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Stage Frights: The Soloist and Is Anybody There?

The Soloist is a crude fiasco that trivializes the very values it allegedly enshrines.

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Stage Frights: The Soloist and Is Anybody There?
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Even if The Soloist, with its hack screenplay by Susannah Grant, didn’t have Robert Downey Jr. (as the real-life LA Times columnist Steve Lopez) slipping on his own spilled piss onto a bathroom stall floor (after answering his cellphone while giving a urine sample), and even if it didn’t also feature Downey, scenes later, getting a leaky bag of bodily fluids full on in the face, the movie would still be a crude fiasco that trivializes the very values it allegedly enshrines.

The narrative follows a chance encounter between Lopez and a homeless violinist named Nathaniel Ayers (here stiffly personified by Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic street person with a Beethoven fixation, and who was once (supposedly) a promising cellist, a man who briefly attended Juilliard but was too unhinged to amount to much. Shortly before the fateful first meeting of journalist and musician, the British director Joe Wright stages a scene of Lopez amongst his Times colleagues. Although the staffers, seated in their cubicles, don’t appear to be multi-tasking, everyone speaks in an identical rapid-fire delivery, as if they were moth-eaten holdovers from Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, prattling and rattling on about the loss of readers in this or that demographic. Wright overlaps the dialogue (seemingly to resurrect an Altman touch) yet he overlaps the four voices in such a way that we don’t miss a word; the sequence is so fustily neat, it’s drained of any life-like energy. Wright and Grant mean for us to be supportive onlookers of the journos’ noble calling, but if newspapermen (and –women) are anything like the glib solipsists represented here, then, by all means, the industry deserves to fail.

Having read neither Lopez’s columns on Ayers nor his subsequent book on the same topic, I can only speculate that the first-hand account must have, in some ways, felt moving and true. And undoubtedly there’s a vital, compelling story here somewhere—the sustaining power of classical music within a human soul. But it’s buried—buried deep—under the wrong actors, the wrong director, the wrong script, and the wrong approach.

Grant receives the sole writing credit, yet in the worst Hollywood tradition, her work plays out as if penned by a committee. OK, we got Foley of someone defecating to loop to the aerial tracking shot of a guy on the toilet—check! OK, we got debilitating mental illness portrayed exclusively in horror movie terms—natch! OK, we inserted the sentimental moment of a black mother telling her son she hears God in his cello playing—and so on and on and on. Grant thoroughly falsifies wherever she goes. And Wright consistently obliges her with his own high-falutin’ tastelessness. Perhaps it’s the journalistic milieu, or perhaps the director fancied that he was making a statement on being poor and black and disenfranchised in our land of excess, America; whatever the case, throughout the first hour, Wright blips in footage of Katrina, Bush, the Iraqi war dead. What do these juxtaposed images mean in the context of screechy, major-studio hermeticism? (Screechy not because of Nathaniel’s two-stringed violin, but because much of the scenario unfolds in the middle of highway traffic.) They’re intended to foster the impression that the filmmakers are commenting on something, when in fact the filmmakers are free-associating. Wright, additionally, loves close-ups of wounds, of a drug addict’s fatal injections, the faces of the diseased and deformed. (The Soloist treats urban poverty like something out of Grand Guignol: junkies fistfight against backdrops of chiaroscuro, billowing smoke, and flickering firelight, so that the movie becomes a kind of skid row Phantom of the Opera.)

Furthermore, when Nathaniel acquires a cello and plays for the first time in several years (in front of a rapt audience of Downey and oncoming cars), Wright doesn’t even trust the unadorned resonance of the solo instrument; we hear only a few seconds of the performer’s unaccompanied bowing before the soundtrack swells with the liltingly sweetened uplift of soupy orchestrations. Wright’s idea of rapture consists of showing us a pair of birds flapping and flying over a maze of LA interstates, circling to the swoon of Romantic bombast (that all but drowns out the person we’re supposed to be listening to). What’s worse, this sugared-up notion of classical music, even though it’s performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, doesn’t sound anything like what you’d hear in a concert hall; it sounds more like Jerry Bruckheimer meets Mantovani, and as the end credits roll, there’s this unassailable gem—“music composed by Beethoven, arranged by Dario Marianelli”—a credit that merits its own place in movie history, right alongside “Written by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”

