Connect with us

Blog

The Brave One: Trumbo

Published

on

The Brave One: Trumbo

Trumbo, Peter Askin’s poignant, mind-stirring documentary about the defiantly prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted during the McCarthy era, based on a play written by his son Christopher (from letters Trumbo wrote during that tumultuous period) is essential viewing for all film critics—any professional writer really—recently affected by the economic recession. To call Trumbo tenacious, awe-inspiring, a courageous hero doesn’t do the man justice. How many writers working today would accept poverty and prison, shame and exile to stand by their convictions—and do it for ten long years? How many writers in 2008 would have prefaced that with nearly another decade stoically working as a night bread wrapper for an L.A. bakery while studying at USC, repossessing motorcycles, reviewing films for a trade magazine—and churning out six novels and eighty-eight short stories (all of which would be rejected for publication)? To all those laid off writers I say, if you can’t write without a paycheck being involved then you’ve no business considering yourself in the same profession as Mr. Trumbo (thus you probably didn’t deserve that paycheck in the first place. Ah, isn’t karma sweet?)

Yes, karma eventually arrived to vindicate Trumbo when he became the first writer to break the Blacklist courtesy of Kirk Douglas (who fought for his credit on Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (who did the same on Exodus). Askin uses swiftly edited film clips, interviews (with both McCarthy era scholars and those who knew Trumbo like Douglas and Dustin Hoffman) and archival material, including interviews with the witty and crotchety screenwriter himself, but the beating heart of the film is the many A-list actors who read Trumbo’s letters to friends and family, his words so alive and precise even today that not much is needed in the way of interpretation. The plainly dressed thespians merely channel the magic on the page. Askin changes camera angles here and there, but the scenes mainly consist of a giant like Brian Dennehy, perhaps a glass of water and a table, and the letter being read. Theatrical, yes; cinematic, no. In fact, Askin who was in the midst of directing the London stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch when he was approached to do Trumbo seems more suited to directing for the stage. And every single actor who gives voice to Trumbo’s words (save for Josh Lucas—Josh Lucas?) has more than solid theater training and cred. In addition to Dennehy, there’s fellow Tony Award winners Joan Allen and Nathan Lane, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland and Michael Douglas (who every once in awhile has to take on some moving parts like this and the one in Wonder Boys to remind us he’s every bit the hard-working talent his father once was).

Ironically, these scenes of mesmerizing theatrical performance also end up the Achilles heel of Askin’s film. As one blessed to have seen Dennehy in his Tony Award winning turns in Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (with Vanessa Redgrave!), as well as his critically underappreciated performance opposite Christopher Plummer in Inherit The Wind”(he got robbed!), I can vouch for the electric current that pulses throughout the theater whenever Dennehy is onstage. He’s a one-man earthquake, a shamanistic actor in the truest sense. So it’s a bit frustrating that talent like his and the rest of the cast (Joan Allen is even moved to startling tears while reading a letter, no acting tricks required) is confined to the screen. I wholeheartedly would have preferred to see Trumbo as a live theater piece, all the interviews, archival footage and film clips confined to video monitors in the background. This material needs that visceral quality only human flesh can provide to do its present-day themes justice (even the most powerful cinema will never eclipse, but must always coexist, with live performance). We need to overwhelmingly feel what Trumbo and other blacklisted artists went through, not just hear about it through interviews and see it in archival footage. The fact that Trumbo began life as a play only makes me long for that original form. I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes do Hamlet onstage—and I can say with utmost certainty that a film’s lens would be lucky to capture one-tenth of his animal passion. Some artists are just too big to be adequately contained within a frame. And Trumbo was a man who fit this definition to a T.

Wishful thinking aside, within cinema’s limits Trumbo is still incredibly moving. Some images, like the pan across the Hollywood Ten panel at the HUAC hearings, their respective Oscar nominations and awards superimposed beneath the determined faces (massive fish for McCarthy), is heartbreaking. Like with the Holocaust, archival footage of the HUAC hearings is always intriguing (for proof see the epic Point of Order) for it poses the mind-boggling question, “How the fuck could we have allowed this to happen?” And Askin’s film does an admirable job in providing context for the McCarthy atrocity, reminding us that our cool, WWII Russian Commie allies became our Cold War enemy virtually overnight (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” was the 40s political equivalent of “Have you ever tried marijuana?”). “Get ready to become nobody,” is how Trumbo puts it in an interview in his later years, describing the actions a writer took after being subpoenaed—sell your house, get in as much work as possible, save every penny before the news becomes public. One can’t help but think of the Jewish persecutions in Europe, and indeed Trumbo is seen at the hearings declaring, “This is the beginning of a Jewish concentration camp—for writers,” an uncomfortable truth that could have been probed more deeply by Askin.

