Thursday, November 26, 2009

David Lynch Weekend at Maharishi University (November 13-14): The Greatest Weekend of My Life

This next blog piece is going to be very laid back and unprofessional. None of these sentences you are about to read are going to look overstylized as they do normally in my film essays. You can't blame me, after all; I'm still recuperating from nirvana. No, seriously: I'm in total disbelief.

Two weeks ago, I met David Lynch.

I shook his hand. I got his autograph. I sat next to him in the audience. I got a picture taken with him and got to ask him a question during the Q & A session the very next day. Up until that point in time, I had never met a filmmaker- much less a great filmmaker whom I have admired ever since my early teenage years- ever. I didn't really expect to, either, until sometime after my mid-20's. This all happened so fast.

I have my parents to thank for this. My dad, first of all. He's a golf course designer, you see, and a company up in Fairfield, Iowa was considering hiring him to come up and help plan out a course for them. While searching online to find out more about Fairfield, my dad looked at some stuff about the town's college, Maharishi University, and discovered that Lynch was going to be there for their Visitor's Weekend, November 13-15, 2009. My dad forwarded it to me just because he thought I might find it interesting.

Then my dad got home (he works in Peoria, Illinois during the weekdays) and we started talking about it. He asked me if I would actually like to attend the Visitors Weekend, and I immediately said yes. Though my dad couldn't go, my mother and my sister were able to have their schedules cleared and, after registering (it was $150 overall), we seemed all set.

There was, however, a week of limbo that passed, when it seemed like it wasn't gonna happen- even though we had already paid. I received an email from the staff stating that I actually had to call them over the phone before receiving a confirmation. I couldn't get a hold of them for three days! Somehow my mother was able to reach them, at last, and then that was it. I eagerly waited out Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, November 14, we set out for Fairfield.

I always take my video camera along on these kinds of trips, but this was a special one because this trip actually had to do with movies. Okay, that's sort of an exaggeration: Maharishi has no Film department. It's a school that generally specializes in business courses. But you understand what I'm getting at.

"Diane, it's 3:00 PM and we're entering the Mark Twain town of Hannibal", I said while recording our car drive. That's my terrible Agent Cooper impersonation. It was funny, too, because my sister kept turning around with a confused look on her face. "Who's Diane?" she asks. "Is that the name of your camera?"

So eventually, we reach Fairfield, which is actually a very Lynchian town. Small, with peculiar figures walking around. We were staying at a Super 8. I was thrilled, but had no idea what was going to happen in the next couple of hours. I kept entertaining myself with the thrill of getting to see Lynch in person. I had no idea that there would be much more in store.

The staff's bus arrives at the motel, we get in, and in the next five minutes we're at Maharishi's Library Center. We sign in, get our nametags and then go upstairs for dinner. Then, the horror begins. Dinner consists of 100% vegetarian food, which makes some things hard to tell from the others. I put ranch dressing on my salad- only to realize that it's white yogurt, for example. Dinner ends, and when I put my tray away, it collapses and falls through the cart and onto the floor. The student chaperons are nice about it ("it's all good!") but I'm seethingly embarrassed. Suddenly, my sister walks up to me.

"Well, I saw him."

"Who?" I ask.

"David Lynch."


"Yeah," she says.

"Are you sure?" I'm skeptical. "What did he look like?"

"He had long, gray hair," she said, "and he's over in the next room."

My eyebrows are raised. "Ava, David Lynch doesn't have long hair... he has tall, thin white hair. And if he had actually be out here right now, everybody would be rushing up to him."

She and I examine the next room, but the guy that she saw isn't there anymore. I keep assuring her that she probably just saw some random dude. Truth is, I'm jealous that she could have possibly seen Lynch before I did.

All three of us head out to the auditorium. It's time for you-know-what. There's a blue banner on the far wall with Lynch's name on it, and Angelo Badalamenti music (notably the Laura Palmer theme) is playing on the stereo. To my shock, there's hardly anybody here yet. Most everybody is still out in the hall. And down at the very bottom row- the first row in front of the stage- are empty seats.

We're joined by a lady named Jen. She and I have been talking about a lot of topics, from Lynch to Lars von trier, while my mother and my sister (who don't know much about film) feel like "fish out of water". The four of us claim the empty seats at the bottom, but I'm nervous about it. How could these seats not be already taken? Something fishy's going on.

Indeed, when some of the staff walk out, they're concerned when they see us sitting in the seats. My mother is told that we may or may not have to give them up to the VIPs, but we aren't kicked out or anything. My mother assures me that if we absolutely have to move, she and my sister will volunteer, but that she'll do anything to get me to stay where I am.

