Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Blind Spots 3: Davids

The two Davids, Cronenberg and Lynch, are always at or near the top of my cinematic affections but both can do wrong. Existenz was like a self parody and Wild at Heart is fun piffle. Dune is almost too obvious a goof in Lynch's career but it's there all the same and Eastern Promises might well have been made by any middling Hollywood talent. These are the lesser efforts of the two and while they mope around my favourites they still have individual merit and will confidently enter any conversation about the work of either. But each of these directors has a blind spot for me, a film I can never remember unless someone else brings it up.

On his way to The Fly, David Cronenberg adapted this Stephen King novel of a man who emerges from a coma with a curse. He can see the future of anyone he touches. When he does he pays a little more of his life for the power. So if he can accurately know the future can he also change it?

What's wrong with this film? A still young Christopher Walken is perfect as the bland Johnny Smith whose extraordinary gift renders him into one of the most interesting characters to walk the Earth. The narrative is stripped to bare essentials yet moves at judicious pace, allowing no sleight of hand in the concepts. This is aided by the role of the heavyweight Herbert Lom who explains and thinks through Smith's predicament and dilemma with him.

There is no shortage of Cronenbergian flare: one sequence depicting a suicide is brief, merely suggestive and ickily disturbing for its few minutes of screen time. This is the least histrionic, leanest that a King novel has been on screen since the Shining and the two keep close company among their bloated kin. So what's the problem?

This deceptively plain tale of an old man going to extraordinary lengths to reconcile with his estranged brother is a David Lynch film so accessible it was distributed by Disney. Richard Farnsworth plays the biblically aged Alvin Straight who, incapacitated into medical house arrest contrives to drive through a loophole in the law and travel two states by a ride on lawnmower. He meets many people on his way through some pleasingly lovely autumnal landscape as he heads as well as he can to the end of his mission. None of this is so warm as to cloy nor is it all plain sailing. It's deceptively simple because Alvin's sin necessitating his reconciliation is never stated; the implication must be derived from clues throughout (one hint: it's not his war story).

There are some unmistakable Lynchian touches here. The film has a factual basis and I don't know whether Straight's daughter was the way she appears on screen but Sissy Spacek plays her like she's been beaten around the temples with oranges before each scene. The deer woman scene could only have come from a Lynch movie as a woman hits a deer, gets out of her car and rants to Straight how she keeps killing deer which seem to materialise from nowhere. It's a kind of G-rated Mr Eddy road-manners rant from Lost Highway but carries an eeriness along with its absurdist humour. This is all Lynchy goodness.

So what's the problem? Well, it's not them, it's me. Primarily, I get disappointed when artists with singular vision play the game and join the ranks. The best always find a way of maintaining their signature through this stylistic dilution but it's still annoying when we could have had another Videodrome or Eraserhead. Naive? Yeah, but I'd still plead it as there are so many capable hacks pressing themselves breathless at the door to the industry all of whom could have made these films as well, just minus the few auteurist appendices that they could survive without.

Money? If individualists need to make a living through hack work why don't they do it more? Cronenberg has largely gone mainstream since Naked Lunch but still comes out with Crash and Spider when he needs to. Lynch's intention didn't seem to be filthy lucre harvesting in the Straight Story; it had a tiny release unsupported in cinemas by the mighty Disney corporation. Filmed from his wife's screenplay, it seems to have been a labour of love in more than one sense. And anyway his last film came out of his own pocket and ranks among his strongest work.

Neither David has taken the King's shilling like Martin Scorsese did when he turned his back on anything but increasingly massively alright works like The Aviator. Neither have they made conscious efforts like Peter Weir to remove the hand of the author from the screen. Both have always shown themselves rather helplessly through all attempted mainstream sheens.

Neither of these is bad. On the contrary. I just wish it didn't feel like they were trying to prove how acceptable they could be to the general admission. Then again, Terry Gilliam struggles to make the films he wants while Guillermo Del Toro does hack work in English and keeps his sublime work (and it is sublime) in his native Spanish. (I've only just realised, reading this back that Guilllermo Del Toro's name is like Terry Gilliam's in joke Spanish.)

I think I'm also annoyed that these handshakes had to feel so compromised. I look at the feature length reel of outtakes from Wild at Heart (available only on the Lime Green box set) and marvel at how straight up they are and smile at how they all hit the floor for the release cut. Wild at Heart is not my favourite Lynch flick by a long shot, it's not even among my favourites, but it is damnably its father's child. Then again, I'm not the one paying the support and alimony.

Ah well...

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