What about the two lead performances? They are as mechanical as anything else. Downey recycles the same-old huffy-puffy shtick that he always does, which is all he can do since Grant conceives Lopez as an Everyman cipher. In some shots, he’s meant to be a soulful loner, wandering around the cavernous house that he singularly occupies, listening to Neil Diamond croon “Mr. Bojangles.” In others, he’s the slapstick buffoon dousing himself with the aforementioned urine; and of course, he’s a do-gooder who reacts angrily when Nathaniel can’t get it together to attend a Philharmonic rehearsal. “I’m a professional person!” the columnist spews over the cellist’s schizzy diddling away of valuable time. Is Lopez intended to be smug and self-righteous? With his salt-and-pepper buzz-cut and his inflated chatter about the sanctity of media, he certainly could be a huckster goon gainfully employed by MSNBC. Yet Downey never pushes the role’s limitations into parody; that would be too disrespectful, I imagine.

As for Oscar-recipient Foxx, his face as large-boned as a hockey mask, he has neither the technique nor the inspiration to make Ayers into anything beyond a generic crazie. When pantomiming at violin or cello, Foxx gets by; when he opens his mouth to speak, however, phoniness comes pouring out. He’s been directed to recite his stream-of-consciousness rambles in the exact staccato rhythms of the pompous newspaperpersons. After a while, a long while, of observing Foxx’s one-note interpretation, of watching him guardedly wheel around a treasure trove shopping cart brimming over with festooned junk, as he mutters indecipherably to himself, white greasepaint smudged across his cheeks, nose, and forehead, it occurred to me that Foxx’s Ayers had begun to resemble WALL-E. The homeless man as Disney character—what an achievement.

For some highly inexplicable reason, I had (how many qualifiers can I inject into a single phrase?) sort of, in a mild fit of curiosity, been looking forward to seeing the Michael Caine vehicle Is Anybody There? The notion of Sir Michael playing a magician—a role that might have let him tap into those vaudevillian wellsprings of his, the ones he so artfully conceals a good bit of the time, struck me as—fun, potentially. If the trappings do not burst with promise (and they don’t), there was (I hoped) the bliss of Sir Michael enjoying himself silly pulling rabbits from hats.

Minutes into Is Anybody There?—actually, it would be more accurate to say mere seconds in—two things become painfully unambiguous: the movie’s curdled humor dictates that everyone in this saga set in a seedy old-folks’ home will be paraded around as a freak, regardless of age; and that the scriptwriter Peter Harness, to say nothing of the director John Crowley, will desperately go to any length to avoid having anything to say on any subject. (The movie also fails dismally as “pure” entertainment, whatever that may be.) If Caine’s Clarence (once known as The Amazing Clarence, in his prestidigitatory days on the music hall circuit) reminisces too poignantly over his late wife, why, let’s chase that scene with screeching tires and a car crash, a crash, I might add, that advances the slender reed of a storyline not an iota. Or there’s this: an elderly woman collapses and dies the instant before her estranged daughter arrives on the boarding house steps. (The mother had so been looking forward to the reunion.) What does Crowley do? He strikes up a band of kazoo players on the soundtrack, as we watch two skinny persons hoist the deceased’s corpulent corpse up a stairwell. (Visually, the movie’s astoundingly ugly, which should come as no surprise—its low-lit, dingy horrors match its desiccated formula of morbid-equals-cute.)

Eventually, Clarence, who has staggered through his every waking hour at the retirement home in stoic misery or in tears, finds himself cajoled into performing at a child’s birthday party, to dust off that conjurer’s wand, to doff that top hat in the service of illusion.

But by that point the only magic trick I wanted to see Caine perform was to make this entire film disappear.

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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.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

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.”

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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.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

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.

Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Actress
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?

Supporting Actor
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

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
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

Original Screenplay
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
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
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

Animated Feature
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)

Cinematography
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
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

Original Score
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

Original Song
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

Costume Design
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

Visual Effects
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

Sound Mixing
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

Sound Editing
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)

Animated Short
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

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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.

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Someone Is in My House

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.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

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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