalized body among bucolic window dressing, immediately reminiscent of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic in the Twin Peaks pilot. The suburban interiors evoke the interstitial scenes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet’s daytime sections, and its final horrors unmistakably Lynchian (it seems of no coincidence to me the tormentors in the short are in jumpsuits buttoned to the collarbone, their distended skulls resembling a wild pompadour, for once Lynch willing to indict himself rather than hind behind folksy aphorisms).

While almost incomprehensible in summary form, it coheres to form the same statement it took Twin Peaks 30 hours of network television, a feature film, and 18 hours of premium cable indulgence to form, and still not stick the landing. Much the same as the show, it eventually reveals that underneath suburban purity lies a powerful evil, that perversion exists in equal and opposite abundance in the sunniest of settings. Much like Fire Walk With Me, Premonitions presents a full sampling of the Lynch auteur fixations in a compacted form, a Tik-Tok length condemnation of Americana, and quite possibly his most fully realized work.

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Reflection and Perception in Manhunter

I recently rewatched my favorite film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, the 1986 picture Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann. One of my favorite aspects of the film is Mann’s superb visuals. Every scene is carefully laid out and shot masterfully, perfectly capturing the eerie atmosphere. Mann’s eighties stylization is at its peak in this film, color coded lighting abounds, especially in the cobalt blue night scenes and obligatory beachside shots (this is a Michael Mann movie, after all). However, one visual element in this film is most important, tying directly into the structure of the plot, and that is symmetry.  

The opening shot of profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen) and his former colleague Jack Crawford (played by the late great Dennis Farina) shows the two men sat atop a dead tree, the ocean behind them. They are framed symmetrically, like a mirror image. There are shots exactly like this throughout the film, like the lobby of the Atlanta Mariott Marquis passing by outside Graham’s elevator, or the shadowy square where the FBI attempts a sting operation to catch the film’s killer, “The Tooth Fairy.” It’s not just symmetry in framing, however, since the film is structurally symmetrical, with the first half focusing upon Graham and the FBI and the second half centered on Francis Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy, played by Tom Noonan).

Effectively, Dollarhyde and Graham mirror one another. Which is fitting, since Dollarhyde’s modus operandi revolves entirely around perceiving, with chunks of broken mirrors being used to disfigure his victims and the victims themselves being arranged as audiences to his macabre displays. Dollarhyde’s ultimate goal is to be perceived as a god, and his killings fuel that dream. Graham’s talent is his ability to enter the headspace of the killers he pursues, and as he uncovers more and more of Dollarhyde’s twisted personality, Graham finds himself dangerously involved in the case. As the film progresses, Graham speaks to his own reflection as if it were the killer, and it is more and more clear he will personally pursue Dollarhyde, despite promising his family he would stay as detached as possible from the killer. The film follows Dollarhyde in its second half, and he too is eagerly watching Graham’s progress in the investigation (through front page articles in a tabloid). Like Graham, Dollarhyde experiences a crisis in self-perception as he begins a breakneck pace romance with a blind coworker, Reba (played by Joan Allen). It is fitting that the woman who throws a wrench in Dollarhyde’s plans is incapable of the type of perception he so desires.

In the climax of the film, Graham and Crawford are rapidly closing in on Dollarhyde’s home, while he prepares to murder Reba. Ironically, Dollarhyde turns on Reba because of his misperception of her interaction with another coworker as infidelity. Graham sees this happening from outside, and immediately leaps through Dollarhyde’s kitchen window, effectively shattering the mirror that has separated their stories over the course of the film. After a brief scuffle and shootout, Dollarhyde lies dead, with the pool of blood beneath him making him resemble the Francis Bacon painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which he has tattooed across his chest. Graham, Dollarhyde’s mirror image, is the one who finally sees him as he wanted to be perceived all along. Manhunter is an elevation of the psychological thriller genre, with its rich stylistic elements playing into the psychologies of its characters. The film examines the toll of Graham’s reflective profiling on his person as he perceives a clearer and clearer image of the man he is hunting. Fantastic stuff! It is one of Michael Mann’s greatest (and easiest to watch) films, in my opinion, and a great choice for late night enjoyment as we all approach Halloween.

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The Beauty of the Mundane in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi builds up to a visual and audible crescendo. Making it one of, if not the best marvels of film I’ve ever seen. Godfrey Reggio’s visuals speak for themself well enough to formulate a clear thesis without any dialogue other than the word “koyaanisqatsi” chanted a few times. Reggio’s film opens with sweeping shots of the natural beauty of Horseshoe Canyon in Utah. As it progresses, however, it becomes less and less about nature and more about the human impact on this planet. High-speed time-lapses full of vibrant color and thousands of people are impressive in scope and scale, however, it is still troubling to watch. This all comes from the perspective that is chosen to display these images. The birds-eye-view reminds me of the factory scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) showing people as cogs in a machine but as a current and genuine aspect of the rhythm of the world.

The word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance”. A term coming from the Hopi people of Northeastern Arizona. This dictionary definition at the end is really all there is given on an explanation to what the film really is about. Reggio has gone on to say “Koyaanisqatsi is not so much about something, nor does it have a specific meaning or value…Art has no intrinsic meaning. This is its power, its mystery and hence, its attraction.” I think this quote encapsulates a lot about why this film is so impactful to me. Because it allows us to look within ourselves and process what exactly the editing and Philip Glass’ music could mean. Reggio, taking inspiration from Soviet montage cinema and the avant-garde popularized the poetic documentary sub-genre. Where emotion is felt in the most animalistic way. To me, the scintillating allure of consumerism is a large part of the movie, people all living and rushing around in a country with all different problems and different lives inhibiting a “peaceful chaos” in this world. Most faces are seen as a blur or are even too small to see. One of the few times where we see a clear shot of the faces of people (that is not archival footage of television personalities like Lou Dobbs or Ted Koppel) is the blank stares of six women working a casino. This fourth-wall breaking scene almost feels frozen in time compared to the erratic goings on of the rest of the footage used, isolated in their own personal bubbles, like all of us.

On top of these visuals, the music in Koyaanisqatsi is just as important. Philip Glass scores the movie with a measured and minimalist cadence to what is shown on the screen. Making the movie, at least on first viewing quite enthralling just for the beautiful melodies. The usage of traditional instruments, as well as electric ones, is much in line with what the film is about with its commentary on industrialization. 

While Koyaanisqatsi may represent many things to many people, as was Reggio’s intention, to me it represents an analysis of the aesthetic beauty of the mundane and the underlying horror of it all.     

Koyaanisqatsi is available to stream on Youtube for free.

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Dance with the Devil- Unholy Cinephilia and Biblical Rage in Cape Fear

Much is made of Martin Scorsese’s religious fixations, as well as his affection for perverse blendings of the sacred and the carnal. Whether it be Harvey Keitel going from confession to getting hammered, The Last Temptation of Christ in general, or the spiritual reverence for obscene violence, Scorsese has made more ruckus about and at the expense of the Christian faith than most non-religious directors have, let alone any other professing Catholic filmmakers.

Cape Fear follows this thread of religious barnstorming, but it does it a little differently- the Catholic guilt is out, the fire and brimstone is in. Instead of subtle straining about purpose and goodness, Scorsese wrestles with the God of the Old Testament, finding a parallel in the tormented story of Job, a connection mentioned in the film that unlocks the film’s complicated moral code. The moral ambiguity of the text is supported by the tonal ambiguity and the garish style of the film; the true blasphemy Scorsese indulges in is how he tells the story in a way that bucks so violently at reverence. Just as Prince was known to blend his faith with the sexuality of his music, Scorsese elevates his secular cinephilia to a holy place in order to tell such a story.

Scorsese establishes his cinephile bonafides right off the bat with the brilliant Saul Bass title sequence and the Bernard Hermann score, recycled and rearranged from the 1962 version of Cape Fear. The film adheres to genre conventions and reference points that are in and of themselves linked together. The film’s style is just as much in debt to the 80s voyeurism of Brian De Palma as it is to Alfred Hitchcock, and Scorsese clearly delights in his dialogue with both the master of suspense and his most venerable remixer. The luxurious vibe comes from Vertigo’s production designer, while the split diopters, melodramatic performances, and fake fireworks are pure Blow Out. There are moments where the film is sent into negative, and while the effect is deployed to illustrate the mounting confusion and tension, it’s hard not to read it as a nod to Stan Brakhage or Godard’s Alphaville.

