Waiting for Guffman
The film, to the best of my knowledge, has no title. It is exactly 52 seconds long; it was shot using a restored Cinematographe, the camera invented by the Lumière brothers in the late 19th century; and it is, to be needlessly blunt, a fucking masterpiece. It can be seen in Sarah Moon's film Lumière and Company, to which three dozen of the world's most acclaimed directors contributed 52-second shorts shot under conditions approximating those available in 1895; while some of the vignettes are charming, and some are funny, and some are inventive, only Lynch's continues to haunt me. It's quite possibly the best film I saw last year, and only my arbitrary decision, many years ago, to restrict my annual top ten lists to feature-length movies prevented it from making a prominent appearance in the most recent lineup.
I bring this up not to crow about the obscure films I see (that's just a fringe benefit), but because I think it's instructive to compare this minute-long short, which is hypnotically arresting and utterly unforgettable, with Lost Highway, which is pretty mediocre. And the most important difference between the two happens to also be the most obvious: Lost Highway is about two hours and nine minutes longer. "Duh," you're thinking, and understandably so, but I'm dead serious; while Lynch has made a couple of brilliant feature-length films in the past (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet), at the moment his work can only benefit from just about any arbitrary restrictions placed upon it, because Lynch is so busy trying to top his previous output -- to be weirder, more provocative, more quintessentially Lynchian -- that he's sinking in a quagmire of pretentious opacity (not unlike this sentence). Just as the short Lumière film derives much of its power from its brevity -- its most disturbing images are glimpsed only briefly and defy explanation -- so Lost Highway suffers from its surrealistic bloat. (Twin Peaks is another case in point: though it eventually degenerated into goofy, mannered shtick, the terrific first two seasons probably benefited from television's prudish nature, which forced Lynch -- unable to rely on overt displays of sexuality and violence -- to innovate.) There are isolated moments as eerie and memorable as anything he's ever done before, but long stretches are an incomprehensible bore.
This is where I'd usually launch into an abbreviated plot summary, but in this case it seems pointless. Suffice to say that there are two vaguely intertwined stories; one stars a blond Patricia Arquette and Balthazar Getty, the second a brunette Arquette and Bill Pullman. (They're in the reverse order, actually, but I couldn't resist the "brunette Arquette" assonance.) Pullman, I think, is one of American film's most underrated actors; I've been a fan since I first encountered him in Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988, and was relieved to see him finally break free of the sappy Ralph Bellamy roles he'd been playing in films like Sleepless in Seattle and Sommersby. He was gleefully, anarchically nasty in The Last Seduction and the tail end of Malice, acting with a vicious ferocity that clashed beautifully with his preppy good looks, and I couldn't wait to see what Lynch would do with him. The answer, I was disappointed to discover, is Nothing Much. Mostly, he asks him to glower morosely in a pool of blood-red light, which even Jason Bateman could probably manage.
But I digress. I was speaking of the plot...or, rather, as you can see, I was avoiding speaking of the plot. The plot isn't much to speak of, frankly. The first half of the film depicts Pullman and Arquette in a tense, moody marriage, which becomes tenser still when anonymous videocassettes begin turning up on their doorstep; when played, they reveal that someone has been entering their home in the dead of night to record them in their sleep. That's an attention-getter, no question, and it's here, in the film's first few reels, that Lynch impresses like the Lynch of old. A good friend of mine considers Lynch a second-rate visual stylist, and while I don't entirely agree with that assessment, I was acutely aware, as I was when seeing Eraserhead in a theater a few years ago, of how crucial Lynch's unique sound design is to the creepy, unsettling mood that he creates. The scenes in Arquette and Pullman's cavernous L.A. apartment are guaranteed to give you the heebie-jeebies, and the effect would probably be the same even if you closed your eyes; it's the vague, undefined whirrings and hummings and whooshings that make your skin crawl. If your eyes were shut, however, you'd miss some astonishing images, my friend's opinion notwithstanding...including one in which Pullman is swallowed whole by his darkened domicile. Lynch gets more mileage here out of darkness, out of what the camera's lens can't pick up, than anyone in recent memory. Some of the film is so dimly lit that I can't imagine how it'll be watchable on television; even with film's greater resolution, watching certain scenes is like looking into a very muddy pond.
Oops, I got sidetracked again. So anyway, once you're hooked, Lost Highway detours into Story the Second, in which Balthazar Getty plays the fencepost that James Dean crashed into on that fateful day in 1955. The cryptic title is thus explained; the "lost highway" is the one that Dean was racing along when he made an unexpected exit...into oblivion.
