What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

As soon as it began airing on ABC in the early 1990s, Twin Peaks got us wondering where its distinctively resonant oddness, never before felt on the airwaves of prime-time television, could have come from. Some viewers had already seen co-creator David Lynch's films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and may thus have had a more developed feel for it, but for everyone else the nature and origin of the "Lynchian" — as critics soon began labeling it — remained utterly mysterious. Now, with the long-awaited Twin Peaks: The Return having completed its own run, we've started thinking about it once again.

What does the Lynchian look like from the vantage of the 21st century? David Foster Wallace, in an essay on Lynch's Lost Highway twenty years ago, defined the term "Lynchian" as referring to "a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Lewis Bond, the video essayist who runs the Youtube channel Channel Criswell, goes a bit deeper in "David Lynch - The Elusive Subconscious." What is it, he asks, that denotes the style of Lynch? "The same way a hallway sinking into darkness is Lynchian, so is a white picket fence in a slice of Americana."

These and the enormous variety of other things Lynchian must "exude elusiveness, and the enigma of what signifies Lynchian sensibilities lies in producing unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar."At first glance, that statement may seem as obscure as some of Lynch's creative choices do when you first witness them. But spend a few minutes with Bond's wide-ranging video essay, taking in Lynch's images at the same time as the analysis, and you'll get a clearer sense of what both of them are going for. After examining Lynch's use of the subconscious in his films from several different angles, Bond arrives at Pauline Kael's description of the filmmaker as "the first populist surrealist."

"Although his work is puzzling, and more often than not intended to be so," says Bond, Lynch "still manages to strike a chord with the way we feel." Lynch, in other words, puts dreams on the screen, but instead of simply relating the inventions of his own subconscious — hearing someone retell their dreams being, after all, a byword for an agonizingly boring experience — he somehow gets all of us to dream them ourselves. What haunts us when we wake up after a particularly harrowing night also haunts us when we come out of a Lynch movie, but the artistry of the latter has a way of making us want to plunge right back into the nightmare again.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


What to Say When You Don’t Understand Contemporary Art? A New Short Film, “Masterpiece,” Has Helpful Suggestions

MasterpieceRunyararo Mapfumo’s short film above, will feel very familiar to anyone who has struggled for words to share with a friend after his or her underwhelming Off-Off-Broadway solo show, open mic performance, or art installation…

Equally familiar, from the reverse angle, to any artist who’s ever invited a trusted friend to view his or her passion project, hoping for approval or at the very least, interest… something more robust than the paltry crumbs the friend manages to eek out under pressure.

A British Film Institute London Film Festival selected short, Masterpiece focuses on a tight group of male friends… one of whom has reached beyond the communal comfort zone in the service of his art. His earnestness confounds his old pals, who clown around outside the gallery where they've gathered for an after hours preview of his work, one staunchly asserting that he only showed up because his mum made him, and also, he was told there’d be free food.

Once inside the friends are left alone to puzzle out his masterpiece. What to say? Maybe they should draw parallels to the current socio-political situation? Perhaps they could tell their friend his work  is reminiscent of German Expressionism?

Yoko Ono or Marcel Duchamp would have made a more apt comparison, as writer-director Mapfumo is surely aware. Masterpiece is notable for more than just its pitch-perfect take on artist vs. befuddled but still supportive friends. As Mapfumo told Directors Notes:

I’ve been told time and time again to “write what you want to see.” I started thinking about what that meant to me in a everyday context. These characters are black men that I recognize…I didn’t want the conflict to revolve around their identity but rather through their observations. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her most recent artistic endeavor is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division's production of Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Daryl Davis, the Black Blues Musician Who Befriended 200 Klan Members & Made Them See the Errors of Their Ways

Musician Daryl Davis is a great, lumbering bear of a man with a very, very long fuse.

His disposition and his race are equally critical components of his decades-long project—engaging, as a black man, with members of the KKK, the National Socialist Movement, and other groups espousing white supremacy.

