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Against Lynch

The film world generally considers David Lynch an important director. Although he has never won an Academy Award, Lynch is now a lifetime member of a select group of filmmakers that have instead won unconditional approval from the film industry and film criticism communities. Lynch’s cinema is respected by the most respected people in cinema. Like a Michael Mann, or a Martin Scorsese pre-Departed, David Lynch is a filmmaker’s filmmaker.

The term ‘director’ has a specific industrial definition. It means the person (or people) creatively in charge of the film production, leader to tail. The director directs — the actors, the camera, lighting, technicians, operations, production, editing, sound, everything. The director is the main control conduit, not financially but artistically, and the whole equation of film’s conventions still organize around the notion of the director’s film. Film is a director’s medium.

The French term ‘realizateur’ may be helpful to accurately define the director’s position. Katherine Bigelow or Claire Denis or Barry Jenkins or David Lynch or Federico Fellini or Alfred Hitchcock or Leni Riefenstahl “realize” the film, from conception to finished product. They render their dreams real for us onscreen.

But consider this: there is another way to think about directing. The director is additionally directing the viewer’s attention, our collective understanding, towards their personal vision. Directors realize something out of a dream and present it before a public for consumption or, at least, as the Academy Award-season screeners always say, “For Your Consideration.”

What a director directs us towards is important to consider. It is as if when we enter a theatre or exhibition space, or press play on some viewing device, the director whispers to us, ‘Hey, watch this. I want to show you something.’

What are we watching now? What is the director directing our attention towards? It could be anything. A director can, nowadays, create any image, any narrative, nothing is too fantastic. Not to say that an audience will consume any image or narrative that any director realizes, but Hitchcock generally made mysteries, Woody Allen generally made comedies, and David Lynch supposedly makes something approaching capital ‘A’ art with the otherwise popular medium of cinema. He is one level removed from having to take a moral stance. Cinema is not opera. It is not even theatre. Cinema began as a peep show for a penny and has not strayed far from those roots. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you really want high art, David Lynch also paints.

Lynch’s cinema is amoral, undoubtedly. And its amorality is performed under the aegis of either popular shlock, or high art, or satire. Lynch presents images in an aestheticized and eroticized context which ostensibly soften their loose moral portrayals into abstraction. Case in point: “Pretty as a Picture” is the title of one of Lynch’s feature-length documentary retrospectives. If viewers have a moral problem with Lynch’s direction, then they should just consider his films as pretty pictures, nothing more. Or, as Tom Cruise’s character in “Eyes Wide Shut” is instructed, ‘cease your inquiries.’ Indeed it appears that David Lynch is shadowed by some significant power that allows his direction, his own themes and narratives frequently hinting at the often dark and always absurd forces that grant or deny him access to this cinematic platform.

Lynch is entitled in a special way. His unofficial title as cinema’s greatest living auteur permits him to break rules that other artists are forced to follow. Lynch’s work is alternately outrageous, asinine, violent, racist, sexist, sophomoric, and pretentious — all the criticisms that generally intelligent and well-versed audiences would identify immediately in other filmmakers, sometimes prematurely, sometimes spitefully. And yet viewers and critics and the cool and the hip and the academy (if not the Academy) and even feminists and people of every stripe and identity come to Lynch’s defence whenever his work encounters any real criticism. Especially any criticism of its amorality, and especially vocally on social media. The common defence is that Lynch’s work is not ‘x’; it is about ‘x’: Lynch is not sexist, his work is about sexism. Lynch is not racist, his films depict racism. These reasonings are facile, however, akin to a brat holding his finger one inch from another kid’s face, arguing, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” OK, but don’t put your finger right in my face and expect me not to say something.

Roger Ebert was one of few serious American critics who never took Lynch too seriously. Ebert recognized Lynch’s brand of craft, however crudely Lynch rendered his personal visions, however rudimentarily he directed his scenes for the camera. But Ebert saw through Lynch’s posturing as a subversive director of artistic aspirational stature. Ebert understood that the film industry in some ways granted Lynch even more license than a pornographer to direct amoral films and present them to popular audiences. Ebert saw that Lynch managed to play both sides of the fence — he was able to portray the most awful and despicable human characteristics and simply waltz away from criticism to the tune of high art. Or satire. Depending on which side of the fence he was leaning. Meanwhile, Isabella Rossellini, Sheryl Lee, Laura Dern, and many others were brutalized in front of the camera. Bafflingly, some of them came back for more.

