doc films

Wednesday: Lynch and Cronenberg

Just a Couple of Daves

In the world of contemporary cinema, David Cronenberg and David Lynch have established themselves as visionaries capable of producing films filled with inimitable imagery and environments. Though their films can be surreal, nightmarish, and horrifying, they are also rooted in something familiar and universal. They do not develop radically new worlds so much as extend the real one beyond its normal limits, taking ordinary objects and environments and building dense, emotionally charged environments out of them. However fantastic, the worlds they construct refer us back to our own world and the aspects of modern life that tend to go unacknowledged.

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While Cronenberg’s films, for instance, often spiral out of control into surreal and violent landscapes, at their center is an attempt to work through incredibly intimate themes, such as the relationship between the individual and the human body. His films, particularly in the period that we look at in this series, work toward understanding corporeality in the technological age. The narrative of Videodrome hinges on the effects of television on society, specifically in the way it affects society’s relationship to violence. In Cronenberg’s hands, however, this is not simply a topic of discussion on televised news panels, but an issue we see fully fleshed out in hallucinations created by television-powered brain tumors. When we see the protagonist use a fleshy handgun fused to his own hand, we can understand the violent effects of television in the most direct way. His other films, such as eXistenZ and Crash, address the anxiety of the influence of technology on the individual in a similar way, as it concerns video games and automobile fetishism, respectively.

Similarly, while Lynch is often spoken about solely in the context of outrageous fantasy, his films are deeply personal, drawn extensively from his own experiences. His movies, with the obvious exception of Dune, do not exist in a remote alien world. Rather, his filmic worlds are deliberately American, grounded in a very specific, historical moment: Hollywood in the 1950s, at the pinnacle of its success as a national dream factory. His obsession with American pop iconography from the period permeates his work. Naomi Watts begins Mulholland Dr. as a wide-eyed caricature of Doris Day, naively stepping through the Technicolor screen into a Los Angeles brimming with evil. The characters in INLAND EMPIRE, as well, are in a very literal sense haunted by the ghosts of classic Hollywood. In Blue Velvet, Lynch reckons Hollywood’s idyllic representation of suburban America in the 1950s against his own upbringing in small town America. He most explicitly addresses his obsession with American pop iconography in Wild at Heart, pitting the screen personas of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley in a battle against the Wicked Witch on the modern American highway system, as if part of some bizarre experiment. Lynch’s project, then, can be considered Hitchcockian; while Hitchcock, most notably in Shadow of a Doubt, was fascinated with the rather sadistic idea of introducing menace into comfortable American settings, Lynch reverses the process, taking the familiar American characters out of their homes and placing them in a contemporary world dominated by menace. Increasingly, with films such as Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, he has dwelled on the industrial conditions that are behind the production of the iconography he has focused on so extensively, inspired by his own frustrations working with Hollywood studios.

While Lynch and Cronenberg certainly employ highly individual styles in order to create worlds that are at once surreal and intimate, it is clear their films should not be looked at from within a vacuum, incomparable to other works. Both Lynch and Cronenberg take cues from popular genre convention, and owe a debt to Hollywood genre cinema. Cronenberg’s The Fly, a remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic, trades the Atomic Age fear of technology’s potential for the fear of the body’s vulnerability in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Similarly, the obscure narratives of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. are not simply a product of Lynch’s unique procedures of storytelling, but rather a part of a tradition of sprawling Los Angeles noirs that eschew coherent plot for emotional resonance and style. The Big Sleep, for example, was famously so convoluted that not even Raymond Chandler could explain what happened in his own story. While Lynch and Cronenberg have emerged as singular voices within the world of contemporary cinema, this series would like to highlight the way in which these films are influenced by and respond to genre cinema.

Cronenberg and Lynch can be regarded as very human and ethical directors, committed to the idea that film is an apt medium for meditating on experiences and situations that we often find difficult to grasp. Their gift for creating disorienting and sensational moments allows them to work out highly personal concerns. Evan Chung & Hannah Airriess

