The influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on the career of David Lynch

David Lynch is one of the few directors of the past fifty years whose cinematic influences are almost non-existent within his actual work. This is not to say that Lynch is not a cinephile, much to the contrary. There’s breadcrumbs placed throughout his work that signal a deep affection for cinema. Laura Palmer is named after the 1944 film, Laura. In Twin Peaks, Lynch gleefully named FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole after a character from Sunset Blvd (1950). He has talked openly about his love for Federico Fellini and in his newest book, Room to Dream, his wife at the time admits that they were in the Cinema rather frequently during the 1960s. One can sense that David Lynch is drawn towards film noir with its dusky skies and midnight troubles. That genre is all over his work, but not to the point where you could say David Lynch was influenced by Jacques Tourneur, Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang, but in the shades of their work in genre. He never gravitates toward a specific director or film. His influences are closer to painters like Francis Bacon. It would likely even be more honest to say David Lynch is a painter who sometimes makes surrealist movies. He is otherwise a near total enigma. He’s merely David Lynch.  

After recently revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho (1960), I began to think that maybe this is a movie that David Lynch was influenced by and there are a handful of key moments in particular that struck me as adjacent to images that would show up later in the cinema of David Lynch. One can consider that maybe the loosest connection between David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock is their approach at plotting in terms of conspiracy theories, gender, and mystery. Alfred Hitchcock is famous for his “wrong man” movies which see an everyday hero thrown into a situation of extraordinary circumstances, frequently pitting him against spies and government agencies or criminals. North by Northwest (1958) and The 39 Steps (1939) are two examples and in The Wrong Man (1956) he takes the title literally and brings it to its natural endpoint. David Lynch, on the other hand is known for the trope of “the woman in trouble”. This is true of Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1992, 2017), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). The Woman in Trouble arc usually shows a woman suffering at the hands of some masculine evil, sometimes metaphysical, completely at odds with her own actions. Sometimes bad things just happen. Lynch, like Hitchcock, also seems to have a thing or two about blondes. In addition to these smaller coincidences and looser narrative ties they share another similarity: the door that shouldn’t have been opened. For Alfred Hitchcock, this was never achieved to greater effect than in Psycho.   

Seeing something you weren’t supposed to witness, or opening up a door that leads you down a rabbit hole into hell is central in Psycho and in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In Psycho, a handful of people fall prey to the rising swamp that is the Bates Motel. On the surface Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, who is a total ball of nerves and never better) seems like a normal enough guy. He’s nice, hospitable and open, but he’s also lonely, pathetic, almost like someone you’d pity. Norman’s a guy you’d try to make feel better, but in reality he’s a deeply traumatized individual battling a psychotic cocktail of exaggerated horrific factors like transsexuality, oedipal lust and trauma. Marion Crane (Vivian Leigh) never stood a chance, but she only rolled into Norman’s life to get out of the rain. She’d die for making that paranoid precaution on the dusky, drenched highways of the west coast. As audience members we feel for her, and we’re just as trapped as she is. As soon as we see that monolithic house and the ghostly feminine silhouette in the window we’ve stepped into territory that is decidedly unsafe, and things only get worse from there. Marion found her way into hell. Lynch was good at leading us into that direction too.  

In Blue Velvet, Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) finds his own worst nightmare in the presence of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Jefferey doesn’t know any better, he’s just a teenager, a voyeur, coming from a good-hearted place to help Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), but still finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun he never intended. After finding a severed ear he becomes overwhelmed with an urge to investigate. Jefferey ends up in an apartment closet of a young woman’s apartment, witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to. I get the feeling we weren’t supposed to either. We’re both voyeurs, in the cinematic sense, the movies are always about looking, but rarely does a movie ever make you feel bad at taking a peek. These two films do. Norma Bates looks at Marion Crane as she’s showering. Jefferey looks as Dorothy wields a knife against Frank Booth only for him to become violent with her and collapse into the hissing howls of a pained word he’d repeat frequently: “Mommy”. This is fucked up. We don’t know where we’re going, and wherever it is, it isn’t good. Jefferey’s an audience surrogate and when Frank finds him we’re whisked away too. A brand new world of mundane strangeness, unnerving the senses. Ants under the rock, an unravelling underworld. Down the rabbit hole of our own worst anxieties for having looked. We’re fragile, the threat of violence leaning closer and closer into the young body of Beaumont and us as an audience. It’s suffocating, but then, it’s exasperating to be left with Norman too.  

Twin Peaks is all about opening up a door that should have stayed locked, but in this case Lynch was tearing open the heart of small-town America. In that show Laura Palmer is found, wrapped in plastic, on a muggy morning in the pacific north west. It’s perfect for fishing; not finding dead bodies, but there she is, beautiful, tranquil, gone. What’s her story? The wrapped in plastic image has become one of Lynch’s strongest, both culturally and thematically in his own work. Laura’s story is more complex than the fashion in which she was discovered. The plastic has persisted, but she wasn’t the first girl to be treated in such a way. Norman buries Marion Crane in a plastic shower curtain, carried off in the same way Laura was. I’d be hesitant to argue that David Lynch imprinted on the image of the woman wrapped in plastic in Psycho, but the image is startlingly similar to the death image of Laura. The similarities are only amplified in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) when Laura’s murderer has struck again, and is loading his latest victim into the back of a station wagon for removal. Norman does the same with Marion’s body, only thirty years earlier.  

Lynch could have gotten these ideas anywhere, but there’s a point to be made about Psycho’s twisted puzzle-box of layered terror appealing to David Lynch on an unconscious aesthetic level. As is, Psycho is one of the great American horror films, and has become iconic to such a degree it would be impossible not to be influenced by Hitchcock’s images and mood. Lynch certainly was, and while I’d argue his cinema remains at a distance when trying to piece together the key factors of his influences as a director, it does make sense that a film as mammoth as Psycho found its way into his brain. Like it has with just about all of us.  

“I Bet You’d Stick Your Head in Fire if You Thought You Could See Hell”: on House of 1,000 Corpses

you Malibu Barbie middle class piece of shit. I’m trying to work here. You ever work? Yeah, I’ll bet you have. Scoopin’ ice cream to your shit-heel friends on Summer break.”  

Otis Firefly

Rob Zombie started his filmmaking career in the world of the music video. He was the lead singer of popular heavy metal band White Zombie, but he wanted more than what that band offered him creatively. It all started with their single, More Human Than Human (1995), a title which is taken from Blade Runner (1982). A doomsday prophet in a gas mask clogs up a highway, he’s covered in tiny American flags, and his sign bears the name of the song, the bass heavy synth rhythm unfurls and there’s a cut to 8mm footage of children on a carousel, the drums kick in and another cut, to a lanky man with a pumpkin placed atop his head. This is the world of Rob Zombie, all his pet interests of lower-middle class Americana and the escape of pop culture horror therein. This was merely a taste of what filmmaking could be from Rob Zombie. He’d direct a dozen music videos, all of them trapped within his style of planting his seed in horror’s past, before he’d make his first feature: House of 1,000 Corpses (2003).

Corpses follows a group of four teenagers (Rainn Wilson, Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick and Jennifer Jostyn) as they travel the backroads of Texas as they do research for a book where they chronicle to the kooky hillbilly attractions spread across the Southern United States. It’s your typical plotting designated for a throwback to 1970s horror films like The Hills Have Eyes where white upper class yuppies stumble upon something they never should have seen and pay for it, but its similarities to those films is only on paper as Zombie diverges quickly and often in form, theme and plotting.  The kids are screwed as always, but their joyride to death’s door is complicated by Zombie’s interest in the Serial killer, not as someone innately evil, but an effect of society turning its nose up at those it deems worthless.  

These hapless teenagers come across a roadside advertisement for Captain Spaulding’s Fried Chicken and Gasoline, complete with a murder ride, and the two young men of the group can’t miss this brilliant opportunity to capitalize on the central idea for their tour book across the south. When they meet Captain Spaulding (veteran genre movie actor, Sid Haig) he’s just fended off a pair of dimwit robbers and is mopping up their blood. Bill (Hardwick. Fuck him btw) and Jerry (Rainn Wilson) are enraptured by this roadside den of the damned and Jerry strikes up a conversation with Spaulding. He asks him a lot of basic questions but when he laughs a little too hard at the way the Captain speaks, Spaulding interjects, his eyes turn downward and violent, his stare becoming blank and coarse and he sees why they’re really here. He turns up his accent and states with directness, “I see why y’all are here. You think us folk from the country’s real funny don’t ya?”. Jerry freezes. Spaulding stares. The camera sits, waiting to cut the silence and after about ten seconds of uncomfortable tension the Captain laughs loudly. “I’m just messing with ya. I’m a clown.” But that conversation planted the seeds. After the four of them finish taking Spaulding’s murder ride (which is closer to a hall of presidents, if the head of state was Ed Gein, couldn’t do worse), he gives them directions to an old hanging tree where Dr. Satan (the main event of the murder ride) was rumoured to have been hanged. The trap is set, and they were foolish enough to fall into its vice. 

Zombie takes an everything but the kitchen sink approach to his first feature. He directs as if this may be his very last chance at making a movie, and in doing so he inserts everything he can think of including odes to creature features, The Munsters, old Flesicher brothers animation and 1970s American carnage features like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is both a good and a bad thing, as he has not quite figured out how to sew together all the bits and pieces that fascinate and excite him as a filmmaker, but the material that is good is downright incendiary, and rises above his influences, foreshadowing the great director he would become. Zombie, having gotten his start in music videos, frequently shoots this film like one, inserting negative images, black and white photography, and low-grade video footage, among other techniques he learned while cutting his teeth making groovy heavy metal flicks for MTV’s Headbangers Ball. You could argue Zombie is too much of a stylist, and that would be a fair enough argument, film critic Dave Kehr states as much, but that would be wilfully ignoring how music and cinema are intertwined for Zombie. He uses music to punctuate, and while he almost certainly leans on music video technique a little too much, it also gives the film a freewheeling feeling that anything can happen at any given moment. This is sometimes to the detriment of the snobby, upper-middle class, white victims of the movie, who do not get time to make a true connection with audiences, but he more than makes up for it with his serial killers, who are some of the most fascinating cinema has ever seen.   

