Riding the Lost Highway to WTF Cinema

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“The cinema seems to have been invented to express the life of the subconscious, the roots of which penetrate poetry so deeply.” —Luis Buñuel

When your resume includes such unconventional motion pictures as Safe, The Ice Storm, In the Bedroom, Happiness, Lovely & Amazing, 21 Grams, and Martha Marcy May Marlene—to name only a few of the brilliant features carrying a producer’s credit for Ted Hope—you are well-positioned to decry the shortage of challenging films emerging from both the studios and the independent film world.

And so Mr. Hope did recently, on his website Hope for Film, the home base from which the maverick film maker (somehow it seems correct to separate that term filmmaker into two words here, if only to stress the notion that this industry does not exist on pure imagination) has offered a series of think-pieces about the future of the movies—some pessimistic, some…well, hope-ful.

His recent article— “Have We Forgotten How to Tap Into the Subconscious?” —focused on questioning why so few films of recent vintage can boast of accessing and activating our subconscious, thus earning the term “jaw-dropping.” He does set up the oft-lamented conflict between artists and bean-counters, but he also makes sure to lay some of the “blame,” if that is the right word, on creators who can’t help but second-guess themselves these days and keep the deeper realms of their imagination in check for the sake of commercial viability.

And the moviegoing audiences—ah, bless ‘em—are asked to shoulder some of the responsibility, too, having “long ago voted for a clarity of intent over ambiguity.”

(Now, when Hope says “long ago,” I’d like to maybe take a tiny bit of issue there, and suggest that it’s really always been the case that by and large, consumers of storytelling prefer their product more black-and-white than grey, are more satisfied with closure than open-endedness, and are more comfortable with so-called Traditional Values than any serious challenge mounted to same)

Hope ends his post with a request made to his creative brethren. I’m going to clean it up a little by way of using a handy and popular initialism:

Take me back to The Land Of “WTF!” and make my jaw drop below the floor. 

If you are one of the tiny few remaining people on the planet that doesn’t know what “WTF” means—anyone?—just ask your children. Or grandchildren.

Hope tagged his post with a variety of appropriate names and titles (again, if you don’t know what it means to “tag” a post on the Internet, just ask the little ones), but one very conspicuous giant of the “WTF” genre stood out for me in that list of tags—David Lynch—and that made me anxious to revisit the last film of his that made my jaw drop very satisfyingly to the floor.

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If you didn’t already key in to which movie I’m talking about from the headline, that movie is Lost Highway. Just like this year’s movie audiences seem to be divided between allegiances to either American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street (only one of them made my Top 10 of the Year, though I remain always and forever loyal to the director whose film didn’t make my list this time), cineastes typically divide into two camps when it comes to Lynch’s Lost Highway: those who love it, as I do, and those who dislike it and much prefer the film he made next, Mulholland Drive.

While Mulholland Drive offers the Lynch fan much of his trademark oddness, the open-ended quality of that film wasn’t as appealing to me because I felt it clearly carried the scars of being re-shaped for theatrical release after originally being produced as the introduction to something intended to continue for a longer time on television. The puzzle-box of Lost Highway, on the other hand, plays much better for me as a complete work of art that, nevertheless, remains deep with powerful suggestion and unsettling, forever-unresolvable mysteries.

It’s tempting to roll on now with a more detailed appreciation of Lost Highway, but this is first and foremost what I’m calling it in the headline—a ride along a road reaching towards the destination of “WTF” cinema. Meaning I’m apt to take a detour…or just indulge myself by way of a freewheeling mess, whichever you prefer.

The detour I’m going to take is to suggest that there may be more factors at play than just the victory of commerce over art, or an audience’s lack of willingness to engage, when it comes to determining why we might these days have an absence of film experiences that reach beyond the surface of our basic satisfactions. One of these is location.

