The David Lynch Collection Review
In my view David Lynch is a director whose films are often dense and diverting, but who is often little more than a bit of a conjurer with his artful misdirection of narrative. Lynch is imaginative and brave in his work, yet he is someone whose underlying message seems rather simplistic and naive. When the director works inside accepted forms of genre, his work challenges the viewer and is effective in a way that journeyman directors never could be. His work on Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man is what I would regard as the best of his film-making career as he enlightens established forms. Alternatively, when Lynch works with more freedom in his construction and allows his films to follow his interest and ideas about perception and representation, his work is intriguing but open to falling into the trap of indulgence and the criticism of being all show and little substance.
This is possibly because the director is less interested in the complications of the real world and prefers to objectify it as simply one plain of experience, but in exploring the other plains that interest him, there is a danger that all the viewer is really getting is a guided tour around their own head. I feel that Lynch's work is strongest when it looks outside of insular concerns of imagination and perspective and considers the greater world rather than the realm of the individual. Forced to communicate using the familiar, Lynch is a challenging film-maker but let loose without discipline his films can become over-clever self-gratification.
Optimum have collected together two of their previous David Lynch releases alongside their recent Special Edition release of The Elephant Man which we reviewed here earlier. Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive are presented as the previous releases were in single disc, extras light editions with the same transfers as the previous releases. Individual appraisals for each of the films follow on the next three pages of this review and I describe the transfers and extras below.
Transfers and sound
The Elephant Man -the overall a/v quality is strong with my chief concern being a lack of depth and sharpness to the image. The contrast is handled superbly with deep blacks, brilliant whites and plenty of room for shade in between, and this transfer is at the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as well. The single stereo track is rich and detailed with no hint of distortion or soundtrack noise, and it manages the luxurious score and the dialogue with fidelity and good definition. The R1 Paramount disc comes with a 5.1 mix which is not offered here.
Mulholland Drive - the transfer is presented again at the original aspect ratio and maintains the rather soft and deliberate appearance of the movie. Colours and saturation don't seem quite as vibrant as the screen shots for Michael's review of the HD DVD, but the black levels seem impeccable. The grain in the image is very noticeable at times, and sometimes this appears as blocks much again as Michael described in his review. Edges are very well treated and whilst greater saturation would be nice, visually this a decent transfer. The audio options are a clear, well mastered stereo option or a far preferable 5.1 mix which sounds the same as the one Mark described in his review of the original R2 disc from Universal - mixed towards the front with rare use of rears for effects. The sub woofer track is very important given the growing sense of unease within the film and the rumbling of the music to underline this, and I can report that this resonates well throughout.
Inland Empire - This is probably the hardest of the transfers to appraise as the original DV look has then found its way to DVD via a 35MM print, and the effort to capture texture and grain is clearly deliberate. In that context, the odd imperfection adds to the intended effect of the film and there are plenty of those in terms of grain, aliasing and camera shake. Flesh tones are often very shiny and over lit and some footage is very very dark. Given this stylisation I would agree with Roger's previous review that this is a good treatment with little that could be viewed as hurting the presentation of the film - contrast is strong and the image is sharp. The audio is again offered in stereo and a 5.1 mix that makes little use of the rear channels. The most important channel in the surround mix seems to be the LFE speaker again which creates most of the impact and mood of the piece, and with the rears capturing some music this option is just as clear and well mastered as the stereo but with a little more mood. Removable English subs can be chosen and this may prove a good choice in the more incomprehensible moments of the dialogue.
In terms of special features, the set is near bare bones but for the exception of The Elephant Man which can boast interviews with the director and the star and a featurette recreating the historical truth of the real life Merrick, actually called Joseph, The Real Elephant Man. The featurette is presented by Jonathan Evans, an archivist of Royal London Hospital Museum, and he reveals that Treves actually may have changed Merrick's name to protect him as well as explaining that the film takes a few liberties with chronology and fact. The chief revelation is that Merrick sought out his career as a freak as a way to make money and that he was not such a victim as the film presents.
