David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), dir. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm

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David Lynch might seem enigmatic: his films are full of mysteries that only he knows the answers to, requiring elaborate fan theories to decode. An artist at heart, Lynch never sought to become a filmmaker. As visual mediums, art and film aren’t separate, but bounce off each other to reveal and create something new. Lynch follows the daily notion of the “art life”: he drinks coffee in the morning, without distractions, and paints. Even for those not interested in the art world, The Art Life remains engrossing. Other documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer (2013), depicting Ushio Shinohara’s and Noriko’s lifetime of sculptures and performance art, present us with the intricacies of being a creative and its routines and relationships.

Lynch’s enigma remains in place. Lynch splits himself into three identities: his family, friends, and his representation of his inner self within art. Lynch talks about his adolescence in Missoula and Boise, becoming just another normal guy; Missoula is no longer just the birthplace of Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017). Lynch recalls efforts to convince his father Donald that being an artist is a viable career decision: Lynch was the rebel who hanged out with the bad kids, working late nights in the studio after class, remembering how his mother was disappointed in him. Remembering his early 20s, his recollections become more interesting: smoking marijuana as his friend drove down the freeway; leaving a Bob Dylan concert; living in Philadelphia, where he came across dead bodies shot out in a diner, and encountered crazy people in the street.

But The Art Life is frustrating: the film chooses its endpoint as the production of Eraserhead (1977), suggesting an end of a chapter with more stories to tell, reinforcing the notion that Lynch is more filmmaker than artist. But Lynch embodies different kinds of art, never slowing down; he carried on with life. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes illustrate Lynch’s recollections with his current, mixed media artwork, but without offering direct commentary. But Nguyen, Neergaard-Holm and Barnes also don’t hide the reality of Lynch’s life: he’s a father, playing with his young child; he takes a drag of his cigarette, frustrated at his own paintings and artwork. Lynch speaks reflections into his anachronistic microphone, just as he has done in his own reflective documentaries like Eraserhead Stories (2001).

Even shot on digital, The Art Life is never able to compare to the closeness and authenticity of the direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s, lacking neither enough insight nor a complete portrait to make it interesting enough, especially amid an existing canon of films interviewing the director. The film’s directors struggle to find a singular authorial voice, acting instead as a meditation that lacks the coherence one might expect to find.

Monterey Pop (1968), dir. D.A. Pennebaker

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Premiering in a new 4K restoration by Janus Films and Criterion and presented with a pre-recorded introduction by 91-year-old director D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebaker has been working tirelessly on presenting Monterey Pop in its best possible version. Held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds from June 16-18th 1967 to an audience of 50,000, producer Lou Adler sought a friendly, non-commercial environment where artists played for free and profits went to charity, no artists receiving top billing.

Thinking back to the late 1960s, it’s easy to romanticise: its inhabitants become caricatures, preaching about free love and peace, smoking dope, yelling groovy. 16mm creates a historical distance: it lacks the immediacy of digital, noise allowing a trace to the photochemical process but also displaces the film from the present moment. Rather than focusing upon artists alone, Pennebaker intercuts close-ups of the crowd, presenting a shared social space. Some subjects perform to the camera; others are caught unaware. People might seem eccentric: a man wears a top hat; clothes bathed in colour; a woman wears flowers in her hair; another man wears a pinstripe suit; a mother carries her baby in a homemade pouch; a monkey eats food standing on a man’s shoulder.

But the festival, in its ethos, doesn’t seem so far from Glastonbury or others today: watching the people within the frame, we see people who could be us. Behind the clothing lie people with similar values, aspirations, fears and desires. There might not be cellphones recording every performance live on Snapchat, but it isn’t so different technologically either: Jefferson Airplane use fragments of film in screen projection, prefiguring modern LCD screens and more elaborate set-ups. We pan by tents and stalls selling posters, art prints and zines; people stitch together colourful kites, an entire subculture long forgotten. Audiences embrace music, feeling individual relationships with the artists. Pennebaker portraits couples in love: cuddling, making out, laying next to each other, a generation that have grown up, broken up, aged or died, but aren’t so different from the young couples learning love and learning life at festivals today.

