The representation of Cuba in cinema is exceptionally difficult to separate from its political context. Whenever the island is invoked in the movies, narratives turn into statements, if not full-blown mystery plays, designed for the exorcism of geopolitical demons. It’s something that can be seen all the way from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s landmark interrogation of his post-revolution society in Memories of Underdevelopment to the imperialist bombast of Bad Boys II and its “Let’s invade Cuba, and do it right this time” finale.
Along with the premiere of the architectural documentary Unfinished Spaces, this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival shone an international spotlight on Cuba, screening a quartet of films from and about the island nation. The films run a gamut of genres from reflective documentary to romantic comedy, but they are all unified by the ease in which one can read them simultaneously as small-scale reflections of life in Cuba and as footnotes in the political conversation.
Case in point: The festival’s artistic director David Ansen prefaced his introduction of Habana Eva, directed by Venezuelan Fina Torres, by saying that the film could be enjoyed as a simple romantic comedy, or as a parable for contemporary Cuba’s international dilemmas. And at first blush, it does glide right into a familiar genre pattern: Eva (Prakriti Maduro) works as a factory seamstress in Havana, but dreams of becoming a top-flight fashion designer. Her complacent engagement to good-natured but quasi-doltish architect Angel (Carlos Enrique Almirante) is thrown into disarray when sexy and wealthy expatriate Jorge (Juan Carlos García) drops into Eva’s life and she becomes his tour guide around the capital. The dilemmas of this love triangle play out in front of an array of photogenic Havana backdrops, and if you were to guess that there are romantic misunderstandings and turnabouts, bawdy sex jokes, and plenty of forlorn gazing over the water into the Cuban sunset, you’d be correct.
Yet the political reading leaps right off the screen. What does it say when the salt-of-the-earth Angel can’t finish building his fiancée a home because of lack of time and building materials? Or that Jorge, ensconced in Armani and Audi, is the scion of a capitalist exile eager to wrest control of colonial-era land holdings from the populist protagonists? Even the simple romantic gesture of a single red rose in hand becomes fraught with import if you also recognize it as a traditional symbol of socialism, and Eva changing her hairstyle by straightening out her cornrows seems to be one of a multitude of minor allegorical swatches.
Late in the game there’s a bizarre leap into some kind of magical realism that is neither particularly realistic nor magical, but instead resembles the premise of a ‘60s American sitcom. The film barely manages to sell its third-act shenanigans—whipsawing from one plot point to another as if trying to set a speed record—through Maduro’s portrayal of Eva. Torres asks her to vault from sexy to goofy to rebellious to introspective, and she handles the challenges with aplomb. She charms both her lovers and the audience, and she holds the entire enterprise together even as it threatens to rip at the seams.
Boleto al Paraiso, directed by Gerardo Chijona, is somewhat more explicit in its political examination. It’s set during the Cuban “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic downturn, taking us on a journey through the fractured underbelly of Cuban culture and counterculture. It’s a story of love in the time of AIDS with the way Chijona weaves together a tragic romance with a glimpse of the methods used by the Cuban government to try to curb the spread of HIV.
The film follows Eunice (Miriel Cejas), a country girl who escapes the clutches of an abusive father by falling in with a group of “freakies,” young vagabonds who party hard, deal drugs, and listen to Metallica and the metal band’s Cuban equivalents. As the group journeys to Havana, Eunice forms a bond with idealistic punk Alejandro (Héctor Medina), who has grand plans for a new life in the city. But their romance takes a dark turn as the hardships of Cuban society press down upon them. It’s a harsh tour through the ills of social decay as we’re buffeted by street crime, homelessness, and prostitution—with the specter of AIDS as yet another affliction upon the body politic.
Chijona takes a dour, jaundiced lens to the society on display, and Eunice’s struggle for survival is evoked through moments that come to us by turns melodramatic and operatic. As with Habana Eva, Boleto al Paraiso is quite self-conscious about the signifying qualities of its narrative; it’s especially clear in the film’s sexually charged moments, where the themes of family, community, disease and decay all converge and reach a boiling point. They’re staged and shot and scored in a way that infuses them with a symbolic weight they struggle to bear.
