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.
It seems clear that A Serious Man (2009) is the Coen Brothers’ most explicitly Jewish film, but it is certainly far from their only Jewish film. But O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems to be their film that most explicitly approaches Christianity – specifically, white Southern Christianity. That’s not to say O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t have a framework of Judaism within it also: besides the cross, the film often deals in Old Testament imagery, with the parting of the waters that catapults a miraculous flood, with a raft able to survive with a fraction of those present. It’s either salvation from God, or progress into the New Deal future through hydroelectric dams flooding previously inhabited areas. The film’s Classical Odyssean narrative – relying on surprise and the unexpected – resembles the philosophy towards God (and a broken marriage) expressed by the Rabbi in A Serious Man – a sense of come what may.
But the film’s most explicit allusion to Judaism is through staging a KKK rally in Mississippi, led by the town’s Christian religious leaders and political hopefuls – like the film’s Homer, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) – that denounces miscegenation, Jews and African Americans. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, the rally comes adjacent to the rise of racist, anti-Semitic Nazism and fascism with rallies across Europe and America. The Coens may not be Spike Lee, but reducing lynchings and burning crosses to farce are still personal. The film expresses progressive, racially inclusive politics in the decades before the three main protagonists are released from their imagined prisons in the 1980s, relying upon allyship and material support towards other marginalised people – their singer friend Tommy Johnson (Michael Badalucco). Of course, ‘Tommy’ has its own racial connotations – to the notion of an ‘Uncle Tom’. African American characters are often to the side of the film in unspoken roles – working the railroad, prison labourers – but the ruins from slavery in the South and their presence is still felt. Perhaps ironically, it’s the black characters that survive – a white bankrobber dragged into police custody, lit by torches, boasting of his upcoming execution – as Tommy survives lynching. With the three protagonists given their own extrajudicial nooses, Tommy has no noose, as the black gravediggers around them sing their own song.
God is simultaneously knowable and unknowable, depending on one’s perspective. The Coens split between three characters with their own religious perspectives. Everett Ulysses (George Clooney), in a moment of crisis, begs the Lord for mercy and forgiveness, apologising for his pride and wanting to see his family again, in an overhead shot as though the viewer is God Himself. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a circular film: Ulyssees rejects baptism, casts doubt on the involvement of God (though begins, if briefly, to accept the sorcerous notion of Pete reduced to a toad), and ends by once again advocating for a “brave new world” of scientific reason and an American ideology of industry – the spreading of electrictal grids – but also adopts hope for an age of reason and the demise of “mumbo jumbo” and superstition. ‘Mumbo jumbo’ is equally problematic – a corruption and rejection of African tribalism by the colonial English language. But whether it’s the 1930s, 1980s, 2000 or 2019 – America and the South remains, despite demographic shifts – a majority religious and Christian country, driven in spaces by hate, xenophobia, racism – and indeed, superstition. The passage of time hasn’t solved the South.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou? we recognise the hypocrisy of Christianity. In white robes, we’re baptised, but can a life of criminality be all forgiven by cloudy, dirty water? Ulysses’ chain gang companions, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) proceed through the film with a semblance of religious belief that arguably provides their salvation: Ulysses leads their journey through lies and the prospect of material survival and riches, itself sinful. Christianity is corrupted: it’s purely a vehicle for Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) to exploit the lucrative Christian market with Bible sales in the same era as Paper Moon (1973) – without practicing Christian values himself, starting violent fights and stealing all that Ulysses and Delmar have to them, murdering animals: Christianity as something to preach down the radio, not affect one’s life.
For episode 56 of the podcast Criterion Reflections, going through the films in the Criterion Collection year by year of their original release, I joined David Blakeslee to discuss the earliest Beatrix Potter adaptation – a part of the collection for streaming on the Criterion Channel. It’s an episode that helped me remember these books and locations I grew up with; even recently I couldn’t help but notice a stone ornament of Jemima Puddleduck in a garden centre! (My previous efforts of podcasting can be accessed on Soundcloud.) However, as always happens even when notes have been written and with only so long a conversation can progress through until it reaches its natural conclusion, I didn’t cover everything that I researched and observed about the film, so I compiled a companion thread on Twitter with additional thoughts and information. This post will serve to organise this all into one place as a supplement to the episode. I’d recommend listening to the episode first for our thoughts, but perhaps the information presented here will encourage some more listeners?
One of the aspects we discuss on the episode are the darker elements of the film and of Potter’s work. For those that know her from more recent adaptations and the painted cover/interior illustrations, it might be a grisly surprise that:
Beatrix was happy in time to put down any little creature who fell ill, skin it, and boil the carcass to extract the skeleton for drawing.
Potter was engaged to her publisher, Norman Warne (who was younger than her), before his untimely death of leukaemia in 1905. Considering the state of the publishing industry and the size of Penguin Random House today, it’s pretty mindblowing to learn that the Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down by commercial publishers before initially being self-published in a run of 250. The public domain status of her books in the UK means that a lot of her books come up with horrific Kindle/Createspace covers!
One of the most beautiful parts of the film is where it approaches Beatrix Potter’s creative process and see her animals become reproduced as sketches, including the transformation of her mouse in a cage. Indeed, Beatrix Potter seems to exist in the same universe as her fictional creations! The film’s use of scale – including human sized animals, the doll’s house, mice with massive surroundings, a cat through the floorboards – reminded me of the trickery of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), with massive everyday items contrasted against human actors.
I’m still terrified by the prospect of where the feathers in the doll’s house’s pillows came from, considering the other animals we see in the film. Can Jeremy Fisher eat the Cadbury’s milk chocolate advertised in the newspaper he reads?
Despite not being successful in the US and internationally, Richard Goodwin reveals in Laurent Bouzereau’s making of documentary for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), produced for the Paramount DVD release, that the film was successful in the UK and Russia, and that Agatha Christie saw and liked the film and its faithfulness to the books – encouraging her to trust in the adaptation of Orient Express. Speaking in the newly produced interview for StudioCanal’s 2017 Blu-ray, Goodwin discloses that the US distributor, MGM, presented the film in a double bill with Shaft!
Roger Ebert was always a wonderful source for his writing, even if I don’t agree with all of his verdicts. His conclusion in a four star Chicago Sun-Times review for this film’s power in interesting different audiences was rather moving:
I still would have testified it was too highbrow for kids, though, because as a kid it would have been too highbrow for me. […] I took along three kids who hadn’t been told they didn’t like ballet and therefore didn’t know that they were supposed to have a bad time.
Ebert also complains about the film’s limited distribution outside of affluent, middle-class theaters, concluding:
It could be that the kids of the [Chicago] urban core (black and white) could use a little whimsical fantasy once in a while, wouldn’t you think? I mean, a kid’s a kid, right?
EMI produced quite a few children’s films around the same time as Tales of Beatrix Potter, including The Railway Children (1970), Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974). The Go-Between, certified AA on release (14 or over), deals with more mature themes around innocence, the loss of childhood and memory, but was partially shot in my hometown of Norwich! EMI themselves have many Criterion connections, being headed by Bryan Forbes (The League of Gentlemen, Seance on a Wet Afternoon). EMI worked on titles that were released on laserdisc (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), unreleased on laserdisc (The Elephant Man), with an additional DVD title, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that would have been funded by EMI before the film helped form George Harrison’s HandMade Films. Originally a part of the record label, for a year, EMI’s library was owned by the Cannon Group before now being under StudioCanal in the UK. An additional Criterion connection can be found in Maggie Unsworth, who worked in the role of Continuity, worked on the films of David Lean, Powell & Pressburger; The Browning Version (1951) and The Ruling Class (1972), and was the wife of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (A Night to Remember, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tess).
The short story of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) has some differences – the elision of time, omitting the 6 days of returning to Owl Island with mice (!), a mole, minnows, beetles, honey and an egg; it uses no dialogue but does uses nursery rhymes – Humpty Dumpty and Arthur O’Bower. However, Humpty Dumpty is an older version of the rhyme published by scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, before the modern version of the rhyme became more popular.
Another filmed version of her work was the ITV/Thames Christmas special The Tailor of Gloucester (1989).
I don’t remember if I ever went to the Lake District’s World of Beatrix Potter, although I probably did, I have a very distinct memory of going to the Wind in the Willows experience in Derbyshire in 2003 (its last year of operation) – run by the same people as World of Beatrix Potter!