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Celluloid Heroes
Posted Aug 8, 2003 - March 2005 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 3 next »

August 2003|Robert A. Starrett, contributing editor to EMedia, barrister, gentleman, and scholar, dismissed David Lynch's Mulholland Drive as "utterly worthless." When asked to elaborate, Starrett replied, "Any fool can string together a bunch of stuff that doesn't have to mean anything. Weird guys can make weird movies and nobody yells at them."

In the spirit of friendly debate and scholarly dialogue, I went ahead and disagreed with the latter of Bob's condemnations. David Lynch got yelled at for almost everything he made up until Blue Velvet (let's note that The Elephant Man received accolades here and abroad, but that one doesn't really count as a "Lynch" movie, since he hadn't yet found the end of the sidewalk and leapt over it). Way back in 1984, when asked to name the worst movie of the year, aisle-seat sages Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert simultaneously replied "Dune," and the poor interviewer sat there for about 30 seconds in silence, waiting for an explanation. He never got it. The "utter worthlessness" of Dune evidently spoke for itself.

The former of Bob's pronouncements, that Lynch's films are devoid of meaning, is slightly more difficult to dispute. It's been suggested many times that the meaning of Lynch's films is that they have no meaning and don't need to, in the same sense that looking at a dead cat nailed by a careless driver has no real intrinsic meaning, but is nonetheless compelling to behold.

It's also been argued that there is meaning, that Lynch's films are logical if not linear, you just have to dig a little deeper than you would with a straight Aristotelian "beginning, middle, end" narrative, and that we, inured to linear Hollywood dreck, aren't accustomed or willing—or maybe even able—to do that kind of work. A new logic, if that's what it is, must be incorporated into our old logic to make logic of Lynch, and that's a bearcat, for sure, like waking up and finding ourselves in a world of poison soil, enslaved by small yellow piles of frothing goo from Pluto. That would explain the popularity of Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man—distinctively linear, semi-Aristotelian films—and the bewilderment and occasional revulsion accorded Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, distinctively "Lynchian" films.

Mystery Train
Many of our greatest minds—Freud, Marx, and McLuhan spring to this lesser one—have identified this reversal of the perceiver and the perceived. In one manner or another, they've explored the way the world shapes us as much as—if not more than—we shape it, and have offered a variety of explanations for the commensurate anxiety, repulsion and, ultimately, acquiescence to the changes in our mind effected by changes in the world. Curiously enough, Marx, Freud, and McLuhan all discuss it in terms of technological and historical advance, slightly removed from their respective central hypotheses. By and large, these weren't technology guys—not Freud and Marx, anyway.

Freud, for example, was terrified of train travel; the thing just went too fast for him to be comfortable in. In an effort to explain this, he developed a theory he called "The Stimulus Shield." This shield, he explains, originates as a technology-inflicted psychic wound scabbing over, and ultimately becomes a deadened scar that enables one to ride on trains, planes, rollercoasters, and the like without fear, and, further, with some exhilaration.

Whether or not you go in for Freud and his thoughts on the subject, we have to admit something is going on in there: we drive daily at head-splattering speeds; the possibility of a nuclear accident always hangs over our heads; life on earth is expected to become unsustainable in the next 50 to 75 years; disease, death, pain, and suffering are always about two seconds away, and yet, here I am going about my business, and there you are, reading this, I hope in a comfortable chair. We should be freaking out all the time about what our world has done to us, what we've done to each other and to it, and what it stands to become as a result of what is done to it, but we charge on without fear or remorse, and that's just weird.

Now and again this scar, or whatever you and I have decided it is, may be ripped open anew. Anybody who's been in a car accident knows the trepidation of traveling by automobile that first time after the crash. Public accidents are even worse, leaving entire societies affected: that train derailed; that plane crashed; that Space Shuttle exploded; Bill Jr., daredevil, decapitated by the rollercoaster; Chernobyl. These machines didn't do what they were supposed to do, and I think we must confess that some of our horror at witnessing the events of 9/11 sprung from that fact, or I'd be led to believe so, anyway, from all the talk on the news that "commercial jets are being used as missiles."

So, Sigmund Freud and Bob Starrett had adverse reactions to the new and unusual, though under totally different circumstances: Freud had the threat of derailment and death at stake, and Bob, who admittedly likes from time to time to zonk in front of cheezy, stupid Hollywood murder/action/cop buddy movies after a rough day, didn't get to zonk. Fair enough: both men—intelligent fellows, both—were challenged to erect a defense and/or new logic, and for whatever reason, didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't. Surely, we all fail to meet this challenge somewhere in our lives; for example, myself, I've got this thing about airline travel.

Invisible Republic
Being industry cats, I'm sure we all remember the complaints about audio CDs being "too crisp" and "lacking warmth" when they arrived on the scene, and have since lived to see audio CD become the norm, vinyl enthusiasts notwithstanding. That's not to say nobody complains about those things anymore, but that group of people, bless 'em, have become the exception rather than the rule. The same thing happened with MP3: a friend of mine recently complained he couldn't stand a mere 128Kbps, it had to be 192 or it wasn't coming down his pipe. Psychoacoustically speaking, that's an odd insistence: in theory, there's no real empirical aural difference between 192 and 128 (the source and whose compression software you use impact an audio file's sound more than that particular Kilobit distinction within the MP3 range). That said, there is a difference in how much disk space will be occupied, and that's one area where I lean toward the conservative. Maybe he hears something I don't, or doesn't hear something, I don't know, but that's a discussion for another time.

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