Hurt's interview explains how he welcomed the late reveal of his character's appearance in the film, thirty minutes in, as it was more interesting to play it behind the mask. Hurt talks about working with Lynch and his awe at working with Gielgud, and concisely and simply appreciates the film with a little humour. He tells a particular tale of keeping the cast of the head and this scaring a burglar away from his house. David Lynch is also on hand to talk about choosing to follow up his début with someone else's script, and his fear that he was going to get fired despite Mel Brooks' appreciation of him. He marvels at the cast he collected together and explains how he nearly chose to go with a different DP on the toss of a coin, but thankfully realised he couldn't not have Freddie Francis. The booklet that came with the Momentum disc is not included here and the film's trailer completes the extras.
Promotional trailers for other releases are offered on the Inland Empire disc along with that film's theatrical trailer. No extras are provided with Mulholland Drive.
New interviews and the featurette make the single Elephant Man disc an essential purchase for Lynch completists but most buyers looking for a Lynch collection should choose to wait for the Lime Green Set which was recently announced with remastered transfers for Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and The Elephant Man. For those wanting a cheap and reasonable quality way of owning these three films this set is a bargain that can be picked up for just a bit more than a tenner by following the links below this review.
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It is, of course, rude to stare. Yet we all do it, and offer all kinds of justifications for our prying eyes and boundless curiosity. Sometimes we are looking because we are concerned for the object of our gaze, sometimes we watch in order to learn from life, but mostly we can't help ourselves. Whether you call that rubbernecking or voyeurism makes little or no difference, because all we are doing is eating up a sight that excites, repels or draws us despite our best efforts at being civilised or proper.
Our need for spectacle as human beings explains the business of show, the practice of learning and the enjoyment of most art. From this appetite springs professions, careers, and great achievements which carry with them more hi-falutin explanations of their purpose, but also our desire to see and how it informs what we do powers less salubrious activity and business. The art of the pornographer and the painter are not as different as we may like to think and both are dependent on exploitation of appearance and image. This, I believe, is the purpose of David Lynch's The Elephant Man, which is as much about the purported charity of a Victorian doctor as it is about the same man's desire to make a name for himself out of the misfortune of another's appearance.
Anthony Hopkin's plays Frederick Treves in a fashion that allows the viewer to not be wholly convinced that this doctor is as selfless as he may seem. He, himself, expresses his own doubts about his motives and despite John Merrick's constant use of the words "my friend" to him, Treves always seems a little held back, observing rather than befriending. The board members of the hospital decry an "ambitious young doctor" and when the chief nurse points out that Merrick's popularity with society types amounts to him "being gawped at all over again", Treves allows this practice to continue as he thinks it "good" for his patient.
Once Merrick becomes a celebrity, the great and the good come to see him for a cup of tea in a grotesque imitation of a society dinner party. Their cups shake as they are disgusted by the close up disfigurement of their host and even the stage actress Mrs Kendall can not quite stifle her disgust at the ugliness she affects not to see. Pre and post fame, common working folk have to pay to glimpse Merrick through the carnival led by Bytes, the marvellous Freddie Jones, and the impromptu night visits of the porter played by Michael Elphick. Throughout, Merrick's image is a treasure for those who offer access to it and it is exploited by the carny, the bully and the doctor alike.
Forever separated from those who use him or stare at him, Merrick has to use his imagination to understand his lot and to dream of better things. Welcoming a kinder treatment from the world around him, Merrick still knows that he can't have a cure, romance, or friendship not based on pity. Content once to think himself apart and animal, the unfortunate man finds himself dreaming of normality and acceptance, and in seeking to imitate the everyday he meets his poetic end.
Other directors have taken on this kind of subject matter and come up with mawkish treatments and manipulation, but Lynch shows a sympathy for the freakish in the way the real world treats it. When Merrick is thrown back into the hell of a carnival, he is eventually liberated by a mixture of empathetic misfits - little people, Siamese twins and assorted carnies. But his freedom leads to humiliation in the ordinary world and his sad affirmation that "I am not an animal, I am a human being". Lynch does crank up the pathos, but he also paints a more subtle picture of a world run on exploitation and dark satanic factories, shrouded in steam and fog, with human beings often fodder for the machines. The opening montage of the elephant attack even suggests some veracity to the tall tale of Merrick's origins, and dream images return for the conclusion as the director ensures that the film isn't simply melodrama but soaked in night terrors and escapist imagery as well.