Diplomacy seems to be the major lesson of his globetrotting childhood. His father was a State Department official, and wherever the family relocated, Davis went to school with the children of other foreign service workers, whatever their race. This happy, multicultural experience left him unprepared for his return to his country of origin, when he was one of just two black pupils at his Belmont, Massachusetts elementary school, and the only black Cub Scout in his troop.

When Belmont’s Cub Scouts were invited to participate in a 1968 march to commemorate Paul Revere’s ride, his troop leaders tapped the 10-year-old Davis to carry the flag, provoking a furious reaction from many white spectators along the route.

His prior experience was such that he assumed their bile was directed toward scouting, even after his parents sat him down to tell him the truth.

Now, as the subject of Matt Ornstein’s documentary, Accidental Courtesy (watch it on Netflix here), Davis muses that the unusual circumstances of his early childhood equipped him to instigate and maintain an open dialogue with the enemy. He listens carefully to their opinions in the expectation that they will return the courtesy. It’s a long game approach that Davis refuses to play over social media or email. Only face-to-face.

Over time, his even-keeled manner has caused 200 card-carrying racists, according to NPR, to renounce their former path, presenting their cast-off hoods and robes to their new friend, Davis, as a rite of passage.

One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is the tour of his klan memorabilia—patches, jewelry, pocket knives and belt buckles. He is able to explain the colors, insignia and provenance of the robes as methodically as he discusses musical history.

Presumably, some of this knowledge was handed down from the former owners—one of whom volunteers that Davis is far more knowledgable than he ever was about the ins and outs of klan hierarchies.

Davis doesn’t wait for an outspoken racist to renounce his beliefs before claiming him as a friend.

It’s fairly easy to feel clemency toward those Davis has nudged toward a whole new set of values, such as soft-spoken former-Grand-Dragon-turned-anti-racist activist, Scott Shepherd, or Tina Puig, a mother of two who was taken aback by Davis’ offer of a ride to the far away federal penitentiary where her white supremacist husband was serving a ten-year sentence.

It’s queasier to watch Davis posing with a smile in front of Confederate flags at a klan rally, or staunchly refraining from comment as jacked up supremacists spew vile, provocative remarks in his presence.

Not everyone has—or wants to have—the stomach for this sort of work. The most heated encounter in the film is the one between Davis and Baltimore-based Black Lives Matter activists Kwame Rose, Tariq Touré, and JC Faulk.

As director Ornstein told PBS’ Independent Lens:

Daryl operates under the principle that if you aren’t hearing viewpoints that are distasteful to you, that they are also not hearing yours. I think there’s wisdom in that. We saw this last election cycle how not doing that ended in not only disaster for this country, but a lot of infighting and yelling into echo chambers and news that serves to reinforce what you already believe. The economic arguments that Tariq and Kwame present in the film have a tremendous amount of validity, but in no way does this diminish the importance of what someone like Daryl does. If we all took the time to speak to even one or two people we disagree with and both really hear them and be heard that alone would begin to make a difference.

You can watch Accidental Courtesy on Netflix here. (If you don't have a subscription, you could always sign up for a 30-day free trial.) We have also added an NPR profile of Davis above.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her current project is Theater of the Apes' Sub-Adult Division's production of Animal Farm, opening this week in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a Step-by-Step Breakdown of La La Land‘s Incredibly Complex, Off Ramp Opening Number

La La Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle’s award-winning Valentine to Hollywood musicals, attracted legions of fans upon its release last December.

Their ardor is bookended by the enmity of Broadway diehards underwhelmed by the stars’ singing and dancing chops and those who detest musicals on principle.

The above video may not lead the detractors to swallow Chazelle’s Kool-Aid colored vision, but listening to choreographer Mandy Moore’s behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the complicated opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” should inspire respect for the massive feat of cinematic coordination below.

This may be the first time in history that a choreographer has singled out the Transport Department for public praise.

Remember how your folks used to freak out about you denting the hood when you capered atop the family Country Squire? Turns out they were right.

