(photo by Fran-cis-ca — more photos of quinoa)
We’ll get back to your regularly scheduled movie posts soon (and there’s quite a backlog), but since this blog’s official mission statement includes all things I like, here’s an entry about a food I’d never eaten — something that, at my ridiculously advanced age, you don’t get to do every day. While everybody else was chowing down on black eyed peas to ring in the new year, we tried quinoa, and it was delicious.
Advertised on the box as “the superfood of the future” and known to the Incas as “the mother of all grains,” quinoa is a “pseudocereal” that comes in sand-like grains which fluff up when you boil them. Quinoa cooks quickly, and it’s a complete protein, which makes it mad healthy. A so-called “tail” that pops out after it’s cooked gives it a crunchy texture. You can use it to replace just about any grain.
I was first introduced to quinoa by David Lynch, who gives his own recipe (along with a story about colored sugar water on a night train from Yugoslavia) in a special feature on the INLAND EMPIRE DVD. Apparently, I’m prone to trying anything Lynch recommends, but it took a second mention in a book by About.com’s Guide to Alternative Medicine Cathy Wong to give it a try. Lynch’s recipe adds organic broccoli; we made it with wild mushrooms. Speaking of Cathy Wong‘s book: it’s the time of year for detox, and if you want to give your liver a rest, it’s a splendid way to go.
Walt Disney Pictures distributed this 1999 film by David Lynch, and that fact — along with G rating, a plot that centers around an old man riding a lawnmower across Iowa, and a certain amount of pigheaded snobbery on my part — are the reasons I never gave The Straight Story a chance. Surely, this couldn’t be the Lynch Lynch fans crave? Grave mistake.
First of all, the movie is marvelous to look at and really drives home what a loss it is that Lynch won’t work in 35mm again. I like INLAND EMPIRE better than most, and the low-grade DV does have its charms, but if you compare it to the pristine, every-frame-is-an-art-print visuals of this movie, you can only grumble.
Grumbling is something you won’t get from Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), the proud and stubborn 73-year-old who, after hearing that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, decides that it’s time to reconcile. The brother’s in a hospital across the Wyoming state line, and Alvin can’t drive a car — in fact, he can barely walk or see, and he doesn’t want the help of his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek.) So he gets on his riding mower and heads east.
What follows is indeed a straight story, following the lines of the highway and the well-delineated demands of the hero’s journey (but then again, so does INLAND EMPIRE, if you know what to look for.) Alvin meets a runaway girl, a throng of bike riders zip by, and he almost gets killed going down a hill. The way the Oscar-nominated screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney manages to wring meaning and humanity from the simplest situations is a masterclass in drama: one early scene had me biting my nails because Alvin, in the slipstream of a passing 18-wheeler, lost his hat. Talk about high-stakes adventure!
How much Lynch is in all this? Apart from the absolutely beautiful cinematography by Freddie Francis, devoted Lynchians will find the master’s fingerprints all over the details: Alvin’s reckless smoking and taste for strong coffee matches Lynch’s own. The clipped but profound and folksy dialogue sounds like it could’ve come straight from his mouth, the small towns all have more than their share of small town weirdos, and in the final scene, Lynch regular Harry Dean Stanton shows his rugged face.
The Straight Story doesn’t enter any of the surreal dream spaces we’ve come to associate with Lynch’s work, but it nonetheless succeeds in taking us into a unique world that follows its own rules. The performances by Spacek and Farnsworth are top-notch. Farnsworth became the oldest actor ever to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; he was ill with cancer during the shoot and took his life the following year. I’ll have to rewatch this soon because I suspect it may merit a fifth star.
The Straight Story. David Lynch, 1999. ****
YouTube has a great clip in which Alvin meets the Deer Woman (Barbara Robertson):
My review of the new David Lynch self-portrait Lynch, opening next Friday at the IFC Center, just went up on About.com. In the meantime, I thought I’d use the opportunity to say a word or two about my experiences with Transcendental Meditation (TM), which Lynch has been promoting with his foundation and last year’s book, Catching the Big Fish.
TM had always intrigued me, and after I got hold of Catching the Big Fish, my curiosity was seriously stoked. But two things kept me from trying it out: the slightly cultish vibe of the official web site, and the prohibitive cost. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi charges $2,500 for learning the “simple method” to a better life, and I wasn’t about to plunk down that kind of money for what may or may not have been a bunch of hokum.
Wikipedia to the rescue: at the bottom of the article on TM, I found a reference to a low-cost alternative called Natural Stress Relief. Founded by renegade TM teachers, NSR can be learned for $25, which pays for a manual in pdf format and an mp3 file. (According to the Maharishi, TM can only be learned through personal instruction.) NSR also sheds a lot of the mystical trappings of TM — it’s advertised as a no-nonsense method for relaxation rather than a way to gain cosmic consciousness and bring about world peace.
A year later, I haven’t missed any of the twice-daily meditation sessions and can corroborate all of the claims Lynch makes for TM. Natural Stress Relief is a very effective way to drop the mind into a state that’s neither sleeping, dreaming, or waking. In this state, the nervous system begins to heal itself and release stresses that have accumulated over the years: anxiety, anger, pain — Yoda’s entire litany of everything that leads to the Dark Side. Since I started NSR, I’ve been feeling more optimistic, creative, outgoing, and productive. Of all the supposedly consciousness-expanding experiments I inflicted on my poor head over the years, NSR has been the most effortless, the most useful, and the most joyful. If you’re curious, take a look at the NSR home page and the forums, where former TM teachers discuss the method and give helpful advice.