It is no accident that the first time that De Niro’s Max Cady and the Bowdens interact it is in the theatre. We see Cady interrupting the film with cigar smoke and loud, exaggerated laughter. The disturbance he causes and the Bowdens’ departure is awkward and a little embarrassing, and Scorsese wants us to sit in that discomfort- a family retreat to the cinema has been disturbed; there is an intruder in Scorsese’s holiest of holies. Perhaps the way Marty depicts this is overblown, but it’s potent because it’s familiar- anyone who has sat in a crowded theatre with too much of the wrong kind of noise (I’m thinking specifically of the man who kept darkly chuckling during a repertory screening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) can attest to this unease. Scorsese introduces a man capable of horrid violence by showing him being unpleasant in a way we recognize- by invading the common sanctuary.

There is a worrying thematic thread that develops as the film carries on with regards to the morality of Max Cady and Sam Bowden. A decade earlier, Cady raped his girlfriend, and Bowden unsuccessfully represented him in court. During his sentence, Cady has taught himself enough about the law to realize Bowden did not represent him honestly, which Bowden admits to his confidants. Bowden buried relevant, potentially game-changing evidence because he felt it was wrong to see Cady go free, and Cady has decided to repay Bowden’s vigilante justice with his own blend of nihilistic righteousness.

Does this theme suggest that Sam and Cady are on level ground? There is room to interpret that the film is saying that Sam’s irresponsible behavior in the courtroom has caused his family to be threatened with rape and violence. After all, Bowden’s continuing attempt at fixing the situation not only makes it worse, but alienates everyone in the process. The police tell him to chill out, his wife thinks he’s overreacting, and his teenage daughter is manipulated into thinking Cady’s a suave romantic rather than a predator. Is this all Sam’s fault?

Despite these questions, the film does not posit these two men on equal moral ground- rather, they are shown to simply be guilty of the same hubris. Sam believed justice was in his hands, and that it was his job to punish Max for his actions. Likewise, Max believes that he has to make Sam suffer in order to reset the balance. Their shared broken mentality takes them places where they’re their most shady. But while they are similar in their mindset, the film does not suggest they are similar in their sin- at his worst, Sam is a jerk, a bad husband, and a hack lawyer; Max rapes, murders, and torments innocent people for fun. There is nothing about this film that suggests they are on similar moral ground, but simply that the moral ground is more complicated and less binary than Good and Evil.

At one point, Max implores Sam to read the Book of Job. Having read and absorbed much of the Bible while in prison, Max regularly spouts from it with self-assured moral authority, and he likes to use it as a tool against anyone who questions. Like anyone who misinterprets the Bible, Max sees himself as something he is not- as the moral arbiter.

But when he points Sam towards the story of Job, he gives both Sam and the audience a glimpse into his cracked thought process. In this Old Testament story, the Devil asks God if anyone really cares about Him anymore, and God points out Job, a humble man trying his best to please God. Satan decides to torment Job by removing his riches and his family, hoping to see a good man curse God. Through it all, Job is angry with God and his own misfortune, but he is rewarded in the end for his refusal to abandon God under pressure. In this film, Max sees himself as the Devil, ready to torture and destroy a man of justice, and ready to test the limits of Sam’s goodness.

But the comparison falls apart pretty quickly because of Max’s own misunderstanding. The hero in Job is not the Devil, and the sadism is never rewarded. Cady positions himself both as the tormentor and the judge; he wears his biblical references like he wears his shoddy tattoos, blending old-world literature and philosophy with mixed metaphors. He masks his vengeful impulse with a veneer of godliness, and when he makes a failed attempt at speaking in tongues, he simply babbles instead. He is nothing more than a hack pastor, putting himself in God’s shoes and falling on his face.

Cape Fear would go on to be both a baffling success at the box office and a massive imprint on popular culture, immortalized in the classic Simpsons episode that remade it as farce. Perhaps that’s the darkest thing about the film, a bit of sacrilege that not even Scorsese intended. Maybe Marty doomed himself to being misunderstood when he used melodrama, split diopters, and absurd set design, just as the film’s descendant’s Body Double and Blow Out both spoke about the way people miss the point when it comes to depictions of sex and violence and also served as a prime example of that very phenomenon. A film that uses daring style to tell a tall tale of convoluted morals becomes a kooky punch line; a scene that depicts an explicitly pedophilic romance gets nominated for Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. You can try as hard as you want to make something profound or earnest or from the heart, but your honest work is still going to end up getting laughed over by some schmuck with a cigar.