Friday, July 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Harry Dean Stanton - The Cowboy and the Frenchman (David Lynch, 1988) and Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wishing a very Happy 91st Birthday to a living legend today. Still keeping himself busy, even now, the great Harry Dean Stanton has been in far too many movies to even begin getting into here. I mean he has 199 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, for Christ's sake. So today, we're gonna look at 2 films he's been in, which, aside from their similar titles, share some occasional overlaps and make for, in my opinion, quite an interesting double feature.

Lynch's first foray into TV (that I'm aware of, anyway), The Cowboy and The Frenchman was his contribution to a French produced series of short films called "The French as Seen By..." (other directors included Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard) and, by this point in his career, was the most overtly comedic and wonderfully wacky thing he'd done. It marks the first appearance of a couple of folks he'd work with again later (HDS and Michael Horse) and, if you were to marathon his film and TV stuff chronologically, would work well as a breezy, fun and refreshing palette cleanser between the dark, emotional rollercoaster ride of Blue Velvet and the otherworldly musical phantasmagoria that is Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted.

As far as plot goes, the above is pretty much sufficient. Having said that, here's a load more (possible spoiler alert): Said "something unusual" turns out to be the titular Frenchman, sporting beret and moustache and carrying a unique looking case, which turns out to be full of things stereo-typically associated with the French, each one causing Slim (HDS, of course) to utter, "What the hell?", until they stumble across a plate of French fries. This dish, apparently uniting the two cultures, causes Slim, Pete and Dusty (played by Jack Nance and Tracey Walter, respectively) to warm to their visitor. A little while later, a Native American named Broken Feather (Micheal Horse, of course) appears, also wary of the Frenchman, but again, his suspicions ease when he finds out he's cool with the ranch folk. Budweiser and beer nuts are ordered for, which arrive a bit later, along with some lovely ladies sporting striking hairdos.

Said beer and also wine (if I recall, Americans drinking the latter, the Frenchman, the former) are consumed, more lovely ladies appear (this time brunettes as opposed to blondes; also I think these are meant to be French and the earlier blondes were American), I think a story or two may be relayed (hard to say exactly all that transpires, the way it's constructed, making it operate somewhat in that abstract realm Lynch is so often fond of), music is played (including "Home on the Range", beautifully sung by HDS, who, as many of you will know, is a great singer and musician too), tributes exchanged and, then, presumably, all retire for the night.

Next day, with breakfast cooking in the background, the company are recovering, and, if memory serves, I think some of their clothing has swapped around, continuing the pattern of cultural back and forth occurring the day before (e.g. speech idioms). The film ends with Slim finding a snail in his clothing, which gets flung, landing next to a cowboy boot.

Just realised I summarised the entire story (well, most of it) on autopilot. Oops. To be honest, I think even if you've read all this and haven't seen the film, there's still no way I can really spoil it. I mean so much of the joy of watching The Cowboy and the Frenchman is from all of the moment to moment details (be it character, editing, performance, production design, etc) and the overriding sense of humour and warmth it exudes.

I think reading between the lines, it's easy to see what Lynch was angling at here and it's exactly the kind of affectionate, silly, surreal love letter to France you'd imagine he'd make. While more of a film for Lynch fans, this is so short and such great fun that I hope others would get something out of the small investment of time it requires too.

Made a few years before and, of course, much better known, Paris, Texas was a film I meant to get around to watching for years and only finally caught up with in 2016. Needless to say, I kicked myself for not having watched it earlier, especially being a big fan of HDS' acting and Wim Wenders' sublime 1987 film Wings of Desire.

Apparently HDS's favourite of his own films (I can certainly see why), it tells the story of Travis Henderson, who comes out of the desert, is later found by his brother (Dean Stockwell). Turns out, long story short, that the former had been gone for four years, had been assumed dead and that the latter and wife are now taking care of Travis's son (Hunter Carson son of co-writer L. M. Kit Carson (who also wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Karen Black, who sadly didn't go on to do much more, aside from Tobe Hooper's remake of Invaders From Mars and a few other things; he's great here, especially in all his scenes with HDS). For a good while when on the road home, Travis is completely mute, apparently having withdrawn from and left "the land of the living", as his brother calls it at one point, due to, presumably, some past trauma or the like. And before I get carried away again synopsising, I'll leave it there. Unlike Lynch's short, this is one where you really should go on the journey yourself, so to speak.