One of these murders is the, seemingly, demure, sex-pot, Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie). She’s stranded on the side of the road, decked out in a cow-girl outfit under an umbrella that’s capsizing under the weight of the downpour happening all around her. Bill wants to pick her up, the other three passengers are unsure, but Bill’s horniness wins out and as soon as Baby enters the vehicle she reads the situation, sees that Bill is the weak link and immediately begins to weaken him through her own sexuality. Sherri Moon Zombie plays the role like Betty Boop, if every Betty Boop cartoon had the impact violence and gore of Itchy & Scratchy. Sherri Zombie is a smart actor who utilizes her voice very effectively in the first of her collaborations with husband, Rob Zombie. She speaks in a child-like high pitched tone to disarm everyone around her. If they think she’s helpless she won’t be seen as a threat, and in doing so she becomes the most dangerous of all these killers, because she subverts the idea of a serial killer merely through her gender and how she uses it for her own means. The vocal technique, in particular, is interesting, because we, as women, sometimes will be socialized into altering the tone and tambre of the way we speak when we’re out in public, or in a professional job setting, as a way of seeming nonthreatening or vulnerable. It’s something we sometimes have to work through as we get older to find our real voice, because we’re taught and expected to speak in a certain way. As a technique, we also learn it can be used to alter a situation, either as a survival mechanism or to bend a scenario to what we’d want depending upon the specific parameters of what we find ourselves in at the moment. In a horror context, it’s a brilliant acting strategy, and something only a woman would have ever considered through her own firsthand experience. The subversion of the woman as serial killer image is only amplified when she’s using tools that saw their genesis in socialized girlhood. It’s telling that Denise and Mary, the two women on this journey, don’t fall for the act. They know exactly what she’s doing, even if they still wouldn’t consider the notion that she wasn’t looking for sex. She was looking for blood.  

Shortly after Baby gets into the vehicle the car busts a flat tire. Too much of a coincidence to have not been another in a long line of traps set by the Firefly clan, as the news outlets would call them in the sequel film: The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Baby suggests they crash at her place until morning. These preppy college kids wanted to see something fucked up, and they were about to bite off way more than they could chew. It’s here where we’re introduced to Mama Firefly (Karen Black) and Otis Driftwood (Bill Mosely). There are other members of the family who get minimal screen time like Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and Rufus (Robert Mukes), but stand-out in their brief appearances. Karen Black, ever the pro, plays Mama like a mature version of her daughter Baby. She and Sherri Moon are completely in sync with one another to the point where they feel like a real mother and daughter. We get the sense that Mama Firefly has passed down everything she knew about luring prey into a spider’s web to her devious baby girl. Mama, still has a trick or two up her sleeve though and Black delivers all her dialogue like a sleek-couger on the hunt for young men. Her voice dripped in a backwoods velvet and she uses her body for maximum coverage. Black is as good as it gets, and she uses her physicality to completely overwhelm the inexperienced Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwicke, both of whom are merely meat being tenderized in the palm of a smarter woman’s hand. Otis, on the other hand, has no greater goal towards outsmarting his enemy, instead opting for running head first into the chaos of violence almost immediately. He preaches, like a cult leader, about the virtues of murder, Halloween and society and you get the sense he is much much smarter than anyone would ever give him credit for being. When Otis is introduced Zombie inserts grainy home video footage presumably recorded by the Firefly family of Otis waxing poetic before tearing into his latest victims. It gives Bill Moseley an excuse to chew scenery. Something he’s been good at since his role in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II. These travelers who just wanted to make fun of hillbillies would not last much longer would hear plenty of Otis’s gospel. It’d be the last thing they ever hear.  

Bill Moseley gets one such scene shortly after they begin to torture these teenagers. Otis has Mary upstairs, tied to a chair with a Dunce cap placed atop her head, perhaps placing the shoe on the other foot of how society at large sees him. When he sees Mary he becomes indignant when she starts making demands so he gags her and he speaks his truth. He talks about the benefits of “work” and the holiness of the body, how it’s all we’ve all got, and he damns Mary for her privileged life of ice cream cones and white socks with Mickey Mouse on one side and Donald Duck on the other. Otis has a lot of pent up aggression against the world, and he takes it out on the privileged. He’s comfortable in the life he’s made for himself, but you get the sense that being a murderous hillbilly is the only opportunity he was ever given. He’s obviously smart and speaks with grandiose oratorical skill, but he doesn’t look the part of an intellectual, only a monster. He can be both. Otis wears a dirty tank top with the words “Burn this Flag” printed above the stars and stripes. You could argue he’s just an anarchist, but the system he’s railing against is distinctly American and you can’t help but get swept up in his drive toward a purity that doesn’t see class or rights or skills, but only bodies. Those that live and those that die, and in that field he’s a fucking genius.   