Ha ha! I'm jesting, of course; Dean crashed into another vehicle, and he has nothing whatsoever to do with Lost Highway. Getty plays a fencepost entirely unrelated to that incident, a fencepost that somehow finds work as a mechanic. Arquette, now blond and apparently consumed by a bizarre wood fetish, finds herself irresistibly attracted to the young grease monkey; unfortunately, she's the moll of vicious gangster Robert Lopper -- I mean Hoggia -- sorry, Loggia -- who is less than pleased when he discovers that his woman is literally festooned with splinters. Danger, stomach-churning violence, and numerous scenes featuring Arquette in the nude ensue.
The two stories -- both of which, I forgot to mention, feature Robert Blake as a freaky little guy with no eyebrows and skin like chalk, who serves the same vague purpose as Carel Struycken's giant in Twin Peaks -- do eventually coalesce, but in a hokey, scattershot way that feels utterly arbitrary. In a 52-second short, Lynch can get away with teasing the audience with random nightmarish visions; in a feature running more than two hours, however, that kind of dream-logic just doesn't suffice, especially not when there's so little else to command one's attention. While I've been cruel to Balthazar Getty -- and not without cause -- he can't be entirely blamed for his insipid performance; there isn't a compelling character to be found anywhere. Lynch doesn't even seem interested in Jack Nance this time (a pity, since it turned out to be, as far as I know, his final role), and Richard Pryor turns up briefly in his wheelchair for no reason other than to create a momentary buzz in the theater ("hey, that's Richard Pryor in his wheelchair!") -- he's given no character to play. Robert Loggia, meanwhile, might as well be billed as Frank Booth, Jr, so obviously is his maniacal thug intended to remind us of Dennis Hopper's much more terrifying lunatic. Including echoes of the far superior Blue Velvet is dangerous business; any scene between Jeffrey and Sandy in that film ("I don't know whether you're a detective or a pervert...") is infinitely richer and more spellbinding than the entirety of Lost Highway, at least so far as human interaction is concerned. The former is about ordinary people encountering the strange and unusual; the latter is an arid celebration of the strange and unusual, with the people as mannequin tour guides.
Lost Highway isn't as terrible as Wild at Heart -- hell, psoriasis isn't as terrible as Wild at Heart (I didn't see Fire Walk with Me, if you're wondering, and I barely remember Dune) -- and the first 45 minutes or so constitute an unnerving tour de force that's worth the price of admission for anyone who admires Lynch's work. Though the picture grows more irritating to me in memory with each passing day, I wouldn't think of condemning it outright; there are just too many effective moments, too many reminders of the genius that Lynch insists upon squandering. For his next project, though, I'd like to humbly suggest that he burden himself with some restrictive rules. The less freedom he's allowed, lately, the more creative he becomes.
Which is a shame, really, because Eastwood directs this ludicrous thriller as if it were Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt; for a while, his expert sincerity almost succeeds in making the damn thing seem vaguely plausible. I thought about beginning this review by suggesting that we all knock Eastwood down from the pedestal we built for him following the release of Unforgiven, and hoist screenwriter David (Webb) Peoples up there in his place -- after all, Peoples subsequently wrote the terrific and haunting Twelve Monkeys, while Eastwood has given us an expertly sincere but utterly schizophrenic cops'n'robbers drama (A Perfect World), an expertly sincere adaptation of the worst novel ever written save for later novels written by the same guy (The Bridges of Madison County), and now this expertly sincere adaptation of another bad book, this one by David Baldacci. (For the record, I should confess that I haven't actually read any of the aforementioned works o' literature, although I've leafed through three of Waller's tomes in search of howlers such as "Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another." People I trust tell me Baldacci's book is crap, and, like most people, I consider that a license to assert it as if it were a fact.) Upon reflection, however, I recognized that being a poor judge of material (which Eastwood has repeatedly proven himself) does not necessarily make you a poor director, even if it ensures that the quality of your oeuvre will be frustratingly erratic. There's plenty wrong with Absolute Power, but virtually none of it is Eastwood's fault; the only real mistake he made was choosing to make this film instead of a good one.