As I said, I can understand why HDS would call this his own favourite. He always puts himself, body and soul, into his performances, but this one in particular. It's often subtle, alternatively funny and sad, and resonates deeply and truly due to the great man's lived experience and wisdom, clear depth of humanity and intuitive sense of its complex nature.

Beautifully shot by Robby Müller (who would also work with HDS this same year on one of my all time favourites, Repo Man; the film I first became aware of HDS with, I'll be watching it tonight and having a few beers to further tip my hat to the man. And Müller's photography in both often has a similar look; particularly love how he shoots the city at night), possessing an appropriately spare but beautiful and haunting score by Ry Cooder (apparently based around Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground") and with HDS's standout performance ably supported by his fellow cast, this gets my vote as one of the most beautifully observed and thoughtful films ever made. I'd say what I think it's all about (family, love, freedom being three things that spring to mind. So more much as well though) but again, it's probably for the best for one to experience this alone (or with a close friend, family member or lover who won't natter and will be appreciative of the meditative pace) and without too much preconception. Like many things, I imagine what you bring to it will largely determine what you get out of it.

There's much more to say about this film of course and maybe, sometime into the future, I'll go into it in more depth but today that's not my intention. That was merely to tip my hat/give some appreciation to the birthday boy. Looking forward to seeing Lucky, starring him by the way. Apparently David Lynch is in it too. Here's the trailer. It looks as beautiful, warm and witty as we'd hope for a project carried by a soul who is very much all of those things himself. As I said earlier though, tonight I'll be re-watching Repo Man and raising a cold one or two to the man who, in my humble opinion, is America's greatest living actor. Cheers to you, Harry Dean Stanton, and thanks for everything you've given us and continue to do.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Happy Birthday David Lynch - "She Would Die for Love" - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992); Twin Peaks Podcasting and RIP Miguel Ferrer

Wishing a Happy Birthday to David Lynch, who turns 71 today. And to mark the occasion, I want to take the opportunity to sing the praises of one of my all time favourite films and the one that probably takes the top spot on the list of movies I love from this man.

This won't be a traditional review exactly and may more likely read as something of a love letter to it... the main reason being that I've already talked about this in quite some depth recently elsewhere...

My good friend, Richard Glenn Schmidt, of Doomed Moviethon and Cinema Somnambulist, was kind enough to invite me onto his podcast, Hello! This is the Doomed Show, to talk about not only this film, but also the entire series (so far) of Twin Peaks.

Being both a big fan of said podcast and completely enamoured of Twin Peaks, this was something of a dream come true and was an absolute joy to record. While doing so and afterwards, I was worried that I wasn't able to do justice to show and film, or fully articulate my love and appreciation for it, but upon listening back, I'm very happy with how it turned out. And I hope any David Lynch/Twin Peaks fans out there might enjoy hearing it too...

Perhaps unexpectedly, it turned out to be even more epic than Richard or I initially anticipated and ended up being a two-parter (each episode being nearly three hours long I think)... which, in retrospect, shouldn't be too surprising... I mean there are whole podcasts dedicated to Twin Peaks of course, so there was no shortage of stuff to chew the fat about. Anyway, for anyone interested, the links to both are below.

Also on the subject of podcasting, prior to our Twin Peaks discussion, Richard had me on the show to help me get used to recording and also as an opportunity for he and I to get used to talking to each other over Skype. He asked me a bunch of questions about the films which helped get me into horror and ones that are firm favourites too. Again, that was a lot of fun and the link is below if you fancy a listen.

Finally, Christian Bates-Hardy of Good Movies for Bad People kindly invited me onto his show, where we talked about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Murder Obsession. An absolute blast it was and again, you can find it at the link underneath if you're interested.

So now, without further ado, I'll attempt to tell you fine folks just why I love Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me so much, why I think it's so important within David Lynch's filmography and why I believe it to be one of the most underrated films of the last 25 years. 

As I think I implied above, I won't be going over the plot or anything as I already did that in detail during the aforementioned podcast. Plus, I imagine anyone reading this will be at least passingly familiar with the show and/or film and what they're about. In fact, if you haven't seen them and aren't aware of who killed Laura Palmer, please read no further.