One of the Transpo' crew's crucial assignments was placing vehicles with specially reinforced hoods and roofs in the spots where dancers had been choreographed to bound on top of them. Getting it wrong early on would have wasted valuable time on a two day shoot that shut down an exit ramp connecting the 110 and 105 freeways.

The real La La Land conjures fantasies of Angelyne clad in head-to-toe pink behind the wheel of her matching pink Corvette, but for this number, the Costume Department collaborated with the Transport Department to diversify the palette.

In other words, the red-gowned flamenco dancer could emerge from a yellow car, and the yellow-shirted krumper could emerge from a red car, but not vice versa.

Mercifully, the art department refrained from a total color-coordination blackout. That moment when a gust of wind catches the skirts of the blonde conductor’s yellow dress plays like an intentional tribute to Marilyn Monroe, when in fact it was a lucky accident made all the more glorious by the sunny drawers she was sporting underneath.

Other day-of accidents required on-the-fly ingenuity, such as enlisting three burly crew members to provide off screen help to a performer struggling with a malfunctioning door to the truck concealing a Latin band within. (With temperatures soaring to 104°, they were hot in more ways than one.)

Moore was also off-camera, hiding under a chassis to cue the skateboarder, who was unfamiliar with the 8-count the 30 main dancers were trained to respond to.

Other “special skills” performers include a BMX biker, a Parkour traceur, the director’s hula hooping sister, and a stunt woman whose ability to backflip into the narrow channel between two parked cars  landed her the part… and kept her injury-free for over 40 takes.

Half of the finished film’s gridlocked celebrants are CGI generated, but the live performers had to remain in synch with the pre-recorded song by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, a particular challenge given the size of the outdoor filming area. Executive music producer Marius de Vries and engineer Nicholai Baxter solved that one by looping the track into each car’s radio, plus a number of hidden speakers and two more on a moving rig.

Moore was determined to keep her carefully plotted moves from feeling too dance-y—the only time the dancers perform in unison is at the very end, right before they hop back down, reenter their vehicles, and slam their doors shut as one.

For a more naturalistic vision, watch director Chazelle’s iPhone footage of the main dancers rehearsing in a parking lot, prior to the shoot.

Funny how, left to their own devices, these Angelenos seem to wear almost as much black and grey as their counterparts on the east coast….

The exuberance of the original has given rise to numerous community-based tributes and parodies, with stand-outs coming from the Xiamen Foreign Language School in China, North Carolina’s Camp Merrie-Woode, Notre Dame High School in Chazelle’s home state of New Jersey, and a 17-year-old Arizona boy making a promposal to leading lady Emma Stone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She is currently directing Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

New Documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold Now Streaming on Netflix

Quick note: Netflix just launched a new documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. It's a portrait (naturally) of the now 82-year-old literary icon, Joan Didion, that's directed by her own nephew Griffin Dunne. If you have a Netflix account, you can start streaming the 90 minute documentary here. If you don't, you could always sign up for Netflix's 30-day free trial.

If you read the reviews of the film (at the New Yorker, New York Times, NPR, etc), you'll hear echoes of what Godfrey Cheshire has to say over at RogerEbert.com:

A fond and appreciative portrait of one of American journalism’s superstars, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” may not contain any revelations that will surprise those who’ve followed Didion’s eloquent, often autobiographical writing over the years. But the fact that it was made by her nephew, actor/filmmaker Griffin Dunne, gives it a warmth and intimacy that might not have graced a more standard documentary.

Again, you can start streaming here...

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Every Academy Award Winner for Best Cinematography in One Supercut: From 1927’s Sunrise to 2016’s La La Land

A list of chronological Oscar winners often tells you more about the state of the culture than the state of the art. That is very true when it comes to Best Picture, with musicals and epics taking home the Academy Award during one decade, but being largely forgotten the next. So too is the award for Best Cinematography, as seen in the seven-minute supercut above. Showing every Academy Award winning cinematographer and their films, the supercut's choices for the one or two shots that sum up a brilliantly lit picture do make the Academy’s decision at least justified. But it is surprising how quickly so many of these films have slipped from the public’s consciousness. (Like 2003’s Master and Commander--when’s the last time you thought about that film?)

