Okay, so it didn’t take as long as Guns ‘N Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” but Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne has been plugging the release of CHRISTMAS ON MARS since the dawn of this decade. After some festival screenings here and there, the film finally just dropped on DVD and it proves to be every bit the space oddity the Oklahoman art rockers have been promising. What wasn’t expected though was that the film has no vocal pop songs on its soundtrack, just reams of ambient embellishments that mostly serve as incidental music. So dont expect a Beatles-eque romp unless the idea of watching MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR with the songs edited out appeals to you.

In a scenario reminiscent of sci-fi staples like ALIEN, 2001, and the lesser known John Carpenter cult curio DARK STAR, a team of astronauts work to colonize Mars in the near future (2052?) while a baby is being birthed by extremely unconventional means which inspire qrotesque fetus hallucinations (think ERASERHEAD). This is mostly presented in grainy black and white shot on 16 MM film on makeshift sets making it resemble an art school project. Bright color sometimes blurry, sometimes jarringly vivid, does come into it in pointed places making it also resemble home movies of an acid test. The birth is timed for Christmas eve so the colonists which include Lips members Stephen Drozd (pictured left – presumably the protagonist), Michael Ivins, and Kliph Scurlock plan an impromptu pageant to mark the event. A Martian played by Coyne painted green with antennas (described by one character as looking like something “that crawled out of Godzilla’s ass) appears and is recruited to don a Santa Clause suit. Dialogue consists of ponderings such as:

“Humans aren’t meant to live in outer space; it destroys your internal beliefs…makes you think about ‘where is Heaven when you’re in outer space?’”

“I’ve got such a bad feeling that it should make you have a bad feeling.”

(shout-out to STAR WARS?)

“Space is cold, unfeeling, and mean. It crushes all the little things like a moth on a window sill.”

The rising conflict through all this psycho-babble occurs with a capacitor malfunction that threatens their oxygen supply. But with Coyne’s E.T.-esque chest light you can expect a Martian Christmas miracle! None of the Flaming Lips members are good actors (Coyne conquers this by not speaking at all) but there are a few talented thespian folks who ostensibly as fan favors lend a hand. Adam Goldberg (DAZED AND CONFUSED, 2 DAYS IN PARIS) as “Mars psychologist” has a great scene describing a Lynchian dream about a marching band that all had heads of human genitals, and SNL’s Fred Armison has a nice casual cameo credited as “Philosophical and Hymn-Singing Astronaut”.

Emulating the Russian sci-fi of the 60’s (the likes of which Francis Ford Coppola was enlisted by Roger Corman to rework for American audeinces – NEBO ZOVYOT which became BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN), and distilling dystopian elements down to lazy shoe-gazing isn’t quite the space pop opera cinema that I anticipated. Artists though should constantly thwart expectations and dive into different mediums with different ideas not caring about consequences so it’s hard, or downright impossible, for me to dismiss or dislike this effort. CHRISTMAS ON MARS may gain cool credit as a ironic holiday late night movie to put on after feasts of food and other altering substances are consumed in seasons to come but for now I can’t get past that it’s just weird for weirdness-sake.

More later…

7 Years Later, Does MULHOLLAND DRIVE Make Any More Sense?

Short answer: Maybe a little. Long Answer:

Last Friday night as part of a series on film noir, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh had a screening of David Lynch’s twisted surreal drama MULHOLLAND DRIVE. The film was introduced by Independent Weekly Arts Editor David Fellerath who considers the film a masterpiece and one of the greatest of the last 10 years. He asked how many folks were seeing the film for the first time and a surprisingly huge amount of hands were raised. After some background and an attempt at plot summary, he assured the almost full room that 95% of the film holds up to “logical scrutiny”. I’m not so sure about that, but the film did seem to gain levels of coherence that it lacked for me back in 2001. Fellerath had also stated that if anybody still had problems with the film’s meaning afterwards – “there’s lots on the internet.”

There sure is lots on the internet, starting with one of the lengthiest Wikipedia entries for a film that I’ve ever seen with content headings like “Interpretations and Allusions”, detailed character breakdowns, and long intricate paragraphs on the style and critical reception. The references for the entry site 82 articles with such titles as “Nice Film If You Can Get It: Understanding Mulholland Drive (The Guardian) and Salon.com’s “Everything You Were Afraid To Ask About Mulholland Drive” (which Roger Ebert considers “the best explanation”). Another worthwhile read is Anthony Kusich’s “Mulholland Drive…Explained” which deals which the 10 clues that Lynch included in the notes for the original DVD release. The existence of the clues is curious because Lynch was quoted in the New York Times a few years later as saying that DVD extras can “demystify” a film.

Perhaps what Lynch and many critics have proposed is the most sensible way to take MULHOLLAND DRIVE – not to try and make sense of it. Just absorb the mood and visual tones winding through the various narrative strands. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring are either friends turned lovers named Betty and Rita in a dream or the former lovers now estranged Diane and Camilla in reality or vice versa. It appears that Justin Theroux is one of the only constant characters – an arrogant film director who is pressured by Mafioso types, to cast Camilla in his newest film. In one of the most memorably amusing scenes has Theroux meet a cryptic character called “The Cowboy” (Lafayette Montgomery) who tells him: “A man’s attitude goes some ways. The way his life will be.” When The Cowboy can be seen passing through the background of a party scene later on it is impossible not to take as intensely comical.

