The concert film David Lynch should forever be associated with is the astounding Industial Symphony No. 1 (1990). But Duran Duran: Unstaged uses quintessential David Lynch iconography, intersecting his areas of work – blue lights overpowering the screen, utilising colour, shadow and silhouette, intentional use of monochrome, alluring women, commercial assignments, surreal, misshapen human sculpture, the motions of machinery, suburban American lawns, cars upon the long road, barbecues and houses, bad digital graphics, floating characters of the alphabet, taking the more baffling option when the linear choice is there, adapting to internet production and distribution. What’s more David Lynch than not appearing on the stage during the final curtain?
Duran Duran: Unstaged feels like a stepping stone towards Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Lynch has long enjoyed a connection with music, whether it’s listening to (The) Nine Inch Nails on the set of Lost Highway, casting David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries, using I’m Deranged from Outside for Lost Highway’s title song, In Heaven, Mysteries of Love, Crying – or the albums Lynch has released as Thought Gang or alongside Chrysta Bell – or the music that forms the background of his films. Unstaged embraces the music to the point where the music is the thing – not the thematic intersection midway through the film – it’s the closing of each episode in the Roadhouse, without interruption. It’s not Angelo Badalamenti, but it’s Notorious, Hungry Like the Wolf, The Man Who Stole a Leopard, Girl Panic!, Rio, A View to a Kill, Girls on Film. Name me something better. Twin Peaks: The Return at its heart is the coalescence of Lynch as an experimental filmmaker, narrative filmmaker, television producer and director, a musician, a surrealist painter and sculptor that embraces the digital. Unstaged leans in the same direction.
My introduction to Kill Your Darlings had been through Tumblr. In a GIF, Daniel Radcliffe is naked, fucked into the mattress by Dane DeHaan. For a queer kid at the tail end of high school, there was something powerful to seeing the boy who grew from Harry Potter (2001-11) to The Woman in Black (2012) and Horns (2013), and the actor from Chronicle (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), together as a couple.
But the process of ripping a file and making a GIF, no matter how banal, is an act of decontextualisation. The person who made the GIF made a sexually charged sequence out of a brief scene, filling in the gaps within the mind, removing the intercutting that undermines the sexual nature of the scenes. Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) being anally penetrated is juxtaposed against an undeniably phallic act of penetration: his sexual partner, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is stabbing, and subsequently drowning, his former lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) – a knife penetrating the skin. The sequences are atemporal – a sex scene that is fantasy (it appears nowhere else in the film, unlike the other flashbacks that are replayed in reverse, as drug-fuelled The Man from Another Place reverse speech) – or a secret between friends shadowed by unspoken desire and a resistant kiss – recontextualised in the knowledge that a man to direct attention towards is no ideal lover, set to the backdrop of an equally atemporal and anachronistic 2005 remix of The Pioneers by Bloc Party.
The Tumblr GIF set is not the film, but a wilful decision to alter the text in an act of thirst. The importance is not the film, but the politics (and liberation?) of getting straight men to represent queer sex scenes on film. The film has far more erotic scenes, with less naked flesh but more suggestion: with his bare ass pointed towards the camera, Ginsberg masturbates at the typewriter, in a drugged haze of the creative process of trying to write, with the threat of being walked in on. Any writer can likely relate to this cute scene: the need for release to engage mental functions.
In another scene, Ginsberg engages a girl, Amanda (Brenda Wehle), at the counter of the library for a quick hookup with a witty pickup line, in order to create a diversion for Carr and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) to steal a key and retrieve the restricted books deemed too illicit by the faculty at Columbia University: physical sexuality in exchange for the destigmatisation of literary sexuality. As his penis is sucked, Ginsberg makes eye contact with the fleeing Carr, a power play of eyefucking, managing to cum at the count of 9 seconds, as a boy that’s likely never fucked before, with a girl that claims to have never fucked a Jew before. It’s a charged line that reflects a sense of tokenism of identity and prejudice while trying to deny anti-Semitism: how important really is circumcision (an act that persists far outside of Judaism within American society); how many of the four guys she fucked could have been Jewish without realising their religion or cultural and ethnic identity? (Krokidas himself has Jewish heritage.) But also, how easy is it to suck a dick to orgasm within 30 seconds? Unable to depict female pleasure, we never experience Amanda come; we only see her top lifted up. In the commentary track, Krokidas and co-screenwriter Austin Bunn discuss the inspiration for this scene from 80s teen comedies, which are known to have their own misogynistic problems.
The mechanics of Ginsberg and Carr’s encounter don’t function as sexual: just as an act, going directly into penetration, without the timing (time passes through interspersing) to depict the resistance of bodies, the difficulty, pain, thrusts, lubrication. It’s meant to just be there. It’s surrounded by death and the incredible shot of Ginsberg’s naked, empty, blank shower body, unable to comprehend and recontextualise the sex.
The thirst of Tumblr GIFs often take sequences of non-sexualised nudity, toxic and abusive relationships, sexual abuse – presenting human biology and rape as casual things to get turned on and masturbate over. It’s rare to see loving sex scenes represented. In Tumblr discourse, Call Me By Your Name (2017) is reduced to diverging poles of dissections of age gaps, statutory rape and abusive relationships, or screenshots and GIFs of cum, bum, peaches and blowjobs, as Katherine Connell writes about in Another Gaze, with GIFs placing the film’s queer sexuality on “an eternal circuit, extending our view of the naked gay body that is so avoided in the film”. As Connell elaborates:
GIFs appropriate the strategies of cropping, cutting, and framing […] disrupt[ing] the flow of narrative by isolating short clips. In these moments, GIF viewers must confront the film in new ways.