Now, who’s got my one-legged sixteen-year-old and that pet monkey ?
Lynch. blackANDwhite, 2007. ****
Billy Wilder’s timeless noir about the tragedy of fame attained and denied provides up-to-the-minute commentary on the Passion of Lindsay and her latest closeup, but that’s not the angle I’d like to pursue today. Instead, let me draw your attention to a connection that took me by complete surprise last night (yes, I screamed.) Compare and contrast:
The film-within-a-film Gloria Swanson and William Holden are watching is a 1929 silent called Queen Kelly. The actress in the movie is in fact a younger Swanson, and Queen Kelly is directed by Erich von Stroheim, who also plays Norma Desmond’s storied butler Max in Sunset Blvd. It’s a delicious bit of recycled cinema that functions as inside joke and helps deepen Norma Desmond’s character.
Lynch’s reasons for quoting both movies halfway through INLAND EMPIRE are more obscure. Because the character, known as the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), is speaking Polish, the caption from Queen Kelly is rendered in subtitles. Without knowing anything about its provenance, I found that it summed up the dark undercurrents of INLAND EMPIRE so well that I used it as a title for my original review.
On frieze.com, Kristin M. Jones writes that “[the Lost Girl] may represent the souls of ambitious actresses stolen by their dreams.” The intrepid interpreters on the INLAND EMPIRE forums believe that the scene is a good starting off point for theories about the film — after all, both Sunset Blvd. and INLAND EMPIRE concern Hollywood stars in spectacular houses with strange butlers, champagne and caviar, and movies that have the power to kill. Like Nikki Grace, Norma Desmond is “a woman in trouble.” Come to think of it, so is Linsday Lohan.
Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder, 1950. *****
“The ambulance guys, they say, what the fuck happened here? I say, he come to reaping what he been sowing, that’s what. They say, fucker been sowing some kinda heavy shit.”
Over the course of its three bizarro hours, INLAND EMPIRE draws a lot of attention to its mode of presentation and status as physical artifact. The film opens with a shot of a movie projector cranking up and throwing a beam of flickering light into the darkness. The camera turns, and the screen becomes our screen. This is only the first of dozens of times Lynch reminds us what exactly it is we’re looking at. The magic is that it works anyway.
Because of the constant references to film as a medium, I was worried that seeing the film on DVD (available on August 14) would diminish the experience more than it usually does. But like the river you famously can’t step into twice, INLAND EMPIRE is a shape-shifter of a movie that reconstitutes itself differently every time, and my own TV screen turned out to be a fascinating place to see it.
First of all, what happens to the film’s surface is nothing less than a revelation. Lynch shot INLAND EMPIRE on cheap digital video, and it is much more at home on the small screen. The infernal glare and lousy resolution of the blown-up film are gone; the images regain something of the sensual quality that inform every frame of Mulholland Dr. At least by traditional standards, INLAND EMPIRE on DVD looks better than ever.
And while it’s true that the film opens with a projector, it only takes a few more shots before we’re in a hotel room with a woman who spends the entire movie watching TV: talking rabbits, static, Laura Dern, herself, whatever’s on. Since it continuously references both modes of presentation, INLAND EMPIRE can be said to be about Lynch’s move from film to digital, about getting lost in a media-saturated world built from competing narratives. The medium must certainly be part of the message, and the film’s interlocking stories are all framed by various acts of looking: at screens, through burn holes, through the windows of a movie set.
In this context, questions about which part is “real” and which is “just a movie” become pointless. Take the scene where Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) rehearses her role. Like Naomi Watts’ audition in Mulholland Dr., the miracle is not that an actor can summon emotion out of thin air, it’s that we feel it, too — even though it has just been revealed as a trick. All of the film’s narrative levels have the potential to affect us, and that’s why we should be afraid of the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), the shadowy Polish carnie who hypnotizes circus audiences and can simply vanish.
David Lynch distributed INLAND EMPIRE himself, and the number of people who had a chance to see it in theaters was limited. With the DVD, some of the film’s subconscious pull has been traded for bonus features and the opportunity to pour over individual scenes and fast-forward through others. (Let the obsessive analysis begin!)
“More things that happened” is Lynch’s title for 75 minutes of deleted scenes edited into a single piece, a kind of extended appendix. The new scenes offer hints and clues but also confuse matters further: Sue loses her job, the Phantom sells a watch, Laura Dern masturbates while she’s on the phone, Nastassja Kinski makes a confession, and a couple of prostitutes crash a remote controlled UFO. In other words, catnip for the converted.
The DVD also provides a gallery of still images, three trailers, and the short film “Ballerina.” A fascinating half-hour long documentary shows Lynch at work, and in another short, the filmmaker reveals his recipe for quinoa while telling a story about buying colored sugar water in Turkey. Finally, there are forty minutes of Lynch speaking about the making of Rabbits, working in Lodz, the beauty of digital editing, and where “the babies are hiding.”
INLAND EMPIRE pushes up against the outer edge of what film can do, and it drives home just how timid, unadventurous and homogenized most movies really are. It operates in an endlessly fertile space of open-ended possibility. Harry Dean Stanton’s Freddie sums it up as well as anybody:
There’s a vast network, right? An ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits. I’ve always loved animals. Their nature, how they think. I have seen dogs reason their way out of problems, watched them think through the trickiest situations. Do you have a couple of bucks I could borrow? I’ve got this damn landlord.
INLAND EMPIRE. David Lynch, 2006. *****