Rob Zombie complicates the notion of victim and predator in his Firefly clan motion pictures. Roger Ebert stated in a review of sequel film—The Devil’s Rejects– that if you were going to follow a group of mass serial killers at least these ones are interesting, and he’s absolutely right. They’re rock stars, but they have an ethos we can understand. They were wronged through expectations, because they didn’t fit the mold of what society deemed acceptable in a person. No one ever likes white trash. Things like NASCAR and Country Music are always low-hanging fruit for those who live in metropolitan cities. White trash families are a source of comedy on television shows like COPS that completely neglect their own humanity, even against whatever struggles these people may be going through at the time. Zombie touches on that with a carnival-esque beauty that paints these killers as every men, but not so much that you completely root for them. He repeatedly reminds you that these people are still monsters, even if they have a point, and in addition to that he gives them a way out. Tiny doesn’t kill people. He’s inbred, but passive. Even if Otis and Baby argue that they were born into this role Tiny subverts the argument that they can only kill. Maybe it doesn’t matter to Otis or Baby why they kill, but whose life they end, and even then rhetoric can only go so far, even if they make it seem like death is deserved.  

The most significant of these scenes is one in which Denise’s father, Don (Harrison Young) and a group of cops investigate the Firefly house after being told by Captain Spaulding that the Firefly house was the last place he saw them. Her father and these cops were dead before they even arrived, which fosters sympathy, but Zombie pushes this further than any other horror director at the time in asking for thoughtfulness through the eyes of a horrified father. It doesn’t entirely work, because we barely have a grasp of these victims and at this point Rob Zombie is piss poor at writing women, leaning on Virgin/Whore tropes that luckily left his work around Halloween (2007), but it’s brilliant in theory. Don and a young Sheriff Deputy played by the always excellent, Walton Goggins, investigate out back. It’s a trap, and we know it way before they do. Otis flips a latch that opens the barn door and there’s Denise writhing, nude, in terror, with a half-dozen dead girls piled up behind her. Slow-motion shots of Don’s reaction crystalize this moment of loss. Harrison Young has to do a lot here, he has to convey the realization that he failed at protecting his daughter, he has to come to grips with the fact that both he and his daughter are likely going to be killed any second now, and he has to do this all while seeing the monster who did this to his baby girl approaching him. He doesn’t entirely nail it, but it’s good enough to tug at the heart strings, and Zombie smartly includes home video footage of Denise and her father enjoying a picnic to represent a possible final last memory to pick up the slack. He re-works this scene entirely with Brad Douriff in Halloween 2 (2009) in what is one of the greatest scenes in the history of horror films. Don dies running away from his daughter. He was a coward and Denise saw all this happen. Zombie doesn’t utilize that disappointment, because he doesn’t entirely understand his characters yet so the scene falters to a degree here, but the possibility of what could have worked here is good enough reason to follow Rob Zombie into hell, because he obviously has greater ideas for the genre.  

Otis doesn’t kill Denise. It was his way of torturing her further. You can’t root for him despite his seductive words.   

The film falls apart after Don’s death, and loses a lot of its unique qualities in the final third, which devolve into typical slasher tropes of chase and run. All of this is done better in countless other films like Corpses’s greatest inspiration: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The close is copycat filmmaking right down to the night time thrills and the fake-out ending where the traumatized woman is left hanging between life and death and we’re left unsure of her own escape. It’s unfortunate, because in the earlier portions of the film Zombie shows a clear vision of who his killers are and what he wants to showcase in his savage world of class politics being Frankensteined onto a splatter nightmare. It’s different, unique, and totally his, but the climax could have been made by anyone. He seems formally disinterested and the shift from the Firefly clan to a supposedly more menacing big bad in Dr. Satan is ill conceived and silly. This final third doesn’t negate the power of what happens earlier, but it keeps Zombie’s debut from reaching heights it suggests at times. The good news is that he never made a film as mixed as House of 1,000 Corpses ever again. The only mediocre picture in an otherwise captivating filmography to come. Rob Zombie would later become one of the only iconic horror filmmakers working today, especially when placed alongside the increasingly conservative output that would plague horror in the next decade.

Rabbits (David Lynch, 2002)

Rabbits

It is coming.”

That’s seemingly a throwaway line of dialogue in David Lynch’s web-series, Rabbits, but it chills in its vagueness. Something is coming, but we don’t know what that will be or how it will make itself known. The only information we know to be true is that a presence will appear, and it will be there soon.  

David Lynch’s work as a horror surrealist comes to its most mature state in this web-series that follows the lives of three humanoid rabbits who live with one another in a lime green room. Lynch never once wavers from a singular wide shot of the living area so we cannot see or understand the world surrounding these characters. To the left is a door, and footsteps can repeatedly be heard, but often this is merely a red herring, a way to lull viewers into thinking the footsteps aren’t a danger, but the door remains horrifying, because we cannot achieve with clarity that the outside world is safe. Additionally, there is a hallway behind the living room area where the female rabbit (Naomi Watts) can be seen entering and returning before an alluring hypnotic crimson light overtakes all visibility in the living room, and a demonic voiced creature makes itself known. This, however, is not the “It” that is coming. This may merely be a smokescreen for what happens later. Lynch never once moves the camera, and it’s because of this that the passage of time can be felt with such intensity that it only amplifies the horror of the unknown that lies within this haunted living room. It’s a Chantal Akerman technique, where if the camera is placed in a static shot and we are left waiting, we have to pay attention to closer details, which breeds deeper introspection into what is actually happening in the frame. The film begs for a cut, something to take us to a safer place, but that never arrives.  