Often seen as Lynch's first proper film, i.e. one with a narrative, The Elephant Man is more easily understood than his later output but this makes it tremendously successful and as effective a work as the director has completed. Whilst Blue Velvet may haunt you still, The Elephant Man will both stir your feelings and break your heart with the strongest and best aimed visual poetry of Lynch's career.
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Michael Mackenzie has written a very good piece from the point of view of a lover of this particular movie that you will find in the related content side panel. For myself, I am less impressed than some by this exercise in epic reality puzzle but can see tremendous craft and intelligence behind this Lynch project. I can only offer my apologies to those who believe this movie a masterpiece for what I am about to write, and ask that you step away from the keyboard if you find your blood boiling.
Mulholland Drive is a sumptuously shot filmic jigsaw in two pieces. The first 110 minutes are a dream, which through its dramatic contrast with the second part and the signifiers within the nightmare deepen and sadden the final 30 minutes of the reality. Dreams and truth are the subject of the movie, and this is further explored in the worlds of fantasies and fiction about the industry of cinema, and the surface and underbelly of the society it is set within.
For all the film's layering, the central message seems to be that what lies beneath seemingly successful lives are wrecked human beings and the evil consequences of failing to capture the American dream. Consequently, monstrous people of the street are spurned lovers, unlucky losers and those condemned by forces beyond their control to their unhappy fates. Despite the exclusive parties of movie stars and the glamour of the film business, degradation, prostitution and oblivion can be seen further down the hill from the Hollywood sign.
Lynch's interests in Americana and duality are evident throughout. We find this in the familiar settings of diners, the images of the movie stars, and the iconography of the shady gangsters who seem to control the fates. Stylistically the film slips in and out of noir territory in the dream section, and Lynch's obsession with the songs of Roy Orbison sees the epic performance of a Spanish language version of "Crying". The central schism is also embodied in the scared and hunted Rita, the brunette who becomes the successful actress in the real world, and the innocent Betty who becomes the deserted and hopeless Diane. Glamour and sleaze, decay and beauty, love and despair fill the screen as the corollaries of both the dream and the reality.
Lynch's choice of the industry of film-making as a backdrop allows him some self-reflexive parallels. The film director who is part of the dream has his artistic integrity challenged by corrupt and frightening forces and chooses easy success over mystical destruction. And more generally, the business of the movies is presented as a fickle illusory lost hope in the dream and a desperate taunting presence in Diane's waking world.
This is all very ornate and cleverly crafted but watching it again for the third or fourth time, I do start to ask myself if all the effort is really worth it for what is a pretty simple story of broken dreams. Is Lynch attempting again to centre on the lives of outcasts to re-engage the normal world's sympathy as he did in the earlier film in this set, or is he simply trying to re-tell a platitudinous story with as much artful window dressing as he can find?
Those who admire the film and claim great things for the director would probably find themselves saying yes to my first question, but I would ask does the story of someone falling out of hope benefit from being such a simple tale of failure and accident once you unravel the story telling devices? Is it not plain voyeurism to show such a story without real insight other than the difference between success and failure is both too imperceptibly small and too unbelievably large for any one to understand? Does not this convoluted approach to narrative and morality simply re-assure the viewer that nothing can be done?
I suspect though that Lynch's elaborate plays on perception and frames of perspective is a habit that he just can't get himself out of. And I have to admit that his approach is alternately charming and terrifying, at one moment embracing the whimsy of modern dramedy and the next announcing supernatural forces to destroy us all. To my mind though, while Lynch is undeniably brilliant and innovative he gets away with not having a proper opinion and perspective on what he is trying to create or change. Does his work not simply mythologise something that is a regrettable feature of our existences and by doing so render it impossible and insoluble, ultimately making the viewer an apathetic voyeur? It may be unfathomable how some people end up destroyed and wasted but what does it achieve by turning this into a result of mythical forces?
