Friday, November 20, 2009

unpublished Spin feature, 1992?

There are movies that warm the cockles of your heart and get you sobbing into your popcorn. You stumble out the theater teary-eyed and blinking, with a freshly restored faith in human values: the resilience of the human spirit, the power of communication, standing up for what you believe in, etc. These films have morals not even a simpleton could miss. They might leave you feeling manipulated and manhandled, but they sure do give your emotional centers a vigorous work-out. Examples: any film starring Robin Williams ("Dead Poets Society", "Awakenings") or Kevin Costner ("Field Of Dreams", "Dances With Wolves"); anything directed by Alan Parker ("Mississippi Burning", "Come See The Paradise"); virtually any picture that gets Oscar nominations ("Rain Man", "Avalon," "Postcards From The Edge", "The Accused", "Terms Of Endearment", ad nauseam).

These films are UNCOOL. That's not a value judgement so much as a temperature reading. At the opposite extreme from these hot and wet liberal outpourings, there's a new kind of movie that's altogether more refrigerated in tone. COOL cinema isn't upflifting - it's about vertigo. You leave the movie complex feeling dizzy, displaced, slightly nauseous, distinctly unreal. COOL movies don't move the heart so much as ravish the gaze. You don't identify with the characters because every beautifully lit and mounted shot frames you in the position of a voyeur. Morally clouded and perturbing, or simply blank and amoral, these films portray a world where aesthetics and ethics seldom coincide. Supreme exponents: David Lynch ("Blue Velvet," "Wild At Heart," "Twin Peaks"), Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train"). Close behind: Pedro Almodovar ("Law Of Desire," "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown," "Tie Me Up Tie Me Down") and Peter Greenaway ("Drowning By Numbers," "The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover"). Precursors: David Byrne's "True Stories", Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild", Scorsese's "After Hours". [IF I'D WRITTEN THESE A FEW YEARS LATER, WOULD HAVE ADDED THE COEN BROTHERS TO THE LIST, OBVIOUSLY].[AND A FEW YEARS AFTER THAT: QUENTIN TARANTINO]. And bringing up the rear: the rash of imitators (e.g. "The Unbelievable Truth") who all get tagged "reminiscent of the warped imagination of David Lynch".

UNCOOL CINEMA is coherent. Motivations dovetail with deeds; conflicts between characters are ultimately resolved; harmony is restored. Structurally and psychologically, these films are seamless, tightly woven, with no loose ends or contradictions: they're easy to "read". The soundtrack intervenes punctually, underscoring the events and letting you know what to feel and when. You step off the emotional rollercoaster shaken but in one piece.

COOL CINEMA is incoherent. COOL directors like to play games with consistency (of character, narrative etc). Characters make inexplicable departures from their norm. Synchronicity and the supernatural intervene to fill in cracks in the plot, while events unfold according to dream logic. Unity of tone and atmosphere shatters. David Lynch's work typifies COOL with its jumpcuts between different movie genres and moods: film noir, trash B-movie, soap opera, Gothic, "The Wizard Of Oz", Dada, fairy tale, "Hardy Boys" mystery and boho art flick. Gushing sentiment that's way too corny to move you is juxtaposed abruptly with macabre violence that's way too garish and nicely shot to truly alarm. Even in the "suspenseful" "Blue Velvet", the plot is merely a frame in which Lynch slots his fantastical tableaux (Frank Booth's decadent gang at play, the climactic murder scene) which all have the composition and uncanny colouration of a Surrealist painting. But with "Wild At Heart", Lynch throws aside the figleaf pretext of a plot, and opts instead for a picaresque narrative: his wanderering runaways pass through an unconnected series of bizarre situations and meaningless interludes, randomly colliding with crackpots and deviants. Or there's Jarmusch's "Mystery Train", which was acclaimed by gullible critics for its radical experimentation with narrative, but was in fact an empty conundrum: four subplots connected by coincidence and contingency, visual echoes and musical motifs. COOL CINEMA doesn't want us to suspend our belief so much as want to make belief a dead issue.