As Kevin D. Greene writes, baby boomers at the festival felt “resentment” against an “era of unparalleled affluence”, in a background of the Cold War, assassination of JFK, Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Pennebaker finds narratives, conducting interviews with the crowd: he interviews a police chief, concerned about numbers attending and the Hell’s Angels, in a decade defined by riots and clashes against police. A woman cleans up litter, as Pennebaker focuses upon the immensity of empty seats all around. Their generation had their own battles for individual autonomy, before our modern battles for identity politics. Some attendees might seem surprising: Pennebaker captures young kids, Hells Angels, African Americans and Asian Americans, beyond our preconceived notion of a white, young adult monolith.

In his 1969 essay Anatomy of a Love Festival, Robert Christgau wrote that the “love crowd is America’s affair with bohemia”: attendees weren’t just hippies or “lost kids”, but liberals, college instructors, and “everyone who smokes pot, and in California that happens to be a lot of everyone.” Christgau recalls taking a ride back with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple that asked if the concert attendees believed in God; Christgau didn’t have an answer.

Pennebaker focuses on the mundane: eating food, finding shelter from pouring rain, lighting cigarettes; Pennebaker closes the gap between present and past, as though history hasn’t changed. Attendees inevitably held onto their own mementos and memories for the rest of their lives, but Pennebaker captures a photographic memory of shared space, creating, as Matthew Eng writes, “moving scrapbooks”, offering a “multiplicity of perspectives” amounting to a “democratic document” that mirrors the festival itself.

Monterey Pop has one major difference from Pennebaker’s most intimate works, Dont Look Back (1967) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), never offering the same unprecedented backstage insight that defines him. Monterey Pop lacks a negotiation between artistic persona and human being that captured Bowie looking into the mirror applying make-up, or Dylan interacting with fans and journalists. Pennebaker emerged from television, working with Time-Life and ABC on Primary (1960) and the innovation and portability of 16mm news cameras. Pennebaker worked alongside 6 cinematographers and documentarians, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles with 5 cameras and 4 track tape recorders, lacking synchronised sound, leaving them alone, supplied with rolls of film. Pennebaker’s most recent film, Unlocking the Cage (2016), still reveals a strong directorial voice, following an animal rights lawyer whilst making a coherent argument around a fascinating subject, without demarcating an obvious, un-contestable position.

Direct cinema might seem outmoded in an age of immediacy of daily vlogs and Instagram, but recent documentaries like Weiner (2016) follow similar principles, creating a developed portrait of a personality beyond the constantly shifting present. Our iconic images of the 60s seem authorless, a predestined record of time ingrained within national and global memory, but each image has an artist, director or photographer behind it: people like Abraham Zapruder, Eddie Adams and Steve Schapiro. Documentary cinema and photojournalism are processes, based upon what we choose (or are able) to capture. Direct cinema affords an interesting relationship to history: Medium Cool (1969) intersects along both the reality of the chaos outside the DNC and the film’s fictional narrative.

Monterey Pop exists in a place between concerts photographed today, with neither the extended duration of live TV broadcasts nor the condensed coverage of vlogs or newscast montages. Pennebaker allows a structure to emerge, condensing 3 days into an 80-minute piece, allowing intermissions as days close and mornings rise: people wake up in blankets, put on pants; an airplane sets down on tarmac. At points, the film seems amateurish: other cameramen appear in shot, perching their tripod upon the roof. From the opening, there’s a home movie quality: text appears on screen, not in type but handwritten marker pen scrawled across screen amid psychedelic flashes; after the credits, the reel dissolves into burns and scratches. It’s not so far from the casualness of Dylan holding up an endless stream of cuecards to Subterranean Homesick Blues in the opening to Dont Look Back. Concert films have many approaches: Sign o’ the Times (1987) may not be the most radical, but conveys clear choreography of Prince’s theatrical spectacle.

Monterey Pop may not be as narratively involving as most cinema, but it doesn’t need to be. The film feels like a compilation with a curated selection of tracks, letting artists guide the viewer along. Many artists seem familiar: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. Some are remembered more vaguely: The Mamas & the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Ravi Shankar. But who remembers Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela or Eric Burdon? Instruments and genre might represent the biggest difference from today, before synth, sampling, punk or heavy metal.

The opening shots might seem overly sentimental: Pennebaker traces arriving crowds as Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) plays over, but Pennebaker quickly launches into performances. The Mamas & the Papas offer circularity, appearing early and performing again towards the close, dressed in Russian clothing defying comprehension. Others become overblown through the limitations of 16mm, drowned by light: Simon & Garfunkel are scarcely visible, covered in red lighting; Otis Redding is captured from behind, white flashes encompassing his face. Some are welcome surprises: Jefferson Airplane transcend the limitations of Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) through the enjoyable High Flying Bird; Eric Burdon covers Paint It, Black, though unable to rival the iconic Rolling Stones original. Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain never leaves the mind, portraying powerful intensity that can never be matched, concealing an internal struggle.