In horror films there is typically a safe zone or safe area where viewers can rest before tension rises again. This is used very frequently in modern horror films as a rhythmic technique to space out various jump scares, because if the entire film is a jolt then nothing separates the action, which would force the horror to be constant and thus less effective. However, in the case of a film like Rabbits the safe-zone of horror is corrupted due to the rhythmic eccentricities of Lynch’s lack of camerawork and the insertion of a laugh track. The laugh track pads the space, but it arrives in these jarring, angular, punch-lines that step on the dialogue. Lynch describes Rabbits as a sitcom, perhaps because it’s shot like one that doesn’t have the tools of a two camera system or an editor. Instead of cutting or taking us to another story we’re forced to sit with this one as characters repeat ominous, scattered phrases like “Something’s Wrong” or “Blood smothered mirror” which convey very specific mental images of terror and the vulnerability that comes with falling under the hand of violence.  

It is in Lynch’s rigorous destruction of anything that resembles editing that gives this series its surrealistic terror. If there is not an edit then you cannot escape whatever it is that’s going to happen. It is a foregone conclusion that something is coming and it is to be feared. All three Rabbit characters turn their heads to the door every time footsteps can be heard, which in turn makes viewers look , and we wait and wait, sometimes without anything happening. Lynch only breaks up these tense sequences with the laugh-track as punctuation, which doesn’t let the viewer breathe in a typical manner. It is terror and architecture as mathematics: an equation for horror. The anticipation that comes in waiting for forty minutes without a break in action, waiting on the unknown to make itself known frazzles and strips at the subconscious. There is a total envelopment of the senses in Lynch’s constant rain, the humming sound of nothing in every house, and the occasional sound of someone outside. That we don’t know who is outside is what stuns. In Rabbits you are not safe, and when that door finally opens you are not prepared for what lies ahead. It is coming. Whether you like it or not.  

Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977)

Smokey and the Bandit

When Bandit said goodbye to his one love, that’s when I knew I loved Burt Reynolds.  

It’s all in the way Bandit (Burt Reynolds) looks at her right before she’s about to get on a bus to god knows where, and be forever in his rear-view mirror. It floors me, because there’s this deep juxtaposition with who this man is actually supposed to be in conflict with what Burt Reynolds is conveying through his eyes that deepens the character. Bandit is forever cool, and seems to get by in a state of effortless relaxation, even when he’s dodging police vehicles and blistering the highways of the Southern United States at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, but Frog (Sally Field) pulls him out of his comfort zone. We never fear that Bandit will get caught. That’s not even a question, but losing the girl? That’s real, and in that moment he knows that to be true as well. He’s shook, paralyzed, in the same way Humphrey Bogart is in Casablanca (1942) right before he’s about to say goodbye to Ingrid Bergman. It’s classic cinema, and Burt Reynolds pulls it off beautifully. It’s in the way his eyes darken and his smile fades under the brim of his one protection: an old cowboy hat. It opens up his humanity to all of us, and he becomes more than an outlaw. We finally see Burt Reynolds as not just a gunslinger, but someone with a heart. That’s why women loved him, and why his screen presence is still special to this day. It’s timeless in a way that movies don’t really aim for anymore. Of course, after he says his goodbye to Frog (Sally Field), he soothes his pain with alcohol and a cheeseburger. It’s how every tough guy deals with loss, but the fact that he is in fact experiencing loss is what’s important. He’s vulnerable, not just a love ’em and love ’em bastard with a great car. He has depth, and he’s capable of being something more than just a great driver, even if the driving is sexy. It showed he cared, and Burt certainly did too as an actor. The moment where these two star-crossed lovers are entangled in the warm embrace of a Hollywood meet-cute that is potentially upset by romantic tragedy wouldn’t work if he didn’t.   

Frog and Bandit would eventually ride off into the sunset, but that moment wouldn’t feel nearly as earned if it hadn’t been in danger of vanishing altogether, like a black trans-am speeding away on the interstate, never to be seen again.

Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985)

Taipei Story

When we came across an abandoned playground it had just started to rain, giving the grass an open, welcoming, lush scent that made the area feel like it was calling out to us. We were too grown up, too big, too adult to really enter the play area, but there was an old swing set that felt more attainable. The swings were covered in rust, and looked like they hadn’t been used since we were kids, but we took the chance anyway. You could have called it a time machine, but everything was off, different, weird. I couldn’t get the momentum I used to, and the subtle bouncing of my breasts going up and down with each push of my legs made me realize I was far past the age where things like swing sets were appropriate.  Being in this area for children felt like a dome, a sanctuary, from things like death, bills and responsibility, but even being there on  that day was awkward. That lush feeling that the rain had given off earlier turned melancholic and the longer we spent doing things we cherished as children the more uncomfortable it became. We knew we had to leave all of that behind. We’re too far down the rabbit hole for this to have felt reassuring. When we left the playground it faded into the distance as we walked further into the mist until it wasn’t visible any longer. We only went there to keep grief at bay; attempting to wash the death of a loved one off of our skin, and escape the mourning of things out of our control, but even with this effort it was impossible to take anything with us when we left the playground. It was already gone. It had been for a very long time. 