"The world comes before [him] with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious and oppressive charge of affect, glowing with hallucinatory energy." Postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson is describing how the world looks through the eyes of a schizophrenic, but his account fits just about any scene in a David Lynch movie. According to Jameson, the schizophrenic's predicament is that he's condemned to live in the present tense, because he lacks a sense of his own identity through time. "Isolated, that present [moment] suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness." If COOL CINEMA tends to be poorly plotted, it's perhaps because it's not organised in time, but as a discontinuous series of effects (without causes) and ultra-vivid images. After a David Lynch movie, you don't evaluate it in terms of its having a good story or believable, 3D characters, you say: "there were some cool scenes... the bit with the dwarf was cool..."

It could be that our culture is heading inexorably towards a state where schizophrenia is the norm. The cluster of effects generally lumped together under the heading of "postmodernism" -- media overload, the withering of attention span (for instance, the widely held sentiment that the war was beginning to "drag on" when it hadn't been won after a week), the waning of historical awareness, "retro-nuevo" art that pick-and-mixes fragments from different eras (in rock: Prince, Madonna, Deee-Lite, Pixies, Sonic Youth etc) -- all this is stranding us in the schizo's perpetual present tense.

At the opposite end of the COOL/UNCOOL spectrum from David Lynch there's the defiantly unhip and oldfashioned Alan Parker, who claims that with films like "Mississippi Burning" and "Come See The Paradise" he's deliberately renovating a Hollywood tradition of middlebrow, message-oriented, populist moviemaking. He says he's not ashamed to manipulate the audience, let them know where their sympathies ought to lie. UNCOOL movie directors like Parker still imagine they can straightforwardly represent an only slightly airbrushed outside world, or reconstruct history as it was. UNCOOL doesn't want us to forget historically momentous happenings like the civil rights struggles, or the iniquitous treatment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, that shaped the world we live in today.

But COOL CINEMA knows that films about the past tell us more about our myths and fantasies of those periods than what "it was really like". David Lynch's films take place in a period you can't place, an eerie merger of Fifties, Sixties and Nineties. In "Wild At Heart" the Fifties rebel hero and heroine get down to Eighties hardcore and speedmetal. "Blue Velvet" is set in the mythical, picture postcard small town of the Fifties, but under the idyllic surface lies like the rotten core of a subterranean drug culture (Sixties swingers turned decrepit and decadent, with a sour note of Eighties S&M to boot). Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" was basically an essay on the Fifties and how our dreams of transgression and self-reinvention are still tied to the primal rock'n'roll rebel.

The reason UNCOOL cinema belongs to yesteryear ultimately has to do with the fact that it invites us to see through it: to the story, the meaning. But with COOL cinema, the image is all. As Black Francis from The Pixies says,
explaining why he admires David Lynch's method and imitates it in his songwriting: "it's about going with whatever looks and sounds good, and not worrying what it means". COOL cinema turns us all into voyeurs, like Jeffrey Beaumont in "Blue Velvet" spying through the wardrobe slats as Frank abuses Dorothy Vallence. In COOL cinema, not even death evades the obligation to look good. What COOL directors like Lynch and Jarmusch, Almodovar and Greenaway, are obsessed with is the stylization of passion and violence. Which is why Chris Isaak and Julee Cruise are so right for the Lynch aesthetic, with their evocations of an age when even agony was elegant, when the brokenhearted died inside, but did it in style. The obsession with the Fifties is partly explained by the fact that this era saw THE BIRTH OF THE COOL: for the first time, teenagers, influenced by Brando and Dean, began to walk around as though continually under the camera's gaze, as though they were living in a movie.

Being "cool" means concealing your feelings, giving the impression you're not affected, refusing to let the volcanic eruption of mirth or tears break the surface of your face. "Cool" means being inscrutable, depthless, two-dimensional, picture perfect. COOL CINEMA teems with casualties of the idea of cool birthed in the Fifties, like the Japanese boy in "Mystery Train, a pilgrim come to Memphis to worship at the shrine of Elvis, with his slicked back hair, cigarette lighting tricks, and death-mask impassivity. Or Nicholas Cage in "Wild At Heart" with his snakeskin jacket that "expresses mah belief in self-expression and individuality". One thing COOL CINEMA seems to "say" is that every form of transgression is destined to become cliche or cartoon. Fetishized by the camera's gaze, the living gesture turns to stone.

UNCOOL, with its "feel good" ethos and confidence in human values, is the cinema of the past. COOL, with its "look good" aesthetic and its replacement of involvement with fascination, is the cinema of the future. But, you might well ask, what kind of future, and will there be any humans there?

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