Yet amid the heightened energy of the fiction there are intriguing glimpses into the realities of this historical moment, especially when it takes us into the AIDS hospices. Part of Cuba’s top-down command approach to preventing an epidemic, we see the patients are well cared for, but they’re also unable to leave. The weight of that paternalistic restraint is emblematic of the narrative as a whole. And even as the film veers straight towards the histrionic in its final act (a trait it shares with Habana Eva), it still provides a window on the youth of Cuba struggling to make the best out of a set of bad options. They try to forge personal identities in a society ill-equipped to support them, and cling to idealistic hopes in a place where there seems little to hope for.
Operation Peter Pan was a facet of the powder keg that was early 1960s U.S.-Cuban relations, less visible than the Bay of Pigs or the Missile Crisis, but with its own traumatic historical legacy. Supported by the C.I.A. and the Catholic Church, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent by their parents to live in the United States. The children’s parents were spurred in part by reports of a law—later revealed to be a forged false-flag document—that the revolutionary government would take their children and send them to Soviet re-education camps. Although many of the kids were later reunited with their families, others were separated from their parents and siblings and sent to live in orphanages and foster homes. A half-century later these Peter Pan children, well into adulthood, still struggle with the consequences of the operation.
American filmmaker Estela Bravo documents that struggle in Operation Peter Pan: Flying Back to Cuba, tracking down both the people involved in organizing the operation and the children who were sent to live in the United States. Bravo is entirely unconcerned with presentation: The movie is mostly talking heads shot on low-grade digital video backed by a sentimental score, an aesthetic package that’s reminiscent of an infomercial. She’s confident that the stories and memories delivered by those talking heads are powerful enough to stand on their own—and for the most part, they are. With such a wide-ranging group of people, there are all sorts of stories; some made the American transition relatively smoothly, while others found abuse and exploitation at the hands of their supposed caretakers. But the stories are all tied together by a common shock at being uprooted and deposited in a foreign land at such a young age, and the growing realization that they were used as pawns in geopolitical gamesmanship.
While the film meditates on questions of physical and emotional and diplomatic isolation, it’s ultimately designed to be a narrative of reunion, one that closes divisions and makes connections between America and Cuba. These Peter Pans are men and women without a country, their homeland indeterminate, but years later they make a journey back to Cuba to find their roots and see what they left behind. Bravo does deploy some flair in this latter segment; there’s a scene where she weaves a contemporary performance of a Cuban national song by the singer Candi Sosa with a film of Sosa as a child at one of the Peter Pan holding camps, singing the same song. It’s a moment of quiet resonance that bridges past and present. But that’s an isolated moment in a final act that seems disjointed. There’s no real sense of journey or progression in the vignettes capturing the return to Cuba. They’re disconnected from space and time and only pasted together by the talking heads in between. Bravo works to bring intriguing and important facts to light, but the film seems content with merely a flat recitation of those facts.
The 2003 film Suite Habana is the Cuban film at the festival most disconnected from questions of politics, mostly because it’s also the most disconnected from questions of narrative. Director Fernando Pérez crafts a solid entry in the genre of the urban symphony—not fiction, but not exactly a documentary. Instead the film creates a rhythm for the titular capital through a day in the lives of ten of its inhabitants. Pérez searches for the soul of Havana and finds it in an overlapping mosaic of minutiae—the routines of the everyday.
There’s little dialogue in the film, none of it necessary; instead, the film communicates with us through image, gesture, and action. Patterns and connections unfold before us as hour after hour passes, and there’s a sense of the two sides to Havana: The doctors and rail workers and laborers of the day are the clowns, dancers, and jazz musicians of the night.
The pace of the film is a measured, languorous one, and though there are scenes of building and construction and labor, Pérez eschews any high-energy urban kinetics in favor of lingering on the tiny details. An inordinate amount of time is spent following these people as they buy, prepare, and eat their meals. Perhaps this is one way the film finds inroads into the political discourse: Is the proportion of time we spend watching these Habaneros with their food reflective of the time and energy required for such a basic facet of survival? The importance of food is made explicit in the film’s epilogue, which profiles the characters we follow; one of them is an elderly woman who sells peanuts to survive. We are told each person’s dream in life, and with her Pérez tugs at the heartstrings by informing us “she dreams no more.”