A turning point comes when Betty and Rita doing some detective work because Rita has lost her memory (she took her name from a Rita Hayworth movie poster) locate a woman’s dead body. Identities then blend (the Igmar Bergman-esque screen capture above says a lot about the merging of identities I believe) with Rita donning a blonde wig and then they shatter completely with the aid of a shiny blue box (that of course appears with no explanation) and then reassemble or emerge from a dream – as when The Cowboy says: “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up”. Many elements familiar to fans of Lynch fill the frames throughout – among them the darkened old fashioned back room of the mysterious movie studio string puller Mr. Rogue (Michael J. Anderson) wouldn’t have been out of place in the dreams of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) on Twin Peaks and the creepy Club Silencio that Betty and Rita attend one fateful night is somewhere you would expect to see Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) from BLUE VELVET lounging around in.

Writting before about the “love/WTF?” relationship I’ve had with the films of David Lynch (“Inland Empire Burlesque” and “Hey, I Finally Saw…ERASERHEAD”) I had decided to let go of the idea of determining definitive meanings and just go with the freaky flow. Wading through the various analyzing articles previously mentioned of this particular film though is still extremely fascinating because many interpretations can exist side by side, none more valid or more convincing than the other. Maybe MULHOLLAND DRIVE doesn’t make any more sense now than it ever did but its captivating spell has indeed grown and its perverse passion is definitely more powerful than when it was first shown in the heady distracting days shortly after 9/11. For those who haven’t seen it before and lived with it for a while, I have to relate this – while the end credits were rolling at the Art Museum last Friday, a irrate woman who was obviously one of those who had earlier raised their hands, was heard complaining: “I’m very upset – it didn’t make any sense! Even PULP FICTION made sense! At the ending it all came together. I mean even AMERICAN BEAUTY made sense too!” So much for discussion, huh?

More later…

Hey, I Finally Saw…ERASERHEAD!

When it comes to being a film buff/geek admitting that you’ve never seen a particular classic film used to be a shameful act, one to be avoided for fear of scorn and derision but thanks to the wave of blog confessionals that washes all over the internets it’s a welcome entertaining way of coming clean. The Onion AV Club has a ongoing column entitled Better Late Than Never” in which a different staff member finally watches what has been long considered an essential important movie – they’ve covered HAROLD AND MAUDE, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RAGING BULL and a handful of other movies that most people assume everybody (or at least every film fan with a blog) has seen.

Fellow blogger Graham Culbertson on his fine site Movies Et Al. has a series called Film Ignorance which also deals with catching up with highly touted cinema that he or a guest blogger is only now getting around to. So when I saw that the Colony Theater in Raleigh * had obtained a 30th anniversary print of what could be the definitive cult classic, a notorious film that I’d heard about for decades but for one reason or another I never saw, I thought it would be a good time to start my own “Hey, I finally saw…” forum. I went with a friend, who had also never seen the movie, to the Saturday night late show and now I can declare:

Hey, I finally saw…ERASERHEAD!

Despite having not seen it before last Saturday night, this iconic image, which is used on the poster, is as familiar an image to me as paintings by the great masters or the pyramids. It’s an intriguing and fitting portrait because to view David Lynch’s debut film ERASERHEAD is to get very acquainted with the face of the late Jack Nance. Nance plays Henry Spencer who says he’s on vacation from his occupation as a printer and lives in a sparely furnished one room apartment. The squalor of the slum he toils in is reflected in his eyes as is incredible sadness, desperation and above all – confusion. I entered his grainy gritty black and white world cautiously but curiously absorbing every intense corner not caring if a plot would actually rear its ugly head. What does rear its ugly head is a limbless mutant baby his timid girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) presents him with. The grotesque reptilian offspring constantly shrieks, so much so that Mary leaves Henry to take care of the whatever it is himself – “You’re on vacation now; you can take care of him for a little while!”

From there on out Henry’s life dissolves into a series of dream sequences and surreal set-pieces. There is a low industrial hum under the surface of the soundtrack as he drifts through real or imaginary experiences involving his neighbor (Judith Anna Roberts credited as “Beautiful Girl Across The Hall”), a cabaret singer (Laurel Near) with hamster-like puffed-out cheeks who appears on a stage from deep within Henry’s radiator – “Lady in the Radiator” who sings “In Heaven”, and the ginormously overwhelming “Man in the Planet” (Jack Fisk) who haunts the film from beginning to end. As bizarre as this all appears, the film’s title is surprisingly from one of the more linear tangents – Henry dreams of his severed head being sold to a factory and being processed into pencil erasers.

Though it was shot over 6 years in the 70’s not one frame looks tied to that period. Actually not one frame looks tied to any period – it exists in a time and world completely of its own creepy creation. The powerful draw of such bewildering and unpleasant aestetics is hard to explain; I thought often that I couldn’t believe anyone would pick this as their favorite movie but I’ve heard a number folks do just that. I have to take into account that having seen it for the first time just the other day may not be enough time to process the experience. For a first time director it is a incredible piece of work – Lynch has the most fascinating yet frustratingly obtuse filmography of any noted director over the last 30 years and seeing ERASERHEAD for the first time gives me a perspective on his work I was sadly lacking. The last half hour of the film I had to use the restroom but could not remove myself from my seat. I could not stand to have a broken viewing of the ERASERHEAD experience. It was an experience that I loved and hated; that was disgusting yet beautiful and one that I could do without ever seeing again but still am looking forward to revisiting.

* The Colony Theater in North Raleigh showed ERASERHEAD as part of their Cool Classics @ The Colony series and I was amused to see that they dug up a couple of old trailers of a few obscure 70’s flicks to screen beforehand. The first was for THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES which was Steve Guttenberg’s first film and the second was a Robbie Benson (a forgotten teen heart-throb) vehicle called DIE LAUGHING which also featured Bud Cort and Charles Durning. They were both hilarious additions to the marvelous mid-night movie-show.

More later…