Tag Archives: Harry Dean Stanton

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to Continue reading 203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

DAVID LYNCH’S THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Among idiosyncratic filmmakers, it seems only  can produce something G-rated and linear, for Disney Studios, without sacrificing his inherent quirkiness. To tell it straight, The Straight Story, along with 1980’s The Elephant Man (another linear film) may be his most accomplished and surprising work. It makes one wish Lynch had gone this route more often, which is to take nothing away from a string of masterful opuses like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (1999), and Inland Empire (2006). Even more, one wishes Disney would have and gone this route more often, instead of bombarding us with the dreck they have become infamous for. Oddly, it took someone like Lynch to render Disney substantial again, albeit briefly.

Written and produced by frequent Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney with cinematography by Freddie Francis (of Hammer Horror and The Elephant Man), Straight Story is based on the true story of Alvin Straight. Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as the eccentric protagonist. The film is a tour de force for Farnsworth, whose last film this was (dying of cancer, he committed suicide months after filming). He is like a perfectly used note in Lynch’s composition.

Reading the plot of the film, one suspects a typical Hallmark-styled production, which is probably why Mickey’s Clubhouse chose to distribute it. The Straight Story, like much of Lynch’s oeuvre, resonates with a pronounced, authentic spirituality. It is Lynch’s personal direction and interaction with his cast that gives this film its three-dimensional purity. Lynch has never overly plotted his films, which is why Dune (1984) proved an poor match for him. Rather, he is like a figurative painter, who works well with tenacious personalities, such as Laura Dern (in three films), , , and Farnsworth.

Still from The Straight Story (1999)Finding that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has recently had a stroke, Alvin (Farnsworth) sees one last life mission. Having not spoken to Lyle for a decade, very much ill himself, living with mentally ill daughter (Sissy Spacek) and shorn of both license and car, Alvin hops on his tractor mower and drives 300 plus miles to visit Lyle.

Lynch and Farnsworth find poetry in Alvin’s pain. It is not self-pitying. Alvin has a past as a military sniper and, despite his simplicity and nostalgia, his character rings original and virtuous.

On the road, Alvin encounters an assortment of wanderers. Like Alvin, they possess a whimsical quality, but are never condescended to as caricatures. One might suspect a Kerouac road fable at the film’s center, but Lynch has no movement to propagate. He is only interested in his people and how each comes to purgation.

The unsung heroes of this film are cinematographer Francis, who composes his beautiful, yet dolorous landscapes with the aesthetic assurance of a Van Gogh, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose acoustic score is diaphanously choreographed to a  lyrical odyssey.

To many filmgoers, the name David Lynch conjures up an image of a surrealist boogey man. Yet, Lynch has often been able to accomplish the seemingly impossible within surrealism: to paint individuals that we can identify and empathize with within a capricious, mesmerizingly-paced panorama. Even Lynch’s most skeptical, misanthropic followers will find edification in The Straight Story, without burdensome bathos or heavy-handedness.

CAPSULE: HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Huber

FEATURING: , , Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, ,

PLOT: An impressionistic pastiche covering the career of cult character actor Harry Dean Stanton, with terse interviews, conversations with collaborators, film clips, and lots of folksinging from the subject.

Still from Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Stanton is a weird dude. The fact that your subject is weird, however, doesn’t necessarily make your documentary weird. Also, the ratio of insight to folk singing here is unfavorable.

COMMENTS: Partly Fiction is a portrait of a man of few words who refuses to talk about certain topics, including, among other things, his relationship with his mother and father. His answers to the simplest questions can be frustratingly obtuse, and followed by awkward silences. “How would you describe yourself?” “As nothing. There is no self,” Stanton replies. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” Now, while on a very refined and abstract level I have some agreement with Stanton’s philosophical outlook, the fact is his clipped, koan-like answers don’t make for a great interview. He adopts an approach that might be described as “enlightened-aggressive”; although he surely realizes that the audience is looking for insights into Stanton the actor, not Stanton the folksinging guru, the craggy-faced icon is insistent on forcibly edifying viewers and shoving wisdom down their throats. He is far more interested in serenading us than in talking about his career, delivering oddly phrased versions of “Blue Moon,” “Blue Bayou,” and “Everybody’s Talking at Me” in a weak, wavering voice. (He turns out to be a better harmonica player than a crooner). To be fair, he does open up a little bit more as the doc continues, but he seems always guarded, always intent on preserving his enigma—we only rarely sense we are peeking through cracks in his facade, and then only when he chats with old friends.