I first encountered Fire Walk With Me maybe sometime in the late '90s or early '00s when it aired late night on TV here in the UK. At the time I was unfamiliar with the show and would come to that later. I can't recall all of my initial impressions but what I do remember clearly was that parts of it scared the living daylights out of me (a case in point being the scene where Laura finds Bob in her bedroom). So glad I had the foresight to record it too. Would re-watch that tape frequently before finally buying the DVD some years later.

It was one of the first David Lynch films I saw, along with Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive and has always been a favourite. And since buying the Blu-Ray of The Entire Mystery it's now become my favourite of his movies.

This, I think, is for several reasons... Firstly, and this is true of all of Lynch's films for me, it's due to the aesthetics and atmosphere. From the opening credits (which take place over swimming TV static, under-laid with Angelo Badalamenti's mournful, jazz-jam-after-midnight music) onwards, I was instantly in love with the sense of mood that is conjured up. 

As a side note, the theme that plays here would be re-used a year later (slightly re-arranged) on the Julee Cruise album The Voice of Love (itself the title of the astoundingly beautiful piece used at the end of Fire Walk With Me) for the song "She Would Die For Love".

This potent feeling the film exudes continues throughout, albeit shifted through many different gears, from absurd comic scenes to ones of extreme sadness and terror, all of which Lynch arguably excels at.

And speaking of feeling, this is another major reason I'm completely in love with this movie. In fact it may be the most important one to me now. That is, no matter how many times I come back, it remains an intensely powerful experience... not just because of Lynch's expert manipulation of mood and emotion but also thanks to the incredible actors that populate his films. And in Fire Walk With Me, none more so than the phenomenal Sheryl Lee.

Co-star Ray Wise, who is also amazing beyond words in this, called her performance in the film "heroic", and I think that's a very apt description. She completely poured her heart and soul into bringing Laura and her tragic story to life, for which I'm eternally thankful. There are scenes in this which never fail to move me deeply, and often to tears.

Now with many movies like this, I can't re-watch them too often, as they leave me feeling depressed, drained and/or haunted, and not in a good way. I mean those films have their place but I have to watch them at the right time and in a specific mood. 

Why then, is Fire Walk With Me, completely different? The aforementioned atmosphere aside, I'd attribute a lot of this to how Laura's arc progresses throughout and how it, and the film, come to a close.

In the final scene we see Laura, now dead, after being bludgeoned to death by Bob/Leland (which itself is an incredible piece of film-making that never fails to shake me to my core; apparently it was filmed on Halloween in 1991, perhaps adding an extra terrifying edge to it), seated in the Red Room, being comforted by Agent Cooper, who is now trapped there after the events of season two's final episode, where his doppelganger escaped, possessed by Bob, leaving him stranded in this other world. 

Initially, she looks understandably lost and sad, until a bright light erupts and she sees something descending from above. It's an angel (apparently the same one that seems to have freed Ronette Pulaski in the train car), which, earlier in the film, had disappeared from a painting she has in her bedroom. 

And at this sight, she starts to cry and then laugh, understanding, it seems, that she's now free from the pain and torment which she was unable to escape while still alive. 

It's an amazing moment, in terms of acting, cinematography, design, direction and music (the aforementioned "The Voice of Love"), which invariably makes me weep, but not in a bad way. Cathartic is the word I think. And it's no doubt why I keep returning to the film.

I find it interesting too that Laura is seen between the angel and Agent Cooper, as the latter (who in the real, physical world, hasn't even come to Twin Peaks yet; it seems that here, time and space are transcended... and furthermore, events earlier in the film establish a psychic rapport or something similar between him and her) is, in some ways, arguably quite similar to the former, coming, of course, to Twin Peaks to solve her murder and, in a sense, free the secrets surrounding it... which brings us neatly, to another point, and one which again, makes this film extraordinarily powerful to me. I'll phrase it in the form of a question... was Laura really murdered?

