Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.10: David Lynch's Hotel Room

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director's body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don't. July's director is master surrealist David Lynch.

“Tricks” Grade: C
“Getting Rid of Robert” Grade: C-
“Blackout” Grade: B
Overall: 51 (C+)

Alright, one more look at what David Lynch was doing on television in the 1990s while his film/short film output slowed way the hell down (speaking of the shorts: don’t worry, I’m getting to them). Created by Lynch and his Wild at Heart/Lost Highway collaborator Barry Gifford, Hotel Room was a miniseries that ran in early 1993 on HBO. The channel has become a major haven for creative, ambitious, and controversial television over the past decade and a half (roll call: The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm). So what did their early effort in original programming with a great director as creator amount to? Answer: not a whole lot.

Each of the three episodes of Hotel Room tells a different story of Railroad Hotel room 603 in a different time period. The first, “Tricks”, takes place in 1969 and features Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) arrive at the room with prostitute Darlene (Glenne Headley) only to be interrupted by his raving old acquaintance Lou (Freddie Jones). The second, “Getting Rid of Robert”, takes place in 1992 and shows Sasha (Deborah Unger) as she debates breaking up with her fiancĂ©e Robert (Griffin Dunne) with her friends (Chelsea Field and Mariska Hargitay). The third segment, “Blackout”, takes place during a blackout in 1936 as Danny (Crispin Glover) sits with his wife Diane (Alicia Witt), whose mental health has deteriorated since their son.

The only thing that ties the three stories together, aside from the room and the ageless maid and bellboy that appear in each segment, is the opening introduction to each episode:

"For a millennium the space for the hotel room existed – undefined. Mankind captured it and gave it shape and passed through. And sometimes when passing through, brushing up against the secret names of truth."

Uh…huh. I don’t just want to label this as being pretentious- I fully believe that Lynch believes in this sort of mumbo jumbo, given his interest in transcendental meditation, hidden meaning, and his general weirdness. That said, this introduction makes absolutely no sense and gets the series off to a wonky start, and from the beginning the show’s purpose is a big question mark.

The bigger issue, though, is with the quality of the filmmaking. Now it’s safe to assume that Lynch didn’t have a particularly extravagant budget on this series, but it doesn’t excuse the blandness of something like “Tricks”. Lynch’s interest in bizarre sexuality and the overpowering effect of madness shines through a bit (though it’s likely more Gifford’s piece), but he doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with the camera. For a director whose images are usually dense, bewildering, and mesmerizing, that’s a crying shame. It doesn’t help that “Tricks” plays like a bad bit of theatre, a pedestrian one-act that’s taken over by Jones’ ranting (not that he’s really given anything interesting to do) and an inexpressive performance from Headley. That Lynch directs it barely more competently than one would a filmed play only further deflates expectations. Stanton is reliable, as always, and Lynch’s gift for sound design makes the film at least marginally interesting as things get weirder near the end, but it’s mostly a total mediocrity.

“Getting Rid of Robert” wasn’t directed by Lynch or written by Gifford, but is rather a piece added to pad the feature out for HBO’s purposes. All of the complaints that apply to “Tricks” apply to “Getting Rid of Robert”, only now with some really unfunny comedy and uninteresting characters babbling about relationships we don’t care about. Griffin Dunne is a fine actor (see: An American Werewolf in London, After Hours), but damned if he or anyone else could find something to do with this thing. After about twenty minutes of repetitive arguing and boring directing, I remembered that Lynch didn’t direct this segment and bailed.

Hotel Room isn’t a complete wash, though. The final segment, “Blackout”, still feels a bit too stagebound and slight to rank as a major work of Lynch’s, but Lynch wisely keeps the camera mostly focused on Glover and Witt’s faces and lets their performances, Gifford’s script, and the dark lighting do the heavy lifting. Witt’s mourning mother is another Lynch character whose grief has brought on a form of madness (much like Dorothy in Blue Velvet or Henry in Eraserhead). Witt and Glover’s relationship feels lived-in even as we only get to know them for a short forty minutes, with Glover playing (for the first and only time in his career) the voice of reason to Witt’s unhinged ramblings. The “darkness until she comes to terms with death and then we’ll turn on the lights really damn bright” is more than a little heavy-handed, but it fits in with Lynch’s depiction of death as something conceivably warm and welcoming rather than remote and desolate. If nothing else, it feels like a Lynch work, however minor, which is more than one could say for “Tricks”.

Interested in watching Hotel Room even though it's pretty forgettable? Go check it out on YouTube. I won't stop you.

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