The auditorium fills up in the next fifteen minutes. We're still in the seats! This is some kind of miracle. Three chairs on the stage stand directly before us. Soon, Bob Roth, the Vice President of the David Lynch Foundation, goes onstage, asks us for silence, and then welcomes us to Maharishi University. "It's gonna be a great weekend," he says towards the end of his speech. That's all I need to hear.

Onstage come three people: Dr. John Hagelin, President of the David Lynch Foundation (and who appeared in 2004's What the Bleep do We Know!?); the lovely Heather Hartnett, who does all the Foundation's interviews (and whom I got to meet later the next day); and then, the third person comes onstage.

"Here we go," I whisper to my mother.

Out comes David Lynch. He looks just as I imagined: tall white hair, and a beaming face. They sit down on the chairs, and again, I can hardly believe that we're right in front of them. They start talking about the Foundation and its efforts to promote transcendental meditation, and Mayor Malloy comes onstage to thank all three of them for coming to Fairfield, which has been voted as one of the "Fifteen Best American Towns You've Never Heard Of". The English folk singer Donovan also comes onstage to thank Lynch. And finally, Lynch closes with a typically Lynchian wisecrack: "Before you go to sleep tonight, think about how the Hamiltonian..." and I don't remember the rest. I was laughing too hard.

They leave the stage, for it's time for the musical performance by the student band. Bob Roth, who notices that we're occupying the front-row seats, suggests that the three VIPs go over and sit in the chairs lying off by the wall. John Hagelin and Heather Hartnett are happy to do so, but we look over and notice that Lynch is refusing to: he wants to sit in the front row! But there are no seats left, we notice Roth whispering to him.

Miraculously, we realize that Lynch turns to face our direction. He's
looking at us. He then points out to the one single empty chair in the front row- between my mother and Donovan. He mouths the words to ask if that seat is taken. I assume that he's talking to Donovan, but my mother told me afterward that he was actually talking to her...? Whoever he was talking to, they told him it was okay, and then Lynch begins strolling down the aisle, right in front of us. He sits down next to my mother.

Now, my mother is a life saver, and she turns to Lynch, tells him that I'm a fan of his and asks him if it's okay if she and I switch seats. He says it's perfectly okay, and just when we're switching, Lynch holds his hand out to me. I can hardly believe that this is happening, but I shake his hand.

"Hello, Mr. Lynch!" I whisper. "I'm a huge fan!"

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah! Seen all your movies!"

"Oh, that's good!"

(sure, it's that kind of irritating small-talk, but what do you say to somebody like David Lynch?)

The student band comes on to perform, and they're terrific. I think Lynch might use their music in a film someday.

Meanwhile, my mother and my sister are giggling at the fact that I'm sitting next to such a genius. And I, meanwhile, am not sure whether or not to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.

As the band performs their climatic song entitled "I Don't Know What Brought You Here (But I'm So Glad You Came)", my sister and the lady named Jen tell my mother that she ought to quickly snap a picture of me and Lynch within the same frame. She seizes the moment! Then Lynch goes onstage to thank us again for coming before returning to his seat. He's ready to leave, and I can sense the anxious audience members waiting to hop out of their seats to get to him, so I stop him short:

"Mr. Lynch, before you go, would you mind signing my copy of The Straight Story?" I hold out my DVD case and a green permanent marker. He is happy to do so.

"What's your name?" he asks me. I tell him. He begins signing. The autograph begins, "To Adam". And as he's signing his signature at the bottom, I realize the importance of this particular film in his career. I try to find the right words.

"Richard Farnsworth was great in this," I say. "He should have won the Oscar."

"Yes, he should have," Lynch nods.

He hands me back my case and then talks about how my mother is great because she got the idea to get us to switch seats. That's my mother's queue to ask him for one more favor: can we have a picture taken together? (as you can see, the picture of us applauding the song is unsatisfactory, but the fault is mine- since I look crabby in that photo). And Lynch agrees. The rest is history.

"Take care of yourself, Adam!" are his last words.

He wishes me well and taps my mother on the shoulder to bid the same to her. That's when the big mob of people rush up to him. Of course, we've already got enough memorabilia to last a lifetime.

But wait- there's more! The next day, on Saturday, is the Q & A session on Transcendental Meditation. I've got everything except video footage of me speaking to Lynch, so I decide to push for that. The Q & A is organized unusually: questionees have to sit on the steps and work their way down to the stage. I end up in an uncomfortable situation when I can't seem to find where the line begins and where it ends (some people are only sitting on the steps because they literally have nowhere else to sit in the whole auditorium), and there comes a point when I'm at the very top of the auditorium and have to stand behind a thick white barrier because I don't want to block anyone's vision.