To fill up the time when Stanton isn’t talking or singing, director Sophie Huber provides numerous films clips, including many classics from his iconic role as a wounded amnesiac who wanders out of the desert in Paris, Texas and as an amped-up speed-snorting repossesser in Repo Man, along with smaller parts in bigger movies like Cool Hand Luke and Alien. Huber also follows Stanton as he cruises the night, smoking cigarettes in the back seat as the crew ferries him about L.A., tailing him to Dan Tana’s for cocktails (tequila and cranberry juice) and a smoke break with the bartender (whom Stanton obviously knows well). Tributes from Wim Winders, Sam Shephard (who recommended Stanton for his breakthrough role in Paris, Texas), and most importantly David Lynch, who visits for a cup of coffee and with whom Stanton lets down his guard, add some additional meat, but the documentary still has trouble filling out its meager 75-minute running time. The impressionistic pastiche survives solely on Stanton’s (not inconsiderable) charisma. There’s not much insight to be had here, but Harry Dean does magnify his image as a grizzled, mystical outsider, and fans of that persona should eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You still leave impressed at the way Stanton fiercely protects the aura of mystery that makes him such an indelible onscreen presence.”–Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TWISTER (1989)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Suzy Amis, ,

PLOT: A man seeks to reconnect with his daughter and her alcoholic mother, who rarely leave the mansion they share with the family patriarch and a weirdo artist brother/uncle.Twister (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This shambolic mass of quivering quirk is for fans of the cast only—specifically, for fans of Crispin Glover, who, bullwhip in hand, is acting somewhere near the acme of his Crispin Glover-ishness here as a fey would-be artist.

COMMENTS: Harry Dean Stanton is mini-golf mogul and patriarch of the crumbling Cleveland clan in Twister, Michael Almereyda’s odd but mostly unsuccessful debut film. Stanton, who is romancing a local Christian kids’ show host (Lois Chiles), is mildly eccentric, but his children have gone around the bend. Howdy (Crispin Glover) is an effete, sensitive artist in a shaggy Prince Valiant haircut. He plays guitar and sings (badly) and looks constipated most of the time. Sister Maureen (Suzy Amis) is a mess: constantly drinking beer, passing out on the lawn, and imagining helicopters are watching her. According to the story’s plan she’s supposed to be quirky and charming, but her behavior is too unpredictable and dangerously immature to be endearing. She’s an unfit mother, guilty of child endangerment just by being herself. Observing all the crazy are a trio of somewhat normal outsiders: live-in nanny Lola (Charlaine Woodard), whose underdeveloped part seems to be on back-order; victim kid Violet (Lindsay Christman), who is currently normal (against all odds) but in desperate need of rescue; and decent-guy protagonist Chris (Dylan McDermott), who just wants to put his family back together and get his daughter out of the Cleveland’s madhouse.

The title implies a cataclysmic upheaval that never comes. The Cleveland men get and lose girlfriends, the maturity-challenged siblings make plans to visit their absentee mother that don’t get very far, and Chris tries to woo the mother of his child despite increasing evidence that she’s too far gone into alcoholism and mental illness to make a commitment that lasts more than five minutes. By the end, despite the script’s hopeful protestations, we don’t believe that anyone has learned anything, or that anything is going to change for the core family, no matter what new living arrangements they propose. Twister is a character-driven story without genuine character development; things continue to happen, it keeps teasing us that it’s about to turn interesting, and then suddenly it ends, in a light breeze rather than a tornado.