Correction: Eastwood did make one another significant error, albeit a predictable one. As usual, he cast himself in the lead role, in this case as burglar extraordinaire Luther Whitney, who inadvertently stumbles onto a murder cover-up involving the President of the United States (reliable Gene Hackman). The rest of the cast -- which also includes Judy Davis, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, and E.G. Marshall -- is absurdly strong, especially given the hokey material that they're working with; Eastwood, unfortunately, relies heavily on his Man of Granite routine, which is becoming less and less effective as he creeps towards octogenarian status. There are moments in Absolute Power in which I think we're supposed to find Luther's stoic monotone and squinty stare threatening or chilling, but in which it merely seemed to me as though Luther were struggling to remember whether or not he'd taken his medication that day. I know that that may strike some people as cruel, especially after all of the Getty-as-lumber remarks in the preceding review, so let me assure you that I'm not in any way suggesting that older people can't or shouldn't act (E.G. Marshall demonstrates otherwise in this very film, for that matter); what I am suggesting is that the minimalist, narrow-eyed, deadpan manner that Eastwood has long affected in his action films doesn't really work now that he's recognizably a senior citizen. Granted, he's a lot scarier than your average retiree, if only because of the baggage he carries with him as a movie icon, but it was a pleasure to see him expanding his range in films like Bridges and Unforgiven (even if he does revert to form in the latter), and it's a disappointment to find him back in Man-with-No-Name mode in a film that would have benefited from a more energetic presence.
Most of Absolute Power's cinematic energy is concentrated in its bravura opening set piece...though perhaps "set piece" isn't the proper term, since this remarkable sequence is a good forty minutes long. That, in itself, is highly unusual; most big-budget Hollywood movies wouldn't dream of spending two full reels (in this case, roughly one-third of the total running time) in a single time and place. They're movies, after all -- they're supposed to move move move!!! Eastwood (along with, presumably, screenwriter William Goldman), however, lingers, stalls, stubbornly refuses to cut to the chase; it takes Luther Whitney maybe five minutes of screen time to break into the stately mansion in which this sequence is set, and it's at least another four or five before President Hackman and his doomed paramour unexpectedly interrupt his ransacking with some unpleasant hootchie-koo. Mostly silent, these scenes are shot, lit, and edited with exquisite care -- indeed, so much attention is lavished on them that I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Eastwood took the job primarily for the opportunity to direct this section of the film, much as actors will sometimes agree to appear in a lousy play just to tackle one particularly challenging monologue. If you want to experience Absolute Power in the best possible light, here's my advice: sneak into it from another auditorium in the same multiplex, after seeing a more promising picture; watch the first 45 minutes or so; and the moment you see daylight onscreen following the burglary/murder stuff, get up and go home. (Sit near the aisle, so you won't disturb the poor folks who remain behind to watch the film collapse in stupidity and clichés.)
I, of course, stayed in my seat, blissfully ignorant of the forthcoming terror. What's more, the goodwill engendered by the opening reels put me in an unusually forgiving mood; for a while, I happily dismissed every clunky line of dialogue and implausible narrative twist, convinced that I was watching a classic. "Okay, that was kinda dumb," I'd think to myself, "but no big deal -- just a momentary lapse of taste." After the fifteenth or twentieth momentary lapse of taste in as many minutes, though, my spirits began to sink; by the final reel, I was -- and I'm embarrassed to admit this -- actually hissing out loud at the screen. The final straw, for me, was when Luther handed the plot's sort-of murder weapon, a letter opener, to another character -- who, with good reason, accuses Luther of having stolen it. Luther's husky retort (paraphrased from memory): "Yeah, I might have...but that's not my blood on there...and those aren't my fingerprints." The other character, who I will not name in case anyone who hasn't yet seen the film might be masochistic enough to give it a chance later on, apparently is either the most trusting person alive or possesses some mighty offbeat superpowers, because s/he subsequently acts on this "knowledge" -- indicating that s/he either (a) chose to believe a known criminal, wanted by the police in connection with the crime, who's asserting something that's not only utterly outlandish (even though we, the voyeurs in the audience, know that it's true) but also personally repugnant to the listener, and hence something s/he would only likely accept if confronted with incontrovertible proof; or (b) was able to determine the blood type and fingerprint I.D. on the sort-of murder weapon simply by glancing down at it. That (b) is the less ridiculous explanation is an indication of how mind-bogglingly, teeth-grittingly, ulcer-formingly moronic the second half of Absolute Power becomes. By the time the closing credits rolled, the notion of two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, moving toward one another for all of these years and lifetimes, didn't seem quite so ridiculous to me anymore. Hell, I wanted to be one of those birds. Anything to get me out of the damn theater.