When the Academy first started giving awards for cinematography, it went to the person first, not the picture and the person involved. So when Karl Struss and Charles Rosher were nominated for--ostensibly--their work on F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise--they also got credited for the five other films they had shot that year.

The current system was worked out in 1931, although up to 1967 awards went--and I think rightly so!--to color and black and white separately. (And, to further complicate things, the color award was considered a “special achievement” award for a while until Gone with the Wind pretty much necessitated a change in priorities.) After 1967, the only black and white film to win was Schindler’s List.

Somebody with way more viewing experience should weigh in on what makes a lot of these films Oscar-worthy in their cinematography, but it does seem that at least through the 1960s, the Academy loved bold use of saturated colors for one category, and an almost abstract use of high contrast shadow and light for the other.

Other notables: Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (a rather minor work) and Rebecca (a much better one) were his only two films to get the nod, with awards going to Robert Burks (but not for his work on Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest) and George Barnes respectively. Stanley Kubrick has had two of his films win, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!)

Stanley Kubrick has done slightly better, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator both earned statues for Robert Richardson (who also won for Oliver Stone’s JFK). Roger Deakins has never won, though he’s been nominated 13 times, twice in 2007 for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

And the most awarded cinematographer? That’s a tie at four Oscars each for Leon Shamroy (The Black Swan, Wilson, Leave Her to Heaven, and the studio-destroying bomb Cleopatra); and Joseph Ruttenberg (The Great Waltz, Mrs. Miniver, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Gigi).

Make of this list what you will. (And feel free to do so in the comments!)

via Indiewire

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting in a New Online Course, Drawing on His Iconic Pulp Fiction Performance & Others

With an actor as prolific and as long in the game as Samuel L. Jackson, a fan can pick a favorite performance only with great difficulty. Should it come from his roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic ParkDie Hard with a Vengeance, the Star Wars prequels, or the comic-book spectacles of Marvel Studios? His roles for iconoclastic auteurs like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Thomas Anderson? His role — immortal title line and all — in Snakes on a Place? For many, though, Jackson attains prime Jacksonianism in only one context: his ongoing collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.

Whenever Jackson appears in a Tarantino film, whichever character he plays immediately becomes one of the most memorable in cinema's past 25 years. But will any ever surpass Pulp Fiction's Jheri-curled hitman Jules Winnfield for sheer impact per moment onscreen? Tarantino wrote the part especially for Jackson after seeing what he could do with a thuggish character in Tony Scott's True Romance, whose script Tarantino had also written. Tarantino's second feature film (and Jackson's thirtieth) rocketed the actor to the top of the zeitgeist, not least on the strength of what we now call the "Ezekiel speeches," the scenes in which Jackson-as-Winnfield quotes what he describes as the Bible passage Ezekiel 25:17:

Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.

Jackson's first Ezekiel speech (which owes as much to martial-arts star Sonny Chiba as to any holy text) comes toward the beginning of the movie, as he and his partner in killing Vincent Vega (a role that also did a great deal for its performer John Travolta, returning him to his former cultural prominence) turn up to an apartment to do a job. He delivers his final one in the highly Tarantinian setting of a Los Angeles diner booth, and both Tarantino and Jackson do their utmost to make it reveal his character's transformation in his journey through the story.

It makes sense, then, that Jackson would break down and recreate that diner scene in the online course "Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting," newly offered (for a fee of $90) by the education startup Masterclass. "I made a decision early in life that I wasn't going to live and die in Chattanooga, Tennessee," he says in its trailer, a line that could belong to the kind of monologue he delivers so powerfully in the movies. "Being able to embody a lot of different characters in film has been very cathartic, being able to let go of the anger or the disappointment that I had in my life." Jackson's Masterclass promises coverage of script breakdown, voice, characterization, auditioning, collaboration, and voiceover acting — catharsis, it seems, comes as a bonus. You can pre-enroll now and get early access to the 20-lesson course. It should be available in Winter 2017.

Note: Masterclass has other acting courses taught by Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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