Twister‘s main asset is its cast, and one of its coups was getting beat novelist to show up and deliver a few lines of dialogue. Watching Glover’s performance alongside Burroughs, you sense that the actor based his laborious, over-enunciating schtick on the junkie icon’s odd cadence. Seeing these two cult figures exchange carefully-crafted but halting lines of dialogue is one of Twister’s only small pleasures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Almereyda finds exactly the right tone: a loopy, understated deadpan that invites empathy rather than ridicule.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by dthoren, who said it “stars Harry Dean Stanton as patriarch of an insane family, including a bullwhip-wielding Crispin Glover in one of his trademark terrible wigs. I love it, and I hope you will too.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

149. REPO MAN (1984)

“Exec-produced by an ex-Monkee (Michael Nesmith) and directed by a onetime Oxford law student, ‘Repo Man’ was destined for weirdness.”–“Entertainment Weekly” in their 2003 list naming Repo Man one of the top 10 cult films of all time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Cox

FEATURING: Emilio Estevez, , Sy Richardson, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Zander Schloss, Fox Harris

PLOT: A scientist drives a Chevy Malibu through the desert with a mysterious cargo in his trunk that vaporizes people who try to look at it. Meanwhile, in southern California, young punk Otto, desperate for money, takes a job repossessing unpaid vehicles as a “repo man.” The two plotlines collide when the repo men discover a $20,000 bounty on the car, and the race is on between Otto and his pals, government agents, and rival repo men to repossess the vehicle, along with whatever resides in its trunk.

Still from Repo Man (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • Thinking it might make for an interesting story, writer/director Alex Cox rode with a repo man before conceiving this script.
  • Former Monkee Michael Nesmith was executive producer of the film.
  • Both Harry Dean Stanton and Alex Cox have both reported that they squabbled with each other through the film; in one incident, Stanton insisted on using a real baseball bat rather than a prop and almost struck a fellow actor. Some fans have speculated that some of Stanton’s scenes were rewritten and given to Sy Richardson due to this tension.
  • In the originally planned ending, Los Angeles was vaporized in a mushroom cloud; executives at Universal Pictures vetoed the idea. Another proposed ending had Otto becoming a revolutionary in Latin America.
  • Initially, Repo Man was shown in theaters for only a week, but when its punk soundtrack sold tens of thousands of copies the studio reconsidered and decided to give it a slightly expanded release. Still, far more fans came to the film via home video than caught it on the big screen.
  • The version of the film shown on television included several scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical release. (This “TV cut” is included as an extra on the Criterion Collection release).
  • Cox wrote a script for a sequel to Repo Man that was never produced; in 2008 it was adapted into a graphic novel titled “Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday.”
  • Over Universal’s objections (they owned sequel rights), in 2009 Cox made a poorly-received, low budget green-screen “spiritual sequel” to Repo Man called Repo Chick.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Repo Man is a film that’s better known for its dialogue than its imagery, but we’ll go with the vision of someone vaporizing when he opens the Chevy Malibu trunk, leaving behind a smoldering pair of boots (this scene happens more than once in the film). It’s one of Repo Man‘s few forays into cheesy special effects, but like every other seemingly inconsistent stylistic element of the movie, it feels right for this material, fitting into this consistently erratic and bizarre nightmare version of L.A.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Repo Man‘s weirdness is subtle, but unmistakable to the connoisseur. Consider the question: what genre is this movie? Is it sci-fi, social satire, a punk testament, or just a smart B-movie goof? And what to make of the movie’s interest in UFOs, conspiracies and fringe theories, the “lattice of coincidence” and Miller’s observation that “you know the way everybody’s into weirdness right now…. Bermuda triangles, UFOs, how the Mayans invented television?” If weirdness can be defined as that which reminds you of no other, than Repo Man is genuinely weird—and genuinely great.


Original trailer for Repo Man

COMMENTS: It may be hard for young folks to believe, but there was a time when Emilio Estevez was more than just Charlie Sheen’s mortified Continue reading 149. REPO MAN (1984)

CAPSULE: ALICE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Willing

FEATURING: Caterina Scorsone, Andrew Lee Potts, Kathy Bates, Matt Frewer, Colm Meaney, Philip Winchester, Eugene Lipinski, Tim Curry, Harry Dean Stanton

PLOT: Karate-instructor Alice finds herself in Wonderland, 150 years after her

Still from Alice (2009 miniseries)

predecessor of the same name; things have changed drastically, as the Red Queen now rules a totalitarian society with an economy that depends on a fresh supply of people from our world to keep the natives pacified.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alice is an imaginative, solid fantasy/adventure/comedy/romance, but it has only a few shadings of weird to it.  A SyFy channel production, it passes as “surreal” by basic cable standards, but this is the big time, guys.