Of course, I do find the line, and I work my way down the stairs like everyone else, and pretty soon, once it's my turn, the Q & A is down to only two more questions (why do I always show up at the last minute? lol). There's a weird moment when a blonde-haired girl tries to cut in front of me. "Don't get in a fight!" Lynch quips. The girl, bless her heart, backs off, and I proceed to the microphone:

So it's my turn. I ask Lynch a question about what kind of effect transcendental meditation could have on angry filmmakers. But I also make the mistake of misquoting Lynch: I had read a chapter in his book Catching the Big Fish in which he says, "for me, film is dead", and I assume he means that he thinks all film is dying out.

Lynch corrects me: he thinks celluloid is dying, but not film. "Cinema will never die," he declares. He also elaborates on why he believes transcendental meditation can advance the abilities of an artist. I bring up John Huston, Sam Peckinpah and Hal Ashby as filmmakers who were cut short because of drugs/alcohol abuse; and Lynch says that he thinks the whole notion of the "starving artist" is just a cheap way to get girls. He does say that meditators can still get angry, but that their anger goes away quicker and that they feel rejuvanated afterwards. "You want to live," he explains, "and living gets better and better."

Cinema will never die. On our way home that Saturday night, I had a million thoughts running through my head, but no longer would I question the fate of cinema. People have told me before that they think cinema will live on forever, but with Lynch confirming it for me, I can now think of it as a fact instead of a theory.

Thanksgiving is over, but let me conclude that I'm thankful for my friends, my family, getting the chance to meet David Lynch and- what's more- taking his advice home with me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Yearling (1946)

Clarence Brown's The Yearling is an immortal film about a boy and his deer. It is also remembered as the film with the first real Gregory Peck performance. Before The Yearling, Peck had been sluggishly cast in films like Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), and had yet to find a role suitable to his strongest capabilities as an actor. Though a favorite of producers like David O. Selznick, he was secretly loathed by filmmakers like Hitchcock and Vidor, who both learned--after directing him--that he wasn't meant for roles that were harsh or mysterious. “He's shallow, for one,” complained Francois Truffaut of Peck's Spellbound performance, “but the main thing is the lack of expression in his eyes.” That is true of Spellbound, but it is not true of The Yearling, in which Peck's eyes sparkle--and so do the eyes of the boy with the deer.

Based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling offers what was perhaps the first tailor-made role of Peck's career. Peck plays Penny Baxter, a former Confederate soldier who has retired into Lake George, Florida, to cut away a home in the scrub country. The opening of The Yearling is delightfully lush, as Brown and his cinematographer, Charles Rosher, slowly move us across a calm, misty river at sunset- before taking the camera's point of view and moving head-first into the woods, over the scrub country and out into the Baxter farm. Peck's narration gives us an idea of just how far Penny Baxter has come to where he is now. He is an unusually nice man, a lover of nature, and less concerned about whatever is happening in industrial America on the outside.

But The Yearling is really about Penny's twelve-year old son, the adorable Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who shares his father's appreciation of nature and who longs to claim one of the creatures of the forest as his own. The ten-year old son of a Nashville railroad accountant, Jarman gave what can safely be regarded as one of the greatest child performances of all time. Jarman, unlike Peck, had a lot of rich expression in his eyes, and it is a shame that- with the exception of a notable role in Ford’s Rio Grande (1950)- his career did not take off much after this film, despite winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actor.

Jody thrives in what appears to be a fruitful childhood. On some days, he and his father will go off to hunt for “Old Slewfoot”, the notorious bear that stalks the backwoods; and on other days they will engage in town square fistfights with Lem Forrester (Forrest Tucker) and his gang of drunken rascals. Jody also has a friend his age, Fodderwing (Donn Gift), whom he envies because he owns scores of pets and even sleeps up in a tree house- although Jody doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that Fodderwing once tried to fly like a bird and ended up getting his legs broken. At home, Jody enjoys a friendly relationship with his father but is constantly scolded by his mother, Ora (Jane Wyman), who is bitter at having lost her other children to stillborn deaths. She is cold, but Penny wants to ease the relationship between mother and son. “Don't be afraid to love the boy, Ora”, he tells her with a hand on her knee, after she refuses to allow Jody to keep any pets in the house.

The first hour of The Yearling is devoted to Jody's daily life. It is only in the second hour when we finally arrive at the heart of the picture, when Jody takes advantage of a rare possibility: to find and bring home the orphaned fawn of a deer that Penny is forced to kill in order to stall a venomous snake bite. Feeling sympathy for the boy's desire for some responsibility in his life, Penny allows Jody to go find the fawn, and most everyone who hasn't seen the film is at least marginally familiar with the famous scene in which Jody finds a set of hoof prints in the sand, traces them to a set of plants, weaves them aside and then finds... the deer, nestled safely in a small clearing. Queue the heartwarming Herbert Stothart score. “It's me!” exclaims an overjoyed Jody at the sight of the fawn, whom he will later name Flag. “It's me- Jody!”