An Essay on Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Charles Manson only has one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s newest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s work likely assumed that Manson would play a larger role in the film, because he structured the movie around Sharon Tate, and in the cultural lexicon you usually can’t bring one up without talking about the other. I’m guilty of that in the first couple sentences here as well. Charles Manson has been covered endlessly in podcasts, films, television shows and books. He’s always had a platform, and his voice has always been loud, and even after his passing he still has a foothold in American culture. He’s an iconic image of America because we haven’t shut up about him, and I think it’s a bold, and exciting move on Quentin’s part to minimize Manson’s place in this story to that of a footnote. It’s fantasia of a dead Hollywood, but one I found myself eager to return to again and again throughout the Summer.  

In Tarantino’s film Sharon Tate gets to live a normal life. She could hardly even be considered a character, because she’s not beholden to Tarantino’s usual plot mechanizations. Margot Robbie plays the young actress and there’s this beautiful private moment she has as Tate in the vehicle of her own car. She’s listening to music, off somewhere in her own thoughts, and we as an audience don’t get to hear what she’s thinking, but there’s peace in her eyes. and in that moment she gets to live. She picks up a hitch-hiker and the two of them gab about things we never hear, because the soundtrack has the tunes of the late 60s cranked all the way up. Tate and this young girl, in full flower-power fashion, strike up a quick friendship, and they have an easiness in each others conversation. Hollywood gives Sharon Tate a lot of scenes like this one. My favourite is when she sees her name across the marquee of a local movie-house for her latest feature The Wrecking Crew. She asks the ticket-taker if she can go in for free if she’s in the movie and she does just that while ambling down the aisles to sunny pop music playing over a movie trailer for a Joe Namath starring vehicle. When Robbie’s Tate watches herself on screen she isn’t viewing The Wrecking Crew as something recreated, but the actual Sharon Tate. We see her through the eyes of Robbie, and while it’s difficult to say whether or not Tate would have gone on to become an iconic actress it hardly matters, because the possibility of it is present in these scenes. The possibility of hope, juxtaposed with the work of the real actor, is a beautiful, poignant sentiment. It isn’t common in the movies of Quentin Tarantino where the shedding of blood is law. Tate’s all smiles and the promises of what this city could bring to pretty young girls.  

While watching this movie I thought a lot about Sharon Tate. Not Charles Manson. She is the defining image of the movie, but it doesn’t come without the creeping dread of real-life. Quentin never gives Manson a soapbox, but because he’s always had a platform to speak, we know that he’s a manipulative racist who took all of his shortcomings as an artist out on Hollywood. It wasn’t necessary to let him speak in this movie, because the actual context of the real history behind this story tangles around Hollywood at times. When the would-be murderers pull up on Cielo Drive soundtracked to a rumbling muffler and a haunting spectre of California tragedy by way of the Mama’s and the Papa’s hit song Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon) the film acknowledges that whatever happens next can’t bring Sharon back. It’s the way the car comes fully into frame when that song soars into a minor-key that does it and it sends chills down my spine. It is an understanding that cinema isn’t enough, but because this is a fairy tale (it’s in the name) the Manson Family won’t succeed in their mission to kill these people tonight. When the Manson family murderers have been dispatched by Cliff Booth (a wonderful performance from Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (likewise for Leonardo DiCaprio) it’s exaggerated, and violent. Likely a choice of form on behalf of Dalton and Booth’s inebriated state and a great stunner of a joke involving a flamethrower in the case of Dalton. In spite of this happening, we still never get to see Sharon Tate’s face in the closing moments: another acknowledgement that cinema can’t change what’s happened. Her voice appears over an intercom to ask Dalton if he’s alright and there’s this really wistful music cue that lingers in and Dalton looks away from the intercom, and I feel for a moment again that the real history informs the scene. DiCaprio plays it not like he’s getting his big break as Dalton, but like an Angel is speaking to him directly. There’s a crane shot that peeks above the trees like a god’s eye point of view, after the gates to the Tate/Polanski house opens like those of heaven and it feels like an afterlife. They get to live, but only in the images of this movie. It’s a complicated ending to a balancing act of images on behalf of Tarantino. If you insert Manson too much then you’re just giving him another platform to be a boogeyman of the late 1960s. If you kill him it’s too simplistic and it betrays the kind of person Quentin Tarantino viewed Sharon Tate as. I don’t think he believes she would have wanted more violence and he keeps her away from it, up the street, behind the gates, safe in her own home. By refusing to give Manson space in this story and taking the crimes, legacy and iconography away from him the film does its best to honour Sharon Tate. At heart this is a fantasy of her life. Not one of revenge on Charles Manson. By ignoring Manson Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows Sharon Tate to be more than a murder victim. She’s allowed to be a person.  

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1942)

Meshes of the Afternoon

I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are,
in case you don’t know”

-The Velvet Underground

Meshes of the Afternoon pushes the viewer to ask questions of what they expect from images. A knife is generally thought of as a weapon of violence and an instrument of murder. When a woman’s body is used parallel to the knife there is an assumption that the sexualization of murder would occur due to the bevy of images produced by horror and non-horror films alike. Identifying with the woman becomes precedent to the horror film in order to feel the terror of being the victim and thus holding up a mirror to the worst societal aspects of femininity. What Deren does with Meshes of the Afternoon is to perceive the violence both self-inflicted and otherwise in one woman’s life through ground-breaking filmmaking techniques and attention to objects. Meshes uses a dream sequence of repetition and complex layering to introduce the possibilities of one woman and the difficulties of trying to break through a mirror, or in this case a house.