When David Lynch or any director directs an audience’s attention, the audience in numbers will determine how much attention the director can direct. In Lynch’s case, the audience has grown algorithmically to include practically everyone who considers themselves passingly conversant in cinema, from novice cineastes to internationally renowned film scholars and journalistic critics. Criticizing Lynch, especially along moral grounds, is profoundly frowned upon, deeply unhip, akin to espousing political support for Donald Trump. Even women who would normally otherwise deplore the sorts of portrayals Lynch conjures of women’s victimization are the first to vocally support Lynch, especially on Twitter and other networks. Approval for David Lynch is its own brand, just as is listening to Aphex Twin or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. These subversive artists are trademarks, markers of a new class hip both to and beyond morality.

Roger Ebert held fast that David Lynch was technically a proficient filmmaker, but that his direction of what we might call psychic or ethical energy was at best misdirected. I agree with Ebert. If a director can put any vision before any audience, if they can realize any dream in the media of moving images and sound, then Lynch is casting our collective visions as nightmares. And David Lynch’s nightmare scenarios should not be so cavalierly delivered by the medium of the people — not as entertainment, nor as satire, nor as high art.

Our most popular medium’s avant-garde deserves a better direction.

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Notes on being suspended from Twitter because of my name

When I was born, my parents named me Ryan Alexander. Both children of Ukrainian immigrants living in Western Canada, they did this because they didn’t want me to be discriminated against — they didn’t want me to have a Ukrainian-sounding name. (They apparently never considered that the Irish were also victims of serious discrimination, an honest mistake.) There was nothing we could do about our last name — Diduck — for which there was really no English spelling, but the idea was that if I was named Ryan (which meant “little king”) and Alexander (the great), nobody would look down on me.

My father was named Taras, after the famous Ukrainian poet, and my mother is called Oryssia (or Iris, as she prefers). When they were growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, British and French Canadians generally considered Ukrainians second- if not third-class citizens, along with First Nations, Slavs, Russians, Jews, Italians, Asian, Brown and Blacks. My dad’s sister, my aunt, had changed her name in the 70s from Marcia Holowaychuk to Marcie Holloway. She was one of Edmonton’s most successful real-estate agents and she swore that having an Anglicised name helped; no one was going to buy a million-dollar property from someone called Holowaychuk.

Because of my name, I grew up acutely aware that I was not a member of the upper class; we were dominated, not the dominators. And even though I was called Ryan Alexander, which nobody had any trouble with, I was constantly correcting peoples’ pronunciation of my last name. It looks like it should be “Dye Duck”, or perhaps “Dee Duck”. But it’s pronounced “Dee Duke”, or more accurately “Dee Dookh”, with a soft kh at the end. You have to use the phlegmy part of your throat to say it right. It’s not a sound that exists in English. The only way to spell it is in the Cyrillic alphabet: Дідух.

For years, I was embarrassed of my name. I thought of getting rid of it altogether and just being Ryan Alexander. I thought of changing it to something completely different. I considered Alexander Duke, which I still think sounds pretty cool. But more recently, after doing extensive research about the Ukrainian famine-genocide, the Soviet invasion of Ukraine, and my family’s place in all of it, I’ve come to understand that Дідух is not only my name, it’s also my identity. It’s who and what I am. If I deny that, who am I?

A few months ago, in a small act of reclamation, I decided to change my Twitter name to its Cyrillic spelling. Immediately after doing this, my account was suspended. I had to go through Twitter support to verify my identity and unblock my account. It struck me as odd that using a non-English alphabet would be in some way suspicious and I noted it at the time. I wondered if anyone named Smith had ever encountered this problem.

I got my answer last night. Since it’s October, I thought that I might change my handle to something Halloween-themed, as the kids do these days. So, I changed it to “Duck Soup” and then to my standard “Dead Duck”. Without incident, I changed it a few more times, to varying stupid Halloween-y puns, before deciding that no, I wasn’t going to do Halloween this year. My name is my name. I changed it back to Дідух, and once again, Twitter suspended my account.

This time, it was more complicated getting it reinstated. Twitter support wanted my mobile phone number, to which they would send a code via text message. If I entered the code they sent, my account would be reactivated, they said. But the problem is that I don’t have a mobile phone. (At this point, I think it’s just me and Jack White, although I suspect he’s lying.) At any rate, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to provide a phone number to Twitter; they had only weeks ago disclosed that users’ email addresses and phone numbers were used surreptitiously and without consent to more effectively target ads.

I sent a somewhat terse email to Twitter support accusing them of blatant discrimination, and this morning, I received a reply proclaiming: “We had a look at your account, and it appears that everything is now resolved!” Well, it is, and it isn’t. It is obvious that Twitter’s algorithms for spotting suspicious behaviour are culturally biased. Doubtless, Twitter is currently under pressure to fight Russian and Ukrainian interference in America’s politics. And clearly, a name change to something spelled in Cyrillic is a trigger. Assuming that everyone with a Cyrillic name is a Russian troll sounds a lot like assuming that everyone with a Muslim name is a terrorist.