COMMENTS: Tonally, Alice is only distantly related to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but at least the movie has a decent explanation for that: 150 years have passed since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole, in which time technological advances and two world wars changed our world’s landscape and psyche forever.  An equal length of time passed in Wonderland, and things there have changed for the worse, as well.  They’ve developed automatic weapons, for one thing; for another, the anthropomorphic animals have evolved into full-fledged humans, with complex motivations and back stories.  Most importantly, thanks to the Queen of Hearts’ tyrannical rule, the halcyon days of whiling away the time with wordplay, nonsense verse and tea parties have been replaced by a deadly power struggle between the Queen, who controls the populace through narcotizing potions of curious manufacture, and various underground resistance movements.  That synopsis makes Alice sound a bit darker than it actually is; in fact, there’s plenty of comedy and whimsy running about in this postmodern Wonderland.  Much of the silly fun is provided by Kathy Bates’ arrogant Queen (always a plum role in Alice adaptations), who reminds Alice that she’s “the most powerful woman in the history of literature.”   The most memorable comic performance; however, goes to Matt Frewer’s White Knight, a bumbling, mumbling relic with delusions of grandeur.  As we might hope in an Alice movie, the costumes and set design are a plus.  Instead of a castle, the Wonderland monarchy has set up shop inside a 1960’s mod casino that might have come out of an Austin Powers movie.  Weird notes are struck by an assassin with a Brooklyn accent and a porcelain rabbit’s head, and Alice’s hypnotic interrogation in “The Truth Room” by the Naziesque Drs. Dee and Dum.  All of the major characters from Carroll’s books are referenced, often in clever ways, and part of the fun of the movie is in catching the cameos and tributes to minor characters (the unexpected appearance of the Borogoves is a particular favorite).  Downsides to the production are cheap CGI (a disappointing Jabberwock), action sequences that often fall flat (karate instructor or not, it’s difficult to credit the sylphlike Alice repeatedly knocking grown men about like cardboard cutouts), and a grand finale that swiftly gallops from merely contrived to the utterly cornball.  The cameos by cult icons Curry (as Dodo) and Stanton (as Caterpillar) are short and disappointing.  Still, Alice‘s strengths overcome it’s weaknesses, and the movie delivers solid entertainment.  The adventure and romance threads are balanced with narrative skill, the comic relief generally works, and its three hour running time allows it to invest Wonderland and its characters with an impressive amount of detail without ever seriously dragging.

British director Willing specializes in the underutilized miniseries format.  He made a star-studded, straightforward adaptation of Alice and Wonderland for NBC in 1999, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, and Miranda Richardson, and others.  He also helmed Tin Man, a 2007 “re-imaging” that did for Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz what Alice did for Carroll’s books.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What ultimately sinks ‘Alice’ is that it is too normal. Carroll’s nonsense, anarchy and druggy weirdness always turned the tale into a fevered dream. Here, Alice disappears instead into a tired missing-father subplot.”–Randee Dawn, The Hollywood Reporter (TV broadcast)

48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

Weirdest!

“My response to viewers who are puzzled by the plots is, I don’t think you’re so puzzled as you may think.  We all have a certain amount of intuition, and that is something that can be trusted and should be trusted… And so when you see something that’s abstract in a film, and you seem to be getting lost, the thing to do is to start talking to your friends, and they’ll say something and you’ll find yourself disagreeing with that, and realize that you really had formed opinions, and you had a scenario that made sense in your mind, and that’s valid.  We know more than we think.”—direct advice from David Lynch on understanding his films

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: Laura Dern

PLOT: INLAND EMPIRE shifts around on a dozen tectonic plates of varying levels of surreality, but the unstable base layer involves Laura Dern as actress Nikki Grace cast in a melodrama based on an unproduced Polish screenplay which was abandoned as cursed after its two leads were murdered.  As she acts out the adulterous scenario, Grace becomes confused, coming to believe at times that she is the character in the screenplay.  After consummating a relationship with her handsome co-star, that reality slips away and Dern is seen playing several different characters, wandering around in a series of loosely interconnected sketches that involve (among other stories) an abused woman confessing her hatred of men to a psychiatrist, the lives of a gaggle of lip-syncing prostitutes, infidelity dramas, and a sobbing woman watching a room full of bunnies in an absurdist television sitcom.