The film is loaded with images that align themselves with easy identification like the knife (masculine) and the flower (feminine). The mirror figure seems to slip in and out of frame gracefully, but is always a looming presence, perhaps a truth-sayer or a version of Deren herself. Meshes scatters from any definitive subjective meaning, but the sensory terror of quick pans and edits, and the woozy camera movements mixed with these definitive images like the knife, flower, blood and the mirror create a sense that the movie is about having a female body. But that is merely one reflection of many.

On Max Cherry and Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and Max Cherry (Robert Forster)

Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) only share a handful of scenes in the movie bearing her name, but those moments cast a shadow over the entirety of this story. When Jackie gets into trouble carrying Ordell Robie’s (Samuel L. Jackson) money he got from selling illegal firearms across the border she’s sent to jail. Max is a bail-bondsman hired by Ordell to help get Jackie out of prison. Max probably thinks this is going to be just another job, but what he doesn’t expect, what no one can really ready themselves for, is seeing someone and hearing music. People talk a lot about “butterflies” when they see someone they fall for, but in movies that shit is always soundtracked, and when Max sees Jackie he hears “Natural High” by Bloodstone. Jackie’s silhouetted in a wide shot. She’s got broad shoulders, gorgeous hair, and killer legs that run down into a comfortable flats that click on the concrete. It’s the only sound that can be heard other than a guitar plucking an orange note that’s practically visible across the screen. The song is warm and signals to us that this love is immediate, classic, and perfect. Jackie keeps walking closer to Max, and he’s stuck right there, dead in his tracks. There’s a cutting back and forth and he just keeps looking at this woman he just fell in love with. Robert Forster plays it cool, knowing he has a job to do, but if you pay attention to his eyes you can see he’s weak in the knees for Jackie Brown. When she’s finally right there at the front gate he introduces himself, and she to him. The song keeps playing. Might as well keep playing through the rest of the movie. There’s a heist to pull off, and government agents to hoodwink, but all of that is icing on the cake when you’ve got a scene like this one.  

Max and Jackie don’t really know they’re living through a perfect night they’ll remember forever. None of us really realize those moments are happening, until you’ve got the context to understand what happened was important. There’s a small tragedy in not knowing what you’ve got when you have it, but that too makes the memory all the better. When Jackie gets in the car the camera hovers a bit around her facial features. We’re looking at her through Max’s eyes and it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall for this woman. She pushes her hair behind her ears and her cheekbones pop. It’s the kind of close-up that would leave you breathless if you saw it on the gigantic screens of a multiplex, but even at home it does the job nicely. The movie wouldn’t work if Max and Jackie’s romance didn’t feel real, and while Jackie takes a bit longer to fall for Max, and doesn’t even realize she’s in love until she’s riding off into the sunset, decked out in the latest fashion with a killer soundtrack blasting behind her, Max loves her immediately. The soundtrack tells us this. Quentin Tarantino always underlines with whatever music cue he introduces into the story and “Natural High” can only ever evoke love.

 The night goes on as they drive on by. Max could take her home, but they’re having an easy enough conversation getting to know each other while looking for some place to get a drink. It’d be kind of like a date if Jackie didn’t rightfully have her defences up, but even those eventually slip away. Everything does when you’re really falling for someone. Nothing else is important. Only the vulnerability it takes to give yourself over to what could be something special. Our bodies end up knowing before our heads do. Max and Jackie make all the excuses in the world to stay together on this night and later that morning. They get a drink, they have a cup of coffee, they talk about music. Anything just to keep talking to one another, and it’s perfect for Quentin Tarantino, because he likes nothing more than writing scenes where characters just talk. Max smiles when Jackie finally suggests a place to get a drink, because he knows the night won’t end in that moment. It’ll keep rolling forward with perfect harmony, where two people can be the whole world. Quentin’s got to get across a lot of exposition and move the plot forward in this conversation over a drink and a smoke, but there’s an easyness to the way Grier and Forster converse that makes it feel natural. They talk about gaining or losing weight while smoking cigs and anxieties about their own jobs inbetween the business of dead bodies and jail time and all of it feels just as romantic as that initial encounter. The red light from the bar is like a cocoon for them, a warm place where they can talk about anything with comfort, and as an audience it’s easy to fall in love with the way they speak to one another, the way they trade glances or sit in silence. Max and Jackie are tied together from this point forward. We know it, even if they don’t.  

What Max doesn’t know when he finally drops Jackie off at her house is that she took his gun out of the glove compartment to protect herself from Ordell, But more important than protection, it gives him an excuse to go see her again, and she knows that too. Two birds. One stone. That morning they have a drink again: this time coffee, and like last time they just talk. Jackie puts on some music and they go back and forth just like last night, the only difference being the topics at hand. She plays The Delfonics and Max likes the music. The camera frames Jackie lighting a cigarette as the music starts up, underlining once again through song that Max loves her. My favourite conversation in the movie revolves around aging. Jackie asks Max how he feels about getting old and he says he feels okay about it. He was losing his hair at one point, but he did something about it and now he’s comfortable, but the question was a huge smoke-screen for Jackie to open up about a bigger topic: her own fear. With this arrest hanging over head she’s afraid she’s going to lose everything and she ain’t got much to begin with. Max listens. He really listens. The image cuts back to him multiple times during Jackie’s conversation just hearing her. He may not realize it, but that’s all she needs right now. She’s made her mind up on what she’s going to do about the government and Ordell hanging over her head, and she just needs him to hear her speak, and tell her that he’ll be there for her. He does as much with a little bit of flirting thrown in for good measure. Partners in crime. Partners in love.  