My Generation by The Who and Wild Thing by Jimi Hendrix become easy rivals to Jim Morrison’s on-stage anarchy: at the end of their performance, The Who smash their guitar into shards, never giving up, as security and stagehands walk in to chaos, genuinely confounded. Hendrix grinds into his amplifier, has sex with his guitar and sets it on fire, threatening to leave the entire stage and electrical equipment aflame with it, before throwing the lone remnant of the guitar into the audience. But Ravi Shankar offers some genuine calm: Pennebaker surveys his audience, sitting in prayer or content with the present moment, bored or waiting around, holding on Dhun for the duration of the performance as he plays his transcendent sitar, something never heard before. As Christgau wrote:

It isn’t likely that a third of those present had more than the most rudimentary understanding of what was going on. But Shankar played to his audience.

Monterey had some setbacks. As Rolling Stone reported the following year, a backlash emerged from an “ugly collection of voyeuristic “taxpayers””, arguing the festival “resulted in sale of pornographic literature, trafficking in narcotics, an invasion of “undesirables,” and “open fornication”, that may not have been entirely inaccurate. Its artists represent a generation soon lost: Hendrix, Redding and Joplin passed within only a few years of the festival, gone too soon – something uneasily familiar to Pennebaker with his short Lambert & Co. (1964), film becoming a document of the transient. Monterey and Pennebaker set a high bar for the music festival and concert film that may be difficult to ever top.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.

 

Speedy (1928), dir. Ted Wilde

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American silent cinema isn’t my forte. I’ve seen a couple of Chaplin’s films, but only the hybrid Modern Times (1936) and the sound era The Great Dictator (1940). More than the physical and visual comedy, what appeals to me about the silent era are the extraordinary colour works of Lang, Murnau and Wiene, or the ideologically driven works of Vertov and Eisenstein, which remain as artistic masterpieces to this day. Many of the silent comedies are just like the fairground amusements of Coney Island – an amusement and distraction, holding little artistic value. It’s those sequences on Criterion’s YouTube page (and on its cover) which sold me on the film – but they make up very little of its running time.

Its appeal to the 1920s generation, like a cameo from Babe Ruth, mean very little to me, and probably don’t to the people of today either, besides hardcore baseball fanatics, or academics charting the history of celebrity cameos. I assumed Babe was a glamorous actress until a intertitle introduced him, the next shot depicting him signing for orphaned kids.

I came into this film under a misapprehension – the artwork to Criterion’s release seems to sell the film as a romantic comedy. But the film already establishes Speedy and Jane as an existing unit, with the concern being her Pop – who clearly doesn’t have many years left on him – a more adult concern than a youthful romance. Through the physical comedy of the role (given the lack of sound or spoken dialogue), Lloyd’s character demands a presence that never leaves the film – he abounds personality.

Yet Jane has very little to her – she’s a beautiful woman, in a wonderful outfit, concerned about Pops and shares the odd cute moment with Speedy. This is the extent of her character, as the sole representative of the dominant female character, besides the odd angry old lady who misinterprets Speedy as a sexual predator thanks to a crab in his pocket who pinches bottoms. What I love about Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times is the romantic aspect – approaching romance from a more idealised, yet still endearing, perspective of the 1930s, enshrining heteronormativity and the nuclear family.

Let it be said – Speedy is a jerk. He risks lost luggage, trips people up, creates fights between people on the subway for his own personal amusement, runs away from law enforcement, steals horses. He drives so hazardously that rarely do we feel sorry for how much of an accidental fool he is. He’s presented as the hero, yet he’s also a dick.

But the film doesn’t feel as throwaway as I expected – there’s still a general sense of continuity, with a recurring dog (played by King Tut) on Coney Island; when Speedy ruins his jacket with stripes from a wet paint fence, he unwittingly keeps his jacket as is for the remainder of the trip. Later, a policeman warns him he’d give him stripes on his front as well.