In maintaining his authorial neutrality in his films and being so good at misdirecting the viewer from this moral black hole, Lynch risks being seen as a film-maker who has only realised his talent in flashes and is loved by those who like flashes of the baroque or bizarre. I can't accept that Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece as it lacks conviction, but this is a movie that will at least cause you to do mental gymnastics and challenge your understanding of how you watch it. That deserves celebrating, even if the end result may not justify your mental efforts in deciphering what's on show as much as you'd like. It's brilliant but I do find myself fearing for its soul.
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Digital technology has been embraced wholeheartedly by Lynch, and Inland Empire is the first of his features to be shot wholly on the format. Covering some of the same thematic ground as Mulholland Falls, form and perspective are more complex here with the simple hinge structure of the earlier film replaced by a multi-layered sense of setting and milieu. For all of its complexity, it showcases one simple truth: that Laura Dern is a marvellous actress.
Beginning in a presumably Polish hotel room as a woman and a man speak about prostitutes. Then moving into a surreal sitcom featuring anthropomorphic rabbits that the woman watches, before arriving at the home of an actress played by Dern. A strange visitor arrives with knowledge of the future and soon Dern is witnessing her future as the lead in a film, which is seemingly cursed by fatal affairs. Dern is falling into the arms of her co-star like the previous mythical making of the movie and a bad end seems inevitable until she falls into a dream which sees her entering the sets of the studio and moving into another world again. Dern finds herself, like the character she plays, a possible murder victim, an adulteress, and a beaten woman. She lives this new life as it seems to spiral to disaster only to find herself back as an actress playing a part but determined to reach the life of the woman who watches her.
Endless frames of reference and identity are set up and rather than the simple device of Mulholland Drive, we get a fractured almost kaleidoscopic story which is far more dense than anything Lynch has done before. The myriad of situations and roles are presented finally as the contents of a mind with all the myths and tales of the piece collected together at the film's conclusion for a jig. The imagination is clearly that of Lynch himself but the morality of the story seems much more complex and the tales more bitter-sweet. If Mulholland Drive was the tale of people who make it in Hollywood and those that fail in their dreams, the distinction here between movie star and character is thankfully blurred and nuanced.
When I first saw Inland Empire, I judged it much as Noel did in his fine review that you'll find under related content - that it was indulgent and a film in dire need of editing and narrative support. I still feel that is true but I find myself appreciating it more than the more obvious fare of his previous film. If that movie is a puzzle which once it is solved ceases to have as much value, then Inland Empire is deliberately difficult and defies being placed into its correct perspective. This means that Inland Empire will yield more of interest each time you revisit it as long as you can convince your backside that another three hours of feeling confused is worth the ride.
And this is why I now find myself in two minds, that Inland Empire is too long and frequently incomprehensible, but that it also feels at times like some of the best work of the director's career. Brought together, most likely, through editing, and probably with its themes and ideas created then, this is immensely spontaneous as it follows avenue and route after route in a far than predictable manner. Sometimes this results in golden nuggets such as the prostitute hoe-down, but at other times it ends because it runs out of steam or inspiration and then simply doubles back into another of the dimensions of the film.
Film-makers who can simply do what they want are rarely disciplined and perhaps the new technology has given Lynch a freedom he doesn't need. In The Elephant Man, narrative nailed the expressionistic flourishes and properly balanced the dream sequences and flights of fancy and I feel that the potential of reality to burst into the unspeakable and unthinkable has become Lynch's greatest weapon. In Inland Empire, the viewer is never entirely sure of their position and so anything that shocks or enthrals has no comparative frame to be shown against. Robbed of this contrast with the real, Lynch's work can descend to nostalgia or kookiness, or plain masturbatory expression, and I am unsure whether this makes his cinema any more successful for those that watch it.
Last updated: 25/05/2018 00:13:04