Later there’s a scene where Max buys a Delfonics cassette. In day to day life we make memories through song. When couples dance at their wedding they tend to have a song picked out, because it has greater weight or meaning for the people in question. No one else at the wedding needs to know the context of this song or how it got to be important. These things just happen organically. For Max he’ll never be able to listen to the Delfonics the same way again. They’ll always be Jackie Brown, and for me, Jackie Brown will always be the relationship these two characters had.   

Formed in clay

An elder said there was only two and she wasn’t one. From above he decreed that this is how things would be and how things were. Fate handed down from masked figures, perceiving the future. Prophets and clerics with scalpels and gospel in their words. She grew up in the grips of many gods who said she’d be one way and not the other. Racing to the cliff of a death sentence they couldn’t foresee. With hammer on stone in the force of her voice she twisted the fate they handed down for her and walked a different path. One of blasphemy, a bottomless pit, Gomorrah. Hers. Flesh bent under her own will, with new definition. New commands. Crashing waves in the chaos of truth and the bed of Lilith that she called a home. Cast into hell for having lived a life and seeking more. She was covetous, a prophet of her own, with clipped wings in a torn babydoll dress. Crucify me in the arms of womanhood if you must. Acknowledging you were wrong. A lineage of Hester Prynne. The Witches of Salem. Yoko Ono. The imperfect woman. The shapeshifter. The transgressor. The snake. She knew all of this to be true, and in their scrolls they knew it said the same. All it took was one bite, to want more, when she knew hunger. She finished the apple, and threw the core into the soil. Only a shell. Soon, it would be something else.

A Boy and a Girl Take a Walk

By: Willow Maclay

I’ve always really liked the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. There’s this girl and she’s clasping onto Dylan’s arm as tightly as she can. It looks cold outside in that way filmmakers romanticize about when they make films about New York City, and when I look at this image I can hardly blame them. The girl has the biggest smile plastered across her face that I’ve ever seen on anybody, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever had a moment that brought me as much joy as this girl is experiencing in the presence of Bob Dylan. I’ve never done any research about who she was or what her relationship to Dylan might’ve been, because for me that would destroy the illusion of the emotional simplicity of the image. I look at this image and I know exactly what Bob Dylan means when he sings “She gave him a rainbow”. Doesn’t matter to me that the real meaning is probably tied up in anti-war sentiments, because love can have two definitions. Dylan knows this too.

I get really swept up in her eyes whenever I listen to this album. They’re so wide. Clear. Honest. I know the feeling of having my head pressed up against the brown leather jacket of someone I care about on a cold day. But even if I didn’t have that experience there’s so much texture in the image that looking at it means feeling the same things that this girl does. The second track on this album is Girl From the North Country and I wonder if that song is about her. This album is filled to the brim with images of war and songs that would become protest anthems and then songs of nostalgic days gone by and then golden oldies and then history, but this song slipped through the cracks. Dylan re-recorded it with Johnny Cash years later and it’s become the go-to version of the song since. On this album it’s like a port at sea, where the author gets lost in something that’s slipping away right in front of him. Her soft yellow hair. Mine’s yellow too. In December of 2014 my husband and I were walking in the woods in his hometown. It was cold, but I didn’t mind, because I was underneath his arm. Like the girl with Dylan. When I was a kid I always wondered what being a woman would actually feel like and I have no clearer answer than this song. When we were walking home it came up on shuffle and it lifted something cinematic out of the air during our first Christmas together. I always hated Christmas, because I never got what I wanted. We kissed in that way people do when they talk about old Hollywood, and he put his hand on my breast and this song was given new context.

We kept walking through the woods until we approached the cemetery where his grandfather had recently been buried and I placed my hand on the cold grave, but I didn’t feel alone at all. There’s something spiritual about hope and memory and longing and my husband tells me that his grandfather would have liked me. Bob Dylan is now about the age of my husband’s grandfather when he passed away, but it doesn’t feel like Bob Dylan could ever die. He feels more than human somehow. I grew up with his music when it was already considered American history. He’s no different than Abraham Lincoln or Betsy Ross or Mickey Mouse. When I listen to Dylan it’s easy to get sucked into his gravitational pull with the currents of his words and the prose I might not ever understand completely. Listening to Dylan is sometimes like reading the Bible. It feels just as sacred, more even, and we give songs and artists a god-like stature because to make someone feel an emotion with such clarity is the same thing as righteousness. The same thing as grace. Bob Dylan is god. Judas for some. But when I look at the front cover of this album he doesn’t seem so large. He’s boyish, and he’s cold just like her. There’s the smallest glimpse of his lips brimming. A secret smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. When Dylan sings it comes across like hymns or psalms or a call to arms, but on the cover of this album his mouth is closed. In this image he’s human, just like this girl. Walking the streets of New York City, just like everyone else.