Wednesday, January 6 at 7:00 & 9:45 • 147m
Mulholland Dr.
David Lynch, 2001 • When a network failed to pick up the pilot for his planned television series Mulholland Dr., Lynch filmed a second half to make a feature inspired by his frustrations with Hollywood. Comprised of several ambiguously connected plot lines, the film primarily follows Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a hopeful actress newly arrived in Hollywood, who meets Rita (Laura Harring), a woman stricken with amnesia. As they set out to uncover the mystery of Rita's past, the narrative becomes increasingly surreal. Mulholland Dr. is one of the decade's best films, a modern noir as thrilling as it is cryptic. 35mm
Wednesday, January 13 at 7:00 & 9:00 • 89m
David Cronenberg, 1982 • TV network president Max Renn (James Woods) is always on the lookout for cheap, titillating programming that will garner high ratings. His girlfriend Nikki (Debbie Harry) introduces him to a broadcast called "Videodrome," in which people are supposedly killed. Eventually, he discovers that Videodrome is much more than a snuff film; it sends transmissions that produce brain tumors in the viewer, which create hallucinations that alter the fabric of reality. Renn, unable to differentiate reality and hallucination, attempts to fight the Videodrome conspiracy. Long live the new flesh! 35mm
Wednesday, January 20 at 7:00 & 9:30 • 120m
Blue Velvet
David Lynch, 1986 • Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), an all-American college boy, returns home in order to visit his ailing father. After finding a severed ear in an empty lot, he is introduced to some of the sordid features of his seemingly idyllic hometown. Here, he encounters Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), a woman held captive by a violent, nitrous oxide-inhaling, PBR-swilling monster named Frank (Dennis Hopper). In Blue Velvet Lynch begins his exploration of the darkest aspects of small-town life, a project he would expand upon in his television series Twin Peaks, also starring Kyle MacLachlan. 35mm
Wednesday, January 27 at 7:00 & 9:00 • 100m
The Fly
David Cronenberg, 1986 • In this loose remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic of the same name, Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a scientist determined to find a way to teleport living organisms. An experiment goes terribly wrong when he accidentally combines his DNA with that of a fly. The graphic depiction of the gradual disintegration of Brundle's body is a visual marvel and one of the most disgusting things you'll ever see, thanks to the brilliant special effects work by Chris Walas. The film also features Geena Davis in the best larva birth scene of the '80s. 35mm
Wednesday, February 3 at 7:00 & 9:30 • 99m
Dead Ringers
David Cronenberg, 1988 • Jeremy Irons plays identical twin gynecologists Elliott and Beverly Mantle in this thriller based on a true story. The Mantles are emotionally inseparable, yet completely different; Eliot is outgoing, while Beverly is shy and meek. Eliot, a Don Juan who seduces women at their clinic, makes Beverly stand in for him when he tires of them. Once Beverly falls in love with a woman by his own initiative, however, the emotional balance they both depend on begins to disintegrate. Together, the once successful doctors fall into a drug-fueled, hallucinatory state populated with mutated bodies. Archival 35mm
Wednesday, February 10 at 7:00 & 9:30 • 127m
Wild at Heart
David Lynch, 1990 • However strange, Lynch's films are rooted in a very real American context. In Wild at Heart, Lynch confronts the American mythos, explicitly referencing the iconography of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and The Wizard of Oz in a plot about westward movement. Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage play Lula and Sailor, two young lovers who hop in a car and head for California, on the run from Lula's crazed mother (Dern's real-life mom, Diane Ladd) who hires gangsters to track and kill Sailor. Lynch skillfully reinterprets a classic Hollywood genre, the road movie, with all his unmistakable trademarks intact. 35mm
Wednesday, February 17 at 7:00 & 9:00 • 98m
David Cronenberg, 1997 • Based on the controversial 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard, Crash follows James (James Spader) in the wake of a fatal car crash. He begins an affair with Helen (Holly Hunter), the widow of the man he killed, and is soon initiated into a cult of car-crash fetishists. Led by Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a scientist that has become disfigured by his obsession, they study crash footage, reenact famous crashes such as James Dean's and Jayne Mansfield's, and explore the ultimate sexual release that the car crash can provide. By the way: You know this isn't THAT Crash, right? Just checking. 35mm
Wednesday, February 24 at 7:00 & 9:30 • 135m
Lost Highway
David Lynch, 1997 • Like Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway conspicuously splits in two midway through the film, challenging viewers to reconcile the second act with what is seen in the first. Bill Pullman stars as a saxophonist who, after meeting a Mysterious Man at a party (Robert Blake), is framed and convicted of the murder of his wife (Patricia Arquette), but then goes through an inexplicable transformation while in jail. Robert Blake's pale, grinning face here was already one of cinema's most frightening images, but his alleged murder of his own wife four years later makes it just that much more unnerving. 35mm
Wednesday, March 3 at 7:00 & 9:00 • 97m
David Cronenberg, 1999 • In the near future, designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is working on eXistenZ, a virtual reality game based on organic matter. When a fanatic makes an attempt on her life, she goes into hiding with marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who she then asks to hook up to the game as a test. From this point on, the line between reality and fantasy becomes indistinguishable for the characters and viewer. In eXistenZ, Cronenberg continues to explore the breakdown of reality driven by technology, a project he most clearly articulated in Videodrome more than a decade earlier. 35mm
Wednesday, March 10 at 7:00 • 180m
David Lynch, 2006 • Lynch's most recent and challenging film stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux as actors in a Southern melodrama who learn that the production is cursed. Beyond that, plot summary becomes impossible, as Lynch subsumes his film into a disorienting and inescapable nightmare, filled with imagery that is sometimes hilarious and often terrifying, from synchronized all-girl dance sequences to sitcoms starring rabbits. Shot entirely with consumer-grade cameras, Lynch creates a grainy, otherworldly aesthetic that boldly expands the potential of digital filmmaking beyond representing "reality." 35mm

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