I have a fairly vivid memory of having seen Lost Highway in the theater in 1997. I was visiting a new “art house” multiplex (the Philadelphia Ritz chain had just expanded into New Jersey with an amazing 12-screen venue) to see the film during a late-night showing. In addition to reveling in the pleasures of its spanking new, Art Deco-inspired interior, I also had the pleasure of being an obvious “square” in an audience that happened to be full of moviegoers dressed in leather and sporting tattoos. Was this very specialized audience suddenly drawn en masse to Lynch because of publicity surrounding the film’s soundtrack, which included contributions from David Bowie, Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed, and the German industrial metal group Rammstein? Or was this just the crowd that stuck with Lynch in those days? I didn’t remember being in the midst of this demographic when I went to see Wild at Heart, that’s for sure. What I do remember thinking, was:

WTF?

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In the vivid dark, watching Lynch’s twisted, hallucinogenic noir of voyeurism, shifting identities, sexual domination, random outbursts of violence, and Robert Blake (appearing in his last film credit to date, prior to being accused of murdering his wife) felt to me like what I imagine patrons of New York City’s grindhouses of the ’60s-’80s experiencing when they settled down to view taboo-smashing exploitation fare: as though something improper might be going on, as though unhealthy appetites were being satisfied through fiction rather than being acted upon in fact.

Years later, watching Lynch’s nearly three-hour Inland Empire within the confines of my living room, I had a difficult time sustaining interest. All due to the film? Who’s to say? My theory is that, unique among genres of cinema-going, a WTF Movie in particular thrives best in a theatrical environment, where you are being provoked among others. You don’t really have to travel or seek out the company of strangers so very much these days to get your hands on a provocative movie; there are distinct advantages to that (far be it from me to knock the ready availability of darn near everything), but I think it also comes with the very real possibility of having that kind of unforgettable movie-watching experience diluted when you see such a film for the first time.

I could be thinking along these lines because I just started reading the book Sleazoid Express (it was a Christmas present), devoted to the once-infamously-seedy stretch of moviegoing real estate in Times Square known as “the Deuce”—an area the book accurately describes as now resembling the landscape of Blade Runner by way of Walt Disney—but I also started reflecting on the idea of place as a determining factor in the evolution of film culture since I dropped by the recently re-opened Roxy Theater in Philadelphia.

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In July 2013, before the theater held its (somewhat overdue) Grand Re-Opening at the end of the year, Philadelphia Magazine’s Victor Fiorello described the fare shown at the (then run-down, later to be temporarily shuttered) tiny Sansom Street establishment this way:

Center City’s only active movie theater had become dirty, run-down and generally decrepit, screening the worst that the big studios had to offer.

Now, I will have to confess I hadn’t kept track of what was being booked at the Roxy towards the end of their initial existence, but the memory I have of its heyday was not that it booked the terrible movies from Hollywood, but that it booked the movies nobody else was showing. I say that because my most cherished memories of Roxy moviegoing involved the times I saw the brain-fryingly strange, man-becomes-machine cult hit from Japan Tetsuo: The Iron Man (though it wasn’t fun then; my girlfriend at the time averted her eyes for nearly the entire movie, resulting in a terrible night for both of us) and iconoclastic director Abel Ferrara’s nasty cop drama Bad Lieutenant—the latter during a spottily-attended screening at which, immediately following the scene where Harvey Keitel extorts a disgusting, mimed sex act from two young women he pulls over, my friend and I heard another audience member yell out YEAH, YOU GIVE IT TO ‘EM in a slurred voice…followed by the sound of a loud CLUNK, the rolling of a can, and the stench of beer filling the auditorium. We looked at each other, and neither of us had to make our thoughts any clearer by speaking:

WTF?

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It’s way, way too early to render a verdict on Roxy Redux, but it couldn’t be called anything other than discouraging for the possible future of WTF fare in Philly when the films that management booked to inaugurate the theater’s new life were Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks and the Leonardo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. Well, at least the Scorsese picture is making some people angry.

