Geoff Pevere: Last Man Standing

The late American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace wrote an amazing appreciation of the work and career of David Lynch for Premiere magazine back in 1995. The magazine arranged for the writer to hang out on the set of Lynch’s Lost Highway when it was before cameras, but the piece itself is considerably less a journalistic report on the making of the movie than Wallace’s excuse to make a case for Lynch as one of the most vital, idiosyncratic and honest filmmakers Hollywood had ever let sneak into its gilded gates. A true artist, that is, and as such a figure to be cherished and respected even if his movies make you crazy, angry or just plain confused.

For Wallace, the mere fact of Lynch’s existence in the machine was a sign of a potentially redeemable machine. You’ll find “David Lynch Keeps His Head” in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and it’s totally well worth checking out.

But a warning: it might make you sad. David Foster Wallace, one of the most vibrant voices in American letters, committed suicide in 2008. David Lynch, the man who inspired Wallace to write so passionately and insightfully about the need for maverick visionaries in the American movie business, pretty much walked away from that movie business about ten years ago. And Premiere, the movie magazine that had the balls to send a guy like Wallace to write about a guy like Lynch – and must have known the result would be anything but conventional movie-puff journalism – ceased publication in 2007, long after it had ceased publishing pieces like “David Lynch Keeps His Head” any more.

I was reading the piece on the subway the other day. I was on my way to a press screening of The Sitter, which I’d been asked to review for CBC Radio Syndication because their regular critic was taking a week off. I used to review movies all the time – for print, radio and TV – but this was the first time I’d been asked in many, many,  months. And for CBC Radio,  in about twenty years.

The Sitter pretty much sucks, but if you can surrender yourself to its Home Alone meets Get Him to the Greek groove, its 85 or so minutes aren’t nearly as painful as most routinely invasive medical procedures. It helps if you aren’t expecting much more than maybe a laugh every ten minutes or so – which it almost manages to deliver – and it helps if you know nothing about the director. My problem was that I knew too much about the director.

His name is David Gordon Green, and in the early years of the current century he made some movies – George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow – that were so odd, original and incomparable to anything else they convinced you there was something of that old David Lynch spirit at work in this twenty-something kid from Little Rock, Arkansas. If Green’s movies were never quite as dedicatedly weird as Lynch’s – and who could reasonably expect them to be? — they were at least indicative of a certain healthy independent artistic impulse in the machine. If even in a small way, they gave you hope for the future. Well, that future is here and David Gordon Green is now directing movies like The Sitter, about the best thing you can say is that it’s only about 85 minutes long and doesn’t hurt all that much. This comes after Pineapple Express and Your Highness, two other movies that, when added to this, can make us fairly reasonably conclude that David Gordon Green has settled for lame Hollywood hackwork as a means to keep working.

That’s me sighing you hear. Another interesting voice forced to sing old standards, another maverick tamed and brought to corral, another artist given a new brush and told to go out and put a fresh coat of off-white eggshell on the garage. Another reason not to go to the movies, especially not if you’re expecting anything other than what you already know you’re going to get. This is why I haven’t yet gone to see Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3D kids movie about the birth of the seventh art. Much as I have loved Scorsese, and as instrumental as some of his early movies were in my own plunge over the cinematic abyss, I just can’t bear to pass through a doorway which leads to a 3D Martin Scorsese kid’s movie. As the tiresome contemporary phrase goes, I’d rather not go there.

Yet, yet, yet. I continue to live in hope, which might say more about my capacity for sustained denial than it does the reality of the commercial movie industry, but there it is. It’s something called A Dangerous Method, and it’s David Cronenberg’s upcoming movie about the fraught relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. If this flickers like a candle in the darkness it’s because Cronenberg may be the sole living representative of his generational moviemaking cohort – which includes Scorsese and Lynch – who has somehow managed to stay the course. Whether or not you like his movies – and the ‘liking’ of things like Naked Lunch, Crash and Spider is no easy thing – you’ve got to be impressed that Cronenberg not only makes the movies he wants to make, he makes them in his own way and on his own terms. There are no 3D kids’ movies in his resume or on his horizon (his next movie is an adaptation of Don Delillo’s exceedingly bizarre Cosmopolis), and I do not think he has signed up for any impending Jonah Hill projects. He is 68 years old and he’s doing what he does best: making art movies that mess with your head and make you uncomfortable. And thank God for that.

Cronenberg has been conspicuous in his refusal to budge from Toronto, and I think this is key to understanding how he’s avoided the traps of compromise, redundancy or paralyzing self-consciousness that have crippled the careers of so many of his contemporaries. He’s kept his distance, and with distance has come perspective and clarity of vision. But it’s also meant he’s largely had to do it alone, and I know enough about his production history to know that it never gets easier, not even with his reputation as one of the world’s great filmmakers. He still struggles to get every movie made, and many Cronenberg projects have never been made because the struggle wasn’t enough to get them made.

But he’s still standing, at least. I just wish he didn’t seem like the last man who was.

— 30 —

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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