Aside from a few clips of Nazi-sympathizing Walt Disney himself vowing to rid Fantasyland of the Reds, not much is uttered about the fact that right on the heels of the Holocaust an overwhelmingly anti-Semitic Congress was holding hearings that in effect ordered mostly Jewish Hollywood moguls to cleanse themselves of First Amendment clinging artists (it’s important to remember that on the stand Trumbo and his fellow railroaded colleagues took the First—not the Fifth—in a brilliant act of legal defiance), silencing art through spectacle in much the same way Hitler staged exhibitions of “Degenerate Art.” In light of the situation, I don’t think it’s too hysterical to call these cowardly moguls, bowing to the almighty dollar, Jewish capos for the ruling fascist government, building “concentration camps for writers” by selling them out. After all, one of the most insidious, disturbing aspects of the Blacklist, a nightmarish blackmail—“Faustian” as Trumbo describes it—is that it was created by the capos in order to save their own skins. Really, how far is it from “denounce your religion, convert to Christianity and you will be spared” to “name names and you’ll be able to feed your family”? Did they not see the parallel or did they not want to see it?

Not that the Blacklist succeeded in stifling artistry, in being any less farcical than the Hayes Code. Wherever artists are being silenced they will always find a way to be heard. Trumbo and his self-exiled cohorts (Mexico—the place to roam when you’ve got nothing left to lose!) merely created their own underground railroad of fronts and pseudonyms, a clandestine subversion of the system spawned from the same constraining seed that created the passionate filmmaking during the Hayes years. Trumbo wrote some of his best work under aliases (he had thirteen of them!), Roman Holiday and The Brave One to name just two. (In an interview Trumbo coyly explains why he refuses to confirm or deny that he wrote any particular script—so he can take a little credit for every great film without having to be responsible for the “scamps.”) To this list I would add his letters, which were oftentimes his only means of communication and connection, and a catharsis as well. Hollywood’s golden age, when the studios served as patrons to artists, was glorious—until those artists awoke to the hard cold truth of being owned, traded and kicked into the street on a whim. In his letters, Trumbo was able to recapture the lost innocence of playing with words, a pure enjoyment not dependent on payment (highlighted in Lane’s reading of a winking, hilarious essay on masturbation accompanied by a teasing orchestral score).

“Freedom of speech is a luxury,” Trumbo states in an interview, when faced with going hungry. In his letters he declares that “choice is the devil,” the free will to decide whether to inform or to starve. One can’t help but think that Trumbo made the right decision glimpsing at the bounty of happy family photos taken in the wake of the Blacklist, including Ring Lardner Jr.’s daughter’s album, which contains a B&W still of the ex-pats wrestling like kids. Old home movies of the families and friends who banded together are both touching and painful. They may have lost everything material, but they evidently kept their love for one another—and their pride. (One talking head recalls visiting the blacklisted writer Adrian Scott in a house with no furniture, only a typewriter on a crate and a photo of FDR gracing the wall. Scott was willing to sacrifice everything, save for his dignity and his voice.)

And yet—the fallout in those tight-knit families, the “psychic injuries” inflicted upon Trumbo’s teenage daughter Mitzi, mocked at school until she refused to go anymore, her father forced to live undercover using pseudonyms like a criminal on the run—gives pause. What does it feel like to watch the Academy Awards, to see Robert Rich’s trophy for The Brave One sit unclaimed, then have to tell your children, “No, of course we can’t go get it.” That statue now resides with Mitzi, though of it Trumbo wrote at the time, recalling how many suicides the Blacklist had spawned, “It is covered in the blood of my dead friends.” I wonder if Elia Kazan ever wrote a heart-pounding letter like the one penned to the widow of Ray Murphy, one of Trumbo’s fronts who died suddenly at the age of 29, expressing his indebted gratitude to her husband (this is the letter that brought tears to Joan Allen’s eyes), detailing exactly why and how this man touched his life. In Trumbo’s words to the grieving wife one can trace the origin of “I am Spartacus!” Trumbo’s fronts and Spartacus’ comrades were one and the same.

Through passion and outrage Trumbo retained his freedom, the payoff coming not in any onetime statuette, but in the simple ability to get up each and every morning and proudly face himself in the mirror. After all, being able to live with one’s self is something no amount of money can buy. And in this way Trumbo proves just as much an indictment of the cowards who informed without uttering one bad thing about them—as dignified as Trumbo himself. Thirty-two years after Dalton Trumbo’s death his remarkable words about life being one long fight, not a series of battles (read by Sutherland over the closing credits), ring truer than ever. Instant gratification and the myopic nature of consumer culture will always serve to blind us to the bigger picture, to mask that profound piece of advice Trumbo gave to a young Donald Sutherland. “Don’t forget to be happy.”

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

Advertisement
Comments

Blog

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.

Published

on

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.”

Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

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

Continue Reading

Blog

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.

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending