Saturday, July 17, 2010

Catching up on the Last 13 years of cinema: David Lynch's Lost Highway

Started this process off with a viewing of Lynch’s 1997 film noir Lost Highway. Can’t explain why, other than Teeber and Jess indicated that it might be time. Josh was in. It was time.

Lynch’s film is sexy. And it is dated in a somewhat refreshing sense: Lynch is not completely out to lunch, not some total singularity, because Lost Highway betrays the stylistic conceits of that particular vintage of american cinema (early-mid 90’s) indicating an artist well aware of and ready to emulate, his contemporaries and their work.

But its a somewhat quaint notion presented by Lost Highway that interests me. Part A protagonist played by Bill Pullman makes a living playing free jazz. There is no indication whatsoever that his wife (Patty Arquette) is breadwinning. No, the indication is that dude affords the luxurious modo-styled LA hills mansion by playing OUT jazz at a club called the Luna Lounge. This would be a wonderfully anachronistic notion if it were in any film OTHER than one by Lynch. This was a time, remember when downtown avant-jazz was on the ascendancy in a big way. Zorn was at the height of his popularity, the Knitting Factory sold their records in Sam’s and HMV’s and opened a club in Los Angeles. (NB: The Knit began its life as a shitty whole in the wall in Lower Manhattan and up until twelve years ago its programming was devoted entirely to experimental/avant guardia) People still bought cd’s. In fact, cd’s were as much a item of conspicuous consumption as anything. Whether the Knits success was the result of a genuine burst of popular interest in the avant guard or simply a byproduct of getting in on the ground floor of the real estate boom and gentrification process of Lower Manhattan, is unclear). Heady times indeed. Whether you are Charles Gayle (who in ’94 played the Ottawa Jazz Festival and legendarily spent half the gig rambling on with his paranoid, Christian rightwing views) or Bill Pullman’s Fred character, there was at least some degree of money to be made in the out-jazz hustle.

O-Or its pure Lynchian fantasy. Along with the notion that on either side of Dead you’re fucking a variation of Patty Arquette or that physical imprisonment can’t keep a brothers mind down.
Either way, not saying in any sense that I’m stoked on the dudes’ music really. It sounds like that awful muscly-boutique-out-jazz white dudes are so prone to make, especially in that era. Zorn and cohorts, Vandermaark, all guilty.

And what if Lynch simply decided that the theme to this one would be taking it OUT!? That the audience should put into a situation in which they must relate to a man who’s living depends on his ability to take it OUT: Beyond the confines of evenly-paced time keeping, beyond slavery to harmonic structure and clean tonality. Why not then take it out in the filmmaking, to reinforce the theme. Beyond the confines of logically functioning plot devices, or the slavery of a straight narrative structure and direction. Indeed, why not take the man OUT of his body and give him a new one. Instead of making a shitty record of limp spy-music or retro-retro cool jazz with a skronk, why not make a psychological thriller that’s narrative gets to be similarly cluster-fucking as say Coltrane’s Ascension or a 70's FMP Evan Parker joint that's just streaming sheets of reed atonality.

But beyond my own jazz obsession: There is also the wonderful thematic device of Mystery Man and his video camera, which hints at early paranoia of the (At the time, a trend, NOW fully into a next level, well, really real) increasingly surveilled nature of our reality. And here we would need to dip into Mike Davis and Paul Virillio to really get a handle on what notions were kicking around that time. Mystery Man is the perceiverless perception of Security Cam/Vision Machines that began to be a constant presence in many cities but especially Los Angeles. Virillio sums up the question of “who” watches behind, what Davis in City of Quartz (1990) calls “Panopticon Eyelids”, in The Vision Machine (1994) and finds the answer to be: no one. (For example: I recently went through Airport Security with a small four-track tape machine in my bag. I decided to watch it come through on the xray monitor. It looked insane all exploded and thermal like that. Anyhow, the Security Monitor detail didn’t have to do much. My bag stopped in the middle of his monitor frame and the words Tascam Micro Cassette Recorder flashed across it. The xray machine can obviously take an image of my fourtrack's guts and cross reference it with specs in some super computer somewhere...WTF!) Mystery Man represents that deeply unsettling nobody who watches us from multiple angles in multiple places, omniscient. And despite being a non-existent other, but still present, the interest is somehow more directed to our depravity than anything to do with our so-called safety. Virillio, in his book, furthers this idea into the realm of military strategy and more or less becomes incomprehensible.

Lynch, on the other hand, continues to pursue OUT by presenting us with an examination of the formal structures of SUSPENSE (ie here is every plot device possible chained together and thrown at you to the point where it goes beyond plot). Free jazz of course does something similar, sort of, by means of an amplification of jazz’s tendencies. The differences between say Ayler and honker Big Joe Turner is really not much. Much like, beyond Lynchian flourishes, the actual formal qualities of Lost Highway are not far removed from those of any other psychological thriller, simply what tends to be the focus (resolution, linearity, one-actor per character ect) in the normal example are brushed aside by Lynch.

Once outside jazz’s traditional parameters you are left with a sometimes atonal haze, in a tempo so fractured that it becomes fractureless. Kinna how Lost Highway is. And as it should be.

(Thanks to teeber and autodestrukt for explaining what this is really about)