At times the movie finds its strength not in the lives it follows, but in the identity of the city itself, the urban framework that gives structure to these people. The oh-so-photogenic lighthouse and breakwaters of Havana’s harbor are a sight we return to like a refrain; also featured in Habana Eva and Boleto al Paraiso, they’ve become the city’s cinematic signifiers. We spend quite a bit of time wandering through Havana’s sun-dappled plazas and boulevards, almost to the point of a travelogue—until we snap back to the characters and see the streets as the conduits by which they conduct their lives. The power of the city symphony film—a power that Suite Habana trades on—is that by locating and observing the spirit of a city, we can see how that environment shapes the identities of those who call it home.
Though it wasn’t the official close to the Los Angeles Film Festival, the live musical production of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is perhaps the best reflection of its ethos. It’s a Los Angeles story that reflects on the city’s cinematic legacy, a clash between the unstoppable force of Hollywood and the immovable object of art cinema, and a display of interdisciplinary virtuosity that’s ultimately a love letter to the power of the movies.
Seduction was originally a radio production commissioned for Swedish public radio and produced by the Los Angeles-based rock duo Sparks as their 22nd album. The musical’s transition from radio to stage—and hopefully to the screen—came about as a series of happy Hollywood accidents. Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up Sparks, were introduced to Canadian surrealist director Guy Maddin when they revealed in an interview that he was one of their favorite directors; the interviewer just happened to be a close friend of Maddin’s. Meanwhile, the genesis of the live production came when the organizers of the Los Angeles Film Festival saw that the band was following the festival’s Twitter account.
At an open-air performance of the musical at Ford Amphitheatre, Maddin takes the stage with the Mael brothers and the rest of the cast. The director reads from his screenplay as we watch the action unfold in front of us and a series of sketches, storyboards, classic movie posters, concept collages, and script snippets are projected onto a giant screen behind them. It’s a technique that evokes Maddin’s films, with the barrage of film clips and text and stills flying by at synaptic speed while performers amble in front of obviously artificial projections. With it, Maddin conjures up a clash between the real and the unreal.
The style perfectly suits the narrative: Following his 1956 Cannes “Best Poetic Humor” win for Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (Peter Franzen) enters a Stockholm movie theater to watch a blockbuster from Hollywood and finds himself transported to that place—or perhaps it’s more of a sensibility. There he’s given the hard sell by a smarmy Studio Chief (Russell Mael) to come and make big-budget Hollywood movies; Bergman also embarks on a phantasmagoric tour of the city led by an enigmatic Limo Driver (Ron Mael). Franzen dominates the stage as Bergman, gruff and imperious in his grey sweater and black beret, an intellectual as icy as the Scandinavian snowscape he calls home. He’s a lone genius with critical cachet, meaning that in Hollywood’s eyes he’s ripe for the picking. The Chief uses every trick in his arsenal to tempt Bergman, from money to busty blondes to “crews that can read your mind and work all night.”
One of the highlights comes as Bergman is given a tour of the studio commissary; there the Chief tries to sell the Swede on Hollywood’s special brand of artistic expression fused with extravagant consumption. Backed by a chorus of laughing executives and an off-kilter polka melody, he points out the pantheon of émigré auteurs that made the Hollywood leap: Among them are Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock (the Chief points out the example of “The Man Who Knew Too Much done twice, in Hollywood done twice as nice!”).
Of course, the whole thing is a Faustian bargain that begins to unravel even as soon as Bergman considers it; at the heart of the drama is an existential crisis straight out of one of the man’s films. Sparks’s rock stylings transform a director-actress squabble into a clash of apocalyptic fury, and Bergman’s situation explodes into a dramatic and delirious escape attempt from his gilded prison; he reflects on the irony that he’s “now an actor in a bad big-budget Hollywood action film.” By the time Bergman crumples on the Santa Monica pier calling out for rescue from a God he’s not sure exists, Maddin and Sparks make a convincing argument that the subsequent film—which will undoubtedly screen at a future Los Angeles Film Festival—will be an intensely fascinating product from a group of offbeat talents. It’s a collaboration the real Bergman would have smiled upon.
Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30
To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.
This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.
Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.
Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.
Blond Ambition Tour
Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.
Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)
MTV On Stage & On the Record
Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.
Sticky & Sweet Tour
After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.
Super Bowl XLVI
Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.
Met Gala 2018
Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.
For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”
In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.
See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.
Green Book (WINNER)
A Star Is Born
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay
Foreign Language Film
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay
Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)
Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)
Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions
Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.
To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.
In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.
Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.
David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.
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