Still from Inland Empire (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film began as a series of individual short films shot on digital video, as Lynch was exploring the new format.  After Laura Dern suggested working on a project with the director, Lynch later noticed recurring themes in the shorts he was shooting, and decided to put them together into a feature film.
  • In his announcement for the movie and in interviews afterward, Lynch has said that he is done shooting on film and will work exclusively with digital video from now on, citing the greater freedom afforded by the format and going so far as to say that the idea of going back to film makes him feel “sick and weak.”
  • Lynch reported that he wrote the film scene by scene, working without a finished script and trusting that connections would appear.
  • The footage of the rabbits is recycled from a series of short films called “Rabbits” that was exclusively screened on davidlynch.com.
  • Lynch has said he decided to title the movie INLAND EMPIRE after hearing Dern say that her husband hailed from that Southern California enclave, simply because he liked the sound of the words.
  • Lynch invested his own money to get the film made.  He also distributed the film himself, thus facing no pressure to make cuts to the finished product.
  • David Lynch himself sings on the soundtrack.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The nattily-dressed, stiff and deliberately posed bunny-people from the series of short “Rabbit” films, who were so evocative that Lynch decided to give them a new home in INLAND EMPIRE.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDINLAND EMPIRE is David Lynch at his most deliberately

Trailer for INLAND EMPIRE

unhinged, experimenting with how far he can stray from linear narrative while still producing a work that feels thematically whole, searching for the minimum number of recurring images and themes needed to stitch a piece together so that it tantalizingly approaches coherence without ever actually resolving.

COMMENTSINLAND EMPIRE is a frustrating movie, or, more charitably put, a Continue reading 48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH (2002)

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, Catherine Coulson

PLOT: A series of six short films spanning director David Lynch’s career from the

Still from The Short Films of David Lynch

1960s through the 1990s.  We track Lynch from his early years as a highly experimental student to a macabre master of the darkly surreal with these films that show a man who needed to grow and challenge himself as a creative force.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As collections of short films go, this is one of the most mercurial and hard-to-peg I’ve ever seen.  There’s really no denying the odd nature of Lynch’s efforts.  The first film alone, a minute-long animated loop of six hideous plaster sculptures throwing up,  stands as a timeless testament to Lynch’s nightmarish creative vision.  And the gut-wrenching scope of his silent feature, entitled “The Grandmother”, is a window into the mind of a radically different artist than the one Lynch has become.  But, honestly, the quality and sheer atmosphere present in most of Lynch’s features feels absent here, and there’s not enough memorable material to consider this a momentous release.

COMMENTS:  Much like a renowned painter or an extremely colorful luchador, a filmmaker’s work becomes more lionized as his fame grows, even his mistakes.  David Lynch is a very famous filmmaker, so it’s only appropriate that this assortment of short subjects should come out to cement his status as an iconic artist and a true visionary in the world of the nightmarish and the utterly bizarre.  But those die-hard fans of the man who seek a diamond in the rough here, a Pollack behind the frame of this small cache of movies, will likely find themselves disappointed, or at the very least conflicted.

If short films represent the transformation of a filmmaker as as he/she goes from one project to another, this gathering of shorts spanning Lynch’s career is a shadowy, rocky road.  Half of these films don’t desire to be much more than insubstantial experiments, hokey dumping grounds for ideas that are really just there to try something out.  They merely exist in a tangible form for the consumer because of the marketable name of Lynch, not because they actually have some sort of deliciously demented merit and are worth seeing for any length of time.  And while the three that are good are indeed very good, it’s easy to put this one on the borderline with the vibes I get from the other three.

Let’s break it down by feature, shall we?

“Six Figures getting Sick (Six Times)” – A minute long film loop featuring a set of six Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH (2002)