Let me stop myself so that I can briefly focus on the performances in the film. Peck, as I mentioned earlier, gives a performance that can only be described as exceptional. “He wasn't exactly credible as a Florida cracker," writes Peck's biographer, Gary Fishgall, "having imbued his character with more dignity and nobility than a nineteenth-century scrub farmer would have possessed in real life, but he made audiences believe in and care about the man”. I cannot improve on that.

But Jane Wyman, as Peck's wife, in some ways has to assume a harder role: this is not at all the well-meaning companion she played to Ray Milland in Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), but a stern, unforgiving wife and mother who has let the loss of her children corrupt her patience; it is a better performance than that of her previous film, and exceedingly more brave.

And of course, young Jarman has such irresistible excitement in his eyes for an actor of ten years. Consider the scene in which Jody rescues Flag the fawn, carries him over the fields with explosive white clouds setting up the romantic background behind him, and then greets his ailing father at home. Penny sits up in bed, sees his son looking as happy as ever, and then even he has to smile. This, folks, is about as joyous a moment as cinema gets.

As for Clarence Brown, he was a fitting filmmaker for this material. The Yearling, like his Anna Karenina (1935) adaptation starring Greta Garbo, is a film with happy elements that, alas, cannot possibly end well without ending unhappily. In Anna Karenina, Garbo throws away her empty marriage to Basil Rathbone for the love of Frederic March. Then March abandons her, and- worse- Rathbone denies Garbo access to her son. She will lose all hope and throw herself in front of a moving train. In The Yearling, another type of gruesome sacrifice will have to be made, and that brings me to another thing about Brown: he knew how to handle films about sacrifices. He dared to tread along uncomfortable, taboo subjects that other Hollywood filmmakers wouldn't have touched. Though I haven't seen any of his other films, including National Velvet (1944) or his adaptation of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1949), it isn't difficult for me to recognize him as one of the underrated Hollywood greats. I would put him right up there with Preminger, Zinnemann and Kramer as one of the masters of socially liberal literary adaptations- but that's just me.

I admit that I knew, from reading an online summary, that The Yearling was not going to end happily, so I braced myself for what was sure to be inevitable. We realize, as the film rolls on, that Flag is growing up to be a nuisance for the Baxters, and even when Jody commits back-breaking work to building the farm's third fence or so, this does little to stall Flag's ravenous appetite for the backyard garden plants. Even Penny realizes just how costly Jody's pet has become, and finally tells Jody that he must have Flag euthanized. Jody doesn't have the courage to and, instead, releases Flag into the wild. Predictably, this solves nothing, and when Flag returns, Penny and Ora conspire behind Jody's back and have the deer wounded. Jody comes rushing out in panic, and then his parents befall on him the responsibility of having Flag finished off. Jody is betrayed and hurt. “I hate you,” he screams at them. “I hope you die.” And there is a very moving moment after Flag is shot dead, when tears come streaming down Jody's face. It is a painful scene.

I have less admiration for the later scenes, in which Jody runs away from home, falls unconscious during a canoe ride down the river and is picked up by a steamboat captain who returns him to the farm. It's like something out of Mark Twain, and it feels false here. Another problematic scene is the one that comes afterward, when Penny tries to comfort Jody's misery by giving a speech on how life is hard and lonesome, and how a battered man needs simply to “take it for his share and go on.”

Yes, but isn't this a rather banal message for the film? Some would say that The Yearling is another one of those films about the death of childhood, and how death itself leads a boy to become a man. I don't see it that way; I think that The Yearling is about responsibility, and what happens when that responsibility eventually dies out. That's why I appreciate the final moment when Jody goes to bed and dreams of his days with Flag; it reinforces the real point of the film. Fishgall's biography talks about how Boseley Crowther and other film critics at the time were bothered by this last-minute touch of sentimentality, and how even Peck considered it to be a superfluous Walt Disney element- but I would have to respectfully disagree. The Yearling is not really a film about a boy being raised by his parents to become a man and learn the hard facts of life; it is about a boy who adopts a pet, cares for it, and then must come to terms with its death. Fodderwing's demise foreshadows Flag's demise. Someday, Jody will have to witness the passing of his parents as well.

To put it plainly, this is a film about death. Not just the death of childhood, but death entirely. How do you make your way through such an ordeal? The screenplay for The Yearling was written by Paul Osborn, who gives Peck the last word actually in an earlier scene in the film. In this scene, Penny, Ora, Jody and Flag have all managed to survive a raging storm which has destroyed their crops. Ora is breaking down and Jody is at a loss for words, but Penny at least manages to get out something of a decent summary. “Ma, it seems like sometimes a body gets struck down so low, ain't a power on Earth can ever bring him up again,” he says. “Seems like something inside him dies- so he don't even want to get up again. But he does. There ain't much of a world left for us, but it's all we got. Let's be thankful we got any world at all.”