My discourse here about the mysteries and modern scarcity of “WTF Movies” has been much longer and less focused (for sure!) than Ted Hope’s. His article brought on a pleasurable, and at the same time stinging, wave of nostalgia that verged on my lapsing into a premature state of old-fogeyness—Oh, I remember those good old days!—until I took another look at this sentence from Hope’s piece:

We know it is harder now to attract attention than it is to actually make something.

I take hold of two comforting thoughts from that. First, creators from the top down who understand that attracting attention has become of paramount importance may very well begin to embrace “WTF” projects, because by definition they will have a better chance to stand out. Second, if there’s one thing that can be safely observed about the consumer public, it’s that they have a tendency to get bored, and act accordingly. Faced with a neverending glut of the same-ol’ same-ol’, audiences will inevitably get restless. And they will look for something that will seize their attention. We will snap out of it. And WTF will come roaring back to life, somehow, somewhere, in a way that’s unfamiliar enough to earn the exclamation.

 

  • Masterofoneinchpunch

    Reading this makes me have a few questions: does WTF and avant-garde go hand-in-hand? Does being an experience movie goer/watcher deaden us to WTF as compared to less experienced ciniphiles? There is always films of that nature being made, but the popularity of them can wax and wane. I would consider Nicolas Wefn’s Valhalla Rising a WTF film (I still need to see Only God Forgives) while Drive is more mainstream with WTF moments. The same goes for Bronson. Japan always has WTF movies being made, though I don’t always watch them (do own films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police which I should watch one of these days.)

    Audiences are a mixed-blessing. I think they can sometimes sway us (much like watching a movie with one person who absolutely loves/hates what they are seeing exactly like your Tetsuo story). I remedy this by watching certain films first (oh this has saved my so much trouble.) My humor is a bit off (years of comedy will do this) so I’ll hear laughter and think this is a very basic gag with a boilerplate set-up or I’ll think no one is laughing, but that was bizarre and hilarious. But with a non-distracting audience the theater is the best way to go. I will remember a film watched in the theater usually more completely than a movie on the small screen.

    I would have loved to see Tetsuo in the theater, but even on the small screen it was WTF, really WTF (I first saw it on VHS tape years ago). Eraserhead felt normal.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      MOIIP, nice question! Obviously I can’t speak for how Ted Hope would make this distinction—but my feeling is that those two things are sort of like siblings but not synonymous, because an avant-garde movie might or might not be cloudy or difficult to grasp at all about how It challenges prevailing assumptions of style or morality, while a “WTF” movie could either be subverting popular ideas or reinforcing them—but because it’s aimed at the subconscious more than the conscious (this is the kind of movie Hope was talking about), you wind up working harder to understand exactly what is provoking you and why (assuming you like the movie, of course, rather than just saying “WTF?” in the bad way and dumping it from your thoughts as quickly as possible).

      A recent example that springs immediately to mind is The Tree of Life. For many people, a “WTF” movie to be sure. But it’s a tough call, at least for me, whether or not you’d call it avant-garde. Maybe from a technical perspective, but certainly not from a spiritual or thematic one; beneath the fireworks of the visuals and the near-exclusive use of voiceover, there’s some real “traditional values” at work in the narrative.

      PS You will be glad to know I took up the challenge you posed the other week, so get your list of movie experiences ready to share!

      • Masterofoneinchpunch

        Looking forward to that article dealing with movie experiences :D.

        Interesting comments on Tree of Life. I agree you can definitely split up elements of a film with some being avant-garde while others traditional. Random trivia note: Terrence Malick is a big fan of Zoolander (so am I.) You can put Memento as similar where it has a WTF chronological order, but is a normal genre picture.

    • Masterofoneinchpunch

      OK after finally watching Only God Forgives I would say that it definitely has it’s WTF moments more so than Drive. Funny it is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky. I don’t think it was wholly successful, but it has some interesting visuals and scenes. But it also has its moments of sadism which feel uneasy (regardless of the Un Chien Andalou influence.)