In a sense, of course, yes. Bob/Leland did end her life. But only with her acquiescence. Bob's real, preferred end game is suggested earlier in the film when Laura tells Harold Smith, regarding Bob that "he wants to be me, or he'll kill me". But why? Perhaps because of Laura's connection to so many people in Twin Peaks, making her an ideal hub, as it were, for this demonic entity to get to as many of them as possible. And in that same scene with Harold, we see the first inkling of why, as Dr. Jacoby suggests during the series, "maybe she allowed herself to be killed"... that is, to protect those close to her. 

We also see this instinct at work later in the film, both with Donna and, towards the end, James. It can perhaps be best summed up by the quote used in this post's title which, of course, was also the name of the aforementioned Julee Cruise song... "She Would Die For Love".

And all this is essentially what elevates the film to being my favourite from Lynch. I love a lot of his work, from Eraserhead, through Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive and even the, in my opinion, much maligned and misunderstood, Inland Empire, but none of them, for my money, match Fire Walk With Me's incredible, emotional and soul stirring potency. 

I won't go on too much longer, as I'm aware I've rambled at considerable length already. Before we get to two final things, just another quick shout out to Angelo Badalamenti, who turns in what is, for me, his greatest score here. An absolute tour de force in itself, which I could praise for pages too. In fact, it deserves its own blog post really, so I won't go into the particulars as to why I think it's so brilliant right now.

So before I sign off, and as alluded to earlier, why do I think it's such an important film in Lynch's filmography. Well, the answer, I think, can be found in looking what it's sandwiched between. Sure, his feature film career started with Eraserhead, which is as experimental as almost anything he's ever done. But then, from The Elephant Man, through Dune, Blue Velvet and to Wild at Heart, his stories were, relatively speaking, more conventionally told. This, I feel, shifted, when it came to Fire Walk With Me, which acts as a loop of sorts, connecting the beginning of the series and its end. How the new season will tie into all this remains to be seen of course. One hint Lynch has given so far tells us that the last 7 days of Laura Palmer's life will be hugely important to it (which is, as won't surprise you, hugely thrilling for me to hear) but beyond that, it's anyone's guess. But as far as the already released season one and two go, I think the point stands for now... Fire Walk With Me ends as the series begins, with Laura's body being discovered and then, as previously said, we see her and Cooper together, connecting of course, to his fate at the end of season two.

But still, how does all this figure in with Lynch's other films? I'd say that Fire Walk With Me marks the start of his heading more into the non-linear and unconventional narratives that would characterise the films he made after (with the exception of The Straight Story of course)... that is, the amazing trilogy or sorts, or perhaps, more aptly, triptych, of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire... therefore making it an important and perhaps even crucial crossroads within his overall body of work. 

I'll leave it there for now, as I'd like to come back to all of those films, in detail, at a later date. There's just one final subject now that I'd like to talk about before I end this post, which relates to Fire Walk With Me... the untimely passing of Miguel Ferrer.

Yesterday evening, I was deeply saddened to hear that this excellent actor had lost his battle with throat cancer and died, aged just 61. He had a long and celebrated career, extending all the way back to the early '80s, appearing in many fine films and TV shows. But I'll always remember him mainly for two roles: cocky exec Bob Morton from RoboCop and, even more memorably, the delightfully cynical, big-mouthed, pacifist FBI agent and pathologist Albert Rosenfield from Twin Peaks and this film prequel/arguable sequel.

Being the son of the great José Ferrer (and singer Rosemary Clooney), he came to acting later, originally being known as a musician... and, more specifically, a drummer. I've never heard any of his playing, but the fact he played on Keith Moon's solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, suggests to me that he must have been pretty damn good.

Widely respected by everyone who worked with him and remembered by many a film and TV viewer for his considerable screen presence and acting chops, he'll be greatly missed.

Alas it seems that the new series of Twin Peaks will mark his final screen credit and swan song as an actor, but I'm very glad that it's within a role which may be one of his greatest and is perhaps his most fondly remembered. And, needless to say, I'll be very excited to see his work within it, to say nothing of the series itself of course. I mean it probably goes without saying that I'm excited beyond my ability to express myself about that. I'll say no more for now.

Rest in Peace sir, you were taken from us far too soon.

Miguel José Ferrer 

Born February 7, 1955 - Santa Monica, California, U.S. 
Died January 19, 2017 (aged 61) - Los Angeles, California, U.S.