Twitter is a platform upon which frustrated men can bully and harass women. No problem there. Twitter is a platform upon which people can hurl insults and verbal abuse at anyone they so choose, with total impunity and anonymity, simply for a difference of opinion. That’s okay. Twitter is a platform upon which Donald Trump can amass millions of followers, rise to the highest office of the world’s wealthiest nation, and inflame hatred toward groups of people he considers expendable. This is fine. But you can’t change your name to honour your ancestors without raising algorithmic eyebrows. That’s the truth about this platform.

If only my last name were something like Dorsey.

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Music for Films: An alternate list to Pitchfork’s 50 best film scores

Pitchfork’s 50-best film scores list was published this week, in advance of the 91st Academy Awards, airing tonight on ABC. The list isn’t bad. Bernard Herrmann figures in, as does Henry Mancini. But Blade Runner’s Vangelis score can’t possibly be the best film music of all time. Of all time, really? Here are some things, both obvious and obscure, that Pitchfork missed:


The Conversation (1974)

David Shire’s melancholic score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation creates the perfect atmosphere for loner Harry Caul’s adventures in eavesdropping. The editor Walter Murch also contributed electronic processing and technical assistance, creating those wonderful audio sequences zeroing in on Caul’s surveillance recordings. I believe this was the first film ever to give a “sound designer” credit.


Fletch (1985)

Of his cohort including Jan Hammer and Hans Zimmer, Harold Faltermeyer might be the most accomplished electronic score composer of all time. His 1985 theme for Fletch was musically, rhythmically, and technically complex, and lent a sonically innovative quality to Chevy Chase’s Philip-Marlowe-for-the-1980s character. Call it “neon-noir.”


The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

I am surprised that Pitchfork would forget the cinema heavyweight Miklós Rózsa. The Hungarian-born composer wrote scores for nearly 100 motion pictures, and served on the music department, often uncredited, for over 100 more. He was among the most prolific and respected composers in Hollywood during the Classical era, providing music for Ben Hur, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and many other cinematic masterpieces.


The Godfather (1972)

Nino Rota, who composed the scores for over 150 films and is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Federico Fellini, was one of the best-loved film composers of all time. The Godfather features at number 5 on AFI’s list of film scores, but is nowhere to be found on Pitchfork’s list — a glaring omission.


One Night of Love (1934)

The oldest film on Pitchfork’s list is The Third Man, from 1949. But music had been appearing in movies since sync sound was standardized in 1927. The widespread introduction of sound in cinema created an entirely new industry for Hollywood composers like Louis Silvers, who won the first-ever Oscar for Best Original Score for One Night of Love at the Academy Awards in 1935.


Black Caesar (1973)

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown’s soundtrack for Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation film Black Caesar provides the funky soundscape to this urban mob revenge story. Under bandleader Fred Wesley’s astute tutelage, this was Brown’s first foray into writing music for the cinema. Many of the instruments are slightly out of tune, bestowing a gritty sense of live spontaneity onto the film’s soulful soundtrack.


Metropolis (1927)

Although this music was not original to Fritz Lang’s film, of course, The Alloy Orchestra’s Metropolis score might be the best film music ever written. The ensemble has retroactively scored a number of other notable silent cinema classics such as The Lost World, and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera. If you ever get a chance to see them accompany a film live, take it.


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Along with Paul Simon, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Enya, Peter Gabriel is World Music’s fifth pillar. His electroacoustic soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ was honored with a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. The recording also won the 1990 Grammy award for Best New Age Album.


Illtown (1996)

Nick Gomez’s over-the-top tale of heroin dealers in a coastal Floridian town benefits from the ethereal weirdness of Brian Keane’s ambient score. Keane’s work could be described as a combination of Brian Eno and Danny Elfman. Illtown’s music makes this otherwise pretentious movie soar. (Sidebar: this film was expertly cast by Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken — Christopher Walken’s wife — who also cast Basquiat, Trees Lounge, and The Sopranos.)


Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Leonard Rosenman’s avant-garde score for Beneath the Planet of the Apes is by far the best thing about this picture. Tom Oberheim, founder of the Oberheim synthesizer brand, provided technical assistance and even brought Rosenman one of his custom-made ring modulators to experiment with. These electronic gadgets contributed to one of the most futuristic-sounding scores of the 1970s.


Summer of ’42 (1971)

Aside from The Godfather, Michel Legrand’s unforgettable theme for Robert Mulligan’s coming-of-age romance, entitled “The Summer Knows,” might be the most recognizable film music of the 20th century. Giants like Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra have recorded versions of it, and the film itself was subsequently adapted into an off-Broadway musical. Legrand, who only recently passed on 26 January 2019, composed music for more than 200 films and television series. Expect to see him in the “people-we’ve-lost” Oscar’s montage tonight.