Maurice (1987) becomes desired as scenes of kissing, bouncing penises and ass shots. Imagine that desire before home video and streaming made nudity and sex scenes so easy to rewind, freeze frame and, if one is so inclined, get off to.
You might question why I’m approaching this film from this way. But Tumblr is one of the main things that helped shape my identity growing up as a teenager. It’s why I eulogised the porn ban on a Medium post and continue to work around the platform’s limitations as much as I can.
But seeing this film as an adult, at a distance from Tumblr thirst, may be something I missed out on as a teenager, but also something I gained more from. The idea of murder may be removed from most people’s friendships or sexual encounters, but many, many people know the experience of fucking somebody that turns out to be not who they thought they were – whether they’re toxic, abusive or awful. The archaic, homophobic nature of “honor killing” that persists to this day in incredibly recent cases, its intersection with repression, desire and one’s own sexuality.
I’ve yet to properly read a Beat book, but I’ve fallen in love with the movement, whether with Gus Van Sant’s intersections with Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and The Discipline of D.E. (1982), Ginsberg in Ballad of the Skeletons (1997), or Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) characterising Burroughs’ creative process, unique mind and with his own oversight of the production, or the wonderful remixing of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch words in the incredible album Let Me Hang You (2016). Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac et al. have always been ready for filmic versions.
Dark, in some ways, is a modern day film holy grail. Reworked from Schrader’s film Dying of the Light (2014), Schrader worked outside of the purview of his producers, the film’s distributor (Grindhouse Entertainment/Lionsgate), copyright law and standard practices. In his online portfolio, Schrader displays an act of protest himself, replacing the poster for Dying of the Light with the film’s cast and crew wearing t-shirts in protest of the contractual non-disclosure agreement, and leaving the film’s credits empty. For months, my desire to view Dark was an unavailable dream, limited to the institutional structures of UCLA and UT Austin by prior appointment only. But Dark would become available for those that wanted to find it online, with Schrader claiming to upload a torrent. My adventure in downloading the file’s two parts and extracting the MKV from the RAR was almost as exciting as watching the film itself. Hiring NYU student Benjamin Rodriguez Jr., one of the film’s sole credits alongside Schrader (Ethan Hawke’s voiceover narration is uncredited), Dying of the Light was radically reworked from 94 minutes to a scant 76, making use of the DGA’s 10 week period of editing after spending 7 weeks on First Reformed and embracing the limitations ofusing only the commercially available Blu-ray and DVDs of the workprint, drawing on Stan Brakhage with experimental techniques. As the testimonial opening the film and in the description on Schrader’s portfolio states, it is for “historical record” over “exhibition or personal gain”. He described to IndieWire that it felt “like taking a stain off my shirt and replacing it with a cool button.”
I would be curious if anyone has done a direct comparison with Dying of the Light over what material is altered, excised and included from the deleted scenes and the workprint DVDs. Empowering a director’s vision is certainly a worthwhile venture: there have been numerous cases of directors given a chance to rework their maligned or corrupted film for home release or even theatrical rerelease, and even cases of fan edits of Raising Cain (1992) and Waterworld (1995) granted official releases that had originally been produced illegally by Peet Gelderblomand McFly89 on Original Trilogy, given directorial approval and acceptance from Universal. That said, Dark is a rather unique case that either damns or heralds Schrader as a filmmaker. How has Cage responded to the new version? Is the right of the director the most important right?
As much as Dark attempts to improve upon its original VOD released form, it’s hard to escape the fundamentals. How good was Schrader’s screenplay in the first place? As Evan Lake, Nicolas Cage offers a reminder that he’s a serious actor and not just campy, but his performance is often exaggerated, talking about “ragheads”, cracking jokes about AIDS and complaining about the Obama administration. Using the word ‘raghead” had been a point of contention with the producers, who viewed it as “gratuitous” and irresponsible. There’s a sense of needed melancholy to his mental deterioration and inevitable early death at a young age, with the haunting final shot born out of a far different demise from the released version. But Lake also adopts an unconvincing assumed identity as a Romanian doctor in Kenya that really doesn’t work – especially when he pulls false hair and ear prosthetics away from his face. He has a solid ‘buddy cop’ relationship with Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), but the additional romantic subplot – kissing at the dinner table with Michelle (Irène Jacob) – seems gratuitous. There are some good visual compositions in the film, but much of the footage, especially of passing vehicles in Kenya or establishing shots in Romania, just seems cheap and poorly done, even in its original form.
Some of the disintegration of the image is wonderful, in shifting colours and overlays, footage shifting in time and recorded off the computer screen with an iPhone due to a lack of coverage to form close-ups of eyes, but in some scenes it feels forced, disrupting the digital compositions that work in a way that isn’t necessary. Scenes play in enlarged pixels; images of cells within the body appear; frames fade between each other. The film’s decay becomes its most heightened in Kenya, remixing the film with found footage of American war atrocities and devolving into squares, lonely highways and a sea of abstract colours reminiscent of the video art of the late Jeremy Blake in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). But it’s definitely memorable at least. I admire Schrader and Rodriguez Jr. for making this but it will still always feel incomplete. I can’t imagine this version will do Schrader any favours in the producers relinquishing control to allow a true version compiled from the rushes and with a new score.