As Bruce Goldstein’s documentary on the Blu-ray explores, one of the most important aspects of the film is its production of in NYC, preserving the city in 1927 for future generations. Although large chunks of it were shot in LA or on soundstages, filming in the city itself does not happen often enough. It’s still used sparingly, in Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), or Sidney Lumet’s efforts to establish a greater production base there in the 1960s or 70s, or today, where even Spider-Man films, which almost rely upon the character and the visual aesthetic of the city, too often use substitute cities as opposed to the real location. Shooting in NYC is difficult with crowds and expensive with budgets.

It’s truly a time capsule: the conceit of the film is around the last operated horse drawn carriage; its archnemesis is a gang of roughnecked bully boys (giving me flashbacks to the enemies of Action Comics (1938) and Captain America Comics (1941) in the 1930s and 40s); elderly Civil War veterans join Speedy in their defence of pop’s carriage; inter-connected local communities in Greenwich Village, including a Chinese shopkeeper, advise each other that there might be rain, based on Speedy’s hearsay; fairground rides are far too dangerous to pass muster in the 21st century; old automobiles; going to a tailors to repair broken pants; how hilarious it is that Speedy, out of work, can apply for a job as a taxi driver without a resume, having never learned how to drive, and start the job on the same day – no training required. Today, he may even need a degree to get it. In Goldstein’s documentary, he contrasts the New York of 1927 and 2015. Safe to say, they look like two entirely different cities.

The villain of the film is a tycoon, who wants to create a conglomerate railway, and is stopped by ridiculous clauses (once every 24 hours, really, because I mean who cares about Sundays or sick days). The most heroic thing Speedy does in the film is force Pops out of the business deal, altering the $10,000 business deal to a ridiculous $70k figure. (Until of course he agrees upon a larger deal at the film’s conclusion.) Pops represents the generation of the Civil War (his horse-driven carriage is of historical and social interest, and demands preservation), the film’s premise is the survival of history in the face of modernity. It’s hilarious when we think that today, Pops would be the old, established business, trusted by the local community, bought out by Rupert Murdoch who wants to radically alter how it operates.

Although I won’t commend the cinematography of the entire film, there’s still a pretty great visual aesthetic – the most important aspect of a film entirely reliant (besides the score, which occasionally interjects with sound effects) on the visual.

Seeing Luna Park shot by night is enchanting. The footage of Speedy driving through the city in a madcap way feels exciting – and is entirely authentic. The huge crowds of people, caught in a violent city gang war between baseball players and local people, burning hot irons and baseball bats involved, is a sight to behold. There’s a spectacle to this film, although perhaps not as thrilling or iconic as Lloyd’s clocktower stunt in Safety Last! (1923) – but it never elevates far above that. There’s little romantic charm or endearment to make the film as fun as it could be.

The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), dir. Albert Maysles & David Maysles

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Psycho (1960) presented us with the struggle between a mother and her adult son in a decrepit old house; Grey Gardens (1976) told the struggle between a mother and her adult daughter.

The Maysles’ companion piece to Grey Gardens, edited for its 30th anniversary, isn’t as well structured as the film it originates from. Some of the more clever narrative devices, from its introductory shots of the newspaper articles establishing the house through to looking through old portraits, and the closing letter from Edie, aren’t here.

Whilst the world of Grey Gardens was insular, creating the sense that the Beales never left the house, this film opens it up a little more. We see Edie walking to church, and walking past a car to the beach. But we also expand the world through the presence of more people: a woman visits the house, giving Edie a magazine, and we see a greater presence of Jerry and his quest for work in Canada. Within Grey Gardens, he was given far less of a voice, and ultimately became more of a handy man than anything else.

More than anything else, Beales shows more personality, focusing on the character of the Beales themselves rather than the character of the house. Edie comes across as incredibly likeable and intelligent, discussing issues from her hate of the Republicans and their “crooked president”, the films she likes, her Catholic faith, her experience with dating servicemen during World War II (many of whom died), plus the odd song here and there.

Partly, there’s a sense of ‘behind the scenes’ – we see an expanded sequence of Edie going to the beach; a small house fire which the Maysles intervene in helping stop, and a scene in which the Maysles ask her if she likes the title of the film – which I doubt would ever have made it even into early cuts of the original film. Scenes which before were glimpses are now given another perspective. A montage of Edie’s dresses almost feels a response to the fashion community’s embrace of her eccentric wardrobe by Todd Oldham and John Bartlett.

More than anything else, it’s a lesson in how essential the editing process is – and how much it can diverge depending upon what material is included. Whilst not essential viewing, The Beales of Grey Gardens is a must watch for fans of Grey Gardens who want a more sophisticated rendition of its outtakes.